Spring 2019 at Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Texas Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Month by month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wood Stork
Wood Stork at Anahuac NWR in August 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Non-birding” in Mexico ….

Aztec Parakeet
Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet. This bird flew in and landed right next to me while I was at the top of the Muyil viewing tower.

Living in Houston, it is just a hop skip and a jump to some excellent birding spots in Mexico. In fact, it can be quicker to get to the Yucatan on a super-cheap flight than driving to many parts of Texas. I recently took a short non-birding break to Tulum, on the coast about 75 minutes south of Cancun Airport. I say “non-birding”, but any birder will tell you that there is no such thing as a non-birding vacation!

Yucatan Jay
Yucatan Jay. Endemic to the Yucatan region of Mexico and, like most jays, a very cool-looking bird. It was common at Muyil, often encountered in large, noisy flocks.

My wife Jenna and I flew out of Hobby Airport in Houston on a direct Southwest flight to Cancun, and I picked up a pre-booked rental car from Enterprise on arrival. This company is not the cheapest option, but there are numerous banana skins, scams and hassles associated with car rental in Mexico, so I was happy to pay a little extra to be with a reputable and well-reviewed company. As it turned out, Enterprise’s service was exemplary from start to finish with no nasty surprises whatsoever. Less than seven hours after leaving our house, we were on a white sand beach under swaying palms, eyeing the Caribbean Sea from our beachfront casita, and not another soul in sight. Paradise indeed!

No stretch of paradise can possibly be complete without some good birds, and it wasn’t long before I had ticked off the local race of Golden-fronted Woodpecker (“Velasquez’s Woodpecker”) which might be good for a split one day. Its smaller, daintier-billed counterpart, the endemic Yucatan Woodpecker, was also encountered on several occasions during our 6-night stay.

Velasquezs Woodpecker
Golden-fronted (Velasquez’s) Woodpecker. A very common bird everywhere in Quintana Roo.

My birding was more or less restricted to the first few hours of daylight each day, as I had many other obligations. This turned out quite well as, in common with many parts of the tropics, birding started fast and furious at sunrise before going almost dead after 10.00am with hardly a bird to be seen or heard.

I settled on the Mayan ruins at Muyil for my main birding destination, seeing as it was just a 30-minute drive from our accommodation, and from recent eBird reports appeared to be by far the richest site in terms of species diversity within easy reach. And so it proved – three early mornings at the site produced 84 species. My one qualm with Muyil is that this archaeological site is gated and locked until 8.00am (or even later, because the arriving staff were never punctual), which is very frustrating as it is broad daylight by 7.00am at this time of the year, and the first hour of the day is without a doubt the best time to be birding.

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole at Muyil, one of five Oriole species seen at this site.

Fortunately, directly across the main road from the Muyil ruins entrance is a nice area of secondary growth bisected by several quiet residential roads, which allowed for some pretty decent birding before the “main event” at 8.00am when the Muyil gates opened.

Muyil itself consists of several ruined and picturesque Mayan structures set amid a parkland landscape, with denser primary forest beyond. At the back of the site, a trail leads through primary forest to a boardwalk, from which wet mangrove forest can be observed. The boardwalk leads to a fine viewing tower with panoramic views across large tracts of old-growth forest, and eventually a beach on a lagoon. It has all the habitat variety and ingredients for an excellent morning’s birding, and so it proved, even on the one day when weather conditions were far from ideal.

Russet-naped Wood Rail
Russet-naped Wood-Rail on the Muyil boardwalk – quite a stunner, as well as being a surprisingly large and lanky bird when seen at close range like this!

Muyil is easily reached from Tulum, simply follow the main road south towards Chetumal for about 20 minutes, until the village of Muyil – the entrance to the ruins is on the left. I imagine it would be an easy trip by bus or “collectivo” minivan for any Tulum-based birders without their own transport. Two fees are payable: 45 pesos (about $2.50) to gain access to the ruins, and a further 50 pesos for the boardwalk and tower.

We stayed on Soliman Bay, to the north of Tulum, which was productive in its own right, with mangroves, scrub and shoreline producing several interesting birds that were absent from Muyil, such as Mangrove Vireo and Black Catbird.

The obligatory one-day trip to the world-famous Chichen Itza yielded large numbers of tourists and not many interesting birds, with the notable exception of a pair of Bat Falcons around the temples and ruins.

Pale-billed Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker at Muyil.

Complete list of birds seen in Quintana Roo, Mexico, October 3rd-9th. Personal lifers are in bold:

Plain Chachalaca
Rock Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Ruddy Quail-Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Squirrel Cuckoo
Vaux’s Swift
White-bellied Emerald
Cinnamon Hummingbird
Russet-naped Wood-Rail
Black-necked Stilt
Black-bellied Plover
Wilson’s Plover
Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Willet
Laughing Gull
Royal Tern
Magnificent Frigatebird
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Brown Pelican
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Osprey
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Black-headed Trogon
Lesson’s Motmot
Ringed Kingfisher
Collared Aracari
Keel-billed Toucan
Yucatan Woodpecker
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Collared Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
Peregrine
Olive-throated Parakeet
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper
Greenish Elaenia
Eye-ringed Flatbill
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Tropical Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Couch’s Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Rose-throated Becard
Lesser Greenlet
Mangrove Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo
Yucatan Vireo
Brown Jay
Green Jay
Yucatan Jay
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow
Clay-colored Thrush
Black Catbird
Tropical Mockingbird
Scrub Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Olive Sparrow
Yellow-billed Cacique
Black-cowled Oriole
Hooded Oriole
Yellow-backed Oriole
Orange Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Prothonotary Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Red-throated Ant-Tanager
Gray-headed Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Black-headed Saltator
Grayish Saltator

Total species seen: 114
North America life list: 857

Tropical Pewee
Tropical Pewee at Soliman Bay.
Lineated Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker at Muyil.
Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole trying to hide in the foliage at Chichen Itza.

Spring at Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Tanager
Male Summer Tanager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole in the tree above the cabin.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Chasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franklin’s Gull, October 22nd

Franklins Gull2
First-winter Franklin’s Gull, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

Today I was on the hunt for Franklin’s Gull, a regular migrant through Texas but not an easy bird to find on the Upper Texas Coast. In spring, it seems to be a case of being in the right place at the right time, as migrants pass through quickly on their way north. On their return journey in late fall, individuals or groups may linger on the coast with flocks of Laughing Gulls.

Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret, San Luis Pass, Galveston, October 22nd 2017.

The San Luis Pass at the far south-western end of Galveston Island has regular records of this species in October and November, so this seemed to be an excellent place to start looking. I approached from the Brazoria County end, and on the way up the Blue Water Highway I enjoyed a fiery sunrise. The weather was sultry, humid, and completely still, with temperatures already hovering around 80F (27C) by 8.00am – warm for the time of year.

Sunrise2
Sunrise on the Blue Water Highway, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

A quick stop at the Kelly Hamby nature trail proved worthwhile, with two Palm Warblers seen well (and one bird photographed). This is an uncommon migrant and scarce winter visitor in Texas. I was getting absolutely ravaged by mosquitoes at this location, so after 15 minutes it was a relief to get back into the car.

Palm Warbler1
Record shot of one of two Palm Warblers at the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

I drove a short distance to the San Luis Pass County Park, still on the Brazoria side of the pass. This was a really productive site, with an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull loafing among the Laughing Gulls, and plenty of birds to look at including a lone winter-plumaged Red Knot, several American Oystercatchers, and a Long-billed Curlew. Curiously, all the shorebirds allowed a very close approach – seemingly they are well used to the large numbers of fishermen and other members of the general public also using this site.

Lesser Black Backed Gull
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (with Laughing Gulls), San Luis County Park, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017. An increasing visitor to coastal Texas.
Red Knot2
Red Knot, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This can often be a hard bird to find in coastal Texas, probably reflecting its sharp global decline.
American Oystercatcher
American Oystercatchers, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. Present in small numbers all along the upper Texas coast, but never common.
Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. This bird was unusually confiding and allowed a close approach.

I happened to know that just 50 miles to the north, a powerful weather front with high winds and heavy rain was pounding Houston. It was exciting to watch the gradual approach of heavy, pendulous black clouds from the north. Even though I was expecting it, the front’s arrival was very dramatic. One moment it was completely calm, and the next, gusting winds lifted the sand off the beach and whipped up white-tipped waves on the sea. The temperature plunged from 81F (27C) to 64F (18C) in the space of just a few minutes, and lightning started crashing down to accompany the horizontal driving rain.

Galveston Bridge
Arrival of the weather front at San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Birding was out of the question while the weather front was doing its thing, so I drove across the bridge onto Galveston and waited it out. As soon as the rain stopped, I wandered around Lafitte’s Cove for an hour, where there was no evidence whatsoever of a front-induced fallout of late migrants. I hadn’t forgotten my Franklin’s Gull quest, so I retraced my steps back to San Luis Pass, this time on the Galveston side of the bridge. There was just one modestly-sized flock of perhaps 40 Laughing Gulls here, and a quick scan did not reveal my target bird. Still, the sun was shining now and conditions were very pleasant, so I lingered in this spot for a while to see if anything turned up. Just before leaving, I had another very careful look through the gull flock, and suddenly I found what I had been looking for – a lone first-winter Franklin’s Gull.

Franklins Gull1
First-winter Franklin’s Gull, with adult winter Forster’s Tern in the foreground, and several Laughing Gulls, illustrating the size difference, San Luis Pass, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

This was only my second-ever Franklin’s – my first being one at Cheddar Reservoir in England more than 17 years ago – and I have to admit that it didn’t leap out at me the way I thought it would. Sure, it seemed noticeably smaller and “cuter” than the surrounding Laughing Gulls, but this distinction was subtle rather than obvious. With prolonged observation in excellent light, I gradually familiarized myself with the bird and the differences began to stand out more, things like the extensive dark hood, swollen white eyelids, shorter legs, and daintier and less drooping bill than Laughing Gull.

Black-bellied Plover
Black-bellied Plover, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

With my target bird clinched and photographed, I returned to Brazoria County across the bridge, and as I passed Freeport I spotted a large flock of perhaps 350 Laughing Gulls loafing in a gravel parking lot. Stopping for a quick look revealed at least 4 adult Franklin’s Gulls among their number, so in the end I was able to get Franklin’s Gull at two locations in two different counties – a most satisfying way to pick up a personal Texas first!

Franklins Gull3
Adult Franklin’s Gull near Freeport, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

Finally, I decided to drop in at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, to see if any birds were active after the passing of the front, now that the weather was once again clear and sunny with much lower humidity than early this morning. I had never visited this site before – it is known to be a hotspot in the spring, and it is certainly prepared with the birds in mind, with several blinds and water holes and a nice variety of trees and bushes for tired migrants in a very compact area.

Beach at San Luis
The beach at San Luis, Brazoria County, ahead of the dramatic weather front on October 22nd 2017.

I spent an hour here and birds were very flighty and elusive, but I eventually racked up a few migrants including an Eastern Wood-Pewee, an American Redstart and a Blue Grosbeak. I’ll be sure to come back to Quintana in spring – like most wooded sites along the Upper Texas Coast it should be a good bet for a large variety of warblers, vireos, tanagers etc.

2017 Texas Year List: 383

Black-crowned Night Heron
Adult Black-crowned Night Heron, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, Texas, October 22nd 2017.

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.

MacGillivray’s Warbler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallout at Sabine Woods, April 30th 2017

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager (male), Sabine Woods, April 30th 2017

For the second Sunday in a row, the weather conspired to produce a spectacular day for migrants on the Upper Texas coast. All week, the forecast had been promising that a front would cross the area in the early hours of Sunday morning, replacing Saturday’s strong, hot southerly winds with cool northerlies and a band of rain. For once, the forecast was more or less correct. Not much rain materialized but it didn’t matter: the cool winds stopped the migrants in their tracks and we had the best day of the season bar none.

Bay-breasted Warbler2
Bay-breasted Warbler (male), Sabine Woods, April 30th 2017

Right from the start, the woods were dripping with migrants, with Tennessee Warblers everywhere and many other warbler species mixed in. Later, the composition of the warbler flocks shifted, with higher numbers of Black-throated Green Warblers around. In total, 24 warbler species were seen in the woods during the day, of which I connected with 21 during my 9-hour visit. Very approximate numbers are listed below (the birds in brackets were the ones I missed!):

Black-throated Green Warbler 60
Tennessee Warbler 40
Magnolia Warbler 20
Chestnut-sided Warbler 15
American Redstart 15
Black-and-White Warbler 12
Ovenbird 11
Bay-breasted Warbler 10
Blackburnian Warbler 10
Yellow Warbler 3
Canada Warbler 3
Northern Parula 3
Golden-winged Warbler 3
Blue-winged Warbler 2
Common Yellowthroat 2
Northern Waterthrush 2
Hooded Warbler 2
Worm-eating Warbler 1
Swainson’s Warbler 1
Kentucky Warbler 1
Cerulean Warbler 1
(Blackpoll Warbler 1)
(Mourning Warbler 1)
(Nashville Warbler 1)

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler (male), Sabine Woods, April 30th 2017 – one of about 20 present

It proved extremely hard to get good photos of these very active birds, which showed few signs of being exhausted after their long trans-Gulf journey. I would have particularly loved a decent photo of the male Cerulean Warbler, which all spring has been my number one target warbler – I was lucky to get one at all as April 30th is a late date for this species. The best pic I could manage was this mostly-obscured effort, but at least the shot is kind-of in focus and the beautiful blue color of the upperparts can be seen:

Cerulean Warbler
Cerulean Warbler (male), Sabine Woods, April 30th 2017

Today wasn’t just about the warblers. The woods were carpeted with Gray Catbirds, the trees teemed with Tanagers (Scarlet and Summer), the fields out back bounced with Buntings (Painted and Indigo), while six Vireo species – White-eyed, Red-eyed, Blue-headed, Yellow-throated, Warbling, and Philadelphia – was an excellent day count.

Canada Warbler
Canada Warbler, Sabine Woods, April 30th 2017

These last two Sundays have compensated in spectacular style for the dire start to the spring season. With about two weeks left of migration, the species variety will start to tail off, but we still haven’t seen many of the late-arriving birds hit Texas yet. Fingers crossed for another weather front or two to hit the coast before mid-May …..

World Life List: 2,182
Texas Life List: 335
Texas 2017 Year List: 312

Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler (male), Sabine Woods, April 30th 2017. My favorite warbler of them all, and despite many prolonged close-range sightings of them today, this photo was the best I could manage – they never stay still for more than a split second!

Peak Migration!

Cape May Warbler
Male Cape May Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

A common sight this spring at migrant hotspots has been birders with their heads bowed, muttering to themselves about how few birds are around compared to usual. I don’t feel exactly the same, as this is my first spring in Texas, and I’ve been steadily adding lifers to my list – but I can understand the frustrations of those who have been here longer than me. It’s true that some sites have been very quiet indeed, while others have had some decent species variety but nothing like the numbers one would expect here in a “good” year.

Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak (and bathing male Orchard Oriole), Sabine Woods, April 16th 2017.

However, it definitely hasn’t all been “doom and gloom”. After three visits, Sabine Woods in Jefferson County in east Texas is already shaping up to be one of my all-time favorite birding destinations. It has all the magic ingredients: a compact, mature woodland in a coastal location surrounded by mile upon mile of coastal marshes. It would be hard to imagine a better-placed migrant trap. Additionally, it has been set up with both birds and birders in mind, with several drips providing fresh water for tired trans-Gulf migrants to drink and bathe, and a network of paths from which all corners of the reserve can be easily viewed.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Sabine Woods, April 16th 2017.

A local birder at Sabine Woods mentioned to me that April is either “good” or “great” at the site, and while I have not yet experienced a classic fallout there, I encountered an excellent range of species on April 16th and 22nd: Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Veery, Grey-cheeked, Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Prothonotary, Swainson’s, Tennessee, Hooded, Cape May, and Yellow Warblers, Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes, and of course the crowd-pleasing colorful ones – Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Indigo and Painted Buntings.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker, White Memorial Park, April 16th 2017.

From Houston, a visit to Sabine Woods can easily be combined in a day trip with a stop at Anahuac NWR in neighboring Chambers county, and this is exactly what I did on April 16th. I started the day in search of an outstandingly attractive lifer, the stunning Red-headed Woodpecker, at a reliable stakeout just off i-10 at the White Memorial Park. This species is usually found at the northern edge of the park, where several dead trees provide nesting holes, and this is where I encountered three individuals engaged in some sort of territorial dispute.

Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule, Anahuac NWR, April 16th 2017.

A few miles down the road towards Anahuac, two Swainson’s Hawks provided a nice fly-by but my photos turned out a lot less impressive than the close views I obtained. I stopped to check the flooded field at the entrance of the Anahuac reserve for shorebirds – I had no intention of going onto the reserve proper today, but when another birder mentioned he had seen no fewer than 5 Least Bitterns on the Shoveler Pond Loop, I changed my mind. However, the only bittern I saw was a flyover American Bittern, although the trip was certainly not a waste of time as several gorgeous Purple Gallinules showed well, and there was the usual assortment of attractive and easily-viewed birds showing from the road around the pond.

Merlin
Merlin, Anahuac NWR Skillern Tract, April 16th 2017.

Anahuac delivered again the following weekend, with a lovely assortment of shorebirds on the reserve entrance field including 2 Hudsonian Godwits, and at least 4 White-rumped Sandpipers. With Wilson’s Phalarope ticked off the following day on Galveston Island, I am gradually getting all those Nearctic wader species safely under the belt that I had only previously seen as vagrants in the UK (or in the case of the Hudsonian Godwit, New Zealand!). Of the regular Texas shorebirds, I now only need Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, both of which I have already seen in the UK, and American Woodcock for my life list, which in my view has only marginal shorebird status!

Dickcissel
Dickcissel, Anahuac NWR, April 22nd 2017.

There was also a Dickcissel on overhead wires along the Anahuac entrance road (lifer), and finally a King Rail obliged me with brief views on the Shoveler Pond loop – which I figured was about time after at least 8 visits to the site.

Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

The day that everyone had been waiting for finally happened on April 23rd, statistically the “peak” of spring migration in Texas. A cold front had passed through late afternoon on Saturday 22nd  – unfortunately too late to bring anything new to the expectant birders at Sabine Woods. However, by Sunday morning the air was distinctly cool and a strong north wind was blowing, stopping migrants in their tracks and heralding a marked change from the sweltering humidity and southerly airflow of the day before.

Scarlet Tanager
Male Scarlet Tanager. Seen at several sites during the period – a real crowd-pleaser!

I literally flipped a coin for my decision over whether to return to Sabine Woods, or head to Lafitte’s Cove in Galveston. Lafitte’s Cove won, first because it’s a lot closer to Houston than Sabine Woods, and second, because a proper rarity had been reported from there on Saturday evening, a Black-whiskered Vireo.

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

I was happy with my decision as soon as I arrived, with numbers of singing Baltimore Orioles, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings all showing well inside the first ten minutes. Things went on from there, with some spectacularly enjoyable birding throughout the day in cool, sunny weather conditions. Not only were the birds great, but the birders were too …. it turned into a thoroughly social occasion, with a rotating cast of at least 40-50 birders in this small wood throughout the day.

Wilson's Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalarope, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

During my 8.5 hour visit, my personal avian highlights included: Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, Wilson’s Phalarope, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed, Warbling, and Black-whiskered Vireos, Grey-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes, Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Prothonotary, Tennessee, Cape May, Magnolia, Yellow, Prairie and Blackpoll Warblers, American Redstart and Northern Parula.

Blackpoll Warbler
Male Blackpoll Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, April 23rd 2017.

I was especially pleased to get reasonably good photos of both Cape May and Prairie Warblers, two of the rarer migrants here today. It took the vagrant Black-whiskered Vireo more than six hours to make a proper appearance, but from 2.00pm onwards this distinctly underwhelming bird – somewhat resembling a dull Red-eyed Vireo overall – was showing more or less constantly in bushes near the central water drip, although it was maddeningly difficult to get photos of, and in the end I had no useful images of this bird at all.

Swainson's Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush. This individual was photographed at Edith L Moore Nature Reserve in Houston, but I saw many others during the period at Sabine Woods and Lafitte’s Cove.

Texas 2017 Year List: 297

Texas Life List: 323

World Life List: 2,175

Cape May Warbler2
A second male Cape May Warbler, also present at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, on April 23rd 2017.