Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Mega Rarity in Texas!

A PINE FLYCATCHER has been seen at Choke Canyon State park in Texas. 

I have been following sightings of this bird since the initial posting. It was originally found on Dec 13th but not identified to species until only a few days ago.  
Not surprisingly, since the bird looks for all the world like a Dusky Flycatcher, it took several different methods to finally identify the bird.  Not only was it closely observed, but the observers took photos, video, and audio recordings. It finally took a Sonogram to confirm the ID.  Sonograms, photos and audio recordings can be found here.

David McDonald's photos can be found here

Here is the initial post on TX-birds:

"Dear all,
There is an almost certain Pine Flycatcher, a Mexican empid, at Choke Canyon State Park in McMullen County, south of San Antonio. The bird was initially found by Willie Sekula on Dec 13. It was thought to be a western type, which it appears like. On January 1 Martin Reid, Willie, Derek Muschalek and myself went to the unit and observed the bird. I was able to get an audio recording which matches a sonograph of a Pine Flycatcher.

We returned this morning and did some further observations. More audio and some video was obtained by Martin, Mel Cooksey and myself. Also more photographs were obtained. We did get permission to do some tape playback (this is not normally allowed) The bird responded strongly to the Pine Flycatcher call while seeming to ignore earlier attempts using both Western Flycatchers, Hammonds and Dusky vocalizations.

To reach the area go to the Calliham Unit at Choke Canyon. After the entrance road take a left at the stop sign, going towards the boat ramp. After about 400 yards you will see a sign on the right pointing to the ball field, There is a service road with a vehicle barrier by the sign on the right side of the road. You can park opposite the sign in a parking lot and walk in along the service road about 70 yards where you will see some water on the road. There is a small water treatment plant on the left behind a fence. The bird frequents this area. It seems to prefer the two live oaks on the left side of the road. It does move around a lot, periodically giving a series of single "pwip" calls. The call is similar to a Least or Dusky Flycatcher, but with a slight inflection at the start. There is also a Hammonds Flycatcher in the area, which the Pine Flycatcher chases when it invades its territory. The Pine Flycatcher looks most like a western type in
plumage, but less bulky, smaller billed and with black legs. The tear drop is whitish rather than yellow and is not as extensive behind the eye as a typical western.

Please be courteous. Absolutely do not chase or pressure the bird. It will come in if you are patient. Martin has posted a web page on the bird with photos and audio. The URL is
This bird, if accepted will be a first record for the United States.
Good luck!
Sheridan Coffey, Martin Reid, Willie Sekula, Derek Muschalek
Currently at Choke Canyon"

Here is a follow up post including directions by Martin Reid:

"Dear TEXBIRDers,
Just a little more background and information about this bird:-

Willie had seen it on Dec 13 and Dec 27, and based on coloration and structure felt it was a Western-type Fly. Willie, Derek, Sheridan and I were there on the morning of Jan 01, and Derek called us over as he was hearing an empid calling - when we saw that the calling bird was this Western-type I started to consider the idea that it might be a Pine Fly, as they look mostly like a Western-type Fly but sound like a Least Fly - quite unlike the vocalizations of both forms of Western Fly.

We got some pics and some very weak audio snippets that day, and I spent most of yesterday consulting with various people. In particular Alvaro Jaramillo was of immense help, and he too suggested Pine Fly (before I had mentioned my thoughts to him) after preparing a sonogram of the call note and seeing a couple of the pics.

Alvaro and others felt it was vital to get better audio of the bird, and to attempt to conduct a controlled playback experiment to build (hopefully) a case for the ID as Pine Fly. Thus we delayed posting about this bird, and obtained permission from the staff at Choke Canyon SP to do a one-time playback exercise this morning. By late morning we had gotten lots more material (pics, audio, video) and successfully shown that this bird did not respond to audio of Cordilleran, Pacific-Slope, Hammond's or Dusky Flys, and on three well-separated occasions responded to audio of Pine Fly - the latter two time quite vigorously.

We then rushed over to a relative of Derek's who lives nearby to make to post to TEXBIRDS. When we got back to the park, we bumped into John Arvin (one of the consulted experts the day before), who had come over to take a look for himself. I won't speak for John (I'm hoping he'll choose to post himself!) but he did get great looks and obtained some good audio recordings of the bird, and appeared to be quite happy with the ID as Pine Fly.

NOTE: in the mid-morning we all (5+ people) saw this bird get agitated and appear to chase another Empid away from its favored area, during which time it made a sharp, loud two-note call; I had seen/heard it do this twice on Jan 01 while on my own with it in the afternoon, and during that time I saw what looked to be a Hammond's type fly in the same area ( but only when the Pine Fly had wandered off). To my knowledge no-one has heard any Empid-type vocalization in the immediate area of the Pine Fly other than those we can attribute to the Pine Fly (i.e. no calls from this second Empid thus-far). I suspect that this is the Hammond's -type Fly that Willie saw on Dec 25 about 150 yards west of the Pine Fly's favored area.

ACCESS: we chatted with the staff at the office before leaving - they seemed quite excited about the bird, and were looking forward to seeing visitors. PLEASE make an effort to sign the guest book in the office prior to leaving, saying why you went there, etc. On such occasions we really get the opportunity to register hard data with TPWD that hopefully will be taken into consideration when budgeting time comes around...
The park will be CLOSED for a couple of upcoming days; Veronica Roberts and her staff have kindly forwarded to me the details, as follows:- The park will be closed to the public from Jan. 12, 2009 through Jan. 14, 2009. Access to the boat ramp will be available until 10 pm on Jan. 11, 2009 and will reopen at 2 pm on Jan. 14, 2009.

Choke Canyon State Park is located on the south side of Choke Canyon Reservoir which is c. 70 miles south of San Antonio. There are two units open to the general public - both from H72 that runs west from the town of Three Rivers: the South Shore unit by the dam at the east end of the lake, and the Calliham Unit located at the tip of a peninsula jutting up into the lake about half-way along the south shoreline. There are various routes from San Antonio, but the easiest is to go down I37 towards Corpus, take exit 72 onto H281 south towards the LRGV, then after about 4 miles at Three rivers turn west onto H72. The Pine Fly is at the Calliham Unit: Turn off H72 to the north about 8 miles after passing the South Shore entrance, and continue north until you get to the Park Office (3 dollars entrance fee; if you get there early prior to any staff, there is system for self-registering and then you can pay later). From the office continue north staying on the main road until you get to a "T" junction - there is a low sign pointing left to a picnic area and boat ramp - take this left road and continue for about 300 yards until you see a small low brown sign on the right side of the road saying "<- Ball Park" - immediately past this sign on the right is a service road blocked to vehicles by a low barrier; the apparent center of the Pine Fly's main territory is located about 60 yards north along this service road at a spot close to a fenced-off small building on the left and where the road is covered by a thin layer of water. The bird moves around this area quite a bit, typically calling repeatedly for about 15 - 30 seconds then going quiet for five minutes (by lunchtime it can be quiet for more than 30 minutes) before starting another bout of calling - at which time it is fairly easy to locate. PARKING: As you drive up to the "Ball Park" sign you'll see a parking lot a few yards down the left turn at this point on the road; you can park here, or go on to the birding trail located a further 60 yards ahead and then to the right. I have updated my web page on this bird so that it now contains some good-quality audio of the typical calls of this bird plus one snip of the two-note alarm/agitation call; feel free to download these data, BUT please do not use it at or close to the bird's location (any use of playback requires prior permission from the Park Staff) Good luck; we'll probably be back there tomorrow morning... Cheers, Martin 

Martin Reid 

Here is John Arvin's post on the subject:

"I did something I rarely do yesterday and drove 5 hours to look at a bird. I love Empidonax, especially when their identity is not clear-cut. I spent about 2 hours in the vicinity with the bird in view to one extent or another about 50% of that time. I made digital audio recordings of its call, which is a "whit" note. This vocalization is shared by Least, Willow, Dusky, Gray, and Pine Flycatchers. Upon arriving back home last night I wrote up about 5 pages of notes on the bird while the experience was still fresh in my mind and before it became contaminated by reference materials (to the extent that there are any). These notes will be passed along to Mark Lockwood, secretary of the TBRC, along with the audio recording. I cannot distinguish the "whit" notes of the various species by ear. And there is some variation between and among the individuals of the same species depending on context and perhaps sex, age, etc. However they can be examined spectrographically for minute differences (as Alvaro Jaramillo as already done; see www.martinreid.com).
I will cut to the chase on all this. As some of you know I am a professional skeptic when it comes to reported birds that are wildly out of range, season, habitat, and/or that are tricky to identify in the field. The present bird is all the above. Having said that, I must now be convinced by someone that it is *not* a Pine Flycatcher, as wildly unlikely as that seems. It is a species I know from field experience spanning 30 years that is fairly common at high (above 2000 m) elevations in the nearby Sierra Madre Oriental. It is basically not a well-known species to anyone as far as I know. Details of its life history remain unknown to me. For example I do not know for sure if it is migratory in northern parts of its range and if so, where the migrant population winters. I have never seen it at lower elevations in the S. M. O. in winter so I don't think it is an attitudinal migrant as are some montane species. I have recorded its voice (both calls and song) in both NE Mexico and in western Mexico in the S. M. Occidental at the Sinaloa/Durango border. I passed these recordings along to Martin Reid (of the eastern population in case there is some subtle difference between it and the western population). I was not present for the playback experiment but it is described elsewhere on this listserver. No doubt it is a bird whose identity will be chewed on by numerous knowledgeable people. Presently it seems that we have about all the information that can be obtained other than in the hand although every opportunity to obtain more/better documentation should be pursued.jcaJohn C. ArvinResearch CoordinatorGulf Coast Bird ObservatoryLake Jackson, TexasJohn C. Arvin
Research Coordinator
Gulf Coast Bird Observatory
103 W. Hwy 332
Lake Jackson, TX 77566
(979) 480-0999

You can follow the posts on Texbirds here.

This is an amazing find and Willie Sekula should receive a hearty congrats for finding the bird and realizing it was something different. 
If accepted, this bird will be a first record for the ABA area. 

It would also be a great bird for my 2009 year list. Anyone have about $600? :D lol 

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