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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Upper Coast

2019 Narrative

In Brief:

The upper Texas coast is one of those North American birding destinations that ranks up there with fall in Cape May, the Dry Tortugas, and southeastern Arizona as must-see places. Though we never got the fall-out that happens in some lucky Aprils, the whole area is wonderful birding and we finished off with a solid 200 species including specialties and surprises. Some of our highlights included a vagrant Fork-tailed Flycatcher that we successfully chased, a couple of Groove-billed Anis that popped up unexpectedly on a roadside, two Whooping Cranes working a flooded field, a Swallow-tailed Kite circling over a gas station, as well as local rarities like Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow, and various vireos, thrushes, and warblers to fill in the gaps. We fit a whole lot of birding into one short week.

In Detail:

We left Houston our first morning to bird our way into the east Texas piney-woods. Our first stop at Lake Livingston State Park was really more of a stretch-the-legs and use the bathrooms sort of spot about one hour from Houston, also had some birds. We walked the park roads, scoped the lake, and picked up our first few species of the trip. The Orchard Oriole singing from atop a tree and posing for the scope was a nice start, and we saw a Brown-headed Nuthatch, one of the piney specialties. From there we continued east and stopped at Martin Dies Jr. State Park. Here we worked hard and all successfully saw the Swainson’s Warbler, walking along the ground, flipping over leaves, and singing loudly from the floor of the dark forest. We had a picnic lunch on the lakeshore and walked the campground where we had a singing Yellow-throated Warbler, a very cooperative Summer Tanager, and a DeKay’s Brownsnake. We ran out the day in the pine forest of Angelina National Forest in search of its two most well-known specialties. We couldn’t find the woodpecker, but we did get scope views of a Bachman’s Sparrow singing just at the tops of the low brush. Then it was time for our first mountainous Cajun meal and the night in Jasper.

The forecast for the next day was grim with predictions of sever thunderstorms, tornadoes, and giant hail. However, it wasn’t supposed to arrive until 9ish, so we had some time to get back into the pines and find Red-cockaded Woodpecker. We went back to the same area where we had struck out the previous afternoon and with a little work, we got to see a pair at their nest cavity. Their preferred mature pine forest habitat is a strange place, with very few other birds, and in the pre-storm quiet of early morning, fell extra still and weird. Bachman’s Sparrows were also singing in this area and we got another look at this special bird. Our next stop got interrupted when the rain arrived, so we shot back to the hotel, grabbed our things, and hit the road. Local intelligence from the coast said that a Fork-tailed Flycatcher had been found, and the chase was on. Sort of. We still had to get there and that meant birding our way there. We had a nice time at Tyrrell Cattail Marsh in Beaumont getting looks at a Glossy Ibis and our first of many White-faced Ibis and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in this artificial wastewater treatment wetland. We had beat the rain, too, but the wind was blowing strong from the north, so when we got to the entrance of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge the Fork-tailed Flycatcher’s tail was flapping in the breeze. So were the tails of the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that were chasing around this foreign interloper. Seeing these two long-tailed flycatchers together was quite the bonus. Since we were now on the coast, we took a quick spin around the High Island hotspots to see if any migrants were about. There wasn’t too much, but the Smith Oaks Rookery had more than just a few songbirds. The nesting colony was in full swing with lots of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Neotropic Cormorants building, incubating, tending nests, and making noise. The egrets were at the absolute peak of their breeding plumage, something not often seen away from nesting sites. The green faces of the Great Egrets were of glowing radioactive waste caliber and the Snowy Egrets’ faces were deep fiery red. Long plumes were in abundance, and ghosts of the milliners would have been covetous of what we were seeing. The nests were in various stages and we were lucky to see into a close Great Egret nest and onto very recently hatched young that looked more like a pile of fuzzy eggs than juvenile egrets. After all that we topped off the day with one of the highlights of the whole trip: two Whooping Cranes had been hanging out in a flooded field not far away, so we used the last of our day’s birding to watch these magnificent, and tall, birds stalk around before settling into our hotel in Winnie, our base of operations for birding the coast.

Since migration is always a little mysterious, we decided to dip our toe in the water and try Hook’s Woods in High Island. It’s a small forest patch, so pretty easy to bird and a good test to see if birding other migrant traps will be fruitful. There were a few things around, like a Kentucky Warbler and a first-for-this-tour Black-chinned Hummingbird, but not too much, so we went for Anuhuac National Wildlife Refuge instead. Along the road in we made a stop to check out an Upland Sandpiper in a stubbly grass field and while cruising along we spotted a King Rail poking out of the vegetation in a roadside ditch. Once in Anahuac it was a bird bonanza with flocks of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, White-faced Ibis, nesting Tricolored Herons, and Boat-tailed Grackles making a serious ruckus. The single-lane road around the Shoveler Loop was just made for birding traffic jams, and, after sitting in a few of those, we started our own in order to watch a Least Bittern sun and stretch itself in the open next to the road. We went back to High Island in hopes that some migrants had dropped in (nope) but were reasonably entertained by the raccoon looking at us from a nest box in Boy Scout Woods.

Though the Texas coast gets most of the press for spring migration, the Gulf Coast also includes Louisiana and the coastal woodlands there. The cheniers, as known to the French settlers, can be just as good. We left early, grabbed some kolaches for the road, and started birding Peveto Woods in Cameron Parish. There weren’t many warblers about, but we saw lots of Indigo Buntings, several gaudy male Painted Buntings, as well as Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and other nice stuff. Riding on this we made a brief stop for some wetland birds (to pad our Louisiana lists) and turned back toward Texas and Sabine Pass. The drive to Sabine Pass is saturated with the sights and smells of the petrochemical industry, and the road through Port Arthur is like driving through the steaming bowels of some great metal beast. But, on the other side, is a small, quiet town, some lovely parks, scenic Gulf Coast wetlands, and Sabine Woods. Our walk through this coastal woodlot was fairly productive and we saw Northern Waterthrush, some Hooded Warblers, a Gray-cheeked Thrush and a Wood Thrush, and a rare-for-Texas Black-throated Blue Warbler. We also bumped into a Chuck-wills-widow sleeping on a log next to the trail, camouflaged nicely, so that it was merely a big bird-shaped bump.

With hopes of some bird exchange over night, we returned in the morning to Sabine Woods. South winds had been blowing for a couple of days, with no end in sight, bad news for the coastal migrant traps, but a few new things had dropped in. We got nice looks at Kentucky Warbler and Blue Grosbeaks, saw a couple of Veeries in the woods, and on our way out bumped into a very cooperative Yellow-billed Cuckoo that seemed as interested in watching us as we were in watching it. From Sabine Woods we drove around and out to the Bolivar Peninsula for some wetland and beach birds. Rollover Pass was bursting with activity as the tide came in. There were thousands of terns loafing around including Forster’s, Common, Royal, Sandwich, Black, and a few Leasts, as well as Black Skimmers and waders. A point-blank Tricolored Heron working the shoreline was dazzling with colors not usually noticed in more typical distant views. A Clapper Rail paced the marshy shoreline, and a few Wilson’s Plovers worked the mud near the parking area. From there we continued out on the peninsula, stopping in the grassy saltmarsh for some Seaside Sparrows and a drive along the beach for Horned Larks and Piping Plovers. All the while passing through this coastal scrub we were on high alert for White-tailed Kite, locally resident in this habitat. It wasn’t until we turned toward home that we found one, then another, hunting over a weedy field. We pulled over to watch them and noticed that a pair of Groove-billed Anis were perched on the fence. The double-good-bird slam just happens sometimes. We then drove back to Winnie, had our last big Cajun meal, and marked our last full day on the coast.

High Island was again quiet in the morning so we decided to work Anahuac instead. Even though we had done the loop only a few days before there was a little bit of a different mix today. We got Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, saw another Least Bittern, and watched an Orchard Oriole forage on the side of the road. The flocks of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks today were joined by Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks for a nice contrast. Nearby Jackson Woodlot had a Great Kiskadee that didn’t cooperate very well, but also some Palm Warblers that did. Leaving Anahuac we made some stops around Winnie that got us Hudsonian Godwits among thousands of other mud-loving shorebirds. But, it was time to get back to Houston and wrap it up. We drove around the town of Liberty for a while in search of Swallow-tailed Kite, a local breeders in the Trinity River bottoms. We had brief distant looks at one while in hard search mode, but since chance favors the relaxed birder, we ended up with better looks for everyone while we stopped to use the bathroom at a gas station in Dayton. Birds go where they want. We ended the trip back in our hotel near the airport in Houston now a group of friends with memories and experiences of one of North America’s finest birding destinations.

- Jon Feenstra, April 2019

Created: 29 April 2019