Spring at Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Tanager
Male Summer Tanager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole in the tree above the cabin.

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

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

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

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

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

Peak Migration!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickcissel
Dickcissel, Anahuac NWR, April 22nd 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas 2017 Year List: 297

Texas Life List: 323

World Life List: 2,175

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

Early Migrants, March 25th-31st

Hermit Thrush2
Hermit Thrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 27th

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.

Northern Waterthrush1
Northern Waterthrush, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 26th 2017. Told from the very similar Louisiana Waterthrush (the more regular migrant in March) by a combination of streaked throat, dense streaking below, uniform buff-white underparts, buffish supercilium of even width, short bill and dull legs. To me, Louisiana Waterthrush appears bigger, bolder, longer-billed and cleaner-cut.
Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. A real stunner, and on an early date too.
Chuck Wills-Widow
Eastern Whip-Poor-Will, Edith L Moore Nature Sanctuary, March 21st. This night bird turns up on migration in small numbers in urban Houston, but connecting with one is a matter of pure luck. This one flushed right after I took this photo, and despite relocating it 2-3 more times I couldn’t get close to it again.

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.

Hooded Warbler2
Male Hooded Warbler, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017.
Brown Thrasher1
Brown Thrasher, Sabine Woods, March 25th 2017. A really quite stunning looking bird, which is generally uncommon in Texas, although Sabine Woods has good numbers.

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.

Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017.
Cinnamon Teal
Drake Cinnamon Teal, Anahuac NWR, March 25th 2017. Up to 6 of these birds have been present for most of the winter, but just one seemed to be still here in late March.

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:

Black-throated Green Warbler2
Black-throated Green Warbler, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.
Northern Parula
Northern Parula, Sleepy Hollow Lane, New Braunfels, March 31st 2017.

Texas 2017 Year List: 251

Hutton’s Vireo, March 5th

Huttons Vireo1
Hutton’s Vireo in song, Panther Springs Park, San Antonio, March 5th 2017.

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:

Huttons Vireo2
Hutton’s Vireo, Panther Springs Park, March 5th 2017. Note the chunky build, thick bill, incomplete pale eyering (strongest behind the eye) and the lower wingbar connecting to the pale primary edges.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Riverview Park, Seguin, March 4th 2017. Note the slim build, fine bill, and darker primaries with a distinct blackish bar below the second wingbar.

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:

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Chipping Sparrow, New Braunfels, March 4th 2017.

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!

Lifers: Hutton’s Vireo, Rufous-crowned Sparrow (total 2,152).

2017 Texas year list additions: Common Grackle, Egyptian Goose, Canvasback, Canyon Wren, Say’s Phoebe (total 208).

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).