Endangered species in Texas: Piping Plover and Red-cockaded Woodpecker, November 20th and 22nd

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Handy sign telling birders exactly where to search for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker, at W G Jones State Forest near Houston.

Friday morning saw me once again heading to the Texas coast, targeting three species of small plover that I still needed for my list: Piping, Semipalmated, and Snowy. The first species is classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN, with a total world population of just 6,500 birds, while the last used to be considered part of the very widespread Kentish Plover, but has now been split.

It was a beautiful day, and I took the scenic route to the Bolivar Shorebird Sanctuary via the Galveston ferry. While waiting for the ferry, lots of birds could be seen around the port including huge numbers of Laughing Gulls interspersed with the occasional Ring-billed and American Herring Gull. Three species of terns were flying about, too: Royal, Forster’s, and my personal first Sandwich Terns for north America.

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Laughing Gulls, Galveston, November 20th.

The tide was very high when I arrived at the beach at the end of Rettilon Road, but the lack of mudflats was not a problem for my target birds – they are partial to sandy beaches, and indeed I found my first Piping Plovers almost as soon as I arrived, running around on the sand close to the car. Semipalmated Plover was also quickly located at a small pool behind the beach, while Snowy Plover turned out to be the least common of the three, but still findable without too much difficulty.

Apart from the plovers, this small pool held perhaps one hundred Western Sandpipers, small numbers of Dunlin and Sanderling, and a Least Sandpiper, while a welcome find on the nearby dunes was a group of four Horned Larks. The beach wader roosts contained large numbers of American Avocets, and lots of gulls and terns including Caspian Tern – a second north American tern tick for the day, and a bird I have now seen on four continents. A Reddish Egret flew past along the shoreline, an uncommon coastal speciality, and another new addition to my list.

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Piping Plover sporting red and blue leg rings at Bolivar island, November 20th.

I decided to continue driving east along the coast, then north through High Island en route to Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, where there were many of the same birds I had seen on my previous visit to this site a month ago. Wintering ducks on Shoveler Pond included several individuals of one of my favorite species, Canvasback, but my personal highlight at Anahuac was a passage of Tree Swallows – this north American hirundine is a late fall migrant, and until now had been a big gap on my USA list as it is rather common.

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Snowy Egret at Shoveler Pond, Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, November 20th.

Two days later, I embarked on quite a different kind of birding trip. Just 40 minutes north of Houston is the W G Jones State Park, one of the last remaining refuges for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Texas. The population of this species has fallen by a staggering 99% from its original levels, and now numbers just 13,500 birds. Unlike most woodpeckers, which utilise dead trees for their nesting and roosting holes, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker bores its holes in live pine trees afflicted with heartwood disease. It is found in open pine forests, and is threatened by habitat loss.

Sunday morning dawned extremely cold for the time of year, with overnight lows of just 4C (39F). At first light – around 7.00am – I was in position beside a small pond in the forest south of road 1488, in an area which looked promising for Red-cockaded Woodpecker – and my suspicions were confirmed by signs on the trees telling me I was in an active “cluster” area for the species. However, after wandering around in the area for two hours I still hadn’t heard or seen one, although I was compensated in part by excellent views of several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Flickers, brief sightings of Pileated Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, and lots of Eastern Bluebirds and Pine Warblers.

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Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat – open pine forest – at W G Jones State park.

I decided to try my luck on the north side of the road, and here I quickly found more signposted woodpecker territories and even a tree with an artificial nest box implanted in the trunk. My luck was in here, as within just a few minutes of my arrival I heard a distinctive raspy-sounding call, and a Red-cockaded Woodpecker flew in, giving me excellent views as it fed on the trunks of several large pines. All pied woodpeckers are attractive, but to my eye this species is especially smart and clean-cut, with a neatly barred back and conspicuous pure white cheeks. I’ve now seen 45 woodpecker species this year, but with only one more remaining possible year tick in this part of Texas (Red-headed Woodpecker) it doesn’t look like I am going to get to 50.

I bumped into some other birders, who had seen two Blue-headed Vireos along the trail, which I didn’t find but instead had much better views than before of a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches. All in all, it was a most satisfactory visit to this site, which I would definitely recommend as being a (fairly) easy and accessible place to spot the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Lifers: Piping Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Snowy Plover, Reddish Egret, Tree Swallow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-cockaded Woodpecker (total 2,038).

2015 Year Ticks: Sandwich Tern, American Herring Gull, Western Sandpiper, Horned Lark, Marsh Wren, American Goldfinch, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (total 1,067).

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Shoveler Pond at Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, November 20th.
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Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a Pied-billed Grebe, and a skulking White Ibis at Anahuac, November 20th.
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Hooded Merganser, Cinnamon Teal and Bufflehead, Mitchell Lake Audobon Center, November 15th

An increasingly wintry feel to the birding today, if not the weather, with a huge arrival of ducks at this site since my last visit just 8 days ago. The north-western arm of Mitchell Lake was the place to be, with a female Cinnamon Teal the best offering. This bird flew in and landed fairly close to where I was standing, allowing the ID features to be seen well: large, all-dark bill, warm brown plumage tones, and a plain face with a distinct pale eye ring. It didn’t stay long before departing again, perhaps spooked by intermittent gunshots from the far side of the lake.

Ducks took almost all the headlines today, with three smart Hooded Mergansers – two males and a female – feeding and diving very actively in the same area. On the main lake, two female Red-breasted Mergansers showed close inshore, and a group of newly arrived Bufflehead – including at least two adult drakes – was a fine sight. Also of note here, a Long-billed Dowitcher, a Greater Yellowlegs, and the two Roseate Spoonbills continuing from last week.

Overhead, impressive numbers of Cave Swallows lingered, with a handful of Barn Swallows among their number. Bushes and tracks along the margins of the lakes held some interesting birds, including at least six Vesper Sparrows, hot on the heels of my first-ever sighting of this species last week in Austin. There were also a few warblers around, in contrast to last week: four Orange-crowned Warblers, two Myrtle Warblers, and a Common Yellowthroat, while Verdin and Ladder-backed Woodpecker showed well near the visitor center.

Lifer: Cinnamon Teal (total 2,031).

2015 Year Ticks: Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, Long-billed Dowitcher (total 1,051).

Canvasback, Blue-headed Vireo and Vesper Sparrow, Hornsby Bend (Austin, TX), November 11th-13th

Continuing the recent theme of visiting waste treatment plants, I visited Hornsby Bend on three successive days while staying with friends in Austin. Lying to the east of the city near the airport, just 15 minutes from our lodgings, this site boasts the highest bird list of any location in the Austin area, with 336 species recorded within its boundaries.

Lying next to the Colorado River, Hornsby Bend offers the usual mix of habitats to be expected at such a site, including lakes, treatment ponds, scrub and woodland. It is open from dawk to dusk, and the security staff at the gate are well used to birders here – there are daily reports from this site on eBird, and usually other birders to be seen around the complex. It would make a great local patch for anyone living in Austin, one that is likely to turn up new birds almost daily especially at migration times.

Ducks are one of the main draws here in winter, with hundreds of Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall, interspersed with smaller numbers of Ruddy Duck, Redhead and Lesser Scaup. I also notched up Canvasback for the year list here, plus a few Blue-winged Teal, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks, and single American Wigeon and Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Two Cinnamon Teal had been recorded a few days previously, but unfortunately did not reveal themselves to me despite much searching.

Shorebirds were limited to a few Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Wilson’s Snipe and Killdeer, although earlier in the season many waders pass through on migration. Eared Grebe is a winter speciality of Hornsby Bend; my personal highest count was 3 on November 12th. I also logged one Least Grebe here.

Scrub and woodland bordering the Colorado River is rich in wintering passerines, and I recorded the following in mixed-species feeding flocks in the area: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, Myrtle Warbler (numerous), Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, and Blue-headed Vireo. More open areas held two Vesper Sparrows, which showed extremely well on the track just in front of my car – a lifer for me – as well as the much more common Savannah Sparrow and American Pipit. Several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers – late fall migrants – showed daily on power lines around the lakes, and this was also the place to see Loggerhead Shrike and Eastern Bluebird.

Interesting raptors included an Osprey, a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Crested Caracara, and a Merlin which zipped through the area – an early wintering arrival, or just a migrant passing through on its way south?

Lifers: Blue-headed Vireo, Vesper Sparrow (total 2,030).

2015 Year Ticks: Canvasback, Green-winged Teal, Red-shouldered Hawk, Merlin, Monk Parakeet, Orange-crowned Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet (total 1,044).

Couch’s Kingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, Mitchell Lake Audobon Center, November 8th

American White Pelicans, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.
American White Pelicans, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.

On the southern outskirts of San Antonio, just 45 minutes away from my current location of New Braunfels, Texas, the Mitchell Lake Audobon Center looked to be the ideal destination for a Sunday morning birding visit. The site boasts a mixture of habitats including ponds, scrub, and marshland, and a high bird list is possible here – according to eBird, 337 species have been recorded within the confines of the reserve.

I arrived as soon as the site opened at 8.00am, and after paying my entry fee ($5) I decided to check out the nature trail closest to the visitor center. It was a good decision, as one of the first birds I saw was a lifer: a Long-billed Thrasher, lurking low in a patch of scrub but in plain view. Halfway along the trail, another lifer presented itself – a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. It was an excellent start to the morning, but with half an eye on the time (I could only spare three hours here), I returned to my car to head towards the main part of the reserve.

Most of the Mitchell Lake Audobon Center consists of man-made lakes separated by drivable embankments, interspersed with areas of scrub and a couple of more wooded areas. At the southern end of the reserve lies Mitchell Lake, a large natural lake. The western arm of Mitchell Lake has some shallower parts more suitable for herons and wading birds. Like many bird reserves in the US, it is designed with vehicular access in mind and there are no restrictions on driving along the embankments. This can be handy for close views of the birds.

I drove slowly along the embankments with the windows rolled down, stopping every time I saw or heard something interesting. Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a common speciality of this site, which for a while gave me the run around. I heard it on a number of occasions and glimpsed one in flight before finally getting excellent views of a male at the base of a tree trunk, an excellent way to mark my 42nd woodpecker species of 2015.

Crested Caracara, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.
Crested Caracara, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.

A few hirundines passed overhead, several of which proved – to my delight – to be Cave Swallows, another bird I had never seen before. The lifers were coming thick and fast, with two Couch’s Kingbirds showing well on overhead wires, and a smart Verdin taking advantage of a calm sunny corner to hunt for insects. The main lake held plenty of ducks but the viewing conditions into the sun weren’t ideal, so I didn’t spend too long checking the flock. However a quick scan revealed a few Lesser Scaup and several Redheads among the numerous Ruddy Ducks. Close inshore, a small group of Pied-billed Grebes also contained two Least Grebes, a scarce bird in the USA which I’ve seen before only in Honduras.

American White Pelicans are numerous at this location, and it was easy to obtain close views as they loafed on concrete pipes close to the embankments. I was looking for good shorebird habitat but I didn’t manage to find any until right at the end of my visit, in the north-western arm of Mitchell Lake. Fortunately, my target species here – American Avocet – is an easy bird to find, and I was soon looking at quite a number of them, plus three even more conspicuous Roseate Spoonbills.

I drove back to the entrance gate, and before passing through I stopped the car briefly to grab a bite of food. I was idly looking out of the window at the grass verge when a medium-sized brown bird hopped out. Raising my binoculars, I was soon eyeball to glowing orange eyeball with a Curve-billed Thrasher, yet another lifer for the morning – what a fitting way to end a very productive visit.

Lifers: Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, Couch’s Kingbird, Cave Swallow, American Avocet (total 2,028).

2015 Year Ticks: Lesser Scaup, Least Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Cooper’s Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper, House Wren, American Pipit, White-crowned Sparrow (total 1,035).

The Mitchell Lake Audobon Center headquarters.
The Mitchell Lake Audobon Center headquarters.

Redhead and Western Meadowlark, Arlington Village Creek Drying Beds, November 1st

The clocks went back today, buying me just enough time to make a short visit to this well-known local birding location while on a family visit to Dallas. I arrived, keen as mustard, as soon as it got light at 6.50am, only to find the gates aren’t unlocked on Sundays until 7.30am. I filled in the time at the neighboring park, where a Brown Creeper was a useful year list addition.

Arlington Village Creek Drying Beds is a fairly small area of small settling ponds, scrubby woodland and fallow fields, which according to eBird has played host to at least 295 bird species – an impressive total for an inland location of its size. A small hill near the parking area gives good views over the area, and I was soon enjoying the spectacle of large flocks of wintering ducks on the first lake on the right – mainly Gadwall and American Wigeon, with smaller numbers of Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard and Ruddy Duck. Some Aythya ducks lurked on a deeper adjacent pond – mainly Ring-necked Ducks but also several Redheads including two drakes. This was only my second personal record of the latter species, the first one being in the Western Palearctic – the long-staying wintering drake at Kenfig Pool in Wales in 2005. It was good to finally see this bird in its natural range.

I’m still getting to grips with the multitude of New World sparrows, and with my field guide at the ready I clinched the ID of several Lincoln’s Sparrows in the grassland, and a lone Song Sparrow in scrub along the lakeshore. American sparrows are an appealing bird family, strongly reminiscent of the Old World buntings, which I spent many enjoyable hours tracking down in winter in South Korea.

Another nice surprise today was a flock of 15-20 Western Meadowlarks. Having seen Eastern Meadowlark at Anahuac recently, it was interesting to compare these birds, which appeared much paler and more “washed out”. This species is regularly recorded at this site, which from the field guide appears to be at the edge of its usual range. I’m still at the stage of North American birding where I can reasonably expect a lifer on every outing, so it was good to get on the score sheet with this one today.

Lifer: Western Meadowlark (total 2,020).

2015 Year Ticks: Redhead, American Wigeon, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, House Finch, Brown Creeper (total 1,013).