Male CERULEAN WARBLER Dendroica cerulea. This tired newly arrived migrant showed down to 10 feet during our visit to Sabine Pass.
Having flown out 3 days earlier than the group I could not believe that when they touched down at Houston it would be warmer in London than in Texas – and to quote one client ‘I thought birding Texas in spring was going to be warm!’
Well, the Houston area had been the subject of a cold northerly weather front which on its northern edge had produced heavy rain, hail and snow. But just as bad weather is not pleasant it does produce ideal conditions for lots of birds to arrive on the upper Texas Coast. Over the following few days however it warmed up nicely with most days being a comfortable 70-80°F resulting in several ice-cream stops.
Our first couple of hours in the field produced stunning warblers including a confiding Black-throated Green Warbler along with Cerulean, Tennessee, Northern Parula, Kentucky, the bizarre Worm-eating and over 20 of the dapper Hooded Warbler. Other species noted here were gorgeous Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, bright red Northern Cardinal and Summer Tanager and a Great-crested Flycatcher giving its distinctive ‘weeep’ call. Here we also enjoyed the first of many encounters with Northern Mockingbird and the aptly named Gray Catbird. As if this were not enough a quick walk around the nearby marsh produced a tight flock of Hudsonian Whimbrels heading north and 2 very close White-tailed Kites. What a great introduction to Texas birding!
Over the following days we explored a myriad of habitats; Anahuac seems about 50 times the size of Minsmere and it also seemed to have 50 times more birds too. Before we’d even disembarked the vehicle a Killdeer alarm call told us that we must be quite close to a nest – actually we were 6 feet away, as the bird had chosen to nest a few feet from the road edge!
We joined the warden and about 50 other birders on the annual rail walk, which produced the much hoped-for Yellow Rail, Le Conte’s Sparrow and Sedge Wren. All this human activity in the marsh produced swarms of flying insects and soon we found ourselves the subject of close scrutiny as hundreds of Barn and Tree Swallow zipped past us only feet away, gorging themselves on the flying feast, to our good-fortune they were also joined by a single Cave Swallow, which also gave a close fly-past allowing comparison with its similar cousin the Cliff Swallow.
Shorebirds were in abundance at Anahuac and as we watched many feeding flocks we were able to pick out Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary and Spotted Sandpiper, Pectoral, Bairds, White-rumped and the diminutive Least Sandpipers as well as Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit and 4 of its smaller cousin, the superb Hudsonian Godwit. Waterbirds were also in abundance and so easy to observe from our vehicle; Great, Cattle and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricoloured and the tiny Green Heron, American and Least Bittern, many White-faced Ibis and of course Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Heron. The marsh simply echoed with sounds of Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, Common Yellowthroats and argumentative Boat-tailed Grackles, whilst incredibly gaudy but very secretive American Purple Gallinules crept through the reeds, trying to go un-noticed.
During our stay we visited the High Island area most days, calling in at Boy Scout Wood or Smith Oaks Sanctuary or even both several times over! As we walked along the wooded trails we had to keep our eyes on the ground as well as in the trees; birds feeding in the leaf litter included Brown Thrasher, Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes, many White-throated Sparrows, Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes and the superb Ovenbird. Up in the trees we were treated to Warbling, Red-eyed, White-eyed, Blue-headed and the superb Yellow-throated Vireos, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak whilst Black and white, Yellow-throated, Yellow-rumped and the dazzling Blue-winged Warblers kept us busy tracking their ‘zip’ calls and many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds whizzed back and forth from the sweet smelling Honeysuckle.
Our two visits to High Island Oilfields produced ridiculously close-up views of shorebirds including Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral and White-rumped Sandpipers and hundreds of Long-billed Dowitchers. Pride of place here however went to the hundreds of ‘peeps’ giving great views, allowing us to see the short blob-tipped bills, restricted underpart spotting and greyer upperparts of Semipalmated Sandpipers compared to the bright rufous crown and scapulars and more extensive flank streaking of the closely related Western Sandpipers. We also had a wonderful encounter here with a confiding Common Nighthawk!
Our visit to the vast tidal sand-flats at Bolivar and Rollover Pass revealed many new shorebirds including Red Knot, Sanderling, Wilson’s, Snowy, Piping and Semipalmated Plovers, Short-billed Dowitcher, both Brown and American White Pelicans and many terns including Caspian, Royal, Least, Forsters, Gull-billed, Sandwich and at least 20 American Black Terns. The commonest gull here is the superb Laughing Gull but careful searching revealed several Ring-billed, American Herring, Bonaparte’s and a superb pink-breasted summer plumage Franklins. One evening produced the most wonderful of sights when thousands of sunlit American Avocets were observed swimming close inshore whilst Black Skimmers ‘skimmed’ in the background!
As we travelled around, raptors seen daily included Black and Turkey Vultures, soon relegated to plain old BV’s and TV’s! We also got good looks at Red-tailed, Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine and the graceful Northern Harrier. Not all soaring birds are raptors however and on many occasions we saw Anhinga, Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants and even the bright pink Roseate Spoonbill passing over at height up on the thermals. Further afield we did catch up with two much wanted raptors, namely several Mississippi and a single superb Swallow-tailed Kite. Some birds just elude class, none more-so than two roadside birds, the Belted Kingfisher and the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, although seen daily both always get lots of ‘oohs and aahs’!
Our day in the northern Pine forests started superbly with Red-cockaded and Pileated Woodpeckers, singing Pine and Hooded Warblers, a beautiful singing Yellow-breasted Chat, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Carolina Chickadee. A little further down the road we had wonderful close views of another Pinewood speciality, Bachman’s Sparrow but hey - mind those Fire Ants! Our tour concluded not far from the airport with a pair of stunning Red-headed Woodpeckers, to add to the Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied already seen earlier on the trip and another beautiful pair of bright blue Eastern Bluebirds.
The bird of the trip? Well with so many wonderful birds seen you would think it a difficult decision, but it was voted unanimously that the 3 summer-plumage female Wilson’s Phalaropes spinning round at close range in the High Island Oilfields were THE best by a country mile. Second place went to the wonderful male Pileated Woodpecker which entertained us in the Pinewoods with third place taken by the graceful Swallow-tailed Kite.
The many non-avian highlights included some wonderful butterflies including Monarch, Cloudless Sulphur, Spicebush and Giant Swallowtails. Mammals although few and far between included Marsh and Swamp Rabbit, Grey Squirrel, White-tailed Deer and wonderful close views of a Nine-banded Armadillo at the entrance to Anahuac. Reptiles and Amphibians included huge ‘smiling’ American Alligators, 5 snakes including a Speckled King Snake. Red-eared Slider Terrapins did a great impersonation of crash helmets and several Green Anole Lizards were seen, one of which decided that I obviously looked like a territorial male, displaying his throat pouch furiously in my direction!
What a wonderful trip; in 8 days we’d seen 200 species of birds in a great variety of habitats, enjoyed some great Texan hospitality with lots of laughs thrown in for good measure and still didn’t understand baseball!