Saturday, March 5, 2016

One Day - Two Rare Birds

It was crappy day ... ok, not in the way you are imagining. We started in late morning with a drive down to McKinney Falls State Park to the find the Red-Naped Sapsucker reported there this week. Based on some good descriptions posted on eBird, I had done some virtual scouting of the location on Google Earth. The bird was reported in "the only large Cottonwood tree" ... too bad I was not sure what a Cottonwood tree looks like without leaves! Eventually we figured it out by process of elimination and recorded its coordinates (30.1824526, -97.7254446). Here's a picture of the magical woodpecker tree, to the right of the trail:

We watched the tree for about 30min, finding two Downy Woodpeckers, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Ladderback Woodpecker, all good omens. The spot we staked out was next to some fenced in equipment of unknown purpose. The longer we stood there the more evident it became that the purpose must be sewage.

Finally, we saw the sapsucker, a rarity in the Austin area and a new bird for us. This species is very similar to the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a more common winter resident here. This one is a female based on the white chin above the red throat, a pattern that does not appear on the yellow-bellied. The second picture shows the pale red patch at the nape that gives the bird its name. Sometimes, this spot is not present on female. The red-naped also does not have a solid black boarder around the chin and throat, another confirming field mark.

Red-Naped Sapsucker
Disappointingly, the sapsucker never came down low in the tree so our photography angles were awkward and interrupted by many unfortunately placed twigs.

On our way home we stopped by Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory. Yes, the waste water reclamation plant again. As Danielle asked, "what is it with birds and sewage." In Pond 2 we saw a large number of Northern Shoveler and Lesser Scaup. Mixed in were a handful of Pintails, Gadwalls, American Coots, and Ruddy Ducks.  Many of the Shovelers were feeding right at the northwest corner of Pond 2 and we got some shots as they flushed.

We then tried our luck at the mud flats at the west end of Pond 1W. We found a large number of Lesser Sandpipers huddled together on small patches of drier ground. There were quite a few Killdeer as well, more than I have seen before. We also saw a half-dozen Wilson's Snipes rapidly probing into the mud. Most were in the tall weeds surrounding the flats, this one was out in the open. Up until now, it had been exciting for us to find a single snipe somewhere!

While watching the mud flat, we encountered the bird shown below. At first we thought it was some sort of sandpiper until we saw how small the bill was. We concluded it was one of the taller-standing plovers of genus Pluvialis. The other plovers, of genus Charadrius, including the Killdeer look more squat and compact.

American Golden-Plover
We debated for some time as to which species it was since, in non-breeding plumage, they look similar. The two species with any likelihood of being found in Texas were the Black-bellied Plover and the American Golden-Plover. Both of these came up in eBird as rarities. We settled on the American Golden-Plover based mostly on the dark ear patch and the strongly contrasting cap. The shorter, thinner bill is also indicative, but I had nothing to compare to. The lack of black armpits would have been diagnostic but we did not catch it when it flew away. Just to be sure, we eliminated the possibility of a very rare Pacific Golden Plover based the shorter tertials and longer primaries relative to the tail. This is a new species for both of us and wrapped up our wonderfully crappy day.

Update Mar 06 - Our identification of the plover was confirmed on eBird and a several other birders have seen it today. Interestingly, none of those people had their sightings marked as rare, puzzling. I tinkered around with eBird and found that a plover seen on Saturday would have been marked as rare but not one on Sunday. The rarity is seasonal and presumably delineated in the database by week. Sunday would have been the start of the first week in March, when plover sightings historically begin. Looks like we scored a rare bird on a mere technicality, awesome.

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