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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 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!
Travel and accommodation
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:
Timing and Weather
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:
“Bird Songs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Southwestern Texas” (Geoffrey Keller, published by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu)
“Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs – Eastern Region” (Lang Elliott et al, published by Time Warner Audiobooks)
Lake Corpus Christi (Day 1)
After landing more or less on time, give or take half an hour, we eventually struggled through the queues for immigration, and drove a leisurely 6 hours to find the last room of the two motels in the small town of Mathis near to Lake Corpus Christi, ideally placed for the first full days birding. The journey should have taken much less time, but we spent almost 3 hours crawling around the outskirts of Houston on a packed Friday afternoon. The choice (!!) of motel was excellent, and as usual after a western bound flight to the States, we were awake and up by 5am (it didn’t get properly light until after 7am).
We easily found the 10 minute route to Lake Corpus Christi, parked the car, and took one of the tracks through the dense cottonwoods to the base of the dam. There seemed to be copious numbers of birds calling within this environment, and we did see a few Northern Cardinals on the wires as the sun rose. These proved to be not only the most common bird, but also the most common mimic of other species, with a variety of calls usually turning out to be these. Just after our first critters of the day – 3 to 4 White-tailed Deer crisscrossing the tracks in front of us – we managed to pin down our first tick of the trip, an elusive Black-crested Titmouse amongst the continuing calls of Cardinals. We eventually arrived at the base of the dam, along with a few fishermen also enjoying their own definition of Saturday morning recreation. The dam couldn’t be approached due to an intervening fence, but was festooned with numerous Black Vultures, intermingled with the odd Turkey Vulture, and hundreds of Cliff Swallows, which were not only common over the woodland, but also the concrete of the dam structures. This was the site of the second critter of the day, a raccoon sniffing around a small pond within the forest. At the base of the dam, in the gushing outfall, were a couple of wading Snowy Egrets and a pair of basking Double-crested Cormorants. We had a good look at these through the telescope, not only to look at the angle of the gular pouch, but also the breeding tufts at the side of the head. As we retreated from this area, we picked up a drumming Ladderbacked Woodpecker, which was found with a female at very close quarters. They were quite happy to sit in front of us, taking turns at the top of the bare tree. We continued our return to the car, with yet more Cardinals, and overhead many small flocks of ibis spp. We also had at least 3 Black-bellied Whistling-ducks over here. Back at the car park, a singing White-eyed Vireo remained elusive, despite its noisy song. An additional Ladderbacked Woodpecker flew over and landed in the trees on the opposite side of the road.
Farm Road 70
We decided to vary our habitat by ignoring the trails on the opposite side of the dam, and found Farm Road 70 a mile or two down the road, which was bounded by much more open countryside. This was an excellent choice, and led to a greater variety in the mornings birds. Almost as soon as we left the Lake Corpus Christi side road, we came across Red-bellied Woodpecker, Bronzed Cowbird, and Lark Sparrow within half a mile or so, perched on telegraph wires next to the road. After a short distance, we turned South on to FM70, which is 4-5 miles of almost straight tarmac passing through open farmland, being predominantly grassland grazed by cattle in many cases. It was here that we had our first sightings of the hugely impressive Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, some of which could be approached very closely in the car. This was also a prime spot for sparrows, and although Clay-coloured & Dickcissel were hoped for, there was ample recompense in the form of numerous Lark Sparrows, and some small flocks of Savannah Sparrows, the latter of which were presumably passing through. We also started to pick up Crested Caracaras here, with a singleton perched briefly directly above the car, but most overhead demonstrating their strangely characteristic silhouette. This rolling open grassland was a habitat that we hadn’t experienced before, and was very enjoyable.
At the end of this road, we made a short left to look at the enclosed and private Wright ranch, which is reputed to hold a few basking alligators. It is unfortunately next to a very busy road, with heavy traffic passing regularly, and additionally didn’t seem to harbour any alligators. However, there was an unexpected colony of Great White Egrets, in bold and brilliant breeding plumage, incorporating quite a few Roseate Spoonbills, which also appeared to be resident. Around the edge of the shores were a couple of Green Herons and a sunning Anhinga. This small enclosed lake is also supposed to be a good spot for Black-bellied Whistling-duck, and we did locate a couple to the rear (this was in addition to more seen flying around the Lake Corpus Christi area earlier). Perhaps they are easier to see than we had previously suspected.
Dick Kleberg park
After finding Kingsville, and more importantly the local branch of Chilli’s serving up our first half rack of ribs for the trip, we made our way to Dick Kleberg park. This wasn’t the type of park that we had expected, being more of a recreational area in a vast acreage as is the American way – open fields and sports courts. Next to the car park is an extensive playground for the kids, but just beyond this is the elongated lagoon which is bounded on the eastern edge by the aforementioned swings and things, and on the western side by some seemingly inaccessible woodland. We started off by walking towards the bridge at the North end of the lake, which is reputed to hold nesting Cave Swallows. We didn’t see any around the structure, but small numbers were over the water – at first a little more distant, but eventually flying ever closer showing diagnostic pale throats. First water birds were small groups of Blue-winged Teal, but we also found a handful of waders. In addition to 3 Black-necked Stilts was a group of peeps - 4 Least and 1 Western Sandpipers. On the shoreline, a breeding plumaged Spotted Sandpiper seemed to be approaching us, but must have eventually taken the safe option and flew to the small mud bank in the centre of the lagoon. We searched through the trees on the eastern edge of the lake quite extensively. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were very obvious, but most common birds were probably Northern Mockingbirds, and Ladderbacked & Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, with Lark Sparrows regularly appearing. Early on, a Belted Kingfisher flew past and seemed to land near to our position, but must have disappeared below the tree line. We were a little surprised to see terns passing through, at first 3 Gull-billed Terns, followed by 4-5 fishing Least Terns. Additional flycatchers were a pair of Great Kiskadees which were possibly nest building in the park, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. All in all, this was a nice little stop for the birds, but perhaps not quite as aesthetically pleasing as the Farm Road earlier in the day.
Kaufer-Hubert memorial park
This place turned out to be principally an RV hook-up, where the locals pass the time by parking their huge Recreational Vehicles, and eat monstrous BBQ’s while talking loudly. This resulted in the promised bushy tracts being a lot smaller than expected, only turning up single Curve-billed Thrasher as we were leaving, and fleeting glimpses of Green Jay. The strength of this locality lies in the wader watching, and this mainly centres around a couple of lagoons with a central shingle bank between. We spent most of the time watching the smaller lagoon between the road and the sea, since the birds were a lot closer here – a definite benefit in the increasingly stronger onshore wind. Amongst the most common of the waders were unexpected Hudsonian Godwits (almost three figures), as well as numerous Least Sandpipers containing the odd Western Sandpiper and at least half a dozen Baird’s Sandpipers. Smaller numbers of other species included full summer Long-billed Dowitcher, 2 American Avocets, and single Wilson’s Plover. An American White Pelican which had been swimming on the landward lagoon decided to impress us with flight views as it flew past us, almost sharing the same air space as a fishing Royal Tern. As we had approached this area, an Osprey flew over with a large recently caught fish.
Next on the itinerary was to be FM285, which has been renamed as Hawk Alley, to look for raptors, but we searched for some of the chicken farms as we left Kaufer-Hubert memorial park, where chicken carcasses are put out and attract various raptors. We did find one of the farms, but their worth at the time we went past seemed to be much exaggerated with no sign of any raptors. Peak time is more likely to be during the morning. However, Hawk Alley lived up to its name and reputation, where we found all, or almost all, of the expected birds of prey. The scenery was again a little different from what we had expected. It was described as arid, but we found vast ranches of pasture land on one side of the road, which was very open, and reasonably open low woodland on the opposite side. After 3 Red-tailed and 2 Swainson’s Hawks , we did eventually stumble across a pair of hunting Harris’ Hawks. They kept themselves low over the treeline, but did pop up above the horizon on occasion. Next on the menu was Crested Caracara. The first ones were in the air, before finding one on a telegraph pole, and eventually one feeding on a carcass at the side of the road. It looked quite comical, trying to avoid the heavy lorries passing by, even more so when the carcass turned out to be a discarded bread crust. To complete the set, we found a few White-tailed Hawks further on, all soaring and from a distance, until one landed on a bare tree about 400 metres away on the pasture land.
Last journey of the day was down Route 77 all the way to the overnight stay at Harlingen. Overall, this proved as good as, if not better than, Hawk Alley. The information was that birds of prey and other specialities can be seen at the oak stands on the journey South. We didn’t formally stop at any of these, mainly because we saw plenty as we drove along the highway. We passed at least half a dozen Harris’ Hawks, and most of these were perched on telegraph wires. In addition, we saw a couple of White-tailed Hawks, and the last of these was also perched right next to the road. Ringtail Northern Harrier was added to the raptor list as it was hunting on the central reservation. Crested Caracaras were quite common as we neared our destination, with at least 10-12 birds.
Laguna Atascosa (Day 2)
The morning started well, when, with light still only half decent, we were approaching the reserve on some of the long rough roads when we came across a pair of Harris’ Hawk perched on a telegraph pole, followed shortly by an Osprey. This seemed to be a favoured spot for Red-winged Blackbirds, which had kept their heads down on the trip so far. Once at the end of this drive, we turned left for the 3 mile road to the visitor centre. Even this was good for birds. The wires on the left hand side harboured species such as Harris’ Hawk, Couch’s Kingbird, Bronzed & Brown-headed Cowbirds, and rifling their way over the road in front of us, Greater Roadrunner and a number of Plain Chachalacas.
At the visitor centre, the latter were even more common, more noisy, and more approachable. We spent a small amount of time in the hide behind the visitor centre, before paying our $3 entry fee in the envelopes provided, since the centre didn’t open until 10am on a Sunday. The hide was excellent for close views of Green Jay, Chachalaca, and White-tipped Dove, all of which were numerous. This was also the case at the larger area with no blind nearer the main building – the smell was also more potent here!
We then drove around the 15 Bayside Drive, starting at the Paisano trail. This is a 1½-2 mile walk, which is initially straight, and then ends in a loop. The strange thing about this walk is that is almost all tarmacked, yet bounded on both side by thick thorny scrub and bushes. We had hoped for rattlesnake here, but the optimism proved unfounded. Birds weren’t particularly common, although the ones that we did see were worthwhile. We reacquainted ourselves with Verdin, eventually being quite close, as we returned to the car, but perhaps best for us were our first Long-billed Thrashers. The first 2 ran quickly across the track some way ahead, but we then found 2 singing birds, one perched in the open. Also along here, more woodpeckers, as well as Bewick’s Wren fairly common with at least 4 seen, and many more heard singing.
The Laguna Atascosa reserve area is huge, and this is demonstrated by the 15 mile loop drive completed after trekking the Paisano Trail. This passes through a few different types of habitat, mostly open low cut grassland and scrub, and bounds the Laguna Madre, which is sheltered from the Gulf. As was becoming the norm, there were plenty of Mockingbirds and Cowbirds, but we had hoped to see one or two raptors. After stopping off at the first Laguna Madre overlook, which was quiet apart from a couple of Little Blue Herons, we continued on our way, and found a tatty looking Osprey on the saltmarsh. It posed for some time before we picked up a pair of Shorelarks wading through the nearby tussocks of grass. Another 100 metres on, and a smaller raptor landed in a lone bush next to the road – a beautiful Aplomado Falcon, unfortunately with leg irons, perched directly above us! It seemed fearless, and we studied it for some time from the car. Not too much else was added on the loop, apart from an impressive circling White-tailed Hawk against the greying skies, and a flock of 17 Hudsonian Whimbrels. On leaving the drive to cross to the visitor centre, we had stunning views of a Greater Roadrunner, initially on the roadside verge, and then on the adjacent signpost.
Back at the visitor centre, we looked again at the bathing areas, but were then informed about a Screech Owl nest on the Kiskadee Trail. We had walked this trail earlier, with little luck, but we went back again, found the dead tree as described, which contained what was probably the deserted nest, but no sign of any owls. We did have reasonable views of a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers. Another snippet of information was the possible location of a regular large snake and alligators. Although we couldn’t locate these, we did drive past some pools full of waders on either side of Lakeside Drive, containing some Stilt Sandpipers in non breeding plumage and a group of colourful Long-billed Dowitchers amongst others.
South Padre island Convention Centre – “The Boardwalk”
After crossing the causeway to South Padre island, which is a couple of miles of concrete bridge over the Laguna Madre, we travelled the four miles North along Padre Boulevard bounded by endless characterless hotels, shops, etc, until we finally reached what must be the most hideously coloured convention centre in the world, in its garish yellow and blue – it just can’t be missed! It also has a surprising amount of quality birding on offer. They have recently constructed a small copse of trees next to the main buildings for migrant warblers. We didn’t find any – still no wood warblers on the trip – but we did locate a lone female (Ruby-throated) Hummingbird. However, the strength of this place lies in the marsh, which the boardwalk trisects. The boardwalk itself consists of one long stretch to a shaded area just in the sea, which is bounded on either side by slightly drier marsh, and a more interesting angular section which crossed a wetter reed section, and again ends in cover. Perhaps we were a little too late in the season for the variety of potential rails, but we did pick up at least 4 Soras, all very close. This proximity was the same for all other birds seen here. Perhaps the most stimulating of all were 2 male and 2 female Least Bitterns, one of the former didn’t look at all well, with what looked like a broken lower mandible, and strained attempts at feeding. American Purple Gallinule also appeared, and one or 2 waders dropped in, including a Pectoral Sandpiper and 2 Lesser Yellowlegs. A second Pec was on the long boardwalk in the saline part of the marsh, along with a small group of Least Sandpipers. Passing here was a least 1 Black Skimmer and a flock of Brown Pelicans. A lone singing male Marsh Wren was only feet away from us, and quite loud, but only stepped into the limelight occasionally. The first warblers of the trip were seen – 4 male Common Yellowthroats – but perhaps the best bird in terms of rarity was the last to be seen. A vireo from the main boardwalk showed very pale and indistinctly marked head, bright green back, and yellow flanks – a Yellow-green Vireo. They do occur here, but only scarcely, not usually venturing across the Rio Grande from Mexico.
Last stop of the day was supposed to be Sabal Palm Grove, but by the time we arrived, the whole place was shut. Almost death was threatened to anybody venturing past the gates beyond the magic time. We did spend a short time around the sunflower fields, and found a male Blue Grosbeak and a flock of 6 Common Nighthawks looking to be passing over on migration. Before leaving, Couch’s Kingbird was perched above on telegraph wires, chased off by a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, both then to be replaced by a pair of Hooded Orioles.
We decided against searching for ticks such as Tamaulipas Crow and Parrots, so headed instead for an area next to the State Farm office in Brownesville. This was supposed to hold both Tropical & Couch’s Kingbird, as well as the potential of various waterbirds. We found the place in no time, and the manicured lagoon, with suburban residentia one side, and a gold course on the other. We did see a group of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks at close quarters, as well as a pair of Neotropic Cormorants perched on one of the dead trees. The lake didn’t hold much else of interest, but we were enthused by a flock of parakeets overhead, and decided to track down their destination anyway. We found the road junction where they were supposed to appear on an evening to roost, which apparently is mainly in the winter, and were happily told by some of the residents that indeed some “beautiful parrots” had been and gone half an hour ago. We started to search the vicinity, and heard some calling overhead, before turning round to see a Red-fronted Parrot on the wires. The Mexican residents had boarded their huge RV to drive the 20 metres to find us and show us the parrots, but we were already on the way back to their houses to find about 10 Green Parakeets and a single Red-fronted Parrot feeding in the fruit tree alongside the road. While we watched, the parakeets left, to be replaced by more Red-fronted Parrots a few minutes later. Both species in this part of the country are of dubious origin, despite them both nesting in Mexico. At first this seemed to be more than tentative, and their credentials seemed fine, but doubts did creep in when one of the parrots was found to have a creamy white patch over the top of the bill.
Santa Ana (Day 3)
As we arrived at the Santa Ana refuge, this was the first time that any rain had been falling, so as soon as we got out of the car, it was on with the macs and the mosquito repellent. The refuge office didn’t open until 8am, and we arrived just after 7, so we did the ¾ hour walk around the short loop A trail, which included an overlook on to Willow Pond. We had hoped for potential Green Kingfisher here, but the lagoon is well vegetated, and the views from the 2 hides quite limited, so all we ended up with were a few Least Grebes and some Moorhen and Coot. The rain started to ease up as we proceeded, which had been quiet, and very enclosed, being surrounded by thick woodland. As we approached the half way mark, some high pitched chipping calls which were difficult to pinpoint at first turned out to be a pair of Olive Sparrows. They were keeping to the undergrowth at first, but did make their way on to the path in front of us. As we continued, bird calls increased (when they could be heard over Chachalacas), and towards the end of the trail, one was pinned down as Long-billed Thrasher directly above us.
By 8am we had paid our $8 fee, and the park assistant gave us some tips on where to look for some target species. As we exited the office, the single hummingbird feeder had a brief visit from Buff-bellied Hummingbird. After leaving here and crossing the imminent bridge, we turned to the right and followed the levy, which bordered a concreted stream. This had apparently been very good through the week for cuckoos, orioles and raptors. We walked a couple of hundred meters to an opening in the trees, which we had been told would be the best spot. We didn’t catch up with any of the species mentioned, but did see at least 3 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a couple of pairs of Couch’s Kingbirds, and a single Eastern Kingbird.
We then decided to walk the road loop for a short distance along to C trail. Apparently, the only days that cars are allowed to drive the loop are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but this might also result in many birds being missed. After a short distance, we came to the intersection of B and C trails, with a small pool nearby, which yielded Clay-coloured Robin. This is apparently one of the more difficult species to see in the States. Just after this, at the actual intersection of the paths, was a small patch of more open woodland, and this proved an excellent spot for bird parties. We first picked up singing Tropical Parula, which is what stopped us from our wandering, but did put us on to a party of Black-throated Green & Nashville Warblers, along with singles of Painted & Indigo Buntings before the Parula was located. Continuing on, we made a mistake by ignoring the short cut off on to C trail, and walking further along the loop drive, which would have been an eventual 7 mile walk around the reserve. We thankfully realised this after about a mile, and returned to C trail. This part of the trail was again well wooded, but we were rewarded almost immediately with Swainson’s Thrush. We were by now specifically looking for tracks to the right to see the Rio Grande river, which we did find, but the view was quite limited, and the hoped for Green Kingfishers would have needed some luck to be seen. Apparently river trips along here almost guarantee sightings! We eventually came across the larger lagoons, which were open and all full of water. Birds were only in small numbers – Blue-winged Teals, Black-necked Stilts, Lesser Yellowlegs, and single White Ibis. This was almost the end of the C trail, although the intersection with B trail again proved to be reasonable for warblers – not quite as many this time, but some superb male Nashville Warblers as well as Tennessee, and perhaps the most obliging Black-crested Titmouse yet. This was also one of the best places to see the already common Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, with at last 4 birds displaying constantly.
Back at the visitor centre, we decided to take a break and watch the hummingbird feeder. Buff-bellied Hummingbird alighted within 5 minutes, and obligingly perched to the rear for a short time. While watching this, a male Kentucky Warbler was found more or less at our feet, slowly walking and feeding in the undergrowth. Our luck was in – this was one of the only warblers we had missed out on 10 years ago at Point Pelee in Canada, and one of the first we had seen here. It remained skulking around the same patch for 5-10 minutes, and when we tried for closer views, we picked up a couple of Hooded Warblers also feeding on the ground around the hummingbird feeder.
When we arrived at the gates at Bentsen, we found that all had changed with the park. What was once a popular RV site for sporting Americans was now closed to all traffic, with a metal gate across the park entrance. However, we were fortunate that one of the park staff pulled up next to us, and pointed out a new visitor centre on the other side of the levy, and explained that the park was now closed to all recreation apart from watching wildlife, with vehicles banned to protect the natural environment. So we paid the $5 each entrance fee, and caught the last tram to the centre of the park. It’s likely that this tram normally ferries lazy birders around the whole of the track, since he went very slowly, stopping at times until we let him know that we wanted to go straight to the lagoon area. We alighted at Green Jay blind, which was next to what had been the epicentre of the RV hookup area. After going briefly into the blind, where there was very little action, we wandered amongst the now spring cleaned parking lots. Amongst many grackles and White-winged Doves were our first Inca Doves of the trip. Then after one or two Green Jays, we found a pair of Altimira Orioles, which were feeding in the trees above, and seemed not at all bothered by our presence. After gorging on these for 15 minutes, we approached the Kingfisher Overlook which is next to a large curved lake (“Resaca”). This housed at least a dozen Least Grebes, and 4-5 Pied-billed Grebes, one of which had a juvenile in tow. While watching these, a Green Kingfisher appeared about 30 metres away, and just before diving to catch a fish, flew a little way further up. We chanced our arm, and relocated the bird almost straight away, finding the bird just beyond our position behind the shoreline trees. On the way back to the overlook, we found a feeding Long-billed Thrasher, which was particularly keen to dig around in one small dirt patch under the trees. Spurred on by the earlier views of Green Kingfisher, we returned again to Kingfisher Overlook, and reward was at hand with not one, but two Kingfishers, one flying directly past and in front of us, while the second had returned to the former perch. A pair of Pied-billed Grebes also put on a bit of a display directly in front of us, in the shallow water below the concrete wall. One could even be made out chasing fish underwater, some of which subsequently tried evading capture by skimming out of the water. We decided to walk slowly back to the car, and thought that the day’s birding had finished, when a pair of Clay-coloured Robins flew into the tree above us, and started to pluck away at the berries. On the way back to the car, we did see a few raptors, with only Swainson’s Hawk identified, but the most prolific beasts were mosquitoes, which would have been more of a burden but for the invaluable “Off” spray.
Salineño (Day 4)
There were already 3 American birders on the banks of the Rio Grande by the time we parked the car. We had an interesting chat with them, since they were part of a South Texas bird race lasting the whole week (one of 3 teams which would travel almost 2000 miles chasing after up to 350 species). The winners get to choose a charity for the money pot, and the team we met have raised around $70000 in past years. The mornings birding began on a small muddy promontory into the river, with good views upstream. We had singing Altamira Oriole in front of us as we stepped over the water to the promontory, in a small copse adjacent to the river. The same copse had a very approachable Ladderbacked Woodpecker excavating a hole on a small dead tree. A pair of Least Grebes swam around along the nearby shore, possibly nesting in the limited floating vegetation. Upriver, we had at least two sightings of Ringed Kingfisher, but one of the least expected was a pair of wild Muscovy Ducks over, with a third landing on the river 5 minutes later. Shortly after, we also had Red-billed Pigeon over, which the Americans got very excited about, and 3 perched on the opposite bank shortly after. They had told us of singing Audubon’s Oriole about 500m downriver – we tried for the bird ourselves but drew a blank. Small recompense was good views of a close Red-billed Pigeon.
This is an odd little place, lying only a couple of miles North of Salineño, and at the end of the mile or two of track from the main highway, after picking up Scaled Quail, we came to a few buildings at the terminus. There was already a group of American birders present, and we picked up a couple of Brown Jays around the feeding area as we left the car. There is an entrance fee of $3 per person, which is payable at the prefabricated office. We parked our bodies in a position to see the feeding area, and 2-3 Brown Jays came back regularly. Also from here were 1-2 stunning Hooded Orioles, and plenty of Great Kiskadees. We had been told that the short walk down to the river could be productive for Audubon’s Oriole. After descending the path to the feeding area, we came across a small cultivated patch of land with picnic tables and sawn off logs where fruit is put out for the birds. This was good for Cowbirds, Black-crested Titmouse, Green Jays, Cardinals, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a rather inquisitive Mexican Squirrel. No sign of Audubon’s Orioles, but we did pick up a Ringed Kingfisher perched on the opposite bank of the river about 100m away.
On the way to Falcon State Park, we stopped off at the intersection with the 2098, looking for sparrows (in particular Cassin’s). We quickly found a Cactus Wren building a nest. Sparrows were present, but almost exclusively Lark Sparrow. One likely looking suspect, which was shorter tailed and more compact than the Lark Sparrows may have been Cassin’s, but it didn’t call and wasn’t seen well enough for diagnosis. On the other side of the road, we found another sparrow, which proved to be Cley-coloured. Hooded Orioles occasionally flew over the road here.
We arrived at the State Park, and paid the $3 entrance fee. As we drove towards the camping area, reputed to be the best place for birds, we passed some “watch for snakes” signs, which heightened the sense of anticipation, since we were also hopeful of finding rattlesnakes during our trip. The campsite was reasonably small, and for this time of the day, despite the heat, did have one or two birds including approachable Curve-billed Thrashers, Song Sparrow, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Bewick’s Wren. We opted for a walk through the brushy area on a well made path, mainly to look for snakes. Temperature by now was high, with the habitat dry and arid. Predictably, no snakes were found, and the birdlife was quiet, although we did find a very close Greater Roadrunner in the undergrowth at the start of the trek. Back at the car, which we had parked under a tree for shade, was a Curve-billed Thrasher, which had a nest directly above our parking slot.
From Falcon State Park, we were going to head to the track below Falcon Dam, and the spillway, but found a locked gate barring our path, and a pair of nervous immigration officers watching our moves. We had a word with them, to be informed that the route was no longer open to the public. He did say we could have gone over the dam to look down, and then come back through immigration, but felt this would not be worth the effort. However, on the way to the locked gate, we saw a male American Kestrel on the telegraph wires next to the track. Since we were going to set off early for the long journey to Edwards Plateau, we spent the last 50 minutes or so back at the junction with the 2098, looking for sparrows again. It seemed even hotter than before, which may have explained the poorer bird activity, but we did add Song Sparrow to the birds of this small section. There wasn’t even any sign of life back at the Cactus Wren nest.
Lost Maples (Day 5)
After a night in Kerrville, we made the 50 miles trip through surprisingly hilly roads, with the drizzly rain falling, to Lost Maples State Park. We bypassed the office, which was closed at this time, and found the car park a little further along. Once out of the car, we were surrounded by tree clad hills, with a stream running through the centre. This immediately proved to be a good spot for sparrows. 3 small birds which flew into a tree proved to be Clay-coloured Sparrows, only occasionally showing the distinctive grey neck collar, a single Lincoln’s Sparrow was in a separate bush moments later, and Chipping Sparrow in front of us. A small passerine singing on the wires in the early light threw us initially, but was a poorly marked Indigo Bunting. A more brash looking Blue Grosbeak 50m away put it to shame. First job of the morning was to look for Golden-cheeked Warblers, one of the specialities of the Edwards Plateau. This is supposedly a prime spot to find them, so we took the East Trail towards the ponds. We had studied their call, so listened carefully, but it took almost half of the walk to pick up the first bird. It also took around half an hour to obtain 3 half decent views of it. About another 100m along, we were looking up at Gnatcatchers, when another Golden-cheeked Warbler appeared. Although at the top of the canopy, it provided a better look at the species, especially when it started to sing. A little further down, just short of the ponds, we were almost thrown by a singing Louisiana Waterthrush, about 40 feet up at the apex of a dead tree. We hadn’t expected them to sing so high up, but it did give good views, including distinctive features from Northern Waterthrush.
We eventually reached the pond, which was a good birding spot, kicked off by a Green Kingfisher almost as soon as we looked down on to the pond itself. The less dense spacing of the trees here was better for flycatchers and other small passerines. Only 1 of the flycatchers was seen well enough for identification – an Eastern Phoebe. This was the site for another Golden-cheeked Warbler, right above our heads in much smaller trees. We were even treated with an even better look at a group of up to 3 Carolina Wrens. White-eyed & Red-eyed Vireos sang well here. We headed a little way beyond the pond, and before turning back, found the 4th Golden-cheeked Warbler of the morning, and Yellow-throated Vireo. Within the pond itself, in the water vegetation near to the shore, was an impassive Diamond-backed Water Snake. Just as we left the pond, we found another group of Clay-coloured Sparrows, which were proving to be quite common, and added to an earlier Grasshopper Sparrow along the trail. About half way back, we passed under a rocky cut in the trail, which had loudly singing Canyon Wren, which flew across the trail. This led to the first Eastern Wood-pewees of the day, along with more Orange-crowned & Nashville Warblers. Finally, at the end of this trail were 2 male Summer Tanagers. These were almost overlooked – after so many cardinals, a flash of red was becoming commonplace.
After returning to the car, we had to go back to the centre to pay the entrance fee, since they don’t seem to open until 10am. As we pulled up, there was a lot of bird activity in front of the main building, due to the presence of hummingbird and seed feeders. This small area was a hive of activity for many species, particularly impressive being small numbers of Black-chinned Hummingbirds with the odd Ruby-throat amongst them, not only feeding, but having the odd mid air squabble as well. On the seed feeders were House Finches and Chipping Sparrow, along with the odd Clay-coloured Sparrow, but patience was rewarded with male Indigo & Painted Buntings. An Eastern Phoebe nearby had a nest under the eaves of the visitor centre. A nice end to an excellent park.
Kerr Wildlife Management Area
Lost Maples does have a few pairs of Black-capped Vireos, but a much better site is Kerr Wildlife Management Area, which is just under an hour away. It is purported to have had up to 100 pairs on the reserve. We were disappointed on arrival to find a turkey shoot in progress, which means absolutely no birding within their vicinity (possibly to avoid us strangling them), but we were quickly told by a fellow manning the shooting stand that we only had to drive a mile or so further down on to Schumacher Road, and then ¾ miles up this track to the old windmill for one of the best locations for the vireos. The drizzle had begun again, so we weren’t too optimistic, but we parked next to the windmill, and within 5 minutes had pinpointed a singing male, generally deep within its bush of choice. Having had half reasonable views of this stunning bird, we walked a little way back down the track and eventually located another 4 birds (3 singing, 1 with a second bird). Apart from our target bird, there was very little activity, apart from Summer Tanager, Cerulean Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and small numbers of Black-crested Titmice. Satiated with both of the Edwards Plateau specialities, we set off for a celebratory rack of ribs and glass of beer, before the long journey to the other side of Houston for High Island the next morning.
High Island (Day 6)
On the journey down from Lost Maples the previous evening, we had fingers crossed for poor weather, but it had looked almost dry and windless through the night. In addition, as we approached High Island, there was a mist, but only restricted to the ground, which probably indicated very calm conditions overnight. Perhaps a good blow from the North with rain to bring down some migrants was too much to hope for. We spent a few hours in Boy Scouts Woods, bypassing the first seated area overlooking Perkey’s Pond, and stumbled straight away on Wood Thrush and Brown Thrasher. Exploring the woods further, we found a good vantage point over somebody’s garden, which contained a large berry tree attracting a number of commoner species: a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks; a handful of Cedar Waxwings; Blue Jay; and Grey Catbirds. The darker and more enclosed parts of the reserve were quiet, until we came across an opening overlooking Prothonotory Pond, where a Green heron was perched for a short time. The first of a handful of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were also here, presumably passing through on migration. Further walking and we crossed the boardwalk to the decking in the centre of the pond, and stayed there for a little while. American Purple Gallinule and Moorhen were on the pond, with plenty of singing Red-winged Blackbirds throughout, and a Downy Woodpecker over. Back to the woods, still quiet, and we entered the photography hide. This was well set up, with a couple of dripping taps in front of small openings in the linen walls. We watched for a while and picked up a couple of Grey Catbirds and male Hooded Warbler. A short walk around the woods again before returning to Perkey’s Pond found a male Common Yellowthroat, and female Orchard Oriole over the pond. These were also obvious in front of the entrance, on small bushes dotting the gardens, and a male Common Grackle proved to be the only one of the trip.
We left High Island and joined the coastal road which ran South along the Bolivar Peninsular, where the importance of the reserve could be seen by looking back at the tree oasis on an otherwise flat and uninviting landscape for tired migrants. We drove to Rollover Pass to briefly look for seabirds, and then on to Yacht Basin Road. This track is supposedly good for sparrows, particularly in Winter, and we were looking specifically for Seaside Sparrow. We missed out on these here, only seeing Savannah Sparrows. The road did turn out to be a Mecca for Clapper Rails. In the ditches either side of the road, and the adjoining marsh, we saw at least 4 birds, which even crossed the road in front of the car, and many more calling nearby from the vegetation. Just before the houses at the end, we turned right on to the short dirt track to follow some Savannah Sparrows more closely, and added Eastern Meadowlark and Indigo Bunting. The houses themselves harboured a small pond, with upright posts in the centre – a perched Belted Kingfisher was on one of these.
We had more luck with Seaside Sparrows 3 miles further down the peninsular on Tuna Road. We had been looking for the Oryx oilfield, and found Tuna Road instead. The first birds we came across were Hudsonian Whimbrel and 3 breeding plumaged Short-billed Dowitchers next to the road. We went all the (short) way to the end, where we met the intercoastal canal, and on turning came across another Clapper Rail. Almost at the end of the road again, and we at last chanced upon a couple of singing Seaside Sparrows, about 50m into the marsh.
Next on the agenda was some wader and gull watching, and this spot is reputedly the best in the state for this activity. We made our way almost to the end of the peninsular, turning left to find the road to the beach. Once there, we crossed the hard sand to the car park area. Although cars can only go so far up to the Audubon fence, the rest of the beach can be walked. It’s a fairly long expanse of sand, bounded at the back by low coastal scrub and saltmarsh. Winter is likely to be the best time to visit, with large flocks of waders reported, but we did see a small variety including Sanderling, Grey Plover, Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, and Wilson’s Plover. The main interest thus lay in the gulls, and one or two herons. Within the former, were mainly Laughing Gulls, the odd American Herring Gull, and numerous terns consisting of Caspian, Sandwich, Forster’s, and Least Terns. The latter had a small nesting colony to the rear of the beach, which was sensibly fenced off. There were only a handful of herons, with singles of Reddish Egret, Great White Egret, and Great Blue Heron. The heron put on a display of how to swallow an outsized fish, when it caught one that seemed far too large, and also stuck to its lower mandible. After a little thought and a wade into the shallow edges, it made short work of its monster catch.
After scoffing a delicious brisket burrito, we had about 4 hours of light left. The plan was to visit Anahuac for an hour or two, and then complete the day at Long Island to hopefully look for warblers that might have dropped in later that day. This plan was scotched when we arrived at Anahuac, because the potential of the place looked huge when we looked at the notice board, and also the Willows within the reserve had been very poor this year for warblers due to the settled weather, and this may have been mirrored at High Island. Over the next 4 hours, before leaving at dark, this was undoubtedly the best decision. We took some time to drive the 2½ miles around Shoveler Pond. This had some small areas of open water, but is mainly reeded with an overgrowth of lilies on the rest of the water. There is an almost continuous gap of about 5m around the edge of the pond (covered with lilies), and this is where the potential for bitterns and rails lay. We had been told that a pair of King Rails were breeding around here, but without an exact location, possibly to reduce general local disturbance, so we scoured more or less every inch along the way. We were rewarded with very close views of male and female Least Bittern on the initial part of the drive, as well as numerous Eastern Kingbirds, and of course the ubiquitous Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. There was also a constant singing from Marsh Wrens, although very few gave anything more than short glimpses. Meanwhile, overhead, we saw 2’s and 3’s of Fulvous Whistling-duck quite regularly. Half way around, there was a short boardwalk into the marsh, where we had an almost fully visible Marsh Wren, and American Bittern briefly over the reeds. Back on the track and on the last straight stretch, we picked up a very close and almost immobile American Bittern. A little further, and only about 100m from the end of the loop, we saw a small black chick making its way over the lilies, and consequently one of the parent King Rails. On and off, this gave stunning views over about 15 minutes.
Time was pushing on, and we decided on the southern 7 mile long track, which had the potential of more Seaside Sparrows. We didn’t see any of these, but did pick out many other species. This started off with the first of numerous Orchard Orioles and a singing Common Yellowthroat. There were also plenty of Savannah Sparrows throughout, and at the end of the drive (we only completed about half) we came across the first of 3 hawking Lesser Nighthawks. Turning the car round , we quickly located singing Sedge Wrens, which with patience approached the parked car. Behind these, one of the Nighthawks had landed on a fence post, backed by the song of Eastern Meadowlark. Almost back to the visitor centre, and a Racoon was tentatively feeding in the roadside ditch. Female Northern Harrier quartered the marshes to our left. As the light faded, we could make out Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper on a small pond just opposite the main building. Just as we about to exit this superb reserve, a Barn Owl was spotted flapping in the wind on a tree.
WG Jones State Forest (Day 7)
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are (or were until the subsequent news of Ivory-billed Woodpecker returning from the dead) the most endangered woodpecker in the USA. This forest is one of the better locations to see them, since it contains numerous active clusters in a small area. We had 5 hours on the last morning before returning to the airport, so decided to give them a try. When we arrived, we headed straight for People’s Road, where we had been told of an active cluster. We gave this about an hour without any luck, apart from a single Downy Woodpecker next to the private ranch, along with female Indigo Bunting and Carolina Chickadee. We decided to find a member of the park staff for more information, which was at first closed, but returned after a hapless search down the privately owned Jones Road where we found one of the staff. It transpired that one of the best clusters was directly behind the office on the loop trail, and also the discouraging news that they were usually most active late in the day. Perhaps the one day delay of the trip due to our missed connection in Paris, where we had planned a late afternoon visit had we been on time, might now be proving costly. However, we started well around the office, with family parties of Eastern Bluebird, and Brown-headed Nuthatch above, with quite a number of Pine Warblers singing. We then started on the loop, just after seeing Red-headed Woodpecker from the office clearing, which was replaced by a pair of American Kestrels (the female with a lizard). We walked some way along the loop, and added more Red-headed Woodpeckers and a singing Yellow-breasted Chat, but time was pressing on, so we started on the return leg. After a short way, our path was crossed by a stunning Coral Snake. We watched it from only about 15 feet, until it disappeared into the leaf litter. We decided that this would more than make up for our lack of rattlesnake, and even Red-cockaded Woodpeckers if they continued to be elusive. That thought was sealed, when only 5 minutes later, in a pool to the left of the track, we found another snake, this one much larger and almost totally dark, which the park staff named as Water Mocassin. It stopped swimming and gave superb scope views. Almost back at the office, we tried a slightly different track, where we found yet another pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers excavating a hole in a dead tree above, but this was only a prelude to finding our main quarry – a Red-cockaded Woodpecker using an active nest. We had seen the hole, but were told that these trees were marked with a green band, which this one lacked. The bird then obliged by flying around us, regularly landing on nearby trees. Unbelievably, we found a second bird minutes later. This was to be the last species seen on the trip. Not a bad ending!