They weren’t kidding – Texas is HUGE. It is the largest US state (bar Alaska), which makes covering it very difficult. On the other hand, it has a very rich avifauna, and since our birding in the past has covered Arizona in the West, and the East coast down to Florida, some more specialist birds, notably a Mexican influence in the South-west. So the decision was how to get the best out of a week long trip, since some reports recommend up to 3 weeks – and that’s just to do the coastal area and Rio Grande valley (I’m not sure what the rest of the state is like for variety of birds). There’s no doubt that we couldn’t even consider the Big Bend extension, so we focused on the Texan coastal birding trail, which extends a short distance up the Rio Grande Valley, before shooting off to the Edward’s Plateau a little to the North-east (“little” entailing 4 hours of travel).
Most birding trips do a clockwise loop when covering Texas. This is probably because they follow the directions in the two Lane guides available (see below). Not wanting to upset the apple cart, we did the same thing – it makes life an aweful lot easier. The initial itinerary was going to begin with a few hours in Jones State Park, only 20 miles from the airport, on the first afternoon, after landing, stay in a prebooked hotel near to High Island to cover that the next day, and then trek to the South-west for the rest of the week. Air France and a delayed connecting flight from Newcastle put paid to that idea, since we missed the Houston flight, and were delayed for 24 hours. Undaunted, we walked out from the Paris Campanile hotel which had been provided for us by Air France, and in a three hour sortie found a handful of Green Woodpeckers, singing Blackcaps & Chiffchaffs, and a couple of flyover Ring-necked Parakeets. Once in Texas, we set off straight to the South-west, and returned to High Island on the last full day.
When looking at more details of the planned itinerary, we obviously wanted as much variety as possible. The High Island and Bolivar peninsular area near to Houston offers a good chance of migrants and waders, and has a more eastern feel. Once in the South-west, we looked for a mix of coastal birds and Mexican specialities – Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana are the pick of the birding areas here. Since we were less bothered with listing than sitting back and enjoying the birding that was on offer, we didn’t put much importance on Brownesville, and even the outside possibility of Whooping Cranes (we were there at the end of their likely wintering times and had less time due to the loss of a day) was bypassed. Edwards’ Plateau is very good for a new mix of interior birds, including the speciality Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. These are worth the journey alone!
There are direct flights to Houston from the UK, but we chose Air France due to a reasonable cost including take off from our local airport at Newcastle. Houston is undoubtedly the best gateway into the state – other international airports are a slog further North. We had also prebooked the car hire from home (the company used Alamo). This was very easy and painless, apart from the operator at the desk suggesting that they had no 4 doors (as we had booked), but that he could provide a 4 door in the next size up for a “special price”. When I suggested to him that we didn’t need a larger car (only 2 in the party), but did need a 4 door (for photographing from the same side when using the car as a hide) he astonishingly managed to find us the elusive car as booked.
As mentioned, the distances covered are huge, such as 5 hours from the airport to Corpus Christi area, 4 hours from the Rio Grande valley (Chapeño) to Edwards Plateau, and 5 hours from Edwards Plateau to East of Houston. Some good maps show distances between points, which is indispensable. We weren’t sure exactly where we would be from one day to the next, so booked the hotels as we travelled. Rooms were quite cheap, especially when shared between 2 people, and this varied from between $35 and $70 depending on where we stayed. In addition, the dollar was at $1.86 to the £1, so we got even better value. Generally, being cheapskates, we found it useful to look either for Motel 6 and Super 8, or small independent Motels. Some areas are better served than others, and some tips are:
There is no ideal time, although the Spring and Autumn migration periods are probably best. In Spring, March can offer a good mix of wintering birds and early migrants, with higher numbers of migrants appearing in mid April to May. We tried to get the balance right by choosing mid-April.
Even at this time of year, the sun can be hot, although there was only one day when we felt uncomfortably so, and this was when we were searching for rattlesnakes in the open at Chapeño. Sun screen is a necessity, but it can be comfortably temperate a lot of the time. We had expected some rain, and did experience a drizzle while at Santa Ana, and again two days later at Edwards Plateau (this being a higher altitude, it is also a lot cooler than at the coast). Insect repellent is essential – mosquitoes and smaller chigger types of biting insects can be a pest.
Probably one of the best all in field guides is “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America” (David Sibley, published by Knopf), since it is compact enough to carry, inexpensive, but covers all of the birds likely to be seen.
For site maps, directions, and information, the Lane guides are as usual second to none. Two are needed for the trip itinerary that we covered: “A Birders Guide to the Texas Coast” (Harold Holt) and “A Birders Guide to the Rio Grande Valley” (Mark Lockwood et al), both published by the American Birding Association. The map we used was obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation (www.TravelTex.com) – “Texas Official Travel Map”. It is good for travel over some distances, and the Lane guides then give site direction details.
Another resource which is useful
is the CD Bird Song guide. 2 would be needed to cover the area: