Monday, April 21, 2014

Steady Birding at South Padre Island and Suffering Through Years of Failure

Worm-eating Warblers absolutely live for dead leaf clusters. I am tempted to say something like "you show me dead leaf clusters and I will show you Worm-eating Warblers" but that's taking it a bit too far. We are getting deep into April but they are still coming through.

I'm starting to fall into a pattern you guys. When I first got here, I would go birding all over the place. This is no longer the case. Now I only really want to go birding at one place; South Padre Island. South Padre is the local migrant trap for birds coming across the gulf, and as I am a big proponent of spring migration, this is the place to go. You have probably figured this out, as every BB&B post for weeks has featured SPI. Hell, yesterday at the convention center I was confronted by three BB&B readers I've never met from Napa/Fairfield (I hope you guys slayed in Corpus), which probably speaks to how predictable I am. The birding is really picking up out there, although nothing truly epic yet.

What can I say? Sure I could go west, up the Rio Grande, and try to hunt down some ABA birds (White-collared seedeater, Red-billed Pigeon, Muscovy Duck), but I've never prided myself on my ABA list and you just never know what you might find on the coast. And since I've never seen Swainson's or Cerulean Warblers, I have no choice but go to the coast.

It is relevant, at this point, to point that out that I would be willing to do horrific, despicable things to get my eyes on a Cerulean Warbler. The bird haunts me. I have heard one many years ago (Quabbin Reservoir, MA), but that's it. I dipped on one at Sheepshead last week, which was subsequently seen the day after. The weekend before, I went up to Corpus Christi and Port Aransas in a pathetic (but otherwise enjoyable) attempt to find this bird. In my signed copy of Dunn and Garrett's Warblers, Jon writes "find a Cerulean for your county" about suffering through years of failure. I have even seen one in a dream. Maybe they are the whole reason I am here...but that is too heavy to think about on a Monday.

I suspect this may be the last Louisiana Waterthrush I will see this spring. Note the blazing supercilium, lightly-marked breast and long bill.

And here are the other desirable field marks; buffy flanks and obviously pink legs. I've found that Northern Waterthrushes are disturbingly variable in appearance, but LOWA are pretty consistent in the field marks they offer.

Having no previous experience birding the Gulf during spring migration, I knew it was going to be a learning experience in terms of how abundant (or rare) different species are. Blue-winged Warbler is pleasantly reliable to find on any given day.

The Blue-winged Warblers here have a special knack for being really easy to see but a total pain in the ass to get acceptable photos of. This is pretty typical. As you can see, some of them wield mighty facemelt, but take their privacy rights very seriously.

Yellow-throated Warbler is another early migrant (and uncommon winter resident) that are tapering off now, unfortunately. Here is a typically fantastic yellow-lored bird, which I'm told is unusual here. However, members of the white-lored group (albilora) can have yellow lores. Don't know why this isn't dominica though. Do you?

This bird is interesting. The forecrown is not solidly black, which points toward being a female or immature. There is a dull yellowish wash in the supraloral area, but when zoomed in (you'll have to trust me) it is confined to the upper half of the otherwise white stripe...I am inclined to think this is a white-lored (albilora) bird with either pollen on its face (many Tennessee Warblers here get this) or a mild yellowish wash (not unusual either), or perhaps a young yellow-lored (dominica) bird, which as I mentioned is unexpected here.

A couple other things are indicative of the bird being albilora...for one, if that is not pollen they often do have yellowish lores (per Dunn and Garrett) and the very top of the bird's chin is actually white (you'll have to trust me again). I also know how horribly dry this all is, but these are the exercises #7 must run through. 

There are many confiding migrants on South Padre on any given day. For example, yesterday I pulled up next to a male Scarlet Tanager that was lying in the middle of a street. I thought it had gotten hit by a car, because I was way too close to it for the bird to be sane. Nope, I was wrong. It had just decided to kill and dismantle a huge insect right there in the median. Anyways, most Black-throated Green Warblers I run into are similarly trusting. 

Do you see? Trust. This is the face of Trust.

I thought fruit was popular with birds in the tropics...well, put some up in a migrant trap around here and see what happens. The orioles, Orchard and Baltimore (above), devour these things with reckless abandon...not to mention Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Tennessee Warblers, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and other good 'uns.

Baltimore Oriole is one of the most abundant migrants right now. About two weeks ago, they would get flagged in eBird. Things change quickly when migration is in full spring.

There is no shortage of horrible-looking young male Orchard Orioles that do their best to trick unwitting birders. Their impression of immature male Hooded Oriole is spot on. In Sibley (original version), a 1st summer male is illustrated (useful) but no identifying features are mentioned whatsoever (humorous).

People are a little more familiar and comfortable with identifying female Orchard Orioles (myself included), despite a similarly strong resemblance to their Hooded counterpart. 


  1. Appreciate the thorough walk-through on the Yellow-throated. I have to balk at the idea of being able, myself, to see many of those subtle marks in the field.
    Is your careful analysis just a way of making us readers examine and reexamine your crushes???

  2. I had a four warbler walk this morning. Yay.

    Seriously though, all this shit is so awesome I am glad to see it.

  3. I feel like we're in a warbler exchange program! We just moved to Oregon this week, and got our first Townsend's today. Keep killing it the SPI