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 visited the Red River Island on eight mornings between April 20th and May 1st, spending almost all of my time in the North Wood and surrounding areas of grassland and farmland. Happily no one seemed to be bird-hunting in the area during the period, and the destruction of the North Wood has been temporarily suspended. In fact, one good strip of habitat in the wood is still completely untouched – I was told that the family who own this strip haven’t got around to cutting it down yet. The felling of the remaining trees seems inevitable but I am crossing my fingers that they wait just a couple more weeks until spring migration is over ….
On the negative side, the overgrown field immediately to the west of the North Wood – a favorite recent haunt of Japanese Quail – has now been destroyed and planted with crops, and a decent patch of trees and scrub to the south – which hosted a male Siberian Thrush early in the period – was bulldozed overnight to become just another bare earth field.
Full sightings list from my visits on April 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 27th, 29th, and May 1st:
Japanese Quail – one flushed on 20th and 23rd in the now-destroyed overgrown field next to the North Wood. Asian Openbill – a flock of 42 soaring over the Red River on 23rd. Striated Heron – one in the North Wood on 27th. Cattle Egret – single bird on 21st and 23rd. Chinese Pond Heron – peak count of 10 on 21st. Black-shouldered Kite – resident, 1-2 birds seen most visits. Japanese Sparrowhawk – male hunting in North Wood on 23rd. Chinese Sparrowhawk – male over on 27th. Eurasian Hobby – one over the North Wood on 1st. White-breasted Waterhen – single bird around the edges of the North Wood on two dates. Ruddy-breasted Crake – heard singing near the North Wood on 20th but not seen. Grey-headed Lapwing – one poorly photographed on 29th in farmland south-east of the North Wood. Little Ringed Plover – 1-2 seen most visits. Common Sandpiper – occasional singles. Common Greenshank – flock of 11 on the Red River sandbar on 20th, single still present on 22nd and 23rd. Barred Buttonquail – scarce resident, one south-east of the North Wood on 1st. Oriental Turtle Dove – four on 21st and one on 22nd. Red Collared Dove – seen on most visits with a peak count of 8 on 27th. Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon – single male on 21st and 23rd. Now four records in the North Wood this spring. All the birds have appeared very uniform yellow-green below with no hint of a white or whitish belly. Spotted Dove – one on 29th. Chestnut-winged Cuckoo – one on 1st. Large Hawk Cuckoo – one in the North Wood on 21st and 22nd. Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo – one showed very well in the North Wood on 25th. Oriental Cuckoo – singles on 21st and 23rd. Indian Cuckoo – one singing on 1st, 0.4km south of the North Wood, but not seen. Plaintive Cuckoo – commonly heard, occasionally seen. Greater Coucal – common resident, more often heard than seen. Lesser Coucal – singles seen on two dates during the period. Grey Nightjar – one in North Wood on 27th, my personal third record of the spring here. Germain’s Swiftlet – five over on 29th. Black-capped Kingfisher – single on three dates. Pied Kingfisher – common resident, peak count of 5 on 29th. Black-winged Cuckooshrike – 1-2 on three dates. Tiger Shrike – male on 25th. Burmese Shrike – common migrant throughout April but not seen since 27th. Peak count of 4 on 25th. Brown Shrike – becoming more numerous as Burmese Shrike declines, peak count of 6 on 1st. Black-naped Oriole – seen on most dates with a peak count of 10 on 23rd. Black Drongo – 12 passing through on 23rd during a morning of heavy drongo passage. Ashy Drongo – common migrant with a peak count of 10 on 23rd. Hair-crested Drongo – common on most dates during the period with a peak count of 65 during very heavy rain on 22nd. Crow-billed Drongo – at least two on 27th, and some distant drongos flying through on this date may also have been this species. White-throated Fantail – resident in the Hanoi area, 1-2 occasionally seen in North Wood. Black-naped Monarch – 1-2 on most dates. Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher – male on 25th. Amur Paradise-Flycatcher – two females on 27th, told from Blyth’s by sharp demarcation between black throat and grey breast. Red-billed Blue Magpie – resident in the area, up to four seen on most dates. Grey-throated Martin – just one bird recorded during the period. Barn Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 6 on 21st. Red-rumped Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 5 on 23rd. Japanese Tit – one on several dates in patch of trees south of the North Wood. Sooty-headed Bulbul – up to five on several dates. Red-whiskered Bulbul – three on 21st was the only record during the period. Light-vented Bulbul – just one record of one bird on 1st. Dusky Warbler – common migrant with a high count of 15 on 22nd. Radde’s Warbler – less common than Dusky. Up to three on most dates. Yellow-browed Warbler – sharp decline during the period, from 7 on 21st to none at all on 1st. Arctic Warbler – three on 29th and five on 1st, with several birds in song. Pale-legged Leaf Warbler – single(s) on five dates. This species prefers more enclosed forest and is usually 4-6 feet off the ground. Eastern Crowned Warbler – one on 20th and three on 25th. Claudia’s Leaf Warbler – regular migrant throughout April but not seen since 22nd. Grey-crowned Warbler – on 22nd, one seen and a second individual heard, distinctive soft double-note call. Bianchi’s Warbler – one on 20th. Distinctive call, a soft, slightly cracked-sounding “heu”. Other seicercus warblers seen during the period didn’t call, so ID not certain, but they resembled Bianchi’s in plumage with greenish forehead and crown-stripes not extending to bill base. Thick-billed Warbler – one on 22nd, then a noticeable increase late in the period with two on 29th and four on 1st. Black-browed Reed Warbler – a common migrant throughout the period, often heard singing, with a high count of 12 on 29th. Oriental Reed Warbler – singles on 20th and 22nd. Zitting Cisticola – common resident. Common Tailorbird – common resident, pair observed nest-building along edge of North Wood. Yellow-bellied Prinia – abundant resident. Plain Prinia – abundant resident, generally preferring more open/grassy areas than Yellow-bellied. Japanese White-eye – 1-6 on all dates, much reduced in number compared to earlier in the spring. Masked Laughingthrush – single very vocal bird, heard on every visit and seen on several dates, apparently now the only survivor of the flock of up to 5 that were formerly resident in the area. White-crested Laughingthrush – one, almost certainly an escapee, on 1st, accompanied by a second bird that resembled a White-crested Laughingthrush but had apparently been dyed yellow. Chinese Hwamei – one in the North Wood on 22nd. There is also a long-staying bird just outside the area, singing regularly in gardens near my house off Phan Lan Street, and photographed on my balcony on the same date as the North Wood bird. Presumably both birds are of dubious origin! Dark-sided Flycatcher – singles in the North Wood on four dates. Asian Brown Flycatcher – common migrant with high count of 5 on 21st. Hainan Blue Flycatcher – one on 20th was the last record of the spring – this species was commonly observed in late March/early April. Blue Whistling Thrush – one on 23rd. Siberian Rubythroat – sharp decline since early April, with only one individual remaining by 1st. Siberian Blue Robin – male on 27th and two on 29th. Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – seen on three dates with a high count of three on 1st. Mugimaki Flyatcher – seen on five dates with a high count of four on 20th. Taiga Flycatcher – common migrant, seen on every visit with a high count of 5 on two dates. White-throated Rock Thrush – male seen in the small patch of trees south of the North Wood on 20th, 21st and 23rd. Siberian Stonechat – very common migrant with a high count of 15 on 21st, noticeable decline late in the month. Siberian Thrush – adult male in the now-bulldozed patch of trees south of the North Wood on 21st. Eyebrowed Thrush – two on 20th were the last records of the spring. Crested Myna – two flying over on 22nd, and three unidentified mynas that were perhaps this species distantly on 1st. Citrine Wagtail – one on 21st and a flock of 12, the majority apparently adult males, flying north on 25th. White Wagtail – just one seen during the period, on 20th. Forest Wagtail – one in the North Wood on 29th. Richard’s Pipit – 2-4 birds on most dates, usually in farmland south-east of the North Wood. Paddyfield Pipit – fairly common resident seen or heard on most dates. Olive-backed Pipit – late singles over on 22nd and 25th, this was a common bird earlier in the spring. Red-throated Pipit – single over on 22nd. Oriental Greenfinch – four on 23rd. Eurasian Tree Sparrow – occasional individuals recorded, this species is much more common in urban areas. White-rumped Munia – singles on two dates. Scaly-breasted Munia – erratically recorded, with a peak count of 20 on 25th.
Total species observed during the period: 98
Total species I have observed at Red River Island since March 5th: 171
Following a very productive trip to Vietnam in January, I was able to swing a full three weeks in Thailand in February before a return to the world of work and study eventually had to prevail later in the month.
I birded alone for two full weeks in the north, chasing some of the specialities that up until now had eluded me, with visits to familiar locations as well as a handful of new sites.
The third week was spent in the company of my good friend Tim Harrop, who although a very experienced birder, had not visited Asia before. With just five and a half days to play with, and with Tim’s number one target bird being Spoon-billed Sandpiper, we focused on the coastal Laem Pak Bia/Pak Thale area followed by three full days in Kaeng Krachan National Park.
Main sites visited:
Doi Inthanon: Thailand’s highest mountain is a staple fixture on the North Thailand birding circuit, with several species found here that can be seen nowhere else in the country. My two main “gaps” from here are Black-tailed Crake and Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, both of which I failed to see yet again. As usual, the crake was heard calling at the campsite marsh in the late afternoon, but stayed resolutely hidden in the vegetation, while the flowerpecker was widely reported by other birders but failed to show for me. However, the summit marsh delivered ample compensation in the form of a fine Chestnut Thrush.
Doi Lo rice paddies: This lowland area between Doi Inthanon and Chiang Mai has only recently been “discovered” by birders. It’s just a few minutes from Highway 108, making a convenient stop on the way between Chiang Mai and Doi Inthanon. Like many similar sites in Thailand, Doi Lo is absolutely bursting at the seams with lowland birds, making for some easy and enjoyable birding. The best birds during my two visits were the wintering Eastern Imperial Eagle and an Asian Golden Weaver, which although in non-breeding plumage was quite distinctive with its thick, heavy bill, quite bright yellow plumage tones, and prominent supercilium.
Lifer: Asian Golden Weaver. Thailand ticks: Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black-eared Kite, Pied Harrier, Common Kestrel, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Green Sandpiper. Other highlights: Ruddy-breasted Crake, Rufous-winged Buzzard.
Mae Ping: The dry deciduous forest here contains several specialities, including White-bellied Woodpecker and Neglected Nuthatch, although curiously it lacks some of the birds found in similar habitat in Cambodia (eg. White-browed Fantail and Brown Prinia). Much less visited than other sites in the north, this large national park is well worth an early morning, although it can become rather hot and birdless by late morning.
Thailand ticks: Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Black Baza, White-bellied Woodpecker, Neglected Nuthatch, Two-barred Warbler. Other highlights: Grey-headed Parakeet, Black-headed Woodpecker, Red-billed Blue Magpie.
Doi Angkhang: This has for a long time been my favorite mountain site in the north. Nowadays, it is sometimes overlooked by birders in favor of neighboring Doi Lang. However, this winter, Angkhang has really been producing the birds, with high daily species counts and good levels of bird activity virtually all day. The draw for many is the regular and confiding Rusty-naped Pitta at the Royal Project, but my personal highlight was a superb male Grey-winged Blackbird.
Doi Lang: I spent two days on the west side (approached from Fang), and one day on the more difficult east side (approached from Tha Ton). The Fang side is easily accessible in any kind of vehicle, but the road up the east side of the mountain is in very poor condition, and not accessible by ordinary saloon car or minivan (you must either have a 4×4, or do as I did and rent a motorcycle for the day in Tha Ton). It is currently forbidden to complete the full loop in a vehicle, although I was allowed to proceed on foot past the top checkpoints on both the east and west sides of the mountain – birders with plenty of time and energy could presumably walk all the way around the loop.
Chiang Saen Lake: This is Thailand’s most famous site for wintering ducks, and a number of rarities get found here every year. I was very fortunate to relocate the wintering male Baer’s Pochard after it had been absent for several weeks – this bird was subsequently seen by a number of observers and could fairly reliably be found in the company of around 40 Ferruginous Ducks on the south side of the lake. I found a pale-phase Booted Eagle in the same area, while a male Western Marsh Harrier in the roost at Wat Pa Mak No was also a very noteworthy Thai rarity.
Nam Kham Nature Reserve: This small reserve near Chiang Saen is famous for hosting Thailand’s first Firethroat, a male which is currently in residence for its second winter. The bird occasionally appears in front of the Cettia hide to bathe at a small pool – 9.00am seems to be a good time, but equally it is possible for it to fail to make an appearance all day. I was lucky, and the Firethroat emerged on cue for a 10-second showing at 8.55am. Nam Kham reserve contains a maze of paths through the reedbeds, and it is easy to get lost or disorientated – best arrive at the site very early to make sure you locate the correct hide by 9.00am!
There are plenty of other birds to see here in the early morning, and with luck and patience a number of secretive reedbed specialists may be seen.
Lifers: Firethroat, Baikal Bush Warbler. Thailand tick: Paddyfield Warbler. Other highlights: Red Avadavat, Spotted Redshank.
Doi Phu Ka: This is a seldom-visited mountain in Nan province, famous for a small population of Beautiful Nuthatch, and several other species that cannot usually be found elsewhere in Thailand. I found birding here to be hard going, and only late on my second morning did I finally discover a trail leading into good high altitude forest, but I ended up seeing virtually none of the site’s specialities.
The traditional route up the mountain, a trail starting behind the shrine opposite the star-gazing area, seems to be completely overgrown, with a high risk of getting lost for birders without a GPS. A better option seems to be the trail starting on the roadside at Km 29.7, which climbs up into some good forest where Beautiful Nuthatch should be a possibility.
The roadside itself from Km 28-33 could also turn up some good species, although bird activity generally seemed rather low during my visit. I also spent some time on the trail leading into the forest from the top of the pass, at the high point of the road – this forest contains plenty of huge, old trees, seemingly suitable habitat for Beautiful Nuthatch and other forest species such as Green and Purple Cochoas. However, birding here was extremely difficult, with loud, crunchy leaves underfoot making quiet walking impossible, and the sheer size of the trees making it very hard to locate birds.
In general, Doi Phu Ka didn’t repay my investment in time and effort to get there – I got the feeling that a lot of time would be needed to get the most from this site.
Lifer: Indochinese Yuhina. Other highlights: White-browed Piculet, Crested Finchbill, Bianchi’s Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Small Niltava.
Pak Thale/Laem Pak Bia area: The whole coastal strip from Wat Khao Takrao in the north to Laem Pak Bia in the south contains a fantastic range of wetland, farmland, and coastal habitats – the area scarcely needs any introduction as it is world famous for being the favored wintering location for a small number of Spoon-billed Sandpipers, as well as upwards of 40 other shorebird species.
As well as focusing on the well-known locations of Pak Thale, the King’s Project, the “abandoned building” wetlands, and the Laem Pak Bia sandspit, we also visited farmland and grassland inland from Pak Thale, Wat Khao Takrao, and the Nong Pla Lai rice paddies, seeing a total of 132 bird species in the area in two days.
Lifer: Slaty-breasted Rail. Thailand ticks: Far Eastern Curlew, Heuglin’s Gull, Oriental Darter, Black-headed Ibis, Greater Spotted Eagle. Other highlights: Chinese Egret, Booted Eagle, White-faced Plover, Malaysian Plover, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Great Knot, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, Red-necked Phalarope, Brown Hawk Owl, Indian Nightjar, Asian Golden Weaver, Chestnut Munia.
Kaeng Krachan National Park: Probably Thailand’s best overall birding location, this huge national park forms part of one of south-east Asia’s largest continuous forested areas. Its strategic location in the middle of Thailand means that birds from both north and south Thailand can be found here, meaning a very high species total is possible.
In addition to the birds, mammals are a feature of the park, with White-handed Gibbon, Dusky Langur, Asian Elephant, Serow, Crab-eating Mongoose, Black Giant Squirrel, Asian Porcupine, Yellow-throated Marten, and even Leopard among the species regularly seen. During our visit, a Malayan Sun Bear was occasionally visiting the back of the Ban Krang restaurant for food scraps, but unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to see it despite spending several hours waiting for it on consecutive evenings.
In three full days we recorded 155 species of birds inside the park gates, with another 10 or so recorded outside the gates at our accommodation at Ban Maka, and at the Lung Sin waterhole. Booking a spot in the hide at the latter site can be done through Ban Maka, and is highly recommended for close views of some normally tricky customers such as Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted Partridges, Lesser and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes, and for the lucky few – including us! – perhaps a visit from a Slaty-legged or Red-legged Crake. It’s also a great spot to observe and photograph mammals, for example Mouse Deer and Muntjac.
Lifers: Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Moustached Hawk Cuckoo. Thailand ticks: Blue Pitta, Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Pacific Swift, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Slaty-legged Crake. Other highlights: Violet Cuckoo, Crested Jay, Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, Black-and-Red Broadbill, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Long-tailed Broadbill, Common Green Magpie, Kalij Pheasant, Bar-backed Partridge, Besra, Black-thighed Falconet, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Red-billed Malkoha, Brown-backed Needletail, Red-headed Trogon, Orange-breasted Trogon, Bamboo Woodpecker, Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker, Collared Babbler, Great Hornbill, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Alstrom’s Warbler, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-throated Laughingthrush, Golden-crested Myna.
Notable records from other sites:Spot-winged Starling – five at a flowering tree in Mae Rim, near Chiang Mai. Chestnut-eared Bunting – two at Fang rice paddies. River Lapwing, Small Pratincole – on the Mekong River near Chiang Khong. Bluethroat, Citrine Wagtail – Tha Ton rice paddies.
Trip Total: 444. World Life List: 2,115. Thailand Life List: 625. 2016 World Year List: 713.
In mid January, I had a great opportunity to revisit southern Vietnam for the second time in less than four months. My friend Yann Muzika had arranged an 11-day birding and photography tour of the Dalat Plateau and central Annam, with well-regarded guide Duc Tien Bui – did I want to join them in return for a very reasonable contribution towards the costs? With a tempting menu of target birds on offer, including some highly sought-after Laughingthrushes, and the chance to connect with one or two Dalat endemics that I missed last time around, it was an easy decision to make.
I followed up the organized tour with a solo five-day trip to Cat Tien, where I had been once before – nearly a decade ago – and still needed several of the key species from there.
I provide a breakdown of the trip below, in the hope that it will be useful to birders visiting the area, without repeating too much of the general information that is readily available in existing trip reports.
Guide: Duc Tien Bui (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tien is a veteran bird surveyor and tour guide in Vietnam. With a personal Vietnam list well into the 700s, Tien really knows his birds and how to find them. Before our trip, Tien spent several days staking out some of the more difficult species, with the result that we connected with very nearly everything on our target list – including not only seeing the birds, but also creating the opportunities for Yann to take some excellent photos.
Additionally, Tien was patient, calm, and flexible – all the key attributes for an excellent guide. I would not hesitate to recommend him for anyone intending on a south/central Vietnam clean-up.
In Cat Tien, I birded alone, getting information on finding the birds from the internet and also from a guide I met on-site, Bao from Vietnam Wild Tour.
January 17th: met Tien and Yann in the evening in Dalat.
January 18th: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, rest of day at Tuyen Lam lake.
January 19th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 20th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 21st: all day at Ta Nung Valley.
January 22nd: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, then drive to Deo Nui San Pass near Di Linh. Afternoon birding at the pass.
January 23rd: all day at Deo Nui San Pass.
January 24th: early flight from Dalat to Danang. Drive to Lo Xo Pass, birding there until nightfall.
January 25th: early morning at Lo Xo, then drive to Mangden. Late afternoon birding at Mangden.
January 26th: all day at Mangden.
January 27th: all day at Mangden.
January 28th: early morning drive back to Danang to catch afternoon flight to Saigon. I parted company with Tien and Yann at this point.
January 29th: bus to Cat Tien National Park, afternoon birding around resort.
January 30th: all day at Cat Tien.
January 31st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 1st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 2nd: all day at Cat Tien.
February 3rd: bus to Saigon, international flight to Bangkok.
Transportation: Our tour guide Tien arranged two drivers, one for the sites in the Dalat area, and the other for the Lo Xo Pass and Mangden. Both of his drivers drove slowly and safely, which is vitally important on Vietnam’s manic roads.
For Cat Tien, I caught a Dalat-bound Phuong Trang bus from Saigon (195,000VND), and got off at the intersection for Cat Tien – the driver’s assistant will tell you where. From there, a motorbike ride to the national park cost 170,000VND after a lot of haggling. Coming back, I took a taxi from the resort to the intersection (300,000VND), then another Phuong Trang bus to Saigon (200,000VND).
Getting into Cat Tien national park involves crossing the river on a small boat – the park entry fee of 40,000VND includes one return boat ride. If you want to cross the river early, you should buy your entry ticket the evening before at the ticket booth near the boat dock. Multiple tickets can be bought at once if you are planning to visit on several days. Once inside the national park, you can rent a bicycle for 150,000VND per day, but unfortunately the bikes are extremely poorly maintained so get there early to pick a good one. You can rent a jeep and driver to take you around but I didn’t ask about prices. It is also possible to walk to all the key birding areas, but it’s hot and distances are long so take plenty of water.
Dalat: Dreams Hotel in central Dalat. Very good, centrally located, good value option with excellent breakfast included, which was available at 5.30am so ideal for visiting birders. Lots of dining options within a short walk of the hotel – don’t miss One More Cafe for good Western food and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted.
Deo Nui San Pass: Juliet’s Villa Resort, located here.. Good location just 15 minutes drive from the birding area, in a pleasant rural setting. Swimming pool. Water pressure problems in the resort meant having to go without a shower on several occasions, which was annoying. The food was OK and they prepared breakfast early for us.
Lo Xo Pass: Just a night halt in the next town south of the pass, about 25km away. There is one mediocre hotel in the town, with a local restaurant opposite. These did the job, but only that.
Mangden: This ghost town has many hotels, and we were told that most of them are very poorly maintained – given the failure of tourism in this area, hotel owners are reluctant to invest. Our hotel was barely passable, with almost every bathroom fixture broken, a general feeling of damp, and food available only with advance notice. Instead we ate every day at a small restaurant in the center of town (possibly Mangden’s only restaurant) that served uninspiring but very cheap Vietnamese meals, and was conveniently open before 6.00am for breakfast.
Cat Tien: I stayed at the excellent Green Hope Lodge, in the village just across the river from the national park. Breakfast – included in the room price – was available at 5.30am. The first boat across the river to the park leaves just after 6.00am, which I found to be adequate for my needs, but those wishing to make a pre-dawn start would have to stay in the government-run accommodations inside the park.
Weather: Pleasantly warm and sunny in Dalat, with cool early mornings and evenings (high/low temp about 23C/14C). The Central Annam portion of our trip coincided with a record-breaking cold front across East Asia that produced extremely low temperatures and even snowfall in north Vietnam – it was cold, rainy and windy at the Lo Xo Pass (11C/8C), and generally overcast at Mangden with wind and occasional light rain (16C/9C). Meanwhile, in the south, Cat Tien was hot with unbroken sunshine every day (34C/23C).
Ta Nung Valley: This well-known birding location near Dalat is where most people see Grey-crowned Crocias. Access details are available in many trip reports, including my own from September 2015 here. We spent two early mornings and one full day here – more than most birders, but Yann wanted to photograph the elusive Orange-breasted Laughingthrush. This species was particularly hard to find, being not very vocal, and unresponsive to call playback, which has been heavily (over)used at this site. On the last morning, we finally saw and photographed a pair in the small clearing at the edge of the forest, just across the dam at the bottom of the trail. Among 68 bird species we saw at this site were daily Grey-crowned Crocias, 4-5 Rufous-browed Flycatchers coming to worms at stakeouts we set up in the forest for OBL, but just a single sighting of Black-crowned Parrotbill. Bird activity is very high here – sometimes spectacularly so – until about 9.00am, but then quickly tapers to almost nothing.
Tuyen Lam Lake: We spent our time on the trails around the western shore, approximately here. The habitat is a mixture of pine forest interspersed with pockets of broadleaved forest. A nice range of birds and plenty of bird activity throughout the day. We saw our only Vietnamese Crossbills here, and other notable sightings included Red-vented Barbet, Long-tailed Broadbill, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, and the infrequently recorded Brown Prinia.
Bi Doup National Park:This location is about 50km from Dalat City, on the road to Nha Trang. There isn’t much in the way of accommodation nearby, so we stayed in Dalat. We spent most of our time on a 2km circular trail in the forest, the entrance to which was between Km 47 and Km 48 on the south side of the road. Our guide had spent a considerable amount of time staking out a pair of Collared Laughingthrushes, which did eventually come to our stakeout for photos, but which we didn’t see or hear at all elsewhere in the forest – a difficult species for sure. The forest along the trail was quite birdy, with target species including Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Black-crowned Fulvetta, Hume’s Treecreeper and Spotted Forktail all seen here. We also saw a single Black-hooded Laughingthrush, but this species is much commoner further north at Mangden. A couple of kilometers further up the road, trees at the high point of the pass provided us with our only sighting of Vietnamese Cutia.
Deo Nui San Pass: This location lies to the south of Di Linh, here.. Most of the birding is along the road, which unfortunately can be fairly busy with traffic. A small cafe at the pass is a useful landmark; most of the good birding is within 2km of this cafe heading back towards Di Linh. Several small trails lead into the forest, where we saw and eventually photographed a male Blue Pitta. Other notable species seen here included Indochinese Green Magpie, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Black-chinned Yuhina, and an unexpected flock of 5 White-throated Needletails. At dusk, Grey Nightjars appeared over the road, and we successfully spotlighted a Hodgson’s Frogmouth.
Lo Xo Pass: This spot is about 3.5 hours drive from Danang airport, approximately here. At the high point of the pass, there is a bridge over a waterfall and a basic cafe. 300 meters to the north, a large lone tree can be seen just above the road. Scrub along the roadside between the bridge and the tree is the place to look for Black-crowned Barwing.
Mangden: About 7.5 hours drive from Danang airport, and 5 hours from the Lo Xo pass, Mangden is the only known accessible site for Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush. Forest surrounding the town is being steadily logged, but for now the laughingthrushes – as well as plenty of other birds – can still be seen. Local road 676 heads north out of town, and holds most of the special birds. There is at least one pair of Chestnut-eared Laughingthrushes on each side of the road at the Km 17 marker, which were responsive to call playback but very difficult to see well – there is little chance to see the birds from the road, you have to find a spot to get inside the forest and try your luck. Other excellent birds seen within half a kilometer of this location included Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, Austen’s Brown Hornbill, and Indochinese Green Magpie. At other points along the road we had Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Grey-headed Parrotbill and Yellow-billed Nuthatch.
There is another spot worth trying along the new road to Kontum, about 4km from Mangden. A dirt trail heads downhill just before the Km 48 marker, passing through some excellent broadleaved forest which ought to be good for Rusty-naped Pitta as well as many of the area’s specialities. My mid-afternoon visit yielded Black-hooded Laughingthrush, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Grey-bellied Tesia and Rufous-tailed Robin, and no doubt this is just a taste of what could be seen by birders investing an early morning here.
Cat Tien: The place to try for Orange-necked Partridge is the small hill along the paved road about 2.5km west of the HQ, the partridges are among the dense bamboo thickets alongside the road and responsive to call playback, although luck is needed to get a glimpse. Bar-bellied Pitta and Blue-rumped Pitta can both be seen on the “pitta trail” behind HQ.: walk between the buildings to the right of the museum, bear right past a disused cage, and enter the forest. After 200 meters there is an obvious cleared area on the right hand side of the trail, this is a photographer’s stakeout and patiently waiting here may produce views of one or both pitta species. Germain’s Peacock Pheasant is widespread, I saw it on the “pitta trail” just behind HQ, while others get lucky along the first part of the walking trail to Crocodile Lake – it ought to be possible virtually anywhere in forested areas of the park. Pale-headed Woodpecker is only in one spot, bamboo along the dirt road next to the Heaven Rapids – it is very vocal in early Feb and I saw a pair repeatedly there without difficulty. The park is generally rich in birds and a long species list ought to be possible for those investing enough time and effort.
Key species seen, and their locations:
Orange-necked Partridge – Cat Tien
Green Peafowl – Cat Tien
Germain’s Peacock Pheasant – Cat Tien
Siamese Fireback – Cat Tien
Black Baza – Cat Tien
Mountain Hawk-Eagle – Ta Nung Valley
Rufous-bellied Eagle – Bi Doup and Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Fish Eagle – Bi Doup
Yellow-vented Pigeon – Deo Nui San Pass
Hodgson’s Frogmouth – Deo Nui San Pass
Great-eared Nightjar – Cat Tien
Grey Nightjar – Deo Nui San Pass
White-throated Needletail – Deo Nui San Pass
Silver-backed Needletail – Cat Tien
Austen’s Brown Hornbill – Mangden
Red-vented Barbet – Tuyen Lam Lake, other sites heard only
Annam Barbet – especially Ta Nung Valley
Pale-headed Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Heart-spotted Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Blue Pitta – Deo Nui San Pass
Bar-bellied Pitta – Cat Tien
Dalat Shrike-Babbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Indochinese Green Magpie – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Ratchet-tailed Treepie – Mangden
Grey-crowned Tit – all Dalat area sites
Yellow-billed Nuthatch – Bi Doup, Mangden
Hume’s Treecreeper – Bi Doup
Rufous-faced Warbler – Mangden
Kloss’s Leaf Warbler – many sites
White-spectacled Warbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Grey-cheeked Warbler – especially Bi Doup
Black-crowned Parrotbill – Ta Nung valley, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Parrotbill – Mangden
Black-chinned Yuhina – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Grey-faced Tit-Babbler – Deo Nui San Pass, Cat Tien
Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Tuyen Lam Lake, Deo Nui San Pass
Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Black-crowned Fulvetta – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Cutia – Bi Doup
Black-hooded Laughingthrush – Bi Doup, Mangden
Orange-breasted Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley
Collared Laughingthrush – Bi Doup
Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush – Mangden
White-cheeked Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-crowned Crocias – Ta Nung valley
Black-crowned Barwing – Lo Xo Pass
Rufous-browed Flycatcher – Ta Nung valley
Rufous-tailed Robin – Mangden
Spotted Forktail – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Greenfinch – common in Dalat area
Vietnamese Crossbill – Tuyen Lam Lake
After two months in Texas, I finally had the long-awaited opportunity to head south – seriously south. The lower Rio Grande valley along the border with Mexico is a unique bird area, as it holds a wide range of tropical species at the far northern end of their range which are not found elsewhere in the USA. It’s arguably one of the most exciting places in the world to see birds – especially so in spring, but winter is certainly not without its delights, as I was to discover.
Along the way, what self-respecting birder could pass up the opportunity to visit Aransas National Wildlife Reserve – the only wintering site in the world for the rare and spectacular Whooping Crane? I was at the Aransas visitor center by 7.30am after a ridiculously early start from Houston. The weather wasn’t especially co-operative, being very windy and overcast with occasional outbreaks of rain. Considering this is December in the northern hemisphere, one might imagine some very unpleasant birding conditions, but not today in southern Texas where the temperature stayed pegged at an extremely mild 25C (78F) throughout the day.
Five gleaming white Whooping Cranes were easy to spot from the specially constructed viewing tower, albeit very distantly (a telescope is essential here). I also had to clear a path through the rows of Black Vultures, who like to use the railings on the tower’s walkways as perching and squabbling grounds, and in some cases were very reluctant to move – these birds are actually fairly intimidating when they are glaring at you from only six feet away!
I enjoyed some seawatching in the bay, although in less than ideal conditions with the wind and choppy seas making for difficult viewing. However, I did find about 10 Horned Grebes, perhaps a higher than usual total for this site, and at least four Greater Scaup among the large flocks of Lesser Scaup. Interesting fly-bys comprised a small flock of Snow Geese, and three cinnamon-colored Long-billed Curlews, but try as I might, I could not locate a Common Loon on the water.
Along the “auto tour loop”, I chanced upon a family group of Sandhill Cranes showing well not far from the car, and a lone Whooping Crane nearby, closer than the tower birds but standing in long grass so it was only visible from the neck upwards. White-tailed Hawk was another good sighting here, this bird is a speciality of the Texas coastal plain and is found nowhere else in the USA.
Although the Aransas area easily merits a full day – or even several days – of exploring, I had lots more birds to see and only limited time, so by late morning I was impatient to hit the road south. An eBird-inspired stop south of Corpus Christi was moderately rewarding, with good views of several Greater Roadrunner, a fine male Pyrrhuloxia, and three Say’s Phoebes at Chapman Ranch. I had been hoping for Burrowing Owl here, but the Say’s Phoebes provided excellent compensation – they are rare winter visitors this far east. I managed a very poor photo with my “punk” camera, but it’s enough to confirm the identification. I really need to invest in a decent camera, as photos are more or less essential these days in order to confirm sightings of rare species – and I was to find several other rarities before the weekend was out, neither of which I managed to photograph.
Vast agricultural prairies lie to the south and west of Corpus Christi, home in winter to very small numbers of Sprague’s Pipit, Mountain Plover, and Prairie Falcon, but finding any of them is locating a needle in a haystack, and on this windy and dull afternoon it was unsurprising when I came away empty-handed – although a fine flock of Sandhill Cranes provided modest compensation for my efforts.
With an early, wintry dusk fast approaching, the birding was more or less over for the day, and I drove south to Harlingen, where I treated myself to an overnight stay in a Super 8 motel. This was a bit above budget – I had been planning to sleep in the car – but I was exhausted after the early start and long drive.
I awoke to more of the same weather – extremely overcast, warm, windy, and damp. With so many birding options in the lower Rio Grande valley, it was hard to decide where to go – and with just one full day here, I had to be smart and eliminate any long drives. The original plan to visit Laguna Atascosa fell by the wayside in favor of the much closer Estero Llano Grande State Park, which turned out to be an excellent choice. A total of 76 bird species seen here in just 3.5 hours demonstrates the quality of this location. In fact, just sitting quietly and watching the bird feeders and garden at the visitor center produced such exciting birds as Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, and both Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, all at very close range. Along the trails, I was adding to my list every few minutes, with many south Texas specialities seen including Cinnamon Teal, Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Green Kingfisher, Groove-billed Ani, Green Parakeet, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Indigo Bunting, a beautiful male Painted Bunting (a very rare bird in winter), and a perfectly camouflaged day-roosting Common Pauraque.
Halfway through the morning, the wind suddenly blew cold, and I was to learn later that the temperature dropped from 25C (78F) to 16C (61F) in just a couple of seconds. Sudden weather changes are a fascinating Texas phenomenon that we just don’t have in temperate Western Europe. All I know is that suddenly I was very grateful I had packed my warm sweater in my bag – other T-shirt wearing birders I encountered on the trails weren’t so lucky!
My second port of call for the day was the Santa Ana National Wildlife Reserve, where a long-staying Northern Jacana, a very rare vagrant to the USA from its breeding grounds in Mexico, was perhaps the outstanding highlight. The area didn’t seem quite as exceptionally rich in birds as Estero Llano Grande, but I added some excellent birds to the list including a skulking Olive Sparrow, a Harris’s Hawk, and one of my all-time favorite birds, Black-and-white Warbler. This charismatic bird is readily spotted by its striped black and white plumage, and its unusual habit of spiralling up and down trunks and branches, more like a nuthatch than a warbler. It’s common in the USA in from spring to fall, but only a handful winter in the far south of the country, with the rest heading to Mexico and central America. Not that this one was very far from Mexico, perhaps just two miles as the warbler flies.
I was to have an even closer encounter with Mexico at my final location for the day, the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. This site, also known as the World Birding Center, is legendary among birders, with quite a long list of very rare Mexican and tropical species seen here over the years. I arrived in the early afternoon to glorious sunny, cool and calm conditions, the incoming cold front having taken just a couple of hours to completely clear the overcast, windy weather away.
Birding the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park involves doing quite a lot of walking, as it’s a big park and cars are not allowed, presumably in a bid to make it harder for illegal immigrants to cross the USA-Mexico border which lies along the Rio Grande at the southern edge of the park. Despite the fine weather, birding was rather slow at first, although I wasn’t complaining as the numerous Green Jays at the park’s feeding stations were always on view and looking spectacular in the afternoon sunlight.
The main reason I was here was for the hawks, and I after nearly four hours in the park, and more than six miles of walking, I came away well satisfied with excellent views of two perched adult Grey Hawks (a site speciality), Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and good perched views of the long-staying juvenile Broad-winged Hawk. The latter species is a common summer visitor and passage migrant to the USA, but very rare in winter.
The habitat is rather dry and arid in the park, and bird density seemed fairly low. I figured that maybe if I headed to the distant reaches of the park next to the Rio Grande, there might be some damper areas with perhaps a wider range of bird species. This didn’t actually prove to be the case, but I had an interesting experience when I followed a small side trail and suddenly found myself on the banks of the Rio Grande. Across the river, perhaps 200 feet away, was Mexico, and on the opposite bank I could see a derelict building and beside it, a narrow path heading to the water’s edge. On my side of the river, a deflated inner tube lay in the shallows, no doubt previously used by illegal immigrants heading across from Mexico. It really would not have been hard to cross the river undetected in this spot, and disappear into the woods in the State Park – I wondered how many people used this particular crossing, and whether anyone was lurking in the bushes watching me at that moment!
As the afternoon drew to a close, I dosed up on some coffee, and drove north through the evening, finally arriving at the gates of Aransas NWR at around 11.30pm. I was well-prepared with blankets and pillows, and enjoyed a surprisingly refreshing sleep in the car, waking at 7.00am ready and raring to go for another morning’s birding.
It was one of those mornings when the world seems absolutely perfect. A clear, sunny, and cool day, with temperatures of 7C/45F at dawn rising to perhaps 17C/63F by late morning. A little mist lingered over the trees and I could hear the distant calls of Sandhill Cranes in flight, and one of the first sights to greet me at the start of the Heron Flats trail was a magnificent pair of Whooping Cranes on the saltmarsh close to the first viewing platform.
The Heron Flats trail was absolutely bursting with bird activity, with small songbirds and wintering warblers energetically feeding as the sun warmed the trees and bushes, making up for lost time after the recent windy, rainy weather. Yellow-rumped Warblers inhabited virtually every bush, calling constantly, and some usually secretive species showed well: two Sedge Wrens, three Grey Catbirds, and no fewer than five Long-billed Thrashers.
It was on this trail that I found a major winter rarity. Noticing a warbler quite low down in brushy scrub at the edge of the path, I raised my binoculars and immediately knew I was onto something good. It had a bright, vivid yellow throat and underparts, black streaking on the breast sides, a plain olive-green back with no discernible wingbars, and clear yellow crescents above and below the eye. The bird was feeding low down in the bushes, flicking its wings and tail, and showing very well in perfect light as I had the sun behind me. The all-yellow underparts and lack of wingbars ruled out Pine Warbler, the only realistically confusable possibility among the regular wintering warblers. I realized I could only have been looking at a Prairie Warbler, which is an exceptionally rare bird in Texas, especially in winter. A few days later, when perusing records of this species on eBird, I found that a juvenile female Prairie Warbler had been seen (and photographed) at exactly the same location in December last year. Could my bird be the same individual, returning for a second winter?
Full bird list, south Texas, December 12th-14th. Lifers in bold, 2015 year ticks in italics:
1. Black-bellied Whistling Duck
2. Snow Goose
4. American Wigeon
5. Mottled Duck
6. Blue-winged Teal
7. Cinnamon Teal
8. Northern Shoveler
9. Northern Pintail
10. Green-winged Teal
12. Greater Scaup
13. Lesser Scaup
15. Common Goldeneye
16. Red-breasted Merganser
17. Plain Chachalaca
18. Least Grebe
19. Pied-billed Grebe
20. Horned Grebe
21. Eared Grebe
22. Neotropic Cormorant
23. Double-crested Cormorant
25. Brown Pelican
26. American White Pelican
27. Great Blue Heron
28. Great Egret
29. Snowy Egret
30. Little Blue Heron
31. Tricolored Heron
32. Reddish Egret
33. Yellow-crowned Night Heron
34. Black-crowned Night Heron
35. White Ibis
36. White-faced Ibis
37. Roseate Spoonbill
38. Black Vulture
39. Turkey Vulture
41. White-tailed Kite
42. Northern Harrier
43. Sharp-shinned Hawk
44. Cooper’s Hawk
45. Harris’s Hawk
46. White-tailed Hawk
47. Grey Hawk
48. Broad-winged Hawk
49. Red-tailed Hawk
51. Common Gallinule
52. American Coot
53. Sandhill Crane
54. Whooping Crane
55. Black-necked Stilt
56. American Avocet
58. Northern Jacana
59. Spotted Sandpiper
60. Greater Yellowlegs
62. Long-billed Curlew
63. Ruddy Turnstone
65. Western Sandpiper
66. Least Sandpiper
67. Long-billed Dowitcher
68. Wilson’s Snipe
69. Laughing Gull
70. Ring-billed Gull
71. Caspian Tern
72. Forster’s Tern
73. Rock Dove
74. Eurasian Collared Dove
75. Inca Dove
76. Common Ground-Dove
77. White-tipped Dove
78. White-winged Dove
79. Mourning Dove
80. Greater Roadrunner
81. Groove-billed Ani
82. Common Pauraque
83. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
84. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
85. Green Kingfisher
86. Belted Kingfisher
87. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
88. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
89. Crested Caracara
90. American Kestrel
91. Green Parakeet
92. Eastern Phoebe
93. Say’s Phoebe
94. Vermilion Flycatcher
95. Great Kiskadee
96. Couch’s Kingbird
97. Tropical Kingbird
98. Loggerhead Shrike
99. Green Jay
100. Tree Swallow
101. Cave Swallow
102. Black-crested Titmouse
103. House Wren
104. Sedge Wren
105. Carolina Wren
106. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
107. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
108. American Robin
109. Grey Catbird
110. Curve-billed Thrasher
111. Long-billed Thrasher
112. Northern Mockingbird
113. European Starling
114. Black-and-white Warbler
115. Orange-crowned Warbler
116. Common Yellowthroat
117. Yellow-rumped Warbler
118. Prairie Warbler
119. Olive Sparrow
120. Savannah Sparrow
121. Lincoln’s Sparrow
122. Swamp Sparrow
123. Northern Cardinal
125. Indigo Bunting
126. Painted Bunting
127. Red-winged Blackbird
128. Eastern Meadowlark
129. Boat-tailed Grackle
130. Great-tailed Grackle
131. Altamira Oriole
132. American Goldfinch
133. House Sparrow
World Life List: 2,054 2015 World Year List: 1,108
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.
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.