One of the many great things about eBird is that detailed information is available at the click of a mouse. You can go over all previous years’ sightings, birding trips, and put together any kind of statistics you feel like.
2018 was my second full year in Texas. Compared to 2017, I was more restricted in range, with no visits to north Texas or the Panhandle, and I ventured no further west than South Llano River State Park, and Lake Amistad.
Still, with 2018 being a great year for rarities, and thanks to an influx of normally scarce wintering birds, I managed to end up with a healthy 384 species seen in the state during the year. I recorded 369 complete checklists in eBird, an average of just over one per day, and finished in 40th place overall in the state rankings.
My overall Texas life list after exactly two years here stands at 455 species, and 97 counties birded.
In the table below, I have listed every county in which I saw more than 50 species in 2018. It was particularly satisfying to claim the number one spot in Comal on the last day of the year, the first time I have ever topped a county ranking list.
Month by month:
January 2018:Total species seen 209, total checklists 80. Year list as of 01/31: 209
My first five species of the year on a cold, windy morning at Brushline Road in Hidalgo County included Common Pauraque and Wild Turkey. I went on to see over 100 species on the first day of the year – including Tamaulipas Crow at Goose Island State Park!
Other highlights of the month included a rare blue-phase Ross’s Goose in Atascosa county, prolonged views of several Virginia Rails out in the open at Tyrrell Park in Beaumont, two Glaucous Gulls and a midwinter Franklin’s Gull, a hybrid Cinnamon/Blue-winged Teal, and some scarce wintering birds, notably the regular returning Greater Pewee at Bear Creek Park, and a superb Black-throated Gray Warbler in Galveston.
An epic day at Granger Lake resulted in sightings of Mountain Plover, McCown’s and Lapland Longspurs, Short-eared Owl and American Woodcock.
February 2018: Total species seen 115, total checklists 25. Year list as of 02/28: 222
My Texas birding was limited due to spending 9 days in Costa Rica (where my haul was 328 species including 99 lifers).
Back in Texas, the month was notable (in a bad way) for dipping the famous Elegant Trogon in Landa Park, New Braunfels, on no fewer than three occasions. A Rusty Blackbird nearby was only a small consolation, but both Rock Wren and Canyon Wren together at the Canyon Lake dam was a most useful double as I see these species only rarely in central Texas.
March 2018: Total species seen 163, total checklists 40. Year list as of 03/31: 248
In mid-month I began my intensive spring coverage of the Edith L Moore nature sanctuary in Houston (full report here). March’s only notable rarity was the pair of Surf Scoters at Frenchtown Road on the Bolivar peninsula, but birding was lively throughout, with several early migrants including Blue-winged and Kentucky Warblers making their way onto my list by the end of the month.
April 2018: Total species seen 243, total checklists 89. Year list as of 04/30: 319
April is generally recognized as the best month for birding in Texas, and this month didn’t disappoint with 243 species seen. Rarities comprised a drake Eurasian Wigeon at Katy Prairie, a male Western Tanager in Sabine Woods, and a male Yellow-headed Blackbird near Sabine Pass.
My go-to migrant spot, Sabine Woods, was at times spectacular during the month with the full range of warblers seen including Cerulean, Prairie, and Blackpoll.
I rounded out April with a morning at South Llano River State Park in west central Texas, a fantastic site good for breeding Black-capped and Bell’s Vireos, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Scott’s Oriole, Zone-tailed Hawk and lots of sparrows including smart spring-plumaged Clay-colored Sparrows.
May 2018: Total species seen 197, total checklists 59. Year list as of 05/31: 336
In stark contrast to an above-average April migration season, May quickly fizzled out with just a scattering of late passerine migrants seen.
However, there were still some impressive shorebird flocks around early in the month, including Hudsonian Godwit, and Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. A flock of Bobolinks and a very late Cerulean Warbler provided sparkle at Sabine Woods, but a Brown Booby at Calaveras Lake in San Antonio was the only bona fide rarity I encountered during the month.
By late May I was reduced to picking at scraps such as breeding Swallow-tailed Kites in Liberty and Brown-headed Nuthatch in Montgomery county.
June 2018: Total species seen 70, total checklists 12. Year list as of 06/30: 338
I barely added anything in June, Texas’s worst birding month, partly due to being out of the country for half the month in France. My quest for Hairy Woodpecker in forested areas north of Houston continued with no success.
July 2018: Total species seen 136, total checklists 25. Year list as of 07/31: 340
A painfully slow start to the month which redeemed itself slightly when shorebird passage got going later on. My July highlight was a distant Red-necked Phalarope at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio.
August 2018: Total species seen 151, total checklists 29. Year list as of 08/31: 343
Summer seems to last forever in Texas but at least birds start moving through in August. Empidonax flycatchers were in evidence in my weekend yard in Comal with Willow Flycatcher and up to 5 Least Flycatchers present most of the month. An Alder Flycatcher in Fort Bend was an overdue lifer. Late summer is good for Wood Stork in Texas, and I saw them in both Brazoria and Chambers during August.
September 2018: Total species seen 160, total checklists 50. Year list as of 09/30: 354
The outstanding visit of the month was a trip to the Rio Grande near Del Rio, an underbirded area with a nice combination of “western” and “southern” species. Year list additions here comprised the newly split Mexican Duck, Ringed Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, Cactus Wren, Hooded Oriole, and the area specialty Morelet’s Seedeater, a bird with an extremely restricted range in the US.
However, perhaps my most memorable August bird was the pristine male Mourning Warbler hopping around on the mud at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio!
October 2018: Total species seen 145, total checklists 21. Year list as of 10/31: 360
Without a doubt, the most spectacular bird of October 2018 for me and many other Houston birders was the totally unexpected appearance of a Flammulated Owl in Sue Orwig’s yard in west Houston. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely event in birding!
I finally found my lifer Black-billed Cuckoo at Quintana, and also a self-found male Red-naped Sapsucker in central Texas, and enjoyed some above-average fall migration including Cape May Warbler at Sabine Woods.
For part of the month I was on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, which supplied a handful of lifers and some great birding, see report here.
November 2018: Total species seen 194, total checklists 36. Year list as of 11/30: 377
April wins most people’s award for the best birding month in Texas, but I’m going to opt for November as being a close second. Late fall migrants, as well as big influxes of wintering species with the first cold fronts, make for spectacular birding in pleasant weather conditions.
Standout birds this November included the first Purple Finches of what would prove to be a record-breaking winter for them – with other normally-scarce species such as Black Scoter and Red-breasted Nuthatch also arriving in far larger than usual numbers.
Jason Loghry and I headed to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for my first proper visit this year (not counting the few post-dawn hours I spent at Brushline Road on January 1st), and racked up plenty of great sightings including Masked Booby, Roadside Hawk, and Hook-billed Kite.
In fact it was a spectacular month for hawks, with 16 species seen, pretty much a clean-up of all possible species including Zone-tailed and Ferruginous.
December 2018: Total species seen 164, total checklists 33. Year list as of 12/31: 384
The year ended with a bang with the finding of two excellent local rarities – in fact probably my two best “self found” birds in Texas to date: a Tropical Parula at Edith L Moore, which gave birders the runaround but eventually showed for most visitors; and a male Allen’s Hummingbird which became an increasingly regular visitor to our yard feeders in New Braunfels from mid-month onwards.
Neither of these birds was straightforward; my initial photos of the parula did not exclude a hybrid and it was almost a week until Janet Rathjen obtained the photos that did, while the hummingbird still hasn’t obliged for “spread tail” photos but the all-green back is a clincher and it has been accepted by eBird. It is still present and visiting the feeders regularly as of February 1st.
Another notable hummingbird was the male Calliope Hummingbird in New Braunfels on the last day of the year, which I saw thanks to some “insider info”. This is the regular returning male for at least the last 5 years, but which has not been reported on eBird since 2017 and I had no idea it was still present.
In summary, not quite a repeat of 2017’s 424 species, but a satisfying year nonetheless; I am hoping to make it back to West Texas in 2019 which should once again put the 400 species mark within reach.
Most birders keep lists of the birds they see. World lists, year lists, country lists, county lists, backyard lists – even lists of birds seen while doing something else. Those of us who enter all our bird sightings in eBird find that our lists are effortlessly compiled: eBird automatically keeps meticulous statistics for all the birds we see. With a couple of clicks of the mouse, I can find out which birds I have seen in Harris County this year; how many European Starlings I saw in my backyard in 2015 – and even how I rank against other birders for a particular patch, state, country or year.
With reference to the last category, I must admit to having been fairly obsessive with following the eBird rankings in 2017. I finished the year with 424 species on my Texas year list (although eBird lists me at 425 thanks to an escaped Orange-cheeked Waxbill which I do not count!). This put me at 10th for the year in Texas. Considering that most – or even perhaps all – of the nine birders ahead of me don’t have full time jobs, I feel pretty pleased with my total for the year.
Being a statistics nerd, I used eBird’s extensive records of my birding to compile a full report. The results are below:
Total number of species recorded: 424
This is the total number of species I saw and/or heard within the state of Texas in 2017, including established introduced species.
Total number of species seen: 423
The only bird I heard, but didn’t actually put my eyes on, during 2017 was Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Many birders submit “heard-only” owls and rails on their eBird checklists, but I generally prefer not to include these.
Total number of species seen, excluding non-native species: 410
Some birds live and breed in Texas, but are not naturally occurring. They are usually here as a result of human introductions. These range from the common and ubiquitous House Sparrow and European Starling, to several species of rare parrots in Brownsville. Even after removing these birds, I am still on well over 400 for the year.
Introduced species I saw in 2017 that I excluded from this list:
I do not enter obviously feral species such as Indian Peafowl, domestic-type Mallard, and Muscovy Duck on my eBird checklists.
There are several rare formerly naturally-occurring species which became extinct in the wild in Texas, and which have subsequently been reintroduced (Greater Prairie-Chicken and Aplomado Falcon). These would also have appeared on the “introductions” list above, had I seen them during 2017.
Total number of complete eBird checklists submitted: 328
This number excludes incomplete checklists (for example, when I recorded a single bird species incidentally while driving by). My total number of checklists including incomplete ones is in excess of 350.
Total number of counties birded: 75
There are 254 counties in Texas so this might not sound like much, but Texas is a very, very big place!
My birding in 2017 was concentrated in three main areas: Houston and the upper Gulf coast, the San Antonio/Austin corridor (where I spent many of my weekends), and to a lesser extent the Lower Rio Grande Valley. During the year, I made two long trips to West Texas, one in late spring and one in winter. I also made a short winter visit to the Panhandle.
Top ten counties in 2017:
The number in brackets is the number of bird species I saw in each county during the year:
Finally, I was able to compile data from eBird showing how many times I saw each bird species during the year. To be precise, this list shows how many checklists I recorded each species on in 2017. The data needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as I didn’t bird scientifically. For example, I birded one site in Harris and another in Comal many times during the year. Northern Cardinals are very common at both locations and I recorded them on every checklist from these two sites, which is one of the reasons why the number of Cardinal sightings is high. If I had regularly birded a mudflat instead, where Cardinals are absent, I would have recorded Cardinals on fewer checklists but (for example) Western Sandpipers on a lot more.
Also, I was year listing, which means that many target species were spotted only a small number of times. For example, Red-cockaded Woodpecker is easy to find at W G Jones State Forest near Houston, but I only recorded this species on one checklist because I only visited the site on one occasion. As soon as the bird was safely on my year list, I didn’t bother going back.
From these statistics, a visitor to Texas can get at least some idea of which birds are likely to be relatively easy or difficult to find.
I don’t feel I missed many birds during 2017. I failed to connect with a male Black-throated Blue Warbler in San Antonio early in the year, and I missed a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Brazoria County in fall. Some migrants passed me by in spring, including Alder Flycatcher, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Bobolink. My late May visit to west Texas was too late to connect with some of the migrant western birds such as Townsend’s Warbler, and I also tried twice (but failed) to see a wintering Townsend’s in Austin. I dipped Lucy’s Warbler at the Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend NP on a very windy morning.
Some species I got by the skin of my teeth: many of the migrant warblers I encountered just once (including Cerulean, Prairie, Blackpoll, Bay-breasted and Mourning). Hudsonian Godwit was a one-day wonder in spring, and my Clay-colored Sparrow at Quintana in late fall was down to pure luck after I had missed them at several much more reliable sites in central Texas. Northern Bobwhite and Audubon’s Oriole were both really tricky customers this year with just a single record of each.
Here’s to 2018 and a (slightly) more sedate Texas birding year!
To make absolutely sure I cleared 400 species this year in Texas, I reckoned a final trip out West was needed for some regular winterers in the plains, and a handful of mountain species in the Guadalupes. With a full nine days to play with, I figured I could also fit in my inaugural trip to the Panhandle for some more northerly wintering birds rarely found elsewhere in the state.
The trip got off to an excellent start with a very cooperative Sage Thrasher in Fort Stockton – which turned out to be the only individual of this species I saw.
Next up was Lake Balmorhea, simply a gorgeous location today when the sun was shining, the air was cool and calm, and the water was like glass. Lots of birds were showing in the bushes including some nice western wintering species: Brewer’s Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and Green-tailed Towhee. On the water, a Common Loon loafed near the expected Clark’s and Eared Grebes, and there was a party of three Common Mergansers, a nice bird anywhere in Texas:
I stayed overnight in Van Horn, and headed up to the Guadalupe Mountains before dawn the next day. In the plains, the outside temperature dipped as low as 19F (minus 7C). However, as I gained altitude on the drive up to Frijole Ranch, the temperature climbed, and by first light it was a much more comfortable 36F (2C).
Frijole Ranch was a hive of activity with large numbers of birds coming to drink and bathe in the spring near the old stone house. Highlights included two Juniper Titmice, which visited the area numerous times, but always moved through quickly and did not oblige for a photo. The Mountain Chickadees also wouldn’t sit still for my camera, but I had more luck photographing Steller’s Jay and a female Cassin’s Finch. This is turning out to be a great winter for irruptive montane species in Texas – all of the four birds mentioned above would be much harder to find in the state in a “normal” winter.
Nearby at Pine Springs, a Golden Eagle passed high overhead, two punk-hairstyled Phainopeplas showed well, and a curious Canyon Towhee decided the floorwell inside my car would be a good place to look for food. He was completely unconcerned that I was standing beside the car, less than three feet away.
With most of my mountain targets safely in the bag, and my year list target of 400 already exceeded, I descended to the lowlands to try for some raptors around Dell City during the afternoon. This scruffy little town in the shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains, close to the New Mexico border, is surrounded by mixed farmland and is an excellent location for open country birds in winter.
During the course of the afternoon I had repeated sightings of my two raptor targets, with at least eight individual Ferruginous Hawks and three Prairie Falcons seen. Other sightings included a Merlin, several Sagebrush Sparrows, and singles of both Grasshopper Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow, both of which are notable here.
The next morning I gradually worked my way west from Van Horn to El Paso with a few target birds in mind, successfully adding Gambel’s Quail, Crissal Thrasher and Anna’s Hummingbird to my list:
With an almost 100% success rate in hitting my target species, by early afternoon I had already decided to drive an additional four hours west to southern Arizona, where at least ten possible lifers lay in wait. By mid-evening I was within 20 miles of my chosen birding location, the Madera Canyon, and found a suitable spot to hunker down and sleep in the car.
The day dawned cloudy and a little breezy, but thankfully the forecast high winds never materialized. Before long I had ratcheted up many of my targets: Bridled Titmouse, Olive Warbler, Red-naped Sapsucker, Painted Redstart and Rufous-winged Sparrow.
The feeding station at Santa Rita Lodge is a fantastic place to while away a couple of hours watching the comings and goings of birds at the feeders – highlights here included Arizona Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch (a local rarity), and repeated views of several Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, although I have to say the old name Magnificent Hummingbird is more apt for such a large, impressive hummingbird!
Just up the road at the Madera Kubo B+B, I drew a blank with Elegant Trogon but a Hammond’s Flycatcher was seen well and there were several distinctively angry-looking Yellow-eyed Juncos among the numerous Dark-eyed Juncos:
An hour to the south near Sonoita, several Baird’s Sparrows had been reliably coming to a grassland water trough, but mid-afternoon was perhaps not the best time to look for them. I did repeatedly flush a likely suspect from the grass, which flew up from right under my feet but unfortunately disappeared into the grass each time without perching up, despite several attempts to drive it towards one of the few shrubs in the area! Flight views not being enough to clinch the identification, and not wanting to keep disturbing this bird, Baird’s Sparrow unfortunately has to remain “unticked”.
Another species here which never showed on the ground was Chestnut-collared Longspur. However, unlike Baird’s Sparrow the longspurs (about 90 of them in total, in several flocks) showed for prolonged periods in flight in excellent light conditions, enabling most of the ID features to be seen.
The following morning I embarked on another long drive and by early afternoon I was in New Mexico, at a very famous spot where all three North American Rosy-Finch species spend the winter.
Birders make the pilgrimage to Sandia Crest House, a cafe at the summit of a mountain a mile above Albuquerque, where seed is put out for the birds, and with luck all three species (Black Rosy-Finch, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch) may be seen in a large mixed flock.
All three Rosy-Finches are elusive, enigmatic denizens of the Alpine zone, and seeing them in summer entails going up to the often inaccessible peaks of North America’s highest mountains. In winter, they deign to descend a little lower, providing birders with a unique opportunity to catch up with them.
Nothing is ever simple in birding, however. After driving 450 miles from southern Arizona, I arrived at the summit of Sandia Crest at about 2.30pm to find the famous cafe closed. The sign on the door cheerily proclaims that the cafe is open every day of the year – apparently with the exception of the one day I decide to visit!
Moreover, it proved impossible to view the Rosy-Finch feeding area without entering the cafe, as the birds are fed on a high terrace. Slightly despondent, I wandered around until I spotted an empty bird table between the cafe and parking lot. I remembered I had some of Whole Foods’ delicious trail mix in my car, the kind with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Any self-respecting Rosy-Finch would be bound to enjoy that!
And so it proved. Not expecting a miracle, I put out my bait on the bird table and suddenly, a mercurial flock of Rosy-Finches appeared out of nowhere. I was lucky to get all three species in the one flock, including one individual of the rare Hepburn’s race of Gray-crowned:
I celebrated my Rosy-Finch success with an overnight stay in the relative luxury of a Super 8 motel (luxury compared to car camping that is!), and the following morning I enjoyed a walk in the crisp mountain air lower down in the Sandia Mountains. I was heading for one particular spot where Evening Grosbeaks regularly come to drink at a water trough. I didn’t get the grosbeaks, but did have a surprise lifer in the form of a stunning male Williamson’s Sapsucker:
Then I was on the road east again, passing back into Texas around lunchtime, and during the afternoon I started looking for some of my Panhandle targets. American Tree Sparrow and Cackling Goose made it onto the list, and a distant adult Golden Eagle was a nice bird to see in this area. My chosen location for the following morning was Lake Palo Duro, in the far north of the Panhandle just a few miles south of the Oklahoma border. This is a wonderful spot for birding, although the weather was quite seriously cold here with overnight lows around 19F (minus 7C) and a cold breeze blowing.
Unfortunately, the wind increased just an hour after sunrise, making it hard to find any passerines, and perhaps unsurprisingly in these conditions I dipped the Golden-crowned Sparrow that had been reported here on and off for several weeks. All was not lost, however, with numerous American Tree Sparrows at this site, several Harris’s Sparrows, a big flock of Mountain Bluebirds, and nice views of several raptors active later in the morning in the breezy conditions including Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon and Merlin.
I devoted much of the rest of the day to a hunt for longspurs. Three species – Lapland, McCown’s, and Chestnut-collared – winter in the Panhandle. Longspurs are never easy to find or to get good views of, and although I did find flocks in several locations, the only birds I positively identified were all Lapland Longspurs. One flock in a stubble field numbered some 250 birds, but I managed good views of no more than 10 individuals within this flock, and only very poor photos, as they were very restless and would fly up very regularly and relocate far away. It is highly likely there were a few McCown’s Longspurs among their number, but try as I might, I could not find one.
After another very long drive and a surprisingly good overnight sleep in the car, I found myself in suburban Arlington at first light, where I was lucky to connect with a small flock of regularly wintering Rusty Blackbirds in the parking lot. I then spent four very enjoyable hours at the excellent Fort Worth Nature Center, where several Tundra Swans and a Trumpeter Swan are wintering but often prove very elusive here. Such was the case for me and I didn’t see any swans, but I did enjoy great views of a number of birds I seldom see including Fox Sparrow, Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet. No year ticks among them but this is a superb site and I will be sure to return when next in this area.
My final year ticks for the trip were Horned Grebe and Eastern Towhee on the way back to Houston. This has been an exceptional first full year of birding in Texas, and with a lot of persistence and dedication (and driving!) I have managed to see more birds (415 species) than many people have on their lists after years of birding in the state. With an end-of-December trip to the LRGV still to go, I have set myself a new target of 420 species – one which I doubt I will have the opportunity to beat in 2018, but watch this space!
I made a dedicated (some would say crazy) attempt on Sunday to catch up with a number of year ticks and rarities scattered through the coastal Texas counties from Matagorda to Galveston. This involved making a 3.15am start and driving 180 miles from New Braunfels in order to be on the ground in rural Matagorda county at a traditional American Woodcock stakeout at first light. After that gruelling start to a Sunday, I thought that actually seeing the bird would be the easy part, but it was not to be. No sight nor sound of any Woodcocks in just over an hour of waiting and wandering around.
For a time, it also looked as if I would also dip my second target, Sprague’s Pipit, at a turf farm not far from the Woodcock site. Two hours of patient searching produced a Burrowing Owl and a ton of American Pipits, but no Sprague’s. I was on my way out of the area when I flushed a pipit from the verge which alighted on a nearby bare earth field, revealing its identity and pausing for long enough for me to reel off a couple of photos, before it flew high away uttering its highly distinctive squeaky call.
One out of two so far, but I was back to dipping mode in Lake Jackson, my next stop. I bumped into Tony Frank and Brad Lirette as I arrived, who had seen the wintering Black-throated Gray Warbler in Lynn Hay’s backyard just minutes before my arrival. No such luck for me, and bird activity was so low in the area that after an hour I decided that my time might be better spent elsewhere. It was an odd kind of day, very humid and overcast, not the sort of conditions that encourage wintering warblers to be actively feeding or calling. Lynn Hay said that the bird visited the yard perhaps twice a day, and seeing as I had just missed it, it might be a while before it came back. Today I had neither the time nor the patience to settle in for a long wait, as the day’s potential star bird was showing well at Surfside jetty and I was impatient to go and see it.
Elegant Tern is an extremely rare visitor to Texas. The two individuals in July on North Padre Island were “unblockers” for a lot of seasoned Texas listers. I couldn’t find sufficient motivation back in the height of summer to make the eight-hour round trip drive to go and see those birds. Fortunately, fate (and finder Arman Moreno) brought many Houston-based birders an early Christmas present in the form of a first-year Elegant Tern fishing along the jetty at Surfside in Brazoria county.
It was surprising to me how similar this bird was to the nearby Royal Terns in flight. Sure, there are subtle distinctions in size and build, and the bill of Elegant is definitely longer, thinner and a deeper orange-red compared to Royal, but overall it was very similar and I am sure a lot of birders would have simply overlooked it. No doubt it would have been relatively easy to pick it out among resting terns lined up on a beach, but this was an impressive find at this location as the bird was only ever seen in flight.
After getting my fill of the Elegant Tern, I drove north-east towards Galveston, stopping at San Luis Pass for a fairly easy encounter with the long-staying Fish Crow. The rule with crows is to look for the dumpsters and the local Great-tailed Grackle flock, and sure enough, my target bird was among them. It even posed for a photo while it took a late lunch of an item of trash. Not a year tick, the Fish Crow is fairly common at the edge of its range in easternmost Texas, but is almost unheard-of further west.
The afternoon was becoming very gloomy and even foggy. I figured it was a waste of time sticking around on Galveston. Hindsight proved me wrong, and had I checked Texbirds or eBird I would have noticed that the Tamaulipas Crow had been relocated at East Beach. Instead I opted to head home via Randolph Park in Friendswood, where a Brown Creeper has been regularly seen for several weeks in the same small area of parkland. It felt almost like twilight when I arrived, with very gloomy conditions and almost no bird activity. However, after I while I managed to locate a very subdued mixed feeding flock, and several times I heard the distinctive high-pitched call of my target bird, but it took a good 20 minutes before I was able to catch sight of it. The ensuing record photo, in conditions of near darkness, is a contender for the worst bird photo I have ever taken, but with a little imagination the distinctive shape of a Brown Creeper can just about be discerned towards the right hand side of the image.
Overall it was a cracking day with a lifer (Elegant Tern) and two year ticks (Sprague’s Pipit and Brown Creeper) putting me on 391 species for the year in Texas. All being well, next week’s West Texas clean-up should comfortably slingshot me past the magic 400 mark.
I’m finally getting the chance to update my blog, after what has been a very busy start to the birding year. With my wife Jenna leaving for India for three months on New Year’s Day, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. Should I start another year list? Considering I still had eight full days left in one of the best states for birding in the US, I decided the answer to that question had to be Yes.
I reckoned that seeing a minimum of 150 species before departing the USA on January 10th would be very achievable. In the event, I got a bit carried away and I was out in the field at every possibly opportunity between January 2nd-9th. By making sure I covered a wide variety of habitats, ranged over a large geographical area, and extensively used eBird to target known rarities, I amassed a total of 205 bird species in those eight days. That put me comfortably in first place among year-listing eBirders in Texas by January 10th, eight birds ahead of my closest rival. I was also briefly in the top 6 of all birders nationwide, although of course my ranking will swiftly fall now that I’ve left the United States with no likely prospect of a return for the rest of the year.
Here’s a day by day breakdown of where I went, and what I saw:
January 2nd: Having done virtually no birding on New Year’s Day, I kicked off my year in earnest on 2nd with a morning visit to Kleb Woods, in north-west Houston. The site speciality here is wintering Rufous Hummingbird, and it also offers a tantalising chance of other scarce species such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Dark-eyed Junco – however, the hummingbird was the only class A bird to show for me here today.
I followed up this gentle start with a few hours in the afternoon along Sharp Road, on nearby Katy Prairie, where my main target was Harris’s Sparrow, a range-restricted wintering bird and surely among the most handsome of sparrows. Not only did I find several Harris’s Sparrows, but I lucked in on a huge flock of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese in a field next to the road. Searching through winter goose flocks is one of my favorite birding activities, and patient scanning often yields the reward of an unusual species – in this case, several dainty-billed, pure white Ross’s Geese.
After the sun went down, I drove south towards Aransas National Wildlife Reserve, where I slept in the car outside the gates until the reserve opened at 7am the next morning.
January 3rd: There is nothing quite like starting a new birding day already on location and ready to go from first light – especially if that location is one of the world’s most famous birding sites! First of all I had a quick look for “my” Prairie Warbler along the Heron Flats trail, unfortunately without success. This bird, which I originally found on December 14th, has now been seen in the area at least half a dozen times by various observers. Today I could find nothing in this class of rarity, although a Pyrrhuloxia along the auto loop was quite an unusual Aransas bird – there seems to have been a larger-than-usual influx of this attractive species into south Texas this winter.
Rarities aside, Aransas is a great site to get some quality wintering birds safely onto the list, and of course, no winter visit to Texas would be complete without paying homage to the Whooping Cranes.
Four hours at Aransas was enough to get most of the expected birds, and at around 11.30am I started to head south. Indian Point, a coastal marsh just north of Corpus Christi, is a convenient quick birding stop along the way, and on this occasion it proved very fruitful. Approaching slowly in my car, I got to within 15 feet of a small flock of dowitchers that were right next to the road – close enough to see by the heavily mottled breast that they were Short-billed Dowitchers and not the very similar Long-billed.
Next up was Chapman Ranch, a vast area of open fields south of Corpus Christi. Disaster struck when I decided to follow a farm track, and immediately got my rental car firmly stuck in thick, soft mud. As I walked to get help at a nearby farmhouse, I flushed three Northern Bobwhite – my second sighting of this fairly scarce quail already this year, which could only be a good omen for the timely release of my car! With the help of an elderly Mexican farmer, I managed to get my car free from its swampy sinkhole with only about 30 minutes of the birding day wasted. Fortunately the birds proved to be very obliging after that episode, with four “staked out” wintering Say’s Phoebes and a Greater Roadrunner in more or less exactly the same spots I had seen them a few weeks previously.
Later in the afternoon, I drove slowly along farm road 12, which has virtually no traffic. Several large flocks of Sandhill Cranes were a fine sight in roadside fields, but better still were a small party of Lark Sparrows close to the car, and three Sprague’s Pipits which gave prolonged views, although unfortunately just a little too far away for a good photo with my “point-and-shoot” camera.
As dusk fell, I continued south to the Rio Grande Valley, staying overnight in a motel in – where else? – Harlingen, where amenities including a huge HEB supermarket and a Starbucks cater for all the needs of a nomadic birder.
January 4th: I had set aside the entire day today for a visit to Estero Llano Grande State Park, which is perhaps the premier birding site in the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley. The number and diversity of birds to be found here – in such a small area – is astounding. Seeing 100 species in a winter day here ought to be possible, although most eBirders seem to stay for 3-4 hours and come away with a list of 70-80 birds.
Personal highlights this morning included a Virginia Rail (with a broken foot!) feeding alongside a Sora, a fine Nashville Warbler in exactly the same spot where I found a male Painted Bunting last month, with an Altamira Oriole also there, a roosting Common Pauraque, an Eastern Screech-Owl at its nest box, a group of six Red-crowned Parrots flying over, and three species of hummingbird at the feeders (Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied). The hummingbirds seemed to spend almost all of their time chasing away rivals, rather than actually feeding, which is surprising because these tiny birds need to feed almost constantly in order to take on board enough calories to power their super-fast metabolisms.
Returning to the visitor center, my plans for the day changed somewhat when I bumped into local birder Huck Hutchens. It turned out that nearby birding hotspot Frontera Audobon Center was opening today – unusually for a Monday – on account of the popularity of several long-staying rarities: Tropical Parula, Black-headed Grosbeak, and especially the star of the show, Crimson-collared Grosbeak.
It was my first visit to Frontera and initially I found it to be a very frustrating place. Sight lines in the forest are poor, as the trees are dense and low. The Crimson-collared Grosbeak prefers feeding on several different types of seeds that grow on small trees, so I focused on checking the middle storey of the canopy between about 8-15 feet off the ground. When I eventually located the bird, it was feeding very unobtrusively in the densest part of a tree. Although large and chunky, with its predominantly olive-green plumage and slow, infrequent movements it was very hard to spot – in fact when I saw it at around 12.30pm I was the first birder to see it that day.
I had no luck with the other two rarities present, although I did locate a few other quality birds including a Hermit Thrush, a Black-throated Green Warbler (a female individual with no black whatsoever on the throat!), and my personal first USA sighting of Clay-colored Thrush (this is a common tropical species whose range only just extends into southernmost Texas).
My next port of call was a busy industrial area at Progreso, literally within a stone’s throw of the Mexican border post. The grain silos here are a regular winter location for Yellow-headed Blackbird. On arrival at the site, I could see a huge, dense flock of cowbirds and blackbirds feeding around the silos, numbering thousands of birds. Finding the Yellow-headed Blackbirds – especially the bright-headed males – was the work of a moment, and a quick sweep of the flock produced a count of 13 although more may well have been present. Brown-headed Cowbirds were by far the most numerous birds, although fair numbers of Bronzed Cowbirds were here as well, the latter another personal USA tick.
In mid-afternoon I returned to Estero Llano Grande, and spent the last few hours of this beautiful sunny day wandering the trails, starting in the Tropical Zone, where a Grey Catbird was feeding in the open on a grass verge but I didn’t find the hoped-for Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Back on the main reserve I teamed up with Houston-based birder Dean Gregory, and added another ten species to my list from this morning, making for a very respectable Estero Llano Grande day total of 88 species. Our first good find this afternoon was a group of three Nashville Warblers; today for some reason this species was widely reported by visiting birders, obviously there had been a small influx.
Next, as we walked the trail from the levee towards Alligator Lake, Dean noticed a sparrow feeding quietly at the edge of the path, which kept disappearing into the grass but would come and feed out in the open when all was quiet. This skulking behaviour piqued our interest and we eventually got good enough views – and photos – to confirm that it was a Cassin’s Sparrow, a bird not often recorded at this site.
As dusk fell, I got in the car and drove for an hour or so to South Padre Island, where I had found a deal in a Super 8 motel for just $32 – exceptionally good value for a night halt in the US.
Today’s Highlights: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Cassin’s Sparrow, Common Pauraque, Eastern Screech-Owl, Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, Buff-bellied, Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Nashville and Black-throated Green Warblers, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Clay-colored and Hermit Thrushes, Red-crowned Parrot, Green Parakeet, Virginia Rail.
2016 total species so far: 160
January 5th: Today was to be a quick-tick day, chasing around various sites to hopefully pick up one or two key species at each one. This kind of birding is often hit-or-miss, but my lucky streak was continuing and I managed to find almost all of my targets.
Just after first light I was in position overlooking the wetlands next to the South Padre Island convention center, just a couple of miles from my night halt motel, staring through my telescope at a flock of Black Skimmers on a sandbar. In this unusual species, the lower mandible (bottom half of the bill) is longer than the upper – virtually unique in the bird world. Black Skimmer was a long-overdue lifer for me, one of the few remaining Texan coastal birds I still needed, and I ended up seeing flocks of them in three separate locations by January 9th. Funny how that often happens with birding – after you’ve seen a species once, even if you wait for it for years, you often see it again several times in quick succession. This week, this happened to me not only with Black Skimmer but also Marbled Godwit and Northern Bobwhite.
Dean had given me some good info for an Aplomado Falcon site, viewable from highway 100 near Laguna Vista. Parking as instructed in a turnaround next to a small blue building, I scanned the rows of pylons opposite, and there it was – an Aplomado Falcon perched on the T-bar of a pylon, distant but seen well through my telescope.
Ahead of schedule, I continued west to the Palo Alto Battlefield historic site, where Cactus Wren was my main target. At the end of the concrete pathway, past the battlefield overlook pavilion, the habitat looked good with dry scrub and patches of cactus plants. Taking my chances with the snakes, I left the trail and started creeping through the scrub, pausing every once in a while for some “pishing”. This approach paid dividends with not only a Cactus Wren popping up to see what was going on, but also Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, two Olive Sparrows, a Cassin’s Sparrow, and a Curve-billed Thrasher! I also flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhites here.
Back at the parking lot, several Great Kiskadees were noisy and conspicuous, and I had close views of a Western Meadowlark, its yellow submoustachial distinguishing it from the Eastern Meadowlark. In fact the only bird I felt I had missed here was Verdin, but I figured I would have another excellent chance to see it at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio at the weekend.
Next up was a rather insalubrious but very famous birding destination, the Brownsville landfill site. Formerly known as the only reliable place in the US to see Tamaulipas Crow, this small corvid was last regularly seen here in 2010. However, the landfill remains a good location for gulls, and especially my target bird here: Chihuahuan Raven.
On arrival at the site, I was informed that due to the recent heavy rainfall, the landfill itself was off-limits to visiting birders because of the risk of the waste collapsing. Getting trapped under a falling mountain of rotting trash could really ruin your whole day! However, by parking just to the left of the landfill entrance, I could view the site and adjacent lakes distantly through my telescope. Birds were exceedingly numerous on top of the waste mountains where earthmovers pushed the trash around, and men in jump suits were wandering around doing who knows what. It didn’t take long to find a pair of Chihuahuan Ravens, but views were very distant and I kept losing the birds among the throngs of gulls, grackles and vultures. While I was standing there watching the birds, the site manager approached me and offered to personally guide me through the safer parts of the landfill, if I wanted a closer look. While it was a very kind offer, I politely declined as my target bird was already on my list, and I had absolutely no desire to get closer to the piles of stinking, putrid garbage.
An unexpected bonus bird here was a Tropical Kingbird, giving prolonged views right in front of me – this individual was readily distinguishable from the very similar Couch’s Kingbird by its long, thin-based bill and grey-toned mantle, although it was not heard to call.
The lure of a long-staying Golden-crowned Warbler and several other rarities at Refugio was drawing me back north, so after a quick lunch I hit the highway. Notable along the way was a Harris’s Hawk right next to the road near Raymondville, several Brewer’s Blackbirds at the Sarita rest stop, and a small flock of Pyrrhuloxia at King Ranch. I wasted some time at the latter site looking for Wild Turkey, with no luck, before continuing northwards and arriving at Lions Park, Refugio, at around 3.45pm.
It was cold, breezy and very overcast here, and I didn’t fancy my chances – and the looks on the faces of the departing birders said it all, with no confirmed sightings of the Golden-crowned Warbler today. However, a Summer Tanager had been spotted, and the distinctive “pip-pip” call of an elusive Greater Pewee had been heard, although it was not certain whether anyone had actually laid eyes on the bird.
It turned out that I was to find none of these three headline species, but my visit was made more than worthwhile with the discovery of a magnificent Barred Owl. Walking one of the more distant trails in the northern part of the park, I rounded a corner to come face to face with the owl which was perched on a broken tree stump about 4 feet off the ground. This was at around 4.50pm, and I hesitate to say “in broad daylight” as it was a very gloomy afternoon, which is perhaps what prompted this nocturnal owl to be out and about so early. Realising I was there, the bird flushed and flew up into a nearby tree, where it peered at me for a while before flying off deeper into the forest. Although much less rare in the US than a Golden-crowned Warbler, I would take a Barred Owl sighting any day over the warbler, which is a widespread species in tropical Latin America.
Also in the general area, I saw at least one Wilson’s Warbler, a White-eyed Vireo, and a small flock of Pine Siskins – an overall very respectable haul from the park, and I went away well satisfied despite missing the rarities here.
Feeling somewhat tired, I elected for an early night in a motel in Victoria, in preparation for a very early start and three-hour drive to the Galveston area next morning.
January 6th: I was on the road early, driving through relentless heavy rain around dawn which made the prospects for the day look less than appealing. Fortunately, the rain stopped as I neared the Galveston area, and by the time I arrived at the Texas City Dike we were back to a familiar weather pattern of cold, breezy and overcast.
The dike is drivable, allowing for nice easy birding from the comfort of the car. Before long, I found the first of my targets – Common Loon, also known as Great Northern Diver, which is what I grew up calling it in the UK. The 15 individuals I counted here is probably double my previous all-time total for this species, which is a scarce winter visitor in southern England and usually only seen singly.
American Oystercatcher was another target bird that I also located without difficulty, although it is very scarce in number here compared to other shorebirds – unlike oystercatcher species in the UK and New Zealand which can be abundant at favored sites.
A lone Piping Plover here made it onto the list earlier than expected (Bolivar shorebird sanctuary was my planned site for this species), and a Common Tern was another unexpected find – it is rare and irregular in winter on the Gulf coast, usually wintering much farther south.
I drove south, across to Galveston Island, where I unsurprisingly failed to find the reported American Tree Sparrow on 8 Mile Road in windy conditions. With time rapidly ticking away, I decided to take the ferry across to Bolivar Island for some guaranteed year birds at the shorebird sanctuary there. Sure enough, a few individuals of both Semipalmated Plover and Snowy Plover were quickly located, alongside more Piping Plovers, but the dunes didn’t yield the hoped-for Horned Lark. An American Pipit on Rettilon Road was welcome, and I tried a spot of “pishing” along there which produced a Marsh Wren and abundant Swamp Sparrows. No luck with Seaside Sparrow, which is quickly moving up the ranks to become one of my “most wanted” Texas birds, but the viewing conditions on this gloomy and windy afternoon were far from ideal.
Having come this far, it was logical that I continue around the loop and call in at Anahuac NWR on the way back to Houston. Between the Skillern Tract entrance and the main gates, a huge Snow Goose flock had me pulling over and scanning. I was crossing my fingers that a Cackling Goose was somewhere in the flock, but I had no joy, and I didn’t look too closely for Ross’s Goose, having seen them the other day at Katy Prairie. Nearby, an impressive flock of blackbirds and grackles foraged near a grain machine on a pasture next to the road. A quick scan through the flock produced not only several of the expected Boat-tailed Grackles (slightly smaller, rounder-headed, and duller-eyed than the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle), but also a female Yellow-headed Blackbird. The latter bird is rare here, and had I not seen them the other day at Progreso would have been a real five-star sighting. As I later learned on eBird, there were up to three individual Yellow-headed Blackbirds reported here today.
The Shoveler Pond Loop at Anahuac is where my two remaining targets were located, and sure enough it took all of about one minute to locate large numbers of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, alongside a handful of Fulvous Whistling Ducks. No sign, however, of the Canvasbacks I had seen here a few weeks back. The most remarkable sighting in this area was a steady passage of Tree Swallows, with a total of several hundred seen, and birds constantly in view overhead or hawking insects low over the marshes.
Today’s Highlights: Semipalmated, Piping, and Snowy Plovers, Common Loon, American Oystercatcher, Common Tern, Boat-tailed Grackle, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Fulvous Whistling Duck.
2016 total species so far: 188
January 7th: Back in Houston, I took the rental car back in the early morning (thankfully the heavy rain had cleaned most of the mud off!), and rediscovered the much greater comfort – but lesser fuel economy – of my usual Jaguar Vanden Plas, a car I borrowed from the in-laws.
I could only spare a few hours this afternoon, and the obvious choice was Bear Creek Park, only about 15 minutes from home. A Greater Pewee has spent the last several winters in the park, but it can apparently be a very tough bird to locate, so I wasn’t counting on seeing it. However, several absentees from my year list such as Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird should be guaranteed here, plus there was a fair chance of Pileated Woodpecker.
The Greater Pewee is usually seen around toilet blocks 9 and 10, so I naturally decided to focus on this area. I was in for a surprise when I arrived, as the road was closed due to excessive flooding – in fact this part of the park was almost completely underwater. Not to be deterred, I took my socks and shoes off, rolled up my trousers, and waded across to toilet block 9.
Apart from the flooding, viewing conditions this afternoon were perfect, with clear sunny skies and zero wind. Birds were everywhere, not only including my dead cert targets Tufted Titmouse and Eastern Bluebird, but also Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Pileated Woodpecker seen on several occasions, and gorgeous Pine Warblers in most of the mixed species bird flocks along with Chipping Sparrows. At around 4.20pm, I was preparing to leave when I heard the loud “pip-pip” call of the Greater Pewee, which once heard is never forgotten. A few seconds later, the bird appeared in the treetops next to toilet block 9, and although it remained high in the trees it did give some good views. This is an easy bird to identify, with its large size, crest, upright posture, and orange lower mandible, as well as the distinctive call which it uttered constantly.
January 8th: I took my parents-in-law to Sheldon Lake this morning, a beautiful and under-visited state park less than 30 minutes from downtown Houston. My main target here was Le Conte’s Sparrow, which winter in small numbers in the marshy prairies here. It turns out that this species is very responsive to “pishing”, so seeing them turned out to be easier than expected – we just stood in the middle of the boardwalk, pished, and voila….. three Le Conte’s Sparrows popped up to take a closer look at us. Sedge Wren is another bird that has a weakness for pishing, and we saw two of those too, as well as abundant Swamp Sparrows.
From the top of the impressive viewing tower, some hirundines were flying about, and in complete contrast to the monospecies passage of Tree Swallows at Anahuac the other day, this relatively tiny group of swallows contained three species: Tree Swallow, several Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and a single Cave Swallow. The long-staying Great Kiskadee and a lone Anhinga were also seen from atop the tower, although views across to downtown Houston were less than stellar owing to the misty weather conditions.
Today’s Highlights: Le Conte’s Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cave Swallow, Great Kiskadee, Anhinga.
2016 total species so far: 195
January 9th: My last chance to get out into the field before I left the country for Vietnam. Last night, I had driven over to New Braunfels to spend a couple of nights at my parents-in-law’s weekend home, and when I awoke at 6.00am on Saturday morning I was perfectly positioned to make the 45-minute drive to Mitchell Lake Audobon Center in San Antonio. If anywhere offered me the chance to break through the magic 200 species mark today, it was here ….. the site has a long and impressive list of birds to its credit, and I figured that at least half a dozen year ticks ought to be possible in a morning’s birding.
I started at the visitor center, and very quickly got on the score sheet with a male House Finch at the feeders. Another enjoyable sight here – although not a year tick – was a Harris’s Sparrow feeding alongside a small group of White-crowned Sparrows. I later learned that a Green-tailed Towhee had been seen and photographed under the feeders that morning, a bird I would have waited for had I known it was around. Still, I was satisfied with my start to the day. On the trail to the bird lake I notched up a Red-shouldered Hawk in the woods, another year tick, while in an open area of the trail a Vesper Sparrow foraged on the ground. Three new year birds already, now up to 198 in total, and I was feeling good about breaking 200.
I have my wife to thank for what happened next. She called me on the phone as I was leaving the area, and, anticipating a long conversation, I retraced my steps back to the bird lake where there was a bench to sit on. As I sat there, half watching the nearby scrub, a noticed a flash of yellow. Raising my binoculars to my eyes with one hand while I held the phone in the other, I was astounded to see a stunning adult Audubon’s Oriole right there in front of me. Needless to say I dropped the phone and picked up my camera. By then the bird had dropped lower into the bushes, but I did still manage to get a record shot. Audubon’s Oriole is a range-restricted bird found only in northern Mexico and southern Texas, and it is apparently scarce throughout its range – Mitchell Lake is one of the best sites for this species, although it is infrequently seen even here.
Given the recent rainfall, the dyke roads into the heart of the reserve were closed to traffic today – and even if they had been open, I don’t think I would have risked driving them, given my recent experience getting stuck in the mud at Chapman Ranch. So I parked the car, and as I was preparing to start walking, there it was …. my 200th species for 2016, a Verdin hunting for insects in low scrub. I had done it, the pressure was off! Still, I had plenty of time to add to my total, and that I soon did with a nice flock of 37 Bonaparte’s Gulls on one of the lakes. This was actually a USA tick for me, with my only other sighting of this species being in the UK, where it is a rare but annual visitor.
With my telescope, I scanned the main lake with two target ducks in mind, and achieved a 50% success rate: I saw three distant Hooded Mergansers, but drew a blank with Canvasback.
It was good to walk the dyke roads for a change instead of driving them: Song Sparrow and Bewick’s Wren were two interesting birds that I doubt I would have seen if I had been in my car. Another was a briefly-seen Empidonax flycatcher, species uncertain. I had just a two-second look at it, enough time to start uttering “what the …..” to myself, before the bird promptly disappeared. It didn’t call, which is the crucial distinguishing feature among a number of Empidonax species which are more or less identical in terms of plumage. All I saw when it briefly sat on a open perch was that the bird had a very upright posture, was a light olive-green in color, with two prominent whitish wingbars, had a big eye with a striking broad, white eye-ring, and a two-toned bill.
Having rounded off a very successful trip to Mitchell Lake, I knew exactly where I could easily get my final two birds for the USA this year: Landa Park in New Braunfels. Sure enough, it took all of about 30 seconds to find both Wood Duck and Egyptian Goose, the latter not yet technically countable by the ABA, but acceptable for me as they have a free-flying, self-sustaining – and rapidly growing – population here.
The question of provenance was also raised by a pair of Mallards, which were pure-bred birds unlike the “domestic-type” Mallards that are resident here. These two kept their distance from the domestic birds, and could very conceivably have been wild-origin ducks enjoying an easy winter in the park in the same way as the wild Lesser Scaups and Wood Ducks.
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