Day 1, April 15 – Over the course of the day the group of 6 tour participants arrived in Houston, and all we did today as a group was eat pizza for dinner before retiring for the night.
Day 2, April 16 – Our first day of birding took us to the ‘pineywood’ habitat north of Houston. The usual host of urban birds were added to the trip list as we drove north towards Conroe; Great-tailed Grackle, House Sparrow, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, and a couple of commuting Great Blue Herons. As we turned off the freeway and headed for the forest, a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks flew over the van, causing a brief bout of excitement. We began our explorations of W.G. Jones State Forest in the area behind the park administration office, a spot where I have had continued luck with woodpeckers and other pineywoods birds over the past decade. We were not disappointed today and almost as soon as we got out of the van we began adding birds to
our list; Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Pine Warbler and Blue Jay. We followed the trails deeper into the forest and added our first woodpecker species of the day, a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Carolina Wrens seemed to be singing from all around us, though they remained hidden in cover. I spotted another group of birders led by a friend of mine John Coons. They had staked out a spot where one of our big target species for the day, the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, had been seen the day before. It didn’t take too long for us to find one of the tiny, well marked woodpeckers clinging to the side of a Loblolly Pine. We enjoyed scope views of the bird, squinting, and trying unsuccessfully to see the tiny red ear patch that gives this species its name. Of all the times I have seen this species, I’m not sure I have ever spotted the
well hidden red mark. Thanking John for his help we carried on our way, soon thereafter finding the next of our target species, Brown-headed Nuthatches. A stunning pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers showed nicely as they excavated their nest hole. Chris Siddle was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the pair copulating. A Downy Woodpecker was noted here as well and in the distance a Northern Flicker called, our fifth species of woodpecker for the morning. Other species we encountered along our walk included Tufted Titmouse, nesting Eastern Bluebirds, a lovely White-eyed Vireo and a very obliging Yellow-breasted Chat. We eventually had great views of Carolina Wren and though they remained hidden, we heard one or two House Wrens.
We popped into a local store, used the facilities and picked up lunch before heading back out into the field, exploring the Middle Lakes Trail. Around a little pond at the trail head we had a Great Egret and a nice Little Blue Heron spotted by Marg Watt of Calgary. Chris Siddle spotted Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, a male and female, as they floated from pine to
pine, one of the most popular birds of the day. Red-eared Sliders, the most common local species of turtle, basked on logs surrounding the pond while a Bullfrog gave its bellowing call ‘jug-o-rum’. Today was a great day for yellow birds, as we had excellent views of both Yellow-throated Vireo and a male Kentucky Warbler along the trail. Our first Ruby-crowned Kinglet was noted as it flitted about frenetically. Great Crested Flycatcher was heard and eventually seen, and careful scanning of the skies produced Turkey and Black vultures and a nice Red-shouldered Hawk. Marg and I had a
nice view of a Painted Lady, the first butterfly species identified on the trip. As we had lunch I happened to look up and spot a pair of Wood Storks heading east high overhead. I also saw a distant Bald Eagle, but nobody else could get onto the bird before it disappeared behind the trees. Mammals noted in the park this morning included just two species of squirrel, Eastern Gray and Eastern Fox squirrels.
Our second destination was Jesse Jones Nature Park which is quite close to Houston’s Intercontinental Airport. Several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds entertained us around the visitor’s center, as well as Northern Cardinals and House Finches at the feeders. We explored the Canoe Trail where I had been alerted to the presence of a Swainson’s Warbler. As we walked the trail the sky opened up and heavy rain began to pour down on us. Luckily there was a rather bran new shelter built beside a little cypress swamp so we took shelter here. A male Prothonotary Warbler showed off very well at the edge of this swamp as we watched in
the relative comfort of the shelter. Donna Heard spotted our first snake of the tour, a Broad-banded Water Snake, that was sitting motionless in a tree next to the water. Unfortunately we didn’t find the Swainson’s Warbler here today, but we were quite happy to have incredible views of the Prothonotary. As we were contemplating leaving the park, a lightning bolt struck very close to us, followed by an impressive clap of thunder, and this helped us make our decision to head for cover.
To finish off our day of birding we had a look behind our hotel in Humble and added several species to our trip list including Broad-winged Hawks, Northern Rough-winged and Cliff swallows, Indigo Bunting, and a Snowy Egret. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings drifted just above treeline. We had a little siesta before heading out for a nice dinner at Cheddars.
Day 3, April 17 – We left our hotel in Humble shortly after 7 AM and, along with thousands of others, we joined the Monday morning rush through Houston. Our first Red-tailed Hawk of the trip was spotted sitting atop a giant billboard. As we followed I-10 east towards Beaumont we saw our first Laughing Gulls and Chris S. pointed out a
Brown Pelican. Once we arrived in the birding mecca of Winnie we stopped and picked up lunch before making our way towards Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). We took a quiet back road (FM 1941) along which we saw quite a few interesting birds including some lovely Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that put on quite a show as they sallied out for bugs along a fence line beside the van. Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds and Savannah Sparrows were also fairly numerous. We stopped at a little bridge where we saw both Cliff Swallows and Cave Swallows side by side and studied their rather subtle differences, a little bit of a challenge when they are on the wing. Several Upland Sandpipers were a treat to see as they strutted through grassy fields and Marg, lucky devil, spotted a Northern Bobwhite on a fence post, but it had disappeared by the time we backed up the van for a second look. We turned down S. Pear Orchard Road and
checked some rice fields, finding a little group of up to 8 American Golden-Plovers, along with Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt and Killdeer. We had scope views of Gull-billed Terns here and a couple of American Bitterns flew by over the distant horizon.
We finally arrived at the Anahuac NWR and at the entrance found a productive patch of flooded fields. Here we added Stilt Sandpipers, Willet, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Long-billed
Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper to the trip list along with Mottled Duck and Blue-winged Teal. Once at the visitor’s center at Anahuac we had a quick pit stop, and some of us spotted American White Pelicans sailing overhead, as well as Swainson’s Hawk. Laure Neish picked out a singing Common Yellowthroat across a little pond. High in the sky a group of a dozen Hudsonian Godwits circled several times, allowing us a much sought-after tick on our lists. We carried on around the Shoveler Loop, which was very productive. Wading birds were numerous; White-faced Ibis, White Ibis, Roseate
Spoonbills, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, and various egrets were noted. We met up with BC’s Gary Davidson and a group of Aussies he and Ken Cross were leading. They pointed out to us Purple Gallinules, our first for the tour. Common Gallinules were numerous here, as were American Coots, and both Black-bellied and Fulvous whistling-ducks. We glimpsed a Least Bittern flying down a little channel, and then disappearing into the reeds, leaving us desperately wanting more. Not to worry, as shortly we had about half a dozen of them in the reeds. Marsh Wrens chattered incessantly from the wetland, but remained mostly unseen, unlike a rather showy pair of Orchard Orioles that popped out for us to enjoy.
We stopped to search for King Rail and we were rewarded as one leapt up out of the marsh and flew 10 meters or so in plain view. The bird called repeatedly and eventually I spotted him hiding in the reeds, allowing us to put a scope on him and see bits of pieces of him. Behind us, a Sora called. Alligators were a prominent feature at Anahuac where we saw several of them. We had lunch near the visitor’s center and had a peek inside at the books and things before heading off. I happened to spot a Swallow-tailed Kite sailing up in the sky before we left, and one turned into two and then three and four and five! Those of us who had not seen the Swallow-tailed Kite the previous evening were quite happy to ‘catch up’ on this one.
Next, at High Island, we popped into Boy Scout Woods with high hopes. The parking lot was quiet with just a few cars present and there was a distinct lack of birds calling from the woods so my hopes were not too high. We spent about an hour at Boy Scout Woods
and left with just one warbler, a single Tennessee Warbler. Never have I seen this location so quiet for migrants. At the drip we did see a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and some Gray Catbirds, so it was not a complete waste. A very large Texas Rat Snake was laid out beside the trail, our best sighting here this afternoon. Over at Smith Oaks we headed for the heronry and this magnificent spectacle saved the afternoon. We enjoyed watching hundreds of nesting Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants at close range. The sights and sounds were almost overwhelming. Chris S. spotted our first Swamp Rabbit of the tour, and we had a Ribbon Snake along the edge of the path. In addition to the Red-eared Sliders at the edge of the pond we had a giant Texas Softshell Turtle here as well. We headed for Winnie, checked into our hotel, and went out for dinner at Al T’s.
Day 4, April 18 – A steady rain greeted us as we emerged from our hotel in Winnie this morning. We drove to Taylor’s Bayou where we didn’t really see too much this morning, though we did add a couple of nice birds to the trip list; a Yellow-throated Warbler and several Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. After a short pit-stop in Sabine Pass we headed for Pilot Tower Road, a bumpy, heavily potholed road that got us into a nice coastal marsh.
Across the channel we could see Louisiana and an old derelict lighthouse. Upon arrival here the rains ceased and we enjoyed a pleasant morning of birding. Highlights included good views of Seaside Sparrows, one of which sat in a tamarisk next to the road, showing nicely. Several Clapper Rails were seen, including some fluffy black chicks crossing the road. Soras were rather numerous, with at least half a dozen counted. A few migrant type birds skulked in roadside thickets including Indigo Bunting, Palm Warbler and loads of Orchard Orioles. We heard several Sedge Wrens, one of which was singing from about 2 feet away from us, but remained hidden, other than a short flight of about 6 feet from one patch of grass to the next. Also
in the marsh were Swamp Sparrow and Marsh Wrens. About 40 or so Tree Swallows and a single exhausted Barn Swallow were clustered on telephone wires and on the road itself. Shorebirds included Spotted Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plover, Willets, Whimbrel, Black-necked Stilt and Lesser Yellowlegs. Out over the open water were Royal, Sandwich, Common and Forster’s terns, Laughing Gulls and a single Herring Gull. We had a few Red-breasted Mergansers this morning, including a pair obligingly sitting in a puddle on the road. A Racoon crossed the road in front of us, our only mammal species for the morning. We returned to Sabine Pass and had a very nice lunch at Tammy’s Diner.
After lunch we visited Sabine Woods, a fairly small patch of coastal oak forest, which provides shelter for birds as they come in tired and hungry from migrating across the gulf. It was awfully quiet upon our arrival, though we did see a Northern Waterthrush at the drip, and Laure Neish spotted a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the distance. A Veery briefly appeared and Chris S. found a female Summer Tanager. We talked to some local birders
and they gave us directions on where they had seen one of the Texas Coast’s most sought-after warbler species, a Swainson’s Warbler, earlier that morning. We followed their instructions and searched the area quite extensively with no luck. I found a male Hooded Warbler, our first for the tour, and in the same area Laure N. exclaimed she had found a drab brownish warbler poking about in the leaf litter. Sure enough, this was the Swainson’s Warbler. Tick!
Following up on another lead we drove down the road a few miles to a patch of trees and peered into a Mulberry where within a few minutes, a lovely male Blackpoll Warbler appeared. In the roadside vegetation, both Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings suddenly
appeared, showing quite well. Our next stop was at Sea Rim State Park. Birding here, despite a short rain shower, was exceptional. In the lagoons near the parking area were
American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, Least and Semipalmated sandpipers, Semipalmated and Black-bellied plovers and Lesser Yellowlegs. A male Redhead was a nice catch here. Out on the open beach there were more shorebirds including a gorgeous breeding plumage Red Knot, and Piping Plovers as well. Our first Ruddy Turnstone of the trip appeared and Sanderlings were everywhere, along with Dunlin. Least Terns swooped past, our best look yet at this species.
To finish off we popped back into Sabine Woods for one last half hour. It was a good thing we did this because the area had become inundated with migrants. Within that short half hour we picked up several warblers; Worm-eating, Black-and-white, Tennessee, Blackburnian, American Redstart and Northern Parula. A push of Summer and brilliant Scarlet tanagers had also arrived along with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo appeared briefly, and a Merlin called. The mini-fallout was a great way to finish off our day of birding. We drove back to Winnie, and went out for another meal at Al T’s.
Day 5, April 19 – It was a sunny and bright morning, though somewhat misty over the farm fields, as we made our way south from Winnie towards the Bolivar Peninsula. We got sidetracked at a flooded field at the corner of Hwy 124 and FM 1985 where a great
assortment of shorebirds had gathered. Lighting this morning was exceptional and we had a fun time picking out the various species. The number one most abundant species was Long-billed Dowitcher, with runners up being Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Also mixed in were both Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpipers, Willet, Whimbrel, and Black-bellied Plovers. New for the trip list were several White-rumped Sandpipers and a group of about 20 Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Hudsonian Godwits were great to see, about 10 of them, in lovely lighting. Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer and Black-necked Stilt also appeared. This was a great start to our morning. We continued on down through High Island to the Bolivar
Peninsula, where we picked up a fly-by adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. At Rollover Pass we racked up another impressive list of birds, this time including our first Reddish Egrets of the tour, with both dark and light morph birds seen. Our first Wilson’s Plovers cooperated nicely as they poked around the edge of a puddle. Other shorebirds at Rollover included Ruddy Turnstone, Black-bellied Plover, masses of American Avocets, Sanderlings, Marbled Godwit, and Short-billed Dowitchers. A female Red-breasted Merganser loafed on a distant island. Almost all of the local terns were assembled here with Common, Forster’s, Least, Sandwich, Royal, Caspian and Black in attendance. Not far from Rollover we encountered a pair of Crested Caracaras, and Kathy Ellwood exclaimed, ‘let’s put them in the scope’, so of course, we did.
We made a pit stop at the Bolivar Supermarket, a store that has almost anything and everything one could want to buy, and then we carried on down to the famous Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. As we drove down Retillon Road, we saw my friend John Coons, and he motioned to me that there was something interesting off to the side of the road. We stopped, and immediately heard what he and his group was interested in, a calling Black Rail! Nice score. Also here we saw our first Northern Harrier of the tour, a female and a male involved in a diving flight display. Down at the beach we walked a few hundred meters out to where a mass of birds were resting on the sand. There were over a thousand American Avocets here, feeding in unison, in the shallows. Great numbers
of Short-billed Dowitchers, Sanderlings and Dunlin also were here, along with many other shorebirds; Piping Plover, Red Knot, Western Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstones, and more. A group of Laughing Gulls had a single pink-breasted Franklin’s Gull mixed in with them, as well as Ring-billed and Herring gulls. More Reddish Egrets did their drunken sailor dance in the shallows. Laure N. spotted a White-tailed Kite in the distance and we
had scope views of it, and overhead, a Horned Lark did a brief flight song before disappearing into the sand dunes. Out on the gulf there was a fishing trawler with loads of gulls, pelicans and terns behind it, and I picked out a Magnificent Frigatebird in the mix. A group of Lesser Scaup contained at least one Greater Scaup, and also in the rare waterfowl department, a continuing Long-tailed Duck showed up for us. Just as we were leaving, we found another previously reported rarity, an immature Great Black-backed Gull, on the beach with other gulls. The Great Black-backed, however, towered above the Ring-billed and Herring gulls with which it was sitting.
We made our way back to High Island and had lunch, before heading over to Smith Oaks, where we hoped some passerine migration would be happening. It was a bit slow here, but we found a few goodies, including White-throated Sparrow, Ovenbird, Tennessee Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and an extremely confiding Worm-eating Warbler that we followed as it poked into curled dead leaves where it extracted spiders and other insects. Donna H. pointed out our first Yellow Warbler, a male, foraging in an oak overhead. A Swainson’s Thrush sang several times, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos played hide and seek with us. All in all, it was a pleasant afternoon at High Island. We returned to Winnie, and had dinner at Al T’s. This was the final night the current owners would operating the restaurant, which made
things a bit interesting. Nevertheless, the food was good, and we tallied up our day list, an impressive 125 species!
Day 6, April 20 – It was another lovely and sunny morning as we made our way down towards Anahuac for a second visit. The flooded field from yesterday was almost bone dry, and not many birds remained, other than Willets, Whimbrel, Black-bellied Plover and Killdeer. The usual Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Eastern Meadowlarks and Loggerhead Shrike were ntoed as we drove along FM 1985. We turned down the road towards Skillern Tract and out of the van window I heard Dickcissel, so we stopped and eventually, once the scopes were ‘defrosted’, we had great views of these little sparrow-like birds as they sang from the top of the bushes. Perhaps the highlight of the day for many of us, was the sighting of a Bobcat as it strolled along the road in front of us, pausing a few times to look back and check us out. At Skillern we walked the track
down to the a little boardwalk overlooking the marsh. Birding was very pleasant here and we heard our only Virginia Rail of the tour here. Least Bittern was watched through the scope as he foraged in the reeds, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird paused for a few moments before disappearing. Our first Least Flycatcher showed for a few moments in a snag at Skillern as well.
We paused at the main entrance to Anahuac to view another nice flooded bit of fields, covered in Long-billed and Short-billed dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, Dunlin and others such as White-rumped Sandpiper and our first Wilson’s Phalarope, a female, found by Chris S.
We stopped at the visitor’s center to use the facilities and check what had been seen already today. Our sightings were the first ones to grace the sightings board. Real found a little group of White-crowned Sparrows so we followed him down the path to have a look. We did find them, and as an added bonus, we flushed a Barn Owl from the trees here! A drive around Shoveler Pond provided more looks at birds like
Mottled Duck, Purple Gallinule, and quite a few White-faced Ibis. We couldn’t turn any of them into Glossy Ibis, unfortunately.
We then drove to Sabine Pass where we had another lovely lunch at Tammy’s Diner, before heading over to Sabine Woods to see what migrants had dropped in. The birding was slow, with not many individuals present, but what we did see were high quality birds. A few very helpful local birders helped us see several goodies that were hanging about in the woods, first of which was a male Cape May Warbler in a Mulberry. Next up, a stunning male Black-throated Blue Warbler made several appearances right down at eye level. Finally, a rather cooperative Swainson’s
Warbler foraged in the underbrush allowing us all to watch this rather elusive species. Other migrants noted here today included Black-and-white Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher, Orchard Orioles, Veery, and a single Gray-cheeked Thrush. It was an awfully warm and sticky afternoon, so we called it a day and made our way back to Winnie where we had dinner at a local BBQ restaurant.
Day 7, April 21 – Our last morning in Texas began well with our first sighting of a Peregrine Falcon for the tour, an adult sitting atop a power pole along Hwy 124, south of Winnie. Our next stop was at Rollover Pass where we scoured through the flocks of shorebirds, gulls and terns, finding one species new for the trip list, an American Oystercatcher.
Otherwise all the usual suspects were there, and the lighting was very nice for photography this morning. We had a look along Yacht Basin Road, hoping for Nelson’s Sparrow, which wouldn’t cooperate this morning. We did see a Clapper Rail crossing the road, and a Crested Caracara passed by. An Osprey nibbled on a fish from atop a power pole. Next, we tried N. Tuna Road, again hoping for Nelson’s Sparrow. No luck, though we did see some Seaside Sparrows here, only our second encounter with this species on the tour. At Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary there were less birds present than there had been on our previous visit. Still, the
numbers were pretty impressive. Snowy Plover wouldn’t cooperate, though we did see Wilson’s, Semipalmated and Piping plovers. Reddish Egrets danced in the shallows, and a non-breeding plumage Red Knot was nice to see. Lighting was again sensational as shorebird poked about in the puddles, allowing the photographers in the group to click away. Up to 5 Northern Harriers were seen along the access road to the flats, Retillon Road.
We then drove back to Winnie where we had a pit-stop before carrying on towards Houston. Along the drive we saw a few raptors including Red-tailed, Red-shouldered and Broad-winged hawks. We stopped for lunch at Denny’s and then paid a visit to the Sims Bayou Nature Center in S.E. Houston.
The center was closed but we peeked through the fence, spotting a Monk Parakeet hanging on one of the feeders. This was our final new species of the tour, bringing us up to 203 bird species in 6 days of birding! We made our way to the airport and we said our goodbyes. Thanks everyone for making this an enjoyable and memorable birding trip.