Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endangered species in Texas: Piping Plover and Red-cockaded Woodpecker, November 20th and 22nd

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Handy sign telling birders exactly where to search for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker, at W G Jones State Forest near Houston.

Friday morning saw me once again heading to the Texas coast, targeting three species of small plover that I still needed for my list: Piping, Semipalmated, and Snowy. The first species is classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN, with a total world population of just 6,500 birds, while the last used to be considered part of the very widespread Kentish Plover, but has now been split.

It was a beautiful day, and I took the scenic route to the Bolivar Shorebird Sanctuary via the Galveston ferry. While waiting for the ferry, lots of birds could be seen around the port including huge numbers of Laughing Gulls interspersed with the occasional Ring-billed and American Herring Gull. Three species of terns were flying about, too: Royal, Forster’s, and my personal first Sandwich Terns for north America.

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Laughing Gulls, Galveston, November 20th.

The tide was very high when I arrived at the beach at the end of Rettilon Road, but the lack of mudflats was not a problem for my target birds – they are partial to sandy beaches, and indeed I found my first Piping Plovers almost as soon as I arrived, running around on the sand close to the car. Semipalmated Plover was also quickly located at a small pool behind the beach, while Snowy Plover turned out to be the least common of the three, but still findable without too much difficulty.

Apart from the plovers, this small pool held perhaps one hundred Western Sandpipers, small numbers of Dunlin and Sanderling, and a Least Sandpiper, while a welcome find on the nearby dunes was a group of four Horned Larks. The beach wader roosts contained large numbers of American Avocets, and lots of gulls and terns including Caspian Tern – a second north American tern tick for the day, and a bird I have now seen on four continents. A Reddish Egret flew past along the shoreline, an uncommon coastal speciality, and another new addition to my list.

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Piping Plover sporting red and blue leg rings at Bolivar island, November 20th.

I decided to continue driving east along the coast, then north through High Island en route to Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, where there were many of the same birds I had seen on my previous visit to this site a month ago. Wintering ducks on Shoveler Pond included several individuals of one of my favorite species, Canvasback, but my personal highlight at Anahuac was a passage of Tree Swallows – this north American hirundine is a late fall migrant, and until now had been a big gap on my USA list as it is rather common.

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Snowy Egret at Shoveler Pond, Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, November 20th.

Two days later, I embarked on quite a different kind of birding trip. Just 40 minutes north of Houston is the W G Jones State Park, one of the last remaining refuges for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Texas. The population of this species has fallen by a staggering 99% from its original levels, and now numbers just 13,500 birds. Unlike most woodpeckers, which utilise dead trees for their nesting and roosting holes, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker bores its holes in live pine trees afflicted with heartwood disease. It is found in open pine forests, and is threatened by habitat loss.

Sunday morning dawned extremely cold for the time of year, with overnight lows of just 4C (39F). At first light – around 7.00am – I was in position beside a small pond in the forest south of road 1488, in an area which looked promising for Red-cockaded Woodpecker – and my suspicions were confirmed by signs on the trees telling me I was in an active “cluster” area for the species. However, after wandering around in the area for two hours I still hadn’t heard or seen one, although I was compensated in part by excellent views of several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Flickers, brief sightings of Pileated Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, and lots of Eastern Bluebirds and Pine Warblers.

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Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat – open pine forest – at W G Jones State park.

I decided to try my luck on the north side of the road, and here I quickly found more signposted woodpecker territories and even a tree with an artificial nest box implanted in the trunk. My luck was in here, as within just a few minutes of my arrival I heard a distinctive raspy-sounding call, and a Red-cockaded Woodpecker flew in, giving me excellent views as it fed on the trunks of several large pines. All pied woodpeckers are attractive, but to my eye this species is especially smart and clean-cut, with a neatly barred back and conspicuous pure white cheeks. I’ve now seen 45 woodpecker species this year, but with only one more remaining possible year tick in this part of Texas (Red-headed Woodpecker) it doesn’t look like I am going to get to 50.

I bumped into some other birders, who had seen two Blue-headed Vireos along the trail, which I didn’t find but instead had much better views than before of a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches. All in all, it was a most satisfactory visit to this site, which I would definitely recommend as being a (fairly) easy and accessible place to spot the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Lifers: Piping Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Snowy Plover, Reddish Egret, Tree Swallow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-cockaded Woodpecker (total 2,038).

2015 Year Ticks: Sandwich Tern, American Herring Gull, Western Sandpiper, Horned Lark, Marsh Wren, American Goldfinch, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (total 1,067).

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Shoveler Pond at Anahuac Wildfowl Refuge, November 20th.
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Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a Pied-billed Grebe, and a skulking White Ibis at Anahuac, November 20th.