205 Species in Texas, January 2nd-9th

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Laughing Gull at South Padre Island, January 5th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 total species so far:  51

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Lark Sparrow near Chapman Ranch, January 3rd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 total species so far:  112

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 total species so far:  160

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 total species so far:  177

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 total species so far:  188

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Highlights: Greater Pewee, Pileated Woodpecker.

2016 total species so far:  192

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

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

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

2016 total species so far:  195

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop, Vietnam!

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

2016 total species so far:  205

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

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Osprey at Anahuac NWR enforcing the one-way traffic system at Shoveler Pond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A perfect dawn at Aransas NWR visitor center.

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

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

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

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

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

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