Male KENTUCKY WARBLER Geothlypis formosa. One of the normally shy and retiring species which give such good views on migration!
It is fair to say that it was a very different Texas that greeted us as we arrived for this year’s tour. Last autumn, Hurricane Ike had left its calling card for all to see right across the countryside with 15 foot high storm surges resulting in demolished fences, flattened houses, boardwalks ripped out of the ground and many trees uprooted. The beach at Bolivar had been reduced by 100 metres and the Bolivar Peninsular looked more like a scene from a Rambo movie with the vast piles of vehicles, rubble, trees and debris being a constant sight along the 30 mile drive to Galveston Ferry – to be honest it couldn’t have seemed much worse for birds as Texas was also experiencing severe drought conditions – everywhere was very salty and very dry!
Nevertheless we persevered and arose early for the much anticipated rail walk at Anahuac. This was a huge success with Yellow, Sora and Virginia Rails all seen well along with Sedge Wren and Seaside Sparrow. Also at Anahuac we saw Mottled Duck and a few Eastern Kingbirds but the main reserve was dry, the flooded fields which in the past have produced hundreds of ducks, dowitchers, peeps and yellowlegs were cracked clay hollows! Driving the Shoveler Pond loop the ditches were dry and all the waterbirds were concentrated on one small levee so within 10 metres of each other we recorded Belted Kingfisher, Least Bittern, American Purple Gallinule and King Rail, quite bizarre!
Our first afternoon was spent enjoying a superb array of species including Pileated Woodpecker, singing Red-eyed Vireo, Prothonotary and Northern Parula Warblers, Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpecker gave crippling views, and nearby 6 summer plumage American Buff-bellied Pipits crept around in the short grass by the bar-b-Q, a brief passing shower produced our first warbler flock containing Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black and White, Yellow, Tennessee and a few Myrtle with many more to come! Checking a likely looking field en route produced a flock of 17 Upland Sandpipers only 30 metres from the car.
Over the next few days we visited many different habitats, all within a reasonable distance of our hotel. Our day in the Liberty area produced an excellent selection of raptors with 60 Swainson’s Hawks, 27 Mississippi Kites, Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, Red-tailed, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks together with American Kestrel, Peregrine and Osprey. Today produced so many mouth-watering species it was difficult to concentrate on what to look at next – however the prize for bird of the day had to go to the superbly elegant Swallow-tailed Kite which sailed effortlessly over woodland for several minutes, giving great views.
When we returned to Anahuac later in the week, Shoveler Pond had become Shoveler ‘mud’ and was teeming with many feeding shorebird flocks. Scanning through, we were able to pick out Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, cracking summer plumage Wilson’s Phalaropes, Baird’s, White-rumped and the diminutive Least Sandpipers as well as Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher and many Hudsonian Whimbrel.
With fresh water in such short supply the ‘drips’ at Boy Scout Wood and Smith Oaks Sanctuary were proving to be a magnet for tired migrants and above average numbers of warblers were being recorded. As we walked along the wooded trails birds coming to drink included Brown Thrasher, Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, Northern Waterthrush and the superb Ovenbird. With Hurricane Ike having removed any tree above 30 feet high it was not the neck-craning experience of previous years and in the trees we were treated to close looks at Warbling, Red-eyed, White-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak whilst Black and white, Yellow-throated, Yellow-rumped and dazzling Blue-winged Warblers kept us busy tracking their ‘zip’ calls while many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds whizzed back and forth from the sweet smelling Honeysuckle.
Driving along the seafront one morning we were soon enveloped in thick fog so what better way to spend a couple of hours than checking areas of saltmarsh for sparrows on a foggy morning? This move proved to be a good one with Savannah, Lincoln’s, Swamp, Seaside and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows all seen very well. Nearby an incredibly confiding Clapper Rail called whilst sat in the middle of the road and several Hudsonian Whimbrels flew overhead calling. Once the sun had burnt through the fog we soon saw White-tailed Kite and Northern Harriers as they quartered the dry and salty coastal scrub. At Rollover Pass, we witnessed migration as it happened as we watched an Ovenbird bouncing over the waves and heading towards us, with landfall made it soon dived into the nearest scrub for a well-earned rest!
Several visits to the tidal sand-flats at Bolivar and Rollover Pass revealed many new shorebirds including Sanderling, Wilson’s, Snowy, Piping and Semipalmated Plovers, American Oystercatcher, 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. Peeps were also abundant and we were treated to great looks at Least, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers and the long-billed American form of Dunlin. The commonest gull here is the noisy Laughing Gull but also present were several of its larger cousins, Ring-billed and American Herring Gulls. A scan of the breakers close offshore revealed Black Skimmers and huge feeding parties of American Avocets. A distant shrimping boat attracted our attention due to the huge numbers of Brown Pelicans in attendance – a quick glance above the boat revealed a large dark bird wheeling around, switching to the scope I was astonished to see that we had found ourselves a female Magnificent Frigatebird - wow!
Sabine Woods, south of Port Arthur is always a great spot to bird and even though some trees had been destroyed and the boardwalk had been ripped out of the ground and thrown half a mile, we were full of enthusiasm as the dull overcast conditions produced our first feeding flock containing some excellent warblers including 2 Black and White, male Blue-winged, 3 Worm-eating, 2 Prothonotary, 4 Tennessee, a Northern Parula, male and female Hooded, Kentucky and a dishevelled Yellow-rumped. The forest floor was tinder dry but provided good looks at Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes and a nice view of an Ovenbird.
Our day in the northern Pine forests started superbly as just after dawn I stopped to check out an area where I had previously seen Bachman’s Sparrow. As soon as I opened the car door I heard the distinctive buzzy song of a Prairie Warbler which once located showed extremely well - a great start! Our journey into the woods proper produced great views of Pine Warbler, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, singing Hooded Warblers, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Carolina Chickadee. A little further down the road we had wonderful close views of another Pinewood speciality, the delightful Bachman’s Sparrow. The annual visit to another area of nearby parkland produced a ‘warbler fest’ with singing Swainson’s, Worm-eating and Yellow-throated Warblers whilst a Louisiana Waterthrush sang from only a few feet away but remained out of sight. Nearby nesting Eastern Bluebirds were busy feeding young and Acadian Flycatchers sang from the understorey, Summer Tanagers sang from the treetops and Chipping Sparrows fed in the woodlot, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds buzzed back and forth and a dapper male Yellow-throated Vireo sang from an overhanging branch. Also here some familiar ‘back-yard’ birds were noted including the delightful Tufted Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-throated Sparrow and Carolina Wren.
Mid afternoon the overcast skies turned distinctly dark and the heavens opened; within a few minutes it was literally raining birds with the ground and trees resounding to the ‘chip’ and ‘zip’ calls of grounded migrants. This spectacular fallout was breathtaking and Eastern Kingbird was easily the commonest passerine noted with over 70 seen. The dapper Yellow Warbler took the prize for the most numerous warbler with at least 50 seen in a few minutes, other species dropped in by the minute as we saw flocks of Rose-breasted Grosbeak (40), Orchard (40) and Baltimore Orioles (30), Scarlet (30) and Summer (25) Tanagers, 35 Indigo Buntings contained at least 8 Painted Buntings and nearby up to 12 Dickcissels huddled together in a bush only a few feet from Blue Grosbeak and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Warblers came thick and fast with the undoubted stars being male Bay-breasted and Magnolia Warblers, supported by 10 American Redstarts, 5 each of Blue-winged, Worm-eating, Prothonotary and Kentucky, 3 Chestnut-sided and a superb Louisiana Waterthrush, a species which we had heard singing the previous day.
Just as the thunderstorms had arrived at Sabine they had also arrived at High Island for our penultimate day. Our day started off at Smith Oaks with virtually the first bird being a superb male Blackburnian Warbler, quickly followed by male Western Tanager, dozens of Scarlet Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles and a brief Eastern Towhee. The day’s pace increased once more as a huge warbler flock was located; first on the list were 2 confiding male Canada Warblers, then a crisp male Blackpoll Warbler followed by male Chestnut-sided and Cerulean, 8 American Redstarts, 3 Black-throated Green, 5 Worm-eating, 2 Orange-crowned, 6 Blue-winged, 10 Black and White, 3 Northern Parula, 2 Prothonotary, 3 Kentucky, 2 Yellow-rumped, 4 Hooded, 5 Yellow-throated Vireos and several Yellow-billed Cuckoos.
Thinking that our last full day could not get any better we ventured over to Boy Scout Woods in the afternoon and enjoyed a close-range Veery, more Blackpoll Warblers, Great-crested and Acadian Flyctachers, 6 Yellow Warblers and to top it all a gorgeous male Golden-winged Warbler found by Sue late afternoon completed a totally excellent day! The final few hours on the day we due to depart also produced another male Golden-winged Warbler feeding in the weedy fields at the back of the woods which were also filled with hundreds of Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks and Dickcissels – what a way to finish? Well, we weren’t quite finished, on our way to Houston we stopped to check out a Bald Eagle nest and we were in luck, a magnificent white-headed adult was perched atop the huge nest which must have been at least 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep!
The bird of the trip? Well, both Paul and Sue were very keen to see the superb Swallow-tailed Kite and the views we enjoyed ensured that this bird took the top spot. Male Golden-winged Warbler came a close second and joint third place was taken by American Redstart and Blackburnian Warbler.
The many non-avian highlights included some wonderful butterflies including Monarch, Viceroy, Buckeye, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Cloudless Sulphur, Pipevine, Black and Giant Swallowtails. Mammals although few included Marsh and Swamp Rabbit, Grey Squirrel, and due to the very dry conditions we had wonderful views of several Nine-banded Armadillos feeding in the leaf-litter at Smith Oaks. In contrast to previous years only 3 American Alligators were seen with only 10% thought to have survived the salty onslaught of Hurricane Ike
So what seemed to be a dry, salty and apparently birdless place had produced some spectacular sights and sounds; in 8 days we’d seen a record-breaking 217 species of birds in a great variety of habitats, enjoyed some wonderful Texan hospitality, enjoying lots of laughs, and we’d also had a perfect combination of weather. All these factors combined make Texas such a fantastic place to go birding.