April 15 – Our first bit of birding was in some flooded rice fields along Hwy 124, between Winnie and High Island this morning. There was a nice assortment of shorebirds here including several American Golden Plovers! Also in the mix were Pectoral Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, both Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Black-bellied and Semipalmated plovers, Black-necked Stilts and several very nice Stilt Sandpipers. Along FM 1985 birding continued to be excellent as we stopped in a short grassy field to view an Upland Sandpiper right close to the road. In a recently plowed field we scanned through more shorebirds finding three lovely Buff-breasted Sandpipers, our only for the tour. Just then, two adult Peregrine Falcons buzzed through spooking hundreds of shorebirds into shimmering clouds in the sky. Also along FM 1985 were the typical open country species including Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow and Loggerhead Shrike. A nice adult light morph Swainson’s Hawk circled low overhead giving us excellent views. A stop at a culvert over the roadway produced a mixed group of Cliff and Cave swallows, excellent for comparison.
The rest of the morning was spent at the fabulous Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where our first stop was at Skillern Tract. Here, we had the usual wetland species such as Marsh Wren, Common Gallinule, Mottled Duck and White Ibis.
In the very fragrant honeysuckle along the trail was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and we logged our first White-crowned Sparrows of the tour here.
A drive around Shoveler Pond yielded several Least Bitterns as well as about a dozen singing Marsh Wrens. We had our first and only views of Swamp Sparrows here, along with excellent looks at displaying Boat-tailed Grackles.
Soras called around the marsh and one was seen briefly. Common were Neotropic Cormorants, Black-bellied and Fulvous whistling-ducks, Black-necked Stilts and Northern Shovelers. We popped into the visitors center before leaving, and lucky we did since a man excitedly told us he had seen 2 Hudsonian Godwits nearby. We raced off and found the birds in with several Long-billed Dowitchers. I looked up and saw 7 birds coming in to land and they too were Hudsonian Godwits so we had 9 in total. Score!
Once we had finished exploring Anahuac we made our way to High Island where we checked in at Boy Scout Woods first of all. Nothing too much had been seen here so we quickly moved over to Smith Oaks where we enjoyed watching the busy heronry for the first half hour or so of our visit. There were hundreds of birds nesting here, including Roseate Spoonbills, Great and Snowy egrets, Tricolored Herons and Neotropic Cormorants. The sights and sounds of the nesting colony was fantastic, as usual.
We then shifted our attention over to migrant passerines in the trees of Smith Oaks. Again, it was a fairly busy day here, with the likes of Orchard and Baltimore orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker present. Warbler numbers were somewhat low, but we still picked up Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Northern Parula, Tennessee Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, a single Blackburnian Warbler, Black-and-white Warblers, Yellow Warbler, and a stunning male Golden-winged Warbler. We were shown our first Yellow-billed Cuckoo by a group of British birders. All in all, it was a pretty darn good afternoon.
April 16 – Today we made our way east from Winnie stopping first and Taylor’s Bayou, an area that produced some great sightings this morning. Perhaps the best of all was a hooting Barred Owl in the pines above us, our sixth owl species for the tour. Other highlights included several eye-popping Prothonotary Warblers and our first Yellow-throated Warbler. A pair of Wood Ducks were added to our list as they disappeared into the vegetation at the edge of the bayou. Red-bellied Woodpeckers called loudly and showed themselves nicely, and after some searching we finally found ourselves a pair of Fish Crows. Also a highlight, we had great views of an Acadian Flycatcher in the bayou.
Feeling we had done well at the bayou we continued east towards the Louisiana border, and birded along the Pilot Station Road at Texas Point. Here we saw at least half a dozen Soras crossing the road at various times and had great views of Clapper Rails doing the same. Out in the marsh we watched at least two Seaside Sparrows through the scope and Josh was lucky enough to get a great view of the rather elusive Sedge Wren here. Shorebirds included two American Oystercatchers and about a hundred American Avocets.
After lunch we made our way to Sabine Woods just as the sky opened up in a torrential downpour of epic proportions. We waited it out for an hour or so and then dashed into the woods only to get absolutely soaked when the rain quickly returned. The trails had turned into lakes and there was no avoiding getting soaked feet. Finally the rain did stop in the mid afternoon and the birds arrived in numbers. Our warbler list grew with the addition of a lovely Louisiana Watertrush, and Josh was able to finally get a great look at a Worm-eating Warbler and a glowing orange Blackburnian Warbler. Thrushes seemed to be everywhere with Swainson’s, Wood, Veery and Gray-cheeked present. An Eastern Wood-Pewee was new for us, and we enjoyed another view of Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Another birder in the woods suddenly yelled out ‘Swallow-tailed Kite overhead’ and we looked up to see the graceful kite sail low over the treetops. What a treat. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds appeared to be everywhere and I estimated there were between 30-40 of them busily feeding in the woods, obviously tired from an exhausting journey through the rain across the Gulf. The day wore on and reluctantly we had to leave since we still needed to make our way to Houston. The drive was not particularly fun as the very heavy rain and thunder and lightning continued until we neared the south edge of the city. Thunder and lightning continued into the night as well.
April 17 – Our last day of birding in Texas took us into the Pineywoods, north of Houston where we began with a pleasant walk through the trees in Jones State Forest. Overnight rains had passed and we enjoyed the sunshine more than ever this morning. Birds were active and with a little persistence we tracked down some exciting species. Especially exciting were several Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, an endangered species endemic to the USA. Red-headed Woodpeckers showed off from the tops of dead trees and the red really glowed in the sun this morning. We had spectacular views of a Yellow-breasted Chat that sat in the bushes close to the trail in a most un-chat-like manner. As we were watching the chat, a Red-shouldered Hawk sailed past.
Brown-headed Nuthatches, another pineywoods specialty, showed off nicely, with one pair sitting snuggled up together preening one another on the branches of a Loblolly Pine. Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Eastern Bluebird and Blue Jay also were seen nicely here. A walk along the Middle Lake Trail produced many species we had already seen, but one nice addition was a Pileated Woodpecker. We had a chance to play ‘catch-up’ as Lin was able to finally get a view of Eastern Wood-Pewee and Josh caught up with House Wren. We had done very well in the pineywoods and after lunch we made our way back to Houston.
After a drive through the heart of the bustling city of Houston we arrived at Sims Bayou Nature Center where we watched dozens of White-winged Doves, as well as Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker and House Sparrow at the feeders. Our target bird, Monk Parakeet, showed up just as we were about to leave, a fine ending to our fabulous tour. We had seen 262 species in 8 days, a formidable total. It was a joy to travel with Josh and Lin and I hope to be able to do it again in the future.
Chris Charlesworth, Avocet Tours