Big Bend NP and West Texas, May 27th-31st

Big Bend Scene2
One of Big Bend NP’s many stunning landscapes.

With five days to play with at the end of May, and migration in this part of the world almost completely finished for the season, I decided an excellent course of action would be to make the long trip out to West Texas for the first time. This is no small undertaking, as distances in Texas are vast – from Houston to Big Bend National Park doesn’t look like much on a map, but in fact amounts to 630 miles, or about 10 hours of driving. For European birders, this is the equivalent of driving from Plymouth to Inverness, or from Paris to Barcelona.

Chisos Basin Approach
The road to the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park. Surrounded by endless expanses of low-lying desert, the basin is a green mountain oasis at around 6,000 feet above sea level, supporting a huge range of resident and transient wildlife.

A rental car is a sensible option for this kind of journey, and as luck would have it, I got a free upgrade at the rental office from my pre-booked economy car to a small SUV. Seeing as my plan was to sleep in the car for the four nights of the trip, this was welcome news indeed.

101 Degrees
Day one, Big Bend National Park. The air temperature at 6.00pm was still hovering around 101 degrees F (39 degrees C). Fortunately, a cool front passed through overnight and the following days were much more comfortable.

I hit the road west at 5.00am on Saturday morning, with my first major stop after about 300 miles being the South Llano State Park. This is an excellently managed small reserve, with several bird blinds from which many interesting species can be seen – including the main specialty of the site, the range-restricted, endangered Black-capped Vireo. After just a five-minute wait at the first bird blind, an immaculately-plumaged Black-capped Vireo came down for a drink and I was able to fire off a few record shots – although the focus was not quite as sharp as I would have liked.

Black-capped Vireo
Black-capped Vireo, South Llano State Park, May 27th 2018.

Other birds seen at close quarters from the blind included Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted Bunting, and Black-throated, Field, and Lark Sparrows.

Painted Bunting
Female Painted Bunting – a subtly attractive bird without the over-the-top gaudiness of the male. For some reason, male Painted Buntings are allergic to my camera and despite plenty of close views at South Llano SP, none of my shots came out any good at all.

Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow. This species is not found at all in East Texas, although it is very common in arid scrublands further west.

It was early afternoon by the time I reached the Fort Lancaster Overlook, which Sheridan Coffey had informed me was a good spot for Gray Vireo. Unfortunately it was the exact wrong time of day to find one – it was extremely hot and quite breezy up there at the top of the canyon, with very little bird activity – but the stop proved well worthwhile with several Zone-tailed Hawks gliding overhead. Zone-tailed Hawk closely resembles the abundant Turkey Vulture, but can readily be distinguished by the broad white band on the tail. They are uncommon in Texas and in fact often associate with Turkey Vultures – it is possible they evolved to resemble the relatively harmless vultures as a way of getting closer to their prey.

Scaled Quail
Scaled Quail. Seen all over the place in the west, especially along roadsides. This one was in the Chisos Basin, Big Bend NP, on May 29th 2017.

Further west, the landscape becomes increasingly more barren and rugged. I left the interstate highway behind and took a more scenic and remote route to Marathon via Dryden and Sanderson. At one point, I drove for 60 miles without seeing another car nor any sign of human incursion on the land – apart from the endless smooth asphalt, of course. It pays to keep the gas tank topped up out here, and I was careful to not let it drop below half full. Alongside the road, some typical western species started to appear more regularly, birds such as Greater Roadrunner and Say’s Phoebe. Just outside Marathon I had my first Cassin’s Kingbird and Scaled Quails of the trip.

Big Bend Entrance
Big Bend National Park entrance, south of Marathon.

I didn’t have a definite plan for Big Bend National Park, but it was extremely hot in the late afternoon, and I decided that my best prospect for a good night’s sleep in the car would be at higher altitudes where the air would hopefully be cooler. The Chisos Basin is simply an amazing place, a bowl of oak forest and green meadows at over 6,000 feet protected by tall mountains and crags. It is the only US location for Colima Warbler, and also supports a big range of other birds plus bears and mountain lions. It is also very popular with hikers – and busy on this Memorial Day weekend – so I decided a very early start would be needed the next day in order to hike up to Colima Warbler habitat before the passing foot traffic got too heavy.

Before nightfall, I spent an hour wandering around the lodges area, and enjoyed some colorful and charismatic birds including Varied Bunting, Cactus Wren, Scott’s Oriole, and Acorn Woodpecker.

Acorn Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker. This one was in the Davis Mountains, but it was also numerous in the Chisos Basin at Big Bend National Park. This is a common bird in some states of the US, but in Texas only just makes it into the far west.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep in the back of my rented Jeep Compass, I was on the Pinnacles Trail by 6.45am for a steady climb up the mountain. While there were definitely birds of interest from time to time along the route, they were not abundant and species variety was lower than I had been expecting. Nonetheless, some easy lifers presented themselves: White-throated Swift, Mexican Jay, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Once into the correct oak habitat for Colima Warbler, especially along Boot Canyon Trail and the aptly-named Colima Trail, they proved to be fairly common, and one particular singing bird allowed a close approach:

Colima Warbler2
Colima Warbler, Big Bend NP (Chisos Basin), May 28th 2017.

Other interesting birds seen during my 10-mile hike included Hepatic Tanager, Western Wood-Pewee, and a Willow Flycatcher, while Mexican Jays and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were simply abundant, although bird activity declined sharply once the heat started to build in the late morning.

Western Wood Pewee
Western Wood-Pewee, Big Bend NP (Chisos Basin), May 28th 2017.

I went for a drive in the afternoon down as far as the Mexican border at Rio Grande Village, with the best bird a Common Black Hawk, which I would have driven right past had it not been for the sign telling me it was there:

Common Black Hawk Nesting Area
Common Black Hawk (on the dead branch in the background), which I would have missed completely while driving past had it not been for the handy sign.

Sheridan had told me of another excellent site, the water treatment plant below the Chisos Basin campsite, which was a good bet for the special hummingbirds of the region. It soon became obvious why: the outfall from the plant created a small stream that not only provided a constant source of running water in this dry area, but also allowed for the proliferation of some hummingbird-friendly vegetation.

However, hummingbirds were far from abundant even at this favored location – I saw just three individuals, but fortunately they constituted one of each of my target species: Broad-tailed, Lucifer, and the splendid Blue-throated Hummingbird:

Blue-throated Hummingbird
Blue-throated Hummingbird, Chisos Basin Water Treatment Plant, May 29th 2017. A relatively large and very impressive species!

Among the other birds taking advantage of the stream were a late migrant MacGillivray’s Warbler and several Indigo Buntings, which might have been slightly out of their normal range as they were flagged in eBird:

Indigo Bunting
Male Indigo Bunting, Chisos Basin Water Treatment Plant, May 29th 2017.

It was hard to drag myself away from this bird-filled spot but I had a key target to look for – Lucy’s Warbler – at the Cottonwood Campsite in Castolon, which is still within Big Bend NP but some 40 road miles from the Chisos Basin. Unfortunately I left it a bit late, and didn’t arrive at the campsite until late morning, by which time the Lucy’s Warblers weren’t singing and proved impossible to locate in windy conditions in the tall cottonwood trees.

There were lots of other birds to see here, however, including numerous Vermilion Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, and a tricky oriole which I decided in the end was a young male Orchard Oriole and not the hoped-for Hooded Oriole.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe, Big Bend NP Cottonwood Campsite, May 29th 2017.

With the heat of the day fast approaching, I had to choose whether to wait it out and have another crack at Lucy’s Warbler in the late afternoon or early the next day, or use the “dead time” to drive somewhere else. With a number of new birds available in the Davis Mountains, 2.5 hours to the north, the decision was an easy one. Along the route, some interesting birds were spotted including Chihuahuan Raven and Burrowing Owl, and several attractive picnic areas that were dripping with birds including a very late migrant Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler. This distinctive and beautiful bird looks highly likely to be re-split from the (in my opinion) rather more prosaic-looking eastern Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler later this year.

The weather looked iffy higher in the mountains when I arrived at the tiny and cell-phone reception-free town of Fort Davis, prompting me to make what turned out to be an excellent spur-of-the-moment decision to stay in the lowlands and continue north to Lake Balmorhea. I knew Clark’s Grebe could be seen here, but I was surprised to also find Western Grebe, as the range map in the field guide shows them as being present at this site only in winter:

Western Grebe
Western Grebe, Lake Balmorhea, May 29th 2017.

I also lucked out with a Phainopepla, an enigmatic and sought-after West Texas bird which I wasn’t expecting to see here, and a handsome male Bullock’s Oriole right next to the road.

Davis Mountains
Davis Mountains scenery, May 30th 2017.

The Davis Mountains State Park provided an excellent night halt and I even sneaked in to the camping area to use the showers, which was much-needed as my only “shower” in the last three days had been a late afternoon bathe in the Rio Grande. The next morning I started out at the Lawrence Wood picnic area, one of the few areas where some of the high-altitude forest habitat of the Davis Mountains can be accessed.

It was surprisingly cold here at 6.45am, with temperatures of around 48 degrees F (9 degrees C), but bird activity was high and I saw several species here that are hard to see elsewhere in Texas: White-breasted Nuthatch, Plumbeous Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, and Western Bluebird. I happened to locate the nests of both Plumbeous Vireo and Western Bluebird, the former incubating eggs and the latter feeding young at a tree hole nesting site.

The rest of the day turned out a little less successfully, as I couldn’t find a way to get close to any other areas of good habitat. I did however find a man-made pond next to Highway 118 which had a succession of birds coming in to drink, and an hour’s watching from the car here produced Violet-Green Swallow, Black-chinned Sparrow, Cassin’s Kingbird, Bushtit and Canyon Towhee among plenty of commoner species.

In the late afternoon I started the long drive back east. My overnight halt was at the Fort Lancaster overlook, where I had unsuccessfully looked for Gray Vireo a few days previously. Even at first light the next day, it took more than 2 hours to finally locate a pair of Gray Vireos a short distance up the road from the parking area. However, perhaps even more satisfying than eventually seeing Gray Vireo was finding a Rock Wren, a bird that until now had mysteriously eluded me in Texas – and a fitting end to a highly successful trip.

Rock Wren
Rock Wren, Fort Lancaster overlook, May 31st 2017.

World Life List: 2,212
USA Life List: 409
2017 Texas Year List: 357

LRGV and coastal Texas, March 11th-13th

Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warbler, Holt Paradise Pond (Port Aransas), March 13th 2017.

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.

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Louisiana Waterthrush, Falfurrias Rest Area, March 11th 2017.

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.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler, Falfurrias Rest Area, March 11th 2017.

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 ……

Eastern Screech-Owl
Eastern (McCall’s) Screech Owl, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017.

….. and this Common Pauraque, which most likely holds the honor of being Texas’s most photographed bird:

Common Pauraque
Common Pauraque, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017.

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:

Black-chinned Hummingbird2
Black-chinned Hummingbird, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017.

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:

Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole, Santa Ana NWR, March 12th 2017.

…. 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.

Harris Hawk
Harris’s Hawk, Santa Ana NWR, March 12th 2017.

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:

Couchs Kingbird
Couch’s Kingbird. This individual was photographed at Santa Ana NWR but I saw them at most sites in the LGRV. Note the thick-based and relatively short bill, and overall green tone to the mantle.

Tropical Kingbird
Tropical Kingbird, Anzalduas Park, March 12th 2017. Much scarcer than Couch’s Kingbird in the LRGV. Note the relatively long and thin-based bill, and grayer tone to the mantle compared to Couch’s Kingbird. The plumage differences are subtle, and voice is definitely the best way to distinguish the two species.

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.

Wilsons Plover2
Wilson’s Plover, Kennedy Causeway, Nueces County, March 13th 2017.

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:

Long-billed Dowitcher2
Long-billed Dowitcher, Port Aransas Nature Preserve, March 13th 2017.

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).

USA ticks: Wild Turkey, Louisiana Waterthrush, Wilson’s Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper (total 317).

2017 Texas Year Ticks: Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Clay-colored Thrush, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Common Pauraque, Eastern Screech Owl, White-tipped Dove, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Plain Chachalaca, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Altamira Oriole, Olive Sparrow, Tropical Kingbird, Sandwich Tern, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Flicker (total 232).

Plain Chachalaca
Plain Chachalacas, Estero Llano Grande SP, March 11th 2017. When these guys are at your bird table, nothing else gets a look-in!

Henslow’s, Nelson’s, Bachman’s and Seaside Sparrows, East Texas, February 25th-26th.

seaside-sparrow
Seaside Sparrow, Bolivar Shorebird Reserve, February 25th 2017.

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.

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Henslow’s Sparrow, Big Thicket NP, February 26th 2017.

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.

henslows-sparrow2
Henslow’s Sparrow, Big Thicket NP, February 26th 2017.

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:

sedge-wren
Sedge Wren, Big Thicket NP, February 26th 2017.

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 SemipalmatedSnowy, 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.

nelsons-sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow, Bolivar Shorebird Reserve, February 25th 2017. The face pattern as well as the unstreaked grey nape can just about be seen in this photo.

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.

american-avocet
American Avocet, Bolivar 17th Street Jetty, February 25th 2017.

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.

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Burrowing Owl, Anahuac NWR, February 25th 2017.

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American White Ibis, Anahuac NWR, February 25th 2017.

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(Western) Palm Warbler, Anahuac NWR, February 25th 2017. This photo was taken at 100x magnification – in fact it was too distant to ID through binoculars – I just had a hunch that it was “interesting” so I reeled off a bunch of photos.

vermilion-flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher, Anahuac NWR, February 25th 2017.

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!

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American Alligator, Anahuac NWR, February 25th 2017.

Lifers: Henslow’s Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, Seaside Sparrow, Bachman’s Sparrow (total 2,150)

2017 World Year List: 300

Red River Island, Hanoi, April 20th-May 1st

IMG_6115 (2)
Chinese Hwamei, a bird that has been hunted to near-extinction in Vietnam, but which turns up occasionally in Hanoi. This bird was singing loudly on my balcony one morning, within earshot of the Red River Island, and I saw another later the same morning in the North Wood. We must assume the origins of these two to be dubious at best!

I visited the Red River Island on eight mornings between April 20th and May 1st, spending almost all of my time in the North Wood and surrounding areas of grassland and farmland. Happily no one seemed to be bird-hunting in the area during the period, and the destruction of the North Wood has been temporarily suspended. In fact, one good strip of habitat in the wood is still completely untouched – I was told that the family who own this strip haven’t got around to cutting it down yet. The felling of the remaining trees seems inevitable but I am crossing my fingers that they wait just a couple more weeks until spring migration is over ….

On the negative side, the overgrown field immediately to the west of the North Wood – a favorite recent haunt of Japanese Quail – has now been destroyed and planted with crops, and a decent patch of trees and scrub to the south – which hosted a male Siberian Thrush early in the period – was bulldozed overnight to become just another bare earth field.

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Yet more habitat destruction on the Red River Island. Until a week ago, this was an interesting patch of trees and scrub which hosted a male Siberian Thrush on April 21st.

Full sightings list from my visits on April 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 27th, 29th, and May 1st:

Japanese Quail – one flushed on 20th and 23rd  in the now-destroyed overgrown field next to the North Wood.
Asian Openbill – a flock of 42 soaring over the Red River on 23rd.
Striated Heron – one in the North Wood on 27th.
Cattle Egret – single bird on 21st and 23rd.
Chinese Pond Heron – peak count of 10 on 21st.
Black-shouldered Kite – resident, 1-2 birds seen most visits.
Japanese Sparrowhawk – male hunting in North Wood on 23rd.
Chinese Sparrowhawk – male over on 27th.
Eurasian Hobby – one over the North Wood on 1st.
White-breasted Waterhen – single bird around the edges of the North Wood on two dates.
Ruddy-breasted Crake – heard singing near the North Wood on 20th but not seen.
Grey-headed Lapwing – one poorly photographed on 29th in farmland south-east of the North Wood.
Little Ringed Plover – 1-2 seen most visits.
Common Sandpiper – occasional singles.
Common Greenshank – flock of 11 on the Red River sandbar on 20th, single still present on 22nd and 23rd.
Barred Buttonquail – scarce resident, one south-east of the North Wood on 1st.
Oriental Turtle Dove – four on 21st and one on 22nd.
Red Collared Dove – seen on most visits with a peak count of 8 on 27th.
Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon – single male on 21st and 23rd. Now four records in the North Wood this spring. All the birds have appeared very uniform yellow-green below with no hint of a white or whitish belly.
Spotted Dove – one on 29th.
Chestnut-winged Cuckoo – one on 1st.
Large Hawk Cuckoo – one in the North Wood on 21st and 22nd.
Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo – one showed very well in the North Wood on 25th.
Oriental Cuckoo – singles on 21st and 23rd.
Indian Cuckoo – one singing on 1st, 0.4km south of the North Wood, but not seen.
Plaintive Cuckoo – commonly heard, occasionally seen.
Greater Coucal – common resident, more often heard than seen.
Lesser Coucal – singles seen on two dates during the period.
Grey Nightjar – one in North Wood on 27th, my personal third record of the spring here.
Germain’s Swiftlet – five over on 29th.
Black-capped Kingfisher – single on three dates.
Pied Kingfisher – common resident, peak count of 5 on 29th.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike – 1-2 on three dates.
Tiger Shrike – male on 25th.
Burmese Shrike – common migrant throughout April but not seen since 27th. Peak count of 4 on 25th.
Brown Shrike – becoming more numerous as Burmese Shrike declines, peak count of 6 on 1st.
Black-naped Oriole – seen on most dates with a peak count of 10 on 23rd.
Black Drongo – 12 passing through on 23rd during a morning of heavy drongo passage.
Ashy Drongo – common migrant with a peak count of 10 on 23rd.
Hair-crested Drongo – common on most dates during the period with a peak count of 65 during very heavy rain on 22nd.
Crow-billed Drongo – at least two on 27th, and some distant drongos flying through on this date may also have been this species.
White-throated Fantail – resident in the Hanoi area, 1-2 occasionally seen in North Wood.
Black-naped Monarch – 1-2 on most dates.
Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher – male on 25th.
Amur Paradise-Flycatcher – two females on 27th, told from Blyth’s by sharp demarcation between black throat and grey breast.
Red-billed Blue Magpie – resident in the area, up to four seen on most dates.
Grey-throated Martin – just one bird recorded during the period.
Barn Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 6 on 21st.
Red-rumped Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 5 on 23rd.
Japanese Tit – one on several dates in patch of trees south of the North Wood.
Sooty-headed Bulbul – up to five on several dates.
Red-whiskered Bulbul – three on 21st was the only record during the period.
Light-vented Bulbul – just one record of one bird on 1st.
Dusky Warbler – common migrant with a high count of 15 on 22nd.
Radde’s Warbler – less common than Dusky. Up to three on most dates.
Yellow-browed Warbler – sharp decline during the period, from 7 on 21st to none at all on 1st.
Arctic Warbler – three on 29th and five on 1st, with several birds in song.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler – single(s) on five dates. This species prefers more enclosed forest and is usually 4-6 feet off the ground.
Eastern Crowned Warbler – one on 20th and three on 25th.
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler – regular migrant throughout April but not seen since 22nd.
Grey-crowned Warbler – on 22nd, one seen and a second individual heard, distinctive soft double-note call.
Bianchi’s Warbler – one on 20th. Distinctive call, a soft, slightly cracked-sounding “heu”. Other seicercus warblers seen during the period didn’t call, so ID not certain, but they resembled Bianchi’s in plumage with greenish forehead and crown-stripes not extending to bill base.
Thick-billed Warbler – one on 22nd, then a noticeable increase late in the period with two on 29th and four on 1st.
Black-browed Reed Warbler – a common migrant throughout the period, often heard singing, with a high count of 12 on 29th.
Oriental Reed Warbler – singles on 20th and 22nd.
Zitting Cisticola – common resident.
Common Tailorbird – common resident, pair observed nest-building along edge of North Wood.
Yellow-bellied Prinia – abundant resident.
Plain Prinia – abundant resident, generally preferring more open/grassy areas than Yellow-bellied.
Japanese White-eye – 1-6 on all dates, much reduced in number compared to earlier in the spring.
Masked Laughingthrush – single very vocal bird, heard on every visit and seen on several dates, apparently now the only survivor of the flock of up to 5 that were formerly resident in the area.
White-crested Laughingthrush – one, almost certainly an escapee, on 1st, accompanied by a second bird that resembled a White-crested Laughingthrush but had apparently been dyed yellow.
Chinese Hwamei – one in the North Wood on 22nd. There is also a long-staying bird just outside the area, singing regularly in gardens near my house off Phan Lan Street, and photographed on my balcony on the same date as the North Wood bird. Presumably both birds are of dubious origin!
Dark-sided Flycatcher – singles in the North Wood on four dates.
Asian Brown Flycatcher – common migrant with high count of 5 on 21st.
Hainan Blue Flycatcher – one on 20th was the last record of the spring – this species was commonly observed in late March/early April.
Blue Whistling Thrush – one on 23rd.
Siberian Rubythroat – sharp decline since early April, with only one individual remaining by 1st.
Siberian Blue Robin – male on 27th and two on 29th.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – seen on three dates with a high count of three on 1st.
Mugimaki Flyatcher – seen on five dates with a high count of four on 20th.
Taiga Flycatcher – common migrant, seen on every visit with a high count of 5 on two dates.
White-throated Rock Thrush – male seen in the small patch of trees south of the North Wood on 20th, 21st and 23rd.
Siberian Stonechat – very common migrant with a high count of 15 on 21st, noticeable decline late in the month.
Siberian Thrush – adult male in the now-bulldozed patch of trees south of the North Wood on 21st.
Eyebrowed Thrush – two on 20th were the last records of the spring.
Crested Myna – two flying over on 22nd, and three unidentified mynas that were perhaps this species distantly on 1st.
Citrine Wagtail – one on 21st and a flock of 12, the majority apparently adult males, flying north on 25th.
White Wagtail – just one seen during the period, on 20th.
Forest Wagtail – one in the North Wood on 29th.
Richard’s Pipit – 2-4 birds on most dates, usually in farmland south-east of the North Wood.
Paddyfield Pipit – fairly common resident seen or heard on most dates.
Olive-backed Pipit – late singles over on 22nd and 25th, this was a common bird earlier in the spring.
Red-throated Pipit – single over on 22nd.
Oriental Greenfinch – four on 23rd.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – occasional individuals recorded, this species is much more common in urban areas.
White-rumped Munia – singles on two dates.
Scaly-breasted Munia – erratically recorded, with a peak count of 20 on 25th.

Total species observed during the period: 98
Total species I have observed at Red River Island since March 5th: 171

Hanoi’s Secret Migrant Hotspot

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Baikal Bush Warbler at Red River Island, Hanoi, March 2016.

If you’d told me when I moved to Hanoi at the end of February that I would find myself living just a 10-minute cycle ride away from one of the best birding spots I have ever experienced, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The Red River is a major migratory flyway which passes through the heart of this noisy, polluted, crowded city. There isn’t much space for birds here – urban development is rife, and most of the land that hasn’t yet been built upon has been given over to high-intensity agricultural fields and banana plantations, neither of which are very good for birds.

However, on the “Red River Island” (which is actually only an island in the wet season), a few small pockets of undisturbed habitat remain. Foremost among these is a small wood, only about two hectares in size, which offers practically the only decent cover for migrant birds for many miles around. Combined with nearby patches of remnant tall grassland, this area is an oasis in the urban sprawl for tired migrants as they follow the course of the river.

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The small wood on Red River Island – it may not look like much, but it’s the only decent patch of cover for birds for miles around.

I’ve been visiting the area since early March, with a running total of 11 visits spread over 20 days, and have so far recorded an impressive 104 bird species. The best area by far is the small wood, but I’ve visited other parts of the island too, and depending on time I quite often check out an area of swampy ponds halfway along the western edge as well as the wood.

I’ll start with some of the “silly” birds I’ve seen in the wood. The other day, there were two Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons in there – quite what they were doing so far away from their preferred habitat of montane forest is anyone’s guess. This morning, I flushed a Grey Nightjar on two occasions, even managing to get a very poor photo of it perched in a bush. A small flock of Red-billed Blue Magpies is resident, they usually fly in from the north-west and pass through the wood before disappearing – where do they go? – it seems remarkable that they can survive here. Equally baffling, a small flock of Masked Laughingthrushes have been regularly seen for at least a year, and have reportedly even bred – given the amount of bird poaching and trapping that occurs in Vietnam, it’s amazing that they are still alive. The local Red-breasted Parakeet could have hopped out of a cage, but the fairly frequent Blue Whistling Thrushes – of both the yellow-billed and dark-billed races – may well be genuine wanderers.

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A Grey Nightjar lurking in the bushes – a most unexpected find.

The birds here can make you feel like you’re in some remote montane forest a long way from the city. Bianchi’s Warbler, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, White-throated Fantail, Black-naped Monarch, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Rosy Minivet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Chestnut-flanked White-eye are just some of the forest birds that I’ve encountered in the wood so far.

Other species are perhaps a little more expected as migrants here. I hear thrushes on every visit, but they are invariably very wary, and masters of melting away into the treetops. The majority of those I have seen have turned out to be Japanese Thrushes, but I have also notched up several very smart Grey-backed Thrushes and one Black-breasted Thrush. Judging by past reports, flycatchers are something of a specialty here – these start to appear in mid-March, with several beautiful Blue-and-White Flycatchers during my last couple of visits as well as long-staying male Hainan Blue and Hill Blue Flycatchers. I’m looking forward to the prospect of encountering a wide variety of spring-plumaged flycatchers during the peak month of April.

No trip to the wood would be complete without spending a while trying to track down some skulkers. You get the feeling that almost anything could be lurking in the quite dense undergrowth under the trees, with “tick”, “tack”, “tseep” and “churr” calls often heard deep within the thickets. Some of the easier birds to find – with patience! – include Dusky Warbler, Asian Stubtail and Siberian Rubythroat, while others I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of include Rufous-tailed Robin, Manchurian Bush-Warbler, Brownish-Flanked Bush Warbler, and fairly regular Tristram’s Bunting.

Yellow-bellied Prinias and Common Tailorbirds are annoyingly common in the undergrowth – the usual rule of thumb seems to be that if you can actually see it, it’s probably going to turn out to be one of these two!

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Habitat in the wood is not the best, but it’s amazing what the birds will put up with when there’s nowhere else to hide!

Outside the wood, towards the northern end of the island, a few patches of tall grassland remain, although this is being rapidly encroached by agricultural land. A few days ago, I saw two Chinese Penduline Tits here – this species has overwintered in the Red River area in previous years, but its official status is rare vagrant to the south-east Asia region. I’ve also seen Crested Bunting in this area twice in the past week, apparently two different individuals. There is a small pond here which occasionally has a lingering Pied Kingfisher or Green Sandpiper. On one occasion, I was very surprised when a Baikal Bush Warbler popped out of the grass right at my feet, even allowing me to take a photo – a rare opportunity indeed, as this locustella is known to be a master skulker!

I have marked the location of the wood on this Google Maps link .

Another worthwhile spot for those with the time is an area of grassland and ponds along the western edge of the island. Citrine Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit and Bluethroat always seem to be hanging around, and I’ve also had crippling views of Lanceolated Warbler, Common Rosefinch, and Little Bunting among other goodies. The general area on Google Maps is here.

One fly in the ointment of the Red River Island is – predictably in Vietnam – the activities of bird poachers here. Bird traps and mist nets are commonly encountered, especially near the ponds along the western edge, and I’ve also come across poachers mist-netting in the small wood. Their main targets appear to be munias (in the traps) and white-eyes (in the nets), but surprisingly there are still plenty of Scaly-breasted Munias and Japanese White-eyes on the island despite the extensive trapping.

I hope this short account of the wonders of the Red River Island will encourage other birders to visit this spring. If you come, do let me know what you see! (and submit your sightings on eBird).

Full List of Birds Seen at Red River Island, Hanoi, March 5th-25th 2016:

  1. Grey Heron
  2. Chinese Pond Heron
  3. Black-shouldered Kite
  4. Grey-faced Buzzard
  5. Crested Goshawk
  6. Black Kite
  7. Peregrine
  8. White-breasted Waterhen
  9. Ruddy-breasted Crake (heard only)
  10. Eurasian Moorhen
  11. Red-wattled Lapwing
  12. Little Ringed Plover
  13. Common Sandpiper
  14. Green Sandpiper
  15. Barred Buttonquail
  16. Feral Pigeon
  17. Oriental Turtle Dove
  18. Spotted Dove
  19. Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon
  20. Plaintive Cuckoo
  21. Asian Koel
  22. Greater Coucal
  23. Lesser Coucal
  24. Grey Nightjar
  25. Common Kingfisher
  26. Pied Kingfisher
  27. Red-breasted Parakeet
  28. Rosy Minivet
  29. Brown Shrike
  30. Burmese Shrike
  31. Long-tailed Shrike
  32. Black Drongo
  33. Ashy Drongo
  34. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  35. White-throated Fantail
  36. Black-naped Monarch
  37. Red-billed Blue Magpie
  38. Grey-throated Martin
  39. Barn Swallow
  40. Red-rumped Swallow
  41. Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher
  42. Japanese Tit
  43. Chinese Penduline Tit
  44. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  45. Sooty-headed Bulbul
  46. Light-vented Bulbul
  47. Black Bulbul
  48. Asian Stubtail
  49. Manchurian Bush-Warbler
  50. Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler
  51. Dusky Warbler
  52. Radde’s Warbler
  53. Pallas’s Warbler
  54. Yellow-browed Warbler
  55. Claudia’s Leaf Warbler
  56. Sulphur-breasted Warbler
  57. Bianchi’s Warbler
  58. Thick-billed Warbler
  59. Oriental Reed Warbler
  60. Black-browed Reed Warbler
  61. Lanceolated Warbler
  62. Baikal Bush-Warbler
  63. Zitting Cisticola
  64. Common Tailorbird
  65. Yellow-bellied Prinia
  66. Plain Prinia
  67. Japanese White-eye
  68. Chestnut-flanked White-eye
  69. Masked Laughingthrush
  70. Hainan Blue Flycatcher
  71. Hill Blue Flycatcher
  72. Blue-and-White Flycatcher
  73. Taiga Flycatcher
  74. Rufous-tailed Robin
  75. Bluethroat
  76. Siberian Rubythroat
  77. Siberian Stonechat
  78. Pied Bushchat
  79. Grey Bushchat
  80. Blue Whistling Thrush
  81. Japanese Thrush
  82. Black-breasted Thrush
  83. Grey-backed Thrush
  84. Daurian Starling
  85. Crested Myna
  86. Great Myna
  87. Olive-backed Sunbird
  88. Citrine Wagtail
  89. Manchurian Yellow Wagtail
  90. White Wagtail
  91. Grey Wagtail
  92. Richard’s Pipit
  93. Paddyfield Pipit
  94. Red-throated Pipit
  95. Olive-backed Pipit
  96. Crested Bunting
  97. Tristram’s Bunting
  98. Little Bunting
  99. Black-faced Bunting
  100. Common Rosefinch
  101. Oriental Greenfinch
  102. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
  103. Scaly-breasted Munia
  104. White-rumped Munia

Thailand, February 2016

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Slaty-legged Crake at Lung Sin waterhole, Kaeng Krachan, Thailand, February 25th 2016.

Following a very productive trip to Vietnam in January, I was able to swing a full three weeks in Thailand in February before a return to the world of work and study eventually had to prevail later in the month.

I birded alone for two full weeks in the north, chasing some of the specialities that up until now had eluded me, with visits to familiar locations as well as a handful of new sites.

The third week was spent in the company of my good friend Tim Harrop, who although a very experienced birder, had not visited Asia before. With just five and a half days to play with, and with Tim’s number one target bird being Spoon-billed Sandpiper, we focused on the coastal Laem Pak Bia/Pak Thale area followed by three full days in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

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Male Siberian Blue Robin, Lung Sin, February 25th.

Main sites visited:

Doi Inthanon: Thailand’s highest mountain is a staple fixture on the North Thailand birding circuit, with several species found here that can be seen nowhere else in the country. My two main “gaps” from here are Black-tailed Crake and Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, both of which I failed to see yet again. As usual, the crake was heard calling at the campsite marsh in the late afternoon, but stayed resolutely hidden in the vegetation, while the flowerpecker was widely reported by other birders but failed to show for me. However, the summit marsh delivered ample compensation in the form of a fine Chestnut Thrush.

Lifer: Chestnut Thrush. Thailand tick: Yellow-browed Tit. Other highlights: Dark-sided Thrush, Rufous-throated Partridge, White-headed Bulbul, Pygmy Wren-babbler.

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Spot-breasted Parrotbill at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Lo rice paddies: This lowland area between Doi Inthanon and Chiang Mai has only recently been “discovered” by birders. It’s just a few minutes from Highway 108, making a convenient stop on the way between Chiang Mai and Doi Inthanon. Like many similar sites in Thailand, Doi Lo is absolutely bursting at the seams with lowland birds, making for some easy and enjoyable birding. The best birds during my two visits were the wintering Eastern Imperial Eagle and an Asian Golden Weaver, which although in non-breeding plumage was quite distinctive with its thick, heavy bill, quite bright yellow plumage tones, and prominent supercilium.

Lifer: Asian Golden Weaver. Thailand ticks: Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black-eared Kite, Pied Harrier, Common Kestrel, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Green Sandpiper. Other highlights: Ruddy-breasted Crake, Rufous-winged Buzzard.

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Male White-bellied Redstart, Doi Lang (Fang side), February 10th 2016.

Mae Ping: The dry deciduous forest here contains several specialities, including White-bellied Woodpecker and Neglected Nuthatch, although curiously it lacks some of the birds found in similar habitat in Cambodia (eg. White-browed Fantail and Brown Prinia). Much less visited than other sites in the north, this large national park is well worth an early morning, although it can become rather hot and birdless by late morning.

Thailand ticks: Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Black Baza, White-bellied Woodpecker, Neglected Nuthatch, Two-barred Warbler. Other highlights: Grey-headed Parakeet, Black-headed Woodpecker, Red-billed Blue Magpie.

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Yellow-throated Martens on the road at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Angkhang: This has for a long time been my favorite mountain site in the north. Nowadays, it is sometimes overlooked by birders in favor of neighboring Doi Lang. However, this winter, Angkhang has really been producing the birds, with high daily species counts and good levels of bird activity virtually all day. The draw for many is the regular and confiding Rusty-naped Pitta at the Royal Project, but my personal highlight was a superb male Grey-winged Blackbird.

Lifers: Grey-winged Blackbird, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Buff-throated Warbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia. Other highlights: Grey-sided Thrush, Black-breasted Thrush, Rusty-naped Pitta, White-browed Laughingthrush, Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Daurian Redstart.

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Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Lang: I spent two days on the west side (approached from Fang), and one day on the more difficult east side (approached from Tha Ton). The Fang side is easily accessible in any kind of vehicle, but the road up the east side of the mountain is in very poor condition, and not accessible by ordinary saloon car or minivan (you must either have a 4×4, or do as I did and rent a motorcycle for the day in Tha Ton). It is currently forbidden to complete the full loop in a vehicle, although I was allowed to proceed on foot past the top checkpoints on both the east and west sides of the mountain – birders with plenty of time and energy could presumably walk all the way around the loop.

Lifers: Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, White-bellied Redstart, Grey-crowned Warbler. Thailand ticks: Whiskered Yuhina, Black-throated Tit. Other highlights: Giant Nuthatch, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Sapphire Flycatcher, Crested Bunting.

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Male Ultramarine Flycatcher at Doi Lang – the same bird I saw here last winter. It is so used to being fed by photographers that it flies down from the trees and lands nearby, with an expectant look on its face, as soon as you get out of your car.

Chiang Saen Lake: This is Thailand’s most famous site for wintering ducks, and a number of rarities get found here every year. I was very fortunate to relocate the wintering male Baer’s Pochard after it had been absent for several weeks – this bird was subsequently seen by a number of observers and could fairly reliably be found in the company of around 40 Ferruginous Ducks on the south side of the lake. I found a pale-phase Booted Eagle in the same area, while a male Western Marsh Harrier in the roost at Wat Pa Mak No was also a very noteworthy Thai rarity.

Lifers: Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Grey-headed Swamphen. Thailand ticks: Baer’s Pochard, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Garganey, Eurasian Coot, Western Marsh Harrier, Booted Eagle, Striated Grassbird.

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Siberian Rubythroat at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, February 13th 2016.

Nam Kham Nature Reserve: This small reserve near Chiang Saen is famous for hosting Thailand’s first Firethroat, a male which is currently in residence for its second winter. The bird occasionally appears in front of the Cettia hide to bathe at a small pool – 9.00am seems to be a good time, but equally it is possible for it to fail to make an appearance all day. I was lucky, and the Firethroat emerged on cue for a 10-second showing at 8.55am. Nam Kham reserve contains a maze of paths through the reedbeds, and it is easy to get lost or disorientated – best arrive at the site very early to make sure you locate the correct hide by 9.00am!

There are plenty of other birds to see here in the early morning, and with luck and patience a number of secretive reedbed specialists may be seen.

Lifers: Firethroat, Baikal Bush Warbler. Thailand tick: Paddyfield Warbler. Other highlights: Red Avadavat, Spotted Redshank.

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Record shot of the male Firethroat, during its brief appearance in front of the Cettia hide at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, February 13th 2016.

Doi Phu Ka: This is a seldom-visited mountain in Nan province, famous for a small population of Beautiful Nuthatch, and several other species that cannot usually be found elsewhere in Thailand. I found birding here to be hard going, and only late on my second morning did I finally discover a trail leading into good high altitude forest, but I ended up seeing virtually none of the site’s specialities.

The traditional route up the mountain, a trail starting behind the shrine opposite the star-gazing area, seems to be completely overgrown, with a high risk of getting lost for birders without a GPS. A better option seems to be the trail starting on the roadside at Km 29.7, which climbs up into some good forest where Beautiful Nuthatch should be a possibility.

The roadside itself from Km 28-33 could also turn up some good species, although bird activity generally seemed rather low during my visit. I also spent some time on the trail leading into the forest from the top of the pass, at the high point of the road – this forest contains plenty of huge, old trees, seemingly suitable habitat for Beautiful Nuthatch and other forest species such as Green and Purple Cochoas. However, birding here was extremely difficult, with loud, crunchy leaves underfoot making quiet walking impossible, and the sheer size of the trees making it very hard to locate birds.

In general, Doi Phu Ka didn’t repay my investment in time and effort to get there – I got the feeling that a lot of time would be needed to get the most from this site.

Lifer: Indochinese Yuhina. Other highlights: White-browed Piculet, Crested Finchbill, Bianchi’s Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Small Niltava.

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Burning the rice stubbles in the late afternoon at Nong Pla Lai, near Phetchaburi, February 25th 2016.

Pak Thale/Laem Pak Bia area: The whole coastal strip from Wat Khao Takrao in the north to Laem Pak Bia in the south contains a fantastic range of wetland, farmland, and coastal habitats – the area scarcely needs any introduction as it is world famous for being the favored wintering location for a small number of Spoon-billed Sandpipers, as well as upwards of 40 other shorebird species.

As well as focusing on the well-known locations of Pak Thale, the King’s Project, the “abandoned building” wetlands, and the Laem Pak Bia sandspit, we also visited farmland and grassland inland from Pak Thale, Wat Khao Takrao, and the Nong Pla Lai rice paddies, seeing a total of 132 bird species in the area in two days.

Lifer: Slaty-breasted Rail. Thailand ticks: Far Eastern Curlew, Heuglin’s Gull, Oriental Darter, Black-headed Ibis, Greater Spotted Eagle. Other highlights: Chinese Egret, Booted Eagle, White-faced Plover, Malaysian Plover, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Great Knot, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, Red-necked Phalarope, Brown Hawk Owl, Indian Nightjar, Asian Golden Weaver, Chestnut Munia.

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Bar-backed Partridge, Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.

Kaeng Krachan National Park: Probably Thailand’s best overall birding location, this huge national park forms part of one of south-east Asia’s largest continuous forested areas.  Its strategic location in the middle of Thailand means that birds from both north and south Thailand can be found here, meaning a very high species total is possible.

In addition to the birds, mammals are a feature of the park, with White-handed Gibbon, Dusky Langur, Asian Elephant, Serow, Crab-eating Mongoose, Black Giant Squirrel, Asian Porcupine, Yellow-throated Marten, and even Leopard among the species regularly seen. During our visit, a Malayan Sun Bear was occasionally visiting the back of the Ban Krang restaurant for food scraps, but unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to see it despite spending several hours waiting for it on consecutive evenings.

In three full days we recorded 155 species of birds inside the park gates, with another 10 or so recorded outside the gates at our accommodation at Ban Maka, and at the Lung Sin waterhole. Booking a spot in the hide at the latter site can be done through Ban Maka, and is highly recommended for close views of some normally tricky customers such as Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted Partridges, Lesser and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes, and for the lucky few – including us! – perhaps a visit from a Slaty-legged or Red-legged Crake. It’s also a great spot to observe and photograph mammals, for example Mouse Deer and Muntjac.

Lifers: Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Moustached Hawk Cuckoo. Thailand ticks: Blue Pitta, Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Pacific Swift, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Slaty-legged Crake. Other highlights: Violet Cuckoo, Crested Jay, Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, Black-and-Red Broadbill, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Long-tailed Broadbill, Common Green Magpie, Kalij Pheasant, Bar-backed Partridge, Besra, Black-thighed Falconet, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Red-billed Malkoha, Brown-backed Needletail, Red-headed Trogon, Orange-breasted Trogon, Bamboo Woodpecker, Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker, Collared Babbler, Great Hornbill, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Alstrom’s Warbler, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-throated Laughingthrush, Golden-crested Myna.

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Red Junglefowl at Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.

Notable records from other sites: Spot-winged Starling – five at a flowering tree in Mae Rim, near Chiang Mai. Chestnut-eared Bunting – two at Fang rice paddies. River Lapwing, Small Pratincole – on the Mekong River near Chiang Khong. Bluethroat, Citrine Wagtail – Tha Ton rice paddies.

Trip Total: 444. World Life List: 2,115. Thailand Life List: 625. 2016 World Year List: 713.

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White-rumped Shama at Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.

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Rufous-bellied Niltava at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 10th 2016.

Trip Report: South and Central Vietnam, January 17th-February 2nd

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Blue Pitta at Deo Nui San Pass, January 23rd 2016 (photo by Yann Muzika)

In mid January, I had a great opportunity to revisit southern Vietnam for the second time in less than four months. My friend Yann Muzika had arranged an 11-day birding and photography tour of the Dalat Plateau and central Annam, with well-regarded guide Duc Tien Bui – did I want to join them in return for a very reasonable contribution towards the costs? With a tempting menu of target birds on offer, including some highly sought-after Laughingthrushes, and the chance to connect with one or two Dalat endemics that I missed last time around, it was an easy decision to make.

I followed up the organized tour with a solo five-day trip to Cat Tien, where I had been once before – nearly a decade ago – and still needed several of the key species from there.

I provide a breakdown of the trip below, in the hope that it will be useful to birders visiting the area, without repeating too much of the general information that is readily available in existing trip reports.

Guide: Duc Tien Bui (tienpitta@gmail.com). Tien is a veteran bird surveyor and tour guide in Vietnam. With a personal Vietnam list well into the 700s, Tien really knows his birds and how to find them. Before our trip, Tien spent several days staking out some of the more difficult species, with the result that we connected with very nearly everything on our target list – including not only seeing the birds, but also creating the opportunities for Yann to take some excellent photos.

Additionally, Tien was patient, calm, and flexible – all the key attributes for an excellent guide. I would not hesitate to recommend him for anyone intending on a south/central Vietnam clean-up.

In Cat Tien, I birded alone, getting information on finding the birds from the internet and also from a guide I met on-site, Bao from Vietnam Wild Tour.

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Orange-headed Thrush, Bi Doup, January 20th 2016

Itinerary:

January 17th: met Tien and Yann in the evening in Dalat.
January 18th: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, rest of day at Tuyen Lam lake.
January 19th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 20th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 21st: all day at Ta Nung Valley.
January 22nd: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, then drive to Deo Nui San Pass near Di Linh. Afternoon birding at the pass.
January 23rd: all day at Deo Nui San Pass.
January 24th: early flight from Dalat to Danang. Drive to Lo Xo Pass, birding there until nightfall.
January 25th: early morning at Lo Xo, then drive to Mangden. Late afternoon birding at Mangden.
January 26th: all day at Mangden.
January 27th: all day at Mangden.
January 28th: early morning drive back to Danang to catch afternoon flight to Saigon. I parted company with Tien and Yann at this point.
January 29th: bus to Cat Tien National Park, afternoon birding around resort.
January 30th: all day at Cat Tien.
January 31st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 1st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 2nd: all day at Cat Tien.
February 3rd: bus to Saigon, international flight to Bangkok.

Transportation: Our tour guide Tien arranged two drivers, one for the sites in the Dalat area, and the other for the Lo Xo Pass and Mangden. Both of his drivers drove slowly and safely, which is vitally important on Vietnam’s manic roads.

For Cat Tien, I caught a Dalat-bound Phuong Trang bus from Saigon (195,000VND), and got off at the intersection for Cat Tien – the driver’s assistant will tell you where. From there, a motorbike ride to the national park cost 170,000VND after a lot of haggling. Coming back, I took a taxi from the resort to the intersection (300,000VND), then another Phuong Trang bus to Saigon (200,000VND).

Getting into Cat Tien national park involves crossing the river on a small boat – the park entry fee of 40,000VND includes one return boat ride. If you want to cross the river early, you should buy your entry ticket the evening before at the ticket booth near the boat dock. Multiple tickets can be bought at once if you are planning to visit on several days. Once inside the national park, you can rent a bicycle for 150,000VND per day, but unfortunately the bikes are extremely poorly maintained so get there early to pick a good one. You can rent a jeep and driver to take you around but I didn’t ask about prices. It is also possible to walk to all the key birding areas, but it’s hot and distances are long so take plenty of water.

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Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, Ta Nung valley, January 22nd 2016 (photo by Yann Muzika)

Accommodation:

Dalat: Dreams Hotel in central Dalat. Very good, centrally located, good value option with excellent breakfast included, which was available at 5.30am so ideal for visiting birders. Lots of dining options within a short walk of the hotel – don’t miss One More Cafe for good Western food and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted.

Deo Nui San Pass: Juliet’s Villa Resort, located here.. Good location just 15 minutes drive from the birding area, in a pleasant rural setting. Swimming pool. Water pressure problems in the resort meant having to go without a shower on several occasions, which was annoying. The food was OK and they prepared breakfast early for us.

Lo Xo Pass: Just a night halt in the next town south of the pass, about 25km away. There is one mediocre hotel in the town, with a local restaurant opposite. These did the job, but only that.

Mangden: This ghost town has many hotels, and we were told that most of them are very poorly maintained – given the failure of tourism in this area, hotel owners are reluctant to invest. Our hotel was barely passable, with almost every bathroom fixture broken, a general feeling of damp, and food available only with advance notice. Instead we ate every day at a small restaurant in the center of town (possibly Mangden’s only restaurant) that served uninspiring but very cheap Vietnamese meals, and was conveniently open before 6.00am for breakfast.

Cat Tien: I stayed at the excellent Green Hope Lodge, in the village just across the river from the national park. Breakfast – included in the room price – was available at 5.30am. The first boat across the river to the park leaves just after 6.00am, which I found to be adequate for my needs, but those wishing to make a pre-dawn start would have to stay in the government-run accommodations inside the park.

Weather: Pleasantly warm and sunny in Dalat, with cool early mornings and evenings (high/low temp about 23C/14C). The Central Annam portion of our trip coincided with a record-breaking cold front across East Asia that produced extremely low temperatures and even snowfall in north Vietnam – it was cold, rainy and windy at the Lo Xo Pass (11C/8C), and generally overcast at Mangden with wind and occasional light rain (16C/9C). Meanwhile, in the south, Cat Tien was hot with unbroken sunshine every day (34C/23C).

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Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Ta Nung valley, January 21st 2016

Birding sites:

Ta Nung Valley: This well-known birding location near Dalat is where most people see Grey-crowned Crocias. Access details are available in many trip reports, including my own from September 2015 here. We spent two early mornings and one full day here – more than most birders, but Yann wanted to photograph the elusive Orange-breasted Laughingthrush. This species was particularly hard to find, being not very vocal, and unresponsive to call playback, which has been heavily (over)used at this site. On the last morning, we finally saw and photographed a pair in the small clearing at the edge of the forest, just across the dam at the bottom of the trail. Among 68 bird species we saw at this site were daily Grey-crowned Crocias, 4-5 Rufous-browed Flycatchers coming to worms at stakeouts we set up in the forest for OBL, but just a single sighting of Black-crowned Parrotbill. Bird activity is very high here – sometimes spectacularly so – until about 9.00am, but then quickly tapers to almost nothing.

Tuyen Lam Lake: We spent our time on the trails around the western shore, approximately here. The habitat is a mixture of pine forest interspersed with pockets of broadleaved forest. A nice range of birds and plenty of bird activity throughout the day. We saw our only Vietnamese Crossbills here, and other notable sightings included Red-vented Barbet, Long-tailed Broadbill, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, and the infrequently recorded Brown Prinia.

Bi Doup National Park: This location is about 50km from Dalat City, on the road to Nha Trang. There isn’t much in the way of accommodation nearby, so we stayed in Dalat. We spent most of our time on a 2km circular trail in the forest, the entrance to which was between Km 47 and Km 48 on the south side of the road. Our guide had spent a considerable amount of time staking out a pair of Collared Laughingthrushes, which did eventually come to our stakeout for photos, but which we didn’t see or hear at all elsewhere in the forest – a difficult species for sure. The forest along the trail was quite birdy, with target species including Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Black-crowned Fulvetta, Hume’s Treecreeper and Spotted Forktail all seen here. We also saw a single Black-hooded Laughingthrush, but this species is much commoner further north at Mangden. A couple of kilometers further up the road, trees at the high point of the pass provided us with our only sighting of Vietnamese Cutia.

Deo Nui San Pass: This location lies to the south of Di Linh, here.. Most of the birding is along the road, which unfortunately can be fairly busy with traffic. A small cafe at the pass is a useful landmark; most of the good birding is within 2km of this cafe heading back towards Di Linh. Several small trails lead into the forest, where we saw and eventually photographed a male Blue Pitta. Other notable species seen here included Indochinese Green Magpie, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Black-chinned Yuhina, and an unexpected flock of 5 White-throated Needletails. At dusk, Grey Nightjars appeared over the road, and we successfully spotlighted a Hodgson’s Frogmouth.

Lo Xo Pass: This spot is about 3.5 hours drive from Danang airport, approximately here. At the high point of the pass, there is a bridge over a waterfall and a basic cafe. 300 meters to the north, a large lone tree can be seen just above the road. Scrub along the roadside between the bridge and the tree is the place to look for Black-crowned Barwing.

Mangden: About 7.5 hours drive from Danang airport, and 5 hours from the Lo Xo pass, Mangden is the only known accessible site for Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush. Forest surrounding the town is being steadily logged, but for now the laughingthrushes – as well as plenty of other birds – can still be seen. Local road 676 heads north out of town, and holds most of the special birds. There is at least one pair of Chestnut-eared Laughingthrushes on each side of the road at the Km 17 marker, which were responsive to call playback but very difficult to see well – there is little chance to see the birds from the road, you have to find a spot to get inside the forest and try your luck. Other excellent birds seen within half a kilometer of this location included Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, Austen’s Brown Hornbill, and Indochinese Green Magpie. At other points along the road we had Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Grey-headed Parrotbill and Yellow-billed Nuthatch.

There is another spot worth trying along the new road to Kontum, about 4km from Mangden. A dirt trail heads downhill just before the Km 48 marker, passing through some excellent broadleaved forest which ought to be good for Rusty-naped Pitta as well as many of the area’s specialities. My mid-afternoon visit yielded Black-hooded Laughingthrush, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Grey-bellied Tesia and Rufous-tailed Robin, and no doubt this is just a taste of what could be seen by birders investing an early morning here.

Cat Tien: The place to try for Orange-necked Partridge is the small hill along the paved road about 2.5km west of the HQ, the partridges are among the dense bamboo thickets alongside the road and responsive to call playback, although luck is needed to get a glimpse. Bar-bellied Pitta and Blue-rumped Pitta can both be seen on the “pitta trail” behind HQ.: walk between the buildings to the right of the museum, bear right past a disused cage, and enter the forest. After 200 meters there is an obvious cleared area on the right hand side of the trail, this is a photographer’s stakeout and patiently waiting here may produce views of one or both pitta species. Germain’s Peacock Pheasant is widespread, I saw it on the “pitta trail” just behind HQ, while others get lucky along the first part of the walking trail to Crocodile Lake – it ought to be possible virtually anywhere in forested areas of the park. Pale-headed Woodpecker is only in one spot, bamboo along the dirt road next to the Heaven Rapids – it is very vocal in early Feb and I saw a pair repeatedly there without difficulty. The park is generally rich in birds and a long species list ought to be possible for those investing enough time and effort.

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Collared Laughingthrush, Bi Doup, January 20th 2016 (photo by Yann Muzika)

Key species seen, and their locations:

Orange-necked Partridge – Cat Tien
Green Peafowl – Cat Tien
Germain’s Peacock Pheasant – Cat Tien
Siamese Fireback – Cat Tien
Black Baza – Cat Tien
Mountain Hawk-Eagle – Ta Nung Valley
Rufous-bellied Eagle – Bi Doup and Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Fish Eagle – Bi Doup
Yellow-vented Pigeon – Deo Nui San Pass
Hodgson’s Frogmouth – Deo Nui San Pass
Great-eared Nightjar – Cat Tien
Grey Nightjar – Deo Nui San Pass
White-throated Needletail – Deo Nui San Pass
Silver-backed Needletail – Cat Tien
Austen’s Brown Hornbill – Mangden
Red-vented Barbet – Tuyen Lam Lake, other sites heard only
Annam Barbet – especially Ta Nung Valley
Pale-headed Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Heart-spotted Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Blue Pitta – Deo Nui San Pass
Bar-bellied Pitta – Cat Tien
Dalat Shrike-Babbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Indochinese Green Magpie – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Ratchet-tailed Treepie – Mangden
Grey-crowned Tit – all Dalat area sites
Yellow-billed Nuthatch – Bi Doup, Mangden
Hume’s Treecreeper – Bi Doup
Rufous-faced Warbler – Mangden
Kloss’s Leaf Warbler – many sites
White-spectacled Warbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Grey-cheeked Warbler – especially Bi Doup
Black-crowned Parrotbill – Ta Nung valley, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Parrotbill – Mangden
Black-chinned Yuhina – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Grey-faced Tit-Babbler – Deo Nui San Pass, Cat Tien
Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Tuyen Lam Lake, Deo Nui San Pass
Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Black-crowned Fulvetta – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Cutia – Bi Doup
Black-hooded Laughingthrush – Bi Doup, Mangden
Orange-breasted Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley
Collared Laughingthrush – Bi Doup
Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush – Mangden
White-cheeked Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-crowned Crocias – Ta Nung valley
Black-crowned Barwing – Lo Xo Pass
Rufous-browed Flycatcher – Ta Nung valley
Rufous-tailed Robin – Mangden
Spotted Forktail – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Greenfinch – common in Dalat area
Vietnamese Crossbill – Tuyen Lam Lake

Total species seen: 266

Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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