As our plane circled above Houston mid-afternoon, unable to land due to heavy rain and thunderstorms, I was day-dreaming about what this weather may have produced - would we see a huge fallout with birds dripping from the bushes where every chip or tik call could be something really amazing?
An hour and a half later we landed. The skies were leaden grey, it was raining and it was cold, so just like England then! The wind blew from the north and that meant only one thing - lots of birds! We drove the hour and a half to High Island full of anticipation at what tomorrow might bring. In the failing light we did manage some gulls and terns on the beach including Gull-billed, Royal and Caspian, whilst the gulls consisted of 10 beautiful pink flushed summer plumaged Franklin’s Gulls.
The following morning we started at Boy Scout Woods. A leisurely walk on a cool early morning produced dozens of Orchard Orioles, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Black and white, Yellow, Tennessee and Orange-crowned Warblers, Least Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting and several gaudy Summer Tanagers, whilst the resident Northern Cardinals sang their cheerful ‘woit woit woit’ song and the car-park held 3 dapper Northern Parula’s - this is more like it!
However a couple of blocks away the Texas Ornithological Society’s reserve at Hooks Woods, also known simply as ‘Hooks’ was heaving with birds. On our arrival the Magnolia trees opposite the woods were teeming with warblers, vireos and orioles. Male Blue-winged, several Yellow-rumped, Northern Parula and Hooded Warblers were joined by Blue-headed, Warbling, White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos, more Summer Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles and large numbers of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Meanwhile a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew in, landed on a tree and appeared to drop off to sleep!
Progress into the woods themselves was slow-going as there were simply so many birds to admire. A cracking male Canada Warbler complete with bold white eye-ring and black necklace showed very well by the gate as did a brief Wilson’s, a couple more Hooded, Black-throated Greens, Blue-wings and a lovely male Black and White - always a great bird to watch. As we got to the three large Oaks in the centre of the wood it was clear there was lots of excitement, the reason was well, probably one the best of the wood warblers, a gorgeous male Golden-winged showing well in the Oak canopy, occasionally dropping low so that it was close-enough to enjoy the exquisite mixture of pale grey upperparts, white underparts, neat black mask and throat and the vivid yellow crown and wing panel - what a cracker!
Nearby in another large Oak a male Chestnut-sided Warbler gave us great views as did Painted Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole and another superb Black and White Warbler. Eastern Wood-Pewees were everywhere with their thin ‘peeeweee’ call echoing around the woodlots. A Crested Caracara floated by and gave everyone a rest from ‘warbler neck’ by doing a low level fly-past.
Moving inland a couple of blocks, we headed to Smith Oaks where migration was also very evident with 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Black-throated Green, Black and White and Blue-winged Warblers in the trees whilst Kentucky Warbler and Brown Thrasher skulked around in the leaf litter. As we headed along the boardwalk a flash of orange bought us our first views of another contender for best North American warbler, the simply gorgeous Blackburnian Warbler, which gave us good but brief views. Nearby at the rookery our first Tricoloured and Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills were busy going about their daily business. It is strange how such elegant birds have such revolting calls with a mixture of grunts, moans and squawks emanating from the nesting colonies - the smell wasn’t much better either!
We took lunch at Rollover Pass and enjoyed great views of Royal, Caspian, Forster’s and Least Terns accompanied by Great Blue and Tricoloured Herons, Willets, Marbled Godwits and both yellowlegs fed in the channel whilst 2 immature American Herring Gulls tried to consume a large fish washed up on the beach. Nearby at Tuna Road a group of American Black Terns entertained at close range, Long-billed Dowitchers and Stilt Sandpipers fed in the narrow roadside channel and at his usual spot a Clapper Rail gave great views - so close at times you could have picked him up!
Over the coming days we visited Anahuac Wildlife Refuge on several occasions, firstly for a rail-less rail walk, which nonetheless produced great views of American Bittern and Seaside Sparrow. Later on it was into ‘twitch’ mode as a visiting birder reported a Ruff our on Shoveler Pond. Our group together with several other birding groups joined a small crowd where after a few minutes we were able to pick out the female Ruff or ‘Reeve’ amongst the Lesser Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers and Stilt Sandpipers.
A very rare visitor from Eurasia, it was easily told from its congeners by the orange legs, overall buff plumage and heavily patterned mantle - almost like a giant, long-necked Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Nearby at the flooded rice fields we saw a proper Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Hudsonian Whimbrel by the hundred and smaller numbers of both Upland Sandpipers and American Golden Plovers whilst the oilfields produced a tight group of Wilson’s Phalaropes, a confiding Wilson’s Snipe and our only Red Knot. Our time at Anahuac was also particularly noteworthy for the 5 Least Bitterns, 4 American Bitterns and numerous other waterbirds including American Purple Gallinule, Pied-billed Grebe and both Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling Duck.
Heading north for the day found us in Angelina National Forest at dawn. Our first new birds of the day were a Pileated Woodpecker which flew across the road near Jasper and a Carolina Chickadee which was on roadside wires a few hundred yards from an Eastern Bluebird. Arriving in the forest our first target, Prairie Warbler, was securely under the belt after a nervous few minutes, followed minutes later by a flock of over 200 Cedar Waxwings.
In the forest itself we were treated to good views of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler whilst a pair of Wood Ducks were an added bonus. The Bachman’s Sparrow sang for us but as last year, refused to show which was a tad frustrating. Moving on to Sam Rayburn Reservoir we had distant views of 3 Bald Eagles, 2 Bonaparte’s Gulls and a summer plumage Common Loon, whilst at Jasper fish hatchery we had 2 Solitary Sandpipers and a fence full of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.
Moving south into The Big Thicket National Park we were treated to great views of Swainson’s Warbler, Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpecker and a few Mississippi Kites as they drifted overhead. We ended this day by visiting Lake Charlotte where a Pileated Woodpecker gave a spectacular performance and a male Prothonotary Warbler at close range had John lost for words!
Sabine Woods is always good and this year was no exception. Over the course of three visits we enjoyed great views of Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Blue-winged, Yellow-throated, Palm, Cerulean, Yellow, Worm-eating and Kentucky Warblers, both waterthrushes and great views of Ovenbird. Also here were hundreds of thrushes including around 80 Wood Thrush, many Swainson’s and the odd Gray-cheeked too. Common and Lesser Nighthawk, Acadian and Great Crested Flycatcher were also present as were multiple Red-eyed, White-eyed, Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos with a single Philadelphia seen too.
Our penultimate day was all about luck! We called in to Boy Scout Woods to see what had been reported to be told that someone had seen a Black-billed Cuckoo in the last few minutes. Black-billed is much rarer and more difficult to see on the coast than Yellow-billed so imagine our reaction when only a few yards away I put my bins on a Black-billed Cuckoo coming down to drink at the viewing area - wow!
Our luck continued when on heading for Hooks we were told of a male Bay-breasted seen briefly earlier - we arrived, walked to the central Oak tree and within a couple of minutes, bang - male Bay-breasted Warbler in the bag, followed moments later by a very smart Veery!
A short way along the coast was a huge loafing flock of gulls and terns. On closer inspection a white-winged gull was present, surely an Iceland? Yes a 2nd-winter bird was at the near side of the flock but on the far side was another white-winged gull, a 1st-winter Glaucous and next to that was a 2nd year Great Black-backed Gull - 3 new birds for the trip in 5 minutes!
Our last day saw us with only three hours to spare before we had to head to Houston. Starting at Smith Oaks at dawn we clocked up an impressive 10 species of warbler including Yellow-breasted Chat and Blackpoll, both new birds for the trip.
At the end of our tour the total was 227 - the highest total ever for this tour. What was probably more incredible was that we saw no less than 31 species of warbler; most previous tours have only recorded 27 or 28 at most so 31 was exceptional but also very exciting. As we headed to the airport we reflected on what had been an amazing week with lots of laughs, lots of highlights and lots of luck!
Many thanks to my fellow travellers; Peter, David and John for their company and for being such accomplished bird-finders - John with 5 Least Bitterns in a morning, David for his Blackpoll Warbler on the last morning and Peter for his expert stalking of an Ovenbird and the resulting pictures. Texas is always an exciting tour to lead but this particular year will live long in the memory!