Spring 2019 at Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary

Eastern Whip Poor Will
This Eastern Whip-poor-will, near the cabin on March 22nd, provided many Harris County birders with a rare opportunity to get this bird on their year lists.

In writing this article on May 24th – about a week before the “official” end of Spring – I am leaving myself wide open to having to revise it when a Connecticut or MacGillivray’s Warbler turns up in the last few days of the month! I can only hope!

For background information about the reserve, please refer to my post from last year: Spring at Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary.

Spring 2019 was an excellent one at Edith L Moore. Although I “only” visited the site 58 times between March and May (compared to 76 visits during the same period in 2018), I recorded 101 bird species – 5 more than in 2018.

While April 2019 could best be described as “average” what really set this year apart was a superb run of days in early May. The month kicked off with a Black-billed Cuckoo on May 1st and never looked back, with multiple days in early May when individual observers saw nearly 50 species at the site and the daily species total was often 60+.

In fact, the number and variety of warblers at ELM in early May regularly trumped the famous coastal hotspots, thanks to favorable winds which allowed migrants to overshoot the coastal woodlots and drop in to more favorable habitats further inland such as ELM. Saturday 4th May was perhaps the peak day of the spring, with 26 warbler species noted at Edith L Moore between all observers – the kind of number that would be impressive even at High Island or Sabine Woods!

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Male Chestnut-sided Warbler at Edith L Moore, early May 2019.

I saw a total of 29 warbler species here between March and May, which I have classified in rough order of abundance below, based on the number of eBird checklists on which I recorded each species. “Bird-days” adds up the total number of birds and the total number of occasions seen.

Please note that these are only my personal sightings; many other observers regularly monitored avian comings and goings on the reserve during the spring, and their lists include several birds that I did not see at all; their impressions of the abundance of certain species will also no doubt differ from mine!

# Species # of checklists High count Bird days First seen Last seen Notes
1 Ovenbird 25 10 65 April 18th May 20th Common migrant
2 Hooded Warbler 21 8 40 March 18th April 26th Common early season migrant
3 Chestnut-sided Warbler 17 5 35 April 25th May 20th Common late season migrant
4 Black-and-white Warbler 15 3 23 March 18th May 10th Long migration season; waves early and late
5 Magnolia Warbler 13 7 37 April 25th May 22nd Common late season migrant
6 Pine Warbler 12 2 18 Resident in area, occasionally wanders onto reserve
7 Wilson’s Warbler 12 2 15 March 16th May 4th No birds overwintered in the park this year. Spring passage from March through early May
8 American Redstart 11 5 28 April 25th May 22nd Common late season migrant
9 Orange-crowned Warbler 11 3 17 April 10th Overwinters, with most departing before the end of March
10 Northern Parula 10 3 15 March 27th May 8th Seen sporadically throughout the spring
11 Worm-eating Warbler 10 2 12 April 8th April 30th Frequently recorded but never numerous
12 Tennessee Warbler 8 4 17 April 23rd May 10th A good year for them
13 Kentucky Warbler 8 3 13 April 23rd May 4th First bird was later than usual, but common during its peak passage period
14 Black-throated Green Warbler 8 3 10 March 18th May 10th Long migration season but never common here
15 Yellow-rumped Warbler 7 2 10 March 27th Overwinters, and departs early in spring
16 Blackburnian Warbler 7 2 8 April 25th May 18th A good spring for these
17 Golden-winged Warbler 6 2 7 April 26th May 4th Fairly common for a limited time; a specialty of the site
18 Blue-winged Warbler 5 1 5 April 10th April 26th Fewer than in 2018, in contrast to most other warblers
19 Northern Waterthrush 4 2 5 April 25th May 8th Infrequently recorded
20 Common Yellowthroat 4 2 5 April 20th May 8th Occasional migrant
21 Canada Warbler 4 2 5 April 26th May 9th A much better showing than last year
22 Nashville Warbler 4 1 4 April 26th May 4th Scarce migrant
23 Bay-breasted Warbler 3 1 3 May 4th May 8th An excellent spring for this scarce species
24 Swainson’s Warbler 2 1 2 April 11th April 18th What was probably the same bird remained for over a week in April, singing in the Church Gate Marsh area. Another was present in early May
25 Louisiana Waterthrush 1 1 1 March 26th March 26th Always scarce here, I saw just one this spring
26 Prothonotary Warbler 1 1 1 April 4th April 4th I only saw one, but it was a good spring for this species with fairly regular reports
27 Mourning Warbler 1 1 1 May 4th May 4th Two confirmed, multi-observer birds this spring, and a third reported – the first records since before Hurricane Harvey devastated its preferred creekside habitat in 2017
28 Cerulean Warbler 1 1 1 April 13th April 13th A bumper spring for this species at ELM with birds seen occasionally from mid April through early May, although I saw just one of them
29 Yellow-throated Warbler 1 1 1 May 3rd May 3rd Late individual. This species is always rare here.
Black-billed Cuckoo
Record shot of the May 1st Black-billed Cuckoo, found by Dennis Shepler, which showed for just three observers (me included) before melting away into the woods.

Non-warbler highlights of the spring include the above-mentioned Black-billed Cuckoo; a very obliging Eastern Whip-poor-will for one day in March; several Philadelphia Vireos; above-average numbers of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks; and first records for ELM of Bank Swallow and Dark-eyed Junco.

It was an odd spring for thrushes, with lots of Swainson’s and a fair number of Wood Thrushes seen, but no personal records at all of Gray-cheeked Thrush or Veery (although the latter species were both seen by other observers).

Species # of checklists (out of 58) High count Status
Northern Cardinal 58 22 Common resident
Blue Jay 58 14 Common resident
Downy Woodpecker 58 8 Common resident
Carolina Wren 57 13 Common resident
White-winged Dove 56 6 Common resident
American Robin 51 9 Common resident
Red-bellied Woodpecker 49 4 Common resident
Common Grackle 48 50 Frequent flocks in spring
Carolina Chickadee 47 5 Common resident
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 30 8 Common winter visitor
Tufted Titmouse 30 4 Common resident
Cedar Waxwing 26 30 Common winter visitor
Great Crested Flycatcher 26 2 Migrant and summer visitor
Swainson’s Thrush 25 10 Common migrant
Eastern Wood-Pewee 17 6 Common migrant
Pileated Woodpecker 17 2 Fairly common resident
Chimney Swift 16 5 Fairly common summer visitor
Gray Catbird 16 5 Common migrant
White-eyed Vireo 16 3 Common migrant
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 14 6 Common winter visitor
Wood Thrush 14 5 Fairly common migrant, probable breeder in 2018 but no sign of breeding this year
Barn Swallow 12 5 Fairly common migrant
White-throated Sparrow 12 3 Fairly common winter visitor
Baltimore Oriole 11 15 Fairly common migrant
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 10 12 Fairly common migrant; a good year for them
Red-winged Blackbird 10 5 Fairly common winter visitor
Summer Tanager 9 3 Fairly common migrant
House Finch 9 2 Occasional feeder visitor
Red-eyed Vireo 8 5 Fairly common migrant for a limited period
Indigo Bunting 8 3 Much less common than in 2018
American Goldfinch 7 4 Common winter visitor, most departing by end March
Mourning Dove 7 2 Occasional visitor
Broad-winged Hawk 6 9 Occasional migrant
Acadian Flycatcher 6 2 The most frequent empidonax
Blue-headed Vireo 6 2 Fairly common winter visitor
Purple Martin 5 2 Occasional migrant
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 5 1 Occasional migrant
Red-tailed Hawk 5 1 Winters locally and sometimes passes over reserve
House Wren 5 1 One bird overwintered along creek and was seen occasionally
Northern Mockingbird 5 1 Sometimes wanders into the reserve from surrounding suburbs
Black Vulture 4 8 Occasional overhead
Chuck-will’s-widow 4 4 Regular migrant in early April
Mississippi Kite 4 3 Occasional overhead, breeds nearby
House Sparrow 4 2 Occasional feeder visitor
Yellow-breasted Chat 4 1 Occasional migrant
Cooper’s Hawk 3 3 Occasional, unwelcome visitor
Great Blue Heron 3 2 Occasional visitor
Great Egret 3 1 Occasional visitor
Turkey Vulture 3 1 Occasional overhead
Tree Swallow 3 1 Occasional overhead
Hermit Thrush 3 1 Fairly common winter visitor that departs in March
Cliff Swallow 2 4 Irregular overhead
Wood Duck 2 2 Pair on creek on two occasions but no sign of attempting to breed
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 2 2 Irregular overhead
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2 1 Irregular visitor
Barred Owl 2 1 Resident on reserve but not often seen
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher 2 1 Irregular migrant
Willow Flycatcher 2 1 Irregular migrant
Least Flycatcher 2 1 Irregular migrant
Philadelphia Vireo 2 1 Rare migrant; a good year for them
Warbling Vireo 2 1 Irregular migrant
Scarlet Tanager 1 2 Occasional migrant but scarce in 2019
Black-billed Cuckoo 1 1 First for the reserve since 2013, found by Dennis
Eastern Whip-poor-will 1 1 A one-day bird in March was enjoyed by many observers
Little Blue Heron 1 1 Irregular overhead
Cattle Egret 1 1 Irregular overhead
Yellow-throated Vireo 1 1 Recorded occasionally throughout the spring, but I saw only one
Bank Swallow 1 1 First for the reserve, overhead
Dark-eyed Junco 1 1 First for the reserve, one in March at the south-east marsh
Great-tailed Grackle 1 1 Rare on or over the reserve, but often erroneously reported; almost all grackles seen at ELM are Commons.
Painted Bunting 1 1 Irregular migrant
Dickcissel 1 1 Irregular overhead
Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole refuelling on its way north, May 2019.
Barred Owl Cabin
Barred Owl near the cabin pond. Resident but irregularly seen on the reserve, and often astonishingly approachable.

MacGillivray’s Warbler

McGillivray's Warbler
MacGillivray’s Warbler, Edith L Moore Nature Reserve, Houston, May 2nd 2017. The bright yellow underparts, black lores, and – most of all – the striking white eye crescents are clearly visible in this photo.

On Monday evening, Erik Sauder found a male MacGillivray’s Warbler in the Edith L Moore Nature Reserve in Houston, a site I have been visiting almost every evening after work since late March. Naturally, the rarest bird of the spring turned up on the one night I didn’t go to the reserve. It had showed well and Erik got a good look at it – but no photo – and with a clear night to follow, I didn’t rate my chances of relocating it again the following evening.

I felt my chances dwindling further when no one reported the bird during the day on Tuesday, and further still when I received a text from Letha Slagle to tell me she had looked for it but drawn a blank. So much so, that on arrival at the site after work on Tuesday I spent barely a couple of minutes at the spot the bird had been found next to the Church Gate.

There wasn’t much else around either (the only migrants in the whole wood appeared to be a lone Ovenbird and a Swainson’s Thrush), and just before leaving at around 6.10pm I decided to check the area around the zipline at the northwestern edge of the wood, which has proved to be one of the better areas this spring for migrant warblers.

Almost as soon as I arrived, I noticed a bird moving low down in the woods between the zip line and Memorial Drive. It quickly popped up to reveal itself as a sparkling male MacGillivray’s Warbler, without a doubt the same bird that Erik had found the previous evening just 50 yards to the south.

Better yet, I managed to get an identifiable photo of the bird before it disappeared further back among the trees, no mean feat as the lighting was poor and the bird was very actively feeding.

MacGillivray’s Warbler is a summer migrant to the western third of the USA, and a rare migrant further east. Over the last few days there has been a mini-influx in Texas with several birds reported around Corpus Christi and San Antonio. However, this bird at Edith L Moore nature reserve is the first in Harris County since one was recorded at the same site 5 years ago.

Texas tick: MacGillivray’s Warbler (total 336).

Early Migrants, March 25th-31st

Hermit Thrush2
Hermit Thrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 27th

The small-but-charming Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary on Memorial Drive is not only a very convenient birding location (being just 5 minutes from home and 2 minutes from work!), but is also starting to hint at its potential as a stellar migrant hotspot during spring migration.

The last couple of weeks at the site have produced a scattering of early migrants including Northern Waterthrush (self-found on March 26th and perhaps Harris County’s earliest spring record), Prothonotary, Hooded, Worm-eating, Black-and-White and Wilson’s Warblers, Northern Parula and Eastern Whip-Poor-Will.

Northern Waterthrush1
Northern Waterthrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 26th 2017. Told from the very similar Louisiana Waterthrush (the more regular migrant in March) by a combination of streaked throat, dense streaking below, uniform buff-white underparts, buffish supercilium of even width, short bill and dull legs. To me, Louisiana Waterthrush appears bigger, bolder, longer-billed and cleaner-cut.
Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. A real stunner, and on an early date too.
Chuck Wills-Widow
Eastern Whip-Poor-Will, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. This night bird turns up on migration in small numbers in urban Houston, but connecting with one is a matter of pure luck. This one flushed right after I took this photo, and despite relocating it 2-3 more times I couldn’t get close to it again.

Southerly winds enticing migrants to take off from the Yucatan, coupled with a belt of heavy rain forecast to hit the Gulf Coast late morning, are a potentially excellent combination for a “fallout” of migrants. Conditions looked promising on March 25th – conveniently a Saturday – so I took a trip out to Sabine Woods, on the coast near the Louisiana border. Some would say this is the Texas Gulf Coast’s most exciting migrant hotspot – it is indeed a perfect combination of a mature, isolated forest of manageable size, located within half a mile of the coast.

The forecast rain materialized late morning, bringing with it a nice range of early migrants including 10 warbler species (Black-throated Green, Hooded, Palm [both races], Yellow-throated, Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Northern Parula, and both Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes) – and late in the day both Swainson’s and Worm-eating Warblers were found too although I didn’t see them.

Overall, though, we are still a few weeks too early for the majority of spring migrants. Had this weather combination occurred around April 20th, it could have been an epic rather than merely a good day.

Hooded Warbler2
Male Hooded Warbler, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017.
Brown Thrasher1
Brown Thrasher, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017. A really quite stunning looking bird, which is generally uncommon in Texas, although Sabine Woods has good numbers.

Anahuac NWR – an hour’s drive back towards Houston – rarely disappoints, and on the same day I was able to add both (Hudsonian) Whimbrel and Semipalmated Sandpiper to my USA list, as well as my first Eastern Kingbirds of the spring.

Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017.
Cinnamon Teal
Drake Cinnamon Teal, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017. Up to 6 of these birds have been present for most of the winter, but just one seemed to be still here in late March.

Meanwhile, on my “other” local patch on the outskirts of New Braunfels, Comal County, my list is steadily growing as spring birds arrive, with both Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler back on territory by late March, as well as an army of Black-chinned Hummingbirds constantly chasing each other around the hummingbird feeder.

A good passage migrant on March 31st was a Black-throated Green Warbler, which stayed in the treetops and didn’t allow a clear view, however with patience I did manage a record photo:

Black-throated Green Warbler2
Black-throated Green Warbler, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.
Northern Parula
Northern Parula, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.

Texas 2017 Year List: 251