As many of you know, Avocet Tours works in conjunction with British based Limosa Holidays. Basically Limosa rounds up the people, almost always from the U.K., and sends them over to North America, where I meet them and give them a great birding experience. April 11, I left home in Kelowna, BC, and made my way to Houston, Texas, via Calgary. It was quite a bumpy flight, with plenty of turbulence over the foothills in Alberta. Before the plane came to a stop in Houston, I saw a lovely Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sail by my tiny window.
I spent the morning of April 12, doing some scouting at Jesse Jones Nature Park, a lovely forested patch of land in suburban Houston, not far from George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The mixed forest here has many different species of deciduous hardwood trees as well as Loblolly and Shortleaf pines. I racked up about 30 species as I strolled the trails, perhaps the best of which was a pair of Prothonotary Warblers.
Other birds I heard and or saw included White-eyed, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed vireos, Northern Parula, Pine Warbler, Red-headed and Red-bellied woodpeckers, Red-shouldered Hawk, Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Wren to name a few.
My group of 8 arrived at 2:30 PM on a British Airways flight from London, but it took until 4 PM for everybody to clear customs and gather their luggage. First birds of the tour as we made the short transfer to the hotel included Barn Swallow and Rock Pigeon. I had to remind the ‘Brits’ to contain their excitement. We had a look at the little pond behind our hotel and were quite surprised to find a nice variety of shorebirds. There were several each of Lesser and Greater yellowlegs as well as a couple of Solitary Sandpipers and a Killdeer. Also wading along the waters’ edge was a Snowy Egret and a Green Heron.
Our first full day of birding, April 13, was spectacular. Overcast skies and forecast thunderstorms threatened to be a problem, but the worst we encountered was a light drizzle for about 20 minutes. W.G. Jones State Forest, about 30 minutes north of Houston is where we began our birding. The forest here is managed directly for one of the USA’s endemic species (endemic meaning a species found only in one country in the world), the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. These rather quiet and shy woodpeckers depend on forest fire to renew their habitat, so the understory is burned off annually. The species is colonial and nest trees are marked with white or green bands. Unlike other woodpeckers, Red-cockadeds don’t make much noise, and they don’t do much drumming, so finding them can be a challenge. We were lucky today and had fantastic views of 4 or so. Still, in all the times I’ve seen this species, I’ve never actually seen the namesake ‘red cockades’. Other woodpeckers put on a nice show here as well, with nice sightings of Pileated, Red-bellied and Downy woodpeckers. The other real ‘target bird’ of the piney-woods is the Brown-headed Nuthatch. These slightly larger look-a-likes of Pygmy Nuthatches, have a distinctive rubber ducky squeaky call note. We did eventually get very nice looks at them as they dangled amongst the pine cones. Eastern Bluebirds are doing well here also, most likely due to the great number of bluebird boxes scattered throughout the forest. We watched Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, White-throated Sparrow and Ruby-throated Hummingbird come in to feeders. Summer Tanagers were fantastic to see, as usual, glowing brilliant red against the sombre gray sky.
After lunch at…..guess where?? Subway, we visited Jesse Jones Nature Park. Again, we were treated to fantastic scope views of a male Pileated Woodpecker. We tried to turn every Red-bellied Woodpecker we saw into a Red-headed, but no luck today. We did see Pine Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Broad-winged Hawk and several other species here. Along the Cypress Boardwalk a Prothonotary Warbler gave us a frustratingly fast, but good view. A male Northern Parula sang right out in the open for us. Around the visitors center at feeders were Chipping Sparrow, House Finch, Blue Jay and several Eastern Gray Squirrels. I didn’t snap a single picture today unfortunately….will try to get some tomorrow though.