Monday, October 10, 2005

ENV: The 2005 Big Sit

The Second Not-So-Annual Big Sit @ Ingram Dam Lake Dam

After an exceptional day in 2002 (actually an exceptional day in this county – one of my best ever . . .), being flooded out in 2003, and having a work commitment in 2004, i was looking forward to this 2005 edition of the Big Sit. I had carefully chosen this location for a number of reasons – possiblity of a good migration day for waterbirds and raptors, location with 360 degrees of sky visibility, multiple representative habitats, public location, etc. Even so, being well inland, and in a place that has a number of special faunal representatives, but not necessarily great diversity, and armed with a couple decades of data of my own (and 100+ years of data from multiple excellent observers), i still figured that an average day at my spot would produce about 30, perhaps a few more, species.

In 2002 a front hit just as the day dawned and the result was a remarkable migration event for little Kerr County. Among the notable things seen were 660 raptors of 12 species including one of a handful of records of Prairie Falcon, and quite a few large kettles of Swainson’s Hawks; big numbers of Turkey Vulture, White-winged Dove, Northern Harrier and Ring-billed Gull; flocks of migrant herons, egrets, ducks and shorebirds, and notably early American Goldfinches and Cedar Waxwings; and perhaps most notably, only one species of insect (though many butterflies and odonates had been expected) – an estimated 60,000+ Monarchs blowing south. In all 61 species of birds were found, doubling my idea of what was to be expected.

And so it came to be that this year there was some anticipation. But the migration was barely noticeable – a few dozen Monarchs, seven raptors of three species, a few swallows. It was clear, calm and hot (despite being only 81 at max – though the neighbor recorded 97 i doubt it was, even if it occasionally felt like it). In place of the numbers and diversity (the 36 species of birds was not much over half of the 2002 total; but a bit higher than my original projected list) though were some special birds – nothing incredible, but still good records.

First is the female Ringed Kingfisher that rattled at me all day long. I had already discovered a couple of weeks ago that she was roosting below the dam. I hadn’t seen her there in several days though and thought maybe she’d moved on. She was one of the first birds of the day though and was the last to call at twilight. This bird is rare in Texas oustide of the Rio Grande Valley, but has made a slow northern progression over the past three decades. It’s being reported more and more often from hill country rivers. I’ve long suspected it nests on the Guadalupe but have yet to be able to prove it. Maybe with this one hanging close i’ll finally make that discovery.

Second discovery of the day came when i heard a chip note below me along the water below the dam. It was one of those notes that you know you know but can’t quite get a handle on. I didn’t have to puzzle over it long as the maker popped up on a sycamore branch rather quickly. It was a Black Phoebe. Now the Guadalupe with its myriad tributaries is one of those places where you look and think ‘why this is perfect for Black Phoebe’ and yet i’ve only known of three or four specific records in all my time here, and i think the last one i actually saw was well over ten years ago. So this was nice. About the time i got a (distant) camera lens trained on it it flew up the ridge, landing fairly close. I got off three quick pics, but with my meager lens i got no portraits. Nevertheless it’s an identifiable bird in the picture. Then it blew by me, straight up over the ridge and out of site, gone, and i figured that was the last of that record – especially since it was moving away from water.

Third, i had a male Pyrrhuloxia at midday. It stayed briefly and then moved off east along the riverbank. This is a species that i’m virtually certain is a permanent resident in the county, but if so it resides on the deepest part of some west county ranches. It’s rarely actually seen in the county except some winters when some move into the edges of town and are seen at feeders. Otherwise it escapes notice. Again i haven’t personally seen one in a few winters.

At dusk, as i was scoping a few odonates below the dam i heard that chip again, looked down and there, on the same limb of that sycamore was the Black Phoebe. I guess it may be staying after all. (check out the pictures below -- the bird sits on the same bend of the same branch coming and going).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the one raptor i’ve expected since day one – our resident species, Red–shouldered Hawk – has yet to be found on the count; and our two most common migrants/winter residents, both of which are already present – American Kestrel and Red-tailed Hawk – were missed as well. Funny day in the middle of xeric central Texas when your most common raptor is Osprey (4).

Two post-sit notes:
First Rhandy Helton posted on the TX-Butterfly listserv (via Mike Quinn) that yesterday (Big Sit Day – the 9th) he had hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Monarchs streaming past at Junction – that’s about 35 miles west of here as the lep flies. In 2002 when i had so many going over, no one else who was looking east or west reported numbers. I suspect that the river of bugs going by is fairly narrow, if dense. Rhandy’s note is copied below.

Overnight we had some rain, and today is overcast, misty and a bit threatening. And of course that put migrants in – i still have no Monarchs here, but i do have hundreds of swallows going by, had a small flock of Savannah Sparrows here, and noticed a small influx of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers this morning. 24 hours . . .

TX: Kerr County, Bluff above Ingram Dam
9 October 2005, 7 a.m.- 8 p.m. = 13 hours, 36 bird species
Temp: 45-81º F; Winds: NNW 0-18 mph; clear, beginning to cloud to the far west late in the afternoon

Location is on a boulder just off the road on the bluff above the dam (South side) at Ingram Dam Lake. The lake (120 acres) is west, grading into the Guadalupe River; north is the Dam Store center and subdivisions on the west side of Ingram and the high school; east is the riparian woodland and cypress-lined Guadalupe River; south is a juniper-oak scrub slope. Below is a talus rock slope with scattered shrubs; a juniper-oak thicket; a mid-aged cypress riparian woodland; immense piles of flood debris; and a minor marsh below the dam.

Great Blue Heron 3 ph
Green Heron 1
Black Vulture 60
Turkey Vulture 35 ph
Wood Duck 4
Osprey 4 ph
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Accipiter sp. 1
Swainson’s Hawk 1
Killdeer 3
Spotted Sandpiper 4
White-winged Dove 423
Mourning Dove 6
Chimney Swift 46
hummingbird sp. 1
Belted Kingfisher 2
Eastern Phoebe 1
Blue Jay 4
Common Raven 5
Barn Swallow 6
swallow sp. 5
Carolina Chickadee 2
Black-crested Titmouse 4
Carolina Wren 4
Bewick’s Wren 3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
Eastern Bluebird 1
Northern Mockingbird 2
European Starling 40
Northern Cardinal 3
Red-winged Blackbird 8
Great-tailed Grackle 31
House Finch 6
Lesser Goldfinch 6

2 White-tailed Deer 2

Guadalupe Spiny Softshell Turtle 4 ph
Smooth Softshell Turtle 2 ph
Texas Slider 10 ph
Cagle’s Map Turtle 1


Bluegill 1
fish sp. 4

Helicina orbiculata 1 ph*
Rumina decollata 2 *

Yellowjacket 4
redbutt Black Wasp sp. 1
Red Wasp 1
Honeybee +
Bumblebee sp. 1
medium blackbutt Red Ant sp. +
tiny Orange Ant sp. +
Imported Fire Ant sp. +

White Fly sp. +
gnat sp. +

tiny Mayfly sp. 1
large Dark Mayfly sp. 1

Pipevine Swallowtail 5
Cloudless Sulphur 3
Southern Dogface 1
Orange Sulphur 1
Sleepy Orange 7
odd bugs, possibly hairstreak larvae/pupae ca. 20 ph (awaiting a positive ID on these)
photos here
Gulf Fritillary 3
Variegated Fritillary 1
Painted Lady 6
Monarch 44 ph
Queen 2 ph
Duskywing sp. 1

Blue-fronted Dancer 1
Blue-ringed Dancer 1
Dusky Dancer 1
Pale-faced Clubskimmer 1
Black Saddlebags 30 ph
Red Saddlebags 5
Wandering Glider 1
Checkered Setwing 1

large Cicada sp. +
tiny planthopper sp. 1 ph

Bush Katydid sp. 1

tiny spider sp. 1
orb-weaver sp. web

Chinkapin Oak ph
Texas Red Oak ph
Plateau Live Oak
Bald Cypress
Poverty Weed
Maximilian Sunflower ph
White Bluff Aster ph
Flameleaf Sumac
Twistleaf Yucca ph
Western Sycamore
Ashe Juniper
Mexican Silktassel
White Honeysuckle
Cedar Elm
Roughleaf Dogwood
Black Willow
Crepe Myrtle
Boxelder Maple
Mexican Buckeye
Purple Aster
Rush sp.
Sedge sp.
Engelmann Prickly-pear
Spineless Prickly-pear
Bushy Bluestem
Goldenrod sp.
Poison Hemlock
Woolly Ironweed
Japanese Privet
Muscadine Grape

Note to TX-Butterfly, 10 October 2005
Rhandy's note on Monarchs yesterday is most interesting. I was doing a 12-hour Big Sit yesterday (the 9th) at Ingram Dam Lake, and had some special interest because it was this event in 2002 that brought a two day passage of Monarchs here that i estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. I was anticipating a decent Monarch day yesterday. Well, instead, in 12 hours of constant binocular perusal of a clear sky i had a total of 44 Monarchs. I am 45 miles east of Junction by zig-zagged highway, probably about 30-35 miles straight line. I'll be checking again today.

Date: Sun, 9 Oct 2005 23:40:03 -0500
From: Mike Quinn
Subject: Monarchs (100,000+ but possibly in the millions) Junction - Oct 9, 2005

Mike Quinn
Texas Parks & Wildlife

-----Original Message-----
From: Rhandy Helton
Sent: Sun 10/9/2005 1:25 PM
To: Mike Quinn


Yesterday, October 9, had a huge movement of Monarch butterflies through
Junction and Kimble County. I first started seeing them around 8:30 a.m.
with constant numbers until noon. Most of the butterflies were not visible
to the naked eye (except early a.m.) but when I used my 8.5x42 binoculars
the numbers up high were totally unbelievable, had to be in 6 figures
100,000+ but possibly in the millions. I looked across the county from east
of IH10 westward to the South Llano River State Park and the numbers were
the same everywhere. At times, through my binoculars I know I was observing
50-80 butterflies every place I looked up into that beautiful blue sky. It
was awesome and I have never seen anything like that with the Monarch

Rhandy J. Helton
Junction, Tx.

Here's the 2002 report for comparative purposes:
The First Annual Big Sit @ Ingram Dam Lake Dam
Kerr County, Texas 13 October 2002 -- 61 species
with brief visits by Greg Lisciandro and Bob Dowler
12:00 - 12:30 a.m., 6:45 a.m. - 3:55 p.m., 5:40 - 8:00 p.m. = 12 hours
Temp: 58-73º F; Winds: NNW 2-17 mph; heavy overcast all day, no precipitation

Location is on a boulder just off the road on the bluff above the dam (South side) at Ingram Dam Lake. The lake (120 acres) is west, grading into the Guadalupe River; north is the Dam Store center and subdivisions on the west side of Ingram and the high school; east is the riparian woodland and cypress-lined Guadalupe River; south is a juniper-oak scrub slope. Below is a talus rock slope with scattered shrubs; a juniper-oak thicket; a mid-aged cypress riparian woodland; immense piles of flood debris; and a minor marsh below the dam.

Pied-billed Grebe 2
Neotropic Cormorant 3
Double-crested Cormorant 4
Great Blue Heron 8
Great Egret 3
Snowy Egret 1
Cattle Egret 3
Black Vulture 63
Turkey Vulture 447
goose sp. 60
Wood Duck 4
Northern Pintail 58
Blue-winged Teal 35
Green-winged Teal 8
duck sp. 51
Osprey 4
Bald Eagle 1 (~4yo)
Northern Harrier 10
Sharp-shinned Hawk 10
Cooper's Hawk 11
accipiter sp. 2
Swainson's Hawk 582
Zone-tailed Hawk 3 (2ad, 1 imm)
Red-tailed Hawk 8
American Kestrel 17
Merlin 4
Peregrine Falcon 4
Prairie Falcon 1
large falcon sp. 3
American Coot 1
Sandhill Crane 2
Killdeer 6 (reduced to 5 at midday by a falcon)
American Avocet 3
Spotted Sandpiper 2
Least Sandpiper 1
large shorebird sp. 12
Ring-billed Gull 12
Rock Dove 10
White-winged Dove 647
Mourning Dove 15
Great Horned Owl 2
Belted Kingfisher 3
Golden-fronted Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 105
Blue Jay 2
Western Scrub-Jay 1
Common Raven 5
Barn Swallow 18
Carolina Chickadee 3
Black-crested Titmouse 3
Canyon Wren 1
Carolina Wren 2
Bewick's Wren 3
Northern Mockingbird 2
European Starling 270
Cedar Waxwing 17
Wilson's Warbler 2
warbler sp. 3
Lincoln's Sparrow 3
Northern Cardinal 6
Red-winged Blackbird 2
Great-tailed Grackle 248
Brown-headed Cowbird +
blackbird sp. 112
American Goldfinch 4
passerine sp. 247

Junglefowl 1 (rooster crowed all day)

bat sp. 1
Fox Squirrel 2
Feral Cat 1
White-tailed Deer 1

Texas Slider 2

Common Carp 1 (in talons of Osprey)

Monarch 1669

Species seen at Ingram, on Cade Loop and Rio Vista druing time away from Big Sit
goose sp. 30
Swainson?s Hawk 225
Rock Dove 5
Eurasian Collared-Dove 2
White-winged Dove 22
Mourning Dove 2
Inca Dove 1
Great Horned Owl 1
Eastern Screech-Owl 1
Chimney Swift 2
Eastern Phoebe 1
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 29
Blue Jay 2
Carolina Chickadee 1
European Starling 7
Northern Cardinal 1
Great-tailed Grackle 65
House Sparrow 4

Fox Squirrel 1
Hog-nosed Skunk 1
Striped Skunk 1
Raccoon 5
Feral Cat 1
White-tailed Deer 22
Axis Deer 60
Blackbuck 18
Mouflon 1

2002 Notes:
While i chose the location with maximum species in mind, lots of visibility, and some of the better water in our water-scarce county, i also focused on having a place where i could append good herptile, lepidoptera and odonata lists. The cold front put the kabosh on that. Of our three endemic turtle species (all of which i had stakeout sunning logs for) only the Texas Slider was seen and that from surfacing. Not a single odonate was seen, and the only butterflies were Monarchs, though there must have been thousands going over. I counted them when i wasn't occupied by the abundant birds, but my total must have been only a fraction of what was there. A retroactive sky-clearing estimate of Monarchs in passage was made for Oct. 13 by surveying Monarchs still in passage on Oct. 14. The final estimate for Sunday, Oct. 13 was 63,375 with a two-day total of 102,375.

The weather also probably kept down the numbers of passerines identified, though plenty were going over. I had predicted 30 species for my Big Sit location, but doubled that, all because of the serendipitous front passage that loaded us up with raptors and seldom-seen aquatic species. Five additional species were seen at the location on 14 October 2002.

The two most interesting misses were a) House Finch, which is not only a common year-round resident here, but has also been a featured migrant the past week; and b) our most common nesting raptor, of all things, was not seen -- Red-shouldered Hawk.

Perhaps the most interesting observations were the numbers of Northern Harrier and Ring-billed Gull. I don't have a single other record for more than one harrier in a day; nor do i have records for more than one Ring-bill in a day since the demise of the Kerrville sewage ponds 15 years ago.

Notes to TexBirds, 13 October 2002
Below is my composite list from today's Big Sit, most serendipitously scheduled for the first major cold front of our season. Brush Freeman posted some truly astounding numbers from his yard today, and i can't match that, but for us it was unprecedented (we humans that is, the birds i'm sure do this every year!). I'd predicted 30 species for my little spot, chosen for the chance to check out fall birds that i don't often monitor in the county, and for outstanding visibility. Well, all that paid off in spades and i nearly doubled my prediction. It was a truly non-stop bird show. I tried to keep track of the gads of Monarchs too, but the birds just had me occupied most of the time. I had to take care of some business for a portion of the afternoon and saw a few other things outside my Big Sit spot, so i have appended those in parentheses (both species and numbers) for this posting.

Tomorrow, will probably post pictures on my website of some of the egrets (we don't get many), and of one of the Zone-tails which was overhead most of the day. At one point i had a swirl (not quite a kettle) with a Zone-tail, a TV, a Black Vulture, a Common Raven and an Osprey. Also had a pair of ravens harassing (trying to rob?) an Osprey carrying a large carp. Had a Sharpie chasing a Kestrel; a Kestrel chasing a Coop; and a Coop and a Peregrine taking turns at the Killdeer.

Notes to TX-Butterfly, 14 October 2002 (revised)
Rain kept me out of the field most of the morning with only brief lulls. The rain quit about eleven, but no clearing occurred until about 30 minutes ago (7:30 p.m.). Shortly before noon the Monarchs started flying again. I went looking for birds, but today there was little bird activity, so i concentrated on the Monarchs. From my Big Sit location i timed two individuals clearing the sky north to south at 0:03:42 and 0:04:01. And twice i counted the entire visible sky, getting totals of 626 and 715 Monarchs. They were flying at roughly the same rate until about 4 p.m. when the numbers dropped way off. So i guess my actual count for the day was 1343. But i used the old sky-clearing blackbird counting technique (which i also favor for estimating any large flocks (hawks, robins, etc.). Using conservative numbers of 4 minutes and 650 individuals over a four-hour flight i came up with an estimate of 39,000 Monarchs through my patch of sky today (my area of visibility here is about 4.5 miles in diameter east-west, and 0.55 miles north-south, but of course the distance for seeing Monarchs even with binoculars is quite shorter). During that time period, i also looked for birds and Monarchs at my home, as far as Mountain Home and Kerrville, and found the flight just as strong. Yesterday's flight seemed stronger than today's and lasted longer, but using the same conservative numbers for yesterday's flight time of 1 to 7:30 the estimate works out to 63,375 for that narrow patch of sky. I feel like both day's estimates are very reasonable. Not a single other individual butterfly of any species was seen either day (not even a Snout!).

2005 Pictures

Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans

Black Phoebe at dawn

Black Phoebe at dusk

Osprey, Pandion haliaeetus

Monarch, Danaus plexippus

Queen, Danaus gilippus

Black Saddlebags, Tramea lacerata

White Globesnail, Helicina orbiculata

Big Sit location at dawn

Big Sit location at mid-morning

Big Sit location at dusk

Big Sit location at sunset


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