Independent Birding in Ecuador, September 2019

Golden Tanager
Golden Tanager – a common bird in the mid-elevation cloud forests around Mindo.

Most birders visit Ecuador as part of an organized tour, and most of the online trip reports are either from tour guide leaders or their clients. There is nothing wrong with that – a lot of this information is very good. However, there are far fewer resources available for those who want to “go it alone” and bird Ecuador independently, so I hope that this report is especially useful for those who don’t want to shell out the big bucks for a tour.

Golden-naped Tanager2
Golden-naped Tanager

The difficult part of birding Ecuador is not the infrastructure, nor the travel logistics. The area around which I centered my trip – the Mindo Valley – lies within easy reach of the international airport in Quito. The main roads are smooth and well-engineered, and (I am told) much improved in recent years. Even the dirt roads – while rough and steep in places – can be tackled in a regular two-wheel-drive car. Accommodation is plentiful and inexpensive. Nothing about Ecuador would pose a problem for anyone with prior overseas independent birding experience – it is a good deal less challenging than many Asian destinations, for example.

Blue-throated Tanager
Blue-throated Tanager, yet another common and stunning tanager.

However, speaking as someone who has birded in 56 countries – and with some fairly serious international birding trips under my belt – take it from me that nowhere have I more acutely felt the lack of a local, knowledgeable guide than in Ecuador. Let me explain. Cloud forests are not easy places to bird – the trees are high, and the weather is regularly gloomy and misty. Add to that a huge and staggeringly diverse avifauna, and enormous mixed flocks that pass quickly through at treetop height, and you can start to understand how frustrating the birding experience can be in Ecuador – even for someone with broad experience in a number of other nearby countries (I’ve birded Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras fairly extensively so I am familiar with many of the Neotropical bird families).

Red-headed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet

For the first couple of days, I was identifying barely a handful of species in each mixed flock, and at times it felt like I was spending more time leafing through my field guide than watching the birds! My advice to the independent birder would be to buy a field guide well in advance of your trip, and spend a lot of time reading the guide and trying to nail down the ID of species you are likely to encounter. And even if you do that, you will probably still feel completely out of your depth for several days.

On the other hand, many of the reserves and lodges maintain feeding stations with as many as 12-15 hummingbird species buzzing around, and colorful tanagers coming down to feed at eye level and close range. Spending time at these feeding stations is a good way to build familiarity with some of the more commonly seen species.

Golden-crowned Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Flycatcher at the Sachatamia Lodge “moth trap”.

The trip logistics were as follows:

Planning: I purchased the bang-up-to-date “Birds of Ecuador” field guide, recently published by Helm. This is a very comprehensive and portable guide to all the birds recorded in Ecuador – some 1,630 species. A Kindle edition of this guide is available, but I much prefer the “old school” paper version to take into the field.

While I was satisfied with the guide overall, I have a few reservations. First, having a guide that covers the entire country brings some confusion to the mix for a first-time Ecuador birder who is covering just a small area. If you can find a more localized guide to the birds of northwest Ecuador, this would provide a useful supplement to the Helm guide.

Second, some of the bird illustrations in the Helm guide didn’t seem accurate to me. This was a problem on several occasions, when I had great looks at what I figured would be an easy bird to identify – and then couldn’t find it anywhere in the guide. I had to resort to online images to get to the bottom of several IDs of birds which to my eye were inaccurately illustrated. I found this to be true of several flycatchers in particular. Admittedly part of this is due to my lack of skill with Ecuadorian birds, but I feel that the field guide must bear some of the blame too.

As well as reading the Helm guide, and researching online trip reports, I also spent a while on eBird checking out different hotspots in the areas I was planning to visit. A good way to form an itinerary would be to combine information from trip reports with the latest reports from eBird to help target any particular species.

Buff-tailed Coronet
Buff-tailed Coronet – a species I saw only at Refugio Paz de las Aves.

Flight: I live in Houston so there are plentiful flights to South America. Direct flights on United from Houston to Quito take only about 5 hours, but they arrive in the middle of the night, and I didn’t want to turn up at night in an unfamiliar country. With hindsight, and knowing how easy it was, I would not have had a problem turning up at night, renting a car and driving off down the road.

I found a flight with AeroMexico via Mexico City which was not only considerably cheaper than the United flight (about $550 vs. $720, round trip), but also arrived in Quito at around 6.00am – perfect timing, or so I thought, to get there in daylight, grab a rental car, hit the road, and be at the Yanacocha Reserve while it was still early enough for some great birding. More on how that turned out later!

Glossy Flowerpiercer
Glossy Flowerpiercer

Car rental: I had been wondering about whether to rent a car, or whether to take a bus from the airport to Mindo, base myself there, and travel out by taxi to the various birding lodges and reserves in the area.

A quick trawl through the internet reveals the usual horror stories of renting a car – a lot of the advice seems to come down to “don’t do it!”. But the seasoned driver has nothing to fear from car rental in Ecuador, and I am very glad I decided to go ahead and rent a car for the greater flexibility, convenience, and – over the course of the week – much lower costs compared to taking taxis.

Avis seemed to have the least bad reviews of a bad bunch at the airport. I found their service to be very good. In common with many developing countries, they go over the car with a fine tooth comb when you pick it up, and note down every small scratch. I didn’t damage my car, so I didn’t find out what would happen if they had found a new scratch when I returned it!

Note that most Ecuadorian rental cars are manual (“stick shift” to Americans). You should assume you will be given a manual car unless you specifically book an automatic. With the steep roads and long mountain passes, a manual is by far the best choice anyway, assuming you are able to drive one.

Another feature of Ecuadorian car rental is that many rental contracts specify a daily kilometer limit – usually 100km per day. I was given the option at the rental desk to upgrade to unlimited km for an additional $11 per day, which I declined. Northwest Ecuador is compact, and although driving times can sometimes be long on slow roads, distances are not far. As it turned out I did go slightly over my allocated mileage for the week. The charge was $0.25 for each excess kilometer, and in the end I paid an extra $20 in total, a lot less than the upgrade to unlimited kilometers would have cost.

I had pre-booked the cheapest possible car, a tiny Chevrolet Spark 1.0, via an online consolidator for around $180 in total for the 8 days. I reserved and paid for the car using my Chase Mileage Plus credit card because it includes CDW and LDW insurance as primary coverage. Not many credit cards have this feature, so this one is an excellent option for overseas car rentals. I did, however, opt to add the maximum liability insurance coverage at the rental desk, making the total cost of my rental around $260.

At the rental desk, I was offered the chance to upgrade my tiny vehicle to a more robust and powerful one. The difference in price didn’t seem worth it, and I am glad I stuck with my Spark – although it was a little under-powered on the long mountain passes, it handled all kinds of rough dirt roads and steep slopes without any issues. If I was traveling with a companion or an extra suitcase, it may have been a different story.

Gas (petrol) in Ecuador is very cheap – even less than the US – and my tiny car hardly used any of it, I spent a total of about $35 on gas for my whole visit. Compared to the US, there are few gas stations – for example after leaving the outskirts of Quito on the E20, heading over the Papallacta pass, there is no gas for 86km until you reach Baeza, so make sure you fill up whenever you can.

Black-capped Tanager
Black-capped Tanager

Driving: All the main roads I encountered were smooth, well-graded, and lightly trafficked. The highway from the airport to Quito, and the long pass to Papallacta, are particularly excellent. The back roads vary in quality, many are all-weather dirt roads but all the ones I used were all passable in my Chevrolet Spark.

Accommodation: I had booked Sachatamia Lodge in advance for the first two nights of my trip, to ease me into Ecuador and give me a comfortable place to aim at from the airport. For nights 3-6, I moved into a cheaper private room in Cinnamon House, an excellent hostel in Mindo town. Night 7 was spent in Papallacta, and the final night in an airport hotel ready for my early morning flight the next day.

I reserved all of the above places on Booking.com, and none of them required prepayment – it was a “cash on arrival” kind of deal. There is a large range of accommodation options, especially in the Mindo area – everything from upmarket luxury lodges to hostel dorms, and the independent traveler is unlikely to encounter any problems finding somewhere to stay.

Sachatamia Lodge: A well-located, comfortable lodge situated just off the main Quito to San Miguel de los Bancos road, close to the Mindo turn-off. Being at the top of the hill above Mindo, it had a noticeably different avifauna compared to Mindo town. This lodge has several trails, excellent feeding stations for tanagers and hummingbirds, and even a blind overlooking a moth trap which was interesting for forest species in the early mornings when they came to eat the moths.

My comfortable room was $65 per night, putting Sachatamia Lodge firmly at the low-budget end of the spectrum for out-of-town bird lodges. A very good breakfast was included, and the dinner menu had plenty of variety and was priced at around $11-$18 for a main course.

Cinnamon House: A basic but clean and comfortable private room, with private bathroom and balcony, was $25 per night. This is a super-friendly hostel geared up to the younger, solo traveler. There is a kitchen so you can self-cater, although the grocery stores in Mindo town stock only the basics.

El Fogon Campero: This budget hotel is on the road to the hot springs in Papallacta. I had prebooked on Booking.com but they seemed surprised when I turned up, and no one else was staying there. My final bill for room and dinner was $26. Nights are cold at this altitude, but my room was well-equipped with blankets and a space heater.

Hostal Mariscal Sucre: This hotel is very close to the airport and costs $25 a night. I wasn’t given a key when I checked in, and when I asked at reception they couldn’t find one for my room, so I had to leave the room unlocked when I went out to dinner. I guess they are used to people just turning up, crashing for the night, and leaving the next morning without needing a key. It was a perfectly functional night halt although there is nowhere to eat in the evening within walking distance (but a very good Italian-owned pizza restaurant is a short drive away).

White-necked Jacobin
White-necked Jacobin, a common and highly distinctive hummingbird.

Food: Sometimes I had lunch if it fitted in with birding (for example at Mirador Rio Blanco in San Miguel de los Bancos, where I could eat while watching Rufous-throated Tanagers at the feeders). Otherwise, I subsisted during the day on protein bars, trail mix, apples, and boiled eggs, some of which I brought from home. Coffee is widely available.

Mindo town has a reasonable choice of restaurants for dinner, I particularly recommend the Dragonfly Inn just next to the bridge as you come into town. If I find somewhere I like, I tend to eat there for every meal, purely for convenience – this was after all a birding and not a gastronomic trip.

Money: Ecuador uses the US Dollar as its currency, but with more coins – they have a 50 cent coin, and $1 coins typically replace dollar bills here. I took about $500 in cash in a variety of bills with me. There are also ATMs available in towns which accept foreign credit and debit cards.

Weather: This is a cloud forest region and the weather is unpredictable. The main enemies of the birder are fog and low cloud, which occurred frequently during my trip especially in the afternoons, and of course rain. Persistent rain was only really a problem on one day of my trip, with occasional showers at other times. Bird activity was noticeably higher on cloudy days versus sunny ones. Up at 13,000+ feet ASL at the Papallacta Pass, you can expect the default weather conditions to be cold, foggy, and drizzly, even in the early mornings.

Thick-billed Euphonia
Thick-billed Euphonia

Itinerary: I had a broad plan to follow a tour company’s itinerary for the Mindo area which I had found online, making small tweaks based on the fact that I was staying in a different lodge to them. But I didn’t stick to my plan, and instead ended up using it as a “rough guide” to the best places to visit for the widest variety of birds. Be prepared to change course at short notice and be flexible due to weather conditions. On several afternoons, I ended up at the (very birdy) Yellow House Trails in Mindo when rain and fog had closed in on the surrounding hills.

Daily Overview:

Saturday 21st September Morning: Drive from airport via the old Mindo “Eco Ruta” and Alambi Lodge. Afternoon: Sachatamia Lodge.

Sunday 22nd September Morning: Sachatamia Lodge then Mindo village area. Afternoon: Sachatamia Lodge.

Monday 23rd September Morning: Sachatamia Lodge. Afternoon: Mindo Yellow House Trails.

Tuesday 24th September Morning: Rio Silanche then Mirador Rio Blanco for lunch. Afternoon: Mindo Yellow House Trails.

Wednesday 25th September Morning: Refugio Paz de las Aves. Afternoon: Milpe Bird Sanctuary.

Thursday 26th September All day: Rio Silanche.

Friday 27th September Morning: Old Mindo Road (Eco Ruta) then Yanacocha Reserve. Afternoon: Drive to Papallacta.

Saturday 28th September Morning: Papallacta Pass, then Papallacta village area. Afternoon: Guango Lodge and Laguna Papallacta.

Rufous Motmot
Rufous Motmots

DAY ONE – Saturday 21st September: My flight arrived on time and the staff at the Avis rental desk were friendly and efficient. I was soon on the road towards Quito. Google maps served me pretty well getting me through the city and out into the hills on the other side, but unfortunately at that point it let me down.

Despite being near Quito, the Yanacocha Reserve is located in quite a remote area, and although the map appears to indicate three different ways to get there, there is in fact only one possible route from Quito. At first, Google took me up a private road to a hacienda, and my second attempt – approaching from the village of Nono – ended at a locked gate. I had somehow missed the sign at this spot: Google Maps Link. If you turn left (south) at this concealed turning, you should pick up signs all the way to the Yanacocha Reserve. The roads are pretty rough but passable with care in an ordinary car.

Having failed twice to get to Yanacocha, and with the best of the morning’s birding hours already behind me, I decided to press on towards Mindo via the “Eco Ruta” – the old Mindo road which gradually descends in altitude and eventually joins the main highway 28 near Tandayapa. This is a dirt road and takes an eternity to drive along. I stopped here and there, but the only notable bird was a Rufous-chested Tanager, my only one of the trip.

I got my first taste of some “feeder action” at the Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge, where I spent a couple of hours getting to grips with some of the more regular hummingbirds and tanagers. I saw nothing here that I didn’t commonly see elsewhere during the week, but it was a nice introduction to Mindoese bird life. Next door to the feeding station, a trout fishery and restaurant provided an excellent lunch stop and I was invited to eat with a father and son who had spent the morning fishing there – my first taste of Ecuadorian friendliness, hospitality – and of course, trout.

I found Sachatamia Lodge very easily thanks to a brand new sign along the highway. The weather was foggy and drizzly. A staff member named Johnny, who is a keen wannabe bird guide learning his trade, offered to show me a pair of roosting Crested Owls for $10, an offer I could hardly refuse! The rest of the afternoon was spent getting frustrated trying and failing to identify bird silhouettes in the gloom, but at least the hummingbird feeders at the lodge were busy with a nice variety of hummers of about 15 species including Booted Racket-tail, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Purple-throated Woodstar, Velvet-purple Coronet, and numbers of Violet-tailed Sylph.

Crested Owl
Crested Owls at their day roost along the river trail at Sachatamia Lodge.

DAY TWO – Sunday 22nd September: I met with Johnny, and another couple of birders, at 6.00am outside the lodge, and a few minutes later we were seated in a hide overlooking a moth trap. Overnight, powerful lights are shone on a white tarpaulin, to which large numbers of moths are attracted. This is an excellent place to start the day as, even before it gets properly light, various forest-dwelling birds hang out there to enjoy a tasty moth breakfast.

Birds seen from this blind today and on subsequent mornings included Masked Trogon, Strong-billed, Spotted, and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, Scaly-throated and Lineated Foliage-gleaners, Gray-breasted Wood Wren, Flavescent and Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Smoke-colored Pewee, and my first looks at exquisite Ornate Flycatchers which turned out to be common birds of the cloud forest.

Ornate Flycatcher
Ornate Flycatcher

As well as several short trails around the lodge itself, Sachatamia Lodge has one fairly long trail that descends all the way to a river. Along here I encountered goodies such as Golden-headed Quetzal, Club-winged Manakin, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and Glistening-green and Metallic-green Tanagers – as well as the roosting Crested Owls which I saw daily once I had been shown where to look.

One notable visitor to the tanager feeding station near the Lodge was a Scrub Tanager, which I saw several days running. This is a highly unusual record for cloud forest at this altitude. This was also the only location where I saw the stunning Flame-faced Tanager during my trip.

Scrub Tanager
Scrub Tanager – a bird of high-altitude arid scrub, so completely out of place in mid-elevation cloud forest. This one visited the feeding station at Sachatamia Lodge for several days running.

Flame-faced Tanager
Flame-faced Tanager. I wish I had gotten a cleaner photo of this bird, but I guess the camera focus was confused by the incredibly vibrant colors.

I took a trip into Mindo at lunchtime to “scope out” the town and figure out where I was going to stay after I departed Sachatamia Lodge the following day. There was a Pale-legged Hornero along the dirt road to Cinnamon House, which I took to be a good omen so I decided to stay there.

I also stopped by at El Descanso Lodge, where $4 buys you a grandstand seat overlooking lots of hummingbird and tanager feeders. It was fun to watch but I didn’t add any new birds to my list here.

Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Strong-billed Woodcreeper at the Sachatamia Lodge “moth trap”.

DAY THREE – Monday 23rd September: After birding at Sachatamia Lodge for the first five hours of daylight (70 species), I checked out and moved down the hill to Cinnamon House. In the afternoon, I spent a few hours on the Yellow House Trails on the outskirts of Mindo village. These trails often feature as one of the top spots to watch birds in the Mindo area – eBird shows that 397 species have been recorded there. The entrance fee is $6, but on the second day, the owner recognized me and I didn’t have to pay again.

The Yellow House Trails were far more extensive than I had been expecting, and quite a long uphill walk through suboptimal habitat is required before you even reach the trails proper. But the birds aren’t too choosy, and even on these lower stretches I encountered some great birds including Guayaquil Woodpecker, Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, and Fawn-breasted and Swallow Tanagers. Further up in the forest, the highlights included Wattled and Crested Guans, Zeledon’s Antbird, and White-winged Tanager.

Bird activity at the Yellow House Trails seemed to stay relatively high throughout the afternoon, and another excellent reason to visit this location is that it is slightly lower and was therefore sheltered – on both of my afternoon visits – from the fog and rain which covered the surrounding hills.

Violet-tailed Sylph
Violet-tailed Sylph. Common at some of the feeding stations in the Mindo area and also seen occasionally in the forest at Sachatamia Lodge.

DAY FOUR – Tuesday 24th September: I had been planning to visit the Milpe Bird Sanctuary, but I awoke to persistent rain in Mindo village, which only got worse as I climbed up the hill. When I got to the turnoff for Milpe, it was pouring with rain and visibility was just a few feet. It made no sense to attempt birding in such conditions, so I made the executive decision to continue driving to Rio Silanche, which at about 500 meters (1,600 feet) above sea level, was to be the lowest altitude place on my week’s itinerary.

I was hopeful that once I had descended from the hills, the rain would stop, but unfortunately this hypothesis turned out to be false! The rain continued all day, but at least the visibility was slightly better lower down the mountain.

After turning off the main highway 28, you reach the Rio Silanche reserve by driving a rather long, and in places rough, dirt road through areas of cleared forest, agricultural land, and secondary growth. Many tour groups have their best day in this general area in terms of the number of species seen, with up to 150 species regularly recorded in a day. I later learned the day record for the Rio Silanche area is around 180 species.

Entry to the reserve costs $12; when I arrived there was no one on site to take my money, so I paid on the way out. The Rio Silanche reserve features a canopy tower, which is an exciting place to be when a large mixed flock passes through. I spent several hours on the tower, but bird activity was low in the rainy conditions today.

The rarest birds of the morning were on the drive out; a pair of Groove-billed Anis, which I photographed – this species is found in other areas of Ecuador but is a little out of range here.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani along the road to Rio Silanche. An unexpected find. Several days later I found the more expected Smooth-billed Ani in exactly the same area.

With bird activity in the Rio Silanche reserve dying off in the late morning, and the rain showing no sign of abating, I cut my losses and drove back towards Mindo, stopping at the Mirador Rio Blanco restaurant in San Miguel de los Bancos. This is a great place to enjoy a meal in a warm, dry restaurant while watching the bird feeders through the windows. It is a known location for the scarce Rufous-throated Tanager, and I saw a pair of these lovely birds on several occasions as they came to feed on the fruit put out for them.

As previously noted, the Yellow House Trails in Mindo seem to have a slightly dryer microclimate, so this is where I went for the second afternoon in a row and once again enjoyed some good birding there.

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager
Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager – a real stunner and a frequent sight at the Sachatamia Lodge feeding station.

DAY FIVE – Wednesday 25th September: The story of the Refugio Paz de las Aves is famous and probably needs little introduction for those who have visited, or are considering visiting, the Mindo area. The short version of the story is that a family located on a sprawling property in the hills outside Mindo have spent many years habituating various rare and reclusive forest birds to human contact. These individuals are fed daily and over a period of many months and years become tame. A visit to this sanctuary provides the only realistic opportunity to add semi-mythical species like the Giant Antpitta to ones list.

Giant Antpitta
Giant Antpitta at Refugio Paz de las Aves – a “must visit” on any itinerary in the Mindo area.

Today was probably the best day of my trip and this was largely down to luck. I had contacted the “Refugio Pas de las Aves” on WhatsApp several days prior and tried to book a tour, but had received no response. On Wednesday morning I decided to visit the refuge “on spec”. Shortly after dawn, as I neared the refuge on a dirt road, I saw a bunch of cars and tour buses parked beside the road. I spoke to a driver who indicated I should take a small side path. Turns out this was the location of an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek! I figured I could do worse than associate with the tour groups, and so it proved, with views of Lyre-tailed Nightjar and Giant Antpitta further up the road.

Andean COTR
Male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock at a lek. The birds were a little distant, high in the trees, and in poor light. Nonetheless, the lek was an entertaining spectacle!

Eventually I was approached by one of the members of the refuge “family”, Angel, who asked me what I was doing there. After I had told him the story of not getting a response to my messages, he allowed me to join the tour, which included breakfast at a cost of $35. This turned out to be money well spent, with 5 Antpitta species (Giant, Moustached, Chestnut-crowned, Ochre-breasted, and Yellow-breasted) seen and photographed. The Moustached and Ochre-breasted were at the same spot, but the other antpittas were spread all over the property in different locations.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Ochre-breasted Antpitta

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

Other great birds seen during the morning tour included Powerful Woodpecker, Dark-backed Wood-quail, Choco Daggerbill, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Blue-capped Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, and White-winged Brushfinch.

Powerful Woodpecker
Powerful Woodpecker

Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Crimson-rumped Toucanet at the Refugio Paz de las Aves feeding station.

I was lucky today but you are officially not allowed to visit the Refugio Paz de las Aves without a prior reservation, and they are often fully booked, especially at the weekends. So plan more carefully than I did and make sure you reserve this wonderful tour well in advance of your planned visit.

It would be hard to beat such a successful morning, and so I had a less spectacular but still very rewarding afternoon at the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (entry cost: $12). This is one of the area’s more famous hotspots, and on this cloudy afternoon was abuzz with bird activity and big mixed flocks throughout the time I was there.

Birds I saw at Milpe which I did not encounter anywhere else included Black-and-white Becard, Spotted Nightingale-thrush, and Golden-bellied Warbler. This was the day when I finally started to feel like I was getting familiar with many of the commoner mixed-flock species.

Green and Black Fruiteater
Green-and-black Fruiteater at Refugio Paz de las Aves. A real skulky stunner!

DAY SIX – Thursday 26th September: The weather looked a lot better when I woke up, so I decided to return to Rio Silanche for a second attempt at some lower-altitude species. I had a much more successful morning today, with 89 species observed between 7.00am and 3.30pm.

Again, luck had a big part to play today – I bumped into Alex Luna, a Tropical Birding guide, and his client, whom I had met the previous day at Refugio Paz de las Aves. Today I spent a while with them on the canopy tower at the Rio Silanche reserve, and came to realize just how useful an expert local guide can be in Ecuador!

Some of the birds that Alex picked out from the tower included Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, One-colored Becard, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, and both Blue-whiskered and Scarlet-browed Tanagers. Many of these birds I would have been hard-pressed to find for myself, and I suspect they would not have made it to my list if it weren’t for Alex. We also had an Olive-sided Flycatcher – a familiar bird from “back home” which turned out to be an eBird flagged rarity here!

White-tailed Trogon2
Male White-tailed Trogon at Rio Silanche, a species I heard and saw several times there on my second visit.

White-tailed Trogon
Female White-tailed Trogon at Rio Silanche.

But I didn’t have absolutely everything handed to me by Alex on a plate, and I walked the loop trail alone several times and self-found some excellent birds including Little Tinamou, Rufous-fronted Wood-quail, White-bearded Manakin, multiple White-tailed Trogons, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Dusky-faced Tanager. On the drive out, a mixed flock of seedeaters included at least one male Black-and-white Seedeater outside of its usual altitude and range.

Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper at Rio Silanche.

DAY SEVEN – Friday 27th September: A very early start today. I packed up my bags and departed Cinnamon House, aiming to tackle the “Eco Ruta” before it got light, and hit the Yanacocha Reserve during peak morning birding hours.

Predictably – and as is normal for Ecuador – the drive took longer than planned. After getting slightly lost just once, I found the “short cut” up to Yanacocha from the Eco Ruta – which was steep and exciting in my under-powered car – and I finally pulled into the Yanacocha Reserve parking lot just before 9.00am.

This is a reserve that would warrant several visits to get the most from the trails and the potential birds here. It is a site for the very rare and poorly known Black-breasted Puffleg, which for the casual visitor would be an outside chance at best. Bird activity was fairly high at first, but once the clouds rolled in at around 11.00am, it slowed to almost zero. I had both Rufous and Tawny Antpittas along the main trail, and the hummingbird feeders here are famous for the magnificent Sword-billed Hummingbird, which showed reliably. Black-chested Mountain-Tanager and Golden-crowned Tanager were two really excellent birds I encountered here, but in fact most of the birds were new to me, due to the extreme change in altitude compared to Mindo.

Sword-billed Hummingbird
Sword-billed Hummingbird – an absolutely crazy-looking bird!

After the birding slowed, I made my way down the mountain, crossed through Quito, and continued along the excellent highway all the way to Papallacta. It was a clear afternoon, and the views across the snow-capped Andes mountains were simply breathtaking in places.

Tyrian Metaltail
Tyrian Metaltail – a common high-altitude hummer.

DAY EIGHT – Saturday 28th September: After spending the night at the Fogon Campero hotel in Papallacta, I awoke to a cold start, dressed in most of the clothes I had, and made my way to the top of Papallacta Pass for a stab at some of the true Andean high-altitude specialties.

The weather was chilly, foggy, and drizzly – as expected – but I still managed to see some of my target birds on my walk towards the radio antennas, including Andean Teal, Chestnut-winged Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, and Many-striped Canastero.

By mid-morning, with the weather closing in and visibility steadily getting worse, I decided to abandon the exposed pass and drove back down to Papallacta town where I found two eBird rarities – nothing exotic, just a Bank Swallow and a Western Wood-Pewee!

Continuing lower still – and finally getting below the rain and fog – I enjoyed several hours at the well-known Guango Lodge. This is a popular spot on the bird-tour circuit, and being on the eastern slope of the Andes, has a number of different species to the Mindo area in the west. Here, I added Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, Pearled Treerunner, Turquoise Jay, Mountain Cacique, and Black-eared and Black-capped Heminspingus, among others, to my list.

Tourmaline Sunangel
Tourmaline Sunangel at Guango Lodge.

With the weather eventually lifting in the late afternoon, and the sun making an appearance, I made a final stop at Laguna Papallacta, where I was adding birds to my trip list right up to the moment I left – such is the richness of Ecuadorian birdlife.

My final night in Ecuador was spent at an airport hotel before an early flight back to Houston (via Mexico City) the following morning.

Toucan Barbet
Toucan Barbet

Conclusion: Ecuador is an easy-to-navigate and exciting destination for visiting birders. The independent birder will likely see considerably fewer species, in total, than the birder on a guided tour. But this should be weighed against the greater fulfillment of finding and identifying birds for yourself, instead of having them pointed out to you by tour guides.

I look forward to returning for a second visit!

Trip list:

Total species seen: 278

# Species Location where first seen
1 Little Tinamou Rio Silanche–general area
2 Yellow-billed Pintail Laguna Papallacta
3 Andean Teal Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
4 Andean Guan Reserva Yanacocha
5 Crested Guan Mindo–Yellow House Trails
6 Wattled Guan Mindo–Yellow House Trails
7 Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail Rio Silanche–general area
8 Dark-backed Wood-Quail Refugio Paz de Las Aves
9 Rock Pigeon Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
10 Pale-vented Pigeon Mindo–Yellow House Trails
11 Ruddy Pigeon Rio Silanche–general area
12 Ecuadorian Ground Dove Rio Silanche–general area
13 White-tipped Dove Sachatamia Lodge
14 Eared Dove Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
15 Smooth-billed Ani Rio Silanche–general area
16 Groove-billed Ani Rio Silanche–general area
17 Squirrel Cuckoo Sachatamia Lodge
18 Lyre-tailed Nightjar Refugio Paz de Las Aves
19 White-collared Swift Sachatamia Lodge
20 Gray-rumped Swift Rio Silanche–general area
21 Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift Rio Silanche–general area
22 White-necked Jacobin Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
23 White-whiskered Hermit Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
24 Tawny-bellied Hermit Sachatamia Lodge
25 Stripe-throated Hermit Rio Silanche–general area
26 Choco Daggerbill Refugio Paz de Las Aves
27 Brown Violetear Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
28 Lesser Violetear Sachatamia Lodge
29 Sparkling Violetear Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
30 Purple-crowned Fairy Rio Silanche–general area
31 Tourmaline Sunangel Guango Lodge
32 Green Thorntail Cinnamon House, Mindo
33 Speckled Hummingbird Guango Lodge
34 Long-tailed Sylph Guango Lodge
35 Violet-tailed Sylph Sachatamia Lodge
36 Tyrian Metaltail Nono Village Main Street
37 Glowing Puffleg Guango Lodge
38 Sapphire-vented Puffleg Reserva Yanacocha
39 Golden-breasted Puffleg Reserva Yanacocha
40 Shining Sunbeam Reserva Yanacocha
41 Brown Inca Sachatamia Lodge
42 Collared Inca Ecoruta–Alambi Valley (Nono-Tandayapa Road below 2500 m)
43 Buff-winged Starfrontlet Reserva Yanacocha
44 Mountain Velvetbreast Laguna Papallacta
45 Sword-billed Hummingbird Reserva Yanacocha
46 Great Sapphirewing Reserva Yanacocha
47 Buff-tailed Coronet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
48 Chestnut-breasted Coronet Guango Lodge
49 Velvet-purple Coronet Sachatamia Lodge
50 Booted Racket-tail Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
51 Purple-bibbed Whitetip Sachatamia Lodge
52 Fawn-breasted Brilliant Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
53 Green-crowned Brilliant Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
54 Empress Brilliant Sachatamia Lodge
55 White-bellied Woodstar Sachatamia Lodge
56 Purple-throated Woodstar Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
57 Crowned Woodnymph Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
58 Andean Emerald Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
59 Purple-chested Hummingbird Rio Silanche–general area
60 Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
61 Violet-bellied Hummingbird Rio Silanche–general area
62 Slate-colored Coot Laguna Papallacta
63 Spotted Sandpiper Guango Lodge
64 Lesser Yellowlegs Laguna Papallacta
65 Andean Gull Laguna Papallacta
66 Snowy Egret Mindo–Yellow House Trails
67 Cattle Egret Sachatamia Lodge
68 Black Vulture Nono Village Main Street
69 Turkey Vulture Sachatamia Lodge
70 Hook-billed Kite Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
71 Swallow-tailed Kite Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
72 Roadside Hawk Rio Silanche–general area
73 Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
74 Short-tailed Hawk Sachatamia Lodge
75 Crested Owl Sachatamia Lodge
76 Golden-headed Quetzal Sachatamia Lodge
77 White-tailed Trogon Rio Silanche–general area
78 Masked Trogon Sachatamia Lodge
79 Rufous Motmot Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
80 Broad-billed Motmot Rio Silanche–general area
81 White-whiskered Puffbird Rio Silanche–general area
82 Orange-fronted Barbet Rio Silanche–general area
83 Red-headed Barbet Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
84 Toucan Barbet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
85 Crimson-rumped Toucanet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
86 Collared Aracari Sachatamia Lodge
87 Yellow-throated Toucan Rio Silanche–general area
88 Choco Toucan Sachatamia Lodge
89 Black-cheeked Woodpecker Rio Silanche–general area
90 Smoky-brown Woodpecker Mindo–Yellow House Trails
91 Red-rumped Woodpecker Rio Silanche–general area
92 Powerful Woodpecker Refugio Paz de Las Aves
93 Guayaquil Woodpecker Mindo–Yellow House Trails
94 Golden-olive Woodpecker Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
95 Carunculated Caracara By pass Pifo, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.2335,-78.3266)
96 American Kestrel Reserva Yanacocha
97 Rose-faced Parrot Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
98 Red-billed Parrot Mindo–Yellow House Trails
99 Blue-headed Parrot Rio Silanche–general area
100 Bronze-winged Parrot Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
101 Maroon-tailed Parakeet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
102 Chestnut-fronted Macaw Rio Silanche–general area
103 White-flanked Antwren Rio Silanche–general area
104 Slaty Antwren Milpe Bird Sanctuary
105 Zeledon’s Antbird Mindo–Yellow House Trails
106 Giant Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
107 Moustached Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
108 Chestnut-crowned Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
109 Yellow-breasted Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
110 Rufous Antpitta Reserva Yanacocha
111 Tawny Antpitta Reserva Yanacocha
112 Ochre-breasted Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
113 Plain-brown Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
114 Wedge-billed Woodcreeper Milpe Bird Sanctuary
115 Strong-billed Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
116 Spotted Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
117 Streak-headed Woodcreeper Rio Silanche–general area
118 Montane Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
119 Plain Xenops Rio Silanche–general area
120 Pale-legged Hornero Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
121 Chestnut-winged Cinclodes Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
122 Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
123 Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
124 Lineated Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
125 Streak-capped Treehunter Refugio Paz de Las Aves
126 Striped Woodhaunter Rio Silanche–general area
127 Pearled Treerunner Reserva Yanacocha
128 Andean Tit-Spinetail Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
129 White-browed Spinetail Reserva Yanacocha
130 Many-striped Canastero Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
131 White-chinned Thistletail Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
132 Red-faced Spinetail Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
133 Slaty Spinetail Mindo–Yellow House Trails
134 White-bearded Manakin Rio Silanche–general area
135 Club-winged Manakin Sachatamia Lodge
136 Green-and-black Fruiteater Refugio Paz de Las Aves
137 Andean Cock-of-the-rock Refugio Paz de Las Aves
138 Black-crowned Tityra Rio Silanche–general area
139 Cinnamon Becard Mindo–Yellow House Trails
140 Black-and-white Becard Milpe Bird Sanctuary
141 One-colored Becard Rio Silanche–general area
142 Streak-necked Flycatcher Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
143 Slaty-capped Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
144 Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant Milpe Bird Sanctuary
145 Common Tody-Flycatcher Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
146 Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
147 Cinnamon Flycatcher Guango Lodge
148 Ornate Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
149 Brown-capped Tyrannulet Rio Silanche–general area
150 Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet Mindo–Yellow House Trails
151 White-tailed Tyrannulet Sachatamia Lodge
152 White-banded Tyrannulet Reserva Yanacocha
153 White-throated Tyrannulet Laguna Papallacta
154 Yellow Tyrannulet Sachatamia Lodge
155 Greenish Elaenia Rio Silanche–general area
156 Torrent Tyrannulet Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
157 Choco Tyrannulet Rio Silanche–general area
158 Flavescent Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
159 Olive-sided Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
160 Smoke-colored Pewee Sachatamia Lodge
161 Western Wood-Pewee Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
162 Black Phoebe Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
163 Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
164 Masked Water-Tyrant Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
165 Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
166 Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
167 Dusky-capped Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
168 Boat-billed Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
169 Rusty-margined Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
170 Social Flycatcher Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
171 Golden-crowned Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
172 Streaked Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
173 Piratic Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
174 Snowy-throated Kingbird Rio Silanche–general area
175 Tropical Kingbird Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
176 Brown-capped Vireo Sachatamia Lodge
177 Chivi Vireo Sachatamia Lodge
178 Turquoise Jay Guango Lodge
179 Blue-and-white Swallow Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
180 Brown-bellied Swallow Reserva Yanacocha
181 Southern Rough-winged Swallow Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
182 Gray-breasted Martin Rio Silanche–general area
183 Bank Swallow Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
184 Tawny-faced Gnatwren Rio Silanche–general area
185 House Wren Sachatamia Lodge
186 Mountain Wren Sachatamia Lodge
187 Sedge Wren Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
188 Bay Wren Mindo–Yellow House Trails
189 Rufous Wren Reserva Yanacocha
190 Gray-breasted Wood-Wren Sachatamia Lodge
191 Andean Solitaire Sachatamia Lodge
192 Spotted Nightingale-Thrush Milpe Bird Sanctuary
193 Ecuadorian Thrush Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
194 Great Thrush Nono Village Main Street
195 Glossy-black Thrush Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
196 Thick-billed Euphonia Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
197 Orange-bellied Euphonia Sachatamia Lodge
198 Yellow-bellied Siskin Sachatamia Lodge
199 Hooded Siskin Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
200 Yellow-throated Chlorospingus Sachatamia Lodge
201 Ashy-throated Chlorospingus Mindo–Yellow House Trails
202 Dusky Chlorospingus Sachatamia Lodge
203 Gray-browed Brushfinch Reserva Yanacocha
204 Orange-billed Sparrow Rio Silanche–general area
205 Chestnut-capped Brushfinch Sachatamia Lodge
206 Rufous-collared Sparrow Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
207 Tricolored Brushfinch Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
208 Pale-naped Brushfinch Laguna Papallacta
209 Yellow-breasted Brushfinch Reserva Yanacocha
210 White-winged Brushfinch Refugio Paz de Las Aves
211 Scarlet-rumped Cacique Rio Silanche–general area
212 Mountain Cacique Guango Lodge
213 Shiny Cowbird Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
214 Scrub Blackbird Sachatamia Lodge
215 Tropical Parula Sachatamia Lodge
216 Blackburnian Warbler Sachatamia Lodge
217 Three-striped Warbler Sachatamia Lodge
218 Black-crested Warbler Laguna Papallacta
219 Buff-rumped Warbler Rio Silanche–general area
220 Golden-bellied Warbler Milpe Bird Sanctuary
221 Russet-crowned Warbler Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
222 Slate-throated Redstart Sachatamia Lodge
223 Spectacled Redstart Reserva Yanacocha
224 Dusky-faced Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
225 White-winged Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
226 Black-capped Hemispingus Guango Lodge
227 Black-eared Hemispingus Guango Lodge
228 Superciliaried Hemispingus Reserva Yanacocha
229 Rufous-chested Tanager Old Tandayapa Road
230 White-shouldered Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
231 Tawny-crested Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
232 White-lined Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
233 Flame-rumped Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
234 Black-chested Mountain-Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
235 Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
236 Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
237 Golden-crowned Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
238 Fawn-breasted Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
239 Glistening-green Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
240 Blue-gray Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
241 Palm Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
242 Blue-capped Tanager Refugio Paz de Las Aves
243 Rufous-throated Tanager San Miguel de Los Bancos–Mirador Rio Blanco
244 Golden-naped Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
245 Gray-and-gold Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
246 Black-capped Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
247 Scrub Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
248 Golden-hooded Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
249 Blue-necked Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
250 Beryl-spangled Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
251 Metallic-green Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
252 Bay-headed Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
253 Flame-faced Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
254 Blue-whiskered Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
255 Golden Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
256 Silver-throated Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
257 Swallow Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
258 Black-faced Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
259 Scarlet-thighed Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
260 Blue Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
261 Scarlet-breasted Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
262 Green Honeycreeper Rio Silanche–general area
263 Scarlet-browed Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
264 Guira Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
265 Blue-backed Conebill Reserva Yanacocha
266 Glossy Flowerpiercer Reserva Yanacocha
267 Black Flowerpiercer Reserva Yanacocha
268 Masked Flowerpiercer Old Tandayapa Road
269 Plumbeous Sierra-Finch Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
270 Gray-hooded Bush Tanager Guango Lodge
271 Blue-black Grassquit Rio Silanche–general area
272 Variable Seedeater Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
273 Black-and-white Seedeater Rio Silanche–general area
274 Yellow-bellied Seedeater Rio Silanche–general area
275 Plain-colored Seedeater Road from San Jorge Ecolodge to Yanacocha Reserve
276 Bananaquit Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
277 Buff-throated Saltator Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
278 Black-winged Saltator Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge

Velvet-purple Coronet
Velvet-purple Coronet

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.

Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, September 23rd-24th

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Estero Llano Grande SP, September 23rd 2017.

It’s possible to pack quite a lot into a weekend when you put your mind to it. Late Friday afternoon I drove from Houston to Rockport to meet my old pal Jason Loghry, who I had not seen since I lived in South Korea in 2009-11. After a few hours sleep we headed to Laredo, on the Mexican border. We were at the Max A Mandel golf course by first light on Saturday.

Red-billed Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon, Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd. One of only a handful of US locations for this tropical species, whose range seemingly extends just a few hundred yards into the country along the Texas/Mexico border.

I’ve never birded by golf cart before and it was fun, and after a bit of searching we found our target birds Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater, while trying to avoid getting in the way of Mexican gangsters (or so it seemed) who were playing a golf tournament.

Birding by golf cart
Birding by golf cart …. a novel experience!

We also had an interesting bird here that appeared to be a very early Brewer’s Blackbird, a species that does not usually show up in Texas until much later in the fall. However, something about the bird was not quite “right” and after review of the photos (and consultation with local expert Mary Gustafson) we concluded that it was a Great-tailed Grackle that had not yet grown its long tail back after its molt. Apart from the bill being a little chunkier than normal for a Brewer’s Blackbird, it resembled one extremely closely:

Brewers Blackbird3
Great-tailed Grackle (with a Killdeer in the foreground), Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd 2017.

Later, we followed the course of the Rio Grande southwards, stopping in at a gorgeous and extremely hot Salineño, where the shade temperature peaked at 107 degrees F (41 degrees C) at 3.00pm. This site yielded distant views of Ringed Kingfisher, several Hooded and lots of stunning Baltimore Orioles, and a scattering of migrants including Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Rio Grande at Salineno
Rio Grande at Salineno, September 23rd 2017. A brutally hot day for late September.

We continued south and by late afternoon we were at Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the best nature reserves in Texas, where we stayed until dark. It was Jason’s first visit to this wonderful reserve and as usual there was an excellent range of species to be seen including the ever-popular stake-outs at their usual spots here – Common Pauraque and Eastern Screech-Owl.

Estero Llano Grande
Late afternoon in paradise …. the Estero Llano Grande State Park, September 23rd 2017.

After dinner, we drove out into the boonies and set up camp for the night. By pure chance we ended up camping beside a nature reserve, the Sal de Rey. Eastern Screech-Owls and a Great Horned Owl were calling nearby during the night, and at dawn on Sunday a flock of Lesser Nighthawks hawked insects overhead. Two Royal Terns flew over, very rare inland, and we easily found our target Cassin’s Sparrow (and a photogenic Groove-billed Ani) in this area.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani near the Sal de Rey, September 24th 2017.

While it was still early, we drove for 45 minutes towards the coast to a known Botteri’s Sparrow site. It is getting a bit late in the year for these summer visitors, but when we heard one calling briefly, we knew they must still be around. Sure enough, eventually a male started singing, and after much persistence we both managed some good (albeit brief) views of this most skulking of sparrows. It was beginning to get hot and by lunchtime we were on the road back north.

1,000 miles driven, c.110 bird species seen including 7 year ticks, bringing my 2017 Texas year list to 381, just 19 away from my target of 400. A great weekend and wonderful to catch up with my old friend.

Lifer: Botteri’s Sparrow (total 2,228).
USA ticks: Red-billed Pigeon, White-collared Seedeater (total 437).
2017 Texas year ticks: Lesser Nighthawk, Gray Hawk, Ringed Kingfisher, Cassin’s Sparrow (total 381).

Swainsons Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk at the Max A Mandel golf course, September 23rd 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painted Bunting
Female Painted Bunting – a subtly attractive bird without the over-the-top gaudiness of the male. For some reason, male Painted Buntings are allergic to my camera and despite plenty of close views at South Llano SP, none of my shots came out any good at all.

Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow. This species is not found at all in East Texas, although it is very common in arid scrublands further west.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis Mountains
Davis Mountains scenery, May 30th 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

IMG_2618
View from the observation tower at Sheldon Lake – an alligator-infested wilderness less than 15 miles from downtown Houston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2617
Jenna and her new binoculars – but no sign of a Greater Roadrunner despite the signs!

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

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

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

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

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