Adult SORA RAIL Porzana carolina. This obliging bird just wandered out onto the track in front of us!
When we arrived in Texas the weather was hot and sunny with light southerly winds; admittedly very pleasant but completely useless for witnessing migration. Things were looking slow until on Tuesday we woke to light drizzle and very misty conditions. Heading over to Sabine Woods early morning it was clear that there were large numbers of grounded migrants before we even entered the woods, the first sign of what was to come was in the form of a group of about a dozen Indigo Buntings sitting in the road at Sabine Pass.
Moving on to the woods themselves we were soon enjoying a warbler fest as the first few steps into the woods produced a confiding Worm-eating Warbler and a beautifully crisp male Northern Parula at eye-level. Joining a group of enthusiastic local birders we spent the next 20 minutes watching the large oak trees, their canopies appearing to move as large numbers of warblers flitted amongst the leaves. Most numerous was Tennessee with over 40 birds present together with several Black and white and Northern Parula, however the stars of the show here were at least 4 Blackburnian, 2 Yellow-throated and a stunning male Cerulean, all of which gave great views to their assembled admirers. Over the next 5 hours we enjoyed superb views of Ovenbird, Veery, Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes as they fed in the leaf litter as well as dozens of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows and the odd Lincoln's skulking in the undergrowth.
In a a low Tamarisk over the pool there were at least 7 Tennessee, 2 Northern Parula, and singles of Black and white, Blue-winged, Black-throated Green and Yellow, whilst 2 Northern Waterthrush crept about on submerged logs. There were birds everywhere!
Leaving the woods to have a break from the rather hungry mosquitoes we headed along to the western end of the pass to check out Willow Ponds; this area had been devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2009 with the boardwalk totally destroyed. Before we even got there we noticed that the roadside vegetation was also dripping with birds; mainly Indigo Buntings (estimated at over 200 birds) but with several Painted Buntings, Tennessee Warblers and Orchard Orioles and sadly, many road casualties.
Arriving at Willow Ponds the low Willows and Tamarisks however have started to regrow and they were simply stuffed with birds! Whilst enjoying our picnic lunch we had amazing close views of American Redstart, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated, Yellow, Hooded and Black and white Warblers virtually at our feet. We also witnessed a multiple arrival of Yellow-billed Cuckoos with 4 arriving together, some in better condition than others with one individual looking totally exhausted.
Yacht Basin Road is always great to visit regardless of the tide status and this year proved to be no exception. Our two hours here produced stunning views of Clapper Rail, Least, Pectoral and Stilt Sandpiper with several Short-billed Dowitchers amongst their commoner Long-billed cousins. Star of the show here was an obliging Long-billed Curlew showing well on the dry mud. We also witnessed a Peregrine in full hunting mode as it swept low over the water and sent the flocks of gulls, terns, waders and pelicans into a frenzy. Nearby an area of dead vegetation produced a group of Dickcissels and a many more White-crowned Sparrows. Nearby at Rollover pass a leisurely lunch produced American Black and Caspian Tern, Oystercatcher and 2 pink-flushed summer-plumage Franklin’s Gulls.
High Island Oilfields produced great close up views of waterbirds and waders. Great looks at summer-plumaged Stilt Sandpipers, the chance to compare Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, close ups of American Dunlin, Least Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone together with flocks of Blue-winged Teal and the odd Shoveler. Anahuac produced a carpet of shorebirds with beautiful Wilson’s Phalaropes, Marbled Godwit and both Green-winged Teal and Least Bittern showing well. A King Rail called noisily but refused to show himself and an Ibis at long range was thought to be a Glossy, this was later confirmed as other observers had enjoyed much closer views revealing the all important dark iris and brownish bill.
Our day visiting sites in and around the Pine woods in Angelina National Forest required persistence on our part as the birds played hard to get. Pine Warbler and Brown-headed Nuthatch stubbornly refusing to come down from the tall pine trees, even more elusive was the Bachman's Sparrow which flatly refused to show whilst it sang constantly. Prairie Warbler however was far more obliging with a male singing from low vegetation. One of the main species everyone wants to see here is Red-cockaded Woodpecker and we were treated to great views of three birds as they noisily chased each other around the trees. Nearby at Sam Rayburn Dam 2 magnificent adult Bald Eagles showed well and a male Eastern Bluebird flew back and forth from his next in a mail box.
Our final full day was mainly spent birding the triangle of reserves on High Island. The northerly winds, scattered showers and cool temperatures had resulted in lots of grounded migrants and our day made the most of what was on offer. Starting off at Boy Scout Woods we enjoyed great looks at Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided, Black and white and Black-throated Green Warblers whilst 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoos sat out in the open nearby. The Mulberry trees were a hive of activity with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles and both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers busily feeding on the berry crop. Nearby, at Hooks Woods we bumped into hundreds more Indigo Buntings, a male Painted Bunting and a dapper Lark Sparrow as well as a confiding Black and white Warbler, 2 more Yellow-billed Cuckoos and an interesting empidonax flycatcher on which I am still awaiting confirmation of the ID.
The Magnolia trees adjacent to Hooks Woods simply bristled with warblers with 4 American Redstart, 5 Northern Parula, a stunning male Cerulean, several Yellow, Black and white, Nashville and a handful of Yellow-rumped completed the line up. We also narrowly missed a male Golden-winged by a few minutes.
A little over a mile away the woods at Smith Oaks were also teeming with birds. The first of which required patience, precision and persistence to see! A Chuck-wills Widow was roosting about 5 feet from the boardwalk in thick leaf litter, largely obscured by branches you had to adjust your viewing position to eventually catch sight of the bird’s eye - only then could you trace the bird’s outline and get some resemblance of shape and size.
Warblers were zipping and ticking away as they moved through the trees. Firstly 4 gorgeous male Blackburnian Warblers, then a male Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green and several Northern Parulas, a male Black and white and then something much bigger and more stocky grabbed our attention; a Yellow-breasted Chat and our first for the trip.
A quick check along the rookery trail at Smith Oaks produced point blank views of Sora Rail and an American Bittern struggling to swallow a crawfish. Nearby the noise and smell of the breeding herons, egrets and Roseate Spoonbills was a constant backdrop sound, and smell!
Bolivar flats is always a rewarding place to bird and this year it was better than ever, and seemed to be the perfect location with which to end the last full day of this tour. The shallow pools on the entrance road producing 4 incredibly confiding White-rumped Sandpipers and a pair of Mottled Ducks. Moving to the west end of the beach produced a wealth of shorebirds including over a thousand American Avocets, Red Knot, Marbled Godwit and both Wilson's and Snowy Plovers amongst thousands of gulls, terns, waders, herons, pelicans and numerous Black Skimmers - and a sunset!
We finished the tour with a meal at the Stingaree Restaurant and as we sat overlooking the water we voted on the bird of the trip. The worthy runner-up was Chestnut-sided Warbler but with 2 votes for 1st place the clear bird of the trip was Blackburnian Warbler. With that done we then drank a toast to Texas and its wonderful birding!