Having met up with my group the previous afternoon, the tribe of 8 ‘Brits’ were keen to get out in the field and do some birding after a night’s rest. The weather forecast did not look good today with rain and thundershowers called for. Luckily the rain never did happen, apart from a little ‘mizzle’ as the Brits might say.
We began birding at W.G. Jones State Forest about 35 minutes north of Houston where we spent the morning exploring the piney-woods. Our first stop took us into the heart of a colony of endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, which proved quite hard to see, though we did get brief views of one, thanks to John Coons and his group. We saw quite a few other species while looking for the Red-cockaded, including the tiny Downy Woodpecker and the largest living woodpecker in North America, the Pileated Woodpecker. We saw a number of common eastern North American forest birds for the first time this morning; Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Eastern Bluebird and Pine Warbler among others. The most obliging Yellow-breasted Chat in the world sat still for about 5 minutes while we enjoyed scope views. We heard an Eastern Screech-Owl call several times, but couldn’t locate where the sound was coming from. Though some of the group saw a Nutria the previous day, our first official mammal for the trip list was an Eastern Fox Squirrel.
After a short ‘pit-stop’ to use the facilities and pick up lunch to go, we headed for another trail in Jones State Forest, suggested by a local birder as a good place to look for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. His advice was spot on and it
didn’t take us long to find a Red-cockaded Woodpecker foraging in a small burned pine tree at eye level! We saw Red-bellied Woodpecker here as well to top it off. We also ran into a ‘celebrity birder’ if there is such a thing. Sandy Komito, of ‘The Big Year’ fame walked and chatted with us for a while, entertaining us with his stories.
We ate lunch then had a walk along the Middle Lake Trail, picking up yet another woodpecker, this time in the form of several stunning Red-headed Woodpeckers. Could it really get any better? When a male Hooded Warbler appeared on the seen, the group buzzed with excitement. Another highlight was a great sighting of a male Summer Tanager through the scope. White-eyed Vireo showed quite well here this afternoon.
To finish off the day we explored Jesse Jones Nature Park near Houston International, where the new birds just kept
coming. The first day or two of a tour sure are exciting when new birds come a dime a dozen. The star highlight here was a pair of Prothonotary Warblers hanging around a cypress swamp. I gave my best Barred Owl imitation and within a few minutes one of the group members yelled out ‘owl’, just as it leaped into the air and flew off, leaving us wanting a better look. Northern Parulas sang their buzzy songs from the trees which were cloaked in Spanish Moss. Three Red-shouldered Hawks soared overhead at once, and we saw one perched briefly near the visitor’s center. Feeders outside the visitors center had House Finches, Blue Jays, Red-headed Woodpecker, Mourning Dove and Carolina Chickadee as well as the ever opportunistic Eastern Gray Squirrel. Our first butterflies appeared, with Palamedes Swallowtail and Monarch stealing the show. What a first day it had been, topped off with a scrumptious dinner at the local Olive Garden we were a happy bunch.
In the early morning hours many of us were awakened by the loud claps of thunder as a tremendous storm raged. The power went out shortly thereafter and when we emerged for breakfast at 6 AM we were quite surprised that the staff of the hotel had managed to provide a hot breakfast. Kudos to them for taking great care of us. We loaded up the van with our bags and began the journey from Houston to Winnie. Throughout the entire 2 hour journey a torrential rain followed us along, accompanied by very frequent flashes of lightning. We were quite relieved to get to our motel in Winnie in one piece. We had coffee and nestled into our rooms while waiting for the storm to pass. After lunch the rain let up and we dashed out to see what we could find. Along French Road, just south of Winnie, a visiting birder informed us we could expect a good number of shorebirds and he was correct. There were several Whimbrel here, along
with Long-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt. A Crested Caracara flew past and landed in a distant tree for scope views and a female Northern Harrier also sailed low over the horizon. Our first Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Kingbird, Savannah Sparrow and Tree Swallows were noted here. A flock of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flew by, followed by a small number of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. A group of White-faced Ibis disappeared into the grass of a flooded field
and Snowy Egrets pranced around not far from us.
As we carried on south down the 124, we paused to look at a female Belted Kingfisher on a telephone wire. We had our first experience with fire ants here, as one participant went to pick up our step stool and found it was covered in the tiny pests. He was no worse for ware however. Once we arrived at High Island we headed for Boy Scout Woods. Before we even left the parking lot the birds began to stack up. There were loads of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings,
Red-eyed Vireos, Orchard and quite the show for us. Several Inca Doves foraged in the parking lot as well, a first for the group. We entered the woods and the great birding continued. Warblers began to appear with around 15 tallied this afternoon. Star attractions included Blackburnian, Black-and-white, Worm-eating, Bay-breasted, Blue-winged,
Golden-winged, American Redstart and Ovenbird. Thrushes were numerous with Veery and Wood Thrush noted, and Gray-cheeked Thrush was unusually numerous. Yellow-throated Vireo showed nicely, as did Scarlet Tanagers which were particularly common this afternoon. A Common Nighthawk circled overhead, along with Purple Martins. Paul spotted a male Painted Bunting, but it didn’t hang around long enough for all to see. Both Yellow-billed and Black-billed cuckoos appeared briefly, as did House Wren and an Eastern Wood-Pewee. It was a buffet of birds to say the least. What a great end to what had started out to be a pretty miserable day.
When we started out this morning we were not too optimistic about the weather since there was very heavy dark cloud and a short but intense rainstorm as we made our way to Anahuac NWR. As soon as we turned off onto FM 1985 though the weather improved and we had a fantastic day. Flooded fields were easy to find because of all the rain and we racked in some nice shorebirds with highlights being Upland
Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Whimbrel and a group of 5 Hudsonian Godwits! In addition to shorebirds there was a nice selection of open country birds like Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike and some stunning Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. We paused at a culvert and watched as both Cliff Swallows and Cave Swallows swooped about in front of us for comparison. A little farther
down the road Swainson’s Hawks posed nicely for photographs, though they looked a bit wet and bedraggled.
Once at Anahuac we first explored Skillern Tract where a walk along the nice paved path produced a few migrants including Blue Grosbeak, Orchard Orioles, Hooded Warbler, Painted Bunting and Red-eyed Vireo to name a few. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were rather numerous and were feeding on honeysuckle. In the marshes of Skillern we had nice scope views of a Least Bittern as it hunted at the edge of the reeds. Both Common Gallinule and Purple Gallinule were quite visible today, and our first Double-crested Cormorant was
noted, along with both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Marsh Wrens were unusually obliging and perched out in the open for us several times. The largest rodent of the region, though introduced I believe, a Nutria was seen well as it poked its nose out from the edge of the trail.
Next, a stop at the visitor’s center at Anahuac was made and some did a little shopping. Before we headed off we poked our heads into a little picnic shelter where Cliff Swallows were nesting. Along the Shoveler Pond loop we ate our lunch before taking a stroll along a boardwalk. We didn’t see too much on the walk, though several Orchard Orioles posed very nicely. After a bit of searching we were finally rewarded with excellent views of a King Rail, and we heard several Soras calling from the reeds. Swamp Sparrows and Common Yellowthroat played hard to get at first but eventually gave themselves up for viewing. Forster’s Terns hunted in the channels and Pied-billed Grebes were rather numerous. We had an up close and personal look at an adult Neotropic Cormorant beside the road as well. American Alligators were quite common and we saw several large adults and some tiny youngsters as well.
Feeling quite content with our Anahuac experience we headed off to High Island for some afternoon ‘warblering;’ and it was quite busy at Smith Oaks. Walking the trails of the woodland we picked up a nice tally of warblers with the big highlight being at least two Cerulean Warblers, a male and a female. Also in the warbler department were Worm-eating, Tennessee, Hooded, Black-and-white, and a Kentucky Warbler that didn’t sit still long enough for anyone to see it except me. There were American Redstarts, Northern Waterthrush and Northern Parula here as well. Scarlet and Summer tanagers were common, and we had nice views of a
splotchy immature male Summer right beside our van. A Baltimore Oriole showed off nicely in a tall mulberry, and we had views of both Yellow-billed and Black-billed cuckoos this afternoon. New for the list was our first empidonax, an Acadian Flycatcher. At the end of the day we had racked up an impressive 108 species!
We are getting use to waking up to very dismal, dark and rainy weather, but we have been quite lucky because by the time we arrive at our destination the weather greatly improves. Today also followed that rule as we entered Taylor’s Bayou. The waters of the bayou were very high today and many of the local residents had been cut off from their homes by flooded driveways. The birds didn’t mind the high water though, and we had a few good species here, the best of
which was a very showy Yellow-throated Warbler. Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a brief sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker was also quite nice. A local man riding on his little all-terrain vehicle pulled up to us and in a very southern accent asked, ‘Y’all lookin’ for birds?’ This topped off our bayou experience. We carried on towards the Louisiana border, turning south just before the bridge over Sabine Pass. We weaved through the extensive oil refineries and popped out on the other side at the little town of Sabine Pass where we made a quick pit stop.
Our next destination was the road to the coast guard station near Texas Point. This is a very bumpy and often flooded road, and it lived up to its reputation today. The birding was great though and we had several smashing encounters with
Clapper Rails. Soras were a bit harder to see at first, but eventually they appeared in the open several times. A Seaside Sparrow, our only one, sat on a sprig of grass for scope views, while Sedge Wrens called from the marsh but remained unseen. A nice list of shorebirds accumulated here with Wilson’s and Semipalmated plovers, Sanderling, Ruddy
Turnstone, Willet, Whimbrel and a very nice Spotted Sandpiper. We came to a flooded bit of road and had to turn around and we retreated to Sabine Pass where we had a great lunch at Tammie’s Diner.
After lunch we headed for Sabine Woods, another of the famous coastal migrant traps found in this part of the world. Upon arrival the woods were very quiet, with just a few Gray Catbirds and only two species of warblers noted on our first sweep of the park. Two roosting Common Nighthawks up in a large oak were very nice to see however. Thunder began to roar in the distance and before we knew it the rain was pelting down once again so we skulked back under a shelter and waited for it to pass. The rain fell for perhaps 20 minutes and all the other birders vacated the woodlot except us. Once the rain stopped we went for another walk and the birding had improved immensely. Right off the bat we had views of both Northern and Louisiana waterthrushes, and the trees began to fill up with colorful birds like Scarlet and Summer
tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Orchard Oriole. Warblers arrived in droves and we counted Black-throated Green, Tennessee, several Blackpoll, Yellow, Prothonotary, Black-and-white, Hooded, Blackburnian, American Redstart and the like. Other firsts for the trip included Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Swainson’s Thrush and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It was a great ending to the day! With all the heavy rains the back wheels of my van got stuck and my group, very eager to help, got out and pushed the van out and we averted a possible disaster. I was quite thankful.
A fairly thick fog greeted us this morning as we drove south from Winnie towards the coast. Once we neared High Island the fog had cleared enough for us to see an adult Peregrine Falcon, our first for the trip, atop a telephone pole. We spent
the morning exploring the Bolivar Peninsula, where we made our first stop at Rollover Pass. Masses of Black Skimmers were a treat to see here, along with a nice selection of terns including Common, Forster’s, Least, Sandwich and Royal terns. American Oystercatchers and elegant American Avocets were new for the trip list, as was
Ring-billed and American Herring gull. A nicely plumaged Horned Lark foraged along the edge of the road, our first thus far. An optimistic Great Blue Heron struggled with a large rat that it was trying to swallow, and it took so long we had to leave before we could see what the outcome was. We were off to a roaring start. Along Yacht Basin Road we birded a bit from the van and saw numerous Whimbrel, Willet, Wilson’s Plover and several other species of shorebirds. A Clapper Rail, in a most un-rail-like fashion showed nicely as it preened at the edge of a marsh. Robert and Pauline pointed out a Sora as it briefly appeared and disappeared. We heard Sedge Wren here and tried to see one, but as usual, we only had the most fleeting of glimpses of this rather stubborn species.
We picked up lunch and headed for Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary where we drove along the sandy beach, racking up a nice list of birds along the way. Both Piping and Snowy plovers were welcome additions to the trip list as were Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper and 6 beautiful Red Knots. Black Terns sat among hordes other mixed terns on
the beach and we saw at least one Caspian Tern. Paul pointed out a White-tailed Kite that was sitting on a post eating some sort of rodent. Just as we were about to leave John shouted out ‘Reddish Egret’ and we had great views of it as it fed in a shallow pool before flying off out of sight.
At Fort Travis Park we had lunch while a heavy thunderstorm passed over. A good number of shorebirds dropped in during the storm including numbers of Ruddy Turnstones, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwit, Willet and Least Sandpiper. We headed back towards High Island, stopping along the way to see a nice Long-billed Curlew feeding alongside the road in a grassy field.
Our afternoon was spent at Smith Oaks where the birding was a little slow, though many of us did pick up a Kentucky Warbler. Other warblers, though few and far between, included Northern Parula, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Hooded Warbler and Ovenbird. Ruby-crowned Kinglets showed quite well this afternoon, along with Yellow-throated Vireo and White-eyed Vireo. A few Scarlet and Summer tanagers were about, but it was decidedly quiet, so we decided to go have a look at the heronry where Roseate Spoonbills, Great, Snowy and Cattle egrets and Neotropic Cormorants were busily going about their nesting duties. An American Alligator was lying in the water below the nests hoping for a nestling to drop in the water.
After dinner we tried our luck with some owling back at Taylors Bayou and it didn’t take us long to find a Barred Owl.
As we watched the owl we could hear a couple of young owls calling in the woods nearby. We stopped at one more spot to listen for an Eastern Screech-Owl, which we didn’t find, but we did hear another Barred Owl hooting in the trees nearby. What a great way to end the day.
This morning, our last full day in Texas, marked the first sunny morning of the trip! We headed out to find some shorebirds in the flooded fields along country roads south of Winnie and we had great luck. We had our first White-rumped Sandpipers of the tour, and our first good looks at Pectoral Sandpiper this morning. Upland Sandpipers were seen very well in good numbers in one particular field as well. Several Hudsonian Godwits were nice to see again. We pointed the godwits out to John Coons and his Field Guides tour group and it was a first for them as well. In addition to
shorebirds we also had great views of Dickcissels this morning and after a bit of searching we saw a Northern Bobwhite!
A quick check at High Island looked promising as there were loads of cars in the parking lot so we thought something good must
be happening. It turns out all the birders had just come out to enjoy the nice weather as it was still somewhat quiet here. After picking up lunch in Winnie we made our way east to Taylor’s Bayou and searched for Fish Crow. Eventually two Fish Crows flew over, a new trip tick. Other goodies in the bayou today included Broad-winged Hawk, and Eastern Bluebird, amongst others.
We arrived at Sabine Woods with high hopes for migrants and we were not disappointed. Birders we met near the entrance said they had seen 20 species of warblers during their visit this morning. We gobbled down our lunches and headed in to see what we could find. It was a buffet of birds! New warblers included Canada Warbler, Nashville Warbler and Magnolia Warbler and we had a great look at Kentucky Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler, two species we had only glimpsed before. Other species of warbler present included lots of Blackburnian Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Cerulean Warblers, Blackpoll Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Hooded Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush. Least Flycatcher was a new tick for the trip as was a slightly out of range Great Kiskadee! The birding was really exceptional here this afternoon and we decided this had ended up being perhaps the best day of birding yet on the tour.
Our last morning in Texas was quite good, with sunny warm weather and quite a few birds. We began along French Road but the flooded fields that had been so productive a few days before had dried out substantially. There were not many shorebirds around, other than a Solitary Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Black-necked Stilt and some Long-billed Dowitchers. As we headed south on Hwy 124 we saw a nice Swainson’s Hawk that was eating a Sora on a fencepost. As our cameras snapped a Northern Mockingbird arrived on the scene and began harassing the hawk!
Smith Oaks at High Island was quite busy with birds, especially Red-eyed Vireos, which seemed to be everywhere this morning. Warblers were about in good numbers with a male Golden-winged, a Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Black-and-white, Hooded, Cerulean, Prothonotary, Magnolia,
Tennessee and Yellow warblers, and American Redstart and Ovenbird noted. Other migrants included Yellow-billed Cuckoo, many Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Wood, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked thrushes, and much more. A group of
Cedar Waxwings fed in a mulberry tree near the parking lot, attracting a horde of photographers.
We reluctantly left High Island and made our way towards Houston, stopping for lunch along the way. Our final birding stop was at Sims Bayou Nature Center in South Houston. Overhead two Cooper’s Hawks, a male and a female, the only ones for our tour, circled overhead. With a bit of patience a Monk Parakeet arrived at feeders at the nature center, our 207th species of bird for the tour. We stopped near the airport and tallied up our daily bird list before I took people to the airport for flights home.