Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Lone Star State’s only endemic breeding bird, returns in early March to the forests of central Texas. With a tiny world range confined to the juniper-oak woodlands north of San Antonio and west of Austin, and being highly attractive and colorful to boot, it is a highly desirable target species for any resident or visiting birder in Texas.
Fortunately, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is easily found – even common – in suitable habitat within its breeding range. However, it is officially classified as “Endangered” due to continuing loss of habitat in Texas, as well as threats to tropical forests on its wintering grounds in Central America.
The first birds arrive back earlier than most wood-warblers, usually in early March (this year the first records were on March 5th). By the time I visited a classic site, Friedrich Wilderness Park, on March 18th, the warblers were back in force. In a relatively small area of the park we (Martin Reid, Sheridan Coffey, Christian Fernandez and I) counted at least 7 singing males. Hearing them is easy, but getting good views is far more difficult, and it took at least an hour before I was able to get photos of a male singing from the top of a tall tree.
With my lifer target safely under the belt, we rounded out the morning touring a number of local birding spots on the hunt for early migrants, with the highlights being American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, and best of all several very pale “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawks:
It’s mid-March and we are right on the cusp of Texas’s most exciting time for birds – spring migration – so this weekend I decided I had better get down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley to grab some nice tropical year ticks (and perhaps a lifer or two) before I get too distracted by migration here on my doorstep in Houston.
It’s a long way to “the Valley”, about a 5.5 hour drive each way, and to avoid putting lots of miles on the elderly Jaguar I am currently borrowing, I instead opted to rent an economy car. With more than 900 miles driven over the three days, the money I saved in gas compared to running the Jaguar almost equaled the cost of renting a compact Hyundai. And as every birder knows, the great thing with a rental car is that you can rack up thousands of miles driving it non-stop for days, fill it with mud, take it down potholed unmade roads and onto beaches, then hand it back and let Enterprise take care of the wear and tear. It wouldn’t surprise me if before long some rental companies wised up and inserted a “no birding” clause in their rental agreement.
An essential stop on every birding itinerary to south Texas is the Falfurrias Rest Area, a busy toilet block and picnic area sandwiched in between the north- and southbound carriageways of highway 281. Despite the unpromising-sounding description, the numerous mature trees here are alluring for migrants, and there is even a short nature trail through some very birdy-looking woods draped in Spanish moss. For some reason – perhaps because a lot of birders stop here – this place has a reputation for turning up lots of rarities.
My 30-minute stop here yielded a ton of great birds, including a lifer Yellow-throated Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and the first signs of the tropical south: several noisy and colorful Green Jays.
Once down in the LRGV, the cloudy morning gave way to a sunny and sweltering hot afternoon with high humidity and barely a breath of wind. I spent the whole afternoon at Estero Llano Grande State Park, mopping up year ticks at their usual stakeouts, including this Eastern (McCall’s) Screech Owl ……
….. and this Common Pauraque, which most likely holds the honor of being Texas’s most photographed bird:
However, I unfortunately managed to miss the long-staying male Rose-throated Becard by less than half a minute. It also proved harder to connect with hummingbirds here than it did last winter, but I did eventually find both Buff-bellied Hummingbird and this Black-chinned Hummingbird in the Tropical Zone:
By dawn on Sunday morning the weather had changed dramatically, as is common in these parts, with temperatures dropping from the mid-80s to the mid-60s and a chilly wind blowing. I turned up at Santa Ana NWR and was immediately cheered by the news that no fewer than 8 Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets had been seen in various locations in the park yesterday, and I was directed to an area where a pair was in the process of nest-building close to the trail. Not only could I hear a male Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet singing there when I arrived, but another one was answering it not too far away. Only a matter of time before I saw one, right? Wrong. The birds stayed well hidden in the breezy conditions, and before long stopped singing entirely, making them impossible to locate.
Compensation of sorts came in the form of several wonderful Altamira Orioles, an LRGV specialty which is found nowhere else in the US:
…. and Olive Sparrows, which are abundant at this site, and once I became familiar with their call I began finding them everywhere, but they stubbornly refused to be photographed.
It was difficult to decide what to do with the afternoon. I opted for the Yturria Tract, an arid area of thorn scrub, which at lunchtime on a cool and breezy day was a gamble, but I got lucky and saw some good birds including my main target Black-throated Sparrow (seemingly common here), White-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.
I rounded out the afternoon at Anzalduas Park, where I had no specific targets in mind and hoped to enjoy some “general birding”. My wish came true, as the park was bursting at the seams with common birds, including one amazing flock which contained perhaps 35 individual birds of 14 different species.
It was good to compare Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds, both on voice and plumage:
Border police booted me out of the park at 5.00pm sharp – Anzalduas Park is on the banks of the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico, and there is a huge police and border security presence in the area. I decided to start the long drive north in order to be ready for a dawn start on the coast in the Mustang Island/Port Aransas area.
The day started with two fine Wilson’s Plovers, a shorebird I have seen only once before, in Honduras, then a flock of nine Pectoral Sandpipers – another USA tick, and another one struck off from the long list of Nearctic shorebirds I have seen as vagrants in the UK but not yet in their normal range in the Americas.
Two fantastic migrant hotspots on Mustang Island – “The Willows” and “Holt Paradise Pond” really raised the anticipation levels for the upcoming spring migration. Between the two sites, I saw two Louisiana Waterthrush, a total of 5 Black-and-White Warblers, Yellow-throated Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and Gray Catbird – a mere taster of the kind of range and quality that will be at these sites in a month’s time, I suspect!
I had to leave around lunchtime to make sure I got back to Houston in time for the rental car return deadline, but there was just enough time to grab Sandwich Tern for the year at the Port Aransas jetty, and this portrait of a Long-billed Dowitcher at the Port Aransas Nature Preserve:
With the clocks having gone forward this weekend, lighter evenings present opportunities for after-work birding. On Wednesday, a late afternoon visit to the Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, less than a mile from where I am currently living, turned up my 7th Black-and White Warbler of the last seven days (and 8th of the year overall), a fine male Wilson’s Warbler, and a long overdue Northern Flicker for the year list.
I’ll be in a warbler frame of mind in San Antonio this weekend, with Golden-cheeked Warbler top of the agenda – watch this space!
Total species count, LRGV and coastal Texas, March 11th-13th: 136
Lifers this weekend: Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Sparrow (total 2,155).
Hutton’s Vireo is a bird that flies under the radar. It is unremarkable looking – resembling a super-chunky, thick-billed Ruby-crowned Kinglet – and it attracts very little attention to itself. In central Texas its status is described as “scarce and local, but increasing”, with a patchy distribution restricted to the Edwards Plateau. In the San Antonio area, despite numerous well-scattered records, there doesn’t seem to be any particular location where sightings can be guaranteed.
In other words, it’s not exactly the kind of bird that gets me enthusiastically leaping out of bed at 5.00am on a Sunday, hence why I haven’t gone out actively looking for one until now. But with my pipeline of potential lifers rapidly drying up, and the refreshing onslaught of spring arrivals still a few weeks away, I figured it was about time I tried to score. A quick eBird search soon revealed a few likely spots on the northern outskirts of San Antonio, including a location where my friend Sheridan Coffey had seen one just the day before.
My lack of urgency to see this bird is reflected in the fact that I didn’t even start the day at my selected Hutton’s Vireo site, instead choosing to mooch around nearby Stone Oak Park in the mist and drizzle of a mild, damp Sunday morning. I did have an ulterior motive here, with Rufous-crowned Sparrow (another unremarkable life bird) top of the agenda, plus Canyon Wren and the long-staying Say’s Phoebe, all of which made it onto my list with the minimum of fuss.
The drizzle had stopped by the time I got to Panther Springs Park, allowing at least some record shots of the single Hutton’s Vireo I found there, which I first located by song. This bird allowed a close approach but was constantly backlit against the sky or obscured by twigs. The photos below show a comparison with the superficially similar Ruby-crowned Kinglet:
The day before had been a washout, with constant rain all day. I took my wife’s cousin’s kids (triplets!) on an early-morning jaunt to Riverview Park in Seguin, haunt of the long-staying White-breasted Nuthatch. It was a lot of fun but – perhaps predictably with steady rain falling and three ebullient 10-year-olds in tow – not productive for the nuthatch. The kids really enjoyed the birding, though, with the highlight for them being three woodpecker species in the same pecan tree (Ladder-backed, Downy, and Golden-fronted), and for me the Green Kingfisher that flashed past us twice when we were clowning around trying to cross a small stream.
I spent Saturday afternoon trying to take photos of the birds coming to the yard feeders in New Braunfels, and getting almost no usable shots in the very poor light conditions. My best effort was this Chipping Sparrow:
Anyway, it was a satisfying weekend all told, especially considering the limitations imposed by the weather. In a few days I’ll be off on a long weekend down to the lower Rio Grande Valley, which should yield a bunch of year ticks, and hopefully the first stirrings of Texas’s all-important spring migration!
My seemingly eternal focus on sparrows continues, but in stark contrast to last weekend’s failures, this time I succeeded in seeing all four of my target species. This is no mean feat considering that they are all notorious skulkers, and their status is at best uncommon in Texas in winter.
The rarest of them all is Henslow’s Sparrow. This subtly attractive denizen of grasslands probably overwinters annually in Texas in small numbers. However, until this winter it has been a serious “blocker” for many leading Texas listers, with just a scattering of records annually and no reliable locations. That changed early in February when several individuals were discovered at Big Thicket National Park in East Texas, which have been showing intermittently to visiting birders ever since.
Finding these birds proved to be far from straightforward. They feed singly in long grass, and flush at close range, usually flying directly to the nearest patch of Yaupon Holly, into which they dive and completely disappear. For nearly three hours I tramped around in the grass, flushing three “probable” Henslow’s Sparrows, none of which gave me more than the briefest of flight views – enough to raise my suspicions but unfortunately not clinch the identification, let alone provide an opportunity for photos.
I persevered, knowing from photographic evidence on eBird that they do occasionally perch up on a Yaupon Holly for a few moments before diving in. And finally one did just that. It happened to be a very well-marked bird, and in great light, so apart from the unavoidable branches between camera and bird (for this one virtually never poses fully in the open), I got great views as well as some half-decent photos.
Other bird life was disappointingly scarce, but several Sedge Wrens skulked around in the damp grassland, one of which posed briefly for a photo opportunity:
The previous day, I had arrived early at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Reserve, a short ferry ride across from Galveston. The two main enemies to birding on the mid-Texas coast in winter are wind and fog – and if it’s not windy then it is usually foggy. Neither weather phenomenon is very conducive to finding small birds (ie. rare sparrows) in coastal saltmarshes. Today, it was windy. Shorebirds were everywhere, including plenty of the endangered and irresistibly attractive Piping Plover, and also Semipalmated, Snowy, and Black-bellied Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlins and Sanderlings . A handful of Barn Swallows and a Purple Martin, early harbingers of spring, battled the wind as they headed north.
I didn’t rate my chances of finding any interesting small birds in the blustery conditions, but an area of saltmarsh grass adjoining a small beach seemed to be popular with Savannah Sparrows so I decided to take a closer look. After a while, I found a Horned Lark and some American Pipits, and then …. the briefest of views of two sparrows with orange faces, running on the ground, which briefly appeared at the edge of the grass before disappearing again.
I didn’t see these birds again for 15 minutes, until they suddenly popped up on some grass stems, showing quite well. Nelson’s Sparrows, for sure – but my luck deserted me with the camera, and I couldn’t get a single in-focus shot during the 10 seconds the birds were in view. Naturally, as soon as the sparrows dropped down into a partly obscured position, facing the wrong way, the camera decided to play ball.
The nearby 17th Street Jetty is always a good bet for big flocks of American Avocet, as well as other shorebirds, and plenty of weekending fishermen. The jetty – which is made of huge, flat-topped boulders – extends a long way into the Gulf, clipping the corner of some extensive areas of saltmarsh habitat.
Some serious schlepping over the boulders is required to get to the end of the jetty, and I was more than halfway out when I realized I had left my brand new iPhone in full view on my car seat. Cursing my stupidity, I turned around and headed back, only to flush a very interesting-looking small bird from among the boulders, which almost immediately gave itself up for crippling views – Seaside Sparrow! If I had remembered to bring my phone, I wouldn’t have had to turn around, and wouldn’t have seen the bird.
I spent the rest of Saturday at Anahuac NWR, which has to be one of the very best birding spots within easy reach of Houston. This site usually produces at least 60-70 species during a typical mid-winter visit. The best birds today included the long-staying Burrowing Owl, a Palm Warbler of the western race, the male Vermilion Flycatcher still present, and four Stilt Sandpipers with the Long-billed Dowitcher flock. It’s also a great place to get close to common birds, with the car-based birder having numerous opportunities for photography along the Shoveler Pond loop.
I stayed overnight in the “Crystal Meth Motel” in Beaumont, the cheapest night halt available in town. Next time, I will fork out the extra $20 for something halfway acceptable. However, I survived the night, and with the Henslow’s Sparrows safely under the belt (and photographed) at nearby Big Thicket NP by late Sunday morning, I decided to push the envelope and hit up a Bachman’s Sparrow spot about an hour to the north at Sam Rayburn reservoir.
Bachman’s Sparrow, along with Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, is a range-restricted specialist of south-eastern pine forests. However, unlike the woodpecker and nuthatch, it no longer occurs close to Houston – although it is apparently still quite common nearer the Louisiana border.
From my eBird research, one of the closest reliable sites is the entrance road to Ebenezer Park, close to the reservoir spillway. The woods were deathly quiet when I arrived, with hardly a bird to be seen. Wandering up and down the road eventually produced a few Chipping Sparrows and Pine Warblers, a Field Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, and two Brown-headed Nuthatches – expected fare for this kind of habitat. It became clear I would have to enter the forest for a chance of getting my target bird. Expectations were raised when a Bachman’s Sparrow gave a short burst of song, and finally I flushed one out of the understorey which perched up long enough to be identified, but unfortunately wasn’t obliging enough to allow itself to be photographed.
So all in all, a highly successful weekend. I’m running out of “new” winter birds to see within reach of Houston, so I feel a longer-haul trip to the Rio Grande Valley coming on – not to mention the fast-approaching spring migration which is of course legendary in this part of the world!