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.

2018 Texas Year in Review

Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Montgomery County, December 2018.

One of the many great things about eBird is that detailed information is available at the click of a mouse. You can go over all previous years’ sightings, birding trips, and put together any kind of statistics you feel like.

2018 was my second full year in Texas. Compared to 2017, I was more restricted in range, with no visits to north Texas or the Panhandle, and I ventured no further west than South Llano River State Park, and Lake Amistad.

Still, with 2018 being a great year for rarities, and thanks to an influx of normally scarce wintering birds, I managed to end up with a healthy 384 species seen in the state during the year. I recorded 369 complete checklists in eBird, an average of just over one per day, and finished in 40th place overall in the state rankings.

My overall Texas life list after exactly two years here stands at 455 species, and 97 counties birded.

In the table below, I have listed every county in which I saw more than 50 species in 2018. It was particularly satisfying to claim the number one spot in Comal on the last day of the year, the first time I have ever topped a county ranking list.

Rank County Species seen Total checklists eBird ranking
1 Jefferson 203 16 9th
2 Brazoria 192 25 9th
3 Harris 173 141 28th
4 Comal 168 54 1st
5 Chambers 166 10 11th
6 Galveston 164 29 67th
7 Bexar 115 8 70th
8 Colorado 91 9 11th
9 Hidalgo 86 4 784th
10 Cameron 70 3 816th
11 Kimble 68 3 78th
12 Fort Bend 66 5 67th
13 Waller 65 6 34th
14 Aransas 64 3 176th
15 Val Verde 63 4 37th
16 McMullen 63 3 31st
17 Bandera 50 2 50th

Month by month:

Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull at Quintana, Brazoria county, January 2018.
Ross Goose - Blue
“Blue” Ross’s Goose – a very rare color morph for this species, in contrast to the common Blue form of Snow Goose.
Audubons Oriole
Audubon’s Oriole at Choke Canyon, January 2018.

January 2018: Total species seen 209, total checklists 80. Year list as of 01/31: 209

My first five species of the year on a cold, windy morning at Brushline Road in Hidalgo County included Common Pauraque and Wild Turkey. I went on to see over 100 species on the first day of the year – including Tamaulipas Crow at Goose Island State Park!

Other highlights of the month included a rare blue-phase Ross’s Goose in Atascosa county, prolonged views of several Virginia Rails out in the open at Tyrrell Park in Beaumont, two Glaucous Gulls and a midwinter Franklin’s Gull, a hybrid Cinnamon/Blue-winged Teal, and some scarce wintering birds, notably the regular returning Greater Pewee at Bear Creek Park, and a superb Black-throated Gray Warbler in Galveston.

An epic day at Granger Lake resulted in sightings of Mountain Plover, McCown’s and Lapland Longspurs, Short-eared Owl and American Woodcock.

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl, San Bernard NWR, Brazoria county, February 2018.
Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston county, in early spring. This species is rare but regular in Texas, usually among White-faced Ibis.

February 2018: Total species seen 115, total checklists 25. Year list as of 02/28: 222

My Texas birding was limited due to spending 9 days in Costa Rica (where my haul was 328 species including 99 lifers).

Back in Texas, the month was notable (in a bad way) for dipping the famous Elegant Trogon in Landa Park, New Braunfels, on no fewer than three occasions. A Rusty Blackbird nearby was only a small consolation, but both Rock Wren and Canyon Wren together at the Canyon Lake dam was a most useful double as I see these species only rarely in central Texas.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler, one of the earlier spring migrants – the first birds generally appear in March, and some even overwinter in the very far south of the state.

March 2018: Total species seen 163, total checklists 40. Year list as of 03/31: 248

In mid-month I began my intensive spring coverage of the Edith L Moore nature sanctuary in Houston (full report here). March’s only notable rarity was the pair of Surf Scoters at Frenchtown Road on the Bolivar peninsula, but birding was lively throughout, with several early migrants including Blue-winged and Kentucky Warblers making their way onto my list by the end of the month.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Male Yellow-headed Blackbird near Sabine Woods, Jefferson county, April 2018. A real stunner and not often seen in east Texas.
Western Tanager
Male Western Tanager at Sabine Woods – seen with its far commoner congeners Summer and Scarlet Tanagers.
Blackpoll Warbler
Male Blackpoll Warbler at Sabine Woods, April 2018. A very scarce migrant in Texas.
Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrows at South Llano River SP, April 2018.
Golden-cheeked Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warbler at South Llano River SP.

April 2018: Total species seen 243, total checklists 89. Year list as of 04/30: 319

April is generally recognized as the best month for birding in Texas, and this month didn’t disappoint with 243 species seen. Rarities comprised a drake Eurasian Wigeon at Katy Prairie, a male Western Tanager in Sabine Woods, and a male Yellow-headed Blackbird near Sabine Pass.

My go-to migrant spot, Sabine Woods, was at times spectacular during the month with the full range of warblers seen including Cerulean, Prairie, and Blackpoll.

I rounded out April with a morning at South Llano River State Park in west central Texas, a fantastic site good for breeding Black-capped and Bell’s Vireos, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Scott’s Oriole, Zone-tailed Hawk and lots of sparrows including smart spring-plumaged Clay-colored Sparrows.

Swallow-tailed Kite
Swallow-tailed Kite near Dayton, Liberty county, May 2018.

May 2018: Total species seen 197, total checklists 59. Year list as of 05/31: 336

In stark contrast to an above-average April migration season, May quickly fizzled out with just a scattering of late passerine migrants seen.

However, there were still some impressive shorebird flocks around early in the month, including Hudsonian Godwit, and Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. A flock of Bobolinks and a very late Cerulean Warbler provided sparkle at Sabine Woods, but a Brown Booby at Calaveras Lake in San Antonio was the only bona fide rarity I encountered during the month.

By late May I was reduced to picking at scraps such as breeding Swallow-tailed Kites in Liberty and Brown-headed Nuthatch in Montgomery county.

June 2018: Total species seen 70, total checklists 12. Year list as of 06/30: 338

I barely added anything in June, Texas’s worst birding month, partly due to being out of the country for half the month in France. My quest for Hairy Woodpecker in forested areas north of Houston continued with no success.

July 2018: Total species seen 136, total checklists 25. Year list as of 07/31: 340

A painfully slow start to the month which redeemed itself slightly when shorebird passage got going later on. My July highlight was a distant Red-necked Phalarope at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio.

Wood Stork
Wood Stork at Anahuac NWR in August 2018.

August 2018: Total species seen 151, total checklists 29. Year list as of 08/31: 343

Summer seems to last forever in Texas but at least birds start moving through in August. Empidonax flycatchers were in evidence in my weekend yard in Comal with Willow Flycatcher and up to 5 Least Flycatchers present most of the month. An Alder Flycatcher in Fort Bend was an overdue lifer. Late summer is good for Wood Stork in Texas, and I saw them in both Brazoria and Chambers during August.

Morelets Seedeater
Morelet’s Seedeater in Val Verde county. This species has a tiny range in the US but is very common in Central America. It is generally not hard to find in Texas in the correct habitat at a couple of spots along the Rio Grande.

September 2018: Total species seen 160, total checklists 50. Year list as of 09/30: 354

The outstanding visit of the month was a trip to the Rio Grande near Del Rio, an underbirded area with a nice combination of “western” and “southern” species. Year list additions here comprised the newly split Mexican Duck, Ringed Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, Cactus Wren, Hooded Oriole, and the area specialty Morelet’s Seedeater, a bird with an extremely restricted range in the US.

However, perhaps my most memorable August bird was the pristine male Mourning Warbler hopping around on the mud at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio!

Flammulated Owl
Flammulated Owl in Houston, October 2018.
Red-naped Sapsucker2
Male Red-naped Sapsucker at the Hill Country SNA, Bandera county, October 2018. Considerably further east than its usual range.

October 2018: Total species seen 145, total checklists 21. Year list as of 10/31: 360

Without a doubt, the most spectacular bird of October 2018 for me and many other Houston birders was the totally unexpected appearance of a Flammulated Owl in Sue Orwig’s yard in west Houston. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely event in birding!

I finally found my lifer Black-billed Cuckoo at Quintana, and also a self-found male Red-naped Sapsucker in central Texas, and enjoyed some above-average fall migration including Cape May Warbler at Sabine Woods.

For part of the month I was on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, which supplied a handful of lifers and some great birding, see report here.

Hook-billed Kite2
Hook-billed Kite at Santa Ana NWR, Hidalgo county, November 2018.
Masked Booby2
Masked Booby at Pier 19, Cameron county. This seabird forsook the open ocean for easy pickings at the back of the restaurant here, and became absurdly tame.
Ferruginous Hawk4
Ferruginous Hawk in Frio county, November 2018.
Virginia Rail
We found this Virginia Rail at Oliveira Park in Brownsville in November 2018 which had recently met a sad demise. Far healthier ones were seen earlier in the year at Cattail Marsh in Beaumont.
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird at Frontera Audubon Center, Hidalgo county.

November 2018: Total species seen 194, total checklists 36. Year list as of 11/30: 377

April wins most people’s award for the best birding month in Texas, but I’m going to opt for November as being a close second. Late fall migrants, as well as big influxes of wintering species with the first cold fronts, make for spectacular birding in pleasant weather conditions.

Standout birds this November included the first Purple Finches of what would prove to be a record-breaking winter for them – with other normally-scarce species such as Black Scoter and Red-breasted Nuthatch also arriving in far larger than usual numbers.

Jason Loghry and I headed to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for my first proper visit this year (not counting the few post-dawn hours I spent at Brushline Road on January 1st), and racked up plenty of great sightings including Masked Booby, Roadside Hawk, and Hook-billed Kite.

In fact it was a spectacular month for hawks, with 16 species seen, pretty much a clean-up of all possible species including Zone-tailed and Ferruginous.

Allens Hummingbird1
Adult male Allen’s Hummingbird in …. my backyard! December 2018. Bird is still present February 2019.
Tropical Parula
Terrible photo, great bird – it took about a week for the ID of this exceptionally rare Houston visitor to be confirmed, due to the possibility of it being a Northern/Tropical Parula hybrid. Thankfully the bird showed no hybrid characteristics and was accepted as a pure Tropical to the relief of many Harris county listers!
Calliope Hummingbird
Male Calliope Hummingbird in New Braunfels, December 31st 2018.

December 2018: Total species seen 164, total checklists 33. Year list as of 12/31: 384

The year ended with a bang with the finding of two excellent local rarities – in fact probably my two best “self found” birds in Texas to date: a Tropical Parula at Edith L Moore, which gave birders the runaround but eventually showed for most visitors; and a male Allen’s Hummingbird which became an increasingly regular visitor to our yard feeders in New Braunfels from mid-month onwards.

Neither of these birds was straightforward; my initial photos of the parula did not exclude a hybrid and it was almost a week until Janet Rathjen obtained the photos that did, while the hummingbird still hasn’t obliged for “spread tail” photos but the all-green back is a clincher and it has been accepted by eBird. It is still present and visiting the feeders regularly as of February 1st.

Another notable hummingbird was the male Calliope Hummingbird in New Braunfels on the last day of the year, which I saw thanks to some “insider info”. This is the regular returning male for at least the last 5 years, but which has not been reported on eBird since 2017 and I had no idea it was still present.

In summary, not quite a repeat of 2017’s 424 species, but a satisfying year nonetheless; I am hoping to make it back to West Texas in 2019 which should once again put the 400 species mark within reach.

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco – one of several species present in winter 2018-19 in larger-than-usual numbers in Texas.

Spring at Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary

Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush. A common spring migrant at Edith L Moore, and a small number remain to breed on the reserve.


I am fortunate to live and work just a few minutes from one of urban Houston’s most productive migrant-watching locations, the Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, run by Houston Audubon. This small, mature woodland in the suburbs of west Houston is a renowned spot for migrant warblers in spring, as they pass through Texas in large numbers on the way to their breeding grounds.

The habitat is mostly dense, mature woodland, with a creek along most of the western edge. A handful of open areas – the parking lot, the plant nursery, and the main bridge over the creek – offer glimpses of sky, but mostly this is a spot for patient and quiet stalking through the woods while listening for bird calls. The lack of habitat diversity means it is unusual to see a long list of birds here, and entire families such as sparrows are either very scarce or entirely absent. Moreover, even the site specialties – warblers – are rarely present in large numbers. However, quality far exceeds quantity, and on a good day in spring, ten or more warbler species are possible.

The area around the cabin pond often attracts the widest variety of species, and well-stocked bird feeders cater for the resident birds and sometimes tempt migrants such as Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak to linger for a few days. Elsewhere, birds are sparsely distributed throughout the woods. Migrant warblers often join the resident Carolina Chickadees in loose, mixed-species flocks, and tracking down the vocal chickadees is a useful technique when warbler-hunting here.

A handful of mulberry trees scattered throughout the reserve attract a range of birds when fruiting. The most obvious one is immediately adjacent to the cabin, above a small pond, and Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Gray Catbird – among other migrants – can be expected here in late April.

A sudden spring shower can produce a mini-fallout, especially in the taller trees around the cabin pond and along the creek, as tired birds take a break from their northbound migration to wait out the rain. Some of them hang around for a few hours, while others disappear immediately once the rain stops. Otherwise, it can be hard to predict when the reserve is going to be “hot”. A promising-looking weather front may produce almost nothing, while a clear day with light winds can unexpectedly bring in the birds. Migrants may drop in at any time of day, and in my experience late afternoon/evening visits are often the best.

This spring, I set myself an intention to visit the reserve at least five times a week between March 15th and May 15th. The data below summarizes all of my visits in the three months from March to May 2018, including a handful of visits made in early March and late May outside of the above-mentioned period. During these 13 weeks, I made 76 eBird checklists, an average of 5.84 visits per week. In peak migration season – mid to late April – I was at the reserve twice a day from Monday through Friday and occasionally at the weekend.

Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary is well-covered in spring by numerous birders, but it is quite possible to see a very different range of migrants to someone else on site at the same time, such is nature of the densely vegetated habitat. In other words, it is easy to miss stuff here! The following 35 species were recorded by other birders during the spring, mostly only on a single occasion, but not by me:

Turkey Vulture
Bay-breasted Warbler
Yellow-throated Vireo
Swainson’s Hawk
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Dickcissel
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Willow Flycatcher
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Yellow Warbler
Orchard Oriole
Red-headed Woodpecker
Blue Grosbeak
Bronzed Cowbird
Cattle Egret
Philadelphia Vireo
Cerulean Warbler
Great Horned Owl
Savannah Sparrow
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Anhinga
Osprey
Yellow-throated Warbler
Cave Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Eastern Screech-Owl
Swallow-tailed Kite
Peregrine
White Ibis
Prothonotary Warbler
Merlin

I recorded a total of 96 bird species at E L Moore during the spring. The full species summary is below. “5/76 checklists” means I saw a species 5 times out of my 76 visits, and I have also included the maximum count for each bird:

Wood Duck: 3/76 checklists, max count 2. Perhaps tries to nest in tree holes along the creek, but infrequently seen.

Great Blue Heron: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Sometimes seen along the creek.

Snowy Egret: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single bird at the creek under the main bridge in May.

Little Blue Heron: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Single adult seen on a few occasions in late March and early April.

Green Heron: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. A single migrant along the creek in May was the only bird seen.

Black Vulture: 6/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasionally glimpsed soaring overhead.

Mississippi Kite: 6/76 checklists, max count 3. Breeds nearby, and sometimes wanders into reserve airspace from the end of April onwards.

Cooper’s Hawk: 5/76 checklists, max count 1. Occasional visitor.

Bald Eagle: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single adult soaring very high above the parking lot in late April. About the 6th or 7th record for the reserve.

Bald Eagle2
Record shot of the adult Bald Eagle at E L Moore. This photo was taken at around 200x zoom – the bird was extremely high and almost invisible to the naked eye.

Red-shouldered Hawk: 6/76 checklists, max count 2. Irregularly seen throughout the period.

Broad-winged Hawk: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single migrant over the parking lot in April.

Red-tailed Hawk: 12/76 checklists, max count 1. One locally resident individual sometimes seen over parking lot.

White-winged Dove: 73/76 checklists, max count 6. Common resident.

Mourning Dove: 12/76 checklists, max count 2. Presumably resident although much less common than White-winged.

Barred Owl: 7/76 checklists, max count 1. Pair resident on the reserve, although I only ever saw one at a time. Quite regularly seen in April and May on a favored perch above the stream viewed from bridge 4.

Common Nighthawk: 2/76 checklists, max count 3. Common breeder in Houston but infrequently noted on the reserve due to the lack of easily-viewable airspace.

Chuck-wills-widow: 4/76 checklists, max count 1. Most often seen only briefly when flushed. Probably a regular migrant through the reserve and no doubt more common than the small number of sightings would suggest.

Chuck
Chuck-will’s-widow. The only one I saw at rest this spring at E L Moore, the others being brief glimpses of flushed birds.

Chimney Swift: 43/76 checklists, max count 6.  Regularly seen overhead.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: 8/76 checklists, max count 2. When present, usually seen in trees around the parking lot, or visiting the feeder in front of the cabin.

Belted Kingfisher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single bird along the creek in early April.

Red-bellied Woodpecker: 51/76 checklists, max count 3. Resident on the reserve.

Downy Woodpecker: 67/76 checklists,  max count 8. Common resident.

Northern Flicker: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasional visitor.

Pileated Woodpecker: 22/76 checklists, max count 2. Resident on the reserve.

Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker engaged in a territorial dispute on the large, dead Loblolly tree just across the creek along the western perimeter of the park.

Olive-sided Flycatcher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single migrant on the large dead Loblolly tree just outside the reserve’s western boundary in late May.

Eastern Wood-Pewee: 8/76 checklists, max count 3. Regularly seen from late April onwards, and perhaps breeds on the reserve.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single migrant in late May.

Acadian Flycatcher: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. The most regularly seen “empid” at E L Moore in April and early May.

Willow/Alder Flycatcher: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Just a single non-calling bird by the oxbow in May.

Least Flycatcher: 2/76 checklists, max count 1. Singles in late April and early May, one beside the cabin and the other at the far south end of the reserve.

Eastern Phoebe: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. An occasional winterer, just the one bird seen during the period in early March.

Great Crested Flycatcher: 20/76 checklists, max count 3. Regularly seen and heard from mid-April onwards, and probably breeds on the reserve.

Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher. Regularly seen and heard at Edith L Moore from mid April onwards.

White-eyed Vireo: 10/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasional migrants throughout the period.

Blue-headed Vireo: 15/76 checklists, max count 3. Lingering winterers and spring migrants seen up to the end of April, often in song.

Warbling Vireo: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. A single migrant near the cabin in late April.

Red-eyed Vireo: 6/76 checklists, max count 2. Regular late season migrant, often in song.

Blue Jay: 75/76 checklists, max count 15. A common and vocal resident.

American Crow: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Single bird in April.

Purple Martin: 14/76 checklists, max count 6. Migrants or local breeders sometimes seen overhead.

Tree Swallow: 5/76 checklists, max count 10. Migrants sometimes seen overhead.

Barn Swallow: 6/76 checklists, max count 1. The occasional migrant noted.

Carolina Chickadee: 70/76 checklists, max count 10. Common resident, highest numbers in May after young have fledged.

Tufted Titmouse: 22/76 checklists, max count 4. Resident breeder on the reserve.

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

Carolina Wren: 64/76 checklists, max count 8. Common breeding resident.

Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren near the cabin pond at E L Moore.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher: 24/76 checklists, max count 5. Winters on the reserve, and lingering birds/passage migrants regularly seen until mid April.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet: 46/76 checklists, max count 5. Winters on the reserve, and commonly seen until mid April, with a late bird in early May.

Veery: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Three singles in April. Regular spring migrant in small numbers.

Gray-cheeked Thrush: 8/76 checklists, max count 3. Regular migrant, usually seen on the ground or at fruiting mulberry trees.

Swainson’s Thrush: 16/76 checklists, max count 8. Fairly common migrant in April and early May.

Hermit Thrush: 4/76 checklists, max count 1. Winters on the reserve, with the odd migrant still to be seen later in March and in April.

Wood Thrush: 39/76 checklists, max count 12. Common migrant and probable breeder on the reserve.

American Robin: 38/76 checklists, max count 4. Mainly a wintering bird, although several pairs breed on the reserve.

Gray Catbird: 16/76 checklists, max count 6. Fairly common migrant in April and May, usually seen in fruiting mulberry trees.

Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird – a common but secretive migrant usually found surreptitiously lurking among the mulberries.

Brown Thrasher: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. Usually seen from the boardwalks at the back of the reserve. Status uncertain but perhaps overwinters and possibly even breeds.

Northern Mockingbird: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Surprisingly rare, usually stays in gardens outside the reserve.

European Starling: 2/76 checklists, max count 3. The occasional flyover noted.

Cedar Waxwing: 9/76 checklists, max count 20. Wintering flocks linger until well into April.

Ovenbird: 14/76 checklists, max count 4. One of the specialties of the site which should always be present on a good migrant day in April and early May.

Worm-eating Warbler: 7/76 checklists, max count 1. Regularly encountered from late March.

Louisiana Waterthrush: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. A March and April migrant which should be looked for after rain at the Church Gate marsh, and the wet area in the south-east of the reserve.

Northern Waterthrush: 9/76 checklists, max count 5. The more frequent of the two waterthrushes, and tends to appear a little later than Louisiana.

Golden-winged Warbler: 5/76 checklists, max count 3. A local specialty of the site in late April and early May.

Blue-winged Warbler: 10/76 checklists, max count 2. Regularly seen from the end of March through early May.

Black-and-White Warbler: 12/76 checklists, max count 3. One of the more regular migrant warblers, seen throughout the season from March to May.

Swainson’s Warbler: 3/76 checklists, max count 1. It was a good spring at E L Moore for this unobtrusive species, with two birds in April and one in early May.

Tennessee Warbler: 6/76 checklists, max count 1. An occasional visitor on good migrant days, usually seen high in tall trees near the cabin or along the creek.

Orange-crowned Warbler: 9/76 checklists, max count 2. Winters commonly on the reserve but most birds depart in early March.

Nashville Warbler: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. An irregular spring migrant, apparently more common in fall.

Kentucky Warbler: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. A specialty of the site for those who put in the time and effort!

Kentucky Warbler
Kentucky Warbler beside the trail along the creek, cabin side, at Edith L Moore.

Common Yellowthroat: 5/76 checklists, max count 1. An occasional migrant at the Church Gate marsh or in bushes along the creek.

Hooded Warbler: 20/76 checklists, max count 3. One of the most regular migrant warblers, seen throughout the spring from March to May but especially earlier in the season.

American Redstart: 6/76 checklists, max count 4. Late season migrant which can be fairly numerous in early May.

Northern Parula: 8/76 checklists, max count 4. Regular migrant especially in April.

Magnolia Warbler: 8/76 checklists, max count 6. Not seen until May, when it is often the most numerous late season warbler.

Blackburnian Warbler: 2/76 checklists, max count 4. Stunning, sought-after migrant which is occasionally seen on the reserve especially in early May.

Blackburnian Warbler2
Male Blackburnian Warbler in trees beside the nursery at Edith L Moore.

Chestnut-sided Warbler: 9/76 checklists, max count 3. Along with Magnolia, the most numerous of the late season migrants in early May.

Pine Warbler: 4/76 checklists, max count 1. Sometimes visits the cabin feeders in late winter, and singing birds in spring sometimes seen in mature pines at the far south of the reserve.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle): 4/76 checklists, max count 3. Winters in small numbers on the reserve, but most birds leave early in March.

Black-throated Green Warbler: 3/76 checklists, max count 2. Occasional migrant.

Canada Warbler: 1/76 checklists, max count 1. Normally one of the more frequent and numerous late season warblers in May, for some reason this species was incredibly scarce this spring, with just one bird seen (a male in late April).

Wilson’s Warbler: 17/76 checklists, max count 3. Overwinters in small numbers on the reserve, with lingering birds/passage migrants throughout April, and a very late female calling and seen well in mid-May.

Yellow-breasted Chat: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. Regular migrant. Mulberry trees are a good place to look.

Summer Tanager: 5/76 checklists, max count 2. Regular migrant.

Summer Tanager
Male Summer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. Seen in April in fruiting mulberry trees.

Northern Cardinal: 75/76 checklists, max count 18. Common breeding resident.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak: 9/76 checklists, max count 3. Regular migrant in late April, seen at the cabin feeders as well as on fruiting mulberry trees.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the tree above the cabin.

Indigo Bunting: 17/76 checklists, max count 15. An excellent spring for this species, with birds present at the cabin feeders – and elsewhere on the reserve – throughout most of April.

Painted Bunting: 4/76 checklists, max count 1, including a popular and much-admired male at the cabin feeders in April.

Painted Bunting2
Male Painted Bunting. This bird was so popular among photographers and general visitors that the area around the feeders had to be cordoned off to reduce disturbance.

Baltimore Oriole: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. Several birds at the cabin mulberry tree in April.

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole in the tree above the cabin.

Red-winged Blackbird: 9/76 checklists, max count 3. Three wintering females at the cabin feeders in March dwindled to one by late April.

Common Grackle: 56/76 checklists, max count 50. Common resident/spring migrant. Surprisingly the only grackle seen on the reserve, although Great-tailed are resident nearby.

House Finch: 2/76 checklists, max count 2. A pair at the cabin feeders on one occasion in April, and a flyover bird.

American Goldfinch: 2/76 checklists, max count 1. A common wintering bird at the cabin feeders, but just one individual lingered into March.

House Sparrow: 5/76 checklists, max count 1. Singles occasionally at the cabin feeders.

Sunday Chasing

Elegant Tern
Elegant Tern, Surfside Jetty, December 3rd 2017.

I made a dedicated (some would say crazy) attempt on Sunday to catch up with a number of year ticks and rarities scattered through the coastal Texas counties from Matagorda to Galveston. This involved making a 3.15am start and driving 180 miles from New Braunfels in order to be on the ground in rural Matagorda county at a traditional American Woodcock stakeout at first light. After that gruelling start to a Sunday, I thought that actually seeing the bird would be the easy part, but it was not to be. No sight nor sound of any Woodcocks in just over an hour of waiting and wandering around.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl, Matagorda turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

For a time, it also looked as if I would also dip my second target, Sprague’s Pipit, at a turf farm not far from the Woodcock site. Two hours of patient searching produced a Burrowing Owl and a ton of American Pipits, but no Sprague’s. I was on my way out of the area when I flushed a pipit from the verge which alighted on a nearby bare earth field, revealing its identity and pausing for long enough for me to reel off a couple of photos, before it flew high away uttering its highly distinctive squeaky call.

Spragues Pipit
Sprague’s Pipit, Matagorda County turf farm, December 3rd 2017.

One out of two so far, but I was back to dipping mode in Lake Jackson, my next stop. I bumped into Tony Frank and Brad Lirette as I arrived, who had seen the wintering Black-throated Gray Warbler in Lynn Hay’s backyard just minutes before my arrival. No such luck for me, and bird activity was so low in the area that after an hour I decided that my time might be better spent elsewhere. It was an odd kind of day, very humid and overcast, not the sort of conditions that encourage wintering warblers to be actively feeding or calling. Lynn Hay said that the bird visited the yard perhaps twice a day, and seeing as I had just missed it, it might be a while before it came back. Today I had neither the time nor the patience to settle in for a long wait, as the day’s potential star bird was showing well at Surfside jetty and I was impatient to go and see it.

Elegant Tern is an extremely rare visitor to Texas. The two individuals in July on North Padre Island were “unblockers” for a lot of seasoned Texas listers. I couldn’t find sufficient motivation back in the height of summer to make the eight-hour round trip drive to go and see those birds. Fortunately, fate (and finder Arman Moreno) brought many Houston-based birders an early Christmas present in the form of a first-year Elegant Tern fishing along the jetty at Surfside in Brazoria county.

Elegant Tern2
Elegant Tern, Surfside jetty, December 3rd 2017.

It was surprising to me how similar this bird was to the nearby Royal Terns in flight. Sure, there are subtle distinctions in size and build, and the bill of Elegant is definitely longer, thinner and a deeper orange-red compared to Royal, but overall it was very similar and I am sure a lot of birders would have simply overlooked it. No doubt it would have been relatively easy to pick it out among resting terns lined up on a beach, but this was an impressive find at this location as the bird was only ever seen in flight.

After getting my fill of the Elegant Tern, I drove north-east towards Galveston, stopping at San Luis Pass for a fairly easy encounter with the long-staying Fish Crow. The rule with crows is to look for the dumpsters and the local Great-tailed Grackle flock, and sure enough, my target bird was among them. It even posed for a photo while it took a late lunch of an item of trash. Not a year tick, the Fish Crow is fairly common at the edge of its range in easternmost Texas, but is almost unheard-of further west.

Fish Crow
Fish Crow, San Luis Pass, Brazoria county, December 3rd 2017.

The afternoon was becoming very gloomy and even foggy. I figured it was a waste of time sticking around on Galveston. Hindsight proved me wrong, and had I checked Texbirds or eBird I would have noticed that the Tamaulipas Crow had been relocated at East Beach. Instead I opted to head home via Randolph Park in Friendswood, where a Brown Creeper has been regularly seen for several weeks in the same small area of parkland. It felt almost like twilight when I arrived, with very gloomy conditions and almost no bird activity. However, after I while I managed to locate a very subdued mixed feeding flock, and several times I heard the distinctive high-pitched call of my target bird, but it took a good 20 minutes before I was able to catch sight of it. The ensuing record photo, in conditions of near darkness, is a contender for the worst bird photo I have ever taken, but with a little imagination the distinctive shape of a Brown Creeper can just about be discerned towards the right hand side of the image.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper (honest!), Randolph Park, Harris county, December 3rd 2017. Look towards the right hand side of the trunk, not far above the protruding branch.

Overall it was a cracking day with a lifer (Elegant Tern) and two year ticks (Sprague’s Pipit and Brown Creeper) putting me on 391 species for the year in Texas. All being well, next week’s West Texas clean-up should comfortably slingshot me past the magic 400 mark.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler in New Braunfels, Comal county, December 2nd 2017.

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

Franklins Gull2
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.

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

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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.

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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.
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Prothonotary Warbler, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. A real stunner, and on an early date too.
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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.

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Male Hooded Warbler, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017.
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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.

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Eastern Kingbird, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017.
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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:

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

Texas 2017 Year List: 251

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

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Seaside Sparrow, Bolivar Shorebird Reserve, February 25th 2017.

My seemingly eternal focus on sparrows continues, but in stark contrast to last weekend’s failures, this time I succeeded in seeing all four of my target species. This is no mean feat considering that they are all notorious skulkers, and their status is at best uncommon in Texas in winter.

The rarest of them all is Henslow’s Sparrow. This subtly attractive denizen of grasslands probably overwinters annually in Texas in small numbers. However, until this winter it has been a serious “blocker” for many leading Texas listers, with just a scattering of records annually and no reliable locations. That changed early in February when several individuals were discovered at Big Thicket National Park in East Texas, which have been showing intermittently to visiting birders ever since.

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

Finding these birds proved to be far from straightforward. They feed singly in long grass, and flush at close range, usually flying directly to the nearest patch of Yaupon Holly, into which they dive and completely disappear. For nearly three hours I tramped around in the grass, flushing three “probable” Henslow’s Sparrows, none of which gave me more than the briefest of flight views – enough to raise my suspicions but unfortunately not clinch the identification, let alone provide an opportunity for photos.

I persevered, knowing from photographic evidence on eBird that they do occasionally perch up on a Yaupon Holly for a few moments before diving in. And finally one did just that. It happened to be a very well-marked bird, and in great light, so apart from the unavoidable branches between camera and bird (for this one virtually never poses fully in the open), I got great views as well as some half-decent photos.

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

Other bird life was disappointingly scarce, but several Sedge Wrens skulked around in the damp grassland, one of which posed briefly for a photo opportunity:

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Sedge Wren, Big Thicket NP, February 26th 2017.

The previous day, I had arrived early at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Reserve, a short ferry ride across from Galveston. The two main enemies to birding on the mid-Texas coast in winter are wind and fog – and if it’s not windy then it is usually foggy. Neither weather phenomenon is very conducive to finding small birds (ie. rare sparrows) in coastal saltmarshes. Today, it was windy. Shorebirds were everywhere, including plenty of the endangered and irresistibly attractive Piping Plover, and also SemipalmatedSnowy, and Black-bellied Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlins and Sanderlings . A handful of Barn Swallows and a Purple Martin, early harbingers of spring, battled the wind as they headed north.

I didn’t rate my chances of finding any interesting small birds in the blustery conditions, but an area of saltmarsh grass adjoining a small beach seemed to be popular with Savannah Sparrows so I decided to take a closer look. After a while, I found a Horned Lark and some American Pipits, and then …. the briefest of views of two sparrows with orange faces, running on the ground, which briefly appeared at the edge of the grass before disappearing again.

I didn’t see these birds again for 15 minutes, until they suddenly popped up on some grass stems, showing quite well. Nelson’s Sparrows,  for sure – but my luck deserted me with the camera, and I couldn’t get a single in-focus shot during the 10 seconds the birds were in view. Naturally, as soon as the sparrows dropped down into a partly obscured position, facing the wrong way, the camera decided to play ball.

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

The nearby 17th Street Jetty is always a good bet for big flocks of American Avocet, as well as other shorebirds, and plenty of weekending fishermen. The jetty – which is made of huge, flat-topped boulders – extends a long way into the Gulf, clipping the corner of some extensive areas of saltmarsh habitat.

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

Some serious schlepping over the boulders is required to get to the end of the jetty, and I was more than halfway out when I realized I had left my brand new iPhone in full view on my car seat. Cursing my stupidity, I turned around and headed back, only to flush a very interesting-looking small bird from among the boulders, which almost immediately gave itself up for crippling views – Seaside Sparrow! If I had remembered to bring my phone, I wouldn’t have had to turn around, and wouldn’t have seen the bird.

I spent the rest of Saturday at Anahuac NWR, which has to be one of the very best birding spots within easy reach of Houston. This site usually produces at least 60-70 species during a typical mid-winter visit. The best birds today included the long-staying Burrowing Owl, a Palm Warbler of the western race, the male Vermilion Flycatcher still present, and four Stilt Sandpipers with the Long-billed Dowitcher flock. It’s also a great place to get close to common birds, with the car-based birder having numerous opportunities for photography along the Shoveler Pond loop.

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

I stayed overnight in the “Crystal Meth Motel” in Beaumont, the cheapest night halt available in town. Next time, I will fork out the extra $20 for something halfway acceptable. However, I survived the night, and with the Henslow’s Sparrows safely under the belt (and photographed) at nearby Big Thicket NP by late Sunday morning, I decided to push the envelope and hit up a Bachman’s Sparrow spot about an hour to the north at Sam Rayburn reservoir.

Bachman’s Sparrow, along with Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, is a range-restricted specialist of south-eastern pine forests. However, unlike the woodpecker and nuthatch, it no longer occurs close to Houston – although it is apparently still quite common nearer the Louisiana border.

From my eBird research, one of the closest reliable sites is the entrance road to Ebenezer Park, close to the reservoir spillway. The woods were deathly quiet when I arrived, with hardly a bird to be seen. Wandering up and down the road eventually produced a few Chipping Sparrows and Pine Warblers, a Field Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, and two Brown-headed Nuthatches – expected fare for this kind of habitat. It became clear I would have to enter the forest for a chance of getting my target bird. Expectations were raised when a Bachman’s Sparrow gave a short burst of song, and finally I flushed one out of the understorey which perched up long enough to be identified, but unfortunately wasn’t obliging enough to allow itself to be photographed.

So all in all, a highly successful weekend. I’m running out of “new” winter birds to see within reach of Houston, so I feel a longer-haul trip to the Rio Grande Valley coming on – not to mention the fast-approaching spring migration which is of course legendary in this part of the world!

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American Alligator, Anahuac NWR, February 25th 2017.

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

2017 World Year List: 300

205 Species in Texas, January 2nd-9th

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Laughing Gull at South Padre Island, January 5th.

I’m finally getting the chance to update my blog, after what has been a very busy start to the birding year. With my wife Jenna leaving for India for three months on New Year’s Day, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. Should I start another year list? Considering I still had eight full days left in one of the best states for birding in the US, I decided the answer to that question had to be Yes.

I reckoned that seeing a minimum of 150 species before departing the USA on January 10th would be very achievable. In the event, I got a bit carried away and I was out in the field at every possibly opportunity between January 2nd-9th. By making sure I covered a wide variety of habitats, ranged over a large geographical area, and extensively used eBird to target known rarities, I amassed a total of 205 bird species in those eight days. That put me comfortably in first place among year-listing eBirders in Texas by January 10th, eight birds ahead of my closest rival. I was also briefly in the top 6 of all birders nationwide, although of course my ranking will swiftly fall now that I’ve left the United States with no likely prospect of a return for the rest of the year.

Here’s a day by day breakdown of where I went, and what I saw:

January 2nd: Having done virtually no birding on New Year’s Day, I kicked off my year in earnest on 2nd with a morning visit to Kleb Woods, in north-west Houston. The site speciality here is wintering Rufous Hummingbird, and it also offers a tantalising chance of other scarce species such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Dark-eyed Junco – however, the hummingbird was the only class A bird to show for me here today.

I followed up this gentle start with a few hours in the afternoon along Sharp Road, on nearby Katy Prairie, where my main target was Harris’s Sparrow, a range-restricted wintering bird and surely among the most handsome of sparrows. Not only did I find several Harris’s Sparrows, but I lucked in on a huge flock of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese in a field next to the road. Searching through winter goose flocks is one of my favorite birding activities, and patient scanning often yields the reward of an unusual species – in this case, several dainty-billed, pure white Ross’s Geese.

After the sun went down, I drove south towards Aransas National Wildlife Reserve, where I slept in the car outside the gates until the reserve opened at 7am the next morning.

Today’s highlights: Harris’s Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, Ross’s Goose, Snow Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, Rufous Hummingbird, White-crowned Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird.

2016 total species so far:  51

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Lark Sparrow near Chapman Ranch, January 3rd.

January 3rd: There is nothing quite like starting a new birding day already on location and ready to go from first light – especially if that location is one of the world’s most famous birding sites! First of all I had a quick look for “my” Prairie Warbler along the Heron Flats trail, unfortunately without success. This bird, which I originally found on December 14th, has now been seen in the area at least half a dozen times by various observers. Today I could find nothing in this class of rarity, although a Pyrrhuloxia along the auto loop was quite an unusual Aransas bird – there seems to have been a larger-than-usual influx of this attractive species into south Texas this winter.

Rarities aside, Aransas is a great site to get some quality wintering birds safely onto the list, and of course, no winter visit to Texas would be complete without paying homage to the Whooping Cranes.

Four hours at Aransas was enough to get most of the expected birds, and at around 11.30am I started to head south. Indian Point, a coastal marsh just north of Corpus Christi, is a convenient quick birding stop along the way, and on this occasion it proved very fruitful. Approaching slowly in my car, I got to within 15 feet of a small flock of dowitchers that were right next to the road – close enough to see by the heavily mottled breast that they were Short-billed Dowitchers and not the very similar Long-billed.

Next up was Chapman Ranch, a vast area of open fields south of Corpus Christi. Disaster struck when I decided to follow a farm track, and immediately got my rental car firmly stuck in thick, soft mud. As I walked to get help at a nearby farmhouse, I flushed three Northern Bobwhite – my second sighting of this fairly scarce quail already this year, which could only be a good omen for the timely release of my car! With the help of an elderly Mexican farmer, I managed to get my car free from its swampy sinkhole with only about 30 minutes of the birding day wasted. Fortunately the birds proved to be very obliging after that episode, with four “staked out” wintering Say’s Phoebes and a Greater Roadrunner in more or less exactly the same spots I had seen them a few weeks previously.

Later in the afternoon, I drove slowly along farm road 12, which has virtually no traffic. Several large flocks of Sandhill Cranes were a fine sight in roadside fields, but better still were a small party of Lark Sparrows close to the car, and three Sprague’s Pipits which gave prolonged views, although unfortunately just a little too far away for a good photo with my “point-and-shoot” camera.

As dusk fell, I continued south to the Rio Grande Valley, staying overnight in a motel in – where else? – Harlingen, where amenities including a huge HEB supermarket and a Starbucks cater for all the needs of a nomadic birder.

Today’s Highlights: Whooping Crane, Sandhill Crane, White-tailed Hawk, Grey Catbird, Pyrrhuloxia, Short-billed Dowitcher, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, Horned Grebe, Common Goldeneye, Reddish Egret, Say’s Phoebe, Greater Roadrunner, Lark Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit.

2016 total species so far:  112

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Poor record shot of a Sprague’s Pipit near Chapman Ranch, one of three birds that gave good views along the roadside but were never quite close enough for my point-and-shoot camera. ID features which distinguish this bird from the much commoner American Pipit include bright pink/orange legs, heavily streaked mantle, beady eye set in a relatively plain face, streaking on underparts restricted to “necklace”, and lack of a pronounced malar stripe.

January 4th: I had set aside the entire day today for a visit to Estero Llano Grande State Park, which is perhaps the premier birding site in the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley. The number and diversity of birds to be found here – in such a small area – is astounding. Seeing 100 species in a winter day here ought to be possible, although most eBirders seem to stay for 3-4 hours and come away with a list of 70-80 birds.

Personal highlights this morning included a Virginia Rail (with a broken foot!) feeding alongside a Sora, a fine Nashville Warbler in exactly the same spot where I found a male Painted Bunting last month, with an Altamira Oriole also there, a roosting Common Pauraque, an Eastern Screech-Owl at its nest box, a group of six Red-crowned Parrots flying over, and three species of hummingbird at the feeders (Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied). The hummingbirds seemed to spend almost all of their time chasing away rivals, rather than actually feeding, which is surprising because these tiny birds need to feed almost constantly in order to take on board enough calories to power their super-fast metabolisms.

Returning to the visitor center, my plans for the day changed somewhat when I bumped into local birder Huck Hutchens. It turned out that nearby birding hotspot Frontera Audobon Center was opening today – unusually for a Monday – on account of the popularity of several long-staying rarities: Tropical Parula, Black-headed Grosbeak, and especially the star of the show, Crimson-collared Grosbeak.

It was my first visit to Frontera and initially I found it to be a very frustrating place. Sight lines in the forest are poor, as the trees are dense and low. The Crimson-collared Grosbeak prefers feeding on several different types of seeds that grow on small trees, so I focused on checking the middle storey of the canopy between about 8-15 feet off the ground. When I eventually located the bird, it was feeding very unobtrusively in the densest part of a tree. Although large and chunky, with its predominantly olive-green plumage and slow, infrequent movements it was very hard to spot – in fact when I saw it at around 12.30pm I was the first birder to see it that day.

I had no luck with the other two rarities present, although I did locate a few other quality birds including a Hermit Thrush, a Black-throated Green Warbler (a female individual with no black whatsoever on the throat!), and my personal first USA sighting of  Clay-colored Thrush (this is a common tropical species whose range only just extends into southernmost Texas).

My next port of call was a busy industrial area at Progreso, literally within a stone’s throw of the Mexican border post. The grain silos here are a regular winter location for Yellow-headed Blackbird. On arrival at the site, I could see a huge, dense flock of cowbirds and blackbirds feeding around the silos, numbering thousands of birds. Finding the Yellow-headed Blackbirds – especially the bright-headed males – was the work of a moment, and a quick sweep of the flock produced a count of 13 although more may well have been present. Brown-headed Cowbirds were by far the most numerous birds, although fair numbers of Bronzed Cowbirds were here as well, the latter another personal USA tick.

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Brown-headed Cowbirds, Bronzed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and a handful of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Progreso grain silos, January 4th.

In mid-afternoon I returned to Estero Llano Grande, and spent the last few hours of this beautiful sunny day wandering the trails, starting in the Tropical Zone, where a Grey Catbird was feeding in the open on a grass verge but I didn’t find the hoped-for Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Back on the main reserve I teamed up with Houston-based birder Dean Gregory, and added another ten species to my list from this morning, making for a very respectable Estero Llano Grande day total of 88 species. Our first good find this afternoon was a group of three Nashville Warblers; today for some reason this species was widely reported by visiting birders, obviously there had been a small influx.

Next, as we walked the trail from the levee towards Alligator Lake, Dean noticed a sparrow feeding quietly at the edge of the path, which kept disappearing into the grass but would come and feed out in the open when all was quiet. This skulking behaviour piqued our interest and we eventually got good enough views – and photos – to confirm that it was a Cassin’s Sparrow, a bird not often recorded at this site.

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Cassin’s Sparrow, Estero Llano Grande State Park, January 4th.

As dusk fell, I got in the car and drove for an hour or so to South Padre Island, where I had found a deal in a Super 8 motel for just $32 – exceptionally good value for a night halt in the US.

Today’s Highlights: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Cassin’s Sparrow, Common Pauraque, Eastern Screech-Owl, Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, Buff-bellied, Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Nashville and Black-throated Green Warblers, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Clay-colored and Hermit Thrushes, Red-crowned Parrot, Green Parakeet, Virginia Rail.

2016 total species so far:  160

January 5th: Today was to be a quick-tick day, chasing around various sites to hopefully pick up one or two key species at each one. This kind of birding is often hit-or-miss, but my lucky streak was continuing and I managed to find almost all of my targets.

Just after first light I was in position overlooking the wetlands next to the South Padre Island convention center, just a couple of miles from my night halt motel, staring through my telescope at a flock of Black Skimmers on a sandbar. In this unusual species, the lower mandible (bottom half of the bill) is longer than the upper – virtually unique in the bird world. Black Skimmer was a long-overdue lifer for me, one of the few remaining Texan coastal birds I still needed, and I ended up seeing flocks of them in three separate locations by January 9th. Funny how that often happens with birding – after you’ve seen a species once, even if you wait for it for years, you often see it again several times in quick succession. This week, this happened to me not only with Black Skimmer but also Marbled Godwit and Northern Bobwhite.

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Black Skimmers – these ones were at Galveston Island on January 6th.

Dean had given me some good info for an Aplomado Falcon site, viewable from highway 100 near Laguna Vista. Parking as instructed in a turnaround next to a small blue building, I scanned the rows of pylons opposite, and there it was – an Aplomado Falcon perched on the T-bar of a pylon, distant but seen well through my telescope.

Ahead of schedule, I continued west to the Palo Alto Battlefield historic site, where Cactus Wren was my main target. At the end of the concrete pathway, past the battlefield overlook pavilion, the habitat looked good with dry scrub and patches of cactus plants. Taking my chances with the snakes, I left the trail and started creeping through the scrub, pausing every once in a while for some “pishing”. This approach paid dividends with not only a Cactus Wren popping up to see what was going on, but also Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, two Olive Sparrows, a Cassin’s Sparrow, and a Curve-billed Thrasher! I also flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhites here.

Back at the parking lot, several Great Kiskadees were noisy and conspicuous, and I had close views of a Western Meadowlark, its yellow submoustachial distinguishing it from the Eastern Meadowlark. In fact the only bird I felt I had missed here was Verdin, but I figured I would have another excellent chance to see it at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio at the weekend.

Next up was a rather insalubrious but very famous birding destination, the Brownsville landfill site. Formerly known as the only reliable place in the US to see Tamaulipas Crow, this small corvid was last regularly seen here in 2010. However, the landfill remains a good location for gulls, and especially my target bird here: Chihuahuan Raven.

On arrival at the site, I was informed that due to the recent heavy rainfall, the landfill itself was off-limits to visiting birders because of the risk of the waste collapsing. Getting trapped under a falling mountain of rotting trash could really ruin your whole day! However, by parking just to the left of the landfill entrance, I could view the site and adjacent lakes distantly through my telescope. Birds were exceedingly numerous on top of the waste mountains where earthmovers pushed the trash around, and men in jump suits were wandering around doing who knows what. It didn’t take long to find a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens, but views were very distant and I kept losing the birds among the throngs of gulls, grackles and vultures. While I was standing there watching the birds, the site manager approached me and offered to personally guide me through the safer parts of the landfill, if I wanted a closer look. While it was a very kind offer, I politely declined as my target bird was already on my list, and I had absolutely no desire to get closer to the piles of stinking, putrid garbage.

An unexpected bonus bird here was a Tropical Kingbird, giving prolonged views right in front of me – this individual was readily distinguishable from the very similar Couch’s Kingbird by its long, thin-based bill and grey-toned mantle, although it was not heard to call.

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The only way for a committed birder’s rental car to be ….. absolutely covered in mud!

The lure of a long-staying Golden-crowned Warbler and several other rarities at Refugio was drawing me back north, so after a quick lunch I hit the highway. Notable along the way was a Harris’s Hawk right next to the road near Raymondville, several Brewer’s Blackbirds at the Sarita rest stop, and a small flock of Pyrrhuloxia at King Ranch. I wasted some time at the latter site looking for Wild Turkey, with no luck, before continuing northwards and arriving at Lions Park, Refugio, at around 3.45pm.

It was cold, breezy and very overcast here, and I didn’t fancy my chances – and the looks on the faces of the departing birders said it all, with no confirmed sightings of the Golden-crowned Warbler today. However, a Summer Tanager had been spotted, and the distinctive “pip-pip” call of an elusive Greater Pewee had been heard, although it was not certain whether anyone had actually laid eyes on the bird.

It turned out that I was to find none of these three headline species, but my visit was made more than worthwhile with the discovery of a magnificent Barred Owl. Walking one of the more distant trails in the northern part of the park, I rounded a corner to come face to face with the owl which was perched on a broken tree stump about 4 feet off the ground. This was at around 4.50pm, and I hesitate to say “in broad daylight” as it was a very gloomy afternoon, which is perhaps what prompted this nocturnal owl to be out and about so early. Realising I was there, the bird flushed and flew up into a nearby tree, where it peered at me for a while before flying off deeper into the forest. Although much less rare in the US than a Golden-crowned Warbler, I would take a Barred Owl sighting any day over the warbler, which is a widespread species in tropical Latin America.

Also in the general area, I saw at least one Wilson’s Warbler, a White-eyed Vireo, and a small flock of Pine Siskins – an overall very respectable haul from the park, and I went away well satisfied despite missing the rarities here.

Feeling somewhat tired, I elected for an early night in a motel in Victoria, in preparation for a very early start and three-hour drive to the Galveston area next morning.

Today’s Highlights: Barred Owl, Wilson’s Warbler, Pine Siskin, White-eyed Vireo, Cactus Wren, Olive Sparrow, Tropical Kingbird, Chihuahuan Raven, Harris’s Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Black Skimmer.

2016 total species so far:  177

January 6th: I was on the road early, driving through relentless heavy rain around dawn which made the prospects for the day look less than appealing. Fortunately, the rain stopped as I neared the Galveston area, and by the time I arrived at the Texas City Dike we were back to a familiar weather pattern of cold, breezy and overcast.

The dike is drivable, allowing for nice easy birding from the comfort of the car. Before long, I found the first of my targets – Common Loon, also known as Great Northern Diver, which is what I grew up calling it in the UK. The 15 individuals I counted here is probably double my previous all-time total for this species, which is a scarce winter visitor in southern England and usually only seen singly.

American Oystercatcher was another target bird that I also located without difficulty, although it is very scarce in number here compared to other shorebirds – unlike oystercatcher species in the UK and New Zealand which can be abundant at favored sites.

A lone Piping Plover here made it onto the list earlier than expected (Bolivar shorebird sanctuary was my planned site for this species), and a Common Tern was another unexpected find – it is rare and irregular in winter on the Gulf coast, usually wintering much farther south.

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Common Tern at Texas City Dike, January 6th. Easily distinguished from Forster’s Tern in winter by its capped appearance with black extending across the nape, and especially by the dark carpal bar on the wing.

I drove south, across to Galveston Island, where I unsurprisingly failed to find the reported American Tree Sparrow on 8 Mile Road in windy conditions. With time rapidly ticking away, I decided to take the ferry across to Bolivar Island for some guaranteed year birds at the shorebird sanctuary there. Sure enough, a few individuals of both Semipalmated Plover and Snowy Plover were quickly located, alongside more Piping Plovers, but the dunes didn’t yield the hoped-for Horned Lark. An American Pipit on Rettilon Road was welcome, and I tried a spot of “pishing” along there which produced a Marsh Wren and abundant Swamp Sparrows. No luck with Seaside Sparrow, which is quickly moving up the ranks to become one of my “most wanted” Texas birds, but the viewing conditions on this gloomy and windy afternoon were far from ideal.

Having come this far, it was logical that I continue around the loop and call in at Anahuac NWR on the way back to Houston. Between the Skillern Tract entrance and the main gates, a huge Snow Goose flock had me pulling over and scanning. I was crossing my fingers that a Cackling Goose was somewhere in the flock, but I had no joy, and I didn’t look too closely for Ross’s Goose, having seen them the other day at Katy Prairie. Nearby, an impressive flock of blackbirds and grackles foraged near a grain machine on a pasture next to the road. A quick scan through the flock produced not only several of the expected Boat-tailed Grackles (slightly smaller, rounder-headed, and duller-eyed than the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle), but also a female Yellow-headed Blackbird. The latter bird is rare here, and had I not seen them the other day at Progreso would have been a real five-star sighting. As I later learned on eBird, there were up to three individual Yellow-headed Blackbirds reported here today.

The Shoveler Pond Loop at Anahuac is where my two remaining targets were located, and sure enough it took all of about one minute to locate large numbers of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, alongside a handful of Fulvous Whistling Ducks. No sign, however, of the Canvasbacks I had seen here a few weeks back. The most remarkable sighting in this area was a steady passage of Tree Swallows, with a total of several hundred seen, and birds constantly in view overhead or hawking insects low over the marshes.

Today’s Highlights: Semipalmated, Piping, and Snowy Plovers, Common Loon, American Oystercatcher, Common Tern, Boat-tailed Grackle, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Fulvous Whistling Duck.

2016 total species so far:  188

January 7th: Back in Houston, I took the rental car back in the early morning (thankfully the heavy rain had cleaned most of the mud off!), and rediscovered the much greater comfort – but lesser fuel economy – of my usual Jaguar Vanden Plas, a car I borrowed from the in-laws.

I could only spare a few hours this afternoon, and the obvious choice was Bear Creek Park, only about 15 minutes from home. A Greater Pewee has spent the last several winters in the park, but it can apparently be a very tough bird to locate, so I wasn’t counting on seeing it. However, several absentees from my year list such as Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird should be guaranteed here, plus there was a fair chance of Pileated Woodpecker.

The Greater Pewee is usually seen around toilet blocks 9 and 10, so I naturally decided to focus on this area. I was in for a surprise when I arrived, as the road was closed due to excessive flooding – in fact this part of the park was almost completely underwater. Not to be deterred, I took my socks and shoes off, rolled up my trousers, and waded across to toilet block 9.

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Bear Creek Park, January 7th. Large areas of the park were underwater, but the water was only knee-deep and it was possible to wade to the area frequented by the Greater Pewee.

Apart from the flooding, viewing conditions this afternoon were perfect, with clear sunny skies and zero wind. Birds were everywhere, not only including my dead cert targets Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird, but also Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Pileated Woodpecker seen on several occasions, and gorgeous Pine Warblers in most of the mixed species bird flocks along with Chipping Sparrows. At around 4.20pm, I was preparing to leave when I heard the loud “pip-pip” call of the Greater Pewee, which once heard is never forgotten. A few seconds later, the bird appeared in the treetops next to toilet block 9, and although it remained high in the trees it did give some good views. This is an easy bird to identify, with its large size, crest, upright posture, and orange lower mandible, as well as the distinctive call which it uttered constantly.

Today’s Highlights: Greater Pewee, Pileated Woodpecker.

2016 total species so far:  192

January 8th: I took my parents-in-law to Sheldon Lake this morning, a beautiful and under-visited state park less than 30 minutes from downtown Houston. My main target here was Le Conte’s Sparrow, which winter in small numbers in the marshy prairies here. It turns out that this species is very responsive to “pishing”, so seeing them turned out to be easier than expected – we just stood in the middle of the boardwalk, pished, and voila….. three Le Conte’s Sparrows popped up to take a closer look at us. Sedge Wren is another bird that has a weakness for pishing, and we saw two of those too, as well as abundant Swamp Sparrows.

From the top of the impressive viewing tower, some hirundines were flying about, and in complete contrast to the monospecies passage of Tree Swallows at Anahuac the other day, this relatively tiny group of swallows contained three species: Tree Swallow, several Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and a single Cave Swallow. The long-staying Great Kiskadee and a lone Anhinga were also seen from atop the tower, although views across to downtown Houston were less than stellar owing to the misty weather conditions.

Today’s Highlights: Le Conte’s Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cave Swallow, Great Kiskadee, Anhinga.

2016 total species so far:  195

January 9th: My last chance to get out into the field before I left the country for Vietnam. Last night, I had driven over to New Braunfels to spend a couple of nights at my parents-in-law’s weekend home, and when I awoke at 6.00am on Saturday morning I was perfectly positioned to make the 45-minute drive to Mitchell Lake Audobon Center in San Antonio. If anywhere offered me the chance to break through the magic 200 species mark today, it was here ….. the site has a long and impressive list of birds to its credit, and I figured that at least half a dozen year ticks ought to be possible in a morning’s birding.

I started at the visitor center, and very quickly got on the score sheet with a male House Finch at the feeders. Another enjoyable sight here – although not a year tick – was a Harris’s Sparrow feeding alongside a small group of White-crowned Sparrows. I later learned that a Green-tailed Towhee had been seen and photographed under the feeders that morning, a bird I would have waited for had I known it was around. Still, I was satisfied with my start to the day. On the trail to the bird lake I notched up a Red-shouldered Hawk in the woods, another year tick, while in an open area of the trail a Vesper Sparrow foraged on the ground. Three new year birds already, now up to 198 in total, and I was feeling good about breaking 200.

I have my wife to thank for what happened next. She called me on the phone as I was leaving the area, and, anticipating a long conversation, I retraced my steps back to the bird lake where there was a bench to sit on. As I sat there, half watching the nearby scrub, a noticed a flash of yellow. Raising my binoculars to my eyes with one hand while I held the phone in the other, I was astounded to see a stunning adult Audubon’s Oriole right there in front of me. Needless to say I dropped the phone and picked up my camera. By then the bird had dropped lower into the bushes, but I did still manage to get a record shot. Audubon’s Oriole is a range-restricted bird found only in northern Mexico and southern Texas, and it is apparently scarce throughout its range – Mitchell Lake is one of the best sites for this species, although it is infrequently seen even here.

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Audubon’s Oriole, Mitchell Lake, January 9th. A scarce bird with a small world range, found in northern Mexico and southern Texas only.

Given the recent rainfall, the dyke roads into the heart of the reserve were closed to traffic today – and even if they had been open, I don’t think I would have risked driving them, given my recent experience getting stuck in the mud at Chapman Ranch. So I parked the car, and as I was preparing to start walking, there it was …. my 200th species for 2016, a Verdin hunting for insects in low scrub. I had done it, the pressure was off! Still, I had plenty of time to add to my total, and that I soon did with a nice flock of 37 Bonaparte’s Gulls on one of the lakes. This was actually a USA tick for me, with my only other sighting of this species being in the UK, where it is a rare but annual visitor.

With my telescope, I scanned the main lake with two target ducks in mind, and achieved a 50% success rate: I saw three distant Hooded Mergansers, but drew a blank with Canvasback.

It was good to walk the dyke roads for a change instead of driving them: Song Sparrow and Bewick’s Wren were two interesting birds that I doubt I would have seen if I had been in my car. Another was a briefly-seen Empidonax flycatcher, species uncertain. I had just a two-second look at it, enough time to start uttering “what the …..” to myself, before the bird promptly disappeared. It didn’t call, which is the crucial distinguishing feature among a number of Empidonax species which are more or less identical in terms of plumage. All I saw when it briefly sat on a open perch was that the bird had a very upright posture, was a light olive-green in color, with two prominent whitish wingbars, had a big eye with a striking broad, white eye-ring, and a two-toned bill.

Having rounded off a very successful trip to Mitchell Lake, I knew exactly where I could easily get my final two birds for the USA this year: Landa Park in New Braunfels. Sure enough, it took all of about 30 seconds to find both Wood Duck and Egyptian Goose, the latter not yet technically countable by the ABA, but acceptable for me as they have a free-flying, self-sustaining – and rapidly growing – population here.

The question of provenance was also raised by a pair of Mallards, which were pure-bred birds unlike the “domestic-type” Mallards that are resident here. These two kept their distance from the domestic birds, and could very conceivably have been wild-origin ducks enjoying an easy winter in the park in the same way as the wild Lesser Scaups and Wood Ducks.

Next stop, Vietnam!

Today’s Highlights: Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck, Bonaparte’s Gull, Verdin, Red-shouldered Hawk, Vesper Sparrow, Audubon’s Oriole.

2016 total species so far:  205

Lifers, January 2nd-9th: Harris’s Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, Sprague’s Pipit, Lark Sparrow, Marbled Godwit, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Eastern Screech-Owl, Virginia Rail, Red-crowned Parrot, Cassin’s Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Chihuahuan Raven, Barred Owl, Cactus Wren, Aplomado Falcon, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher, Greater Pewee, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Audubon’s Oriole (total 2,075).

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Osprey at Anahuac NWR enforcing the one-way traffic system at Shoveler Pond.