Birding and Birds at Quinta Mazatlan: A Year-End Review

As we begin the new year (and may 2016 be a safe and productive one for all of you!), I like to go back and look at what happened in the birding world here at Quinta Mazatlan. It’s a good opportunity to also look back even further than 2015 as well.

I decided to look at the eBird records from the Quinta Mazatlan Hotspot (linked). I downloaded the eBird bar chart data for each year Quinta Mazatlan has been open (2006-2015) and compared the number of species reported and number of checklists submitted. The idea being to explore a little bit more of how the birding at Quinta Mazatlan has changed over the years, without delving into individual species.

Species & Checklists figure 1

This graph shows the number of species reported each year from 2006-2015 (blue line), along with the corresponding number of checklists submitted (red line). The number of checklists dramatically increased between 2011 and 2012, and maintained at the new high level through 2015.

While it doesn’t look like it, the number of species increases noticeably between 2006-2011 and 2012-2015. When running a regression between the number of complete checklists per year and the reported species total you can see this trend much easier.

checklist species regression

Regression of number of species with number of checklists. There was a significant (p < 0.005) positive relationship between the two, and a pretty nice fit of line (R² = 0.8707, y = 0.2209x + 115.05). For example, if we submitted 200 checklists in a year, based off the equation we would expect to see roughly 160 species.

The most frequently birded time of year is the winter, and the least frequently birded is the summer (based off the number of checklists submitted). November and February in particular are well birded. I would venture that in November it is due to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival but I’m unsure of why February has so many checklists. The dip in amount of checklists in the summer is typical across the Valley; fewer visiting birders that time of year!

checklists by month figure 2

Checklists by month, sums from eBird bar chart data.

I wanted to figure out how many bird species a birder would typically see on a visit to Quinta Mazatlan. To do this, I chose a somewhat arbitrary limit of birds having a frequency of at least 25% (meaning that they are reported on 1/4 checklists at Quinta Mazatlan). 29 birds met this limitation, and are seen in the table below.

25 percent bird species

Species recorded on over 25% of checklists submitted for Quinta Mazatlan. These are the core species a visitor would expect to see in the park, along with many others that are more uncommon and/or seasonal.

I also thought it would be fun to select a “best bird of the year” for 2015, based primarily on how rare the species is both in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and specifically at Quinta Mazatlan. So, without further ado, the best bird of the year was…..

Yellow-green Vireo Erik photo

… Yellow-green Vireo! This bird was found by Erik Bruhnke, one of Quinta Mazatlan’s great bird guides. It was seen singing in July. This species is a code 3 American Birding Association bird (scale of 1-5, with 5 rarest), which is defined as a “species that occur in very low numbers, but annually, in the ABA Checklist Area. This includes visitors and rare breeding residents.” The ABA area is essentially the continental US and Canada.

There were only 5 records of Yellow-green Vireo in the Valley in 2015, and it had never been recorded at Quinta Mazatlan before. Great find Erik!

Here’s to 2016 – may it have lots of birds in store!

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On the Plain Chachalaca

 

Plain Chachalaca roof-top running“What a funny bird!”
“It looks like a chicken.”
“They are so loud!”

The above are quotes I hear variations of all the time regarding one of the Valley’s most unique birds, the Plain Chachalaca. No matter what the reaction, chachalacas always get a big response from both locals and visiting birders. They are one of my personal favorite South Texas specialty birds, and I often find myself ensconced in watching them as they run, hop, and sometimes gawkily forage for fruits in Quinta Mazatlan. Yet, despite the charisma of this tropical species, few scientific studies have been done on it. Here I want to explore and briefly summarize some of what is known about the Plain Chachalaca, with most of the information coming from The Birds of North America (hereafter called BNA) account.

PLCH Range
The range of the Plain Chachalaca goes from southern Central America up to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) of Texas.  Also note the small range spots further north on the Texas Coast (San Patricio County) and on the coast of Georgia! These two spots represent areas where chachalacas were introduced by people. Apparently the Georgia population is still going strong!

Chachalacas are a permanent resident, but there is little knowledge if they move locally between seasons. In the LRGV, they are typically found in dense thornforest and riparian woodlands, but can also be seen in more disturbed habitats, such as forest edges and towns. They’re surprisingly urban, and it was always a pleasure to see the chachalacas strut through my family’s yard in Edinburg. Their ability to reside in neighborhoods and do quite well in small urban nature centers is encouraging.

Most of the information on Plain Chachlacas in the LRGV came from a man named Wayne Marion. He did several natural history studies, which remain to be the most comprehensive coverage of the species in LRGV.

Plain Chachalaca chicks eating Esperanza (2)

Young chachalacas eagerly eating the Esperanza flower provided by their parent.

Chachalacas are predominantly vegetarian, but are also known to eat insects and snails. I’ve personally seen them eat: Anacua fruits, Wild Olive flowers, Yucca flowers, plant seedlings (unfortunately they’ve eaten some that I planted!), Pigeonberry fruits, Texas Persimmon fruits, and Turk’s Cap fruits and flowers. In Quinta Mazatlan, they of course love to eat the bird food we provide at the feeders, where they come out in droves to eat the peanut butter suet (click here to see what I mean!).

One thing you’ll notice in the video is the calls the chachalacas are making. Those are described as “purr/mutter” calls in the BNA, and are thought to be contact calls to keep birds together. What they’re most famous for, and why they’re named, is the loud “Cha-cha-lac!” calls they raucously shout. The males, with deeper voices, starts the call, then the higher pitched voice of the female joins in – multiple pairs of chachalacas will perch in tree tops and all create their nearly deafening chorus. In the late summer, the cicadas and the chachalacas can make it difficult to even hear yourself think with their racket.

Plain Chachalaca egg (1)

Plain Chachalacas refurbish the old nests of other birds for their own use, and usually lay 3 eggs per clutch. Interestingly, on a couple occasions I’ve seen the large, rough textured eggs (almost as big as chicken eggs) in the open on the ground. I don’t know how this happens or why, but I would expect that these ground eggs (pictured above) don’t end up hatching.

I like to keep track of the bird community here at Quinta Mazatlan, and have been curious as to how many chachalacas are in the park. The easiest way to try to count all the chachalacas is in the morning when we put out the bird food. The high count seems to be around 30 individuals!

PLCH Average Count

Most eBird checklists submitted for Quinta Mazatlan seem to average around 10 chachalacas, which is a little higher than the average count for Hidalgo and Cameron counties (figure below). We certainly have quite a few chachalacas in the park!

PLCH LRGV Average Count

There is a lot to be learned about Plain Chachalacas, but fortunately they seem to be doing well here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. So long as we keep protecting and providing the native habitat, we’ll be able to enjoy the presence of chachalacas for generations. If you have any anecdotes about chachalacas, whether it be what you’ve seen them eat, an interesting behavior, or just a fun story, please share in the comments!

Happy Birding!

John Brush

Learning the birds of Quinta Mazatlan, eBird style

One of my favorite websites, and also one of my most frequently used iPhone apps, is eBird. This website, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, was launched in 2002 and has made incredible strides since. It is both a valuable tool for birders and scientists (for more info go to: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/about/).

But aside from being of practical use for birders, its also a great way to explore and learn about where birds live and migrate. One of the things scientists have done with all the bird observations entered into eBird is to create Occurrence Maps (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/occurrence/). These maps, created by combining environmental data and bird observations (read more at the link above), show the seasonal ranges and movements of over 50 birds in the United States. The result is mesmerizing.

WOTH_large

The occurrence map seen above is that of the Wood Thrush, an uncommon but regular migrant in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. We got a brief glimpse of one today on our songbird stroll, but you can see from the map that this species is for the most part gone from the United States by November (and you can confirm this by exploring eBird data in this way).  I encourage you to visit the link for the occurrence maps above – it’s definitely a fun way to look at bird migration.

QM Hotspot

Quinta Mazatlan is in the top 10 eBird hotspots in Hidalgo county, with over 250 species reported from the park. On the hotspot page you can look at when birds were last seen, what was seen on recent visits, and more.

I also encourage you to explore the bird sightings at Quinta Mazatlan using eBird. Every bird walk that is led by our staff is uploaded into eBird, and on a side note, I’m proud to say that Erik Bruhnke and I have submitted over 350 checklists for the par.

Here's an American Robin that showed up on today's Songbird Stroll. It's only the 16th time since 2007 that they've been reported from the park.

Here’s an American Robin that showed up on today’s Songbird Stroll. It’s only the 16th time since 2007 that they’ve been reported from the park, but they have been showing up more frequently in the Valley the past few weeks.

If you’re starting to get into birding more, using eBird is a great way to learn more about where to find (and in what season) birds in the Valley. You can go to the eBird “Getting Started” page to learn some of the basics, and I hope to see more and more checklists submitted from Quinta Mazatlan and across the Valley.

Have a great weekend!

John Brush

Songbird Stroll November 17th, 2015

We started off the morning by checking on our Common Pauraques... two were visible.

We started off the morning by checking on our Common Pauraques – two were visible.

The rich gold, black, and gray plumage on a Common Pauraque makes this bird one of the most beautiful we have here in the Valley. The pauraques we have here at Quinta Mazatlan are probably a family group, staying together after the breeding season.

A Green Jay grabbing a bite of peanut butter suet.

A Green Jay grabbing a bite of peanut butter suet.

The Eastern Screech-Owl was poking its head out today.

The Eastern Screech-Owl was poking its head out today.

This Curve-billed Thrasher has some jewelry - a bird band!

This Curve-billed Thrasher has some jewelry – a bird band!

Its fun to see some of the same individual birds around the park. This one is sporting a bird band, placed on their by licensed bird bander Mark Conway, for scientific research. The light aluminum band doesn’t impede the bird as it goes about its life.

Ambush Bug with a Fiery Skipper - its a bug eat bug world!

Ambush Bug with a Fiery Skipper – its a bug eat bug world!

While we were walking, staff member Kathy spotted this Fiery Skipper just hanging limp from a flower. On closer inspection we found the reason – it had become breakfast for an Ambush Bug! These bugs are in the Assassin Bug family, a family of almost entirely predatory insects. Next time you see pretty flowers and lots of butterflies, you can almost be sure there are some insect predators trying to catch lunch!

As always, the full bird list for the morning is below.

Regards, John Brush

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  15
Plain Chachalaca  7
Cooper’s Hawk  1
Buteo sp.  1
Inca Dove  6
White-winged Dove  8
Mourning Dove  1
Eastern Screech-Owl (McCall’s)  1
Common Pauraque  2
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  4
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  3
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  1
Great Kiskadee  9
Couch’s Kingbird  1
White-eyed Vireo  1
Green Jay  3
Black-crested Titmouse  2
House Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
Clay-colored Thrush  6
Curve-billed Thrasher  2
Northern Mockingbird  6
Lincoln’s Sparrow  1
Northern Cardinal  2
Great-tailed Grackle  3
Lesser Goldfinch  1
House Sparrow  50

Songbird Stroll – Halloween 2015

Happy Halloween to all you nature lovers out there! Its been a rainy past week here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the thorn forest at Quinta Mazatlan was lush and humid – a good example that we are indeed a tropical forest.

It can take a few moments to find one of our Common Pauraques, but the effort is worth it!

It can take a few moments to find one of our Common Pauraques, but the effort is worth it!

As always, we took time to stop and look for some of our resident Common Pauraques. They truly are common birds here in the Valley, but because they are so well camouflaged and forage at night, I don’t think Valley locals are aware of how many there are. The best way to tell if you have a pauraque in your area is to know the sound of their call.

Buff-bellied Hummingbirds are the most frequently encountered hummingbird at Quinta Mazatlan.

Buff-bellied Hummingbirds are the most frequently encountered hummingbird at Quinta Mazatlan.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to look at the annual frequencies of the four hummingbird species we regularly see at Quinta Mazatlan. Buff-bellied Hummingbirds (gray line) are the most common, becoming reported on 80-90% of eBird checklists in the fall. Only small numbers of Ruby-throated, Black-chinned (note the uptick of frequency in the summer, as this is a breeding bird), and Rufous hummingbirds are reported in the winter months.

Hermit Thrush are one of our wintering birds - look in the shady forest for their subtle colors.

Hermit Thrush are one of our wintering birds – look in the shady forest for their subtle colors.

I saw two Hermit Thrushes today visiting one of our water features. These birds winter across the southern United States and down into Mexico and Central America. They’re not commonly seen wintering birds (probably because of their liking of thick forest understory), but they are present in every year.

Eastern Phoebes are one of the Valley's common winter birds.

Eastern Phoebes are one of the Valley’s common winter birds.

Out in the more open habitat of Ebony Grove (where I also had a Pyrrhuloxia), I saw one of our more common winter birds – an Eastern Phoebe. These flycatchers often bob their tails, and make short sallies (flights) out from their perch to catch insect prey. Because of their relatively dull coloring, I often get “fooled” into looking more closely at them thinking they may be a different species. Despite being common (and tricking me), they are pretty little birds and have a sweet call.

Tournefortia volubillis (vine on the left) is the host plant for the beautiful Saucy Beauty moth.

Tournefortia volubillis (vine on the left) is the host plant for the beautiful Saucy Beauty moth (right, photo from June, 2015).

As many of you know, I tend to get happily distracted on our Songbird Strolls by all other amazing flora and fauna our parks hosts. This morning I decided to try to re-locate a South Texas and Florida specialty vine, Tournefortia volubilis. I was inspired by Doug Tallamy’s recent talk here at Quinta Mazatlan, and all the wonderful native plant experts that came to Planta Nativa. I did manage to find at least one individual plant, and though I searched for a Saucy Beauty moth (another South Texas specialty), I couldn’t find any this time.

As always, the full bird list is below. Have a great weekend!

Regards,
John Brush

Plain Chachalaca  14
Inca Dove  7
White-winged Dove  19
Common Pauraque  2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Ruby-throated/Black-chinned Hummingbird  1     Leaning black-chinned. Super long bill
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  4
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  7
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  2
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Kiskadee  6
Couch’s Kingbird  2
White-eyed Vireo  1
Green Jay  4
Barn Swallow  5
Black-crested Titmouse  2
House Wren  3
Carolina Wren  1     Singing
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Hermit Thrush  2
Clay-colored Thrush  13
Curve-billed Thrasher  2
Long-billed Thrasher  2
Northern Mockingbird  9
European Starling  4
Orange-crowned Warbler  1
Black-throated Green Warbler  1
Wilson’s Warbler  1
Olive Sparrow  2
Summer Tanager  1
Northern Cardinal  4
Pyrrhuloxia  1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  1
Indigo Bunting  5
Great-tailed Grackle  9

Songbird Stroll October 17th, 2015

Hello all, another beautiful fall day here at Quinta Mazatlan, with a nice mix of migrant and resident birds going about their feathery business.

"Say what now?"

“Say what now?” This Clay-colored Thrush, a younger bird given the mostly brown eye color (it shifts to deep red in older birds), peered curiously from its perch.

I started off by seeing the flock of Clay-colored Thrushes that inhabit the park. These birds were enjoying the fruits of an Anacua tree (Ehretia anacua). They are always fun to see, but especially fun to hear – their meow-like calls and subtle are always a welcome sound.

Common Pauraque (2)

We also saw two of our resident Common Pauraques in their usual haunt. Perhaps it was just due to lighting, but the second individual (picture below) looked to have more gray in its plumage. According to Birds of North America “In Texas, upperparts of adult male brownish gray to tawny, mottled, spotted, and vermiculated with dusky brown, buff, and black.” Perhaps the difference was just variation in plumage, or perhaps it is related to age and sex.

Common Pauraque (1)

Gray Hawk QM (1)

My favorite bird of the day was this beautiful adult Gray Hawk. It flew into a palm, called loudly for a few minutes, and proceeded to fly to and call from the golf course next door. These raptors maintain small numbers in urban areas in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and I have seen them regularly (albeit infrequently) in Quinta Mazatlan and south McAllen neighborhoods. What a classy South Texas Specialty Bird!

As always the full list of birds is below!

Regards,
John Brush

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  40
Plain Chachalaca  10
Cooper’s Hawk  1
Inca Dove  5
White-tipped Dove  2
White-winged Dove  16
Common Pauraque  2
Chimney Swift  8
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  3
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  3
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  6
Great Kiskadee  4
Couch’s Kingbird  1
Green Jay  5
Barn Swallow  2
Black-crested Titmouse  3
House Wren  4
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  6
Clay-colored Thrush  6
Curve-billed Thrasher  2
Long-billed Thrasher  2
Northern Mockingbird  8
European Starling  3
Orange-crowned Warbler  2
Common Yellowthroat  1
American Redstart  2
Yellow Warbler  1
Wilson’s Warbler  3
Olive Sparrow  3
Northern Cardinal  3
Indigo Bunting  6
Dickcissel  1
Great-tailed Grackle  12
House Sparrow  20

 

Songbird Stroll October 3rd, 2015

It was a fresh autumn morning at Quinta Mazatlan – cool in the shade but still hot in the sun . On these sorts of mornings I can’t wait to get out and see what birds are in the park. Well, admittedly, I feel that way most mornings, but there is something about the turn of the season that spurs a new excitement at what could be seen next in the park – we’re always hoping to add more species to our current 250+ species list.

We're not sure how this Javelina got to the park, but it sure seems happy here!

We’re not sure how this Javelina got to the park, but it sure seems happy here!

The first thing I saw after putting out seed and suet at our amphitheater feeding station was one of the park’s local javelinas! We think there are two that roam the park. Javelinas (or Collared Peccary), according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, have an undeserved reputation for being aggressive, when oftentimes they hang around humans longer than other wildlife simply because they can’t see as well! However, one should never approach or try to feed a javelina, because they can get accustomed to humans and can become problematic. All the visitors who got to see this javelina were quite excited – another (big) example of wildlife in Quinta Mazatlan!

Two of Quinta Mazatlan’s Green Jays – notice the band on the Green Jay on the right!

One of the bird walk participants wanted to get photographs of a Green Jay, and our local birds decided to oblige! In some parts of the Green Jays large tropical range, they are known to cooperatively breed (having additional helpers-at-the-nest along with the parents), but in South Texas do not. They do, however, maintain family groups most times of year that defend their territory. Green Jays at Santa Ana National Wildlife refuge were known to have a territory size of about 37 acres, so it seems likely that we have a single family group here at Quinta Mazatlan (15 acres).

Clay-colored Thrush underneath

We got plenty of views at our flock of Clay-colored Thrushes. The one in this photo is showing the typical pale streaking on the throat.

Notice the yellow pollen on this Buff-bellied Hummingbirds head!

Notice the yellow pollen on this Buff-bellied Hummingbirds head. This bird is ready to do some pollinating!

There are quite a few hummingbirds in the park, with migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and resident Buff-bellied Hummingbirds being the most common. The hummingbird in the photo above is most likely a female, distinguished by the dark upper bill and the central tail feathers being mostly green-bronze. The Buff-bellied Hummingbirds in Quinta Mazatlan are predominantly nectaring on Turk’s Cap and Tropical Sage (or of course from our hummingbird feeders), but I have seen them nectaring on aloe flowers and Coral Bean flowers as well. They don’t only drink nectar however, and frequently are seen hover-gleaning and flycatching for small arthropods.

Bird list below:
Plain Chachalaca  12     These birds were definitely agitated by the javelina
Killdeer  2
Inca Dove  4
White-winged Dove  17
Chimney Swift  7
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  2
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  7
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  2
Vermilion Flycatcher  1
Great Kiskadee  7
Couch’s Kingbird  1
Green Jay  3
Black-crested Titmouse  1
Bewick’s Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
Clay-colored Thrush  11
Curve-billed Thrasher  3
Long-billed Thrasher  1
Northern Mockingbird  11
European Starling  4
Yellow Warbler  3
Wilson’s Warbler  3
Olive Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  2
Red-winged Blackbird  1
Great-tailed Grackle  14
Lesser Goldfinch  2
House Sparrow  15

Have a great weekend!

John Brush