Wild West Birding, Arizona – Part 4

April 29 – This morning we attempted to find the Sinaloa Wren along the Anza Trail near Tubac. The walk of about a half a mile through the towering cottonwoods was very pleasant. Yellow-breasted Chats seemed to be everywhere and we eventually saw a couple of them quite well. Summer Tanagers sang from the treetops, while Lucy’s Warblers flitted about in the mesquites. Gray Hawk sailed overhead, and our first Black Vultures were finally seen as they sunned themselves atop telephone poles. We got the wren spot and I was annoyed to find someone working near the trail with a jackhammer…I couldn’t hear a thing, thus we dipped on the wren.

After breakfast we headed over to Patagonia Lake State Park and the birding here was very good. On the lake and in the marshes around the lake we had our first Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal,  as well as Gadwall, American Coot and numerous Neotropic Cormorants. A nice surprise was a Long-billed Curlew standing on a muddy spit. Green Heron was seen well and we got our best looks yet at Common Yellowthroats in the marsh. In ‘Nutting’s Wash’ we had a lovely male Hermit Warbler pictured below.

Male Hermit Warbler at Patagonia Lake State Park, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

It was quite a surprise to see David Chapman and his wife right at the ‘Birding Trail’ trailhead, where they had parked their lovely RV. I think he was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. My group and David and his wife were very surprised to look up and see what was my best bird of the day, an adult Common Black-Hawk soaring overhead. This is only my third sighting of this species ever in AZ.

Adult Common Black-Hawk. Patagonia Lk State Pk, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We carried on to the pleasant village of Patagonia and had our lunch at the Gathering Grounds, a fantastic locally owned and run cafe. After lunch we sat at the Paton’s and watched feeders. The usual suspects were around including the local star, Violet-crowned Hummingbird once again. The only new species we added here for the trip were two Pine Siskins at the thistle feeders. I turned around, checking on my group, to find at least two had dozed off in the afternoon sun. Therefore, I cracked ‘the whip’ and we headed for the Patagonia Roadside Rest Stop. It was the heat of the afternoon here, and not too much was happening, though we did have great views of a Rock Wren. Also, we had our best looks at Bell’s Vireo here, and watched Rufous-crowned Sparrow hopping about on the rocks.

Male Vermilion Flycatcher shows off at Patagonia Lk State Park, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

April 30 – Today was a hard day’s work for a guide. We’re getting near the end of the tour and all the ‘easy birds’ have already been added to the list, and I’m trying to find some tough ‘last minute’ birds for the group. We started off in Florida Canyon where a long and fairly gruelling  uphill hike did not result in locating a Rufous-capped Warbler. The scenery was great and we saw some cool birds like Scott’s Oriole, Zone-tailed Hawk and Rufous-crowned Sparrows to name a few. We had lunch in Madera Canyon and watched the feeders at the kubo for about half an hour. Nothing too exciting was there, but the clan was happy to watch a Plumbeous Vireo sitting on its lovely little hanging ‘cottonwood fluff’ nest. We also watched a pair of Painted Redstarts bringing food to young here as cameras clicked.

Painted Redstart carrying food for young at Madera Canyon, Az. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We then tried looking for Botteri’s Sparrow in the grasslands at the entrance to Madera Canyon. I was successful in finding the sparrow and several people saw it, but not everyone so I was not fully content. We then tried for Black-capped Gnatcatcher and again had no luck, most likely due to the 30 degree heat and afternoon wind, but nonetheless. To finish off the day we popped back over to the Rio Rico Ponds in case a Tropical Kingbird had appeared, but no such luck. Some days you find em’ all and some days are a bit like work.

Chris Charlesworth



Wild West Birding in Arizona – Part 3

April 27 – We left Sierra Vista this morning and made our way west to the lovely Sonoita Grasslands. Skies were blue and winds were next to nothing which was a nice change after the last couple of days. The grasslands were alive with sparrows, and we saw several Grasshopper Sparrows very well, along with Brewer’s, Savannah, Black-throated and Lark sparrows. A Loggerhead Shrike was seen in the distance, and overhead we had good looks at several Swainson’s Hawks as they lazily circled. Groups of Violet-green Swallows were moving low across the grasslands, some offering good views, showing their telltale white rump patches. Best catch in the grasslands however, was a Scaled Quail that scrambled from one clump of grass to the next as 9 onlookers admired.

Light morph adult Swainson’s Hawk over Sonoita Grasslands near Sierra Vista, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Next stop on our agenda was a cafe in Patagonia where we had a ‘comfort break’ and picked up coffees to go. We then sat under the shade at the famous Paton’s feeders where dozens of birds came in to visit seed feeders and hummingbird feeders. The star attraction here, a Violet-crowned Hummingbird didn’t take too long to appear and we all had great views of this rare hummer. Also at the feeders were dazzling birds like Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, White-breasted Nuthatch and Green-tailed Towhee. In the sky, an immature Gray Hawk sailed by, scattering the feeder birds in all directions.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Patagonia, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

After a relaxing hour at the Paton’s we had lunch in town, and had a little time to roam around and check out the local museum and art galleries. A nice Zone-tailed Hawk sailed over the main street of this ‘one horse Western town’ before we headed off to the Patagonia Sonoita Ck Preserve nearby. We spent a couple of hours exploring the riparian habitat here, with 180 year old giant Fremont Cottonwoods towering above us. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon there were a few good birds to be seen here. We saw a couple of lovely Summer Tanagers, as well as the first Thick-billed Kingbirds of the trip. The kingbird is a rare breeding bird in the USA, barely entering the country from Mexico. We carried on to our resort in Rio Rico, arriving just after 5 pm.

Northern Cardinal. Patagonia, AZ,. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

April 28 – Before breakfast we ventured into the lovely hills west of Nogales, to Pena Blanca Lake. The grassy foothills and rocky outcroppings bathed in early morning sun was quite dazzling. Along the way we picked up our first American Kestrels of the trip along the telephone wires. Once at the lake we scanned the glassy water for Least Grebe, but couldn’t spot any. Perhaps they were hiding in the marsh or in one of the tiny coves on the lake. There were Ruddy Ducks and a single Pied-billed Grebe here, as well as a pair of ‘Mexican’ Mallard types. The male of the pair looked like a hybrid ‘Mexican’ Duck X Mallard to me. The bushes were full of migrants with MacGillivrays, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, Yellow, Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, Hammond’s Flycatchers and the like. I was quite surprised to see a pygmy-owl here, being mobbed by all sorts of birds. I never got to see the owl, except in flight, but looking at ebird I guess it’s more likely it was a Northern than a Ferruginous, even though the time of year and habitat was odd for Northern Pygmy-Owl. Included in the mobbing group was Ash-throated Flycatcher and a nice male Costa’s Hummingbird. A Montezuma Quail called several times from a distant hillside and we had great looks at a Canyon Wren that was singing from the top of an outhouse. Surprisingly, the wren had a beakful of food and entered the mens room where it must have hidden its nest.

As we ate breakfast at Rio Rico, we were interrupted by the sighting of a Greater Roadrunner right outside the dining room. The silly bird was perched atop a lamp calling away in the morning sun. We spent the rest of the day exploring Madera Canyon, where a rather long and steep hike didn’t produce the much sought-after Elegant Trogon. To make matters even worse, one fellow coming down the trail exclaimed he had seen one and heard two more. We went to the exact spot he described and found nothing. The walk wasn’t a loss though, as we had quite a few nice birds along the way, including Hermit Thrush, Plumbeous Vireo, Painted Redstart, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a lovely Red-faced Warbler. At the Kubo Cabins we watched the feeders for a while, adding Magnificent, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, and Costa’s hummingbird, Hepatic Tanager, Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay and Grace’s Warbler to the list. A tom male Wild Turkey strutted his stuff on the road, then headed over to the vehicles in the parking area where he soon saw his reflection in one of the shiny cars with a Colorado license plate. The turkey began vigorously pecking the car, with each peck bringing a loud ‘clank’ sound. We were chuckling away at the situation when the owner of the car came dashing out clapping his hands and chased the turkey away. He didn’t chase it far, in fact, the bird just moved over to my van and began attacking the chrome bumper! To finish off the day we birded Proctor Road with high hopes of Black-capped Gnatcatcher. No luck with that rarity, but we did get our first trip Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  On our way out of Madera Canyon we came to a screeching halt to watch a big Gila Monster cross the road in front of us, only the second I’ve ever seen.

Chris Charlesworth

Wild West Birding, Arizona – Part 2

April 25 – Sadly, we have to leave Portal today, but not before a little more birding. Again, it was a chilly start as we headed back to Cave Ck to try and find Elegant Trogon. We had no luck whatsoever with the trogon, and from talking to the many other birders in the canyon, nobody had any luck this morning. Luck, however was on my side, as I looked up to check a routine warbler and discovered it my first North American SLATE-THROATED REDSTART! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d found my very own Mexican vagrant. A few of the folks in the group also got to see the redstart before it disappeared. No photos were taken unfortunately, as the sighting lasted about 10 seconds. The bird was good in South Fork this morning, despite the lack of ‘Christmas Birds’ or trogons. We had a close up female Williamson’s Sapsucker tapping away on a trunk at eye level, and our first Red-naped Sapsucker of the trip. Several tour participants got onto a nice Red-faced Warbler up in the trees. Painted Redstarts were common, along with a few Grace’s Warblers. Canyon Wrens sang from the cliffs above and we added a new mammal to the trip list, Mexican Fox Squirrel.

Mexican Fox Squirrel
A Mexican Fox Squirrel was seen at Cave Creek Canyon, in South Fork, April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

After breakfast we headed back out to Paradise to try one more time for Black-chinned Sparrow and Juniper Titmouse. No luck on either, but consolation prizes included two gorgeous Scott’s Orioles and a cheeky little Rufous-crowned Sparrow.

Along Stateline Road, where Arizona is on the west and New Mexico on the east side of the road, the wind was blowing a gale. Unfortunately no Crissal or Bendire’s thrashers would dare be seen in this wind. We did see a distant Loggerhead Shrike, as well as Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow and a very large, but very dead Gopher Snake.

The drive from Rodeo, New Mexico to Douglas was broken up by the excitement of our first Greater Roadrunner sighting. I almost smucked the roadrunner and spotted it as it flew away about 2 feet from my front right tire. I turned the van around and we found it again slinking through the bushes alongside the road. Yipee! Roadrunner pressure was off me.

We had lunch in Causey Park in Douglas, just a little city park with a few picnic tables and a baseball diamond. I was surprised how many birds were actually here, including our first Vermilion Flycatcher, a Lazuli Bunting, Pyrrhuloxia, Swainson’s Hawk and a low-flying Zone-tailed Hawk!

Our final stop of the day was at the San Pedro River, east of Sierra Vista. Here, we had brief encounters with Gray Hawk. In the giant cottonwoods were Summer Tanager, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cassin’s Kingbird, Gila Woodpecker and Black Phoebe. A small group of Bushtits, including a ‘black-eared’ individual were frenetically dashing about in the mesquite trees. We arrived in Sierra Vista in the late afternoon, ready for an hour and a half of R&R!

April 26 -Still on a high from yesterday’s Slate-throated Redstart, which incidentally, another group relocated in the late afternoon on April 25, we set out for a day of birding the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains. Miller Canyon and Beatty’s Guest Ranch was our first stop. The forecast was correct and the winds were howling today at an incredible rate. In the canyon, we were a bit sheltered. We watched the hummingbird feeders where Broad-tailed, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Magnificent and Anna’s hummingbirds came in to visit.

Male Broad-billed Hummingbird at Beatty’s Guest House, Miller Canyon, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

After getting very detailed directions from Tom Beatty Sr. we headed up into the lower reaches of the canyon in search of the resident Spotted Owl. With a bit of effort, and with the help of a couple of other birders who knew just where it was, we had fantastic views of the Spotted Owl as it roosted in an oak tree.

“Mexican” Spotted Owl at Miller Canyon, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Numerous flycatchers were about in the canyon as we walked back down, including several Hammond’s Flycatchers, Dusky-capped Flycatchers and a nice Greater Pewee. In addition to birds, there were a couple of new butterflies for us including Mexican Yellow and Silver-spotted Skipper.

Silver-spotted Skipper
Silver-spotted Skipper, one of several butterfly species noted in Miller Canyon, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where again the wind played havoc with us. A hike up the canyon was very pleasant nonetheless, and when the trees stopped blowing we did see some good stuff. Best bird for me was a female Hermit Warbler, amongst a group of Townsend’s Warblers. A Red-faced Warbler put in a brief appearance, and we got our first views of Hutton’s Vireos. Back down at the feeders, things were hopping! A gorgeous male Hepatic Tanager came and sat in front of me, and luckily I had my camera ready.

Male Hepatic Tanager, Ramsey Canyon Preserve. Arizona. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

A male Blue-throated Hummingbird came in to feeders, while Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Acorn Woodpecker and a female Arizona Woodpecker put on a nice show for my group as well.

Female Arizona Woodpecker. Ramsey Canyon Preserve. Arizona. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Chris Charlesworth


Wild West Birding in Arizona – Part 1

After a successful tour in Texas, I flew from Houston to Phoenix on April 20. I think the pilot of the United Airlines flight was either in training or completing his first official landing as it was one of the roughest landings I’ve had in my life. For the next two days as I awaited the arrival of my next group, I lived the hard life, mostly relaxing by the pool in the 30+ degree Celsius weather.

The group arrived from London-Heathrow at around 5 PM on April 22, and I whisked them off the hotel so they could get to bed. It was 4 in the morning U.K. time so they were rightfully tired.

The next morning we left Phoenix and headed slightly east to Gilbert where we spent a couple of hours at the Riparian Preserve at the Water Ranch. Birding here was great as usual, and being that we are a couple of weeks earlier than in previous years, the shorebird migration was in full swing. One doesn’t normally associate shorebirds with Arizona, but at a couple of places the shorebirds, or waders, as the ‘Brits’ call them, were numerous. The pools at Gilbert were alive with over a hundred lovely breeding plumage Long-billed Dowitchers, as well as dozens of Least Sandpipers, some Western Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilts and lovely American Avocets. Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Neotropic Cormorant and a few ducks were also added to the trip list.

Over a hundred Long-billed Dowitchers were at Gilbert Water Ranch today, April 23, 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

The mesquite trees and Palo Verde trees ringing the ponds had some migrant activity with Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped, and Black-throated Gray warblers, White-crowned Sparrows and a single White-throated Sparrow pointed out by a local birder. The White-throated Sparrow has apparently spent the winter at this location, and is otherwise a rare winter visitor. In the Saguaro Cactus were nesting Gila Woodpeckers, while Curve-billed Thrasher, Abert’s Towhee and Verdin were tallied as well. First mammals of the trip came in the form of several Desert Cottontails hopping about.

We had a long travel day today as we made our way from Phoenix to Portal, via Interstate 10. We paused in Tucson for some lunch, then  carried on to the town of Willcox with its famous sewage pond. I-10 is obviously not the road to speed on, as I counted 20 people pulled over by the cops between Phoenix and the New Mexico border. At Willcox the lake was covered in birds, again with many Long-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpipers and a big hit with the ‘Brits’, about 100 Wilson’s Phalaropes. Side by side we had two Greater and two Lesser yellowlegs, excellent for comparison.

American Avocets showed off nicely at Willcox Lake, Arizona. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

A lone adult White-faced Ibis was a good ‘tick’ for the trip list, and in the waterfowl department we had Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck, Mallard and Northern Shoveler. Several Horned Larks showed off nicely around the lake. Overhead a Swainson’s Hawk and a Peregrine Falcon competed for our attention, while the shorebirds scattered each time the Peregrine flew by. Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird and Barn Swallows by the dozen were in attendance as well. I had to angle the van just right at Willcox because the wind was so strong we had to use the vehicle as a windbreak so the scopes didn’t fly away.

On the way to Portal we saw several Chihuahuan Ravens, one of which showed off its white neck feathers nicely. When I was a kid, the field guides called this species the White-necked Raven, and it was obvious why when we saw this bird with his neck feathers ruffled by the wind. This evening, after dinner we strolled the lone street in Portal, tracking down the soft call of an Elf Owl. We had great views of this, North America’s tiniest owl, sitting in a giant sycamore tree. A great finish to our first day.

April 24 – Our day began at 6 AM as we made our way out to Cave Creek Canyon. It was chilly early in the morning down in the depths of the shady canyon. We decided it was 5 degrees Celsius at most. Birding was a little slow, but we picked up some goodies nonetheless. A pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers squabbled in the mixed oak / pine forest, while a Hermit Thrush sat obligingly for all to see through the scope. A Northern Flicker wailed away from the top of a snag, while little groups of Mexican Jays crossed the road periodically. Now and then a little mixed flock of migrants would move through, and we picked up Black-throated Gray, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, and a lovely Virginia’s Warbler. Add to the mix Bridled Titmouse, Bushtit and Bewick’s Wren and we had ourselves a pretty decent morning. One fellow, Tony, really expressed he wanted to see American Robin and he was rather ecstatic when he finally saw one. Funny which birds people from overseas really want to see. Best bird of the morning though were two Montezuma Quail, male and female, that crossed the road right in front of us!  On our way back to Portal, a Collared Peccary slowly ambled across the road in front of us!

Chiricahua Mountain scenery. AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

After breakfast we made our way up into the Chiricahua Mountains, stopping first at the Paradise Cemetery. It was getting warm and things were a little quiet here, but we still added a nice Gray Flycatcher here, as well as Black-throated Sparrows.

Black-throated Sparrow, Portal, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Up at Rustler Park the birding was sensational. Just as we arrived several Hairy Woodpeckers and a female Williamson’s Sapsucker appeared, though the sapsucker didn’t hang around long enough for most of the group to see. There were Grace’s and Olive warblers dancing about in the pines, along with Pygmy Nuthatches, Brown Creepers and numbers of Yellow-eyed Juncos. Steller’s Jays were a bit hit with the crew. I tracked down a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl and we enjoyed extensive scope views of it, while Mexican Chickadees mobbed it.

pincushion cactus
Numerous wildflowers seen in the mountains today, with these lovely flowering Pincushion Cactus perhaps the star attraction. Chiricahua Mountains, AZ. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

We bumped our way back down to Portal and spent a couple of hours exploring the one main street in town. We saw a surprising number of birds, including such gems as Pyrrhuloxia, Acorn Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, Lazuli Bunting and Band-tailed Pigeons. We watched hummingbird feeders where Blue-throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned and Broad-billed hummers competed for top spot. At the seed feeders were White-crowned and a single somewhat lost White-throated Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal and Inca Dove. At the drip we had great looks at a male Townsend’s Warbler. A group of Western Scrub-Jays passed through the sycamores, pausing briefly to scold a roosting Great Horned Owl, one of 5 owl species we had today!

Great Horned Owl, one of 5 owl species we had around Portal, AZ today. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

After dinner we went back out to an area 5 minutes from Portal where we heard a Western Screech-Owl and had crippling views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl. Elf Owls were calling as well. A fine end to a great day.

Chris Charlesworth

Texas Birding Bonanza – Part 3

April 16 – It was another rather chilly morning as we left the town of Winnie and made our way east towards the Louisiana border. We paused first, however, amongst the cypress swamps of Taylor Bayou where the birding was sensational. We had stunning views of up to 3 Prothonotary Warblers, as well as lovely views of our first Yellow-throated Warbler of the tour. Several Yellow-crowned Night-Herons hid amongst the ‘fuzzy’ cypress boughs, and we finally nailed down a Red-headed Woodpecker here. A Barred Owl called beside the road and with a little looking we spotted him sitting in the open, ready for scope views. To top it all off, a Red-shouldered Hawk soared leisurely overhead, a Fish Crow called as we watched through the scope, and a trio of American Pipits walked along a gravel driveway.

Continuing east, we spent a couple of hours exploring the marshes of Texas Point, with the state of Louisiana visible in the distance. Seaside Sparrows sang from the marsh, and eventually popped up right in front of us for excellent views. Swamp and Lincoln’s sparrows were also nice additions to the trip list. Other migrants in the tamarisks along the road included Rose-breasted and Blue grosbeaks and Orchard Oriole. Shorebirds put on a nice show with up to half a dozen Wilson’s Plovers running about. Three American Oystercatchers passed by, another tick  off the list. A Clapper Rail dashed in front of the van, and a Sora flew parallel to us for a second or two. All in all, a good visit to Texas Point.

Several Wilson’s Plovers entertained us at Texas Point today. Sabine Pass, TX. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

After lunch in Sabine Pass, we made our way to Sabine Woods where we encountered some of the best passerine migration yet of the tour. Most common were thrushes with about 15 Wood Thrushes and half a dozen Swainson’s Thrushes seen hopping around on the ground. The odd Brown Thrasher was mixed in as well. The trees were alive with warblers including Blue-winged, Black-throated Green, Tennessee, Palm, Black-and-white and Hooded. It was strange to see many Common Yellowthroats foraging 20 feet up in the tall oak trees. Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush and American Redstart were also all seen well. A Common Nighthawk was seen roosting on a horizontal branch over a slimy green pond. Red-eyed, Yellow-throated and Warbling vireos all showed off nicely for us. It was hard to pull ourselves away from Sabine Woods, but we all left happy with big smiles on our faces.

April 17 – So far, myself and 8 Limosa customers have had an excellent time birding the Upper Texas Coast, despite the less than desirable weather we have encountered. Our trip list is up to about 180 species for 5 days, not too shabby, if you ask me.

This morning we returned to Anahuac NWR, birding the flooded fields along FM Rd 1985 along the way. The big highlight was a male Hudsonian Godwit in one of the flooded fields, but runner up was seeing several Upland Sandpipers very well. Along the fenceline that parallels the road we picked up a few more goodies, such as Dickcissel, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Eastern Meadowlark, Loggerhead Shrike and loads of Savannah Sparrows.

As soon as we got to Anahuac thunder began to boom overhead and we got stuck in another rainstorm. Luckily we were able to see a few birds before the rain started, such as Least Bittern, American Bittern, Marsh Wren, Purple Gallinule and Swamp Sparrow to name just a few. The rain really only lasted about 20 minutes, so it wasn’t that serious. We had lunch at Skillern Tract while listening to King Rails call. Soras came right out in the open as they fed along the edge of the marsh. We had an exceptional view of a Least Bittern here at Skillern, the bird seemingly unaware of our presence.

At High Island, an hours walk through Boy Scout Woods produced very little, but we did get treated to side by side views of Louisiana and Northern waterthrushes, excellent for comparison. When you see these two together, there’s really no problem telling them apart.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks love to eat Mulberries at High Island, TX. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks love to eat Mulberries at High Island, TX. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

Smith Oaks, on the other hand was hopping with activity. When we arrived it was quiet, but then a sudden wave of birds drifted through the treetops and continued for about 45 minutes. There were dozens of Orchard Orioles, with Summer and Scarlet tanagers mixed in. Warbler flocks included Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Nashville, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Blue-winged and Northern Parula. Non warbler passerines included Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-eyed, White-eyed and Yellow-throated vireos, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Painted Bunting and more. As fast as the migrant wave arrived, it was gone, but we were pretty happy to have witnessed the event ourselves.

April 18 – With favorable weather this morning, we returned to the Bolivar Peninsula, beginning with Rollover Pass. Birding here was sensational with flocks of gulls, terns, skimmers, shorebirds, herons and egrets present. Perhaps the best of all was a pair of Red Knot coming into breeding plumage. When I began visiting the Texas Coast about 15 years ago, Red Knots could be found in numbers along the Bolivar Peninsula, however, the North American Atlantic population of knots has been severely declining and nowadays we’re lucky to see any.

Two Red Knot at Rollover Pass, Bolivar Peninsula, TX. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

As we carried on towards Bolivar Flats, we stopped to watch two White-tailed Kites hover above a brushy field, new for our trip list. Along the entrance road to the flats we were very lucky to catch a glimpse of a Sedge Wren in the dry marsh. Also here, two Horned Larks showed off nicely, while a pair of Peregrine Falcons chased one another overhead. Shorebird numbers were excellent at Bolivar Flats with Western Sandpiper and Snowy Plover new for our lists. We tallied up to 15 Piping Plovers this morning, a respectable total for this endangered species. I was relieved to see two Reddish Egrets, one of which was performing its drunken sailor dance across the flats. I thought we had missed this bird, and a few of the tour participants had expressed they really wanted to see one.

After lunch we headed back to High Island, where we spent a couple hours wandering around Smith Oaks. There were a few migrants about, mostly Orchard Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Scarlet Tanagers. In the warbler department, we had great views of a male Blackburnian Warbler down nice and low in front of us, as well as Nashville, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Black-and-white, Hooded, Orange-crowned, Tennessee, and Prothonotary warblers, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat and Northern Parula. Todays species list tallied around 100, so we will not complain!

Assorted terns, gulls and Black Skimmers at Rollover Pass, Texas. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Assorted terns, gulls and Black Skimmers at Rollover Pass, Texas. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

April 19 – The final morning of our tour of the Texas Coast! We headed to Sabine Woods, along the Louisiana border for about 2.5 hours of birding before I had to get the crew of 8 ‘Brits’ back to the airport in Houston for their late afternoon flight. The woods were hopping with activity today and we were able to snag 11 species of warblers including a skulky male Kentucky Warbler and a very showy female Cerulean Warbler. Also new for our list was a Blue-headed Vireo and a pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers are normally a Rio Grande specialty, rarely reaching anywhere near the TX / LA border, but this particular pair has been present for a couple of years now. The trees were alive with Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Orchard Orioles, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and more. The ground was hopping with thrushes, mostly Wood and Swainson’s, but we did see 3 Gray-cheeked Thrushes very well. Gray Catbirds and Brown Thrashers were common today.

After I dropped everyone off at the airport I returned my rental van, making a little side trip to a neighborhood in S.E. Houston where Monk Parakeets are found. After a little searching I found two of these little green and gray parakeets at a bird feeder, only the second time I’ve seen them in my life.

Our official trip total was 200 species!

Chris Charlesworth

Texas Birding Bonanza – Part 2, The Cold Front

Our second full day of birding on the Upper Texas Coast began cloudy, warm and humid. We left our hotel near the Houston Airport at 7 AM and drove to Winnie, which took about 1.5 hours. We then made our way towards the world-famous Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, though it took us a long time to get there due to several excellent flooded rice fields along the access road to the refuge. Shorebird numbers were pretty staggering. There were hundreds of Whimbrel, Willets and Lesser Yellowlegs wading in the fields. Mixed in were more goodies like American Golden Plover, Stilt Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Black-necked Stilts to name a few. Several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were crowd pleasers as they sallied out for insects from powerlines along the road. Loggerhead Shrike, Swainson’s Hawk and our first Eastern Kingbirds were added to the trip tally.

Black-necked Stilt, one of many shorebird species seen today at Anahuac NWR, Texas. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

At Skillern Tract we were treated to a real ‘rail show’ when a very obliging King Rail wandered out in front of us, followed by a Virginia Rail and a Sora! The wetland here also produced Purple and Common gallinules, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. One of my ‘crew’ photographed a gorgeous Yellow-bellied Water Snake as it crossed the path in front of him. The rest of us missed seeing the snake, but we were happy enough to see an American Alligator swimming across a waterway.

Sora at Anahuac NWR, Texas. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We made our way to the Anahuac NWR visitor center and we just arrived in time. The clouds rolled in, dark and gray, and thunder could be heard in the distance. We took refuge in the bran spanking new center while the rain just chucked down outside for an hour or so. When we braved the elements and went outdoors the temperature had dropped an astonishing 10 degrees celsius over the course of the hour and a howling north wind made it feel even colder. The rest of the afternoon was spent birding from inside the van as we drove around Shoveler Pond at Anahuac. Through the water covered windows we could make out Roseate Spoonbills, White-faced Ibis, Neotropic Cormorants, Tricolored Heron, Forster’s and Caspian terns, and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, amongst others. A Least Bittern flew by the van at eye level which was a welcome surprise.

Pied-billed Grebe in the pouring rain at Anahuac NWR, Texas. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

When an April cold front blows across the Texas Coast the birders begin to twitch and shuffle with excitement of the possibility of a fallout. We will keep our fingers crossed that tomorrow will produce some epic birdwatching at High Island!

April 15 – Alas, the cold front did not produce a mega fallout today. Apparently, the cold front extended into southern Mexico and basically no birds lifted off from the Yucatan yesterday. That said, we still had a good day. When we emerged from our hotel the temperature was a bone chilling 3 degrees celsius! The wind blew for most of the day from the north, making it quite a chilly experience. At High Island’s Boy Scout Woods we started off with a bang, a male Golden-winged Warbler flitted about right near the park entrance. Along the trails we picked up other migrants such as a stunning male Hooded Warbler, some Tennessee Warblers, a Blue-winged Warbler and Northern Parula. Non-warbler migrants included Baltimore and Orchard orioles, Swainson’s Thrush, Brown Thrasher and Indigo Bunting.

Next, we moved on to the Bolivar Peninsula. The wind hampered with us here too, not allowing us to use our scopes. The strong wind basically blew all the water from Rollover Pass off into the bay, and simulated a mega-low tide, making the birds way too far away to see. Still, we picked up some shorebirds at Rollover, such as Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher and Sanderling. Several tern species, including Royal, Least, Forster’s and Sandwich sailed by,  as did Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls.

Long-billed Curlew. Several seen at Yacht Basin Rd on Bolivar Peninsula, TX. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Along Yacht Basin Rd we had several very confiding Long-billed Curlews in amongst the marsh. A distant Wilson’s Plover was seen through the shaky scope, and a Least Sandpiper paused briefly. Best bird here though was a Clapper Rail wandering around in a watery channel about 15 feet in front of us….and where was my camera? In the van.

After a coffee stop to warm ourselves up, we carried on to Bolivar Flats. Most of the birding had to be done from inside the van here, because otherwise we would have been ‘sandblasted’. We did get out however, to put a lovely Piping Plover in the scope. Also along the Bolivar Peninsula today we had Crested Caracara and Peregrine Falcon.

To finish off the day we spent a couple of lovely hours at High Island’s Smith Oaks, where the breeze died down a bit and we found ourselves shedding layers. The birds were quite good here, with the highlight being a gorgeous male Painted Bunting feeding on some mulberries. A dozen or so Rose-breasted Grosbeaks paid the mulberries a visit as well, and we had great views of a couple of Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Wood Thrush sang from the understory but remained hidden, and although we could hear warblers chipping away in the trees, the only new one we saw was a female Black-and-white Warbler. Since the passerine migration was a bit slow, I took the group to the heronry, which is always a big hit, especially with any photographers in the group. We watched, at close range, nesting Great and Snowy egrets, Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants. Even though there was no fallout, we had a great day of birding.

Roseate Spoonbills. Heronry at High Island, TX. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Roseate Spoonbills. Heronry at High Island, TX. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Chris Charlesworth


Texas Birding Bonanza – Part 1

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.

Female Prothonotary Warbler at Jesse Jones Nature Park in Houston. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth
Female Prothonotary Warbler at Jesse Jones Nature Park in Houston. April 2014. Chris Charlesworth

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.

Chris Charlesworth

Tales and photographs of the adventures of Avocet Tours