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.
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.
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.
Other birds seen at close quarters from the blind included Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted Bunting, and Black-throated, Field, and Lark Sparrows.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
World Life List: 2,212 USA Life List: 409 2017 Texas Year List: 357
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.
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!):
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The small-but-charming Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary on Memorial Drive is not only a very convenient birding location (being just 5 minutes from home and 2 minutes from work!), but is also starting to hint at its potential as a stellar migrant hotspot during spring migration.
The last couple of weeks at the site have produced a scattering of early migrants including Northern Waterthrush (self-found on March 26th and perhaps Harris County’s earliest spring record), Prothonotary, Hooded, Worm-eating, Black-and-White and Wilson’s Warblers, Northern Parula and Eastern Whip-Poor-Will.
Southerly winds enticing migrants to take off from the Yucatan, coupled with a belt of heavy rain forecast to hit the Gulf Coast late morning, are a potentially excellent combination for a “fallout” of migrants. Conditions looked promising on March 25th – conveniently a Saturday – so I took a trip out to Sabine Woods, on the coast near the Louisiana border. Some would say this is the Texas Gulf Coast’s most exciting migrant hotspot – it is indeed a perfect combination of a mature, isolated forest of manageable size, located within half a mile of the coast.
The forecast rain materialized late morning, bringing with it a nice range of early migrants including 10 warbler species (Black-throated Green, Hooded, Palm [both races], Yellow-throated, Black-and-White, Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, Northern Parula, and both Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes) – and late in the day both Swainson’s and Worm-eating Warblers were found too although I didn’t see them.
Overall, though, we are still a few weeks too early for the majority of spring migrants. Had this weather combination occurred around April 20th, it could have been an epic rather than merely a good day.
Anahuac NWR – an hour’s drive back towards Houston – rarely disappoints, and on the same day I was able to add both (Hudsonian) Whimbrel and Semipalmated Sandpiper to my USA list, as well as my first Eastern Kingbirds of the spring.
Meanwhile, on my “other” local patch on the outskirts of New Braunfels, Comal County, my list is steadily growing as spring birds arrive, with both Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler back on territory by late March, as well as an army of Black-chinned Hummingbirds constantly chasing each other around the hummingbird feeder.
A good passage migrant on March 31st was a Black-throated Green Warbler, which stayed in the treetops and didn’t allow a clear view, however with patience I did manage a record photo:
Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Lone Star State’s only endemic breeding bird, returns in early March to the forests of central Texas. With a tiny world range confined to the juniper-oak woodlands north of San Antonio and west of Austin, and being highly attractive and colorful to boot, it is a highly desirable target species for any resident or visiting birder in Texas.
Fortunately, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is easily found – even common – in suitable habitat within its breeding range. However, it is officially classified as “Endangered” due to continuing loss of habitat in Texas, as well as threats to tropical forests on its wintering grounds in Central America.
The first birds arrive back earlier than most wood-warblers, usually in early March (this year the first records were on March 5th). By the time I visited a classic site, Friedrich Wilderness Park, on March 18th, the warblers were back in force. In a relatively small area of the park we (Martin Reid, Sheridan Coffey, Christian Fernandez and I) counted at least 7 singing males. Hearing them is easy, but getting good views is far more difficult, and it took at least an hour before I was able to get photos of a male singing from the top of a tall tree.
With my lifer target safely under the belt, we rounded out the morning touring a number of local birding spots on the hunt for early migrants, with the highlights being American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, and best of all several very pale “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawks:
It’s mid-March and we are right on the cusp of Texas’s most exciting time for birds – spring migration – so this weekend I decided I had better get down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley to grab some nice tropical year ticks (and perhaps a lifer or two) before I get too distracted by migration here on my doorstep in Houston.
It’s a long way to “the Valley”, about a 5.5 hour drive each way, and to avoid putting lots of miles on the elderly Jaguar I am currently borrowing, I instead opted to rent an economy car. With more than 900 miles driven over the three days, the money I saved in gas compared to running the Jaguar almost equaled the cost of renting a compact Hyundai. And as every birder knows, the great thing with a rental car is that you can rack up thousands of miles driving it non-stop for days, fill it with mud, take it down potholed unmade roads and onto beaches, then hand it back and let Enterprise take care of the wear and tear. It wouldn’t surprise me if before long some rental companies wised up and inserted a “no birding” clause in their rental agreement.
An essential stop on every birding itinerary to south Texas is the Falfurrias Rest Area, a busy toilet block and picnic area sandwiched in between the north- and southbound carriageways of highway 281. Despite the unpromising-sounding description, the numerous mature trees here are alluring for migrants, and there is even a short nature trail through some very birdy-looking woods draped in Spanish moss. For some reason – perhaps because a lot of birders stop here – this place has a reputation for turning up lots of rarities.
My 30-minute stop here yielded a ton of great birds, including a lifer Yellow-throated Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and the first signs of the tropical south: several noisy and colorful Green Jays.
Once down in the LRGV, the cloudy morning gave way to a sunny and sweltering hot afternoon with high humidity and barely a breath of wind. I spent the whole afternoon at Estero Llano Grande State Park, mopping up year ticks at their usual stakeouts, including this Eastern (McCall’s) Screech Owl ……
….. and this Common Pauraque, which most likely holds the honor of being Texas’s most photographed bird:
However, I unfortunately managed to miss the long-staying male Rose-throated Becard by less than half a minute. It also proved harder to connect with hummingbirds here than it did last winter, but I did eventually find both Buff-bellied Hummingbird and this Black-chinned Hummingbird in the Tropical Zone:
By dawn on Sunday morning the weather had changed dramatically, as is common in these parts, with temperatures dropping from the mid-80s to the mid-60s and a chilly wind blowing. I turned up at Santa Ana NWR and was immediately cheered by the news that no fewer than 8 Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets had been seen in various locations in the park yesterday, and I was directed to an area where a pair was in the process of nest-building close to the trail. Not only could I hear a male Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet singing there when I arrived, but another one was answering it not too far away. Only a matter of time before I saw one, right? Wrong. The birds stayed well hidden in the breezy conditions, and before long stopped singing entirely, making them impossible to locate.
Compensation of sorts came in the form of several wonderful Altamira Orioles, an LRGV specialty which is found nowhere else in the US:
…. and Olive Sparrows, which are abundant at this site, and once I became familiar with their call I began finding them everywhere, but they stubbornly refused to be photographed.
It was difficult to decide what to do with the afternoon. I opted for the Yturria Tract, an arid area of thorn scrub, which at lunchtime on a cool and breezy day was a gamble, but I got lucky and saw some good birds including my main target Black-throated Sparrow (seemingly common here), White-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.
I rounded out the afternoon at Anzalduas Park, where I had no specific targets in mind and hoped to enjoy some “general birding”. My wish came true, as the park was bursting at the seams with common birds, including one amazing flock which contained perhaps 35 individual birds of 14 different species.
It was good to compare Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds, both on voice and plumage:
Border police booted me out of the park at 5.00pm sharp – Anzalduas Park is on the banks of the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico, and there is a huge police and border security presence in the area. I decided to start the long drive north in order to be ready for a dawn start on the coast in the Mustang Island/Port Aransas area.
The day started with two fine Wilson’s Plovers, a shorebird I have seen only once before, in Honduras, then a flock of nine Pectoral Sandpipers – another USA tick, and another one struck off from the long list of Nearctic shorebirds I have seen as vagrants in the UK but not yet in their normal range in the Americas.
Two fantastic migrant hotspots on Mustang Island – “The Willows” and “Holt Paradise Pond” really raised the anticipation levels for the upcoming spring migration. Between the two sites, I saw two Louisiana Waterthrush, a total of 5 Black-and-White Warblers, Yellow-throated Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and Gray Catbird – a mere taster of the kind of range and quality that will be at these sites in a month’s time, I suspect!
I had to leave around lunchtime to make sure I got back to Houston in time for the rental car return deadline, but there was just enough time to grab Sandwich Tern for the year at the Port Aransas jetty, and this portrait of a Long-billed Dowitcher at the Port Aransas Nature Preserve:
With the clocks having gone forward this weekend, lighter evenings present opportunities for after-work birding. On Wednesday, a late afternoon visit to the Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, less than a mile from where I am currently living, turned up my 7th Black-and White Warbler of the last seven days (and 8th of the year overall), a fine male Wilson’s Warbler, and a long overdue Northern Flicker for the year list.
I’ll be in a warbler frame of mind in San Antonio this weekend, with Golden-cheeked Warbler top of the agenda – watch this space!
Total species count, LRGV and coastal Texas, March 11th-13th: 136
Lifers this weekend: Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Sparrow (total 2,155).
Hutton’s Vireo is a bird that flies under the radar. It is unremarkable looking – resembling a super-chunky, thick-billed Ruby-crowned Kinglet – and it attracts very little attention to itself. In central Texas its status is described as “scarce and local, but increasing”, with a patchy distribution restricted to the Edwards Plateau. In the San Antonio area, despite numerous well-scattered records, there doesn’t seem to be any particular location where sightings can be guaranteed.
In other words, it’s not exactly the kind of bird that gets me enthusiastically leaping out of bed at 5.00am on a Sunday, hence why I haven’t gone out actively looking for one until now. But with my pipeline of potential lifers rapidly drying up, and the refreshing onslaught of spring arrivals still a few weeks away, I figured it was about time I tried to score. A quick eBird search soon revealed a few likely spots on the northern outskirts of San Antonio, including a location where my friend Sheridan Coffey had seen one just the day before.
My lack of urgency to see this bird is reflected in the fact that I didn’t even start the day at my selected Hutton’s Vireo site, instead choosing to mooch around nearby Stone Oak Park in the mist and drizzle of a mild, damp Sunday morning. I did have an ulterior motive here, with Rufous-crowned Sparrow (another unremarkable life bird) top of the agenda, plus Canyon Wren and the long-staying Say’s Phoebe, all of which made it onto my list with the minimum of fuss.
The drizzle had stopped by the time I got to Panther Springs Park, allowing at least some record shots of the single Hutton’s Vireo I found there, which I first located by song. This bird allowed a close approach but was constantly backlit against the sky or obscured by twigs. The photos below show a comparison with the superficially similar Ruby-crowned Kinglet:
The day before had been a washout, with constant rain all day. I took my wife’s cousin’s kids (triplets!) on an early-morning jaunt to Riverview Park in Seguin, haunt of the long-staying White-breasted Nuthatch. It was a lot of fun but – perhaps predictably with steady rain falling and three ebullient 10-year-olds in tow – not productive for the nuthatch. The kids really enjoyed the birding, though, with the highlight for them being three woodpecker species in the same pecan tree (Ladder-backed, Downy, and Golden-fronted), and for me the Green Kingfisher that flashed past us twice when we were clowning around trying to cross a small stream.
I spent Saturday afternoon trying to take photos of the birds coming to the yard feeders in New Braunfels, and getting almost no usable shots in the very poor light conditions. My best effort was this Chipping Sparrow:
Anyway, it was a satisfying weekend all told, especially considering the limitations imposed by the weather. In a few days I’ll be off on a long weekend down to the lower Rio Grande Valley, which should yield a bunch of year ticks, and hopefully the first stirrings of Texas’s all-important spring migration!
My seemingly eternal focus on sparrows continues, but in stark contrast to last weekend’s failures, this time I succeeded in seeing all four of my target species. This is no mean feat considering that they are all notorious skulkers, and their status is at best uncommon in Texas in winter.
The rarest of them all is Henslow’s Sparrow. This subtly attractive denizen of grasslands probably overwinters annually in Texas in small numbers. However, until this winter it has been a serious “blocker” for many leading Texas listers, with just a scattering of records annually and no reliable locations. That changed early in February when several individuals were discovered at Big Thicket National Park in East Texas, which have been showing intermittently to visiting birders ever since.
Finding these birds proved to be far from straightforward. They feed singly in long grass, and flush at close range, usually flying directly to the nearest patch of Yaupon Holly, into which they dive and completely disappear. For nearly three hours I tramped around in the grass, flushing three “probable” Henslow’s Sparrows, none of which gave me more than the briefest of flight views – enough to raise my suspicions but unfortunately not clinch the identification, let alone provide an opportunity for photos.
I persevered, knowing from photographic evidence on eBird that they do occasionally perch up on a Yaupon Holly for a few moments before diving in. And finally one did just that. It happened to be a very well-marked bird, and in great light, so apart from the unavoidable branches between camera and bird (for this one virtually never poses fully in the open), I got great views as well as some half-decent photos.
Other bird life was disappointingly scarce, but several Sedge Wrens skulked around in the damp grassland, one of which posed briefly for a photo opportunity:
The previous day, I had arrived early at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Reserve, a short ferry ride across from Galveston. The two main enemies to birding on the mid-Texas coast in winter are wind and fog – and if it’s not windy then it is usually foggy. Neither weather phenomenon is very conducive to finding small birds (ie. rare sparrows) in coastal saltmarshes. Today, it was windy. Shorebirds were everywhere, including plenty of the endangered and irresistibly attractive Piping Plover, and also Semipalmated, Snowy, and Black-bellied Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlins and Sanderlings . A handful of Barn Swallows and a Purple Martin, early harbingers of spring, battled the wind as they headed north.
I didn’t rate my chances of finding any interesting small birds in the blustery conditions, but an area of saltmarsh grass adjoining a small beach seemed to be popular with Savannah Sparrows so I decided to take a closer look. After a while, I found a Horned Lark and some American Pipits, and then …. the briefest of views of two sparrows with orange faces, running on the ground, which briefly appeared at the edge of the grass before disappearing again.
I didn’t see these birds again for 15 minutes, until they suddenly popped up on some grass stems, showing quite well. Nelson’s Sparrows, for sure – but my luck deserted me with the camera, and I couldn’t get a single in-focus shot during the 10 seconds the birds were in view. Naturally, as soon as the sparrows dropped down into a partly obscured position, facing the wrong way, the camera decided to play ball.
The nearby 17th Street Jetty is always a good bet for big flocks of American Avocet, as well as other shorebirds, and plenty of weekending fishermen. The jetty – which is made of huge, flat-topped boulders – extends a long way into the Gulf, clipping the corner of some extensive areas of saltmarsh habitat.
Some serious schlepping over the boulders is required to get to the end of the jetty, and I was more than halfway out when I realized I had left my brand new iPhone in full view on my car seat. Cursing my stupidity, I turned around and headed back, only to flush a very interesting-looking small bird from among the boulders, which almost immediately gave itself up for crippling views – Seaside Sparrow! If I had remembered to bring my phone, I wouldn’t have had to turn around, and wouldn’t have seen the bird.
I spent the rest of Saturday at Anahuac NWR, which has to be one of the very best birding spots within easy reach of Houston. This site usually produces at least 60-70 species during a typical mid-winter visit. The best birds today included the long-staying Burrowing Owl, a Palm Warbler of the western race, the male Vermilion Flycatcher still present, and four Stilt Sandpipers with the Long-billed Dowitcher flock. It’s also a great place to get close to common birds, with the car-based birder having numerous opportunities for photography along the Shoveler Pond loop.
I stayed overnight in the “Crystal Meth Motel” in Beaumont, the cheapest night halt available in town. Next time, I will fork out the extra $20 for something halfway acceptable. However, I survived the night, and with the Henslow’s Sparrows safely under the belt (and photographed) at nearby Big Thicket NP by late Sunday morning, I decided to push the envelope and hit up a Bachman’s Sparrow spot about an hour to the north at Sam Rayburn reservoir.
Bachman’s Sparrow, along with Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, is a range-restricted specialist of south-eastern pine forests. However, unlike the woodpecker and nuthatch, it no longer occurs close to Houston – although it is apparently still quite common nearer the Louisiana border.
From my eBird research, one of the closest reliable sites is the entrance road to Ebenezer Park, close to the reservoir spillway. The woods were deathly quiet when I arrived, with hardly a bird to be seen. Wandering up and down the road eventually produced a few Chipping Sparrows and Pine Warblers, a Field Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, and two Brown-headed Nuthatches – expected fare for this kind of habitat. It became clear I would have to enter the forest for a chance of getting my target bird. Expectations were raised when a Bachman’s Sparrow gave a short burst of song, and finally I flushed one out of the understorey which perched up long enough to be identified, but unfortunately wasn’t obliging enough to allow itself to be photographed.
So all in all, a highly successful weekend. I’m running out of “new” winter birds to see within reach of Houston, so I feel a longer-haul trip to the Rio Grande Valley coming on – not to mention the fast-approaching spring migration which is of course legendary in this part of the world!
I set myself an ambitious target of 5 lifers from this weekend, but despite plenty of effort managed to see none of them at all. However, in between the numerous moments of frustration there was still lots to enjoy, notably the first field outing for my new camera. Last week, I finally took the plunge and invested a small amount of money in a used Canon SX50HS “superzoom”, which has been receiving glowing reports from birders since it came onto the market in 2012. My first weekend with it was somewhat experimental, but resulted in a few pleasing photos – and of course a lot of out-of-focus dross!
Saturday was one of those picture-perfect days that seem to be happening a lot during this non-winter we’ve been experiencing in Texas: crystal clear air, mostly blue skies with a little high cloud, and a cool start to the day but warming up to an afternoon high of 84F (29C).
By first light I was already at the edge of the Balcones Canyonlands reserve in the “hill country” outside Austin, with my target lifers in this area being Black-throated Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee – all of which are no doubt fairly common further west, but are at the far eastern edge of their range here. It seemed from my reading that these kinds of species prefer arid, rocky slopes and canyons, and my main problem – as often seems to be the case in Texas – was actually getting to this habitat in an area where so little of the land is accessible to the public.
Nonetheless, I had a most enjoyable start at the Doeskin Ranch, one spot to which the public have been granted access. I didn’t see any obvious habitat for my target birds, but a couple of hours here did produce 10 sparrow species within just a 300-yard radius of the parking lot (Grasshopper, Le Conte’s, Lark, Fox, Song, Lincoln’s, White-throated, Vesper, Field, and Savannah). I even managed record shots of both of the Ammodramus sparrow species on this list – surely it is a good omen to get these tricky skulkers on my “photographed” list on my very first morning with my new camera!
If getting the sparrows on camera is a good omen, the karma must be coming at a later date because my luck deserted me for the remainder of the weekend. Several more hours in different areas of the canyonlands turned up just two Dark-eyed Juncos, a flock of eight Lark Sparrows, and a pair of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays of note – and they wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of getting in front of my camera lens.
With the temperature rising but the winds still nice and light, I drove an hour east to try yet again for the elusive flock of McCown’s Longspurs near Granger Lake. Finding these birds is becoming something of an obsession. A flock of over 100 McCown’s Longspurs – plus another 100 unidentified longspurs, probably all McCown’s but conceivably also including Lapland and Chestnut-collared – had been seen the previous day along road 378, and with such good viewing conditions today I really did fancy my chances.
A distant flock of small birds disappointingly turned out to be American Pipits on closer inspection, but otherwise there was little of interest to be seen, with a faraway and very un-birdlike Coyote loping across a bare earth field being the highlight. Another birder gently informed me that I was probably a bit too hung up on these McCown’s Longspurs, and that I should consider quitting – but I reckon I have one more Granger Lake session in me before the winter is over. Satisfaction is doubled when one finally finds a bird one has looked for so hard.
Dip number 5 was perhaps even harder to take than my ongoing failure with the longspurs. I spent (wasted?) most of a perfectly decent Sunday hanging around in the woods beside a small creek in a San Antonio park, the favored location of the male Black-throated Blue Warbler which had been showing to all-comers literally every single day since the last time I dipped it here two weeks ago. But it seems it chose Saturday night to disappear, with no sightings since then. Whether it departed of its own volition or was murdered, we will never know …. although my suspicions were raised when this guy turned up at the exact spot favored by the warbler:
Around lunchtime I took a half-time break from Lions Park and headed to nearby Mitchell Lake for some light relief, which came in the form of lots of photographic opportunities for common birds around the visitor center:
It’s hard to know what to make of last weekend. I got some satisfying photos but all I know at this point is that I’m getting fed up with long drives “out west” and coming back with little in the way of new birds to show for it. So where to go on Saturday? The previous weekend yielded Palm Warbler and Clapper Rail in Galveston, so maybe I’ll stay relatively local. On the other hand, there is also a Henslow’s Sparrow to go for at Big Thicket National Park, towards the Louisiana border. I guess I will decide how I feel on Friday!
I’m finally getting the chance to update my blog, after what has been a very busy start to the birding year. With my wife Jenna leaving for India for three months on New Year’s Day, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. Should I start another year list? Considering I still had eight full days left in one of the best states for birding in the US, I decided the answer to that question had to be Yes.
I reckoned that seeing a minimum of 150 species before departing the USA on January 10th would be very achievable. In the event, I got a bit carried away and I was out in the field at every possibly opportunity between January 2nd-9th. By making sure I covered a wide variety of habitats, ranged over a large geographical area, and extensively used eBird to target known rarities, I amassed a total of 205 bird species in those eight days. That put me comfortably in first place among year-listing eBirders in Texas by January 10th, eight birds ahead of my closest rival. I was also briefly in the top 6 of all birders nationwide, although of course my ranking will swiftly fall now that I’ve left the United States with no likely prospect of a return for the rest of the year.
Here’s a day by day breakdown of where I went, and what I saw:
January 2nd: Having done virtually no birding on New Year’s Day, I kicked off my year in earnest on 2nd with a morning visit to Kleb Woods, in north-west Houston. The site speciality here is wintering Rufous Hummingbird, and it also offers a tantalising chance of other scarce species such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Dark-eyed Junco – however, the hummingbird was the only class A bird to show for me here today.
I followed up this gentle start with a few hours in the afternoon along Sharp Road, on nearby Katy Prairie, where my main target was Harris’s Sparrow, a range-restricted wintering bird and surely among the most handsome of sparrows. Not only did I find several Harris’s Sparrows, but I lucked in on a huge flock of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese in a field next to the road. Searching through winter goose flocks is one of my favorite birding activities, and patient scanning often yields the reward of an unusual species – in this case, several dainty-billed, pure white Ross’s Geese.
After the sun went down, I drove south towards Aransas National Wildlife Reserve, where I slept in the car outside the gates until the reserve opened at 7am the next morning.
January 3rd: There is nothing quite like starting a new birding day already on location and ready to go from first light – especially if that location is one of the world’s most famous birding sites! First of all I had a quick look for “my” Prairie Warbler along the Heron Flats trail, unfortunately without success. This bird, which I originally found on December 14th, has now been seen in the area at least half a dozen times by various observers. Today I could find nothing in this class of rarity, although a Pyrrhuloxia along the auto loop was quite an unusual Aransas bird – there seems to have been a larger-than-usual influx of this attractive species into south Texas this winter.
Rarities aside, Aransas is a great site to get some quality wintering birds safely onto the list, and of course, no winter visit to Texas would be complete without paying homage to the Whooping Cranes.
Four hours at Aransas was enough to get most of the expected birds, and at around 11.30am I started to head south. Indian Point, a coastal marsh just north of Corpus Christi, is a convenient quick birding stop along the way, and on this occasion it proved very fruitful. Approaching slowly in my car, I got to within 15 feet of a small flock of dowitchers that were right next to the road – close enough to see by the heavily mottled breast that they were Short-billed Dowitchers and not the very similar Long-billed.
Next up was Chapman Ranch, a vast area of open fields south of Corpus Christi. Disaster struck when I decided to follow a farm track, and immediately got my rental car firmly stuck in thick, soft mud. As I walked to get help at a nearby farmhouse, I flushed three Northern Bobwhite – my second sighting of this fairly scarce quail already this year, which could only be a good omen for the timely release of my car! With the help of an elderly Mexican farmer, I managed to get my car free from its swampy sinkhole with only about 30 minutes of the birding day wasted. Fortunately the birds proved to be very obliging after that episode, with four “staked out” wintering Say’s Phoebes and a Greater Roadrunner in more or less exactly the same spots I had seen them a few weeks previously.
Later in the afternoon, I drove slowly along farm road 12, which has virtually no traffic. Several large flocks of Sandhill Cranes were a fine sight in roadside fields, but better still were a small party of Lark Sparrows close to the car, and three Sprague’s Pipits which gave prolonged views, although unfortunately just a little too far away for a good photo with my “point-and-shoot” camera.
As dusk fell, I continued south to the Rio Grande Valley, staying overnight in a motel in – where else? – Harlingen, where amenities including a huge HEB supermarket and a Starbucks cater for all the needs of a nomadic birder.
January 4th: I had set aside the entire day today for a visit to Estero Llano Grande State Park, which is perhaps the premier birding site in the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley. The number and diversity of birds to be found here – in such a small area – is astounding. Seeing 100 species in a winter day here ought to be possible, although most eBirders seem to stay for 3-4 hours and come away with a list of 70-80 birds.
Personal highlights this morning included a Virginia Rail (with a broken foot!) feeding alongside a Sora, a fine Nashville Warbler in exactly the same spot where I found a male Painted Bunting last month, with an Altamira Oriole also there, a roosting Common Pauraque, an Eastern Screech-Owl at its nest box, a group of six Red-crowned Parrots flying over, and three species of hummingbird at the feeders (Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied). The hummingbirds seemed to spend almost all of their time chasing away rivals, rather than actually feeding, which is surprising because these tiny birds need to feed almost constantly in order to take on board enough calories to power their super-fast metabolisms.
Returning to the visitor center, my plans for the day changed somewhat when I bumped into local birder Huck Hutchens. It turned out that nearby birding hotspot Frontera Audobon Center was opening today – unusually for a Monday – on account of the popularity of several long-staying rarities: Tropical Parula, Black-headed Grosbeak, and especially the star of the show, Crimson-collared Grosbeak.
It was my first visit to Frontera and initially I found it to be a very frustrating place. Sight lines in the forest are poor, as the trees are dense and low. The Crimson-collared Grosbeak prefers feeding on several different types of seeds that grow on small trees, so I focused on checking the middle storey of the canopy between about 8-15 feet off the ground. When I eventually located the bird, it was feeding very unobtrusively in the densest part of a tree. Although large and chunky, with its predominantly olive-green plumage and slow, infrequent movements it was very hard to spot – in fact when I saw it at around 12.30pm I was the first birder to see it that day.
I had no luck with the other two rarities present, although I did locate a few other quality birds including a Hermit Thrush, a Black-throated Green Warbler (a female individual with no black whatsoever on the throat!), and my personal first USA sighting of Clay-colored Thrush (this is a common tropical species whose range only just extends into southernmost Texas).
My next port of call was a busy industrial area at Progreso, literally within a stone’s throw of the Mexican border post. The grain silos here are a regular winter location for Yellow-headed Blackbird. On arrival at the site, I could see a huge, dense flock of cowbirds and blackbirds feeding around the silos, numbering thousands of birds. Finding the Yellow-headed Blackbirds – especially the bright-headed males – was the work of a moment, and a quick sweep of the flock produced a count of 13 although more may well have been present. Brown-headed Cowbirds were by far the most numerous birds, although fair numbers of Bronzed Cowbirds were here as well, the latter another personal USA tick.
In mid-afternoon I returned to Estero Llano Grande, and spent the last few hours of this beautiful sunny day wandering the trails, starting in the Tropical Zone, where a Grey Catbird was feeding in the open on a grass verge but I didn’t find the hoped-for Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Back on the main reserve I teamed up with Houston-based birder Dean Gregory, and added another ten species to my list from this morning, making for a very respectable Estero Llano Grande day total of 88 species. Our first good find this afternoon was a group of three Nashville Warblers; today for some reason this species was widely reported by visiting birders, obviously there had been a small influx.
Next, as we walked the trail from the levee towards Alligator Lake, Dean noticed a sparrow feeding quietly at the edge of the path, which kept disappearing into the grass but would come and feed out in the open when all was quiet. This skulking behaviour piqued our interest and we eventually got good enough views – and photos – to confirm that it was a Cassin’s Sparrow, a bird not often recorded at this site.
As dusk fell, I got in the car and drove for an hour or so to South Padre Island, where I had found a deal in a Super 8 motel for just $32 – exceptionally good value for a night halt in the US.
Today’s Highlights: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Cassin’s Sparrow, Common Pauraque, Eastern Screech-Owl, Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, Buff-bellied, Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Nashville and Black-throated Green Warblers, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Clay-colored and Hermit Thrushes, Red-crowned Parrot, Green Parakeet, Virginia Rail.
2016 total species so far: 160
January 5th: Today was to be a quick-tick day, chasing around various sites to hopefully pick up one or two key species at each one. This kind of birding is often hit-or-miss, but my lucky streak was continuing and I managed to find almost all of my targets.
Just after first light I was in position overlooking the wetlands next to the South Padre Island convention center, just a couple of miles from my night halt motel, staring through my telescope at a flock of Black Skimmers on a sandbar. In this unusual species, the lower mandible (bottom half of the bill) is longer than the upper – virtually unique in the bird world. Black Skimmer was a long-overdue lifer for me, one of the few remaining Texan coastal birds I still needed, and I ended up seeing flocks of them in three separate locations by January 9th. Funny how that often happens with birding – after you’ve seen a species once, even if you wait for it for years, you often see it again several times in quick succession. This week, this happened to me not only with Black Skimmer but also Marbled Godwit and Northern Bobwhite.
Dean had given me some good info for an Aplomado Falcon site, viewable from highway 100 near Laguna Vista. Parking as instructed in a turnaround next to a small blue building, I scanned the rows of pylons opposite, and there it was – an Aplomado Falcon perched on the T-bar of a pylon, distant but seen well through my telescope.
Ahead of schedule, I continued west to the Palo Alto Battlefield historic site, where Cactus Wren was my main target. At the end of the concrete pathway, past the battlefield overlook pavilion, the habitat looked good with dry scrub and patches of cactus plants. Taking my chances with the snakes, I left the trail and started creeping through the scrub, pausing every once in a while for some “pishing”. This approach paid dividends with not only a Cactus Wren popping up to see what was going on, but also Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, two Olive Sparrows, a Cassin’s Sparrow, and a Curve-billed Thrasher! I also flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhites here.
Back at the parking lot, several Great Kiskadees were noisy and conspicuous, and I had close views of a Western Meadowlark, its yellow submoustachial distinguishing it from the Eastern Meadowlark. In fact the only bird I felt I had missed here was Verdin, but I figured I would have another excellent chance to see it at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio at the weekend.
Next up was a rather insalubrious but very famous birding destination, the Brownsville landfill site. Formerly known as the only reliable place in the US to see Tamaulipas Crow, this small corvid was last regularly seen here in 2010. However, the landfill remains a good location for gulls, and especially my target bird here: Chihuahuan Raven.
On arrival at the site, I was informed that due to the recent heavy rainfall, the landfill itself was off-limits to visiting birders because of the risk of the waste collapsing. Getting trapped under a falling mountain of rotting trash could really ruin your whole day! However, by parking just to the left of the landfill entrance, I could view the site and adjacent lakes distantly through my telescope. Birds were exceedingly numerous on top of the waste mountains where earthmovers pushed the trash around, and men in jump suits were wandering around doing who knows what. It didn’t take long to find a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens, but views were very distant and I kept losing the birds among the throngs of gulls, grackles and vultures. While I was standing there watching the birds, the site manager approached me and offered to personally guide me through the safer parts of the landfill, if I wanted a closer look. While it was a very kind offer, I politely declined as my target bird was already on my list, and I had absolutely no desire to get closer to the piles of stinking, putrid garbage.
An unexpected bonus bird here was a Tropical Kingbird, giving prolonged views right in front of me – this individual was readily distinguishable from the very similar Couch’s Kingbird by its long, thin-based bill and grey-toned mantle, although it was not heard to call.
The lure of a long-staying Golden-crowned Warbler and several other rarities at Refugio was drawing me back north, so after a quick lunch I hit the highway. Notable along the way was a Harris’s Hawk right next to the road near Raymondville, several Brewer’s Blackbirds at the Sarita rest stop, and a small flock of Pyrrhuloxia at King Ranch. I wasted some time at the latter site looking for Wild Turkey, with no luck, before continuing northwards and arriving at Lions Park, Refugio, at around 3.45pm.
It was cold, breezy and very overcast here, and I didn’t fancy my chances – and the looks on the faces of the departing birders said it all, with no confirmed sightings of the Golden-crowned Warbler today. However, a Summer Tanager had been spotted, and the distinctive “pip-pip” call of an elusive Greater Pewee had been heard, although it was not certain whether anyone had actually laid eyes on the bird.
It turned out that I was to find none of these three headline species, but my visit was made more than worthwhile with the discovery of a magnificent Barred Owl. Walking one of the more distant trails in the northern part of the park, I rounded a corner to come face to face with the owl which was perched on a broken tree stump about 4 feet off the ground. This was at around 4.50pm, and I hesitate to say “in broad daylight” as it was a very gloomy afternoon, which is perhaps what prompted this nocturnal owl to be out and about so early. Realising I was there, the bird flushed and flew up into a nearby tree, where it peered at me for a while before flying off deeper into the forest. Although much less rare in the US than a Golden-crowned Warbler, I would take a Barred Owl sighting any day over the warbler, which is a widespread species in tropical Latin America.
Also in the general area, I saw at least one Wilson’s Warbler, a White-eyed Vireo, and a small flock of Pine Siskins – an overall very respectable haul from the park, and I went away well satisfied despite missing the rarities here.
Feeling somewhat tired, I elected for an early night in a motel in Victoria, in preparation for a very early start and three-hour drive to the Galveston area next morning.
January 6th: I was on the road early, driving through relentless heavy rain around dawn which made the prospects for the day look less than appealing. Fortunately, the rain stopped as I neared the Galveston area, and by the time I arrived at the Texas City Dike we were back to a familiar weather pattern of cold, breezy and overcast.
The dike is drivable, allowing for nice easy birding from the comfort of the car. Before long, I found the first of my targets – Common Loon, also known as Great Northern Diver, which is what I grew up calling it in the UK. The 15 individuals I counted here is probably double my previous all-time total for this species, which is a scarce winter visitor in southern England and usually only seen singly.
American Oystercatcher was another target bird that I also located without difficulty, although it is very scarce in number here compared to other shorebirds – unlike oystercatcher species in the UK and New Zealand which can be abundant at favored sites.
A lone Piping Plover here made it onto the list earlier than expected (Bolivar shorebird sanctuary was my planned site for this species), and a Common Tern was another unexpected find – it is rare and irregular in winter on the Gulf coast, usually wintering much farther south.
I drove south, across to Galveston Island, where I unsurprisingly failed to find the reported American Tree Sparrow on 8 Mile Road in windy conditions. With time rapidly ticking away, I decided to take the ferry across to Bolivar Island for some guaranteed year birds at the shorebird sanctuary there. Sure enough, a few individuals of both Semipalmated Plover and Snowy Plover were quickly located, alongside more Piping Plovers, but the dunes didn’t yield the hoped-for Horned Lark. An American Pipit on Rettilon Road was welcome, and I tried a spot of “pishing” along there which produced a Marsh Wren and abundant Swamp Sparrows. No luck with Seaside Sparrow, which is quickly moving up the ranks to become one of my “most wanted” Texas birds, but the viewing conditions on this gloomy and windy afternoon were far from ideal.
Having come this far, it was logical that I continue around the loop and call in at Anahuac NWR on the way back to Houston. Between the Skillern Tract entrance and the main gates, a huge Snow Goose flock had me pulling over and scanning. I was crossing my fingers that a Cackling Goose was somewhere in the flock, but I had no joy, and I didn’t look too closely for Ross’s Goose, having seen them the other day at Katy Prairie. Nearby, an impressive flock of blackbirds and grackles foraged near a grain machine on a pasture next to the road. A quick scan through the flock produced not only several of the expected Boat-tailed Grackles (slightly smaller, rounder-headed, and duller-eyed than the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle), but also a female Yellow-headed Blackbird. The latter bird is rare here, and had I not seen them the other day at Progreso would have been a real five-star sighting. As I later learned on eBird, there were up to three individual Yellow-headed Blackbirds reported here today.
The Shoveler Pond Loop at Anahuac is where my two remaining targets were located, and sure enough it took all of about one minute to locate large numbers of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, alongside a handful of Fulvous Whistling Ducks. No sign, however, of the Canvasbacks I had seen here a few weeks back. The most remarkable sighting in this area was a steady passage of Tree Swallows, with a total of several hundred seen, and birds constantly in view overhead or hawking insects low over the marshes.
Today’s Highlights: Semipalmated, Piping, and Snowy Plovers, Common Loon, American Oystercatcher, Common Tern, Boat-tailed Grackle, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Fulvous Whistling Duck.
2016 total species so far: 188
January 7th: Back in Houston, I took the rental car back in the early morning (thankfully the heavy rain had cleaned most of the mud off!), and rediscovered the much greater comfort – but lesser fuel economy – of my usual Jaguar Vanden Plas, a car I borrowed from the in-laws.
I could only spare a few hours this afternoon, and the obvious choice was Bear Creek Park, only about 15 minutes from home. A Greater Pewee has spent the last several winters in the park, but it can apparently be a very tough bird to locate, so I wasn’t counting on seeing it. However, several absentees from my year list such as Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird should be guaranteed here, plus there was a fair chance of Pileated Woodpecker.
The Greater Pewee is usually seen around toilet blocks 9 and 10, so I naturally decided to focus on this area. I was in for a surprise when I arrived, as the road was closed due to excessive flooding – in fact this part of the park was almost completely underwater. Not to be deterred, I took my socks and shoes off, rolled up my trousers, and waded across to toilet block 9.
Apart from the flooding, viewing conditions this afternoon were perfect, with clear sunny skies and zero wind. Birds were everywhere, not only including my dead cert targets Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird, but also Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Pileated Woodpecker seen on several occasions, and gorgeous Pine Warblers in most of the mixed species bird flocks along with Chipping Sparrows. At around 4.20pm, I was preparing to leave when I heard the loud “pip-pip” call of the Greater Pewee, which once heard is never forgotten. A few seconds later, the bird appeared in the treetops next to toilet block 9, and although it remained high in the trees it did give some good views. This is an easy bird to identify, with its large size, crest, upright posture, and orange lower mandible, as well as the distinctive call which it uttered constantly.
January 8th: I took my parents-in-law to Sheldon Lake this morning, a beautiful and under-visited state park less than 30 minutes from downtown Houston. My main target here was Le Conte’s Sparrow, which winter in small numbers in the marshy prairies here. It turns out that this species is very responsive to “pishing”, so seeing them turned out to be easier than expected – we just stood in the middle of the boardwalk, pished, and voila….. three Le Conte’s Sparrows popped up to take a closer look at us. Sedge Wren is another bird that has a weakness for pishing, and we saw two of those too, as well as abundant Swamp Sparrows.
From the top of the impressive viewing tower, some hirundines were flying about, and in complete contrast to the monospecies passage of Tree Swallows at Anahuac the other day, this relatively tiny group of swallows contained three species: Tree Swallow, several Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and a single Cave Swallow. The long-staying Great Kiskadee and a lone Anhinga were also seen from atop the tower, although views across to downtown Houston were less than stellar owing to the misty weather conditions.
Today’s Highlights: Le Conte’s Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cave Swallow, Great Kiskadee, Anhinga.
2016 total species so far: 195
January 9th: My last chance to get out into the field before I left the country for Vietnam. Last night, I had driven over to New Braunfels to spend a couple of nights at my parents-in-law’s weekend home, and when I awoke at 6.00am on Saturday morning I was perfectly positioned to make the 45-minute drive to Mitchell Lake Audobon Center in San Antonio. If anywhere offered me the chance to break through the magic 200 species mark today, it was here ….. the site has a long and impressive list of birds to its credit, and I figured that at least half a dozen year ticks ought to be possible in a morning’s birding.
I started at the visitor center, and very quickly got on the score sheet with a male House Finch at the feeders. Another enjoyable sight here – although not a year tick – was a Harris’s Sparrow feeding alongside a small group of White-crowned Sparrows. I later learned that a Green-tailed Towhee had been seen and photographed under the feeders that morning, a bird I would have waited for had I known it was around. Still, I was satisfied with my start to the day. On the trail to the bird lake I notched up a Red-shouldered Hawk in the woods, another year tick, while in an open area of the trail a Vesper Sparrow foraged on the ground. Three new year birds already, now up to 198 in total, and I was feeling good about breaking 200.
I have my wife to thank for what happened next. She called me on the phone as I was leaving the area, and, anticipating a long conversation, I retraced my steps back to the bird lake where there was a bench to sit on. As I sat there, half watching the nearby scrub, a noticed a flash of yellow. Raising my binoculars to my eyes with one hand while I held the phone in the other, I was astounded to see a stunning adult Audubon’s Oriole right there in front of me. Needless to say I dropped the phone and picked up my camera. By then the bird had dropped lower into the bushes, but I did still manage to get a record shot. Audubon’s Oriole is a range-restricted bird found only in northern Mexico and southern Texas, and it is apparently scarce throughout its range – Mitchell Lake is one of the best sites for this species, although it is infrequently seen even here.
Given the recent rainfall, the dyke roads into the heart of the reserve were closed to traffic today – and even if they had been open, I don’t think I would have risked driving them, given my recent experience getting stuck in the mud at Chapman Ranch. So I parked the car, and as I was preparing to start walking, there it was …. my 200th species for 2016, a Verdin hunting for insects in low scrub. I had done it, the pressure was off! Still, I had plenty of time to add to my total, and that I soon did with a nice flock of 37 Bonaparte’s Gulls on one of the lakes. This was actually a USA tick for me, with my only other sighting of this species being in the UK, where it is a rare but annual visitor.
With my telescope, I scanned the main lake with two target ducks in mind, and achieved a 50% success rate: I saw three distant Hooded Mergansers, but drew a blank with Canvasback.
It was good to walk the dyke roads for a change instead of driving them: Song Sparrow and Bewick’s Wren were two interesting birds that I doubt I would have seen if I had been in my car. Another was a briefly-seen Empidonax flycatcher, species uncertain. I had just a two-second look at it, enough time to start uttering “what the …..” to myself, before the bird promptly disappeared. It didn’t call, which is the crucial distinguishing feature among a number of Empidonax species which are more or less identical in terms of plumage. All I saw when it briefly sat on a open perch was that the bird had a very upright posture, was a light olive-green in color, with two prominent whitish wingbars, had a big eye with a striking broad, white eye-ring, and a two-toned bill.
Having rounded off a very successful trip to Mitchell Lake, I knew exactly where I could easily get my final two birds for the USA this year: Landa Park in New Braunfels. Sure enough, it took all of about 30 seconds to find both Wood Duck and Egyptian Goose, the latter not yet technically countable by the ABA, but acceptable for me as they have a free-flying, self-sustaining – and rapidly growing – population here.
The question of provenance was also raised by a pair of Mallards, which were pure-bred birds unlike the “domestic-type” Mallards that are resident here. These two kept their distance from the domestic birds, and could very conceivably have been wild-origin ducks enjoying an easy winter in the park in the same way as the wild Lesser Scaups and Wood Ducks.