Sunday Chasing

Elegant Tern
Elegant Tern, Surfside Jetty, December 3rd 2017.

I made a dedicated (some would say crazy) attempt on Sunday to catch up with a number of year ticks and rarities scattered through the coastal Texas counties from Matagorda to Galveston. This involved making a 3.15am start and driving 180 miles from New Braunfels in order to be on the ground in rural Matagorda county at a traditional American Woodcock stakeout at first light. After that gruelling start to a Sunday, I thought that actually seeing the bird would be the easy part, but it was not to be. No sight nor sound of any Woodcocks in just over an hour of waiting and wandering around.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl, Matagorda turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

For a time, it also looked as if I would also dip my second target, Sprague’s Pipit, at a turf farm not far from the Woodcock site. Two hours of patient searching produced a Burrowing Owl and a ton of American Pipits, but no Sprague’s. I was on my way out of the area when I flushed a pipit from the verge which alighted on a nearby bare earth field, revealing its identity and pausing for long enough for me to reel off a couple of photos, before it flew high away uttering its highly distinctive squeaky call.

Spragues Pipit
Sprague’s Pipit, Matagorda County turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

One out of two so far, but I was back to dipping mode in Lake Jackson, my next stop. I bumped into Tony Frank and Brad Lirette as I arrived, who had seen the wintering Black-throated Gray Warbler in Lynn Hay’s backyard just minutes before my arrival. No such luck for me, and bird activity was so low in the area that after an hour I decided that my time might be better spent elsewhere. It was an odd kind of day, very humid and overcast, not the sort of conditions that encourage wintering warblers to be actively feeding or calling. Lynn Hay said that the bird visited the yard perhaps twice a day, and seeing as I had just missed it, it might be a while before it came back. Today I had neither the time nor the patience to settle in for a long wait, as the day’s potential star bird was showing well at Surfside jetty and I was impatient to go and see it.

Elegant Tern is an extremely rare visitor to Texas. The two individuals in July on North Padre Island were “unblockers” for a lot of seasoned Texas listers. I couldn’t find sufficient motivation back in the height of summer to make the eight-hour round trip drive to go and see those birds. Fortunately, fate (and finder Arman Moreno) brought many Houston-based birders an early Christmas present in the form of a first-year Elegant Tern fishing along the jetty at Surfside in Brazoria county.

Elegant Tern2
Elegant Tern, Surfside jetty, December 3rd 2017.

It was surprising to me how similar this bird was to the nearby Royal Terns in flight. Sure, there are subtle distinctions in size and build, and the bill of Elegant is definitely longer, thinner and a deeper orange-red compared to Royal, but overall it was very similar and I am sure a lot of birders would have simply overlooked it. No doubt it would have been relatively easy to pick it out among resting terns lined up on a beach, but this was an impressive find at this location as the bird was only ever seen in flight.

After getting my fill of the Elegant Tern, I drove north-east towards Galveston, stopping at San Luis Pass for a fairly easy encounter with the long-staying Fish Crow. The rule with crows is to look for the dumpsters and the local Great-tailed Grackle flock, and sure enough, my target bird was among them. It even posed for a photo while it took a late lunch of an item of trash. Not a year tick, the Fish Crow is fairly common at the edge of its range in easternmost Texas, but is almost unheard-of further west.

Fish Crow
Fish Crow, San Luis Pass, Brazoria county, December 3rd 2017.

The afternoon was becoming very gloomy and even foggy. I figured it was a waste of time sticking around on Galveston. Hindsight proved me wrong, and had I checked Texbirds or eBird I would have noticed that the Tamaulipas Crow had been relocated at East Beach. Instead I opted to head home via Randolph Park in Friendswood, where a Brown Creeper has been regularly seen for several weeks in the same small area of parkland. It felt almost like twilight when I arrived, with very gloomy conditions and almost no bird activity. However, after I while I managed to locate a very subdued mixed feeding flock, and several times I heard the distinctive high-pitched call of my target bird, but it took a good 20 minutes before I was able to catch sight of it. The ensuing record photo, in conditions of near darkness, is a contender for the worst bird photo I have ever taken, but with a little imagination the distinctive shape of a Brown Creeper can just about be discerned towards the right hand side of the image.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper (honest!), Randolph Park, Harris county, December 3rd 2017. Look towards the right hand side of the trunk, not far above the protruding branch.

Overall it was a cracking day with a lifer (Elegant Tern) and two year ticks (Sprague’s Pipit and Brown Creeper) putting me on 391 species for the year in Texas. All being well, next week’s West Texas clean-up should comfortably slingshot me past the magic 400 mark.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler in New Braunfels, Comal county, December 2nd 2017.
Advertisements

Getting Closer to 400!

Bald Eagle
Adult Bald Eagle at San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

A handful of nice year birds over the last few weeks have helped me inch slowly closer to my target of 400 species in Texas in 2017. I took full advantage of the first day of “winter” on October 29th, when temperatures plunged as low as 1C (34F) at dawn, to head down to Brazoria County – my new favorite day trip from Houston.

Anhinga
Anhinga, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

A crisp, sunny San Bernard NWR was absolutely teeming with birds (70 species logged), with lots of new winter arrivals in on the cold front, including no fewer than 5 species flagged by eBird as needing further description. Notable among these were a female Hooded Merganser and a very late Least Bittern. It was especially pleasing to get an excellent photo of an Ash-throated Flycatcher, showing its distinctive undertail pattern, which although not flagged in eBird is a scarce bird in this part of Texas:

Ash-throated Flycatcher2
Ash-throated Flycatcher, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

Late morning I drove the relatively short distance to Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, a lovely, peaceful small reserve which today was well stocked with a great range of late migrants. Outstanding among these was a Clay-colored Sparrow, associating with a White-crowned Sparrow and several Lincoln’s Sparrows. The sparrow flock kept returning to feed on the short grass of the sanctuary pathways but the birds were extremely wary, diving back into cover at the slightest hint of danger, and it took quite some time before I was able to get passable photos to confirm the identification. Clay-colored Sparrow is a migrant mainly through Central Texas, and is very uncommon on the Upper Texas Coast with just a handful of records annually.

Clay-colored Sparrow5
Clay-colored Sparrow, Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, October 29th 2017.

The following weekend I was back in New Braunfels, and with a report of several Lark Buntings at South Evans Road Lake on the Saturday – just an hour’s drive away – I decided to try for these birds early on Sunday. This was another spot with really high levels of bird activity, and finally I located two splendid Lark Buntings in a bare field alongside the road. Say’s Phoebe was another good one to find here.

Lark Bunting
Lark Buntings, South Evans Road, Bexar County, November 5th 2017.

I detoured back via Wilson County, as I had never birded that county before, where I grabbed some opportunistic photos of a Peregrine. Shortly afterwards, at about 10.05am, I passed through the small village of Sutherland Springs, one hour and fifteen minutes before Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on a church congregation, killing 26 people. The shooter came from New Braunfels and there was every chance I passed him on the road as I headed back that way. I hope this is as close as I ever get to such a horrifying and tragic event.

Peregrine
Peregrine near Sutherland Springs, Wilson County, November 5th 2017.

A beautiful cool, crisp winter day on November 14th tempted me to take my lunch hour in Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, just two minutes down the road from my place of work in Houston. This turned out to be an excellent decision, with a Winter Wren found and photographed at the boardwalk near the cabin. Finally, one of Texas’s tiniest birds was safely on my list – Winter Wren is an uncommon and somewhat tricky-to-find winter visitor to eastern parts of the state. This bird was still present at the time of writing on November 21st and being seen intermittently for birders trying for it, so perhaps it will remain throughout the winter.

Winter Wren
Winter Wren, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, November 14th 2017.

Late in the afternoon of Friday 17th November, news broke of a Sabine’s Gull at Kemah Boardwalk. A less likely birding hotspot can hardly be imagined – this place is a theme park complete with noisy rollercoasters, restaurants and bars, and hundreds of members of the non-birding general public. On the plus side, non-birders do have a tendency to enjoy feeding the birds (despite the posted signs warning them not to!), and when I arrived at the site on Saturday afternoon the Sabine’s Gull was scavenging some easy pickings alongside the local Laughing Gulls. On several occasions, it passed the boardwalk at handrail height, so close I could have reached out and touched it. In any case, it was too close to even get a decent photo with my camera – I probably would have gotten better results with my iPhone – although out of my many attempts there were at least a couple of acceptable record shots:

Sabines Gull4
Sabine’s Gull, Kemah Boardwalk, November 18th 2017.
Sabines Gull5
Sabine’s Gull, Kemah Boardwalk, November 18th 2017.

It was something of a relief to get this bird so easily, as gulls can be unpredictable and it was lucky the bird decided to remain for a second day. Sabine’s Gull was an excellent way to mark the milestone of my 400th species in Texas – and considering the location, there was of course a bar very close by in which to celebrate in the excellent company of my wife Jenna and birding pal James Rieman!

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017.

I headed west to the Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve early on Sunday, in the hopes of connecting with Sprague’s Pipit for the year list, as well as having perhaps a 10% chance of seeing one of the chickens that give the reserve its name. The Attwater’s Prairie Chickens here have been relocated from former coastal prairie, and represent the only remaining population of this species in the world. Purists wouldn’t count them on their lists, but according to the ABA they are perfectly acceptable. Anyway, I was spared having to wrestle with any ethical listing dilemmas as I didn’t see a Prairie Chicken. Unfortunately I didn’t connect with any Sprague’s Pipits either. Still, it was a beautiful cold and sunny morning, and sparrows of eight species were begging me to photograph them – including the often-tricky Le Conte’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, which I managed just-about-acceptable record shots of:

LeContes Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. In my limited experience this skulking species is very responsive to pishing, and this bird jumped straight out of the grass and into a nearby bush as soon as the first “psh psh” escaped my lips. Getting a photo was another matter because the bird invariably kept itself partly concealed by twigs, despite showing well. Very strong early morning sunlight is another obvious factor in this shot!
Grasshopper Sparrow2
Grasshopper Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. This individual sat up on the fence for ages, but I was just a little bit too far away to get a clear shot.
Vesper Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. Again, not quite as sharp as I wanted,  but I couldn’t fault the bird for posing obligingly for several minutes!
Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. A much sharper photo, despite the bird being in view for just a fraction of a second.

Finally, it has been a bumper late autumn for birds in the yard of my in-laws’ weekend home in New Braunfels, Comal County. The winter visitors are back, and species counts over a typical 1 to 2 hour birding session regularly exceed 35, with 46 species seen on one morning last weekend.

Zone-tailed Hawk1
Zone-tailed Hawk, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017.

Recent “firsts for the yard” include a long-awaited Zone-tailed Hawk for two consecutive days, hanging out in tall cypresses beside the river; up to 4 Pine Siskins flocking with American and Lesser Goldfinches; at least one Spotted Towhee apparently settled in for the winter in a thicket in the front yard; an extremely late (or overwintering?) Chestnut-sided Warbler; and most bizarre of all – though not countable on my list! – an Orange-cheeked Waxbill, which presumably hopped out of a cage somewhere locally.

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017.
Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee, seen at Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels on various dates in November.

Finally, a pair of Green Kingfishers on the adjacent Guadelupe River seem to be nest-building in a sandy bank – I wonder what tiny percentage of birders in the US can claim to have this species breeding in their back yard?

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017 – a new bird for my yard list.
Orange-cheeked Waxbill
Orange-cheeked Waxbill, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017. Unringed and wary, but definitely originating from a cage!

New birds added: Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Winter Wren, Sabine’s Gull, Pine Siskin.

Total Texas 2017 year list: 388

Total Texas life list: 400

Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.
Sedge Wren
Sedge Wren, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017. This bird is numerous in Texas coastal grasslands in winter, and although a skulker it responds well to “pishing”.
Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

Franklin’s Gull, October 22nd

Franklins Gull2
First-winter Franklin’s Gull, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

Today I was on the hunt for Franklin’s Gull, a regular migrant through Texas but not an easy bird to find on the Upper Texas Coast. In spring, it seems to be a case of being in the right place at the right time, as migrants pass through quickly on their way north. On their return journey in late fall, individuals or groups may linger on the coast with flocks of Laughing Gulls.

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

The San Luis Pass at the far south-western end of Galveston Island has regular records of this species in October and November, so this seemed to be an excellent place to start looking. I approached from the Brazoria County end, and on the way up the Blue Water Highway I enjoyed a fiery sunrise. The weather was sultry, humid, and completely still, with temperatures already hovering around 80F (27C) by 8.00am – warm for the time of year.

Sunrise2
Sunrise on the Blue Water Highway, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

A quick stop at the Kelly Hamby nature trail proved worthwhile, with two Palm Warblers seen well (and one bird photographed). This is an uncommon migrant and scarce winter visitor in Texas. I was getting absolutely ravaged by mosquitoes at this location, so after 15 minutes it was a relief to get back into the car.

Palm Warbler1
Record shot of one of two Palm Warblers at the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

I drove a short distance to the San Luis Pass County Park, still on the Brazoria side of the pass. This was a really productive site, with an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull loafing among the Laughing Gulls, and plenty of birds to look at including a lone winter-plumaged Red Knot, several American Oystercatchers, and a Long-billed Curlew. Curiously, all the shorebirds allowed a very close approach – seemingly they are well used to the large numbers of fishermen and other members of the general public also using this site.

Lesser Black Backed Gull
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (with Laughing Gulls), San Luis County Park, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017. An increasing visitor to coastal Texas.
Red Knot2
Red Knot, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This can often be a hard bird to find in coastal Texas, probably reflecting its sharp global decline.
American Oystercatcher
American Oystercatchers, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. Present in small numbers all along the upper Texas coast, but never common.
Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This bird was unusually confiding and allowed a close approach.

I happened to know that just 50 miles to the north, a powerful weather front with high winds and heavy rain was pounding Houston. It was exciting to watch the gradual approach of heavy, pendulous black clouds from the north. Even though I was expecting it, the front’s arrival was very dramatic. One moment it was completely calm, and the next, gusting winds lifted the sand off the beach and whipped up white-tipped waves on the sea. The temperature plunged from 81F (27C) to 64F (18C) in the space of just a few minutes, and lightning started crashing down to accompany the horizontal driving rain.

Galveston Bridge
Arrival of the weather front at San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Birding was out of the question while the weather front was doing its thing, so I drove across the bridge onto Galveston and waited it out. As soon as the rain stopped, I wandered around Lafitte’s Cove for an hour, where there was no evidence whatsoever of a front-induced fallout of late migrants. I hadn’t forgotten my Franklin’s Gull quest, so I retraced my steps back to San Luis Pass, this time on the Galveston side of the bridge. There was just one modestly-sized flock of perhaps 40 Laughing Gulls here, and a quick scan did not reveal my target bird. Still, the sun was shining now and conditions were very pleasant, so I lingered in this spot for a while to see if anything turned up. Just before leaving, I had another very careful look through the gull flock, and suddenly I found what I had been looking for – a lone first-winter Franklin’s Gull.

Franklins Gull1
First-winter Franklin’s Gull, with adult winter Forster’s Tern in the foreground, and several Laughing Gulls, illustrating the size difference, San Luis Pass, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

This was only my second-ever Franklin’s – my first being one at Cheddar Reservoir in England more than 17 years ago – and I have to admit that it didn’t leap out at me the way I thought it would. Sure, it seemed noticeably smaller and “cuter” than the surrounding Laughing Gulls, but this distinction was subtle rather than obvious. With prolonged observation in excellent light, I gradually familiarized myself with the bird and the differences began to stand out more, things like the extensive dark hood, swollen white eyelids, shorter legs, and daintier and less drooping bill than Laughing Gull.

Black-bellied Plover
Black-bellied Plover, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

With my target bird clinched and photographed, I returned to Brazoria County across the bridge, and as I passed Freeport I spotted a large flock of perhaps 350 Laughing Gulls loafing in a gravel parking lot. Stopping for a quick look revealed at least 4 adult Franklin’s Gulls among their number, so in the end I was able to get Franklin’s Gull at two locations in two different counties – a most satisfying way to pick up a personal Texas first!

Franklins Gull3
Adult Franklin’s Gull near Freeport, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Finally, I decided to drop in at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, to see if any birds were active after the passing of the front, now that the weather was once again clear and sunny with much lower humidity than early this morning. I had never visited this site before – it is known to be a hotspot in the spring, and it is certainly prepared with the birds in mind, with several blinds and water holes and a nice variety of trees and bushes for tired migrants in a very compact area.

Beach at San Luis
The beach at San Luis, Brazoria County, ahead of the dramatic weather front on October 22nd 2017.

I spent an hour here and birds were very flighty and elusive, but I eventually racked up a few migrants including an Eastern Wood-Pewee, an American Redstart and a Blue Grosbeak. I’ll be sure to come back to Quintana in spring – like most wooded sites along the Upper Texas Coast it should be a good bet for a large variety of warblers, vireos, tanagers etc.

2017 Texas Year List: 383

Black-crowned Night Heron
Adult Black-crowned Night Heron, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, September 23rd-24th

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Estero Llano Grande SP, September 23rd 2017.

It’s possible to pack quite a lot into a weekend when you put your mind to it. Late Friday afternoon I drove from Houston to Rockport to meet my old pal Jason Loghry, who I had not seen since I lived in South Korea in 2009-11. After a few hours sleep we headed to Laredo, on the Mexican border. We were at the Max A Mandel golf course by first light on Saturday.

Red-billed Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon, Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd. One of only a handful of US locations for this tropical species, whose range seemingly extends just a few hundred yards into the country along the Texas/Mexico border.

I’ve never birded by golf cart before and it was fun, and after a bit of searching we found our target birds Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater, while trying to avoid getting in the way of Mexican gangsters (or so it seemed) who were playing a golf tournament.

Birding by golf cart
Birding by golf cart …. a novel experience!

We also had an interesting bird here that appeared to be a very early Brewer’s Blackbird, a species that does not usually show up in Texas until much later in the fall. However, something about the bird was not quite “right” and after review of the photos (and consultation with local expert Mary Gustafson) we concluded that it was a Great-tailed Grackle that had not yet grown its long tail back after its molt. Apart from the bill being a little chunkier than normal for a Brewer’s Blackbird, it resembled one extremely closely:

Brewers Blackbird3
Great-tailed Grackle (with a Killdeer in the foreground), Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd 2017.

Later, we followed the course of the Rio Grande southwards, stopping in at a gorgeous and extremely hot Salineño, where the shade temperature peaked at 107 degrees F (41 degrees C) at 3.00pm. This site yielded distant views of Ringed Kingfisher, several Hooded and lots of stunning Baltimore Orioles, and a scattering of migrants including Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Rio Grande at Salineno
Rio Grande at Salineno, September 23rd 2017. A brutally hot day for late September.

We continued south and by late afternoon we were at Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the best nature reserves in Texas, where we stayed until dark. It was Jason’s first visit to this wonderful reserve and as usual there was an excellent range of species to be seen including the ever-popular stake-outs at their usual spots here – Common Pauraque and Eastern Screech-Owl.

Estero Llano Grande
Late afternoon in paradise …. the Estero Llano Grande State Park, September 23rd 2017.

After dinner, we drove out into the boonies and set up camp for the night. By pure chance we ended up camping beside a nature reserve, the Sal de Rey. Eastern Screech-Owls and a Great Horned Owl were calling nearby during the night, and at dawn on Sunday a flock of Lesser Nighthawks hawked insects overhead. Two Royal Terns flew over, very rare inland, and we easily found our target Cassin’s Sparrow (and a photogenic Groove-billed Ani) in this area.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani near the Sal de Rey, September 24th 2017.

While it was still early, we drove for 45 minutes towards the coast to a known Botteri’s Sparrow site. It is getting a bit late in the year for these summer visitors, but when we heard one calling briefly, we knew they must still be around. Sure enough, eventually a male started singing, and after much persistence we both managed some good (albeit brief) views of this most skulking of sparrows. It was beginning to get hot and by lunchtime we were on the road back north.

1,000 miles driven, c.110 bird species seen including 7 year ticks, bringing my 2017 Texas year list to 381, just 19 away from my target of 400. A great weekend and wonderful to catch up with my old friend.

Lifer: Botteri’s Sparrow (total 2,228).
USA ticks: Red-billed Pigeon, White-collared Seedeater (total 437).
2017 Texas year ticks: Lesser Nighthawk, Gray Hawk, Ringed Kingfisher, Cassin’s Sparrow (total 381).

Swainsons Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk at the Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd 2017.

Big Bend NP and West Texas, May 27th-31st

Big Bend Scene2
One of Big Bend NP’s many stunning landscapes.

With five days to play with at the end of May, and migration in this part of the world almost completely finished for the season, I decided an excellent course of action would be to make the long trip out to West Texas for the first time. This is no small undertaking, as distances in Texas are vast – from Houston to Big Bend National Park doesn’t look like much on a map, but in fact amounts to 630 miles, or about 10 hours of driving. For European birders, this is the equivalent of driving from Plymouth to Inverness, or from Paris to Barcelona.

Chisos Basin Approach
The road to the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park. Surrounded by endless expanses of low-lying desert, the basin is a green mountain oasis at around 6,000 feet above sea level, supporting a huge range of resident and transient wildlife.

A rental car is a sensible option for this kind of journey, and as luck would have it, I got a free upgrade at the rental office from my pre-booked economy car to a small SUV. Seeing as my plan was to sleep in the car for the four nights of the trip, this was welcome news indeed.

101 Degrees
Day one, Big Bend National Park. The air temperature at 6.00pm was still hovering around 101 degrees F (39 degrees C). Fortunately, a cool front passed through overnight and the following days were much more comfortable.

I hit the road west at 5.00am on Saturday morning, with my first major stop after about 300 miles being the South Llano State Park. This is an excellently managed small reserve, with several bird blinds from which many interesting species can be seen – including the main specialty of the site, the range-restricted, endangered Black-capped Vireo. After just a five-minute wait at the first bird blind, an immaculately-plumaged Black-capped Vireo came down for a drink and I was able to fire off a few record shots – although the focus was not quite as sharp as I would have liked.

Black-capped Vireo
Black-capped Vireo, South Llano State Park, May 27th 2018.

Other birds seen at close quarters from the blind included Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted Bunting, and Black-throated, Field, and Lark Sparrows.

Painted Bunting
Female Painted Bunting – a subtly attractive bird without the over-the-top gaudiness of the male. For some reason, male Painted Buntings are allergic to my camera and despite plenty of close views at South Llano SP, none of my shots came out any good at all.
Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow. This species is not found at all in East Texas, although it is very common in arid scrublands further west.

It was early afternoon by the time I reached the Fort Lancaster Overlook, which Sheridan Coffey had informed me was a good spot for Gray Vireo. Unfortunately it was the exact wrong time of day to find one – it was extremely hot and quite breezy up there at the top of the canyon, with very little bird activity – but the stop proved well worthwhile with several Zone-tailed Hawks gliding overhead. Zone-tailed Hawk closely resembles the abundant Turkey Vulture, but can readily be distinguished by the broad white band on the tail. They are uncommon in Texas and in fact often associate with Turkey Vultures – it is possible they evolved to resemble the relatively harmless vultures as a way of getting closer to their prey.

Scaled Quail
Scaled Quail. Seen all over the place in the west, especially along roadsides. This one was in the Chisos Basin, Big Bend NP, on May 29th 2017.

Further west, the landscape becomes increasingly more barren and rugged. I left the interstate highway behind and took a more scenic and remote route to Marathon via Dryden and Sanderson. At one point, I drove for 60 miles without seeing another car nor any sign of human incursion on the land – apart from the endless smooth asphalt, of course. It pays to keep the gas tank topped up out here, and I was careful to not let it drop below half full. Alongside the road, some typical western species started to appear more regularly, birds such as Greater Roadrunner and Say’s Phoebe. Just outside Marathon I had my first Cassin’s Kingbird and Scaled Quails of the trip.

Big Bend Entrance
Big Bend National Park entrance, south of Marathon.

I didn’t have a definite plan for Big Bend National Park, but it was extremely hot in the late afternoon, and I decided that my best prospect for a good night’s sleep in the car would be at higher altitudes where the air would hopefully be cooler. The Chisos Basin is simply an amazing place, a bowl of oak forest and green meadows at over 6,000 feet protected by tall mountains and crags. It is the only US location for Colima Warbler, and also supports a big range of other birds plus bears and mountain lions. It is also very popular with hikers – and busy on this Memorial Day weekend – so I decided a very early start would be needed the next day in order to hike up to Colima Warbler habitat before the passing foot traffic got too heavy.

Before nightfall, I spent an hour wandering around the lodges area, and enjoyed some colorful and charismatic birds including Varied Bunting, Cactus Wren, Scott’s Oriole, and Acorn Woodpecker.

Acorn Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker. This one was in the Davis Mountains, but it was also numerous in the Chisos Basin at Big Bend National Park. This is a common bird in some states of the US, but in Texas only just makes it into the far west.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep in the back of my rented Jeep Compass, I was on the Pinnacles Trail by 6.45am for a steady climb up the mountain. While there were definitely birds of interest from time to time along the route, they were not abundant and species variety was lower than I had been expecting. Nonetheless, some easy lifers presented themselves: White-throated Swift, Mexican Jay, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Once into the correct oak habitat for Colima Warbler, especially along Boot Canyon Trail and the aptly-named Colima Trail, they proved to be fairly common, and one particular singing bird allowed a close approach:

Colima Warbler2
Colima Warbler, Big Bend NP (Chisos Basin), May 28th 2017.

Other interesting birds seen during my 10-mile hike included Hepatic Tanager, Western Wood-Pewee, and a Willow Flycatcher, while Mexican Jays and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were simply abundant, although bird activity declined sharply once the heat started to build in the late morning.

Western Wood Pewee
Western Wood-Pewee, Big Bend NP (Chisos Basin), May 28th 2017.

I went for a drive in the afternoon down as far as the Mexican border at Rio Grande Village, with the best bird a Common Black Hawk, which I would have driven right past had it not been for the sign telling me it was there:

Common Black Hawk Nesting Area
Common Black Hawk (on the dead branch in the background), which I would have missed completely while driving past had it not been for the handy sign.

Sheridan had told me of another excellent site, the water treatment plant below the Chisos Basin campsite, which was a good bet for the special hummingbirds of the region. It soon became obvious why: the outfall from the plant created a small stream that not only provided a constant source of running water in this dry area, but also allowed for the proliferation of some hummingbird-friendly vegetation.

However, hummingbirds were far from abundant even at this favored location – I saw just three individuals, but fortunately they constituted one of each of my target species: Broad-tailed, Lucifer, and the splendid Blue-throated Hummingbird:

Blue-throated Hummingbird
Blue-throated Hummingbird, Chisos Basin Water Treatment Plant, May 29th 2017. A relatively large and very impressive species!

Among the other birds taking advantage of the stream were a late migrant MacGillivray’s Warbler and several Indigo Buntings, which might have been slightly out of their normal range as they were flagged in eBird:

Indigo Bunting
Male Indigo Bunting, Chisos Basin Water Treatment Plant, May 29th 2017.

It was hard to drag myself away from this bird-filled spot but I had a key target to look for – Lucy’s Warbler – at the Cottonwood Campsite in Castolon, which is still within Big Bend NP but some 40 road miles from the Chisos Basin. Unfortunately I left it a bit late, and didn’t arrive at the campsite until late morning, by which time the Lucy’s Warblers weren’t singing and proved impossible to locate in windy conditions in the tall cottonwood trees.

There were lots of other birds to see here, however, including numerous Vermilion Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, and a tricky oriole which I decided in the end was a young male Orchard Oriole and not the hoped-for Hooded Oriole.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe, Big Bend NP Cottonwood Campsite, May 29th 2017.

With the heat of the day fast approaching, I had to choose whether to wait it out and have another crack at Lucy’s Warbler in the late afternoon or early the next day, or use the “dead time” to drive somewhere else. With a number of new birds available in the Davis Mountains, 2.5 hours to the north, the decision was an easy one. Along the route, some interesting birds were spotted including Chihuahuan Raven and Burrowing Owl, and several attractive picnic areas that were dripping with birds including a very late migrant Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler. This distinctive and beautiful bird looks highly likely to be re-split from the (in my opinion) rather more prosaic-looking eastern Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler later this year.

The weather looked iffy higher in the mountains when I arrived at the tiny and cell-phone reception-free town of Fort Davis, prompting me to make what turned out to be an excellent spur-of-the-moment decision to stay in the lowlands and continue north to Lake Balmorhea. I knew Clark’s Grebe could be seen here, but I was surprised to also find Western Grebe, as the range map in the field guide shows them as being present at this site only in winter:

Western Grebe
Western Grebe, Lake Balmorhea, May 29th 2017.

I also lucked out with a Phainopepla, an enigmatic and sought-after West Texas bird which I wasn’t expecting to see here, and a handsome male Bullock’s Oriole right next to the road.

Davis Mountains
Davis Mountains scenery, May 30th 2017.

The Davis Mountains State Park provided an excellent night halt and I even sneaked in to the camping area to use the showers, which was much-needed as my only “shower” in the last three days had been a late afternoon bathe in the Rio Grande. The next morning I started out at the Lawrence Wood picnic area, one of the few areas where some of the high-altitude forest habitat of the Davis Mountains can be accessed.

It was surprisingly cold here at 6.45am, with temperatures of around 48 degrees F (9 degrees C), but bird activity was high and I saw several species here that are hard to see elsewhere in Texas: White-breasted Nuthatch, Plumbeous Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, and Western Bluebird. I happened to locate the nests of both Plumbeous Vireo and Western Bluebird, the former incubating eggs and the latter feeding young at a tree hole nesting site.

The rest of the day turned out a little less successfully, as I couldn’t find a way to get close to any other areas of good habitat. I did however find a man-made pond next to Highway 118 which had a succession of birds coming in to drink, and an hour’s watching from the car here produced Violet-Green Swallow, Black-chinned Sparrow, Cassin’s Kingbird, Bushtit and Canyon Towhee among plenty of commoner species.

In the late afternoon I started the long drive back east. My overnight halt was at the Fort Lancaster overlook, where I had unsuccessfully looked for Gray Vireo a few days previously. Even at first light the next day, it took more than 2 hours to finally locate a pair of Gray Vireos a short distance up the road from the parking area. However, perhaps even more satisfying than eventually seeing Gray Vireo was finding a Rock Wren, a bird that until now had mysteriously eluded me in Texas – and a fitting end to a highly successful trip.

Rock Wren
Rock Wren, Fort Lancaster overlook, May 31st 2017.

World Life List: 2,212
USA Life List: 409
2017 Texas Year List: 357

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.

LRGV and coastal Texas, March 11th-13th

Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler, Holt Paradise Pond (Port Aransas), March 13th 2017.

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.

Louisiana Waterthrush2
Louisiana Waterthrush, Falfurrias Rest Area, March 11th 2017.

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.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler, Falfurrias Rest Area, March 11th 2017.

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 ……

Eastern Screech-Owl
Eastern (McCall’s) Screech Owl, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017.

….. and this Common Pauraque, which most likely holds the honor of being Texas’s most photographed bird:

Common Pauraque
Common Pauraque, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017.

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:

Black-chinned Hummingbird2
Black-chinned Hummingbird, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017.

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:

Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole, Santa Ana NWR, March 12th 2017.

…. 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.

Harris Hawk
Harris’s Hawk, Santa Ana NWR, March 12th 2017.

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:

Couchs Kingbird
Couch’s Kingbird. This individual was photographed at Santa Ana NWR but I saw them at most sites in the LGRV. Note the thick-based and relatively short bill, and overall green tone to the mantle.
Tropical Kingbird
Tropical Kingbird, Anzalduas Park, March 12th 2017. Much scarcer than Couch’s Kingbird in the LRGV. Note the relatively long and thin-based bill, and grayer tone to the mantle compared to Couch’s Kingbird. The plumage differences are subtle, and voice is definitely the best way to distinguish the two species.

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.

Wilsons Plover2
Wilson’s Plover, Kennedy Causeway, Nueces County, March 13th 2017.

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:

Long-billed Dowitcher2
Long-billed Dowitcher, Port Aransas Nature Preserve, March 13th 2017.

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).

USA ticks: Wild Turkey, Louisiana Waterthrush, Wilson’s Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper (total 317).

2017 Texas Year Ticks: Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Clay-colored Thrush, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Common Pauraque, Eastern Screech Owl, White-tipped Dove, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Plain Chachalaca, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Altamira Oriole, Olive Sparrow, Tropical Kingbird, Sandwich Tern, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Flicker (total 232).

Plain Chachalaca
Plain Chachalacas, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017. When these guys are at your bird table, nothing else gets a look-in!

Red River Island, Hanoi, April 20th-May 1st

IMG_6115 (2)
Chinese Hwamei, a bird that has been hunted to near-extinction in Vietnam, but which turns up occasionally in Hanoi. This bird was singing loudly on my balcony one morning, within earshot of the Red River Island, and I saw another later the same morning in the North Wood. We must assume the origins of these two to be dubious at best!

I visited the Red River Island on eight mornings between April 20th and May 1st, spending almost all of my time in the North Wood and surrounding areas of grassland and farmland. Happily no one seemed to be bird-hunting in the area during the period, and the destruction of the North Wood has been temporarily suspended. In fact, one good strip of habitat in the wood is still completely untouched – I was told that the family who own this strip haven’t got around to cutting it down yet. The felling of the remaining trees seems inevitable but I am crossing my fingers that they wait just a couple more weeks until spring migration is over ….

On the negative side, the overgrown field immediately to the west of the North Wood – a favorite recent haunt of Japanese Quail – has now been destroyed and planted with crops, and a decent patch of trees and scrub to the south – which hosted a male Siberian Thrush early in the period – was bulldozed overnight to become just another bare earth field.

IMG_6123
Yet more habitat destruction on the Red River Island. Until a week ago, this was an interesting patch of trees and scrub which hosted a male Siberian Thrush on April 21st.

Full sightings list from my visits on April 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 27th, 29th, and May 1st:

Japanese Quail – one flushed on 20th and 23rd  in the now-destroyed overgrown field next to the North Wood.
Asian Openbill – a flock of 42 soaring over the Red River on 23rd.
Striated Heron – one in the North Wood on 27th.
Cattle Egret – single bird on 21st and 23rd.
Chinese Pond Heron – peak count of 10 on 21st.
Black-shouldered Kite – resident, 1-2 birds seen most visits.
Japanese Sparrowhawk – male hunting in North Wood on 23rd.
Chinese Sparrowhawk – male over on 27th.
Eurasian Hobby – one over the North Wood on 1st.
White-breasted Waterhen – single bird around the edges of the North Wood on two dates.
Ruddy-breasted Crake – heard singing near the North Wood on 20th but not seen.
Grey-headed Lapwing – one poorly photographed on 29th in farmland south-east of the North Wood.
Little Ringed Plover – 1-2 seen most visits.
Common Sandpiper – occasional singles.
Common Greenshank – flock of 11 on the Red River sandbar on 20th, single still present on 22nd and 23rd.
Barred Buttonquail – scarce resident, one south-east of the North Wood on 1st.
Oriental Turtle Dove – four on 21st and one on 22nd.
Red Collared Dove – seen on most visits with a peak count of 8 on 27th.
Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon – single male on 21st and 23rd. Now four records in the North Wood this spring. All the birds have appeared very uniform yellow-green below with no hint of a white or whitish belly.
Spotted Dove – one on 29th.
Chestnut-winged Cuckoo – one on 1st.
Large Hawk Cuckoo – one in the North Wood on 21st and 22nd.
Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo – one showed very well in the North Wood on 25th.
Oriental Cuckoo – singles on 21st and 23rd.
Indian Cuckoo – one singing on 1st, 0.4km south of the North Wood, but not seen.
Plaintive Cuckoo – commonly heard, occasionally seen.
Greater Coucal – common resident, more often heard than seen.
Lesser Coucal – singles seen on two dates during the period.
Grey Nightjar – one in North Wood on 27th, my personal third record of the spring here.
Germain’s Swiftlet – five over on 29th.
Black-capped Kingfisher – single on three dates.
Pied Kingfisher – common resident, peak count of 5 on 29th.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike – 1-2 on three dates.
Tiger Shrike – male on 25th.
Burmese Shrike – common migrant throughout April but not seen since 27th. Peak count of 4 on 25th.
Brown Shrike – becoming more numerous as Burmese Shrike declines, peak count of 6 on 1st.
Black-naped Oriole – seen on most dates with a peak count of 10 on 23rd.
Black Drongo – 12 passing through on 23rd during a morning of heavy drongo passage.
Ashy Drongo – common migrant with a peak count of 10 on 23rd.
Hair-crested Drongo – common on most dates during the period with a peak count of 65 during very heavy rain on 22nd.
Crow-billed Drongo – at least two on 27th, and some distant drongos flying through on this date may also have been this species.
White-throated Fantail – resident in the Hanoi area, 1-2 occasionally seen in North Wood.
Black-naped Monarch – 1-2 on most dates.
Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher – male on 25th.
Amur Paradise-Flycatcher – two females on 27th, told from Blyth’s by sharp demarcation between black throat and grey breast.
Red-billed Blue Magpie – resident in the area, up to four seen on most dates.
Grey-throated Martin – just one bird recorded during the period.
Barn Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 6 on 21st.
Red-rumped Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 5 on 23rd.
Japanese Tit – one on several dates in patch of trees south of the North Wood.
Sooty-headed Bulbul – up to five on several dates.
Red-whiskered Bulbul – three on 21st was the only record during the period.
Light-vented Bulbul – just one record of one bird on 1st.
Dusky Warbler – common migrant with a high count of 15 on 22nd.
Radde’s Warbler – less common than Dusky. Up to three on most dates.
Yellow-browed Warbler – sharp decline during the period, from 7 on 21st to none at all on 1st.
Arctic Warbler – three on 29th and five on 1st, with several birds in song.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler – single(s) on five dates. This species prefers more enclosed forest and is usually 4-6 feet off the ground.
Eastern Crowned Warbler – one on 20th and three on 25th.
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler – regular migrant throughout April but not seen since 22nd.
Grey-crowned Warbler – on 22nd, one seen and a second individual heard, distinctive soft double-note call.
Bianchi’s Warbler – one on 20th. Distinctive call, a soft, slightly cracked-sounding “heu”. Other seicercus warblers seen during the period didn’t call, so ID not certain, but they resembled Bianchi’s in plumage with greenish forehead and crown-stripes not extending to bill base.
Thick-billed Warbler – one on 22nd, then a noticeable increase late in the period with two on 29th and four on 1st.
Black-browed Reed Warbler – a common migrant throughout the period, often heard singing, with a high count of 12 on 29th.
Oriental Reed Warbler – singles on 20th and 22nd.
Zitting Cisticola – common resident.
Common Tailorbird – common resident, pair observed nest-building along edge of North Wood.
Yellow-bellied Prinia – abundant resident.
Plain Prinia – abundant resident, generally preferring more open/grassy areas than Yellow-bellied.
Japanese White-eye – 1-6 on all dates, much reduced in number compared to earlier in the spring.
Masked Laughingthrush – single very vocal bird, heard on every visit and seen on several dates, apparently now the only survivor of the flock of up to 5 that were formerly resident in the area.
White-crested Laughingthrush – one, almost certainly an escapee, on 1st, accompanied by a second bird that resembled a White-crested Laughingthrush but had apparently been dyed yellow.
Chinese Hwamei – one in the North Wood on 22nd. There is also a long-staying bird just outside the area, singing regularly in gardens near my house off Phan Lan Street, and photographed on my balcony on the same date as the North Wood bird. Presumably both birds are of dubious origin!
Dark-sided Flycatcher – singles in the North Wood on four dates.
Asian Brown Flycatcher – common migrant with high count of 5 on 21st.
Hainan Blue Flycatcher – one on 20th was the last record of the spring – this species was commonly observed in late March/early April.
Blue Whistling Thrush – one on 23rd.
Siberian Rubythroat – sharp decline since early April, with only one individual remaining by 1st.
Siberian Blue Robin – male on 27th and two on 29th.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – seen on three dates with a high count of three on 1st.
Mugimaki Flyatcher – seen on five dates with a high count of four on 20th.
Taiga Flycatcher – common migrant, seen on every visit with a high count of 5 on two dates.
White-throated Rock Thrush – male seen in the small patch of trees south of the North Wood on 20th, 21st and 23rd.
Siberian Stonechat – very common migrant with a high count of 15 on 21st, noticeable decline late in the month.
Siberian Thrush – adult male in the now-bulldozed patch of trees south of the North Wood on 21st.
Eyebrowed Thrush – two on 20th were the last records of the spring.
Crested Myna – two flying over on 22nd, and three unidentified mynas that were perhaps this species distantly on 1st.
Citrine Wagtail – one on 21st and a flock of 12, the majority apparently adult males, flying north on 25th.
White Wagtail – just one seen during the period, on 20th.
Forest Wagtail – one in the North Wood on 29th.
Richard’s Pipit – 2-4 birds on most dates, usually in farmland south-east of the North Wood.
Paddyfield Pipit – fairly common resident seen or heard on most dates.
Olive-backed Pipit – late singles over on 22nd and 25th, this was a common bird earlier in the spring.
Red-throated Pipit – single over on 22nd.
Oriental Greenfinch – four on 23rd.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – occasional individuals recorded, this species is much more common in urban areas.
White-rumped Munia – singles on two dates.
Scaly-breasted Munia – erratically recorded, with a peak count of 20 on 25th.

Total species observed during the period: 98
Total species I have observed at Red River Island since March 5th: 171

Weekly Report: Red River Island, Hanoi, April 8th-15th

Green-backed_Flycatcher_Adult_male_RR_13_4_16_2[2]
Male Green-backed Flycatcher, Red River Island, April 13th (photo by Hung Le).
Almost daily coverage of the island this week resulted in a total of 115 bird species seen. I was often joined in the field by Joy Ghosh and Hung Le, and between us we managed to find an excellent array of migrants during one of the very best weeks of the year.

At the same time as the birds pour through, local people have been doubling their efforts to destroy all remaining fragments of “natural” woodland on the island. The north wood has been decimated, with virtually all of the best trees now gone (although the non-native eucalyptus trees – which are fairly useless for birds – have been left standing). Much of the grassy understorey has also been cleared. It seems likely that the north wood will barely be worth visiting in another week’s time. A sad end to what was until very recently a splendid habitat and refuge for birds.

Simultaneously, a strip of good habitat at the far south of the island is currently being bulldozed, and its imminent disappearance seems inevitable. The “middle wood” is now the largest expanse of remaining forest, but for some inexplicable reason it doesn’t seem to be very popular with the birds, perhaps because of its location in the center of the island away from the river.

On a more positive note, hunting pressures seemed lower than usual, with no mist-netters encountered and just a few munia traps here and there (I released any birds I found in them). Hopefully most of the migrants using the small patches of remaining forest this week were able to pass through this dangerous area unscathed.

Notable sightings on Red River island from my seven visits between April 8th-15th included the following:

Japanese Quail – one flushed from the overgrown field next to the north wood on 12/4.

Jerdon’s Baza – three over on 11/4 and two on 15/4, corresponding with peak passage of this species at Tam Dao.

Pied Harrier – an adult male flew north on 13/4.

Japanese Sparrowhawk – two sightings of single birds.

Ruddy-breasted Crake – one flushed in the overgrown field north of Bai Da on 8/4.

Oriental Pratincole – one flew north on 11/4.

Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon – one in the north wood on 12/4, in exactly the same place as two birds on 22/3.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo – one glimpsed in the north wood on 12/4, followed by excellent views of another along the western edge of the island on 14/4.

Large Hawk Cuckoo – one seen and photographed near the north wood on 12/4.

Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo – one seen very well at the middle wood on 11/4.

Oriental Cuckoo – one at the far south of the island on 14/4.

Northern Boobook – one in the north wood on 9/4.

Grey Nightjar – one in the north wood on 11/4, and perhaps the same individual seen and photographed by Hung Le on 13/4.

Black-capped Kingfisher – up to two seen on three dates.

Dollarbird – one at the southern tip of the island on 11/4, and another north of Bai Da on 15/4.

Eurasian Wryneck – one on 13/4.

Black-winged Cuckooshrike – two on 11/4.

Black-naped Oriole – one at the north wood on 13/4 and 14/4.

Hair-crested Drongo – at least 17 on 11/4, with smaller numbers on other dates.

Racket-tailed Treepie – one along the western edge on 14/4.

Pale-footed Bush-Warbler – three on 8/4 and two the following day, located by distinctive song and also seen on several occasions.

Radde’s Warbler – one in the north wood on 14/4.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler – one in the wood north of Bai Da on 15/4.

Eastern Crowned Warbler – one seen daily in the north wood from 11/4-13/4.

Grey-crowned Warbler – easily recognisable call heard in the north wood on 9/4, but not seen. Other seicercus warblers seen on several dates during the week didn’t call and therefore could not be reliably identified.

Masked Laughingthrush – sadly only one bird apparently remains from the 4-5 individuals present last month.

Black-throated Laughingthrush – one in the middle wood on 11/4 may have been an escapee.

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – up to three on four dates during the week, mainly gorgeous males.

Green-backed Flycatcher – adult male photographed in the north wood on 13/4, the first record of an adult male for Vietnam.

Orange-headed Thrush – one in the north wood on 14/4 was probably the same bird photographed by Hung Le the previous day.

Eyebrowed Thrush – small flock of up to 7 present daily around the north wood from 8/4 to 11/4.

Grey-backed Thrush – one at the far south of the island on 14/4.

Yellow-breasted Bunting – long-staying adult male still at cornfield along western edge on 9/4 but not since.

Chestnut Bunting – female-type with above bird on 9/4.

In addition, a selective list of regular migrants and resident birds seen during the week included the following: Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Grey-faced Buzzard, Barred Buttonquail, Oriental Turtle Dove, Asian Koel, Lesser Coucal, Germain’s Swiftlet, White-throated Kingfisher, Burmese Shrike, Ashy Drongo, White-throated Fantail, Black-naped Monarch, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Thick-billed Warbler, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat, Citrine Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit, Richard’s Pipit, Oriental Greenfinch and Little Bunting.

Hanoi’s Secret Migrant Hotspot

2016-03-15 22.36.19 (3)
Baikal Bush Warbler at Red River Island, Hanoi, March 2016.

If you’d told me when I moved to Hanoi at the end of February that I would find myself living just a 10-minute cycle ride away from one of the best birding spots I have ever experienced, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The Red River is a major migratory flyway which passes through the heart of this noisy, polluted, crowded city. There isn’t much space for birds here – urban development is rife, and most of the land that hasn’t yet been built upon has been given over to high-intensity agricultural fields and banana plantations, neither of which are very good for birds.

However, on the “Red River Island” (which is actually only an island in the wet season), a few small pockets of undisturbed habitat remain. Foremost among these is a small wood, only about two hectares in size, which offers practically the only decent cover for migrant birds for many miles around. Combined with nearby patches of remnant tall grassland, this area is an oasis in the urban sprawl for tired migrants as they follow the course of the river.

2016-03-24 23.16.51 (2)
The small wood on Red River Island – it may not look like much, but it’s the only decent patch of cover for birds for miles around.

I’ve been visiting the area since early March, with a running total of 11 visits spread over 20 days, and have so far recorded an impressive 104 bird species. The best area by far is the small wood, but I’ve visited other parts of the island too, and depending on time I quite often check out an area of swampy ponds halfway along the western edge as well as the wood.

I’ll start with some of the “silly” birds I’ve seen in the wood. The other day, there were two Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons in there – quite what they were doing so far away from their preferred habitat of montane forest is anyone’s guess. This morning, I flushed a Grey Nightjar on two occasions, even managing to get a very poor photo of it perched in a bush. A small flock of Red-billed Blue Magpies is resident, they usually fly in from the north-west and pass through the wood before disappearing – where do they go? – it seems remarkable that they can survive here. Equally baffling, a small flock of Masked Laughingthrushes have been regularly seen for at least a year, and have reportedly even bred – given the amount of bird poaching and trapping that occurs in Vietnam, it’s amazing that they are still alive. The local Red-breasted Parakeet could have hopped out of a cage, but the fairly frequent Blue Whistling Thrushes – of both the yellow-billed and dark-billed races – may well be genuine wanderers.

2016-03-24 22.19.54 (2)
A Grey Nightjar lurking in the bushes – a most unexpected find.

The birds here can make you feel like you’re in some remote montane forest a long way from the city. Bianchi’s Warbler, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, White-throated Fantail, Black-naped Monarch, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Rosy Minivet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Chestnut-flanked White-eye are just some of the forest birds that I’ve encountered in the wood so far.

Other species are perhaps a little more expected as migrants here. I hear thrushes on every visit, but they are invariably very wary, and masters of melting away into the treetops. The majority of those I have seen have turned out to be Japanese Thrushes, but I have also notched up several very smart Grey-backed Thrushes and one Black-breasted Thrush. Judging by past reports, flycatchers are something of a specialty here – these start to appear in mid-March, with several beautiful Blue-and-White Flycatchers during my last couple of visits as well as long-staying male Hainan Blue and Hill Blue Flycatchers. I’m looking forward to the prospect of encountering a wide variety of spring-plumaged flycatchers during the peak month of April.

No trip to the wood would be complete without spending a while trying to track down some skulkers. You get the feeling that almost anything could be lurking in the quite dense undergrowth under the trees, with “tick”, “tack”, “tseep” and “churr” calls often heard deep within the thickets. Some of the easier birds to find – with patience! – include Dusky Warbler, Asian Stubtail and Siberian Rubythroat, while others I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of include Rufous-tailed Robin, Manchurian Bush-Warbler, Brownish-Flanked Bush Warbler, and fairly regular Tristram’s Bunting.

Yellow-bellied Prinias and Common Tailorbirds are annoyingly common in the undergrowth – the usual rule of thumb seems to be that if you can actually see it, it’s probably going to turn out to be one of these two!

2016-03-24 22.28.10 (2)
Habitat in the wood is not the best, but it’s amazing what the birds will put up with when there’s nowhere else to hide!

Outside the wood, towards the northern end of the island, a few patches of tall grassland remain, although this is being rapidly encroached by agricultural land. A few days ago, I saw two Chinese Penduline Tits here – this species has overwintered in the Red River area in previous years, but its official status is rare vagrant to the south-east Asia region. I’ve also seen Crested Bunting in this area twice in the past week, apparently two different individuals. There is a small pond here which occasionally has a lingering Pied Kingfisher or Green Sandpiper. On one occasion, I was very surprised when a Baikal Bush Warbler popped out of the grass right at my feet, even allowing me to take a photo – a rare opportunity indeed, as this locustella is known to be a master skulker!

I have marked the location of the wood on this Google Maps link .

Another worthwhile spot for those with the time is an area of grassland and ponds along the western edge of the island. Citrine Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit and Bluethroat always seem to be hanging around, and I’ve also had crippling views of Lanceolated Warbler, Common Rosefinch, and Little Bunting among other goodies. The general area on Google Maps is here.

One fly in the ointment of the Red River Island is – predictably in Vietnam – the activities of bird poachers here. Bird traps and mist nets are commonly encountered, especially near the ponds along the western edge, and I’ve also come across poachers mist-netting in the small wood. Their main targets appear to be munias (in the traps) and white-eyes (in the nets), but surprisingly there are still plenty of Scaly-breasted Munias and Japanese White-eyes on the island despite the extensive trapping.

I hope this short account of the wonders of the Red River Island will encourage other birders to visit this spring. If you come, do let me know what you see! (and submit your sightings on eBird).

Full List of Birds Seen at Red River Island, Hanoi, March 5th-25th 2016:

  1. Grey Heron
  2. Chinese Pond Heron
  3. Black-shouldered Kite
  4. Grey-faced Buzzard
  5. Crested Goshawk
  6. Black Kite
  7. Peregrine
  8. White-breasted Waterhen
  9. Ruddy-breasted Crake (heard only)
  10. Eurasian Moorhen
  11. Red-wattled Lapwing
  12. Little Ringed Plover
  13. Common Sandpiper
  14. Green Sandpiper
  15. Barred Buttonquail
  16. Feral Pigeon
  17. Oriental Turtle Dove
  18. Spotted Dove
  19. Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon
  20. Plaintive Cuckoo
  21. Asian Koel
  22. Greater Coucal
  23. Lesser Coucal
  24. Grey Nightjar
  25. Common Kingfisher
  26. Pied Kingfisher
  27. Red-breasted Parakeet
  28. Rosy Minivet
  29. Brown Shrike
  30. Burmese Shrike
  31. Long-tailed Shrike
  32. Black Drongo
  33. Ashy Drongo
  34. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  35. White-throated Fantail
  36. Black-naped Monarch
  37. Red-billed Blue Magpie
  38. Grey-throated Martin
  39. Barn Swallow
  40. Red-rumped Swallow
  41. Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher
  42. Japanese Tit
  43. Chinese Penduline Tit
  44. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  45. Sooty-headed Bulbul
  46. Light-vented Bulbul
  47. Black Bulbul
  48. Asian Stubtail
  49. Manchurian Bush-Warbler
  50. Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler
  51. Dusky Warbler
  52. Radde’s Warbler
  53. Pallas’s Warbler
  54. Yellow-browed Warbler
  55. Claudia’s Leaf Warbler
  56. Sulphur-breasted Warbler
  57. Bianchi’s Warbler
  58. Thick-billed Warbler
  59. Oriental Reed Warbler
  60. Black-browed Reed Warbler
  61. Lanceolated Warbler
  62. Baikal Bush-Warbler
  63. Zitting Cisticola
  64. Common Tailorbird
  65. Yellow-bellied Prinia
  66. Plain Prinia
  67. Japanese White-eye
  68. Chestnut-flanked White-eye
  69. Masked Laughingthrush
  70. Hainan Blue Flycatcher
  71. Hill Blue Flycatcher
  72. Blue-and-White Flycatcher
  73. Taiga Flycatcher
  74. Rufous-tailed Robin
  75. Bluethroat
  76. Siberian Rubythroat
  77. Siberian Stonechat
  78. Pied Bushchat
  79. Grey Bushchat
  80. Blue Whistling Thrush
  81. Japanese Thrush
  82. Black-breasted Thrush
  83. Grey-backed Thrush
  84. Daurian Starling
  85. Crested Myna
  86. Great Myna
  87. Olive-backed Sunbird
  88. Citrine Wagtail
  89. Manchurian Yellow Wagtail
  90. White Wagtail
  91. Grey Wagtail
  92. Richard’s Pipit
  93. Paddyfield Pipit
  94. Red-throated Pipit
  95. Olive-backed Pipit
  96. Crested Bunting
  97. Tristram’s Bunting
  98. Little Bunting
  99. Black-faced Bunting
  100. Common Rosefinch
  101. Oriental Greenfinch
  102. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
  103. Scaly-breasted Munia
  104. White-rumped Munia