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

eBird: The Online Birding Phenomena

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Saturday, January 11th, from 9 to 11 a.m. at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, TX, you are invited to learn about the online birding phenomena, eBird, and how to use this powerful website.

The eBird program, launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, is a real-time, online checklist program that has revolutionized the birding community.

The with the eBird program, you can keep track of the birds you see, explore dynamic maps and graphs, share sightings with the birding community, and more. At the Quinta Mazatlan eBird Workshop, participants will be shown real-time the many uses of the program and how it can enhance their birding experience and skills.

Come to Quinta Mazatlan for our eBird: The Online Birding Phenomena program on January 11th from 9-11 a.m. The entry fee is $3 for adults and $2 for seniors and children. Quinta Mazatlan, the McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center is located at 600 Sunset in McAllen, one block south of La Plaza Mall on 10th Street. For more information contact Quinta Mazatlan at (956) 681-3370 or visit www.quintamazatlan.com.

A Thousand Checklists

Written by Interpretive Guide John Brush

Green Parakeet V-Steve Bentsen

Perhaps you have overheard birders, young or old, talk about chasing a bird reported on eBird. Or maybe you have seen the bumper stickers that ask, “Do you eBird?” Well, I am happy to say that people eBird at Quinta Mazatlan. In fact, sometime this month I expect that the park will break the one thousand eBird checklist mark!

The eBird.org website is probably one of my most visited sites. It is an awesome tool for both recreational birders and scientists alike. It is a real-time, online checklist program that allows anyone from anywhere in the world to enter bird observations. This is great for scientists because it helps get a huge spread of data that reflects bird populations, and it is a great way for birders to keep track of their bird lists, find new areas to bird watch, and get a better grasp on when and where to find bird species in their local area.

I should step back a moment. When I say that Quinta Mazatlan will break the one thousand checklist mark, I really should say that it will soon break the one thousand complete checklist mark, and there is a big difference. A complete checklist (one in which you record all the birds seen or heard) is much more valuable to the eBird database than an incomplete one – it allows for a much better understanding of what birds are (and aren’t) in the area.

One really neat thing about eBird is that it is constantly changing, especially now as it has become quite popular. Just recently a feature called “Hotspot Explorer” was added – and is it cool! You can use the Hotspot Explorer to find out where birding hotspots are in your local area (or if you are planning a trip someplace new), how many species have been seen there, and even who has seen the most species there. It is a great tool to find new birding locations to explore.

If you are interested in exploring some of the awesome things that eBird can do, check out the website (www.eBird.org). Did I mention that it is free? You can also go to Quinta Mazatlan’s website and see how many bird species have been seen at our park (over 230 species reported). Who knows, maybe you could be the person who submits the one thousandth complete list for Quinta Mazatlan! I hope the next time you see a “Do you eBird?” bumper sticker you can answer with a resounding, “Yes.”