Peak Migration!

Cape May Warbler
Male Cape May Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

A common sight this spring at migrant hotspots has been birders with their heads bowed, muttering to themselves about how few birds are around compared to usual. I don’t feel exactly the same, as this is my first spring in Texas, and I’ve been steadily adding lifers to my list – but I can understand the frustrations of those who have been here longer than me. It’s true that some sites have been very quiet indeed, while others have had some decent species variety but nothing like the numbers one would expect here in a “good” year.

Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak (and bathing male Orchard Oriole), Sabine Woods, April 16th 2017.

However, it definitely hasn’t all been “doom and gloom”. After three visits, Sabine Woods in Jefferson County in east Texas is already shaping up to be one of my all-time favorite birding destinations. It has all the magic ingredients: a compact, mature woodland in a coastal location surrounded by mile upon mile of coastal marshes. It would be hard to imagine a better-placed migrant trap. Additionally, it has been set up with both birds and birders in mind, with several drips providing fresh water for tired trans-Gulf migrants to drink and bathe, and a network of paths from which all corners of the reserve can be easily viewed.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Sabine Woods, April 16th 2017.

A local birder at Sabine Woods mentioned to me that April is either “good” or “great” at the site, and while I have not yet experienced a classic fallout there, I encountered an excellent range of species on April 16th and 22nd: Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Veery, Grey-cheeked, Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Prothonotary, Swainson’s, Tennessee, Hooded, Cape May, and Yellow Warblers, Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes, and of course the crowd-pleasing colorful ones – Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Indigo and Painted Buntings.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker, White Memorial Park, April 16th 2017.

From Houston, a visit to Sabine Woods can easily be combined in a day trip with a stop at Anahuac NWR in neighboring Chambers county, and this is exactly what I did on April 16th. I started the day in search of an outstandingly attractive lifer, the stunning Red-headed Woodpecker, at a reliable stakeout just off i-10 at the White Memorial Park. This species is usually found at the northern edge of the park, where several dead trees provide nesting holes, and this is where I encountered three individuals engaged in some sort of territorial dispute.

Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule, Anahuac NWR, April 16th 2017.

A few miles down the road towards Anahuac, two Swainson’s Hawks provided a nice fly-by but my photos turned out a lot less impressive than the close views I obtained. I stopped to check the flooded field at the entrance of the Anahuac reserve for shorebirds – I had no intention of going onto the reserve proper today, but when another birder mentioned he had seen no fewer than 5 Least Bitterns on the Shoveler Pond Loop, I changed my mind. However, the only bittern I saw was a flyover American Bittern, although the trip was certainly not a waste of time as several gorgeous Purple Gallinules showed well, and there was the usual assortment of attractive and easily-viewed birds showing from the road around the pond.

Merlin
Merlin, Anahuac NWR Skillern Tract, April 16th 2017.

Anahuac delivered again the following weekend, with a lovely assortment of shorebirds on the reserve entrance field including 2 Hudsonian Godwits, and at least 4 White-rumped Sandpipers. With Wilson’s Phalarope ticked off the following day on Galveston Island, I am gradually getting all those Nearctic wader species safely under the belt that I had only previously seen as vagrants in the UK (or in the case of the Hudsonian Godwit, New Zealand!). Of the regular Texas shorebirds, I now only need Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, both of which I have already seen in the UK, and American Woodcock for my life list, which in my view has only marginal shorebird status!

Dickcissel
Dickcissel, Anahuac NWR, April 22nd 2017.

There was also a Dickcissel on overhead wires along the Anahuac entrance road (lifer), and finally a King Rail obliged me with brief views on the Shoveler Pond loop – which I figured was about time after at least 8 visits to the site.

Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

The day that everyone had been waiting for finally happened on April 23rd, statistically the “peak” of spring migration in Texas. A cold front had passed through late afternoon on Saturday 22nd  – unfortunately too late to bring anything new to the expectant birders at Sabine Woods. However, by Sunday morning the air was distinctly cool and a strong north wind was blowing, stopping migrants in their tracks and heralding a marked change from the sweltering humidity and southerly airflow of the day before.

Scarlet Tanager
Male Scarlet Tanager. Seen at several sites during the period – a real crowd-pleaser!

I literally flipped a coin for my decision over whether to return to Sabine Woods, or head to Lafitte’s Cove in Galveston. Lafitte’s Cove won, first because it’s a lot closer to Houston than Sabine Woods, and second, because a proper rarity had been reported from there on Saturday evening, a Black-whiskered Vireo.

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

I was happy with my decision as soon as I arrived, with numbers of singing Baltimore Orioles, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings all showing well inside the first ten minutes. Things went on from there, with some spectacularly enjoyable birding throughout the day in cool, sunny weather conditions. Not only were the birds great, but the birders were too …. it turned into a thoroughly social occasion, with a rotating cast of at least 40-50 birders in this small wood throughout the day.

Wilson's Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalarope, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

During my 8.5 hour visit, my personal avian highlights included: Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, Wilson’s Phalarope, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed, Warbling, and Black-whiskered Vireos, Grey-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes, Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Prothonotary, Tennessee, Cape May, Magnolia, Yellow, Prairie and Blackpoll Warblers, American Redstart and Northern Parula.

Blackpoll Warbler
Male Blackpoll Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

I was especially pleased to get reasonably good photos of both Cape May and Prairie Warblers, two of the rarer migrants here today. It took the vagrant Black-whiskered Vireo more than six hours to make a proper appearance, but from 2.00pm onwards this distinctly underwhelming bird – somewhat resembling a dull Red-eyed Vireo overall – was showing more or less constantly in bushes near the central water drip, although it was maddeningly difficult to get photos of, and in the end I had no useful images of this bird at all.

Swainson's Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush. This individual was photographed at Edith L Moore Nature Reserve in Houston, but I saw many others during the period at Sabine Woods and Lafitte’s Cove.

Texas 2017 Year List: 297

Texas Life List: 323

World Life List: 2,175

Cape May Warbler2
A second male Cape May Warbler, also present at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, on April 23rd 2017.
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Early Migrants, March 25th-31st

Hermit Thrush2
Hermit Thrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 27th

The small-but-charming Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary on Memorial Drive is not only a very convenient birding location (being just 5 minutes from home and 2 minutes from work!), but is also starting to hint at its potential as a stellar migrant hotspot during spring migration.

The last couple of weeks at the site have produced a scattering of early migrants including Northern Waterthrush (self-found on March 26th and perhaps Harris County’s earliest spring record), Prothonotary, Hooded, Worm-eating, Black-and-White and Wilson’s Warblers, Northern Parula and Eastern Whip-Poor-Will.

Northern Waterthrush1
Northern Waterthrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 26th 2017. Told from the very similar Louisiana Waterthrush (the more regular migrant in March) by a combination of streaked throat, dense streaking below, uniform buff-white underparts, buffish supercilium of even width, short bill and dull legs. To me, Louisiana Waterthrush appears bigger, bolder, longer-billed and cleaner-cut.
Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. A real stunner, and on an early date too.
Chuck Wills-Widow
Eastern Whip-Poor-Will, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. This night bird turns up on migration in small numbers in urban Houston, but connecting with one is a matter of pure luck. This one flushed right after I took this photo, and despite relocating it 2-3 more times I couldn’t get close to it again.

Southerly winds enticing migrants to take off from the Yucatan, coupled with a belt of heavy rain forecast to hit the Gulf Coast late morning, are a potentially excellent combination for a “fallout” of migrants. Conditions looked promising on March 25th – conveniently a Saturday – so I took a trip out to Sabine Woods, on the coast near the Louisiana border. Some would say this is the Texas Gulf Coast’s most exciting migrant hotspot – it is indeed a perfect combination of a mature, isolated forest of manageable size, located within half a mile of the coast.

The forecast rain materialized late morning, bringing with it a nice range of early migrants including 10 warbler species (Black-throated Green, Hooded, Palm [both races], Yellow-throated, Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Northern Parula, and both Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes) – and late in the day both Swainson’s and Worm-eating Warblers were found too although I didn’t see them.

Overall, though, we are still a few weeks too early for the majority of spring migrants. Had this weather combination occurred around April 20th, it could have been an epic rather than merely a good day.

Hooded Warbler2
Male Hooded Warbler, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017.
Brown Thrasher1
Brown Thrasher, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017. A really quite stunning looking bird, which is generally uncommon in Texas, although Sabine Woods has good numbers.

Anahuac NWR – an hour’s drive back towards Houston – rarely disappoints, and on the same day I was able to add both (Hudsonian) Whimbrel and Semipalmated Sandpiper to my USA list, as well as my first Eastern Kingbirds of the spring.

Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017.
Cinnamon Teal
Drake Cinnamon Teal, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017. Up to 6 of these birds have been present for most of the winter, but just one seemed to be still here in late March.

Meanwhile, on my “other” local patch on the outskirts of New Braunfels, Comal County, my list is steadily growing as spring birds arrive, with both Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler back on territory by late March, as well as an army of Black-chinned Hummingbirds constantly chasing each other around the hummingbird feeder.

A good passage migrant on March 31st was a Black-throated Green Warbler, which stayed in the treetops and didn’t allow a clear view, however with patience I did manage a record photo:

Black-throated Green Warbler2
Black-throated Green Warbler, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.
Northern Parula
Northern Parula, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.

Texas 2017 Year List: 251