Guadalupe Mountains National Park, July 2019

Graces Warbler
Grace’s Warbler at Dog Canyon. A specialty of the southwestern USA, this species only just reaches Texas and can be seen in small numbers in high-altitude pine forests in the Guadalupe Mountains.

What if I told you that, even over the busy July 4th weekend, there is a place in Texas where you can turn up and camp – without making a reservation – at a near-empty campsite in a pristine mountain wilderness, with an 80-mile network of lightly trafficked, breathtakingly gorgeous hiking trails starting just a stone’s throw from your tent?

As unlikely as it may sound, there is such a place – Dog Canyon, located in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The downside is that this Utopia is nearly 800 miles from Houston, putting it out of reach for anything less than a 4-day weekend or for anyone unprepared to do a serious amount of driving.

In essence, you drive to an already very remote spot – Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico – then take a 60-mile dead-end road that loops around the northern edge of the Guadalupe Mountains and at the last minute – two hundred yards before the end of the road – sneaks back into Texas.

Texas NM Border at Dog Canyon
Crossing back from New Mexico into Texas, just a few hundred yards before the Dog Canyon campground.

At Dog Canyon, I was able to combine five of the things I like most: birding, exercise, remote places, long road trips, and being alone. And I don’t care if I sound antisocial – this really was a wonderful experience.

Day One:

I left Houston at lunchtime on Wednesday and headed west, arriving late afternoon at a targeted stop for Varied Bunting. Easter Pageant Hill is located just off i-10 at Junction, in Kimble county, some 300 miles west of Houston. With temperatures still in the high 90s, I wasn’t expecting a miracle, but literally one of the first birds I laid eyes on was a handsome male Varied Bunting singing its heart out from the top of a small tree. This completed my sweep of all 4 buntings (Painted, Indigo, Lazuli, and Varied) in Kimble county in 2019.

Varied Bunting2
Male Varied Bunting at Easter Pageant Hill, near Junction, Texas.

With a quicker-than-expected result here, I aimed high and decided to try and make the Fort Lancaster rest area before nightfall. This remote spot near Sheffield is a renowned location for the very local Gray Vireo – indeed, it is the only place I have ever seen this species. The sun was already dipping close to the horizon when I arrived at the site, but my luck continued; I soon heard and briefly saw two Gray Vireos here at this picturesque canyon, with the surprise appearance of a flock of Bushtits an unexpected bonus.

Fort Lancaster Sunset2
Sunset at the Gray Vireo site near Fort Lancaster. This place sums up West Texas for me: wild and remote, empty and (apart from the birds and the wind) silent.
Fort Lancaster Road
Sunset on the road at the Gray Vireo site near Fort Lancaster

I considered sleeping in my car overnight here, which I have done before at this location, but I was feeling full of energy after my success with the birds, so I continued on the long road west.

One thing about car camping in Texas in July is that it is HOT, and my plan was to aim for higher altitudes where the weather was hopefully a little cooler. It was just before midnight when I arrived at the Lawrence Wood picnic area on a remote road in the Davis Mountains, a spooky place in the woods with literally no passing traffic all night, but thankfully, cool temperatures allowing a relaxing night’s sleep in the car.

Day Two:

Morning Coffee
Morning coffee at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.

I awoke before dawn hoping to hear a Western Screech-owl or Mexican Whip-poor-will, but I was out of luck with the night birds here. Daybreak, however, produced a slew of good sightings at this excellent spot, including first-of-the-year Plumbeous Vireo, Western Bluebird, Gray Flycatcher, Hepatic Tanager, Canyon Towhee and Black-headed Grosbeak – which are all common birds in the mountains of west Texas but rare or absent further east. A Hutton’s Vireo was also a year tick and an excellent bonus bird, one which I knew I would be very unlikely to see in the Guadalupe Mountains.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Male Black-headed Grosbeak at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.
Woodhouses Scrub Jay
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.
Fort Davis Highway
Highway in the Davis Mountains. It really is no chore driving hundreds of miles on roads like this.

I then wasted some time trying to find Lucy’s Warbler at an out-of-range location near Van Horn where a pair had been seen on territory earlier in the season. When I finally arrived at Van Horn a little later, I was dismayed to discover that I was still 170 miles – a 3-hour drive – from my final destination. It was starting to dawn on me that Dog Canyon is a seriously remote place!

I wasn’t complaining about the scenery, though, with the road from Van Horn passing through expansive deserts before climbing up into the Guadalupe Mountains, then crossing over into New Mexico. Dog Canyon is at the far northern end of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a two hour journey by road from the national park headquarters at Pine Springs, or a full day’s hike.

Dog Canyon campsite
View across to my campsite (orange tent!) at Dog Canyon.

I was getting a little nervous as I neared Dog Canyon, because there are just 9 campsites. Reservations cannot be made – the sites are allocated on a “first come first served” basis – and I suspected that the July 4th week would be one of their busiest times of year. However, I needn’t have worried, as I was literally the first person to arrive (although perhaps 5 other campsites were occupied later).

Dog Canyon is a perfect spot; each site is equipped with a camping “pad” and picnic table, and with my pick of all the sites I could select the most shaded one. There is a bathroom with sink and flushing toilet but no shower (although taking a “stand-up” shower at the sink is straightforward enough).

I wandered around the campsite area for the rest of the afternoon, but the weather was unusually hot – even up here at 6,000 feet above sea level – and I didn’t see many birds.

Dog Canyon Indian Meadows
View from the Indian Meadows trail, which is the shortest and most easily accessible trail from the Dog Canyon campsite.
Dog Canyon sunset
Sunset at Dog Canyon.

Day Three:

I am reliably informed that the best way to truly relax on vacation is to have no idea what the time is. Dog Canyon is a great place to follow this philosophy – most of Texas (apart from the far western tip near El Paso) lies in the Central time zone, whereas New Mexico is on Mountain Time, one hour behind. By the time I had driven up from Van Horn, cut through New Mexico, and dropped back into the very edge of Texas again, my phone (and me) were both thoroughly confused. My car clock also changes automatically with time zones, so I had no help there either. I set my alarm super-early to make 100% sure I was up and about before sunrise – which turned out to be a good move because the first thing I heard as I awoke was a Common Poorwill calling from a rocky slope near the campsite.

Loading plenty of food and water into my day pack, I set off on the Tejas Trail up Dog Canyon. I had received some great advice from other birders that the best way to find birds here is by walking in the bed of the canyon itself, not on the trail along the edge. This worked out well, and by the time I had reached the “switchbacks” further up the canyon, I had already amassed a great list including Black-throated Gray and Grace’s Warblers, Cordilleran and Gray Flycatchers, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Mountain Chickadee, and plenty of Western Tanagers and Black-chinned Sparrows.

Graces Warbler2
Grace’s Warbler at Dog Canyon.

This single-track trail then passes through some open, exposed areas, where the birds were fewer in number but a Zone-tailed Hawk passed overhead. After passing the intersection with the McKittrick Canyon trail, at around 7,700 feet altitude, the Tejas Trail gradually enters forested areas once again; some high-altitude pine forest birds such as Steller’s Jay, Hairy Woodpecker and Dark-eyed Junco began making appearances along here. I got as far as the Tejas Camp, around 7 miles from my starting point, before turning around and retracing my steps back to Dog Canyon for a total day hike of just over 14 miles and an elevation gain of around 2,000 feet.

Bowl View
View of pine trees nestled in The Bowl at the top of the Guadalupe Mountains, as viewed from the Tejas Trail near the turn-off to McKittrick Canyon.

By the time I turned around, it was already early afternoon, and at this altitude the sun is very strong. In remote areas like this, it pays to be hyper-aware of things like drinking water, sun exposure, and exhaustion levels – especially considering that I was totally, utterly and completely alone; I saw not a single person on the trails all day. For some, this would be alarming; for me, it was inspiring and wonderful. We get so few chances to be alone in our busy lives.

Western Tanager
Male Western Tanager, Dog Canyon.

I was also constantly aware of the potential threat posed by bears and especially Mountain Lions, both of which inhabit the Guadalupe Mountains in good numbers. I would have loved to encounter either one of those – at a safe distance, of course! – and I spent some time scanning distant ridges and slopes but to no avail.

The birding was still good on the way back, even in mid-afternoon, and the highlight was discovering a family party of Virginia’s Warblers near the top of Dog Canyon – a life bird for me and one of the main targets of my trip.

Virginias Warbler
Virginia’s Warbler at Dog Canyon.

Day Four:

Having cleaned up on nearly all the Dog Canyon specialties already, I was anxious to try and get into more of the high-altitude pine forest habitat I had just touched the edges of during yesterday’s long hike. From the map, it looked like the best place to do this would be from the other side of the mountain, starting at Frijole Ranch and taking the Bear Canyon trail up to “The Bowl” – a two-mile-wide relict habitat of old-growth pine forest at an altitude of over 8,000 feet above sea level. The Bowl is literally the only place in Texas where certain Rocky Mountain species – Red Crossbill, Pygmy Nuthatch, and sometimes Juniper Titmouse – can be found at the very southern edge of their range.

I packed up my tent in the dark and drove out of Dog Canyon, flushing two Common Poorwills off the road when a few miles into New Mexico. It takes a full two hours to drive around to the opposite side of the mountains; when I arrived at Frijole Ranch the sun was already up and I hiked as quickly as possible so as to make up time and maximize my opportunities to find my target species at the top.

Frijole View
Looking back from the Frijole Trail towards the Frijole Ranch area. The serious climb had not started yet …

A pair of Scott’s Orioles along the Frijole Trail was a welcome distraction from my march, and a Texas year tick, completing the full sweep of orioles in Texas for the year (Baltimore, Bullock’s, Orchard, Hooded, Altamira, Audubon’s and Scott’s).

Bear Canyon trail turned out to be a serious workout. Frijole Ranch, where I parked the car, is located at 5,500 feet above sea level; the point where the Bear Canyon trail arrives at The Bowl is almost exactly 8,000 feet up. Much of that altitude gain takes place in the last 2 miles of the trail, and it was as tough of a hike as I have ever done, anywhere (including the Himalayas!). Canyon Wrens taunted me all the way up, and a pair of Cordilleran Flycatchers gave great views in a shaded, rocky gully.

Cordilleran Flycatcher
Cordilleran Flycatcher at the Bear Canyon trail, Guadalupe Mountains NP.

For birders, The Bowl is a kind of fairytale wonderland where it feels like anything can turn up. It is a unique habitat in Texas and also – due to the difficulty of access – one that is rarely visited by birders. There is a real sense that discoveries can still be made up here. It’s a gorgeous place, with the fragrant pines providing shade and the high altitude making for temperatures in the low to mid 70s – even on a July afternoon when the valleys and deserts far below swelter at over 100 degrees.

Bowl Top
View from the edge of The Bowl towards the Guadalupe Peak.

Birding was slow at first, until I discovered an area with lot of bird activity, along the trail downhill from the rusty water tank ….. basically a right turn then a left turn from the top of the Bear Canyon trail. The highlight was a flock of 5 Red Crossbills, likely a very scarce resident bird up here but seldom seen (my sighting was the first record of this species anywhere in the Guadalupes this year).

I also enjoyed views of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped, Grace’s, and Virginia Warblers, and several species that in other areas of Texas are usually only available in winter: Brown Creeper, Dark-eyed Junco, Hermit Thrush, and Spotted Towhee.

Red Crossbill
Record shot of one of the Red Crossbills I discovered at The Bowl. These birds flew around a lot but – as always with Crossbills – were easily located in flight by their loud calls. I was lucky when one spent a few seconds perched in a nearby pine, allowing me to take this photo.

With dark clouds building, and distant rumbles of thunder, I had to cut short my wandering in The Bowl and start making my way down. Getting caught in a thunderstorm on the exposed reaches of the Bear Canyon trail would have been no joke – dangerous even! – and fortunately I got back to the car before the storm got too close. It took just an hour to get down, compared to almost three hours going up!

Bear Canyon
View from near the top of the Bear Canyon trail, looking back at the trail winding up the mountainside. Did I mention that this is a seriously hardcore hike?!

Day Five:

I overnighted near Van Horn – thankfully, evening storms kept the temperatures unseasonably low – and before dawn I was checking out the area near Culberson County airport for year list targets Gambel’s Quail, Crissal Thrasher, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. The quail proved to be easy to find (and completed my sweep of all three Texas quails seen and photographed in 2019), but I drew a blank with the gnatcatcher and thrasher here. However, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher made it onto my list a little later, thanks to an opportune roadside stop at a washout on the road towards Marfa …. the habitat looked good for this species and my hunch proved to be correct!

Welcome to Marfa
The road to Marfa, a town which has become a hipster hangout in west Texas and is a curious combination of old and new: the ubiquitous Dairy Queen and Napa Auto Parts stores can be found next to cool organic cafes, and old ranch trucks fight for parking spots with new Subarus.

Two out of three isn’t bad, and I continued towards Marfa, grabbing some Presidio county ticks beside the road including Burrowing Owl, Swainson’s Hawk, and Curve-billed Thrasher.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl beside the road to Marfa.

The reason for the detour (and scenic drive) was to take in the long-staying Yellow-green Vireo, which has been singing its heart out in a riverside park near Marathon all summer. This attractive vireo is normally a rare passage migrant on the Texas coast; a summering bird is very unusual. As soon as I arrived at the site and opened the car door, I could hear the bird singing very loudly, and it took just a few seconds to locate.

Yellow-green Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo near Marathon.

After that, I hit the road back to New Braunfels, and the following morning to Houston. It’s a long, long way back from west Texas, but somehow the drive never seems too bad …. the speed limit on i10 along here is 80mph, and traffic is always very light, so the miles get eaten up pretty fast.

Logistics:

A four-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary for this trip – there is very little off-road or even dirt-road driving involved. With that said, my Subaru Outback is probably the perfect vehicle for this kind of adventure, with plenty of luggage storage in the back – and the reassurance of high ground clearance and 4WD should it become necessary!

One challenge on long trips like this is eating healthily. Rural Texas is not renowned for healthy roadside eating options – and indeed, in remote areas in the Guadalupes, there is no food available for purchase at all.

I figured that even in my “Coolest” cooler, ice would probably not last for 5 days in July, so I packed only foods that did not need to be kept cool. My healthy pantry contained the following:

  • Heather’s Choice freeze-dried meals (grass-fed bison chili, Sockeye Salmon chowder, and African Peanut Stew varieties – all of which were delicious).
  • RX Bars
  • Larabars
  • Organic apples
  • Natural organic peanut butter
  • Nature’s Choice gluten free crackers
  • Bumblebee tuna sachets (various flavors)
  • Organic oats
  • Single-serving Tetrapaks of organic milk (I would have preferred coconut milk or almond milk, but I couldn’t find any small sizes in the store and it was too late to order online).
  • Trail mix (raisins, cashews, almonds and walnuts)
  • Three one-gallon water containers (drinking water for refills is available at Dog Canyon, as well as other trailheads in the Guadalupes).
  • Freshly ground Bulletproof coffee, with Bulletproof instamix.
  • Small saucepan
  • Aero Press coffee maker.

This was the first outing for my new North Face 2-person tent and my Coleman camping stove – both of which were excellent.

I ended the trip on 398 bird species in Texas in 2019 so far …. already ahead of my entire total of 384 for the whole of 2018.

Prada
The iconic Prada store, in the middle of nowhere about 20 miles north of Marfa. Hard to pass by without taking a photo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painted Bunting
Female Painted Bunting – a subtly attractive bird without the over-the-top gaudiness of the male. For some reason, male Painted Buntings are allergic to my camera and despite plenty of close views at South Llano SP, none of my shots came out any good at all.
Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow. This species is not found at all in East Texas, although it is very common in arid scrublands further west.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis Mountains
Davis Mountains scenery, May 30th 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden-cheeked Warbler, March 18th

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warbler, Friedrich Wilderness Park, San Antonio, March 18th 2017.

Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Lone Star State’s only endemic breeding bird, returns in early March to the forests of central Texas. With a tiny world range confined to the juniper-oak woodlands north of San Antonio and west of Austin, and being highly attractive and colorful to boot, it is a highly desirable target species for any resident or visiting birder in Texas.

Fortunately, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is easily found – even common – in suitable habitat within its breeding range. However, it is officially classified as “Endangered” due to continuing loss of habitat in Texas, as well as threats to tropical forests on its wintering grounds in Central America.

The first birds arrive back earlier than most wood-warblers, usually in early March (this year the first records were on March 5th). By the time I visited a classic site, Friedrich Wilderness Park, on March 18th, the warblers were back in force. In a relatively small area of the park we (Martin Reid, Sheridan Coffey, Christian Fernandez and I) counted at least 7 singing males. Hearing them is easy, but getting good views is far more difficult, and it took at least an hour before I was able to get photos of a male singing from the top of a tall tree.

Lark Sparrow2
Lark Sparrow, Kinney Road Sod Farm, Bexar, March 18th 2017.

With my lifer target safely under the belt, we rounded out the morning touring a number of local birding spots on the hunt for early migrants, with the highlights being American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, and best of all several very pale “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawks:

Kriders Red-tailed Hawk2
“Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawk, one of two birds seen during the morning in the San Antonio area, March 18th 2017.

Lifer: Golden-cheeked Warbler (total 2,156)

USA tick: American Golden Plover (total 319).

Thailand, February 2016

12747925_10156590673595442_5905389968055075611_o
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.

FullSizeRender (2)
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.

IMG_5995
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.

IMG_5999
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.

IMG_5990
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.

IMG_5965
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.

IMG_5986
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.

IMG_6016
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.

IMG_6017
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.

IMG_6024
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.

FullSizeRender_2
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.

FullSizeRender_1
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.

FullSizeRender_1 (2)
White-rumped Shama at Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.
IMG_6005
Rufous-bellied Niltava at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 10th 2016.

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

IMG_5804
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!

IMG_5835
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.

IMG_5797
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!

IMG_5794
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.

IMG_5812
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.

IMG_5821
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!

IMG_5823
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.

IMG_5824
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?

IMG_5828
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

IMG_2618
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.

IMG_2617
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).