The small-but-charming Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary on Memorial Drive is not only a very convenient birding location (being just 5 minutes from home and 2 minutes from work!), but is also starting to hint at its potential as a stellar migrant hotspot during spring migration.
The last couple of weeks at the site have produced a scattering of early migrants including Northern Waterthrush (self-found on March 26th and perhaps Harris County’s earliest spring record), Prothonotary, Hooded, Worm-eating, Black-and-White and Wilson’s Warblers, Northern Parula and Eastern Whip-Poor-Will.
Southerly winds enticing migrants to take off from the Yucatan, coupled with a belt of heavy rain forecast to hit the Gulf Coast late morning, are a potentially excellent combination for a “fallout” of migrants. Conditions looked promising on March 25th – conveniently a Saturday – so I took a trip out to Sabine Woods, on the coast near the Louisiana border. Some would say this is the Texas Gulf Coast’s most exciting migrant hotspot – it is indeed a perfect combination of a mature, isolated forest of manageable size, located within half a mile of the coast.
The forecast rain materialized late morning, bringing with it a nice range of early migrants including 10 warbler species (Black-throated Green, Hooded, Palm [both races], Yellow-throated, Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Northern Parula, and both Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes) – and late in the day both Swainson’s and Worm-eating Warblers were found too although I didn’t see them.
Overall, though, we are still a few weeks too early for the majority of spring migrants. Had this weather combination occurred around April 20th, it could have been an epic rather than merely a good day.
Anahuac NWR – an hour’s drive back towards Houston – rarely disappoints, and on the same day I was able to add both (Hudsonian) Whimbrel and Semipalmated Sandpiper to my USA list, as well as my first Eastern Kingbirds of the spring.
Meanwhile, on my “other” local patch on the outskirts of New Braunfels, Comal County, my list is steadily growing as spring birds arrive, with both Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler back on territory by late March, as well as an army of Black-chinned Hummingbirds constantly chasing each other around the hummingbird feeder.
A good passage migrant on March 31st was a Black-throated Green Warbler, which stayed in the treetops and didn’t allow a clear view, however with patience I did manage a record photo:
Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Lone Star State’s only endemic breeding bird, returns in early March to the forests of central Texas. With a tiny world range confined to the juniper-oak woodlands north of San Antonio and west of Austin, and being highly attractive and colorful to boot, it is a highly desirable target species for any resident or visiting birder in Texas.
Fortunately, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is easily found – even common – in suitable habitat within its breeding range. However, it is officially classified as “Endangered” due to continuing loss of habitat in Texas, as well as threats to tropical forests on its wintering grounds in Central America.
The first birds arrive back earlier than most wood-warblers, usually in early March (this year the first records were on March 5th). By the time I visited a classic site, Friedrich Wilderness Park, on March 18th, the warblers were back in force. In a relatively small area of the park we (Martin Reid, Sheridan Coffey, Christian Fernandez and I) counted at least 7 singing males. Hearing them is easy, but getting good views is far more difficult, and it took at least an hour before I was able to get photos of a male singing from the top of a tall tree.
With my lifer target safely under the belt, we rounded out the morning touring a number of local birding spots on the hunt for early migrants, with the highlights being American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, and best of all several very pale “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawks:
It’s mid-March and we are right on the cusp of Texas’s most exciting time for birds – spring migration – so this weekend I decided I had better get down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley to grab some nice tropical year ticks (and perhaps a lifer or two) before I get too distracted by migration here on my doorstep in Houston.
It’s a long way to “the Valley”, about a 5.5 hour drive each way, and to avoid putting lots of miles on the elderly Jaguar I am currently borrowing, I instead opted to rent an economy car. With more than 900 miles driven over the three days, the money I saved in gas compared to running the Jaguar almost equaled the cost of renting a compact Hyundai. And as every birder knows, the great thing with a rental car is that you can rack up thousands of miles driving it non-stop for days, fill it with mud, take it down potholed unmade roads and onto beaches, then hand it back and let Enterprise take care of the wear and tear. It wouldn’t surprise me if before long some rental companies wised up and inserted a “no birding” clause in their rental agreement.
An essential stop on every birding itinerary to south Texas is the Falfurrias Rest Area, a busy toilet block and picnic area sandwiched in between the north- and southbound carriageways of highway 281. Despite the unpromising-sounding description, the numerous mature trees here are alluring for migrants, and there is even a short nature trail through some very birdy-looking woods draped in Spanish moss. For some reason – perhaps because a lot of birders stop here – this place has a reputation for turning up lots of rarities.
My 30-minute stop here yielded a ton of great birds, including a lifer Yellow-throated Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and the first signs of the tropical south: several noisy and colorful Green Jays.
Once down in the LRGV, the cloudy morning gave way to a sunny and sweltering hot afternoon with high humidity and barely a breath of wind. I spent the whole afternoon at Estero Llano Grande State Park, mopping up year ticks at their usual stakeouts, including this Eastern (McCall’s) Screech Owl ……
….. and this Common Pauraque, which most likely holds the honor of being Texas’s most photographed bird:
However, I unfortunately managed to miss the long-staying male Rose-throated Becard by less than half a minute. It also proved harder to connect with hummingbirds here than it did last winter, but I did eventually find both Buff-bellied Hummingbird and this Black-chinned Hummingbird in the Tropical Zone:
By dawn on Sunday morning the weather had changed dramatically, as is common in these parts, with temperatures dropping from the mid-80s to the mid-60s and a chilly wind blowing. I turned up at Santa Ana NWR and was immediately cheered by the news that no fewer than 8 Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets had been seen in various locations in the park yesterday, and I was directed to an area where a pair was in the process of nest-building close to the trail. Not only could I hear a male Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet singing there when I arrived, but another one was answering it not too far away. Only a matter of time before I saw one, right? Wrong. The birds stayed well hidden in the breezy conditions, and before long stopped singing entirely, making them impossible to locate.
Compensation of sorts came in the form of several wonderful Altamira Orioles, an LRGV specialty which is found nowhere else in the US:
…. and Olive Sparrows, which are abundant at this site, and once I became familiar with their call I began finding them everywhere, but they stubbornly refused to be photographed.
It was difficult to decide what to do with the afternoon. I opted for the Yturria Tract, an arid area of thorn scrub, which at lunchtime on a cool and breezy day was a gamble, but I got lucky and saw some good birds including my main target Black-throated Sparrow (seemingly common here), White-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.
I rounded out the afternoon at Anzalduas Park, where I had no specific targets in mind and hoped to enjoy some “general birding”. My wish came true, as the park was bursting at the seams with common birds, including one amazing flock which contained perhaps 35 individual birds of 14 different species.
It was good to compare Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds, both on voice and plumage:
Border police booted me out of the park at 5.00pm sharp – Anzalduas Park is on the banks of the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico, and there is a huge police and border security presence in the area. I decided to start the long drive north in order to be ready for a dawn start on the coast in the Mustang Island/Port Aransas area.
The day started with two fine Wilson’s Plovers, a shorebird I have seen only once before, in Honduras, then a flock of nine Pectoral Sandpipers – another USA tick, and another one struck off from the long list of Nearctic shorebirds I have seen as vagrants in the UK but not yet in their normal range in the Americas.
Two fantastic migrant hotspots on Mustang Island – “The Willows” and “Holt Paradise Pond” really raised the anticipation levels for the upcoming spring migration. Between the two sites, I saw two Louisiana Waterthrush, a total of 5 Black-and-White Warblers, Yellow-throated Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and Gray Catbird – a mere taster of the kind of range and quality that will be at these sites in a month’s time, I suspect!
I had to leave around lunchtime to make sure I got back to Houston in time for the rental car return deadline, but there was just enough time to grab Sandwich Tern for the year at the Port Aransas jetty, and this portrait of a Long-billed Dowitcher at the Port Aransas Nature Preserve:
With the clocks having gone forward this weekend, lighter evenings present opportunities for after-work birding. On Wednesday, a late afternoon visit to the Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, less than a mile from where I am currently living, turned up my 7th Black-and White Warbler of the last seven days (and 8th of the year overall), a fine male Wilson’s Warbler, and a long overdue Northern Flicker for the year list.
I’ll be in a warbler frame of mind in San Antonio this weekend, with Golden-cheeked Warbler top of the agenda – watch this space!
Total species count, LRGV and coastal Texas, March 11th-13th: 136
Lifers this weekend: Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Sparrow (total 2,155).
Hutton’s Vireo is a bird that flies under the radar. It is unremarkable looking – resembling a super-chunky, thick-billed Ruby-crowned Kinglet – and it attracts very little attention to itself. In central Texas its status is described as “scarce and local, but increasing”, with a patchy distribution restricted to the Edwards Plateau. In the San Antonio area, despite numerous well-scattered records, there doesn’t seem to be any particular location where sightings can be guaranteed.
In other words, it’s not exactly the kind of bird that gets me enthusiastically leaping out of bed at 5.00am on a Sunday, hence why I haven’t gone out actively looking for one until now. But with my pipeline of potential lifers rapidly drying up, and the refreshing onslaught of spring arrivals still a few weeks away, I figured it was about time I tried to score. A quick eBird search soon revealed a few likely spots on the northern outskirts of San Antonio, including a location where my friend Sheridan Coffey had seen one just the day before.
My lack of urgency to see this bird is reflected in the fact that I didn’t even start the day at my selected Hutton’s Vireo site, instead choosing to mooch around nearby Stone Oak Park in the mist and drizzle of a mild, damp Sunday morning. I did have an ulterior motive here, with Rufous-crowned Sparrow (another unremarkable life bird) top of the agenda, plus Canyon Wren and the long-staying Say’s Phoebe, all of which made it onto my list with the minimum of fuss.
The drizzle had stopped by the time I got to Panther Springs Park, allowing at least some record shots of the single Hutton’s Vireo I found there, which I first located by song. This bird allowed a close approach but was constantly backlit against the sky or obscured by twigs. The photos below show a comparison with the superficially similar Ruby-crowned Kinglet:
The day before had been a washout, with constant rain all day. I took my wife’s cousin’s kids (triplets!) on an early-morning jaunt to Riverview Park in Seguin, haunt of the long-staying White-breasted Nuthatch. It was a lot of fun but – perhaps predictably with steady rain falling and three ebullient 10-year-olds in tow – not productive for the nuthatch. The kids really enjoyed the birding, though, with the highlight for them being three woodpecker species in the same pecan tree (Ladder-backed, Downy, and Golden-fronted), and for me the Green Kingfisher that flashed past us twice when we were clowning around trying to cross a small stream.
I spent Saturday afternoon trying to take photos of the birds coming to the yard feeders in New Braunfels, and getting almost no usable shots in the very poor light conditions. My best effort was this Chipping Sparrow:
Anyway, it was a satisfying weekend all told, especially considering the limitations imposed by the weather. In a few days I’ll be off on a long weekend down to the lower Rio Grande Valley, which should yield a bunch of year ticks, and hopefully the first stirrings of Texas’s all-important spring migration!
My seemingly eternal focus on sparrows continues, but in stark contrast to last weekend’s failures, this time I succeeded in seeing all four of my target species. This is no mean feat considering that they are all notorious skulkers, and their status is at best uncommon in Texas in winter.
The rarest of them all is Henslow’s Sparrow. This subtly attractive denizen of grasslands probably overwinters annually in Texas in small numbers. However, until this winter it has been a serious “blocker” for many leading Texas listers, with just a scattering of records annually and no reliable locations. That changed early in February when several individuals were discovered at Big Thicket National Park in East Texas, which have been showing intermittently to visiting birders ever since.
Finding these birds proved to be far from straightforward. They feed singly in long grass, and flush at close range, usually flying directly to the nearest patch of Yaupon Holly, into which they dive and completely disappear. For nearly three hours I tramped around in the grass, flushing three “probable” Henslow’s Sparrows, none of which gave me more than the briefest of flight views – enough to raise my suspicions but unfortunately not clinch the identification, let alone provide an opportunity for photos.
I persevered, knowing from photographic evidence on eBird that they do occasionally perch up on a Yaupon Holly for a few moments before diving in. And finally one did just that. It happened to be a very well-marked bird, and in great light, so apart from the unavoidable branches between camera and bird (for this one virtually never poses fully in the open), I got great views as well as some half-decent photos.
Other bird life was disappointingly scarce, but several Sedge Wrens skulked around in the damp grassland, one of which posed briefly for a photo opportunity:
The previous day, I had arrived early at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Reserve, a short ferry ride across from Galveston. The two main enemies to birding on the mid-Texas coast in winter are wind and fog – and if it’s not windy then it is usually foggy. Neither weather phenomenon is very conducive to finding small birds (ie. rare sparrows) in coastal saltmarshes. Today, it was windy. Shorebirds were everywhere, including plenty of the endangered and irresistibly attractive Piping Plover, and also Semipalmated, Snowy, and Black-bellied Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlins and Sanderlings . A handful of Barn Swallows and a Purple Martin, early harbingers of spring, battled the wind as they headed north.
I didn’t rate my chances of finding any interesting small birds in the blustery conditions, but an area of saltmarsh grass adjoining a small beach seemed to be popular with Savannah Sparrows so I decided to take a closer look. After a while, I found a Horned Lark and some American Pipits, and then …. the briefest of views of two sparrows with orange faces, running on the ground, which briefly appeared at the edge of the grass before disappearing again.
I didn’t see these birds again for 15 minutes, until they suddenly popped up on some grass stems, showing quite well. Nelson’s Sparrows, for sure – but my luck deserted me with the camera, and I couldn’t get a single in-focus shot during the 10 seconds the birds were in view. Naturally, as soon as the sparrows dropped down into a partly obscured position, facing the wrong way, the camera decided to play ball.
The nearby 17th Street Jetty is always a good bet for big flocks of American Avocet, as well as other shorebirds, and plenty of weekending fishermen. The jetty – which is made of huge, flat-topped boulders – extends a long way into the Gulf, clipping the corner of some extensive areas of saltmarsh habitat.
Some serious schlepping over the boulders is required to get to the end of the jetty, and I was more than halfway out when I realized I had left my brand new iPhone in full view on my car seat. Cursing my stupidity, I turned around and headed back, only to flush a very interesting-looking small bird from among the boulders, which almost immediately gave itself up for crippling views – Seaside Sparrow! If I had remembered to bring my phone, I wouldn’t have had to turn around, and wouldn’t have seen the bird.
I spent the rest of Saturday at Anahuac NWR, which has to be one of the very best birding spots within easy reach of Houston. This site usually produces at least 60-70 species during a typical mid-winter visit. The best birds today included the long-staying Burrowing Owl, a Palm Warbler of the western race, the male Vermilion Flycatcher still present, and four Stilt Sandpipers with the Long-billed Dowitcher flock. It’s also a great place to get close to common birds, with the car-based birder having numerous opportunities for photography along the Shoveler Pond loop.
I stayed overnight in the “Crystal Meth Motel” in Beaumont, the cheapest night halt available in town. Next time, I will fork out the extra $20 for something halfway acceptable. However, I survived the night, and with the Henslow’s Sparrows safely under the belt (and photographed) at nearby Big Thicket NP by late Sunday morning, I decided to push the envelope and hit up a Bachman’s Sparrow spot about an hour to the north at Sam Rayburn reservoir.
Bachman’s Sparrow, along with Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, is a range-restricted specialist of south-eastern pine forests. However, unlike the woodpecker and nuthatch, it no longer occurs close to Houston – although it is apparently still quite common nearer the Louisiana border.
From my eBird research, one of the closest reliable sites is the entrance road to Ebenezer Park, close to the reservoir spillway. The woods were deathly quiet when I arrived, with hardly a bird to be seen. Wandering up and down the road eventually produced a few Chipping Sparrows and Pine Warblers, a Field Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, and two Brown-headed Nuthatches – expected fare for this kind of habitat. It became clear I would have to enter the forest for a chance of getting my target bird. Expectations were raised when a Bachman’s Sparrow gave a short burst of song, and finally I flushed one out of the understorey which perched up long enough to be identified, but unfortunately wasn’t obliging enough to allow itself to be photographed.
So all in all, a highly successful weekend. I’m running out of “new” winter birds to see within reach of Houston, so I feel a longer-haul trip to the Rio Grande Valley coming on – not to mention the fast-approaching spring migration which is of course legendary in this part of the world!
I set myself an ambitious target of 5 lifers from this weekend, but despite plenty of effort managed to see none of them at all. However, in between the numerous moments of frustration there was still lots to enjoy, notably the first field outing for my new camera. Last week, I finally took the plunge and invested a small amount of money in a used Canon SX50HS “superzoom”, which has been receiving glowing reports from birders since it came onto the market in 2012. My first weekend with it was somewhat experimental, but resulted in a few pleasing photos – and of course a lot of out-of-focus dross!
Saturday was one of those picture-perfect days that seem to be happening a lot during this non-winter we’ve been experiencing in Texas: crystal clear air, mostly blue skies with a little high cloud, and a cool start to the day but warming up to an afternoon high of 84F (29C).
By first light I was already at the edge of the Balcones Canyonlands reserve in the “hill country” outside Austin, with my target lifers in this area being Black-throated Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee – all of which are no doubt fairly common further west, but are at the far eastern edge of their range here. It seemed from my reading that these kinds of species prefer arid, rocky slopes and canyons, and my main problem – as often seems to be the case in Texas – was actually getting to this habitat in an area where so little of the land is accessible to the public.
Nonetheless, I had a most enjoyable start at the Doeskin Ranch, one spot to which the public have been granted access. I didn’t see any obvious habitat for my target birds, but a couple of hours here did produce 10 sparrow species within just a 300-yard radius of the parking lot (Grasshopper, Le Conte’s, Lark, Fox, Song, Lincoln’s, White-throated, Vesper, Field, and Savannah). I even managed record shots of both of the Ammodramus sparrow species on this list – surely it is a good omen to get these tricky skulkers on my “photographed” list on my very first morning with my new camera!
If getting the sparrows on camera is a good omen, the karma must be coming at a later date because my luck deserted me for the remainder of the weekend. Several more hours in different areas of the canyonlands turned up just two Dark-eyed Juncos, a flock of eight Lark Sparrows, and a pair of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays of note – and they wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of getting in front of my camera lens.
With the temperature rising but the winds still nice and light, I drove an hour east to try yet again for the elusive flock of McCown’s Longspurs near Granger Lake. Finding these birds is becoming something of an obsession. A flock of over 100 McCown’s Longspurs – plus another 100 unidentified longspurs, probably all McCown’s but conceivably also including Lapland and Chestnut-collared – had been seen the previous day along road 378, and with such good viewing conditions today I really did fancy my chances.
A distant flock of small birds disappointingly turned out to be American Pipits on closer inspection, but otherwise there was little of interest to be seen, with a faraway and very un-birdlike Coyote loping across a bare earth field being the highlight. Another birder gently informed me that I was probably a bit too hung up on these McCown’s Longspurs, and that I should consider quitting – but I reckon I have one more Granger Lake session in me before the winter is over. Satisfaction is doubled when one finally finds a bird one has looked for so hard.
Dip number 5 was perhaps even harder to take than my ongoing failure with the longspurs. I spent (wasted?) most of a perfectly decent Sunday hanging around in the woods beside a small creek in a San Antonio park, the favored location of the male Black-throated Blue Warbler which had been showing to all-comers literally every single day since the last time I dipped it here two weeks ago. But it seems it chose Saturday night to disappear, with no sightings since then. Whether it departed of its own volition or was murdered, we will never know …. although my suspicions were raised when this guy turned up at the exact spot favored by the warbler:
Around lunchtime I took a half-time break from Lions Park and headed to nearby Mitchell Lake for some light relief, which came in the form of lots of photographic opportunities for common birds around the visitor center:
It’s hard to know what to make of last weekend. I got some satisfying photos but all I know at this point is that I’m getting fed up with long drives “out west” and coming back with little in the way of new birds to show for it. So where to go on Saturday? The previous weekend yielded Palm Warbler and Clapper Rail in Galveston, so maybe I’ll stay relatively local. On the other hand, there is also a Henslow’s Sparrow to go for at Big Thicket National Park, towards the Louisiana border. I guess I will decide how I feel on Friday!
After failing to see any of my main targets at Granger Lake a couple of weeks ago, I suppose it was inevitable that I would return and try again. Saturday was pretty much a carbon copy of my previous attempt, involving a very early start from Houston for the 2.5-hour drive to Williamson County. I felt a certain sense of deja vu during the first few hours of daylight as I drove around staring at endless empty fields. At about 11.00am a carload of birders stopped to tell me they had also seen no Mountain Plovers, nor McCown’s Longspurs. A passing redneck tried to sell me a child-size broken telescope for $10. To cap it all off, it was cold – not England-in-winter cold, but definitely on the chilly side for Texas with daytime temperatures hovering around 10C (50F).
There is only so much staring at dirt a man can take, so in what felt like a pathetic holding pattern, I returned again to the San Gabriel Unit to look for some sparrows. The overgrown field near the parking lot still held several Field Sparrows, and this time not one but three Grasshopper Sparrows popped out of the grass in response to my “pishing” them.
Back to the dirt fields yet again, and finally just before 1.00pm I picked up a small group of Mountain Plovers in flight, which alighted on the ground miles away. Views were far from great, but relief turned to delight just a couple of minutes later when I found another much closer group on the opposite side of the road, for a combined total of 25 birds in both flocks. Shorebirds are one of my favorite families, and having seen most of the Old and New World migratory species, I don’t get to add one to my list very often. Mountain Plover is a really good “world bird”, declining in numbers with a breeding and wintering range confined to central North America. As a nice bonus, the closer flock also sheltered a group of 15 Horned Larks, always a great bird to see.
The birders I had met earlier had given me a location to try for Burrowing Owl. These small, nocturnal owls perch prominently by day at the entrance to burrows and natural holes, and also their man-made equivalents – roadside storm drains, bridges and culverts. However, they are very scarce, with just a few individuals typically scattered over an enormous area. I went to where I had been told, and slowly cruised up and down the road for several miles, checking all likely spots, seeing nothing. I returned later in the day, and was about to give up when I suddenly spotted a Burrowing Owl right beside the road. And by right beside the road, I mean just four feet from the car, standing at the edge of a culvert. He lazily squinted at me as I took a photo.
I stayed in New Braunfels on Saturday night, and on Sunday decided to check out somewhere a bit more local. Birding in Texas often seems to involve covering huge distances, and I don’t seem to have the stamina for endless driving any more. Teaming up with Martin and Sheridan, and later with Willie Sekula, we made our way to Braunig Lake on the outskirts of San Antonio, where a Long-tailed Duck has been in winter residence for some time. We found the bird without too much trouble, as well as a drake Greater Scaup, a scarce bird inland in Texas (and none too common on the coast either, being heavily outnumbered by Lesser). A moment of pure luck with my point-and-shoot camera caught the Greater Scaup with its wings open, nicely showing the diagnostic white wing stripe extending almost all the way to the end of the wing.
Our luck seemed to run out at this point, for we then spent several fruitless hours looking for a male Black-throated Blue Warbler which had been videoed in a private garden early in the week. However, a Grey Catbird (rare in this area in winter), and some good-looking “common” birds including Pine Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo enlivened proceedings while we waited near the overgrown garden in which the warbler had been seen.
After lunch, we embarked on a final mission to an area of dry open country and sod fields to the south-west of San Antonio, and despite dipping on our target bird (Ferruginous Hawk), still enjoyed some real stunners including a male Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, Green Jay, Harris’s Hawk …. and a flock of 30 Mountain Plovers on a sod field. It never rains but it pours. I’ll have to return to Granger Lake one final time in March, and hopefully nail my final target McCown’s Longspur in its full breeding finery.
Today, I joined forces with Martin Reid and Sheridan Coffey, two birders I originally met last February at “birder ground zero” in Thailand – the Ban Maka resort just outside Kaeng Krachan national park. At the time, we made vague arrangements to keep in touch, little realizing that within a year I would find myself moving to their home state. As much as I enjoy solo birding, today proved that having company can make for an even better day. Martin and Sheridan are familiar faces on the Texas birding scene, and genuinely lovely people to spend time with.
I met them at some unearthly hour at their home in San Antonio, and we immediately hit the road to Refugio, with just the briefest of stops for breakfast tacos and strong coffee en route. The main target was the Golden-crowned Warbler, a bright yellow denizen of the Neotropics which had returned to the Lions/Shelley Park in Refugio for its second successive winter. Having already tried for this bird last year and dipped, I was keen to get it on my list, despite the fact that it’s not an out-and-out lifer (I’ve seen plenty of them in Central America).
Lions/Shelley Park always has some interesting lurkers in winter, and personally I was doubly keen to see the Tropical Parula and Louisiana Waterthrush that were also present in the park, both of them being potential lifers. We arrived at 9.00am to overcast but calm conditions, and quickly ascertained from other birders that none of the “special birds” had been seen so far this morning. Still, birding was productive with lots of interesting things around, including a wonderful day-roosting Barred Owl, a Green Kingfisher (an excellent addition to my “seen-while-peeing” list), several Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds, a Black-and-White Warbler, and frequent views of Green Jay and White-eyed Vireo.
About three hours into our visit, someone spotted the Tropical Parula near the car park, and about 30 birders quickly assembled to enjoy great views of this brightly-colored wood warbler. It turned out to be a male, a really lovely bird, and while not infrequent in Texas (and widespread throughout the Neotropics), could hardly fail to elicit genuine appreciation from its crowd of observers.
With the Golden-crowned Warbler still flying under the radar (it was eventually relocated by Willie Sekula much later in the afternoon), we decided to hit up another of the day’s targets. Not too far away, in Fulton, a male Broad-billed Hummingbird had been visiting a garden bird feeder for several weeks. We got into position in the car, peering into someone’s private garden, and waited. On the plus side, no angry householder emerged – but unfortunately neither did the hummingbird. After half an hour, we were just debating whether to grab some lunch and try again later, when our target appeared for all of 8 seconds at its chosen feeder – so briefly that another nearby birder missed it completely. Tickable views, but not the kind of prolonged observation I would have preferred for a lifer. Still, it was safely on the list and with time at a premium we decided to head to the coast.
Birding with people who know the turf has definite advantages, and stopping here and there at likely spots produced lots of typical Texan coastal species, among them Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Long-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Curlew, White-tailed Hawk, Common Loon, and Black Skimmer.
Our final such stop was exceptional for some quality observations of normally secretive species. At the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, a short boardwalk cuts through the marshes to a tower offering panoramic views of a lake. This area is heavily trafficked by birders, photographers, and general day-trippers – with the result that the resident birds lose their fear of humans and can be stunningly tame. First of all, we stumbled upon a Green Heron, which was standing just below the boardwalk less than six feet away from us. It was even within range of my iPhone’s camera, a good thing because the battery in my regular camera was dead. Then an American Bittern stepped out of the reeds and proceeded to spend 20 minutes in the open in perfect light, preening. Finally, a Cooper’s Hawk in a small tree cared not a jot about the excited photographers snapping it from below. What a day – and there was still time to head to the beach at the “magic hour” for views of an Eared Grebe diving among the breaking waves and an adult White-tailed Hawk on a pylon. I wonder what next weekend will bring.
One of the joys of birding is that you never quite know what to expect. In May 2015, a trip to Hungary gave me 8 species of woodpecker including the sought-after White-backed, Grey-headed, and Middle Spotted – but inexplicably we failed to find a Green Woodpecker, normally one of the commonest and certainly the most conspicuous of them all. Meanwhile, I have yet to see Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker at the summit of Doi Inthanon in Thailand after more than 15 visits – this is a bird that literally everyone else seems to connect with on their first or second try, and they all post nice close-up photos on Facebook to prove it.
On Saturday, I started early from Houston and headed over to Granger Lake to try for two regional wintering specialties – McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover. I missed them both, but instead came away with two completely different and relatively unexpected lifers. Such is birding.
Granger Lake lies to the north-east of Austin, and like almost all large bodies of water in Texas, was artificially created – in this case by damming the San Gabriel river. The area is of interest not so much for the lake itself, but for the open fields and prairies lying to the west. McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover both have fairly small breeding and wintering ranges restricted to the central U.S. They are found in flocks in winter, and range over large areas of wide-open habitat – meaning that birders are likely to find either a lot of them, or none at all.
Having driven around minor roads staring at empty earth fields for a while, I happened to stop by the San Gabriel unit, a wildlife protection area near the shores of the lake. An overgrown field here seemed potentially “sparrow-y”, and being keen to add some birds to the rather slow day list, I decided to thrash around in the field and neighboring scrubby woodland for a while. This turned out to be an excellent plan, with a nice range of sparrows popping up including Field, Swamp, Song, and – lifer number one – a Grasshopper Sparrow which responded to my “pishing” and gave prolonged views on a low bush. This is supposed to be a fairly common resident in Texas, but has a reputation for being rather secretive, so I counted myself lucky to get such good views.
Emboldened by my sparrow success, I continued a few miles to Willis Creek park, where a scrubby area near the boat ramp produced another good flock, this time including a Harris’s Sparrow – surely one of the handsomest of sparrows – and a second lifer, a smart red-and-grey Fox Sparrow.
I left the area feeling very satisfied with my haul, until later in the evening when I read another eBird report by a birder who had found both Mountain Plover and McCown’s Longspur, along some of the same roads I had driven down. It’s always a little galling when that happens – maybe this weekend I’ll get a chance to go back.
Lifers: Grasshopper Sparrow, Fox Sparrow (total 2,140).
With just a few weeks left of my second stay in Taiwan, and with the weather cooling off nicely over the last couple of weeks, I decided to take the opportunity for a three-day jaunt to the central mountains in the hope of connecting with some Taiwan endemic birds for the final time. I’ve seen them all before but needed quite a few for my year list, and the mountains are a particularly pleasant place to be at this time of year.
I set off early on Saturday morning, and once out of greater Kaohsiung I plotted a route north along Highway 3, past Tsengwen Reservoir. This road boasts sweeping bends, glorious vistas, and an almost complete absence of four-wheeled vehicles – although motorcycles being driven at high speeds are a common sight. It used to be one of my favorite destinations for a weekend blast on my Kawasaki Ninja, but this time I had to make do with my Kymco Racing King 180, which while “only” a scooter is still a quick and entertaining mode of transportation – I was having so much fun that I almost forgot I was supposed to be looking for birds.
My first year list target was Russet Sparrow in the village of Dapu, halfway along the eastern shore of the reservoir. Dapu is a regular location for this rare and declining species, but today I drew a blank not only here but also at another site for this bird halfway up Alishan. I wonder if they desert their breeding villages in winter and retreat deeper into the countryside. Despite the absence of the sparrow, the area was quite “birdy” and I observed some interesting species including Black Kite, Maroon Oriole and Collared Finchbill.
Pressing on quickly past the Alishan tourist buses, I made a two-hour early afternoon stop at Tataka, some 2,500 meters above sea level at the highest point of the road in Yushan National Park. Golden Parrotbill is the specialty here – in fact it is the only place I have ever seen this bird. Dwarf bamboo is the place to look, but this bird roams widely in big flocks and – like many parrotbills – can be very unpredictable. I didn’t score, but did year tick some of the common high-altitude endemics including White-whiskered Laughingthrush, Collared Bush Robin, and Taiwan Fulvetta. The laughingthrushes can be absurdly tame here, hopping around in the car park scavenging for handouts from the tourists. Less common was a flyover Ashy Woodpigeon, while two soaring Black Eagles gave nice views. I also bumped into a Yellow-throated Marten by the hostel buildings – a nice animal but oh if only it had been a Formosan Black Bear, which is apparently being increasingly encountered in Yushan NP.
I had booked overnight accommodation in Taichung, so I still had a lot of driving to do, and I left Tataka at around 3.00pm for the long descent towards Sun Moon Lake, keeping an eye out for the first 10km for roadside Mikado Pheasant (no joy, as usual). By the time I arrived at my hostel at around 7.45pm, I had driven 430km since setting off from Kaohsiung – beating my previous personal best on a scooter by some 50km.
My utter exhaustion after such a long drive, combined with a poor night’s sleep in a crowded dormitory, meant that I had a “lie-in” (by birding standards!) until 6.00am the following morning. An hour’s drive to the foot of the mountain at Dasyueshan, plus the need for a lengthy 7-11 coffee/breakfast stop, meant that I wasn’t in “birding mode” until around 8.30am. My first stop on the way up the mountain was Km 15, where a rocky stream is a reliable location for Brown Dipper. In what was becoming a theme for the trip so far, I dipped on the Dippers, but I did see Striated Heron, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Besra, and numerous Plumbeous Redstarts on territory in the river, while a Taiwan Hwamei sang but didn’t reveal itself.
Km 23 used to be a completely reliable spot for Swinhoe’s Pheasant, but was oddly completely deserted by humans and birds when I passed, both in the morning and the late afternoon. This being a Sunday, I would have expected there to be crowds of photographers, and the pheasants all over the road doing their best to get run over. Hopeful of bumping into a Swinhoe’s Pheasant elsewhere instead, I pushed on up the mountain, intending to invest several hours at my favorite spot, Forest Road 210. The entrance to this trail is just past the main entrance gate (where the fee for entry is 200NT per person plus 20NT for a scooter). On a right hand bend is a small shrine, next to a wide trail protected by a locked gate and prominent no entry sign. However, birders in the know can nip surreptitiously around the end of the fence, and this is exactly what I did. As it is officially “out of bounds”, this trail is blissfully quiet, quite unlike the circus that the rest of Dasyueshan is on a sunny Sunday.
The highlights along here were many, including a White’s Thrush (of the big, long-billed migrant race), and a second much smaller, shorter-billed individual with more rufous tones in the plumage which could well have been of the resident race (“Scaly Thrush“). Two Eyebrowed Thrushes also showed, but I didn’t find Taiwan Thrush which I was hoping to encounter here and which has showed for me on this trail in the past.
I got my Swinhoe’s Pheasants here – a male and three females feeding quietly along the edge of the trail – satisfyingly “wild” birds, in contrast to the tame individuals I had been expecting to encounter at Km 23. Also of note: two Brambling (part of a big influx to Taiwan so far this autumn), two Spotted Nutcrackers, and a Eurasian Nuthatch.
Probably eclipsing all the bird sightings was a Formosan Serow, which I disturbed at point-blank range. For some inexplicable reason, it chose to turn and stare at me instead of running quickly away, allowing me to fire off some photos of this seldom-encountered endemic mammal:
After exiting the trail and continuing my drive up the road, I soon found myself stopping again for a mixed feeding flock containing two Taiwan Barwings – a welcome year list addition, as they are not the easiest of endemics to find. I pressed on up to the top of the road at Km 50, where the huge numbers of people made me want to beat a hasty retreat. It wasn’t hard to guess where the Black-throated/Red-throated Thrush had been recently showing, judging by the large crowd of photographers, but having very little interest in a confirmed hybrid – especially if getting a sighting might involve a long wait – I opted instead to take a stroll to Tienchih Lake. Along the way, a nice male Taiwan Rosefinch gave good views, while at the summit lake another small group of Brambling showed well, although birds of any kind were greatly outnumbered by hordes of loudly chattering day-tripping humans.
My main target bird for the whole trip was Mikado Pheasant, a bird I had seen only once before, and for just a few seconds, beside the road in Yushan national park. Km 47 at Dasyueshan is undoubtedly the site where birders put in the most effort to connect with this most enigmatic of endemics. Even here, its appearance along the roadside is hard to predict and far from guaranteed – before today I had tried and failed to see it at this spot on at least three previous occasions.
I had been reliably informed that late afternoon is a good time to try, so at 3.30pm I arrived at the site ready to stay until dark if necessary. Just two other birders were present, the clouds had started to close in, the weather was cold and gloomy, and the forest was completely and profoundly silent. I wandered down the road, but returned quickly when the other birders started waving frantically at me. Lurking in the shadows under the pines above the road, there he was: a fine male Mikado Pheasant! I reeled off dozens of photos of the bird standing in the gloom, but I needn’t have worried, as after 20 minutes the pheasant walked right past us and out of the forest, where it proceeded to gobble up the grain that some thoughtful photographers had left at the side of the road.
Calling quietly all the while, he was soon joined by Mrs Mikado, and the two proceeded to pose around the moss-covered stones and logs in an almost perfect imitation of plates in early bird field guides. Allowing us to approach to within six feet, this was a quite ridiculous way to enjoy a stonking bird – probably the toughest Taiwanese endemic to find, and one of the most beautiful to boot.
Thoroughly satisfied with my second and probably final Mikado Pheasant experience, I headed back down the mountain. There was still time before nightfall to call in at Km 15, where two Brown Dippers sang and hopped about on rocks below the bridge as if they had been there all along – although there had been no sign of them during an hour’s search earlier in the day.
After a somewhat better night’s sleep in a now-empty dorm at the hostel, I awoke early to a bright and cool morning. Having had my fill of long drives, I chose to return to Kaohsiung via the most direct coastal route along Highway 17, stopping here and there for birds along the way. Just 5km from my overnight accommodation, Taichung Metropolitan Park proved to be an excellent choice for a visit, producing a year tick (Golden-headed Cisticola), a flock of at least 25 Brambling, and a fine male Daurian Redstart, my personal first of the year in Taiwan.
One of East Asia’s most sought-after birds, Oriental Stork, is resident on a huge river mouth along Taiwan’s west coast (up to six birds are present). This is probably the wildest area along this generally rather developed stretch of coast, and with a lot of ground to cover, I didn’t rate my chances of encountering one. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a more conspicuous species than an Oriental Stork, a huge black and white bird that favors open country. As luck would have it, I found one within about 15 minutes, predictably extremely distant, year-tickable for sure but I wouldn’t have been very happy with those kinds of views if this bird had been a lifer.
My final stop at Aogu, in Chiayi County, produced little of note except for the common wintering ducks – but I was surprised to discover when I entered my checklist in eBird that the humble Tufted Duck was actually a world year tick for me, bringing my year list to 867 and certainly within reach of my target of 1,000.