I was hesitating to write any more blogs partly because I have surpassed my goal of seeing 800 species in the USA/Canada but mainly because I did not want to diminish the significance of my recent post recording the INCREDIBLE Steller’s Sea-Eagle sighting. However….the past 24 hours were so unusual, so exhilarating, so unprecedented….I had to share the stories/photos somewhere with somebody. YOU!
The American Birding Association (ABA) defines a code 5 species as one that has been seen five or fewer times in the ABA Area…EVER. Code 6 is extinct. I have seen less than ten code 5 birds in my lifetime. When the opportunity to see THREE (3) code 5 birds in one weekend presented itself, there was no question I would try. Even the leading bird-tour companies are scrambling to offer trips in February, praying these Mexican/Central American vagrants stick around.
Logistically, frequent flier miles pretty much covered the airfare and car rental for a South Texas swing combined with a slight side trip to Carlsbad, New Mexico. With an upcoming Holiday weekend, 72 hours was sufficient time to have a chance to go “three for three” – a hat trick in sports parlance. Seeing one of these three species would be nice, two was my expectation and three was simply too exciting to imagine.
The Central American Bat Falcon had NEVER been reported in the USA until December 18, 2021. It is not even mentioned in the National Geographic field guide nor my phone-app. Guaranteed to be coded a ”5” when accepted by the ABA records committee, the Bat Falcon was being seen fairly regularly in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near McAllen, Texas. It had developed a pattern of perching on a certain telephone pole on Highway 281 outside the Refuge at crepuscular hours.
My flight from Houston to McAllen arrived in time for me to wait and watch with 60 other birders on a foggy Thursday evening. Nothing. A similarly-sized group assembled ten hours later outside the Refuge entrance before Friday’s dawn. A fly-by American Kestrel elicited several gasps from the anxious crowd. The kestrel is a relative of and similar in appearance to our Batman-looking falcon. Three hours later we had yet to see it. At this point I decided to drive the 60 miles to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) and chase the code 5 Social Flycatcher; then return for another crack at the Bat Falcon.
The Social Flycatcher had been hanging around the UTRGV campus for a couple of weeks. Once I figured out that I had been searching for an hour from the wrong bridge on campus, I found several birders focused on branches overhanging the body of water. I heard the diagnostic ”squeaky toy” call and bam….there was the Social in my view.
After picking up the Social, I birded my way back along the Rio Grande Valley, returning to the Bat Falcon stake-out pole at 4:00pm. Patience is a virtue and birdwatching has helped me develop this weakness of mine. More than an hour passed and nothing except some birdy conversations with folks from Illinois, California and Corpus Christie had ensued. Then at 5:50pm a fellow far to my left hollered: ”That’s it! Flying towards the pole!!”. For the next twenty minutes the Bat Falcon posed on the telephone pole in fading light.
(Santa Ana NWR, Texas)
Full of adrenaline from the success of this last-minute appearance, the 6am flight to El Paso and subsequent two hour drive to pursue the elusive code 5 Blue Mockingbird in New Mexico was not an inconvenience. E-bird was providing hourly reports and the chances of seeing it Saturday afternoon were 50/50. Upon arriving at the much publicized Rattlesnake Campground spot at 12:45, I was surprised that only one other birder was scouting the vast area.
I patiently waited near the deer skull marking a creek-side Cutleaf Hackberry bush where the shy bird was seen at 7am. One hour, then two, then three hours passed. Several birders came and went. I ticked 18 species including a Hermit Thrush and Brown Thrasher in the distant tangles across the stream….both looked very much like our target at first glimpse. But no. At 5pm the sun had dropped below the tree-line and I was beginning to think about reserving a hotel in Carlsbad and return Sunday morning. My flight home was booked for Monday anyway.
The quiet was interrupted by a mockingbird’sh sound to my right. I stood up from my log seat and walked around the corner. Just maybe. Please. Three guys were viewing the interior of a nearby fruiting Hackberry tree. BLUE MOCKINGBIRD! It disappeared across the creek after 90 seconds.
(Carlsbad, New Mexico)
The impending snow storm allowed me to switch my flight to Sunday morning – without any charges:). My lucky weekend. I should be home in time to watch my favorite green-jerseyed birds.