205 Species in Texas, January 2nd-9th

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Laughing Gull at South Padre Island, January 5th.

I’m finally getting the chance to update my blog, after what has been a very busy start to the birding year. With my wife Jenna leaving for India for three months on New Year’s Day, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. Should I start another year list? Considering I still had eight full days left in one of the best states for birding in the US, I decided the answer to that question had to be Yes.

I reckoned that seeing a minimum of 150 species before departing the USA on January 10th would be very achievable. In the event, I got a bit carried away and I was out in the field at every possibly opportunity between January 2nd-9th. By making sure I covered a wide variety of habitats, ranged over a large geographical area, and extensively used eBird to target known rarities, I amassed a total of 205 bird species in those eight days. That put me comfortably in first place among year-listing eBirders in Texas by January 10th, eight birds ahead of my closest rival. I was also briefly in the top 6 of all birders nationwide, although of course my ranking will swiftly fall now that I’ve left the United States with no likely prospect of a return for the rest of the year.

Here’s a day by day breakdown of where I went, and what I saw:

January 2nd: Having done virtually no birding on New Year’s Day, I kicked off my year in earnest on 2nd with a morning visit to Kleb Woods, in north-west Houston. The site speciality here is wintering Rufous Hummingbird, and it also offers a tantalising chance of other scarce species such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Dark-eyed Junco – however, the hummingbird was the only class A bird to show for me here today.

I followed up this gentle start with a few hours in the afternoon along Sharp Road, on nearby Katy Prairie, where my main target was Harris’s Sparrow, a range-restricted wintering bird and surely among the most handsome of sparrows. Not only did I find several Harris’s Sparrows, but I lucked in on a huge flock of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese in a field next to the road. Searching through winter goose flocks is one of my favorite birding activities, and patient scanning often yields the reward of an unusual species – in this case, several dainty-billed, pure white Ross’s Geese.

After the sun went down, I drove south towards Aransas National Wildlife Reserve, where I slept in the car outside the gates until the reserve opened at 7am the next morning.

Today’s highlights: Harris’s Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, Ross’s Goose, Snow Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, Rufous Hummingbird, White-crowned Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird.

2016 total species so far:  51

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Lark Sparrow near Chapman Ranch, January 3rd.

January 3rd: There is nothing quite like starting a new birding day already on location and ready to go from first light – especially if that location is one of the world’s most famous birding sites! First of all I had a quick look for “my” Prairie Warbler along the Heron Flats trail, unfortunately without success. This bird, which I originally found on December 14th, has now been seen in the area at least half a dozen times by various observers. Today I could find nothing in this class of rarity, although a Pyrrhuloxia along the auto loop was quite an unusual Aransas bird – there seems to have been a larger-than-usual influx of this attractive species into south Texas this winter.

Rarities aside, Aransas is a great site to get some quality wintering birds safely onto the list, and of course, no winter visit to Texas would be complete without paying homage to the Whooping Cranes.

Four hours at Aransas was enough to get most of the expected birds, and at around 11.30am I started to head south. Indian Point, a coastal marsh just north of Corpus Christi, is a convenient quick birding stop along the way, and on this occasion it proved very fruitful. Approaching slowly in my car, I got to within 15 feet of a small flock of dowitchers that were right next to the road – close enough to see by the heavily mottled breast that they were Short-billed Dowitchers and not the very similar Long-billed.

Next up was Chapman Ranch, a vast area of open fields south of Corpus Christi. Disaster struck when I decided to follow a farm track, and immediately got my rental car firmly stuck in thick, soft mud. As I walked to get help at a nearby farmhouse, I flushed three Northern Bobwhite – my second sighting of this fairly scarce quail already this year, which could only be a good omen for the timely release of my car! With the help of an elderly Mexican farmer, I managed to get my car free from its swampy sinkhole with only about 30 minutes of the birding day wasted. Fortunately the birds proved to be very obliging after that episode, with four “staked out” wintering Say’s Phoebes and a Greater Roadrunner in more or less exactly the same spots I had seen them a few weeks previously.

Later in the afternoon, I drove slowly along farm road 12, which has virtually no traffic. Several large flocks of Sandhill Cranes were a fine sight in roadside fields, but better still were a small party of Lark Sparrows close to the car, and three Sprague’s Pipits which gave prolonged views, although unfortunately just a little too far away for a good photo with my “point-and-shoot” camera.

As dusk fell, I continued south to the Rio Grande Valley, staying overnight in a motel in – where else? – Harlingen, where amenities including a huge HEB supermarket and a Starbucks cater for all the needs of a nomadic birder.

Today’s Highlights: Whooping Crane, Sandhill Crane, White-tailed Hawk, Grey Catbird, Pyrrhuloxia, Short-billed Dowitcher, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, Horned Grebe, Common Goldeneye, Reddish Egret, Say’s Phoebe, Greater Roadrunner, Lark Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit.

2016 total species so far:  112

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Poor record shot of a Sprague’s Pipit near Chapman Ranch, one of three birds that gave good views along the roadside but were never quite close enough for my point-and-shoot camera. ID features which distinguish this bird from the much commoner American Pipit include bright pink/orange legs, heavily streaked mantle, beady eye set in a relatively plain face, streaking on underparts restricted to “necklace”, and lack of a pronounced malar stripe.

January 4th: I had set aside the entire day today for a visit to Estero Llano Grande State Park, which is perhaps the premier birding site in the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley. The number and diversity of birds to be found here – in such a small area – is astounding. Seeing 100 species in a winter day here ought to be possible, although most eBirders seem to stay for 3-4 hours and come away with a list of 70-80 birds.

Personal highlights this morning included a Virginia Rail (with a broken foot!) feeding alongside a Sora, a fine Nashville Warbler in exactly the same spot where I found a male Painted Bunting last month, with an Altamira Oriole also there, a roosting Common Pauraque, an Eastern Screech-Owl at its nest box, a group of six Red-crowned Parrots flying over, and three species of hummingbird at the feeders (Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied). The hummingbirds seemed to spend almost all of their time chasing away rivals, rather than actually feeding, which is surprising because these tiny birds need to feed almost constantly in order to take on board enough calories to power their super-fast metabolisms.

Returning to the visitor center, my plans for the day changed somewhat when I bumped into local birder Huck Hutchens. It turned out that nearby birding hotspot Frontera Audobon Center was opening today – unusually for a Monday – on account of the popularity of several long-staying rarities: Tropical Parula, Black-headed Grosbeak, and especially the star of the show, Crimson-collared Grosbeak.

It was my first visit to Frontera and initially I found it to be a very frustrating place. Sight lines in the forest are poor, as the trees are dense and low. The Crimson-collared Grosbeak prefers feeding on several different types of seeds that grow on small trees, so I focused on checking the middle storey of the canopy between about 8-15 feet off the ground. When I eventually located the bird, it was feeding very unobtrusively in the densest part of a tree. Although large and chunky, with its predominantly olive-green plumage and slow, infrequent movements it was very hard to spot – in fact when I saw it at around 12.30pm I was the first birder to see it that day.

I had no luck with the other two rarities present, although I did locate a few other quality birds including a Hermit Thrush, a Black-throated Green Warbler (a female individual with no black whatsoever on the throat!), and my personal first USA sighting of  Clay-colored Thrush (this is a common tropical species whose range only just extends into southernmost Texas).

My next port of call was a busy industrial area at Progreso, literally within a stone’s throw of the Mexican border post. The grain silos here are a regular winter location for Yellow-headed Blackbird. On arrival at the site, I could see a huge, dense flock of cowbirds and blackbirds feeding around the silos, numbering thousands of birds. Finding the Yellow-headed Blackbirds – especially the bright-headed males – was the work of a moment, and a quick sweep of the flock produced a count of 13 although more may well have been present. Brown-headed Cowbirds were by far the most numerous birds, although fair numbers of Bronzed Cowbirds were here as well, the latter another personal USA tick.

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Brown-headed Cowbirds, Bronzed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and a handful of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Progreso grain silos, January 4th.

In mid-afternoon I returned to Estero Llano Grande, and spent the last few hours of this beautiful sunny day wandering the trails, starting in the Tropical Zone, where a Grey Catbird was feeding in the open on a grass verge but I didn’t find the hoped-for Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Back on the main reserve I teamed up with Houston-based birder Dean Gregory, and added another ten species to my list from this morning, making for a very respectable Estero Llano Grande day total of 88 species. Our first good find this afternoon was a group of three Nashville Warblers; today for some reason this species was widely reported by visiting birders, obviously there had been a small influx.

Next, as we walked the trail from the levee towards Alligator Lake, Dean noticed a sparrow feeding quietly at the edge of the path, which kept disappearing into the grass but would come and feed out in the open when all was quiet. This skulking behaviour piqued our interest and we eventually got good enough views – and photos – to confirm that it was a Cassin’s Sparrow, a bird not often recorded at this site.

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Cassin’s Sparrow, Estero Llano Grande State Park, January 4th.

As dusk fell, I got in the car and drove for an hour or so to South Padre Island, where I had found a deal in a Super 8 motel for just $32 – exceptionally good value for a night halt in the US.

Today’s Highlights: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Cassin’s Sparrow, Common Pauraque, Eastern Screech-Owl, Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, Buff-bellied, Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Nashville and Black-throated Green Warblers, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Clay-colored and Hermit Thrushes, Red-crowned Parrot, Green Parakeet, Virginia Rail.

2016 total species so far:  160

January 5th: Today was to be a quick-tick day, chasing around various sites to hopefully pick up one or two key species at each one. This kind of birding is often hit-or-miss, but my lucky streak was continuing and I managed to find almost all of my targets.

Just after first light I was in position overlooking the wetlands next to the South Padre Island convention center, just a couple of miles from my night halt motel, staring through my telescope at a flock of Black Skimmers on a sandbar. In this unusual species, the lower mandible (bottom half of the bill) is longer than the upper – virtually unique in the bird world. Black Skimmer was a long-overdue lifer for me, one of the few remaining Texan coastal birds I still needed, and I ended up seeing flocks of them in three separate locations by January 9th. Funny how that often happens with birding – after you’ve seen a species once, even if you wait for it for years, you often see it again several times in quick succession. This week, this happened to me not only with Black Skimmer but also Marbled Godwit and Northern Bobwhite.

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Black Skimmers – these ones were at Galveston Island on January 6th.

Dean had given me some good info for an Aplomado Falcon site, viewable from highway 100 near Laguna Vista. Parking as instructed in a turnaround next to a small blue building, I scanned the rows of pylons opposite, and there it was – an Aplomado Falcon perched on the T-bar of a pylon, distant but seen well through my telescope.

Ahead of schedule, I continued west to the Palo Alto Battlefield historic site, where Cactus Wren was my main target. At the end of the concrete pathway, past the battlefield overlook pavilion, the habitat looked good with dry scrub and patches of cactus plants. Taking my chances with the snakes, I left the trail and started creeping through the scrub, pausing every once in a while for some “pishing”. This approach paid dividends with not only a Cactus Wren popping up to see what was going on, but also Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, two Olive Sparrows, a Cassin’s Sparrow, and a Curve-billed Thrasher! I also flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhites here.

Back at the parking lot, several Great Kiskadees were noisy and conspicuous, and I had close views of a Western Meadowlark, its yellow submoustachial distinguishing it from the Eastern Meadowlark. In fact the only bird I felt I had missed here was Verdin, but I figured I would have another excellent chance to see it at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio at the weekend.

Next up was a rather insalubrious but very famous birding destination, the Brownsville landfill site. Formerly known as the only reliable place in the US to see Tamaulipas Crow, this small corvid was last regularly seen here in 2010. However, the landfill remains a good location for gulls, and especially my target bird here: Chihuahuan Raven.

On arrival at the site, I was informed that due to the recent heavy rainfall, the landfill itself was off-limits to visiting birders because of the risk of the waste collapsing. Getting trapped under a falling mountain of rotting trash could really ruin your whole day! However, by parking just to the left of the landfill entrance, I could view the site and adjacent lakes distantly through my telescope. Birds were exceedingly numerous on top of the waste mountains where earthmovers pushed the trash around, and men in jump suits were wandering around doing who knows what. It didn’t take long to find a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens, but views were very distant and I kept losing the birds among the throngs of gulls, grackles and vultures. While I was standing there watching the birds, the site manager approached me and offered to personally guide me through the safer parts of the landfill, if I wanted a closer look. While it was a very kind offer, I politely declined as my target bird was already on my list, and I had absolutely no desire to get closer to the piles of stinking, putrid garbage.

An unexpected bonus bird here was a Tropical Kingbird, giving prolonged views right in front of me – this individual was readily distinguishable from the very similar Couch’s Kingbird by its long, thin-based bill and grey-toned mantle, although it was not heard to call.

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The only way for a committed birder’s rental car to be ….. absolutely covered in mud!

The lure of a long-staying Golden-crowned Warbler and several other rarities at Refugio was drawing me back north, so after a quick lunch I hit the highway. Notable along the way was a Harris’s Hawk right next to the road near Raymondville, several Brewer’s Blackbirds at the Sarita rest stop, and a small flock of Pyrrhuloxia at King Ranch. I wasted some time at the latter site looking for Wild Turkey, with no luck, before continuing northwards and arriving at Lions Park, Refugio, at around 3.45pm.

It was cold, breezy and very overcast here, and I didn’t fancy my chances – and the looks on the faces of the departing birders said it all, with no confirmed sightings of the Golden-crowned Warbler today. However, a Summer Tanager had been spotted, and the distinctive “pip-pip” call of an elusive Greater Pewee had been heard, although it was not certain whether anyone had actually laid eyes on the bird.

It turned out that I was to find none of these three headline species, but my visit was made more than worthwhile with the discovery of a magnificent Barred Owl. Walking one of the more distant trails in the northern part of the park, I rounded a corner to come face to face with the owl which was perched on a broken tree stump about 4 feet off the ground. This was at around 4.50pm, and I hesitate to say “in broad daylight” as it was a very gloomy afternoon, which is perhaps what prompted this nocturnal owl to be out and about so early. Realising I was there, the bird flushed and flew up into a nearby tree, where it peered at me for a while before flying off deeper into the forest. Although much less rare in the US than a Golden-crowned Warbler, I would take a Barred Owl sighting any day over the warbler, which is a widespread species in tropical Latin America.

Also in the general area, I saw at least one Wilson’s Warbler, a White-eyed Vireo, and a small flock of Pine Siskins – an overall very respectable haul from the park, and I went away well satisfied despite missing the rarities here.

Feeling somewhat tired, I elected for an early night in a motel in Victoria, in preparation for a very early start and three-hour drive to the Galveston area next morning.

Today’s Highlights: Barred Owl, Wilson’s Warbler, Pine Siskin, White-eyed Vireo, Cactus Wren, Olive Sparrow, Tropical Kingbird, Chihuahuan Raven, Harris’s Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Black Skimmer.

2016 total species so far:  177

January 6th: I was on the road early, driving through relentless heavy rain around dawn which made the prospects for the day look less than appealing. Fortunately, the rain stopped as I neared the Galveston area, and by the time I arrived at the Texas City Dike we were back to a familiar weather pattern of cold, breezy and overcast.

The dike is drivable, allowing for nice easy birding from the comfort of the car. Before long, I found the first of my targets – Common Loon, also known as Great Northern Diver, which is what I grew up calling it in the UK. The 15 individuals I counted here is probably double my previous all-time total for this species, which is a scarce winter visitor in southern England and usually only seen singly.

American Oystercatcher was another target bird that I also located without difficulty, although it is very scarce in number here compared to other shorebirds – unlike oystercatcher species in the UK and New Zealand which can be abundant at favored sites.

A lone Piping Plover here made it onto the list earlier than expected (Bolivar shorebird sanctuary was my planned site for this species), and a Common Tern was another unexpected find – it is rare and irregular in winter on the Gulf coast, usually wintering much farther south.

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Common Tern at Texas City Dike, January 6th. Easily distinguished from Forster’s Tern in winter by its capped appearance with black extending across the nape, and especially by the dark carpal bar on the wing.

I drove south, across to Galveston Island, where I unsurprisingly failed to find the reported American Tree Sparrow on 8 Mile Road in windy conditions. With time rapidly ticking away, I decided to take the ferry across to Bolivar Island for some guaranteed year birds at the shorebird sanctuary there. Sure enough, a few individuals of both Semipalmated Plover and Snowy Plover were quickly located, alongside more Piping Plovers, but the dunes didn’t yield the hoped-for Horned Lark. An American Pipit on Rettilon Road was welcome, and I tried a spot of “pishing” along there which produced a Marsh Wren and abundant Swamp Sparrows. No luck with Seaside Sparrow, which is quickly moving up the ranks to become one of my “most wanted” Texas birds, but the viewing conditions on this gloomy and windy afternoon were far from ideal.

Having come this far, it was logical that I continue around the loop and call in at Anahuac NWR on the way back to Houston. Between the Skillern Tract entrance and the main gates, a huge Snow Goose flock had me pulling over and scanning. I was crossing my fingers that a Cackling Goose was somewhere in the flock, but I had no joy, and I didn’t look too closely for Ross’s Goose, having seen them the other day at Katy Prairie. Nearby, an impressive flock of blackbirds and grackles foraged near a grain machine on a pasture next to the road. A quick scan through the flock produced not only several of the expected Boat-tailed Grackles (slightly smaller, rounder-headed, and duller-eyed than the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle), but also a female Yellow-headed Blackbird. The latter bird is rare here, and had I not seen them the other day at Progreso would have been a real five-star sighting. As I later learned on eBird, there were up to three individual Yellow-headed Blackbirds reported here today.

The Shoveler Pond Loop at Anahuac is where my two remaining targets were located, and sure enough it took all of about one minute to locate large numbers of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, alongside a handful of Fulvous Whistling Ducks. No sign, however, of the Canvasbacks I had seen here a few weeks back. The most remarkable sighting in this area was a steady passage of Tree Swallows, with a total of several hundred seen, and birds constantly in view overhead or hawking insects low over the marshes.

Today’s Highlights: Semipalmated, Piping, and Snowy Plovers, Common Loon, American Oystercatcher, Common Tern, Boat-tailed Grackle, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Fulvous Whistling Duck.

2016 total species so far:  188

January 7th: Back in Houston, I took the rental car back in the early morning (thankfully the heavy rain had cleaned most of the mud off!), and rediscovered the much greater comfort – but lesser fuel economy – of my usual Jaguar Vanden Plas, a car I borrowed from the in-laws.

I could only spare a few hours this afternoon, and the obvious choice was Bear Creek Park, only about 15 minutes from home. A Greater Pewee has spent the last several winters in the park, but it can apparently be a very tough bird to locate, so I wasn’t counting on seeing it. However, several absentees from my year list such as Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird should be guaranteed here, plus there was a fair chance of Pileated Woodpecker.

The Greater Pewee is usually seen around toilet blocks 9 and 10, so I naturally decided to focus on this area. I was in for a surprise when I arrived, as the road was closed due to excessive flooding – in fact this part of the park was almost completely underwater. Not to be deterred, I took my socks and shoes off, rolled up my trousers, and waded across to toilet block 9.

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Bear Creek Park, January 7th. Large areas of the park were underwater, but the water was only knee-deep and it was possible to wade to the area frequented by the Greater Pewee.

Apart from the flooding, viewing conditions this afternoon were perfect, with clear sunny skies and zero wind. Birds were everywhere, not only including my dead cert targets Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird, but also Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Pileated Woodpecker seen on several occasions, and gorgeous Pine Warblers in most of the mixed species bird flocks along with Chipping Sparrows. At around 4.20pm, I was preparing to leave when I heard the loud “pip-pip” call of the Greater Pewee, which once heard is never forgotten. A few seconds later, the bird appeared in the treetops next to toilet block 9, and although it remained high in the trees it did give some good views. This is an easy bird to identify, with its large size, crest, upright posture, and orange lower mandible, as well as the distinctive call which it uttered constantly.

Today’s Highlights: Greater Pewee, Pileated Woodpecker.

2016 total species so far:  192

January 8th: I took my parents-in-law to Sheldon Lake this morning, a beautiful and under-visited state park less than 30 minutes from downtown Houston. My main target here was Le Conte’s Sparrow, which winter in small numbers in the marshy prairies here. It turns out that this species is very responsive to “pishing”, so seeing them turned out to be easier than expected – we just stood in the middle of the boardwalk, pished, and voila….. three Le Conte’s Sparrows popped up to take a closer look at us. Sedge Wren is another bird that has a weakness for pishing, and we saw two of those too, as well as abundant Swamp Sparrows.

From the top of the impressive viewing tower, some hirundines were flying about, and in complete contrast to the monospecies passage of Tree Swallows at Anahuac the other day, this relatively tiny group of swallows contained three species: Tree Swallow, several Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and a single Cave Swallow. The long-staying Great Kiskadee and a lone Anhinga were also seen from atop the tower, although views across to downtown Houston were less than stellar owing to the misty weather conditions.

Today’s Highlights: Le Conte’s Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cave Swallow, Great Kiskadee, Anhinga.

2016 total species so far:  195

January 9th: My last chance to get out into the field before I left the country for Vietnam. Last night, I had driven over to New Braunfels to spend a couple of nights at my parents-in-law’s weekend home, and when I awoke at 6.00am on Saturday morning I was perfectly positioned to make the 45-minute drive to Mitchell Lake Audobon Center in San Antonio. If anywhere offered me the chance to break through the magic 200 species mark today, it was here ….. the site has a long and impressive list of birds to its credit, and I figured that at least half a dozen year ticks ought to be possible in a morning’s birding.

I started at the visitor center, and very quickly got on the score sheet with a male House Finch at the feeders. Another enjoyable sight here – although not a year tick – was a Harris’s Sparrow feeding alongside a small group of White-crowned Sparrows. I later learned that a Green-tailed Towhee had been seen and photographed under the feeders that morning, a bird I would have waited for had I known it was around. Still, I was satisfied with my start to the day. On the trail to the bird lake I notched up a Red-shouldered Hawk in the woods, another year tick, while in an open area of the trail a Vesper Sparrow foraged on the ground. Three new year birds already, now up to 198 in total, and I was feeling good about breaking 200.

I have my wife to thank for what happened next. She called me on the phone as I was leaving the area, and, anticipating a long conversation, I retraced my steps back to the bird lake where there was a bench to sit on. As I sat there, half watching the nearby scrub, a noticed a flash of yellow. Raising my binoculars to my eyes with one hand while I held the phone in the other, I was astounded to see a stunning adult Audubon’s Oriole right there in front of me. Needless to say I dropped the phone and picked up my camera. By then the bird had dropped lower into the bushes, but I did still manage to get a record shot. Audubon’s Oriole is a range-restricted bird found only in northern Mexico and southern Texas, and it is apparently scarce throughout its range – Mitchell Lake is one of the best sites for this species, although it is infrequently seen even here.

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Audubon’s Oriole, Mitchell Lake, January 9th. A scarce bird with a small world range, found in northern Mexico and southern Texas only.

Given the recent rainfall, the dyke roads into the heart of the reserve were closed to traffic today – and even if they had been open, I don’t think I would have risked driving them, given my recent experience getting stuck in the mud at Chapman Ranch. So I parked the car, and as I was preparing to start walking, there it was …. my 200th species for 2016, a Verdin hunting for insects in low scrub. I had done it, the pressure was off! Still, I had plenty of time to add to my total, and that I soon did with a nice flock of 37 Bonaparte’s Gulls on one of the lakes. This was actually a USA tick for me, with my only other sighting of this species being in the UK, where it is a rare but annual visitor.

With my telescope, I scanned the main lake with two target ducks in mind, and achieved a 50% success rate: I saw three distant Hooded Mergansers, but drew a blank with Canvasback.

It was good to walk the dyke roads for a change instead of driving them: Song Sparrow and Bewick’s Wren were two interesting birds that I doubt I would have seen if I had been in my car. Another was a briefly-seen Empidonax flycatcher, species uncertain. I had just a two-second look at it, enough time to start uttering “what the …..” to myself, before the bird promptly disappeared. It didn’t call, which is the crucial distinguishing feature among a number of Empidonax species which are more or less identical in terms of plumage. All I saw when it briefly sat on a open perch was that the bird had a very upright posture, was a light olive-green in color, with two prominent whitish wingbars, had a big eye with a striking broad, white eye-ring, and a two-toned bill.

Having rounded off a very successful trip to Mitchell Lake, I knew exactly where I could easily get my final two birds for the USA this year: Landa Park in New Braunfels. Sure enough, it took all of about 30 seconds to find both Wood Duck and Egyptian Goose, the latter not yet technically countable by the ABA, but acceptable for me as they have a free-flying, self-sustaining – and rapidly growing – population here.

The question of provenance was also raised by a pair of Mallards, which were pure-bred birds unlike the “domestic-type” Mallards that are resident here. These two kept their distance from the domestic birds, and could very conceivably have been wild-origin ducks enjoying an easy winter in the park in the same way as the wild Lesser Scaups and Wood Ducks.

Next stop, Vietnam!

Today’s Highlights: Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck, Bonaparte’s Gull, Verdin, Red-shouldered Hawk, Vesper Sparrow, Audubon’s Oriole.

2016 total species so far:  205

Lifers, January 2nd-9th: Harris’s Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, Sprague’s Pipit, Lark Sparrow, Marbled Godwit, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Eastern Screech-Owl, Virginia Rail, Red-crowned Parrot, Cassin’s Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Chihuahuan Raven, Barred Owl, Cactus Wren, Aplomado Falcon, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher, Greater Pewee, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Audubon’s Oriole (total 2,075).

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Osprey at Anahuac NWR enforcing the one-way traffic system at Shoveler Pond.
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Ringed Kingfisher and Wood Duck, Landa Park, December 19th

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Wood Duck and Lesser Scaup, Landa Park, December 19th.

Landa Park in New Braunfels is a reliable site in winter for what is widely considered to be North America’s most beautiful and photogenic duck. The wintering Wood Ducks here opt for the easy life, coming to bread and showing at close range, meaning the quite spectacular colors of the male can be fully appreciated.

Alongside them, it was interesting to see 20 or so Lesser Scaup also competing voraciously for scraps of bread …. the Wood Ducks aren’t the only wild ducks turning to human handouts here!

A short afternoon walk beside the lake also turned up an unexpected sighting of a Ringed Kingfisher. This enormous kingfisher is widespread in Latin America, but its range only just extends into south Texas, and the birds regularly seen here are close to the northern limit of their range. It can be readily distinguished from the much commoner Belted Kingfisher not only by its size, but also its vivid all-chestnut underparts, and a much louder and harsher call.

2015 Year Ticks: Wood Duck, Ringed Kingfisher (total 1,110).

Tropical Birding in South Texas, December 12th-14th

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Common Pauraque at its daytime roost, Estero Llano Grande State Park, December 13th.

After two months in Texas, I finally had the long-awaited opportunity to head south – seriously south. The lower Rio Grande valley along the border with Mexico is a unique bird area, as it holds a wide range of tropical species at the far northern end of their range which are not found elsewhere in the USA. It’s arguably one of the most exciting places in the world to see birds – especially so in spring, but winter is certainly not without its delights, as I was to discover.

Along the way, what self-respecting birder could pass up the opportunity to visit Aransas National Wildlife Reserve – the only wintering site in the world for the rare and spectacular Whooping Crane? I was at the Aransas visitor center by 7.30am after a ridiculously early start from Houston. The weather wasn’t especially co-operative, being very windy and overcast with occasional outbreaks of rain. Considering this is December in the northern hemisphere, one might imagine some very unpleasant birding conditions, but not today in southern Texas where the temperature stayed pegged at an extremely mild 25C (78F) throughout the day.

Five gleaming white Whooping Cranes were easy to spot from the specially constructed viewing tower, albeit very distantly (a telescope is essential here). I also had to clear a path through the rows of Black Vultures, who like to use the railings on the tower’s walkways as perching and squabbling grounds, and in some cases were very reluctant to move – these birds are actually fairly intimidating when they are glaring at you from only six feet away!

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Up close and personal with a Black Vulture at Aransas – this photo was taken on my second visit to the site on December 14th.

I enjoyed some seawatching in the bay, although in less than ideal conditions with the wind and choppy seas making for difficult viewing. However, I did find about 10 Horned Grebes, perhaps a higher than usual total for this site, and at least four Greater Scaup among the large flocks of Lesser Scaup. Interesting fly-bys comprised a small flock of Snow Geese, and three cinnamon-colored Long-billed Curlews, but try as I might, I could not locate a Common Loon on the water.

Along the “auto tour loop”, I chanced upon a family group of Sandhill Cranes showing well not far from the car, and a lone Whooping Crane nearby, closer than the tower birds but standing in long grass so it was only visible from the neck upwards. White-tailed Hawk was another good sighting here, this bird is a speciality of the Texas coastal plain and is found nowhere else in the USA.

Although the Aransas area easily merits a full day – or even several days – of exploring, I had lots more birds to see and only limited time, so by late morning I was impatient to hit the road south. An eBird-inspired stop south of Corpus Christi was moderately rewarding, with good views of several Greater Roadrunner, a fine male Pyrrhuloxia, and three Say’s Phoebes at Chapman Ranch. I had been hoping for Burrowing Owl here, but the Say’s Phoebes provided excellent compensation – they are rare winter visitors this far east. I managed a very poor photo with my “punk” camera, but it’s enough to confirm the identification. I really need to invest in a decent camera, as photos are more or less essential these days in order to confirm sightings of rare species – and I was to find several other rarities before the weekend was out, neither of which I managed to photograph.

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Say’s Phoebe, Chapman Ranch, December 13th – a rare winter visitor in south and east Texas.

Vast agricultural prairies lie to the south and west of Corpus Christi, home in winter to very small numbers of Sprague’s Pipit, Mountain Plover, and Prairie Falcon, but finding any of them is locating a needle in a haystack, and on this windy and dull afternoon it was unsurprising when I came away empty-handed – although a fine flock of Sandhill Cranes provided modest compensation for my efforts.

With an early, wintry dusk fast approaching, the birding was more or less over for the day, and I drove south to Harlingen, where I treated myself to an overnight stay in a Super 8 motel. This was a bit above budget – I had been planning to sleep in the car – but I was exhausted after the early start and long drive.

I awoke to more of the same weather – extremely overcast, warm, windy, and damp. With so many birding options in the lower Rio Grande valley, it was hard to decide where to go – and with just one full day here, I had to be smart and eliminate any long drives. The original plan to visit Laguna Atascosa fell by the wayside in favor of the much closer Estero Llano Grande State Park, which turned out to be an excellent choice. A total of 76 bird species seen here in just 3.5 hours demonstrates the quality of this location. In fact, just sitting quietly and watching the bird feeders and garden at the visitor center produced such exciting birds as Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, and both Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, all at very close range. Along the trails, I was adding to my list every few minutes, with many south Texas specialities seen including Cinnamon Teal, Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Green Kingfisher, Groove-billed Ani, Green Parakeet, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Indigo Bunting, a beautiful male Painted Bunting (a very rare bird in winter), and a perfectly camouflaged day-roosting Common Pauraque.

Halfway through the morning, the wind suddenly blew cold, and I was to learn later that the temperature dropped from 25C (78F) to 16C (61F) in just a couple of seconds. Sudden weather changes are a fascinating Texas phenomenon that we just don’t have in temperate Western Europe. All I know is that suddenly I was very grateful I had packed my warm sweater in my bag – other T-shirt wearing birders I encountered on the trails weren’t so lucky!

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Me in birding action at Chapman Ranch, in temperatures of 25C (78F) …. not the kind of December weather we ever get in the UK!

My second port of call for the day was the Santa Ana National Wildlife Reserve, where a long-staying Northern Jacana, a very rare vagrant to the USA from its breeding grounds in Mexico, was perhaps the outstanding highlight. The area didn’t seem quite as exceptionally rich in birds as Estero Llano Grande, but I added some excellent birds to the list including a skulking Olive Sparrow, a Harris’s Hawk, and one of my all-time favorite birds, Black-and-white Warbler. This charismatic bird is readily spotted by its striped black and white plumage, and its unusual habit of spiralling up and down trunks and branches, more like a nuthatch than a warbler. It’s common in the USA in from spring to fall, but only a handful winter in the far south of the country, with the rest heading to Mexico and central America. Not that this one was very far from Mexico, perhaps just two miles as the warbler flies.

I was to have an even closer encounter with Mexico at my final location for the day, the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. This site, also known as the World Birding Center, is legendary among birders, with quite a long list of very rare Mexican and tropical species seen here over the years. I arrived in the early afternoon to glorious sunny, cool and calm conditions, the incoming cold front having taken just a couple of hours to completely clear the overcast, windy weather away.

Birding the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park involves doing quite a lot of walking, as it’s a big park and cars are not allowed, presumably in a bid to make it harder for illegal immigrants to cross the USA-Mexico border which lies along the Rio Grande at the southern edge of the park. Despite the fine weather, birding was rather slow at first, although I wasn’t complaining as the numerous Green Jays at the park’s feeding stations were always on view and looking spectacular in the afternoon sunlight.

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Green Jays (with a Northern Cardinal behind them), Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, December 13th.

The main reason I was here was for the hawks, and I after nearly four hours in the park, and more than six miles of walking, I came away well satisfied with excellent views of two perched adult Grey Hawks (a site speciality), Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and good perched views of the long-staying juvenile Broad-winged Hawk. The latter species is a common summer visitor and passage migrant to the USA, but very rare in winter.

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Record shot of the long-staying juvenile Broad-winged Hawk, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, December 13th.

The habitat is rather dry and arid in the park, and bird density seemed fairly low. I figured that maybe if I headed to the distant reaches of the park next to the Rio Grande, there might be some damper areas with perhaps a wider range of bird species. This didn’t actually prove to be the case, but I had an interesting experience when I followed a small side trail and suddenly found myself on the banks of the Rio Grande. Across the river, perhaps 200 feet away, was Mexico, and on the opposite bank I could see a derelict building and beside it, a narrow path heading to the water’s edge. On my side of the river, a deflated inner tube lay in the shallows, no doubt previously used by illegal immigrants heading across from Mexico. It really would not have been hard to cross the river undetected in this spot, and disappear into the woods in the State Park – I wondered how many people used this particular crossing, and whether anyone was lurking in the bushes watching me at that moment!

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The Rio Grande at the edge of Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park – the opposite bank is Mexico.

As the afternoon drew to a close, I dosed up on some coffee, and drove north through the evening, finally arriving at the gates of Aransas NWR at around 11.30pm. I was well-prepared with blankets and pillows, and enjoyed a surprisingly refreshing sleep in the car, waking at 7.00am ready and raring to go for another morning’s birding.

It was one of those mornings when the world seems absolutely perfect. A clear, sunny, and cool day, with temperatures of 7C/45F at dawn rising to perhaps 17C/63F by late morning. A little mist lingered over the trees and I could hear the distant calls of Sandhill Cranes in flight, and one of the first sights to greet me at the start of the Heron Flats trail was a magnificent pair of Whooping Cranes on the saltmarsh close to the first viewing platform.

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A perfect dawn at Aransas NWR visitor center.

The Heron Flats trail was absolutely bursting with bird activity, with small songbirds and wintering warblers energetically feeding as the sun warmed the trees and bushes, making up for lost time after the recent windy, rainy weather. Yellow-rumped Warblers inhabited virtually every bush, calling constantly, and some usually secretive species showed well: two Sedge Wrens, three Grey Catbirds, and no fewer than five Long-billed Thrashers.

It was on this trail that I found a major winter rarity. Noticing a warbler quite low down in brushy scrub at the edge of the path, I raised my binoculars and immediately knew I was onto something good. It had a bright, vivid yellow throat and underparts, black streaking on the breast sides, a plain olive-green back with no discernible wingbars, and clear yellow crescents above and below the eye. The bird was feeding low down in the bushes, flicking its wings and tail, and showing very well in perfect light as I had the sun behind me. The all-yellow underparts and lack of wingbars ruled out Pine Warbler, the only realistically confusable possibility among the regular wintering warblers. I realized I could only have been looking at a Prairie Warbler, which is an exceptionally rare bird in Texas, especially in winter. A few days later, when perusing records of this species on eBird, I found that a juvenile female Prairie Warbler had been seen (and photographed) at exactly the same location in December last year. Could my bird be the same individual, returning for a second winter?

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Whooping Crane at Aransas NWR, December 14th – closer than before, but still a little too distant for my camera!

Full bird list, south Texas, December 12th-14th. Lifers in bold, 2015 year ticks in italics:

1. Black-bellied Whistling Duck
2. Snow Goose
3. Gadwall
4. American Wigeon
5. Mottled Duck
6. Blue-winged Teal
7. Cinnamon Teal
8. Northern Shoveler
9. Northern Pintail
10. Green-winged Teal
11. Redhead
12. Greater Scaup
13. Lesser Scaup
14. Bufflehead
15. Common Goldeneye
16. Red-breasted Merganser
17. Plain Chachalaca
18. Least Grebe
19. Pied-billed Grebe
20. Horned Grebe
21. Eared Grebe
22. Neotropic Cormorant
23. Double-crested Cormorant
24. Anhinga
25. Brown Pelican
26. American White Pelican
27. Great Blue Heron
28. Great Egret
29. Snowy Egret
30. Little Blue Heron
31. Tricolored Heron
32. Reddish Egret
33. Yellow-crowned Night Heron
34. Black-crowned Night Heron
35. White Ibis
36. White-faced Ibis
37. Roseate Spoonbill
38. Black Vulture
39. Turkey Vulture
40. Osprey
41. White-tailed Kite
42. Northern Harrier
43. Sharp-shinned Hawk
44. Cooper’s Hawk
45. Harris’s Hawk
46. White-tailed Hawk
47. Grey Hawk
48. Broad-winged Hawk
49. Red-tailed Hawk
50. Sora
51. Common Gallinule
52. American Coot
53. Sandhill Crane
54. Whooping Crane
55. Black-necked Stilt
56. American Avocet
57. Killdeer
58. Northern Jacana
59. Spotted Sandpiper
60. Greater Yellowlegs
61. Willet
62. Long-billed Curlew
63. Ruddy Turnstone
64. Sanderling
65. Western Sandpiper
66. Least Sandpiper
67. Long-billed Dowitcher
68. Wilson’s Snipe
69. Laughing Gull
70. Ring-billed Gull
71. Caspian Tern
72. Forster’s Tern
73. Rock Dove
74. Eurasian Collared Dove
75. Inca Dove
76. Common Ground-Dove
77. White-tipped Dove
78. White-winged Dove
79. Mourning Dove
80. Greater Roadrunner
81. Groove-billed Ani
82. Common Pauraque
83. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
84. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
85. Green Kingfisher
86. Belted Kingfisher
87. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
88. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
89. Crested Caracara
90. American Kestrel
91. Green Parakeet
92. Eastern Phoebe
93. Say’s Phoebe
94. Vermilion Flycatcher
95. Great Kiskadee
96. Couch’s Kingbird
97. Tropical Kingbird
98. Loggerhead Shrike
99. Green Jay
100. Tree Swallow
101. Cave Swallow
102. Black-crested Titmouse
103. House Wren
104. Sedge Wren
105. Carolina Wren
106. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
107. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
108. American Robin
109. Grey Catbird
110. Curve-billed Thrasher
111. Long-billed Thrasher
112. Northern Mockingbird
113. European Starling
114. Black-and-white Warbler
115. Orange-crowned Warbler
116. Common Yellowthroat
117. Yellow-rumped Warbler
118. Prairie Warbler
119. Olive Sparrow
120. Savannah Sparrow
121. Lincoln’s Sparrow
122. Swamp Sparrow
123. Northern Cardinal
124. Pyrrhuloxia
125. Indigo Bunting
126. Painted Bunting
127. Red-winged Blackbird
128. Eastern Meadowlark
129. Boat-tailed Grackle
130. Great-tailed Grackle
131. Altamira Oriole
132. American Goldfinch
133. House Sparrow

World Life List: 2,054
2015 World Year List: 1,108

Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

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View from the observation tower at Sheldon Lake – an alligator-infested wilderness less than 15 miles from downtown Houston.

The city of Houston is a birder’s paradise. Gulf coast spots outside the city such as Anahuac, Galveston, Bolivar Island and Brazoria are well known, but what is perhaps not so often appreciated is just how many wonderful and well-managed birding sites exist within the city limits, ranging from small urban wildlife oases to sizeable wetlands. Today I decided to stay closer to home and explore a couple of these locations, with the prospect of encountering several uncommon wintering birds recently reported on eBird.

I have just taken delivery of a new pair of Zeiss binoculars, so I was anxious to get into the field and try them out – and my wife Jenna wanted to come too. On our previous birding outings together, Jenna has been without optics, but she has now “inherited” my old Zeiss 8×20 compacts. This made for a much more involving and enjoyable birding experience for her  – no doubt helped a great deal by the beautiful cool, crisp, sunny weather. We packed a picnic and made a relaxed mid-morning start, heading first of all to the Kleb Woods Nature Preserve in the north-west quadrant of the city.

The story of Kleb Woods is an interesting one. Elmer Kleb inherited the site in the 1930s, but had no interest in farming the land as his father had done. Instead, he planted trees and let the 133 acre plot grow wild, living as a recluse in the forest while suburban Houston relentlessly grew around him. Facing a huge unpaid tax bill in the 1980s, it looked as though the elderly Elmer Kleb would be forced to sell his beloved forest to pay his debts to the state – but fortunately, Harris County managed to acquire a grant to buy the reserve, pay the back taxes, and preserve the land as a nature reserve. Elmer Kleb was allowed to remain in his cottage, and was even paid a stipend by the state to live there, until his death in 1999.

These days, Kleb Woods is managed with the birds in mind. Reserve staff maintain bird feeders around the nature center and farm buildings, including a number of hummingbird feeders – this is Houston’s premier hummingbird site in winter with several very scarce species possible here. Recently, a Rufous Hummingbird has been a regular fixture, with several unidentified “Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbirds” also present. Females of the two species are impossible to distinguish except in the hand, whereas the males are separable with care. In all likelihood, almost all of the unidentified hummingbirds here are Rufous, as most – but not all – of them prove to be this species when caught.

One of the first birds we saw was a stunning Red-bellied Woodpecker, which although common is a very striking bird when seen at close range in good light – and this one was on a bird feeder in full sunlight less than 30 yards away, much to Jenna’s enjoyment. A few White-throated Sparrows skulked around, and I was pleased to locate a Dark-eyed Junco in the pine trees, a winter visitor to Texas which isn’t often noted in the eBird reports. Although there are many hummingbird feeders here, locating the hummingbirds’ favored area isn’t difficult as the birds are extremely territorial. We quickly found a female-type Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbird, which repeatedly flew high in the air and hovered for a few seconds, calling all the while, before swooping down on a low “bombing raid” to chase away a rival, finally returning to a nearby treetop. The rival hummingbirds here were both unidentifiable females, but we took a seat and waited, and before long located the male Rufous Hummingbird, which seemed to prefer staying perched low down inside the bushes close to the feeder and staying out of the bombing raids. We watched the antics of the hummingbirds while enjoying our picnic in the warm sunshine – casual birding at its best!

The icing on cake was awaiting us as we walked back towards the car – a gorgeous male Red-breasted Nuthatch, showing very well on pine branches and trunks next to the nature center. This is a scarce winter visitor to this part of the US – this bird had been reported at Kleb Woods on and off since mid November, but hadn’t been seen for a few days, so it was great to rediscover it.

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Jenna and her new binoculars – but no sign of a Greater Roadrunner despite the signs!

After a leisurely coffee stop – this was a “wife-friendly” birding day after all – we continued to Sheldon Lake, to the north-east of downtown, where we spent the last two hours of daylight walking the trail past the educational ponds, and back via the impressive John Jacobs observation tower. The tower is 82 feet tall, cost $1.3 million to build, and offers impressive views from its viewing decks – it even has a solar powered elevator! We had it all to ourselves, and from the top deck enjoyed panoramic late afternoon views of vast unspoiled marshlands to the north, smoking industrial chimneys to the south-east, and the skyscrapers of downtown Houston to the south-west. Incredible to think that such a tranquil, wild place can exist just a couple of miles from one of America’s busiest urban areas.

The birding here was pretty good too. Along the trails and beside the ponds, legions of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and smaller numbers of Orange-crowned Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets inhabited almost every bush. A couple of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers also showed well – this species is a quite beautiful shade of blue when seen in good light, while nearby a young American Goldfinch allowed us to approach very closely while it fed on a seed head. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in trees by the car park shared the area with a newly arrived flock of Cedar Waxwings, and small numbers of migrant Tree Swallows filtered through overhead. Rough meadows below the observation tower probably hold any number of rare sparrows in winter – Le Conte’s Sparrow is regularly recorded here – but we had to make do with good views of Swamp Sparrow, and a curious Sedge Wren. Probably the best sighting at Sheldon Lake wasn’t a bird at all, but a rather large alligator sunning itself at the edge of one of the ponds – my first sighting of an alligator in the US, although I am quite sure that it’s not the first time one of them has seen me, considering how much time I have spent in coastal wetlands during this Texas trip.

Just down the road from where I am currently living in west Houston is a small Audobon reserve, the Edith L Moore nature sanctuary, which I have been intending to visit for a while. According to eBird it seems to be a regular wintering location for a recent “bogey bird” of mine, Hermit Thrush, so when I found myself with a spare hour late on a gloriously warm, sunny Monday afternoon, I headed over there. The very first bird I saw as I walked away from the car park was a fine Hermit Thrush, feeding in the leaf litter, and I was to see two more during the course of my 40-minute visit. Halfway along the nature trail, I enjoyed a most unexpected encounter with a stunning Pileated Woodpecker, the largest extant North American woodpecker – it is not a common sight anywhere but seems to be fairly regularly seen in the well-wooded suburbs of west Houston.

Lifers: Rufous Hummingbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush (total 2,042).

2015 Year Ticks: Cedar Waxwing, Dark-eyed Junco, Swamp Sparrow (total 1,074).

Endangered species in Texas: Piping Plover and Red-cockaded Woodpecker, November 20th and 22nd

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Handy sign telling birders exactly where to search for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker, at W G Jones State Forest near Houston.

Friday morning saw me once again heading to the Texas coast, targeting three species of small plover that I still needed for my list: Piping, Semipalmated, and Snowy. The first species is classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN, with a total world population of just 6,500 birds, while the last used to be considered part of the very widespread Kentish Plover, but has now been split.

It was a beautiful day, and I took the scenic route to the Bolivar Shorebird Sanctuary via the Galveston ferry. While waiting for the ferry, lots of birds could be seen around the port including huge numbers of Laughing Gulls interspersed with the occasional Ring-billed and American Herring Gull. Three species of terns were flying about, too: Royal, Forster’s, and my personal first Sandwich Terns for north America.

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Laughing Gulls, Galveston, November 20th.

The tide was very high when I arrived at the beach at the end of Rettilon Road, but the lack of mudflats was not a problem for my target birds – they are partial to sandy beaches, and indeed I found my first Piping Plovers almost as soon as I arrived, running around on the sand close to the car. Semipalmated Plover was also quickly located at a small pool behind the beach, while Snowy Plover turned out to be the least common of the three, but still findable without too much difficulty.

Apart from the plovers, this small pool held perhaps one hundred Western Sandpipers, small numbers of Dunlin and Sanderling, and a Least Sandpiper, while a welcome find on the nearby dunes was a group of four Horned Larks. The beach wader roosts contained large numbers of American Avocets, and lots of gulls and terns including Caspian Tern – a second north American tern tick for the day, and a bird I have now seen on four continents. A Reddish Egret flew past along the shoreline, an uncommon coastal speciality, and another new addition to my list.

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Piping Plover sporting red and blue leg rings at Bolivar island, November 20th.

I decided to continue driving east along the coast, then north through High Island en route to Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, where there were many of the same birds I had seen on my previous visit to this site a month ago. Wintering ducks on Shoveler Pond included several individuals of one of my favorite species, Canvasback, but my personal highlight at Anahuac was a passage of Tree Swallows – this north American hirundine is a late fall migrant, and until now had been a big gap on my USA list as it is rather common.

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Snowy Egret at Shoveler Pond, Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, November 20th.

Two days later, I embarked on quite a different kind of birding trip. Just 40 minutes north of Houston is the W G Jones State Park, one of the last remaining refuges for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Texas. The population of this species has fallen by a staggering 99% from its original levels, and now numbers just 13,500 birds. Unlike most woodpeckers, which utilise dead trees for their nesting and roosting holes, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker bores its holes in live pine trees afflicted with heartwood disease. It is found in open pine forests, and is threatened by habitat loss.

Sunday morning dawned extremely cold for the time of year, with overnight lows of just 4C (39F). At first light – around 7.00am – I was in position beside a small pond in the forest south of road 1488, in an area which looked promising for Red-cockaded Woodpecker – and my suspicions were confirmed by signs on the trees telling me I was in an active “cluster” area for the species. However, after wandering around in the area for two hours I still hadn’t heard or seen one, although I was compensated in part by excellent views of several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Flickers, brief sightings of Pileated Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, and lots of Eastern Bluebirds and Pine Warblers.

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Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat – open pine forest – at W G Jones State park.

I decided to try my luck on the north side of the road, and here I quickly found more signposted woodpecker territories and even a tree with an artificial nest box implanted in the trunk. My luck was in here, as within just a few minutes of my arrival I heard a distinctive raspy-sounding call, and a Red-cockaded Woodpecker flew in, giving me excellent views as it fed on the trunks of several large pines. All pied woodpeckers are attractive, but to my eye this species is especially smart and clean-cut, with a neatly barred back and conspicuous pure white cheeks. I’ve now seen 45 woodpecker species this year, but with only one more remaining possible year tick in this part of Texas (Red-headed Woodpecker) it doesn’t look like I am going to get to 50.

I bumped into some other birders, who had seen two Blue-headed Vireos along the trail, which I didn’t find but instead had much better views than before of a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches. All in all, it was a most satisfactory visit to this site, which I would definitely recommend as being a (fairly) easy and accessible place to spot the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Lifers: Piping Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Snowy Plover, Reddish Egret, Tree Swallow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-cockaded Woodpecker (total 2,038).

2015 Year Ticks: Sandwich Tern, American Herring Gull, Western Sandpiper, Horned Lark, Marsh Wren, American Goldfinch, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (total 1,067).

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Shoveler Pond at Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, November 20th.
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Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a Pied-billed Grebe, and a skulking White Ibis at Anahuac, November 20th.

Hooded Merganser, Cinnamon Teal and Bufflehead, Mitchell Lake Audobon Center, November 15th

An increasingly wintry feel to the birding today, if not the weather, with a huge arrival of ducks at this site since my last visit just 8 days ago. The north-western arm of Mitchell Lake was the place to be, with a female Cinnamon Teal the best offering. This bird flew in and landed fairly close to where I was standing, allowing the ID features to be seen well: large, all-dark bill, warm brown plumage tones, and a plain face with a distinct pale eye ring. It didn’t stay long before departing again, perhaps spooked by intermittent gunshots from the far side of the lake.

Ducks took almost all the headlines today, with three smart Hooded Mergansers – two males and a female – feeding and diving very actively in the same area. On the main lake, two female Red-breasted Mergansers showed close inshore, and a group of newly arrived Bufflehead – including at least two adult drakes – was a fine sight. Also of note here, a Long-billed Dowitcher, a Greater Yellowlegs, and the two Roseate Spoonbills continuing from last week.

Overhead, impressive numbers of Cave Swallows lingered, with a handful of Barn Swallows among their number. Bushes and tracks along the margins of the lakes held some interesting birds, including at least six Vesper Sparrows, hot on the heels of my first-ever sighting of this species last week in Austin. There were also a few warblers around, in contrast to last week: four Orange-crowned Warblers, two Myrtle Warblers, and a Common Yellowthroat, while Verdin and Ladder-backed Woodpecker showed well near the visitor center.

Lifer: Cinnamon Teal (total 2,031).

2015 Year Ticks: Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, Long-billed Dowitcher (total 1,051).

Canvasback, Blue-headed Vireo and Vesper Sparrow, Hornsby Bend (Austin, TX), November 11th-13th

Continuing the recent theme of visiting waste treatment plants, I visited Hornsby Bend on three successive days while staying with friends in Austin. Lying to the east of the city near the airport, just 15 minutes from our lodgings, this site boasts the highest bird list of any location in the Austin area, with 336 species recorded within its boundaries.

Lying next to the Colorado River, Hornsby Bend offers the usual mix of habitats to be expected at such a site, including lakes, treatment ponds, scrub and woodland. It is open from dawk to dusk, and the security staff at the gate are well used to birders here – there are daily reports from this site on eBird, and usually other birders to be seen around the complex. It would make a great local patch for anyone living in Austin, one that is likely to turn up new birds almost daily especially at migration times.

Ducks are one of the main draws here in winter, with hundreds of Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall, interspersed with smaller numbers of Ruddy Duck, Redhead and Lesser Scaup. I also notched up Canvasback for the year list here, plus a few Blue-winged Teal, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks, and single American Wigeon and Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Two Cinnamon Teal had been recorded a few days previously, but unfortunately did not reveal themselves to me despite much searching.

Shorebirds were limited to a few Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Wilson’s Snipe and Killdeer, although earlier in the season many waders pass through on migration. Eared Grebe is a winter speciality of Hornsby Bend; my personal highest count was 3 on November 12th. I also logged one Least Grebe here.

Scrub and woodland bordering the Colorado River is rich in wintering passerines, and I recorded the following in mixed-species feeding flocks in the area: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, Myrtle Warbler (numerous), Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, and Blue-headed Vireo. More open areas held two Vesper Sparrows, which showed extremely well on the track just in front of my car – a lifer for me – as well as the much more common Savannah Sparrow and American Pipit. Several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers – late fall migrants – showed daily on power lines around the lakes, and this was also the place to see Loggerhead Shrike and Eastern Bluebird.

Interesting raptors included an Osprey, a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Crested Caracara, and a Merlin which zipped through the area – an early wintering arrival, or just a migrant passing through on its way south?

Lifers: Blue-headed Vireo, Vesper Sparrow (total 2,030).

2015 Year Ticks: Canvasback, Green-winged Teal, Red-shouldered Hawk, Merlin, Monk Parakeet, Orange-crowned Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet (total 1,044).

Couch’s Kingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, Mitchell Lake Audobon Center, November 8th

American White Pelicans, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.
American White Pelicans, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.

On the southern outskirts of San Antonio, just 45 minutes away from my current location of New Braunfels, Texas, the Mitchell Lake Audobon Center looked to be the ideal destination for a Sunday morning birding visit. The site boasts a mixture of habitats including ponds, scrub, and marshland, and a high bird list is possible here – according to eBird, 337 species have been recorded within the confines of the reserve.

I arrived as soon as the site opened at 8.00am, and after paying my entry fee ($5) I decided to check out the nature trail closest to the visitor center. It was a good decision, as one of the first birds I saw was a lifer: a Long-billed Thrasher, lurking low in a patch of scrub but in plain view. Halfway along the trail, another lifer presented itself – a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. It was an excellent start to the morning, but with half an eye on the time (I could only spare three hours here), I returned to my car to head towards the main part of the reserve.

Most of the Mitchell Lake Audobon Center consists of man-made lakes separated by drivable embankments, interspersed with areas of scrub and a couple of more wooded areas. At the southern end of the reserve lies Mitchell Lake, a large natural lake. The western arm of Mitchell Lake has some shallower parts more suitable for herons and wading birds. Like many bird reserves in the US, it is designed with vehicular access in mind and there are no restrictions on driving along the embankments. This can be handy for close views of the birds.

I drove slowly along the embankments with the windows rolled down, stopping every time I saw or heard something interesting. Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a common speciality of this site, which for a while gave me the run around. I heard it on a number of occasions and glimpsed one in flight before finally getting excellent views of a male at the base of a tree trunk, an excellent way to mark my 42nd woodpecker species of 2015.

Crested Caracara, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.
Crested Caracara, Mitchell Lake, November 8th.

A few hirundines passed overhead, several of which proved – to my delight – to be Cave Swallows, another bird I had never seen before. The lifers were coming thick and fast, with two Couch’s Kingbirds showing well on overhead wires, and a smart Verdin taking advantage of a calm sunny corner to hunt for insects. The main lake held plenty of ducks but the viewing conditions into the sun weren’t ideal, so I didn’t spend too long checking the flock. However a quick scan revealed a few Lesser Scaup and several Redheads among the numerous Ruddy Ducks. Close inshore, a small group of Pied-billed Grebes also contained two Least Grebes, a scarce bird in the USA which I’ve seen before only in Honduras.

American White Pelicans are numerous at this location, and it was easy to obtain close views as they loafed on concrete pipes close to the embankments. I was looking for good shorebird habitat but I didn’t manage to find any until right at the end of my visit, in the north-western arm of Mitchell Lake. Fortunately, my target species here – American Avocet – is an easy bird to find, and I was soon looking at quite a number of them, plus three even more conspicuous Roseate Spoonbills.

I drove back to the entrance gate, and before passing through I stopped the car briefly to grab a bite of food. I was idly looking out of the window at the grass verge when a medium-sized brown bird hopped out. Raising my binoculars, I was soon eyeball to glowing orange eyeball with a Curve-billed Thrasher, yet another lifer for the morning – what a fitting way to end a very productive visit.

Lifers: Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, Couch’s Kingbird, Cave Swallow, American Avocet (total 2,028).

2015 Year Ticks: Lesser Scaup, Least Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Cooper’s Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper, House Wren, American Pipit, White-crowned Sparrow (total 1,035).

The Mitchell Lake Audobon Center headquarters.
The Mitchell Lake Audobon Center headquarters.

Redhead and Western Meadowlark, Arlington Village Creek Drying Beds, November 1st

The clocks went back today, buying me just enough time to make a short visit to this well-known local birding location while on a family visit to Dallas. I arrived, keen as mustard, as soon as it got light at 6.50am, only to find the gates aren’t unlocked on Sundays until 7.30am. I filled in the time at the neighboring park, where a Brown Creeper was a useful year list addition.

Arlington Village Creek Drying Beds is a fairly small area of small settling ponds, scrubby woodland and fallow fields, which according to eBird has played host to at least 295 bird species – an impressive total for an inland location of its size. A small hill near the parking area gives good views over the area, and I was soon enjoying the spectacle of large flocks of wintering ducks on the first lake on the right – mainly Gadwall and American Wigeon, with smaller numbers of Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard and Ruddy Duck. Some Aythya ducks lurked on a deeper adjacent pond – mainly Ring-necked Ducks but also several Redheads including two drakes. This was only my second personal record of the latter species, the first one being in the Western Palearctic – the long-staying wintering drake at Kenfig Pool in Wales in 2005. It was good to finally see this bird in its natural range.

I’m still getting to grips with the multitude of New World sparrows, and with my field guide at the ready I clinched the ID of several Lincoln’s Sparrows in the grassland, and a lone Song Sparrow in scrub along the lakeshore. American sparrows are an appealing bird family, strongly reminiscent of the Old World buntings, which I spent many enjoyable hours tracking down in winter in South Korea.

Another nice surprise today was a flock of 15-20 Western Meadowlarks. Having seen Eastern Meadowlark at Anahuac recently, it was interesting to compare these birds, which appeared much paler and more “washed out”. This species is regularly recorded at this site, which from the field guide appears to be at the edge of its usual range. I’m still at the stage of North American birding where I can reasonably expect a lifer on every outing, so it was good to get on the score sheet with this one today.

Lifer: Western Meadowlark (total 2,020).

2015 Year Ticks: Redhead, American Wigeon, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, House Finch, Brown Creeper (total 1,013).

American Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill and Mottled Duck, Anahuac Wildlife Refuge, October 23rd

Neotropic Cormorant, Anahuac Wildlife Refuge, October 23rd.
Neotropic Cormorant, Anahuac Wildlife Refuge, October 23rd.

After spending most of 2015 in Oriental Asia, what better way could there be to round off an excellent birding year than to spend late autumn and early winter in the USA? I got pretty much straight back into “normal life” on my return from Vietnam, but today I made the most of an opportunity to get out of Houston. It gets light quite late here at this time of the year, not until 7.30am, and I made sure I was on the I-10 heading east shortly after 6.00am in order to try and beat the rush hour traffic.

On the gulf coast of north-east Texas, a little more than an hour from Houston, Anahuac Wildlife Refuge is a flagship bird sanctuary. It is well known for hosting large numbers of wintering ducks, with up to 27 species possible on a midwinter day. In late October, the ducks have yet to arrive in force, but the area holds huge numbers of other birds including herons, ibises, raptors, and passerines. With this being late October, almost anything could turn up, and I was in a state of high anticipation as I made the early morning drive out from Houston.

Marshes at "Shoveler Pond".
Marshes at “Shoveler Pond”.

The good birding started before I even got into the reserve, when I spotted a couple of interesting-looking birds on a roadside wire. These turned out to be a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and a late Eastern Kingbird. As I drove slowly along the road into the reserve, I saw several more of the former species on the wires, alongside large flocks of Brown-headed Cowbird and Red-winged Blackbird.

On arrival at the reserve visitor center, the nearby boardwalk seemed a good place to start. I didn’t linger for long, as the local mosquitoes are particularly aggressive at that time of day, but before I retreated I saw several year ticks including a male Vermilion Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, White-tailed Kite, a flyover Royal Tern, and a magnificent Boat-tailed Grackle.

Probably the best area for birding is Shoveler Pond, around which a single-lane, one way road allows for great viewing of the marshes from the comfort of your car. At 7.45am I was the first person to drive along here for the day, which paid dividends in the form of an American Bittern flushed from beside the road and seen well in flight, and a Sora which lingered to eyeball me for a few moments before disappearing into the reeds.

Shoveler Pond was literally teeming with birds, and the year ticks were coming thick and fast, with further highlights in the form of small numbers of Mottled Duck, Roseate Spoonbill, various herons including a single Tricolored Heron, a pair of Fulvous Whistling Ducks, and plenty of both White Ibis and White-faced Ibis in nearby marshland.

Next, I drove slowly south on the main road through the reserve, stopping where marshes became visible to the east. Here, there were two Bald Eagles (an adult and an immature), a fly-through Green Heron, and vast numbers of American Coot and other wildfowl – although unfortunately most of the birds were very distant and the viewing conditions looking into the sun weren’t ideal.

At the end of the road, a small pool held some shorebirds including a Ruddy Turnstone, a Greater Yellowlegs, several Willets and a flock of Least Sandpipers. Offshore, Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and a few Forster’s Terns fished. Nearby, a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron walked around on the edge of the road, and several Eastern Meadowlarks were seen in flight. Plenty of sparrows of various species inhabit the marshes and prairies at Anahuac, but every sparrow I got a look at turned out to be a Savannah Sparrow, which is abundant here. By late morning it was quite windy, so conditions for viewing passerines weren’t ideal.

Boat-tailed Grackle in display mode.
Boat-tailed Grackle in display mode.

In the early afternoon, I took a drive out of the reserve to the Skillern Tract, which lies about 7 miles east of the main entrance road. Perhaps notable here was another male Vermilion Flycatcher, and a Common Yellowthroat. Along the way, I spotted a number of raptors in the air, so I stopped the car for a better look. They were mostly the two common vultures, but among them I found a Swainson’s Hawk (presumably on migration), and a Crested Caracara made an appearance too. Northern Harriers also seem to be very common in the area, with a minimum of 15 individuals seen today.

I ended the day with 52 year ticks, including 7 lifers, which pushed my 2015 year list through the 1,000 mark, the first time I have seen this many bird species in a single calendar year. With more than two months left in Texas, Anahuac is one place I’ll be sure to return to – especially once the winter wildfowl have returned in force in a month or so.

Lifers: Mottled Duck, American Bittern, White-faced Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Eastern Kingbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Boat-tailed Grackle (total 2,015).

2015 Year Ticks: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, White-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Swainson’s Hawk, Sora, Common Gallinule, American Coot, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Least Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Snipe, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Forster’s Tern, Royal Tern, Belted Kingfisher, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Vermilion Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Sedge Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Savannah Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle (total 1,009).