Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

Shoveler Pond at Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, November 20th.
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).

Sooty Babbler, Phong Nha (north central Vietnam), October 7th-8th

Early morning from the road through the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Early morning view from the road through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

The limestone karsts in north-central Vietnam, and neighboring central Laos, are home to several species found nowhere else: Sooty Babbler, the recently split Limestone Leaf Warbler, and the newly discovered Bare-faced Bulbul (so far only confirmed in Laos).

The Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park on the Vietnamese side of the border is renowned more for its caves than its birds, although the dramatic increase in tourist infrastructure in the area over the last five years means that several bird tour companies now visit. Nonetheless, most of the national park remains inaccessible to casual visitors, and further ornithological discoveries are no doubt waiting to be made here.

The fairly new airport in nearby Dong Hoi makes the area easily accessible from Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, with our last-minute midweek flights from the latter city costing only around US$35 each. The excellent Phong Nha Farmstay can arrange a private transfer from the airport for 500,000VND (US$23); their accommodation is comfortable and nestled in a beautiful rural setting among the rice fields with views to the national park. Other accommodation options, from hostels to basic hotels, exist in Phong Nha village. Traffic in the area is light, and renting a motorcycle is a good way to get around – these cost around 150,000VND (US$7) per day from several outlets in Phong Nha village.

The loop road through the national park is about 50km long, starting and finishing in Phong Nha village. I found the eastern section of the road to be the best, especially the last 3km before the four-way intersection at the southern end of the park. Another spot to try is further north on the same road, where there is a wide track shortly before the steep descent. This track passes through several forest fragments – I had a group of three Siamese Firebacks along here in the early morning and a party of Wreathed Hornbills passing overhead, and it would probably be a good spot to try for a Blue-rumped or Bar-bellied Pitta.

Very basic sketch map of the area, which may be useful to some!
Very basic sketch map of the area, which may be useful to some!

Opportunities to get deep into good habitat are very limited, but fortunately the road passes through some nice spots where some of the key species can be observed. The big bridge next to the four-way intersection is also worth a bit of time, as views from here are good. I didn’t manage to get very close to any limestone outcrops, where the two main target species reside, but I was lucky with Sooty Babbler: 3-4 birds showed fairly well but distantly on an outcrop about 2km north of the four-way intersection. Another possibility for this species would be the trail to Paradise Cave, which passes through some good forest, but the downside is having to pay a 250,000VND fee to access the trail.

Birding was generally fairly slow, with moderate levels of activity from first light until about 9.00am, then it became much quieter, with long periods in the afternoon when I saw and heard almost nothing. I saw 57 species in total during two early mornings and one afternoon birding in the park. I was told that the birds were formerly much hunted for food in this poor region, but rapidly increasing prosperity has led to a decline in hunting – one can only hope that this assessment from a local resident is indeed true.

Green-eared Barbet.
Green-eared Barbet.

List of birds seen:

(not counting species seen outside the park gates, no heard-only birds included)

  1. Red Junglefowl
  2. Siamese Fireback
  3. Rufous-bellied Eagle
  4. Black Eagle
  5. Thick-billed Pigeon
  6. Himalayan/Oriental Cuckoo
  7. Green-billed Malkoha
  8. Greater Coucal
  9. Asian Palm Swift
  10. Red-headed Trogon
  11. Oriental Pied Hornbill
  12. Wreathed Hornbill
  13. Green-eared Barbet
  14. Grey-capped Woodpecker
  15. Large Woodshrike
  16. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
  17. Great Iora
  18. Scarlet Minivet
  19. Indochinese Cuckooshrike
  20. Brown Shrike
  21. White-bellied Erpornis
  22. Black-naped Oriole
  23. Ashy Drongo
  24. Bronzed Drongo
  25. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  26. Black-naped Monarch
  27. Racket-tailed Treepie
  28. Ratchet-tailed Treepie
  29. Dusky Crag Martin
  30. Sultan Tit
  31. Black-crested Bulbul
  32. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  33. Stripe-throated Bulbul
  34. Puff-throated Bulbul
  35. Yellow-browed Warbler
  36. Arctic Warbler
  37. Dark-necked Tailorbird
  38. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler
  39. Sooty Babbler
  40. Puff-throated Babbler
  41. Black-browed Fulvetta
  42. White-crested Laughingthrush
  43. Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush
  44. Asian Fairy Bluebird
  45. Asian Brown Flycatcher
  46. Oriental Magpie Robin
  47. White-rumped Shama
  48. Pale Blue Flycatcher
  49. Blue Whistling Thrush
  50. Blue Rock Thrush
  51. Slaty-backed Forktail
  52. Siberian Stonechat
  53. Hill Myna
  54. Blue-winged Leafbird
  55. Crimson Sunbird
  56. Streaked Spiderhunter
  57. Grey Wagtail

Key species missed: Limestone Leaf Warbler, Red-collared Woodpecker.

Lifers: Sooty Babbler, Black-browed Fulvetta (total 2,007).

2015 Year Ticks: Siamese Fireback, Slaty-backed Forktail, Dusky Crag Martin (total 927).

Paradise Cave is very impressive and well worth a visit, even though there are no birds in there.
Paradise Cave is very impressive and well worth a visit, even though there are no birds in there.

Trip Report: Dalat, Vietnam, September 22nd-26th (Collared Laughingthrush, Grey-crowned Crocias, Yellow-billed Nuthatch)

Tuyen Lam Lake - a very picturesque birding location.
Tuyen Lam Lake – a very picturesque birding location.

The endemic-rich Dalat Plateau is a great place for a few days birding, with the three key sites all within 20 minutes drive of the town center. I first visited in 2006, when I was new to south-east Asian birding, and made only a single outing to Lang Bian mountain – predictably seeing only a small selection of the available birds. Nine years later, a bit more time, more skill and experience, and a more targeted approach produced sightings of the majority of the area’s endemics and special birds among a healthy total of 106 species.

The taxonomic status of many of the key local species has changed greatly in recent years, with Vietnamese Cutia, Black-crowned Fulvetta, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, and Grey-crowned Tit among the birds generally elevated to full species status since my previous visit. It seems likely that the distinctive local forms of Black-headed Sibia, Black-throated Sunbird and Blue-winged Minla will shortly join them on the rapidly lengthening list of Dalat endemics.

Online Resources: I found the following two websites to be indispensable for planning my trip:

Google maps directions to key sites

Henk Hendrik’s excellent 2006 report

The Google maps page clearly shows how to reach each of the sites, while Hendrik’s report is very comprehensive. In particular his excellent map of the trails to the south-east of Tuyen Lam lake is essential viewing – it is still completely accurate despite it being nine years since his report.

Transportation: I rented a small scooter from my hotel for 120,000VND per day. Getting involved in Vietnam’s chaotic traffic takes nerves of steel, although the situation in Dalat is nowhere near as intimidating as in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, and a scooter is the most flexible mode of transport for birders. Alternatively, meter taxis are available everywhere and are very reasonably priced.

Timing: Few birders visit the central Highlands in September, as it is reckoned to be one of the wettest months. During my visit, it rained hard most days from lunchtime onwards, but every morning was dry and sunny. It got light very early, around 5.35am, allowing for at least six hours birding time each day before the rains. The trails were predictably quite muddy, and I had several leech bites at Ta Nung valley and Tuyen Lam lake. Overall, the weather didn’t hamper birding in the slightest. Bird activity was quite high at all sites, although many birds weren’t singing which was probably a factor in my failure to find Orange-breasted Laughingthrush.

Trees at Ta Nung valley become alive with bird activity in the early morning as soon as the sun hits.
Trees at Ta Nung valley become alive with bird activity in the early morning as soon as the sun hits.

Birding sites: Although there are undoubtedly discoveries to be made on the Dalat Plateau for those with sufficient time and determination, I played it safe and stuck to the three main sites which between them hold nearly all of the area’s special birds.

  1. Ta Nung Valley: Head west out of Dalat on road 725. After several kilometers of brand new road, the entrance to the site is marked by a wide track on the left, just over 6km from the last roundabout in Dalat town. The track should be easy to find as it seems to be the only one on the left hand side of this road. Follow this dirt road downhill for about one hundred meters to the locked iron gate, which the resident caretaker will open for you (I gave him 20,000VND for his trouble). Even very early in the morning (5.50am) he was up and about, so access shouldn’t be a problem. Follow the trail down to the valley bottom. This is undoubtedly the best birding site in the area in the early morning – as soon as the sun hits the treetops it becomes absolutely alive with birds here, and I found the main speciality Grey-crowned Crocias to be fairly easy to find. Other good birds I saw here included Pin-tailed Pigeon, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Black-crowned Parrotbill and Vietnamese Greenfinch. Apart from birding along the wide track, it is possible to follow the river bed upstream through good broadleaved forest for several hundred meters, but the other forest trails along the stream marked in older trip reports were completely overgrown and impossible to find. Halfway down the track into the valley, a short loop trail through a patch of broadleaved forest was quite productive (follow the man-made terraces into the forest). It is worth noting that after 9am it seemed to suddenly become very quiet on both my visits to this site.
  2. Tuyen Lam Lake: From Dalat, follow the eastern shore of the lake, past the dam and several high end resorts including Sacom and Edensee. Park just above the Da Tien resort, step over the logs and follow the concrete road to the end (there is no need to descend to the resort). The trail is somewhat indistinct as far as the second resort (fifteen minutes walk around the lakeshore from Da Tien), but afterwards the trail is clear and Hendrik’s map is most useful. The speciality of this site is Yellow-billed Nuthatch, which I found on my second visit in the “degraded forest” marked on Hendrik’s map. Other good birds I saw in this area included Silver Pheasant, Brown Fish Owl, Grey-crowned Tit and Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler.
  3. Lang Bian mountain: A well-known tourist attraction about 10km north of Dalat. You must leave your vehicle at the base of the mountain, and either walk or take an expensive jeep 2.2km uphill to the start of the summit trail. From the trailhead, follow the path a further 2km to the summit. The trail is steep in places and passes through some excellent broadleaved montane forest. This is the site for Collared Laughingthrush, which can be hard to find as it is apparently becoming less responsive to call playback here. I was lucky, as one spontaneously emerged from the forest to investigate me, about 400m below the summit, not requiring any call playback at all. Other good birds I saw here included Black-crowned Fulvetta (a recent split from Rufous-winged Fulvetta), Clicking Shrike-Babbler of the distinctive local form with reduced chestnut on its breast, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Lesser Shortwing, Scaly Thrush and Grey-bellied Tesia.
  4. Other sites around Dalat: On one non-rainy late afternoon, I ventured south along Mimosa Road, where an opportune stop produced both White-crested and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, as well as a large flock of the rather common local speciality White-cheeked Laughingthrush. I also saw a Rufous-bellied Eagle soaring overhead from our hotel on Khe Sanh Road just south of Dalat.
Record shot of Collared Laughingthrush at Lang Bian mountain,.
Record shot of Collared Laughingthrush at Lang Bian mountain,.

List of birds seen:

1 = Ta Nung Valley, 2 = Tuyen Lam Lake, 3 = Mount Lang Bian, 4 = Elsewhere in Dalat

  1. Chinese Francolin 2
  2. Red Junglefowl 2
  3. Silver Pheasant 2
  4. Little Grebe 2
  5. Little Egret 2
  6. White-bellied Sea Eagle 2
  7. Rufous-bellied Eagle 4
  8. Black-shouldered Kite 4
  9. White-breasted Waterhen 2
  10. Spotted Dove 2
  11. Barred Cuckoo-Dove 1,4
  12. Emerald Dove 2
  13. Thick-billed Pigeon 1
  14. Pin-tailed Pigeon 1
  15. Mountain Imperial Pigeon 1,2,3
  16. Banded Bay Cuckoo 1
  17. Green-billed Malkoha 1
  18. Brown Fish Owl 2
  19. House Swift 1,4
  20. Red-headed Trogon 1,2
  21. Common Kingfisher 2
  22. Blue-bearded Bee-Eater 1
  23. Indochinese Barbet 1,2
  24. Greater Yellownape 2
  25. Greater Flameback 2
  26. Grey-headed Woodpecker 2
  27. Bay Woodpecker 1,2
  28. Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike 1
  29. Grey-chinned Minivet 3
  30. Long-tailed Minivet 2,3
  31. Scarlet Minivet 1
  32. Indochinese Cuckooshrike 1
  33. Burmese Shrike 1,2,3
  34. Dalat Shrike-Babbler 1
  35. Clicking Shrike-Babbler 1,3
  36. White-bellied Erpornis 2
  37. Slender-billed Oriole 2,3
  38. Maroon Oriole 2
  39. Ashy Drongo 1,2,3
  40. Bronzed Drongo 1,2
  41. Hair-crested Drongo 1
  42. Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo 1,2
  43. White-throated Fantail 1,2,3
  44. Eurasian Jay 1,2,3
  45. Barn Swallow 1,3
  46. Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher 1,3
  47. Green-backed Tit 1,2,3
  48. Grey-crowned Tit 2
  49. Chestnut-vented Nuthatch 2,3
  50. Yellow-billed Nuthatch 2
  51. Black-crested Bulbul 1
  52. Sooty-headed Bulbul 2,3
  53. Flavescent Bulbul 1,2,3
  54. Ochraceous Bulbul 1
  55. Black Bulbul 1,2,3
  56. Ashy Bulbul 1,2
  57. Mountain Bulbul 2,3
  58. Ashy-throated Warbler 3
  59. Yellow-browed Warbler 1,3
  60. Arctic Warbler 1
  61. Kloss’s Leaf Warbler 1,2,3
  62. Grey-cheeked Warbler 1,3
  63. Chestnut-crowned Warbler 1,2
  64. Hill Prinia 1,2
  65. Black-crowned Parrotbill 1
  66. Rufous-capped Babbler 1,3
  67. Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler 2
  68. White-browed Scimitar-Babbler 2
  69. Grey-throated Babbler 1,2
  70. Spot-throated Babbler 1,2
  71. Black-crowned Fulvetta 3
  72. Mountain Fulvetta 1,2,3
  73. White-cheeked Laughingthrush 1,2,3,4
  74. Collared Laughingthrush 3
  75. White-crested Laughingthrush 4
  76. Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush 4
  77. Black-headed Sibia 1,2,3
  78. Rufous-backed Sibia 1,2
  79. Silver-eared Mesia 2
  80. Grey-crowned Crocias 1
  81. Blue-winged Minla 1
  82. Asian Fairy Bluebird 1
  83. Asian Brown Flycatcher 2,3
  84. Large Niltava 2,3
  85. Verditer Flycatcher 1,2
  86. Snowy-browed Flycatcher 3
  87. Little Pied Flycatcher 2
  88. Lesser Shortwing 2,3
  89. Siberian Blue Robin 2
  90. White-tailed Robin 2,3
  91. Grey Bushchat 2,3
  92. Scaly Thrush 3
  93. Hill Myna 2
  94. Black-collared Starling 2
  95. Yellow-vented Flowerpecker 1
  96. Fire-breasted Flowerpecker 1
  97. Black-throated Sunbird 1,2
  98. Mrs Gould’s Sunbird 3
  99. Streaked Spiderhunter 1,2,3
  100. Grey Wagtail 1,2,3
  101. Oriental Pipit 3
  102. Vietnamese Greenfinch 1,2
  103. Plain-backed Sparrow 3
  104. Tree Sparrow 3,4
  105. White-rumped Munia 1
  106. Scaly-breasted Munia 3,4

Additional heard-only birds not counted on this list included Collared Owlet and Red-vented and Golden-throated Barbet. Notable misses included Orange-breasted and Black-hooded Laughingthrushes, Indochinese Green Magpie, Red-vented Barbet, Vietnamese Cutia and the potential endemic Vietnamese Crossbill.

Lifers: White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Barred Cuckoo-Dove, Grey-crowned Crocias, Black-headed Sibia, Kloss’s Leaf Warbler, Indochinese Barbet, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Grey-crowned Tit, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Black-crowned Fulvetta, Collared Laughingthrush, Grey-bellied Tesia, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Rufous-bellied Eagle (total 2,003).

2015 Year Ticks: Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, White-crested Laughingthrush, Mountain Fulvetta, Spot-throated Babbler, Vietnamese Greenfinch, Chinese Francolin, Brown Fish Owl, Grey-cheeked Warbler (total 922).

Cambodian Tailorbird, Phnom Penh, September 16th

Cambodian Tailorbird, record shot with my Canon G12 in poor light and rain, September 16th 2015.
Cambodian Tailorbird, record shot taken with a Canon G12 in poor light and rain, September 16th 2015.
Cambodian Tailorbird, record shot with my Canon G12 in poor light and rain, September 16th 2015.
Cambodian Tailorbird, record shot taken with a Canon G12 in poor light and rain, September 16th 2015. 

Even in densely populated Asia, birds new to science are occasionally discovered – usually as a result of scientific surveys of very remote or previously inaccessible areas. Therefore, more than a few eyebrows were raised in mid 2013 when news was released of a previously undescribed species of Tailorbird. This bird was found living not in some remote forest, but literally under the noses of millions of people in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian Tailorbird somewhat resembles a cross between Ashy Tailorbird and Dark-necked Tailorbird, being mainly grey in color like the former species, but with a large dark patch on its throat reminiscent of the latter. It also has distinctive vocalisations. It has so far been found only in riverine scrub in the flood plain of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, meaning its range is extremely small, and its population likely threatened by habitat loss from urban development.

The site I had been given for Cambodian Tailorbird is about 15km north of Phnom Penh. From the city, follow Highway 5 towards Battambang along the west bank of the Tonle Sap river, as far as the Prek Phnov bridge. This crossing is also known as Ly Yongphat street, which is the name my tuk-tuk driver was familiar with. Immediately after crossing this toll bridge, there is a dirt road on the right (heading south). After about 1km, look for an obvious patch of dense scrub on the left, at approximately N 11 39 14.8 E 104 52 40.3. A little call playback here quickly enticed a pair of Cambodian Tailorbirds out into the open. They are probably common in all suitable scrub patches in the area, and certainly seemed extremely responsive to call playback. Unfortunately, it was raining fairly steadily at the time, and a couple of record shots with my Canon G12 were all I could manage in poor light.

So all in all, a successful and rather easy “twitch” of a smart little bird. Coming from central Phnom Penh, allow 2-3 hours for the trip depending on how long you want to spend at the site (the drive itself takes about 45 minutes each way), and reckon on paying your tuk-tuk driver around $15-20 including waiting time.

Lifer: Cambodian Tailorbird (total 1,988).

2015 World Year List: 899