Hutton’s Vireo, March 5th

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Hutton’s Vireo in song, Panther Springs Park, San Antonio, March 5th 2017.

Hutton’s Vireo is a bird that flies under the radar. It is unremarkable looking – resembling a super-chunky, thick-billed Ruby-crowned Kinglet – and it attracts very little attention to itself. In central Texas its status is described as “scarce and local,  but increasing”, with a patchy distribution restricted to the Edwards Plateau. In the San Antonio area, despite numerous well-scattered records, there doesn’t seem to be any particular location where sightings can be guaranteed.

In other words, it’s not exactly the kind of bird that gets me enthusiastically leaping out of bed at 5.00am on a Sunday, hence why I haven’t gone out actively looking for one until now. But with my pipeline of potential lifers rapidly drying up, and the refreshing onslaught of spring arrivals still a few weeks away, I figured it was about time I tried to score. A quick eBird search soon revealed a few likely spots on the northern outskirts of San Antonio, including a location where my friend Sheridan Coffey had seen one just the day before.

My lack of urgency to see this bird is reflected in the fact that I didn’t even start the day at my selected Hutton’s Vireo site, instead choosing to mooch around nearby Stone Oak Park in the mist and drizzle of a mild, damp Sunday morning. I did have an ulterior motive here, with Rufous-crowned Sparrow (another unremarkable life bird) top of the agenda, plus Canyon Wren and the long-staying Say’s Phoebe, all of which made it onto my list with the minimum of fuss.

The drizzle had stopped by the time I got to Panther Springs Park, allowing at least some record shots of the single Hutton’s Vireo I found there, which I first located by song. This bird allowed a close approach but was constantly backlit against the sky or obscured by twigs. The photos below show a comparison with the superficially similar Ruby-crowned Kinglet:

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Hutton’s Vireo, Panther Springs Park, March 5th 2017. Note the chunky build, thick bill, incomplete pale eyering (strongest behind the eye) and the lower wingbar connecting to the pale primary edges.
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Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Riverview Park, Seguin, March 4th 2017. Note the slim build, fine bill, and darker primaries with a distinct blackish bar below the second wingbar.

The day before had been a washout, with constant rain all day. I took my wife’s cousin’s kids (triplets!) on an early-morning jaunt to Riverview Park in Seguin, haunt of the long-staying White-breasted Nuthatch. It was a lot of fun but – perhaps predictably with steady rain falling and three ebullient 10-year-olds in tow – not productive for the nuthatch. The kids really enjoyed the birding, though, with the highlight for them being three woodpecker species in the same pecan tree (Ladder-backed, Downy, and Golden-fronted), and for me the Green Kingfisher that flashed past us twice when we were clowning around trying to cross a small stream.

I spent Saturday afternoon trying to take photos of the birds coming to the yard feeders in New Braunfels, and getting almost no usable shots in the very poor light conditions. My best effort was this Chipping Sparrow:

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Chipping Sparrow, New Braunfels, March 4th 2017.

Anyway, it was a satisfying weekend all told, especially considering the limitations imposed by the weather. In a few days I’ll be off on a long weekend down to the lower Rio Grande Valley, which should yield a bunch of year ticks, and hopefully the first stirrings of Texas’s all-important spring migration!

Lifers: Hutton’s Vireo, Rufous-crowned Sparrow (total 2,152).

2017 Texas year list additions: Common Grackle, Egyptian Goose, Canvasback, Canyon Wren, Say’s Phoebe (total 208).

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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

0 out of 5, February 18th-19th.

I set myself an ambitious target of 5 lifers from this weekend, but despite plenty of effort managed to see none of them at all. However, in between the numerous moments of frustration there was still lots to enjoy, notably the first field outing for my new camera. Last week, I finally took the plunge and invested a small amount of money in a used Canon SX50HS “superzoom”, which has been receiving glowing reports from birders since it came onto the market in 2012. My first weekend with it was somewhat experimental, but resulted in a few pleasing photos – and of course a lot of out-of-focus dross!

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Balcones Canyonlands, February 18th 2017.

Saturday was one of those picture-perfect days that seem to be happening a lot during this non-winter we’ve been experiencing in Texas: crystal clear air, mostly blue skies with a little high cloud, and a cool start to the day but warming up to an afternoon high of 84F (29C).

By first light I was already at the edge of the Balcones Canyonlands reserve in the “hill country” outside Austin, with my target lifers in this area being Black-throated Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee – all of which are no doubt fairly common further west, but are at the far eastern edge of their range here. It seemed from my reading that these kinds of species prefer arid, rocky slopes and canyons, and my main problem – as often seems to be the case in Texas – was actually getting to this habitat in an area where so little of the land is accessible to the public.

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Field Sparrow, Balcones Canyonlands, February 18th 2017.

Nonetheless, I had a most enjoyable start at the Doeskin Ranch, one spot to which the public have been granted access. I didn’t see any obvious habitat for my target birds, but a couple of hours here did produce 10 sparrow species within just a 300-yard radius of the parking lot (Grasshopper, Le Conte’s, Lark, Fox, Song, Lincoln’s, White-throated, Vesper, Field, and Savannah). I even managed record shots of both of the Ammodramus sparrow species on this list – surely it is a good omen to get these tricky skulkers on my “photographed” list on my very first morning with my new camera!

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Grasshopper Sparrow, Balcones Canyonlands, February 18th 2017. My photo of its relative Le Conte’s Sparrow was even less impressive, but nonetheless getting two Ammodramus species on camera in one day is not to be sniffed at!

If getting the sparrows on camera is a good omen, the karma must be coming at a later date because my luck deserted me for the remainder of the weekend. Several more hours in different areas of the canyonlands turned up just two Dark-eyed Juncos, a flock of eight Lark Sparrows, and a pair of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays of note – and they wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of getting in front of my camera lens.

With the temperature rising but the winds still nice and light, I drove an hour east to try yet again for the elusive flock of McCown’s Longspurs near Granger Lake. Finding these birds is becoming something of an obsession. A flock of over 100 McCown’s Longspurs – plus another 100 unidentified longspurs, probably all McCown’s but conceivably also including Lapland and Chestnut-collared – had been seen the previous day along road 378, and with such good viewing conditions today I really did fancy my chances.

A distant flock of small birds disappointingly turned out to be American Pipits on closer inspection, but otherwise there was little of interest to be seen, with a faraway and very un-birdlike Coyote loping across a bare earth field being the highlight. Another birder gently informed me that I was probably a bit too hung up on these McCown’s Longspurs, and that I should consider quitting – but I reckon I have one more Granger Lake session in me before the winter is over. Satisfaction is doubled when one finally finds a bird one has looked for so hard.

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Hermit Thrush, Southside/Lions Park, San Antonio, February 19th 2017 – getting this one on camera was the high point of rather a birdless visit.

Dip number 5 was perhaps even harder to take than my ongoing failure with the longspurs. I spent (wasted?) most of a perfectly decent Sunday hanging around in the woods beside a small creek in a San Antonio park, the favored location of the male Black-throated Blue Warbler which had been showing to all-comers literally every single day since the last time I dipped it here two weeks ago. But it seems it chose Saturday night to disappear, with no sightings since then. Whether it departed of its own volition or was murdered, we will never know …. although my suspicions were raised when this guy turned up at the exact spot favored by the warbler:

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Cooper’s Hawk, Southside/Lions Park, San Antonio, February 19th – a prime suspect in the unsolved case of the missing Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Around lunchtime I took a half-time break from Lions Park and headed to nearby Mitchell Lake for some light relief, which came in the form of lots of photographic opportunities for common birds around the visitor center:

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White-crowned Sparrow, Mitchell Lake, San Antonio, February 19th 2017.
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Loggerhead Shrike, Mitchell Lake, San Antonio, February 19th 2017.
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Northern Cardinal, Mitchell Lake, San Antonio, February 19th 2017.

It’s hard to know what to make of last weekend. I got some satisfying photos but all I know at this point is that I’m getting fed up with long drives “out west” and coming back with little in the way of new birds to show for it. So where to go on Saturday? The previous weekend yielded Palm Warbler and Clapper Rail in Galveston, so maybe I’ll stay relatively local. On the other hand, there is also a Henslow’s Sparrow to go for at Big Thicket National Park, towards the Louisiana border. I guess I will decide how I feel on Friday!

2017 World Year List: 291

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

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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.

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.

Ringed Kingfisher and Wood Duck, Landa Park, December 19th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A perfect dawn at Aransas NWR visitor center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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