Living in Houston, it is just a hop skip and a jump to some excellent birding spots in Mexico. In fact, it can be quicker to get to the Yucatan on a super-cheap flight than driving to many parts of Texas. I recently took a short non-birding break to Tulum, on the coast about 75 minutes south of Cancun Airport. I say “non-birding”, but any birder will tell you that there is no such thing as a non-birding vacation!
My wife Jenna and I flew out of Hobby Airport in Houston on a direct Southwest flight to Cancun, and I picked up a pre-booked rental car from Enterprise on arrival. This company is not the cheapest option, but there are numerous banana skins, scams and hassles associated with car rental in Mexico, so I was happy to pay a little extra to be with a reputable and well-reviewed company. As it turned out, Enterprise’s service was exemplary from start to finish with no nasty surprises whatsoever. Less than seven hours after leaving our house, we were on a white sand beach under swaying palms, eyeing the Caribbean Sea from our beachfront casita, and not another soul in sight. Paradise indeed!
No stretch of paradise can possibly be complete without some good birds, and it wasn’t long before I had ticked off the local race of Golden-fronted Woodpecker (“Velasquez’s Woodpecker”) which might be good for a split one day. Its smaller, daintier-billed counterpart, the endemic Yucatan Woodpecker, was also encountered on several occasions during our 6-night stay.
My birding was more or less restricted to the first few hours of daylight each day, as I had many other obligations. This turned out quite well as, in common with many parts of the tropics, birding started fast and furious at sunrise before going almost dead after 10.00am with hardly a bird to be seen or heard.
I settled on the Mayan ruins at Muyil for my main birding destination, seeing as it was just a 30-minute drive from our accommodation, and from recent eBird reports appeared to be by far the richest site in terms of species diversity within easy reach. And so it proved – three early mornings at the site produced 84 species. My one qualm with Muyil is that this archaeological site is gated and locked until 8.00am (or even later, because the arriving staff were never punctual), which is very frustrating as it is broad daylight by 7.00am at this time of the year, and the first hour of the day is without a doubt the best time to be birding.
Fortunately, directly across the main road from the Muyil ruins entrance is a nice area of secondary growth bisected by several quiet residential roads, which allowed for some pretty decent birding before the “main event” at 8.00am when the Muyil gates opened.
Muyil itself consists of several ruined and picturesque Mayan structures set amid a parkland landscape, with denser primary forest beyond. At the back of the site, a trail leads through primary forest to a boardwalk, from which wet mangrove forest can be observed. The boardwalk leads to a fine viewing tower with panoramic views across large tracts of old-growth forest, and eventually a beach on a lagoon. It has all the habitat variety and ingredients for an excellent morning’s birding, and so it proved, even on the one day when weather conditions were far from ideal.
Muyil is easily reached from Tulum, simply follow the main road south towards Chetumal for about 20 minutes, until the village of Muyil – the entrance to the ruins is on the left. I imagine it would be an easy trip by bus or “collectivo” minivan for any Tulum-based birders without their own transport. Two fees are payable: 45 pesos (about $2.50) to gain access to the ruins, and a further 50 pesos for the boardwalk and tower.
We stayed on Soliman Bay, to the north of Tulum, which was productive in its own right, with mangroves, scrub and shoreline producing several interesting birds that were absent from Muyil, such as Mangrove Vireo and Black Catbird.
The obligatory one-day trip to the world-famous Chichen Itza yielded large numbers of tourists and not many interesting birds, with the notable exception of a pair of Bat Falcons around the temples and ruins.
Complete list of birds seen in Quintana Roo, Mexico, October 3rd-9th. Personal lifers are in bold:
Cinnamon Hummingbird Russet-naped Wood-Rail
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Keel-billed Toucan Yucatan Woodpecker
Lesser Greenlet Mangrove Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo Yellow-green Vireo Yucatan Vireo
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Clay-colored Thrush Black Catbird
Olive Sparrow Yellow-billed Cacique
Yellow-backed Oriole Orange Oriole
Total species seen:114 North America life list: 857
Costa Rica barely needs any introduction as one of the world’s premier birding destinations. There can be few places where such a large number of species can be seen in such a small geographical area. Combine this with a tourist-friendly infrastructure and straightforward access by air, and it is easy to see why Costa Rica is a standout choice for birders tight for time who want to see the broadest possible range of birds.
My good friend Tim Harrop and I had just six full days to play with, and we decided on three main locations: Arenal Volcano, Monteverde, and Carara National Park. The first two sites are no more than twenty miles apart as the Bellbird flies, yet they offer an astoundingly different range of birds due to changes in elevation, rainfall, and habitat.
Our first overnight stop was just a couple of miles from the airport at Costa Rica Airport B+B. This welcoming little hotel tucked away in lush gardens comes highly recommended for the on-site birding, and we made our acquaintance here with many of Costa Rica’s “backyard birds”, including several that we didn’t see again for the rest of the trip.
The following morning, we made our way in the general direction of Arenal Volcano. We had intended to spend the first few hours of the day at the Volcan Poas, a high-altitude national park with several birds we would not be able to see at other sites during the trip. However, it turns out that Volcan Poas has been closed due to increased volcanic activity, with no prospect of it reopening anytime soon. It’s a sorry situation for the restaurants and fruit vendors who line the approach road to the park. In terms of the birds, we were still able to connect with some of the high-altitude specialties, especially in the last mile before the road closure, including Volcano Hummingbird, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Sooty Thrush and Flame-throated Warbler.
Further along the road to Arenal, a most worthwhile lunch stop is to be had at Cinchona – Mirador La Cascada, where a bird table and numerous feeders at a small restaurant provide a pit stop for hungry hummingbirds, barbets, toucanets and tanagers. We had our only Buff-fronted Quail Dove and Green Thorntails of our trip here.
One of the not-so-endearing aspects of Costa Rica is that it takes absolutely ages to get anywhere. The entire San Jose area is in a state of seemingly permanent gridlock. Even outside of urban areas, roads have many curves and slow trucks, and average speeds are low. Late on the first day we did finally reach Arenal Observatory Lodge, which is truly a stunning location and easily our favorite birding site of the whole trip. In fact, there is no need to even leave the grounds of the lodge, as the trail network is extensive and the birding nothing short of spectacular. More than 500 bird species have been recorded in the grounds.
The deck outside the Observatory Lodge restaurant, overlooking the mighty volcano itself, is possibly the most outstanding “big sit” location in the world. One of the most striking aspects of birding here was the almost constant views of Great Curassow and Crested Guan just a short distance from the viewing area. These enormous and delicious-looking gamebirds are understandably a popular quarry for hunters, but they thrive and even become tame in areas where they are not molested.
Despite the excellent trails within the grounds, we decided to head just outside the Observatory gates for our first full morning here. The Los Toucanes trail now charges a $10 entry fee, but our investment repaid itself a hundred times when we found a Bare-necked Umbrellabird a mile along the trail. This is one of those spectacular, semi-mythical species that cannot be guaranteed anywhere, and indeed is now rare and highly endangered in its small world range in Costa Rica and Panama. One of the best birds I have ever seen, and we enjoyed spectacular views of it too.
Apart from the Umbrellabird, it is hard to pick favorites from the 116 species we observed at Arenal. Black-crested Coquette, a tiny, bee-sized hummingbird, would definitely be in the top five, and from a rarity perspective, both Cedar Waxwing and Cape May Warbler are great records for Costa Rica.
The Monteverde area was our next stop. This is the cradle of ecotourism in Costa Rica, and despite the eye-watering entrance fees for the reserves, at least you feel that the money is being well spent on conserving the entrancingly beautiful cloud forests here. Ecotourism at Monteverde is an industrial operation, with thousands of tourists pouring into the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve each day. It’s not as easy to bird as Arenal, with long periods during our six-hour visit where we saw few birds. However, with a lot of effort we did eventually come away with nice views of the emblematic Resplendent Quetzal, as well as other goodies such as Orange-bellied Trogon, the rare Brown-billed Scythebill, Azure-hooded Jay and Yellow-thighed Finch. Just outside the main entrance is a small restaurant which serves exceptionally good coffee to humans, as well as irresistible nectar to a range of hummingbirds including Magenta-throated Woodstar and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.
We also took in a couple of less-visited reserves during our trip to Monteverde: the Curi-Cancha refuge and the Santa Elena reserve, with Black-breasted Wood-Quail observed at the former location, and Buffy Tuftedcheek and Golden-browed Chlorophonia among the highlights at the latter.
The final location on our itinerary was the coastal Carara National Park and surrounding areas. This is one of the most biodiverse spots in the whole country, as it straddles the divide between the drier north and humid southern coastal regions, and birds from both north and south can be found in the park where their ranges overlap.
For a few weeks earlier in the winter, there had been regular reports of an exquisite Yellow-billed Cotinga in trees along the approach road to the Cerro Lodge, a few miles north of Carara National Park. It was more in hope than expectation that we went looking for this bird early one morning en route to the national park, and unbelievably we located it and had some crippling views. The Yellow-billed Cotinga is rather special because not only is it very rare (just 250-500 birds remain) and declining due to habitat loss, but also hard to see, as it usually sits motionless in the canopy of tall rainforest trees for long periods.
We walked the trails at the Carara National Park headquarters a number of times. We found the best trail to be the first (concrete) loop. The second and third loops have spectacular habitat but there were very few birds to be found – a comparable lowland rainforest experience to parts of south Thailand and Malaysia where bird diversity is as high as 220 species per square kilometer, but where you might glimpse just a handful of birds on each visit. On one afternoon, we finally located an army ant swarm on the first loop (the only one we found throughout our time in CR), attended by large numbers of birds of a variety of species including Black-faced Antthrush.
This trail also gave us Crane Hawk, Great Tinamou, Royal Flycatcher, Riverside Wren and plenty of Scarlet Macaws, the latter species keeping the numerous non-birding visitors happy.
The riverside trail, a short distance up the road from the HQ, is often touted as the best single trail in Costa Rica for birding. We spent a morning there and came away with a good selection of birds including the local specialty Orange-collared Manakin.
Finally, we spent some time around the mouth of the Tarcoles river, both on land and on a Crocodile Man boat tour into the mangroves. Boat-billed Heron and Panama Flycatcher both obliged on the boat tour, with Streak-backed Oriole and Olivaceous Piculet around the very birdy mangrove patch at the river mouth (the latter location accessible from the beach with no boat required).
In just over a week, our trip total was 328 species – a number that would be hard to beat anywhere in the world in such a small area and short space of time. We will definitely be back at some point in the future, with the Caribbean lowlands at La Selva high on the wish list for the next trip!
In the full month since my last update, birding has been steady but not spectacular. I would even have said things were fairly good, were it not for a rather painful “dip” of a mega that showed up pretty much in my backyard in New Braunfels (well, a ten-minute drive away, which is practically backyard by Texas standards).
Late on a Saturday night, a week-old report (complete with photos) of a female Elegant Trogon appeared on the Facebook group “What’s That Bird?”. The Trogon was said to have been photographed in Panther Canyon, which is a scenic, three-quarter-mile long trail adjoining Landa Park close to downtown New Braunfels. I happened to be already in town when the news broke, so naturally I went straight to Panther Canyon at first light the next day. The chances of relocating the bird appeared to be vanishingly small, at best – the report was already a week old, and the bird could easily have moved on. Also, trogons of all species are notoriously hard to find. They spend long periods of time perched motionless, and are usually easiest to locate when vocalizing, which a winter female would most likely not be doing.
It’s kind of an odd feeling to be chasing a bird that you’re pretty sure you’re not going to find. After a couple of hours in the canyon, along with about ten other birders, I called it a day and went up to Canyon Lake instead, where the birding was much more rewarding with both Canyon Wren and Rock Wren within 30 feet of each other along the dam, plus several other goodies including a Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay in trees near the dam,and a group of Eared Grebes on the water.
It was quite a surprise when news came through late in the day of the Elegant Trogon having been seen in Panther Canyon shortly before dark, and Carlos Ross managed to take some photos which confirmed the presence of this bird beyond all doubt. I happened to have already taken Monday morning off work, so there I was again in the canyon at first light the next day. I could only spare a couple of hours before I had to head back to Houston, however once again the Elegant Trogon didn’t show. Birding in Panther Canyon was proving to be an endurance test because – while the habitat bears a passing resemblance to exciting Elegant Trogon habitat in southeast Arizona – there seem to be very few birds living in there. Chases are always much more enjoyable when there are other birds around to maintain a birder’s focus and interest.
As I stalked slowly up and down the canyon, staring at Trogon-less trees, I was reminded of a chase (in the UK we call it a “twitch”) to see a Buff-bellied Pipit in Lincolnshire on a bitterly cold and overcast day in the depths of winter in about 2003. It was a near four-hour drive to the site, an enormous bare earth field just inland from the coast. A hundred birders lined up along the edge of the field for an eight-hour vigil, in the teeth of an easterly gale, scanning for the pipit. During that time I saw perhaps half a dozen species, and not a whiff of my target bird. The long drive home in the gloom of a winter afternoon was almost a relief after such a miserable day.
Anyway, the Elegant Trogon was refound in Panther Canyon at around 3.00pm, meaning that several of the birders who had been there in the morning had been looking for almost eight hours before locating the bird. Their patience and dedication is highly commendable. The Trogon was seen again on Tuesday (for prolonged periods, naturally while I was at work in Houston) and Thursday, but not on Wednesday and Friday despite plenty of people out there looking. It was always being found in the afternoons, sometimes right before dusk, so on Saturday I spent the last three hours of daylight in the canyon (along with perhaps fifty birders) with no luck. It has not been seen since, but it is possibly still present – there is a high chance the bird is wintering in the area, and either moves elsewhere for prolonged periods, or (most likely) is so unobtrusive that it basically never gets found along the canyon unless it is close enough for birders to almost trip over it. It surely is no coincidence that every time the bird has been found, it has initially been located within a few feet of the trail or even in trees directly above it.
Landa Park did have a consolation prize to offer on Saturday, a female Rusty Blackbird at the lake, an excellent county bird in what seems to have been a good winter for stray individuals of this species in central Texas. I could at least claim THAT for my Comal county list, which at 142 species as I write, is steadily moving in the right direction!
My focus this year is on county birding, instead of pan-Texas year listing, and I’ve had several excellent “county days” in the last month. I headed to Brazoria county on January 20th with James Rieman, and we quickly located the long-staying Glaucous Gull on the beach at Quintana, only to watch it fly to the end of the jetty and join an unprecedented second individual on the sea. A prolonged visit to the San Bernard refuge for the rest of the day produced 81 species including an unseasonal Yellow-breasted Chat and nice looks at American Bittern and Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Jefferson county the following weekend produced 103 species in one day, with my personal highlight being cracking views of several Virginia Rails feeding out in the open at Cattail Marsh near Beaumont. This handsome and retiring denizen of dense marshland vegetation can be a tough bird to see (I didn’t find one at all during my “big year” in 2017), but at this site they appeared to be very bold and unafraid to venture out of cover.
I’ve been visiting Edith L Moore reserve in Houston from time to time during my lunch breaks and after work (my office is less than a minute’s drive away), a location which offers plenty of birds in winter near the cabin, but usually belonging to the same range of resident and wintering species with few surprises. However, regular birds here in winter include Wilson’s Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo and Hermit Thrush, while the spectacular Pileated Woodpecker is resident, so it’s always a good location to spend half an hour on a sunny day. I usually take a camera with me, but the one time I didn’t (on a gloomy late afternoon that threatened rain), I had a close and prolonged encounter with a beautiful Barred Owl. It’s been a good year so far for owls, with 5 species already on my year list – Barred, Barn, Burrowing, Short-eared, and no fewer than eight encounters so far with the magnificent Great Horned Owl. Just the relatively common, but often hard to find, Eastern Screech-Owl to go to complete the set of regular east/central Texas owls for the year.
Unlike almost every normal person, I spent a rather chilly New Year’s Eve sleeping in my car in a remote parking lot at the entrance to the Sal del Rey reserve in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Shortly before midnight, I was awoken by the flashlights of a Customs and Border Protection patrol. The officers seemed extremely perplexed that I was sleeping in my car in the middle of nowhere, at a time when convention dictates I should have been steaming drunk in a bar or at a house party somewhere. I don’t think they believed my story about being a birder, but in any case after (quite a lot of) questioning they left me alone and I went back to sleep for a few hours, before awakening to a freezing cold and windy dawn of 2018.
Let me just say at this point that after such an intense 2017, I had absolutely no intention of year listing again in 2018. Birding often has other ideas, though, and after approximately an hour of birding on January 1st – during which time I racked up some quality birds including Wild Turkey and Common Pauraque – I was already starting to consider the idea. Then I had a chance encounter with an American Woodcock at my second stop of the day, Pollywog Pond near Corpus Christi – this is a species I saw just once in 2017, and not until December 30th!
The Tamaulipas Crow was still hanging around at Big Tree SP in Aransas county, so I stopped in to see that – and by the time I had nabbed both Burrowing Owl and Sprague’s Pipit along the roadside just 200 yards apart from each other in Refugio county, the deal was sealed. It would be a shame to waste such a good start to the year – so I would once again be keeping a Texas year list!
I finished the first day of 2018 at Aransas NWR, where a really nice roll call of birds brought me up to 107 species for the day (and the year). These included 11 Horned Grebes and 3 Greater Scaup in the bay, a pair of Wood Ducks on Jones Lake, and a big flock of Wild Turkeys on the grass beside the entrance gate. I also saw my first ever Bobcat crossing the road just north of the reserve, which although not a bird was comfortably the most exciting of the day’s sightings.
Any Houston-based birder is familiar with birding the “loop” – starting early morning in Galveston, taking the ferry across to Bolivar, and finally spending the afternoon/evening at Anahuac NWR before driving back to Houston. This approach is guaranteed to produce a huge number and wide variety of birds in the winter and migration seasons. On January 6th, I started at dawn on the Texas City Dike, not the most salubrious of birding locations but one which often produces (for my pal James Rieman at least!) regular rare gulls. No unusual gulls for me today, nor even a wintering Common Tern for my troubles despite much searching – but an out-of-season Wilson’s Plover was good to see, and it’s always nice to bag the attractive yet uncommon American Oystercatcher at this site.
It took me two attempts during the morning to connect with Kempner Park’s wintering male Black-throated Gray Warbler, a bird which was well worth the effort – not only was it an outright lifer for me, but also one I had recently missed in Brazoria county. The bird gave excellent views but was extremely active and hard to photograph.
Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary always has some good birds on offer, and today in addition to a wide selection of shorebirds (including the often tricky Red Knot), there were three Bonaparte’s Gulls on the shore, a flock of Horned Larks on the beach, and a Palm Warbler in the dunes.
Anahuac NWR always gives up large numbers of birds, and in addition to finding (or refinding, as it was perhaps the same bird previously reported several miles away) a Say’s Phoebe along White’s Ranch Road, I also saw several Canvasback and a Greater Scaup along with legions of commoner ducks and thousands of geese. After dark, a Barn Owl on a roadside fence post was only my second-ever in Texas and – naturally – my first for 2018.
On Sunday I stayed around West Houston, visiting Katy Prairie, Kleb Woods, and Bear Creek Park, adding year birds including Harris’s Sparrow and Golden-crowned Kinglet. Kleb Woods is a regular wintering location for up to half-a-dozen Rufous Hummingbirds. Very rarely, an Allen’s Hummingbird is found among them, but only once every few years. There is currently a very interesting immature male there with a large number of green feathers on its back in a pattern suggestive of Allen’s. This bird will need to molt a little further into adult plumage (or get caught and inspected in the hand) to confirm the identification, but I am keeping my hopes up for the slim chance of an “armchair tick” at some point in the future.
On January 13th I teamed up with Martin Reid and Sheridan Coffey for a spectacular day out in Atascosa, Live Oak, and McMullen counties, halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. We started the day with thousands of Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Sandhill Cranes at a regular wintering location. The sight and sound of these birds at dawn on a cold winter morning stirs the soul, it is incredible and something even non-birders would appreciate. The goose flocks here contain proportionately larger numbers of small, dainty Ross’s Geese compared to the coast near Houston, where almost all the geese are Snow Geese. Among these inland birds, an occasional dark (or “blue”) morph Ross’s Goose shows up. This is a very rare color variation – most Ross’s Geese are pure white, unlike Snow Goose where the dark morph is common. Well, if anyone can find a dark morph Ross’s Goose, it is Martin Reid – and find one he eventually did. Wild geese are very wary but if you approach slowly, and allow them time to get used to you, it is possible to end up fairly close to them, as was the case with this bird:
For the rest of the day, we chased around various locations near Choke Canyon Reservoir. This site is one of the most northerly locations for Valley specialities such as Green Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, Audubon’s Oriole, Cassin’s Sparrow – and even Black-tailed Gnatcatcher on occasion. We didn’t find the gnatcatchers, but did enjoy nice looks at most of the others including no fewer than four Audubon’s Orioles:
Several other interesting birds at Choke Canyon State Park demanded our attention, namely a hybrid drake Blue-winged/Cinnamon Teal, an off-season Franklin’s Gull, and a Sora walking around in the open at the edge of the reeds:
Granger Lake in Williamson county, north-east of Austin, is a huge area containing not only a very large reservoir but also thousands of acres of bare open fields. I spent many hours there in both winter periods of 2017 looking for some of the area’s specialities, especially Mountain Plover and McCown’s Longspur – and indeed have chronicled these often hit-or-miss birding sessions in previous blog posts. One of the big advantages of putting in the time and really getting to know an area is that the birds then become a lot easier to find. My improved local knowledge meant that my visit on January 14th went very smoothly, with all of my main targets seen over the course of a single morning.
I kicked things off with a pre-dawn Short-eared Owl hunting over grassland at the Sore Finger Unit just off FM971. I haven’t seen many “SEOs”, although they are widespread across the Northern Hemisphere, and indeed this was my first in the U.S. It was a true privilege to watch this aerial predator fly on stiff wings over the prairie in the freezing cold of the pre-dawn, and I could not have asked for a better start to the day. Unfortunately my camera was unable to deal with the combination of low light and a moving bird – not to mention finger-freezing conditions – so I was unable to obtain any photos. However I had more luck taking pictures of the two Great Horned Owls also present at this location – my fourth and fifth individual GHOs seen this weekend, quite an amazing number!
On my last few visits to the area, I have easily found Mountain Plovers in the same general location – the megafield just to the west of CR347 and to the south of CR346. So instead of scouring every field through the telescope, it has become a simpler matter of stopping and scanning from one particular spot. The birds are often distant and not always easy to locate, but the morning light is good here and it didn’t take me long to find a small loose-knit group of five Mountain Plovers.
A very long stone’s throw to the north-east, the barest patches of ground to the north of CR346, between the intersection with CR348 and the first farmhouses, have been the best area this winter to find longspurs. I used to try and find flocks of longspurs by chasing all over the area, driving many miles and scanning as many fields as possible – and this generally resulted in failure (and exhaustion). Here, it is necessary just to wait and regularly scan the correct field as well as keep your eyes and ears open for mobile longspur flocks in flight overhead. Several flocks of McCown’s Longspurs, totalling around 60 birds, were in the area today. Myself and Zach Tonzetich spent plenty of time trying to get good views of one of the flocks on the ground, which always returned to the same two areas, but they would constantly fly up without any provocation and didn’t give themselves up for good looks. Nonetheless, we had tickable views of at least two – and maybe more – Lapland Longspurs in with the McCown’s.
Late last year I had located a Winter Wren on territory in the Willis Creek Unit, a wooded area which is accessible from the small parking lot on CR348 just past the creek crossing. Not only was “my” Winter Wren still in the exact same spot today, but his calls were being answered by another territorial bird on the other side of the creek. And I twice flushed an American Woodcock from right under my feet, which showed very well in flight. My three encounters with Woodcock over the last few weeks have been getting progressively better – at this rate I am due a sighting of one on the ground, instead of just flying away from me!
There was just time for one more stop on the way home, at Bastrop State Park, a pleasantly scenic area that also happens to be the only reliable spot in central Texas for the attractive Red-headed Woodpecker – and today I was fortunate to locate one without any difficulty.
Lifer: Black-throated Gray Warbler (total 2,245) USA tick: Short-eared Owl (total 480) 2018 Texas Year List as of January 16th: 187
To make absolutely sure I cleared 400 species this year in Texas, I reckoned a final trip out West was needed for some regular winterers in the plains, and a handful of mountain species in the Guadalupes. With a full nine days to play with, I figured I could also fit in my inaugural trip to the Panhandle for some more northerly wintering birds rarely found elsewhere in the state.
The trip got off to an excellent start with a very cooperative Sage Thrasher in Fort Stockton – which turned out to be the only individual of this species I saw.
Next up was Lake Balmorhea, simply a gorgeous location today when the sun was shining, the air was cool and calm, and the water was like glass. Lots of birds were showing in the bushes including some nice western wintering species: Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and Green-tailed Towhee. On the water, a Common Loon loafed near the expected Clark’s and Eared Grebes, and there was a party of three Common Mergansers, a nice bird anywhere in Texas:
I stayed overnight in Van Horn, and headed up to the Guadalupe Mountains before dawn the next day. In the plains, the outside temperature dipped as low as 19F (minus 7C). However, as I gained altitude on the drive up to Frijole Ranch, the temperature climbed, and by first light it was a much more comfortable 36F (2C).
Frijole Ranch was a hive of activity with large numbers of birds coming to drink and bathe in the spring near the old stone house. Highlights included two Juniper Titmice, which visited the area numerous times, but always moved through quickly and did not oblige for a photo. The Mountain Chickadees also wouldn’t sit still for my camera, but I had more luck photographing Steller’s Jay and a female Cassin’s Finch. This is turning out to be a great winter for irruptive montane species in Texas – all of the four birds mentioned above would be much harder to find in the state in a “normal” winter.
Nearby at Pine Springs, a Golden Eagle passed high overhead, two punk-hairstyled Phainopeplas showed well, and a curious Canyon Towhee decided the floorwell inside my car would be a good place to look for food. He was completely unconcerned that I was standing beside the car, less than three feet away.
With most of my mountain targets safely in the bag, and my year list target of 400 already exceeded, I descended to the lowlands to try for some raptors around Dell City during the afternoon. This scruffy little town in the shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains, close to the New Mexico border, is surrounded by mixed farmland and is an excellent location for open country birds in winter.
During the course of the afternoon I had repeated sightings of my two raptor targets, with at least eight individual Ferruginous Hawks and three Prairie Falcons seen. Other sightings included a Merlin, several Sagebrush Sparrows, and singles of both Grasshopper Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow, both of which are notable here.
The next morning I gradually worked my way west from Van Horn to El Paso with a few target birds in mind, successfully adding Gambel’s Quail, Crissal Thrasher and Anna’s Hummingbird to my list:
With an almost 100% success rate in hitting my target species, by early afternoon I had already decided to drive an additional four hours west to southern Arizona, where at least ten possible lifers lay in wait. By mid-evening I was within 20 miles of my chosen birding location, the Madera Canyon, and found a suitable spot to hunker down and sleep in the car.
The day dawned cloudy and a little breezy, but thankfully the forecast high winds never materialized. Before long I had ratcheted up many of my targets: Bridled Titmouse, Olive Warbler, Red-naped Sapsucker, Painted Redstart and Rufous-winged Sparrow.
The feeding station at Santa Rita Lodge is a fantastic place to while away a couple of hours watching the comings and goings of birds at the feeders – highlights here included Arizona Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch (a local rarity), and repeated views of several Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, although I have to say the old name Magnificent Hummingbird is more apt for such a large, impressive hummingbird!
Just up the road at the Madera Kubo B+B, I drew a blank with Elegant Trogon but a Hammond’s Flycatcher was seen well and there were several distinctively angry-looking Yellow-eyed Juncos among the numerous Dark-eyed Juncos:
An hour to the south near Sonoita, several Baird’s Sparrows had been reliably coming to a grassland water trough, but mid-afternoon was perhaps not the best time to look for them. I did repeatedly flush a likely suspect from the grass, which flew up from right under my feet but unfortunately disappeared into the grass each time without perching up, despite several attempts to drive it towards one of the few shrubs in the area! Flight views not being enough to clinch the identification, and not wanting to keep disturbing this bird, Baird’s Sparrow unfortunately has to remain “unticked”.
Another species here which never showed on the ground was Chestnut-collared Longspur. However, unlike Baird’s Sparrow the longspurs (about 90 of them in total, in several flocks) showed for prolonged periods in flight in excellent light conditions, enabling most of the ID features to be seen.
The following morning I embarked on another long drive and by early afternoon I was in New Mexico, at a very famous spot where all three North American Rosy-Finch species spend the winter.
Birders make the pilgrimage to Sandia Crest House, a cafe at the summit of a mountain a mile above Albuquerque, where seed is put out for the birds, and with luck all three species (Black Rosy-Finch, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch) may be seen in a large mixed flock.
All three Rosy-Finches are elusive, enigmatic denizens of the Alpine zone, and seeing them in summer entails going up to the often inaccessible peaks of North America’s highest mountains. In winter, they deign to descend a little lower, providing birders with a unique opportunity to catch up with them.
Nothing is ever simple in birding, however. After driving 450 miles from southern Arizona, I arrived at the summit of Sandia Crest at about 2.30pm to find the famous cafe closed. The sign on the door cheerily proclaims that the cafe is open every day of the year – apparently with the exception of the one day I decide to visit!
Moreover, it proved impossible to view the Rosy-Finch feeding area without entering the cafe, as the birds are fed on a high terrace. Slightly despondent, I wandered around until I spotted an empty bird table between the cafe and parking lot. I remembered I had some of Whole Foods’ delicious trail mix in my car, the kind with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Any self-respecting Rosy-Finch would be bound to enjoy that!
And so it proved. Not expecting a miracle, I put out my bait on the bird table and suddenly, a mercurial flock of Rosy-Finches appeared out of nowhere. I was lucky to get all three species in the one flock, including one individual of the rare Hepburn’s race of Gray-crowned:
I celebrated my Rosy-Finch success with an overnight stay in the relative luxury of a Super 8 motel (luxury compared to car camping that is!), and the following morning I enjoyed a walk in the crisp mountain air lower down in the Sandia Mountains. I was heading for one particular spot where Evening Grosbeaks regularly come to drink at a water trough. I didn’t get the grosbeaks, but did have a surprise lifer in the form of a stunning male Williamson’s Sapsucker:
Then I was on the road east again, passing back into Texas around lunchtime, and during the afternoon I started looking for some of my Panhandle targets. American Tree Sparrow and Cackling Goose made it onto the list, and a distant adult Golden Eagle was a nice bird to see in this area. My chosen location for the following morning was Lake Palo Duro, in the far north of the Panhandle just a few miles south of the Oklahoma border. This is a wonderful spot for birding, although the weather was quite seriously cold here with overnight lows around 19F (minus 7C) and a cold breeze blowing.
Unfortunately, the wind increased just an hour after sunrise, making it hard to find any passerines, and perhaps unsurprisingly in these conditions I dipped the Golden-crowned Sparrow that had been reported here on and off for several weeks. All was not lost, however, with numerous American Tree Sparrows at this site, several Harris’s Sparrows, a big flock of Mountain Bluebirds, and nice views of several raptors active later in the morning in the breezy conditions including Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon and Merlin.
I devoted much of the rest of the day to a hunt for longspurs. Three species – Lapland, McCown’s, and Chestnut-collared – winter in the Panhandle. Longspurs are never easy to find or to get good views of, and although I did find flocks in several locations, the only birds I positively identified were all Lapland Longspurs. One flock in a stubble field numbered some 250 birds, but I managed good views of no more than 10 individuals within this flock, and only very poor photos, as they were very restless and would fly up very regularly and relocate far away. It is highly likely there were a few McCown’s Longspurs among their number, but try as I might, I could not find one.
After another very long drive and a surprisingly good overnight sleep in the car, I found myself in suburban Arlington at first light, where I was lucky to connect with a small flock of regularly wintering Rusty Blackbirds in the parking lot. I then spent four very enjoyable hours at the excellent Fort Worth Nature Center, where several Tundra Swans and a Trumpeter Swan are wintering but often prove very elusive here. Such was the case for me and I didn’t see any swans, but I did enjoy great views of a number of birds I seldom see including Fox Sparrow, Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet. No year ticks among them but this is a superb site and I will be sure to return when next in this area.
My final year ticks for the trip were Horned Grebe and Eastern Towhee on the way back to Houston. This has been an exceptional first full year of birding in Texas, and with a lot of persistence and dedication (and driving!) I have managed to see more birds (415 species) than many people have on their lists after years of birding in the state. With an end-of-December trip to the LRGV still to go, I have set myself a new target of 420 species – one which I doubt I will have the opportunity to beat in 2018, but watch this space!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
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.
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.
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?
New birds added: Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Winter Wren, Sabine’s Gull, Pine Siskin.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other birds seen at close quarters from the blind included Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted Bunting, and Black-throated, Field, and Lark Sparrows.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
World Life List: 2,212 USA Life List: 409 2017 Texas Year List: 357