Today, I joined forces with Martin Reid and Sheridan Coffey, two birders I originally met last February at “birder ground zero” in Thailand – the Ban Maka resort just outside Kaeng Krachan national park. At the time, we made vague arrangements to keep in touch, little realizing that within a year I would find myself moving to their home state. As much as I enjoy solo birding, today proved that having company can make for an even better day. Martin and Sheridan are familiar faces on the Texas birding scene, and genuinely lovely people to spend time with.
I met them at some unearthly hour at their home in San Antonio, and we immediately hit the road to Refugio, with just the briefest of stops for breakfast tacos and strong coffee en route. The main target was the Golden-crowned Warbler, a bright yellow denizen of the Neotropics which had returned to the Lions/Shelley Park in Refugio for its second successive winter. Having already tried for this bird last year and dipped, I was keen to get it on my list, despite the fact that it’s not an out-and-out lifer (I’ve seen plenty of them in Central America).
Lions/Shelley Park always has some interesting lurkers in winter, and personally I was doubly keen to see the Tropical Parula and Louisiana Waterthrush that were also present in the park, both of them being potential lifers. We arrived at 9.00am to overcast but calm conditions, and quickly ascertained from other birders that none of the “special birds” had been seen so far this morning. Still, birding was productive with lots of interesting things around, including a wonderful day-roosting Barred Owl, a Green Kingfisher (an excellent addition to my “seen-while-peeing” list), several Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds, a Black-and-White Warbler, and frequent views of Green Jay and White-eyed Vireo.
About three hours into our visit, someone spotted the Tropical Parula near the car park, and about 30 birders quickly assembled to enjoy great views of this brightly-colored wood warbler. It turned out to be a male, a really lovely bird, and while not infrequent in Texas (and widespread throughout the Neotropics), could hardly fail to elicit genuine appreciation from its crowd of observers.
With the Golden-crowned Warbler still flying under the radar (it was eventually relocated by Willie Sekula much later in the afternoon), we decided to hit up another of the day’s targets. Not too far away, in Fulton, a male Broad-billed Hummingbird had been visiting a garden bird feeder for several weeks. We got into position in the car, peering into someone’s private garden, and waited. On the plus side, no angry householder emerged – but unfortunately neither did the hummingbird. After half an hour, we were just debating whether to grab some lunch and try again later, when our target appeared for all of 8 seconds at its chosen feeder – so briefly that another nearby birder missed it completely. Tickable views, but not the kind of prolonged observation I would have preferred for a lifer. Still, it was safely on the list and with time at a premium we decided to head to the coast.
Birding with people who know the turf has definite advantages, and stopping here and there at likely spots produced lots of typical Texan coastal species, among them Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Long-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Curlew, White-tailed Hawk, Common Loon, and Black Skimmer.
Our final such stop was exceptional for some quality observations of normally secretive species. At the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, a short boardwalk cuts through the marshes to a tower offering panoramic views of a lake. This area is heavily trafficked by birders, photographers, and general day-trippers – with the result that the resident birds lose their fear of humans and can be stunningly tame. First of all, we stumbled upon a Green Heron, which was standing just below the boardwalk less than six feet away from us. It was even within range of my iPhone’s camera, a good thing because the battery in my regular camera was dead. Then an American Bittern stepped out of the reeds and proceeded to spend 20 minutes in the open in perfect light, preening. Finally, a Cooper’s Hawk in a small tree cared not a jot about the excited photographers snapping it from below. What a day – and there was still time to head to the beach at the “magic hour” for views of an Eared Grebe diving among the breaking waves and an adult White-tailed Hawk on a pylon. I wonder what next weekend will bring.
Lifers: Tropical Parula, Broad-billed Hummingbird (total 2,142)
2017 World Year List: 252