Thursday, March 24, 2022

700 Quest! Part I: 699 Quest

For as long as I've been birding in the U.S., 700 was the number. Hitting 700 meant that you'd been everywhere, and seen most everything. I've been on a slow march towards 700 for a long time now, but, as any birder knows, it gets harder the closer you get. I saw 500 species in my first 5 years of birding, getting a Kentucky Warbler for my 500th ABA species in north Mississippi in early 2011. 600 was two years later -- still a pretty good clip -- a Gray Vireo in southern California. 

Things slowed after that. I got 12 ABA birds in 2016, 11 in 2017, 1 in 2018, 0 in 2019, 3 in 2020, and 3 in 2021. There just weren't a lot of birds I could see without a lot of effort and expense, two things in short supply with a youngster in the house. At the beginning of 2022 I was sitting at 697 ABA birds and after two years of pandemic madness I was itching to get moving.

Plus, I wanted to hit 700 so I could start focusing elsewhere. In my younger birding days, international birding seemed somehow impossibly complicated and exotic. The U.S. was big enough. But that's changed, and the lure of totally unique birds and big trip lists has overtaken everything else. 

But I was within striking distance of 700, and wanted to cross that finish line. Texas obliged, and at the beginning of 2022 there were 4 lifers hanging around the Lower Rio Grande Valley pretty regularly - a Bat Falcon (!), Social Flycatcher (!), Golden-crowned Warbler, and Crimson-collared Grosbeak. I could do it in a long weekend, I thought. My wife acceded, and I booked it. 

I texted my birding dudes in case anyone wanted to join. They couldn't. I prepared to go alone. (I love birding alone and was fine with it, and it felt actually like a full-circle completion to U.S. listing, where I birded alone for years before meeting birding friends.) But the day before I left I texted the group again and talked about my preparations. My friend Ed texted back - wait are you actually going? I thought you were joking. No, I'm going. Want to come? Leaving tomorrow. Yes. Incredible. Ed's a great birder and one of the best guys and had never been to Texas before, and all of a sudden this trip just got a lot more fun.

The flights down were uneventful, and we met in San Antonio at about the same time despite taking different airlines. We grabbed a car and drove the always-long-than-you-remember trip straight south to McAllen. We headed straight to Santa Ana NWR hoping to catch the Bat Falcon at dusk, but missed. No matter, we were suddenly among the palm trees and cacti in South Texas and life was good. That night we dined at a auto-mechanic-turned-taco-shop, giddy that this was actually happening, happy to be out of the Maine winter, and ready to get some good birds. 

Bat Falcon at Santa Ana

We were up at dawn and headed back to Santa Ana. The Crimson-collared Grosbeak hadn't been seen for a few weeks, so now I needed hit all 3 of the remaining birds to make 700. A tall order, but they'd all been reliable. We waited along the entrance road in front of the Bat Falcon's favorite perch -- a telephone pole above a noisy road -- and - there it was. No one even saw it fly it, it was just there, suddenly, perched on the pole. 

Black-necked Stilt in the morning light at Santa Ana

An incredible bird. The first ABA record, and just an attractive species. We were pleased because sometimes it wasn't cooperative at the telephone pole and birders had to chase it all over the Refuge, but not us. We were in good spirits, and now had time to kill. The Valley Nature Center, where the Golden-crowned Warbler had been hanging out, didn't open for a few hours, so we explored Santa Ana.

young Gray Hawk at Santa Ana

We had the place to ourselves, and spent a beautiful morning walking the trails past spoonbills, stilts, pelicans, kingfishers, woodpeckers, Green Jays, Long-billed Thrashers, Gray Hawks, and a bunch of south Texas specialities. Ed saw the Rio Grande for the first time, and we pondered over this sleepy stretch of river that caused so much heartburn and heartache. 

We made the drive to Valley Nature Center, and walked to the back section into one of those scenes you hate to see as a twitcher: a bunch of birders aimlessly walking around shrugging, saying "haven't seen it yet, not sure where it is." Oh. We poked around for a few minutes and then -- there it was. This tiny warbler came chipping through the dense vegetation, briefly posing for good looks. Golden-crowned Warbler is rare but regular in the LRGV, and I was thrilled to connect. Sitting now on 699.

Golden-crowned Warbler at the Valley Nature Center, ABA 699

We had hit two of our three targets and it was Saturday at noon. We figured we'd walk right into the Social Flycatcher at the University of Texas RGV campus and then have a whole extra day to explore. Our minds raced. Should we head up to Laredo and get the seedeater? Should we go to Aransas NWR and get Whooping Crane, Ed's number one most wanted bird? We were dizzy.

We rolled up the campus and walked to the beautiful resaca habitat. There were a ton of birds around in what proved itself to be a perfect migrant trap, including my lifer Texas Black-throated Gray and Black-throated Green Warblers, and Fulvous Whistling-Duck. But ... there was no flycatcher, and no one had seen it that day. We waited, and walked around. The weather worsened. Brownsville is much closer to the Gulf than McAllen, one of the local birders said, and it's often much windier. It was howling, and raining. We spent six hours at the campus, and left birdless.

We were back at it the next morning, but decided to make a stop at dawn at nearby Eserto Llano before making the hour plus drive back to campus. EBird checklists showed that the Social wasn't really a morning bird, and we wanted to pick up Buff-bellied Hummingbird and White-tipped Dove so we stopped and enjoyed those birds and more before heading back south. 

We arrived to find another stomach-dropping scene: a bunch of birders celebrating and high-fiving after seeing the Social Flycatcher and then seeing "We just saw it, but it's not here now." We had missed it by maybe 10 minutes. At least it was around. We settled in with our hopes renewed.

the best sighting at UTRGV

Six hours later we still hadn't seen it. We'd seen every goddamn bird (and Bobcat) in every goddamn bush in the whole park, but not the Social. Our legs were sore from walking laps. We wanted to do something else. So, stuck on 699 and with no clear next lifer in sight, we bailed. I was so ready. 

Unburdened from the wait, we have a great afternoon of birding. We drove out to Old Port Isabel Rd. and got distant looks at Apolomado Falcon, as well as a number of trip birds including Long-billed Curlew and a bunch of waders. Then we scooted up to a Red-crowned Parrot roost in Brownsville and reveled at the squawking mass on telephone wires right over our heads. We listened to the Super Bowl in Spanish on the way back to the hotel, reveling in the not-Maine-ness of it all. 

Green Jay /heart eyes emoji

We got up early the day of our flight out but didn't have time to head back down to Brownsville, so cranked up towards San Antonio, stopping at a few out-of-the-way places en route. We scored some distant Mountain Plovers (only my second ever) at a random farm field in Frio County, and picked up some nice little common state birds in a park in Castroville. 

I left Texas sitting on 699 with no clear answer for 700. How long would it take? What bird would it be? Connecticut Warbler was the most likely possibility - though would still require a ton of effort - and everything else was a wild card. I'd have to wait and see. 

Turns out, it didn't take long at all. TO BE CONTINUED!


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