Getting Closer to 400!

Bald Eagle
Adult Bald Eagle at San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

A handful of nice year birds over the last few weeks have helped me inch slowly closer to my target of 400 species in Texas in 2017. I took full advantage of the first day of “winter” on October 29th, when temperatures plunged as low as 1C (34F) at dawn, to head down to Brazoria County – my new favorite day trip from Houston.

Anhinga
Anhinga, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

A crisp, sunny San Bernard NWR was absolutely teeming with birds (70 species logged), with lots of new winter arrivals in on the cold front, including no fewer than 5 species flagged by eBird as needing further description. Notable among these were a female Hooded Merganser and a very late Least Bittern. It was especially pleasing to get an excellent photo of an Ash-throated Flycatcher, showing its distinctive undertail pattern, which although not flagged in eBird is a scarce bird in this part of Texas:

Ash-throated Flycatcher2
Ash-throated Flycatcher, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

Late morning I drove the relatively short distance to Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, a lovely, peaceful small reserve which today was well stocked with a great range of late migrants. Outstanding among these was a Clay-colored Sparrow, associating with a White-crowned Sparrow and several Lincoln’s Sparrows. The sparrow flock kept returning to feed on the short grass of the sanctuary pathways but the birds were extremely wary, diving back into cover at the slightest hint of danger, and it took quite some time before I was able to get passable photos to confirm the identification. Clay-colored Sparrow is a migrant mainly through Central Texas, and is very uncommon on the Upper Texas Coast with just a handful of records annually.

Clay-colored Sparrow5
Clay-colored Sparrow, Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, October 29th 2017.

The following weekend I was back in New Braunfels, and with a report of several Lark Buntings at South Evans Road Lake on the Saturday – just an hour’s drive away – I decided to try for these birds early on Sunday. This was another spot with really high levels of bird activity, and finally I located two splendid Lark Buntings in a bare field alongside the road. Say’s Phoebe was another good one to find here.

Lark Bunting
Lark Buntings, South Evans Road, Bexar County, November 5th 2017.

I detoured back via Wilson County, as I had never birded that county before, where I grabbed some opportunistic photos of a Peregrine. Shortly afterwards, at about 10.05am, I passed through the small village of Sutherland Springs, one hour and fifteen minutes before Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on a church congregation, killing 26 people. The shooter came from New Braunfels and there was every chance I passed him on the road as I headed back that way. I hope this is as close as I ever get to such a horrifying and tragic event.

Peregrine
Peregrine near Sutherland Springs, Wilson County, November 5th 2017.

A beautiful cool, crisp winter day on November 14th tempted me to take my lunch hour in Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, just two minutes down the road from my place of work in Houston. This turned out to be an excellent decision, with a Winter Wren found and photographed at the boardwalk near the cabin. Finally, one of Texas’s tiniest birds was safely on my list – Winter Wren is an uncommon and somewhat tricky-to-find winter visitor to eastern parts of the state. This bird was still present at the time of writing on November 21st and being seen intermittently for birders trying for it, so perhaps it will remain throughout the winter.

Winter Wren
Winter Wren, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston, November 14th 2017.

Late in the afternoon of Friday 17th November, news broke of a Sabine’s Gull at Kemah Boardwalk. A less likely birding hotspot can hardly be imagined – this place is a theme park complete with noisy rollercoasters, restaurants and bars, and hundreds of members of the non-birding general public. On the plus side, non-birders do have a tendency to enjoy feeding the birds (despite the posted signs warning them not to!), and when I arrived at the site on Saturday afternoon the Sabine’s Gull was scavenging some easy pickings alongside the local Laughing Gulls. On several occasions, it passed the boardwalk at handrail height, so close I could have reached out and touched it. In any case, it was too close to even get a decent photo with my camera – I probably would have gotten better results with my iPhone – although out of my many attempts there were at least a couple of acceptable record shots:

Sabines Gull4
Sabine’s Gull, Kemah Boardwalk, November 18th 2017.
Sabines Gull5
Sabine’s Gull, Kemah Boardwalk, November 18th 2017.

It was something of a relief to get this bird so easily, as gulls can be unpredictable and it was lucky the bird decided to remain for a second day. Sabine’s Gull was an excellent way to mark the milestone of my 400th species in Texas – and considering the location, there was of course a bar very close by in which to celebrate in the excellent company of my wife Jenna and birding pal James Rieman!

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017.

I headed west to the Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve early on Sunday, in the hopes of connecting with Sprague’s Pipit for the year list, as well as having perhaps a 10% chance of seeing one of the chickens that give the reserve its name. The Attwater’s Prairie Chickens here have been relocated from former coastal prairie, and represent the only remaining population of this species in the world. Purists wouldn’t count them on their lists, but according to the ABA they are perfectly acceptable. Anyway, I was spared having to wrestle with any ethical listing dilemmas as I didn’t see a Prairie Chicken. Unfortunately I didn’t connect with any Sprague’s Pipits either. Still, it was a beautiful cold and sunny morning, and sparrows of eight species were begging me to photograph them – including the often-tricky Le Conte’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, which I managed just-about-acceptable record shots of:

LeContes Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. In my limited experience this skulking species is very responsive to pishing, and this bird jumped straight out of the grass and into a nearby bush as soon as the first “psh psh” escaped my lips. Getting a photo was another matter because the bird invariably kept itself partly concealed by twigs, despite showing well. Very strong early morning sunlight is another obvious factor in this shot!
Grasshopper Sparrow2
Grasshopper Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. This individual sat up on the fence for ages, but I was just a little bit too far away to get a clear shot.
Vesper Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. Again, not quite as sharp as I wanted,  but I couldn’t fault the bird for posing obligingly for several minutes!
Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow, Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve, November 19th 2017. A much sharper photo, despite the bird being in view for just a fraction of a second.

Finally, it has been a bumper late autumn for birds in the yard of my in-laws’ weekend home in New Braunfels, Comal County. The winter visitors are back, and species counts over a typical 1 to 2 hour birding session regularly exceed 35, with 46 species seen on one morning last weekend.

Zone-tailed Hawk1
Zone-tailed Hawk, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017.

Recent “firsts for the yard” include a long-awaited Zone-tailed Hawk for two consecutive days, hanging out in tall cypresses beside the river; up to 4 Pine Siskins flocking with American and Lesser Goldfinches; at least one Spotted Towhee apparently settled in for the winter in a thicket in the front yard; an extremely late (or overwintering?) Chestnut-sided Warbler; and most bizarre of all – though not countable on my list! – an Orange-cheeked Waxbill, which presumably hopped out of a cage somewhere locally.

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017.
Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee, seen at Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels on various dates in November.

Finally, a pair of Green Kingfishers on the adjacent Guadelupe River seem to be nest-building in a sandy bank – I wonder what tiny percentage of birders in the US can claim to have this species breeding in their back yard?

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017 – a new bird for my yard list.
Orange-cheeked Waxbill
Orange-cheeked Waxbill, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, November 22nd 2017. Unringed and wary, but definitely originating from a cage!

New birds added: Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Winter Wren, Sabine’s Gull, Pine Siskin.

Total Texas 2017 year list: 388

Total Texas life list: 400

Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.
Sedge Wren
Sedge Wren, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017. This bird is numerous in Texas coastal grasslands in winter, and although a skulker it responds well to “pishing”.
Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting, San Bernard NWR, October 29th 2017.

Franklin’s Gull, October 22nd

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First-winter Franklin’s Gull, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

Today I was on the hunt for Franklin’s Gull, a regular migrant through Texas but not an easy bird to find on the Upper Texas Coast. In spring, it seems to be a case of being in the right place at the right time, as migrants pass through quickly on their way north. On their return journey in late fall, individuals or groups may linger on the coast with flocks of Laughing Gulls.

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

The San Luis Pass at the far south-western end of Galveston Island has regular records of this species in October and November, so this seemed to be an excellent place to start looking. I approached from the Brazoria County end, and on the way up the Blue Water Highway I enjoyed a fiery sunrise. The weather was sultry, humid, and completely still, with temperatures already hovering around 80F (27C) by 8.00am – warm for the time of year.

Sunrise2
Sunrise on the Blue Water Highway, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

A quick stop at the Kelly Hamby nature trail proved worthwhile, with two Palm Warblers seen well (and one bird photographed). This is an uncommon migrant and scarce winter visitor in Texas. I was getting absolutely ravaged by mosquitoes at this location, so after 15 minutes it was a relief to get back into the car.

Palm Warbler1
Record shot of one of two Palm Warblers at the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

I drove a short distance to the San Luis Pass County Park, still on the Brazoria side of the pass. This was a really productive site, with an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull loafing among the Laughing Gulls, and plenty of birds to look at including a lone winter-plumaged Red Knot, several American Oystercatchers, and a Long-billed Curlew. Curiously, all the shorebirds allowed a very close approach – seemingly they are well used to the large numbers of fishermen and other members of the general public also using this site.

Lesser Black Backed Gull
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (with Laughing Gulls), San Luis County Park, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017. An increasing visitor to coastal Texas.
Red Knot2
Red Knot, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This can often be a hard bird to find in coastal Texas, probably reflecting its sharp global decline.
American Oystercatcher
American Oystercatchers, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. Present in small numbers all along the upper Texas coast, but never common.
Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This bird was unusually confiding and allowed a close approach.

I happened to know that just 50 miles to the north, a powerful weather front with high winds and heavy rain was pounding Houston. It was exciting to watch the gradual approach of heavy, pendulous black clouds from the north. Even though I was expecting it, the front’s arrival was very dramatic. One moment it was completely calm, and the next, gusting winds lifted the sand off the beach and whipped up white-tipped waves on the sea. The temperature plunged from 81F (27C) to 64F (18C) in the space of just a few minutes, and lightning started crashing down to accompany the horizontal driving rain.

Galveston Bridge
Arrival of the weather front at San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Birding was out of the question while the weather front was doing its thing, so I drove across the bridge onto Galveston and waited it out. As soon as the rain stopped, I wandered around Lafitte’s Cove for an hour, where there was no evidence whatsoever of a front-induced fallout of late migrants. I hadn’t forgotten my Franklin’s Gull quest, so I retraced my steps back to San Luis Pass, this time on the Galveston side of the bridge. There was just one modestly-sized flock of perhaps 40 Laughing Gulls here, and a quick scan did not reveal my target bird. Still, the sun was shining now and conditions were very pleasant, so I lingered in this spot for a while to see if anything turned up. Just before leaving, I had another very careful look through the gull flock, and suddenly I found what I had been looking for – a lone first-winter Franklin’s Gull.

Franklins Gull1
First-winter Franklin’s Gull, with adult winter Forster’s Tern in the foreground, and several Laughing Gulls, illustrating the size difference, San Luis Pass, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

This was only my second-ever Franklin’s – my first being one at Cheddar Reservoir in England more than 17 years ago – and I have to admit that it didn’t leap out at me the way I thought it would. Sure, it seemed noticeably smaller and “cuter” than the surrounding Laughing Gulls, but this distinction was subtle rather than obvious. With prolonged observation in excellent light, I gradually familiarized myself with the bird and the differences began to stand out more, things like the extensive dark hood, swollen white eyelids, shorter legs, and daintier and less drooping bill than Laughing Gull.

Black-bellied Plover
Black-bellied Plover, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

With my target bird clinched and photographed, I returned to Brazoria County across the bridge, and as I passed Freeport I spotted a large flock of perhaps 350 Laughing Gulls loafing in a gravel parking lot. Stopping for a quick look revealed at least 4 adult Franklin’s Gulls among their number, so in the end I was able to get Franklin’s Gull at two locations in two different counties – a most satisfying way to pick up a personal Texas first!

Franklins Gull3
Adult Franklin’s Gull near Freeport, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Finally, I decided to drop in at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, to see if any birds were active after the passing of the front, now that the weather was once again clear and sunny with much lower humidity than early this morning. I had never visited this site before – it is known to be a hotspot in the spring, and it is certainly prepared with the birds in mind, with several blinds and water holes and a nice variety of trees and bushes for tired migrants in a very compact area.

Beach at San Luis
The beach at San Luis, Brazoria County, ahead of the dramatic weather front on October 22nd 2017.

I spent an hour here and birds were very flighty and elusive, but I eventually racked up a few migrants including an Eastern Wood-Pewee, an American Redstart and a Blue Grosbeak. I’ll be sure to come back to Quintana in spring – like most wooded sites along the Upper Texas Coast it should be a good bet for a large variety of warblers, vireos, tanagers etc.

2017 Texas Year List: 383

Black-crowned Night Heron
Adult Black-crowned Night Heron, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, Texas, October 22nd 2017.