Franklin’s Gull, October 22nd

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (with Laughing Gulls), San Luis County Park, Brazoria County, Texas, October 22nd 2017. An increasing visitor to coastal Texas.
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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.
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American Oystercatchers, San Luis County Park, Texas, October 22nd 2017. Present in small numbers all along the upper Texas coast, but never common.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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

Golden-cheeked Warbler, March 18th

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Golden-cheeked Warbler, Friedrich Wilderness Park, San Antonio, March 18th 2017.

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.

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Lark Sparrow, Kinney Road Sod Farm, Bexar, March 18th 2017.

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:

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“Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawk, one of two birds seen during the morning in the San Antonio area, March 18th 2017.

Lifer: Golden-cheeked Warbler (total 2,156)

USA tick: American Golden Plover (total 319).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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American Alligator, Anahuac NWR, February 25th 2017.

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

2017 World Year List: 300

Urban Birding in Houston, December 4th-7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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