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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Upper Coast

2016 Tour Narrative

In Brief: During this year’s Upper Texas Coast tour we encountered stormy weather on several occasions.  While this was not what I’d consider classic “northerners” producing the most favorable conditions for dropping migrants,  we still tallied some 27 species of warblers, including Swainson’s, Golden-winged and Cerulean, large numbers of thrushes as well as a remarkable 40 Veeries and ten Gray-cheeked in one day.  By the last day of the tour we ended up seeing most of the rails, including King, Clapper and Yellow and even heard a Black.  Other highlights included several Bachman’s Sparrow north of Jasper, an unusual sighting of a Common Ground-Dove at Johnson Bayou and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at Jones State Forest.

In Detail:Our tour began with a drive from Houston to Winnie and then on to Sabine Woods, which is on the coast and not far from Sabine Pass and the Louisiana border.  Just outside of Winnie, we stopped along the road to watch an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron feeding in a flooded ditch.  Much to our delight at Sabine Woods we were rewarded with a wonderful variety of migrants.  Of which were several warblers including three Blue-winged, three Golden-winged (all males) along with five Blackburnian, five Cerulean, seven Worm-eating and two Swainson’s Warblers.  Swainson’s Warblers are not common and often hard to see, but fortunately we were able to watch as it walked and shivered through the leaf litter, eventually going to roost on a branch about four feet off the ground.  We found numerous non-warbler migrants, tallying at least thirty Swainson’s Thrushes, thirty Summer Tanagers, at least ten Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a roosting Chuck-will’s-widow who allowed us to have good views and take photos.

The next morning we departed early for Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the famous rail walk.  This was one of the better walks, with three Yellow Rails, several Virginia Rails and Soras and most notably we had good audibles of a territorial Black Rail.  (Some of our group eventually got views of it by getting down on their hands and knees.)  Other species noted included Seaside Sparrows and at nearby Shoveler Pond we saw numerous Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule and two Glossy Ibis.  Nearby in a grassy field we also spotted three Upland Sandpipers.  Since the weather was not looking favorable for migrants we headed down the coast, stopping at the famous Bolivar Flats.  The water was too high with little exposed beach but just inland in a flooded area we had excellent comparisons of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers along with both subspecies of Willet, Clapper Rails with black downy young, all three numerous peeps and several Wilson’s Plovers.  At the beach we added to our list a Reddish Egret and Piping Plovers.

The following day we traveled north towards Jasper, where we birded the ranch country north of Winnie and heard at least three Northern Bobwhite, which is a declining species and saw a Merlin.  Farther north we added an adult Bald Eagle a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers and Fish Crows to our growing list.  In a logged area we had fine studies of a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches and a singing male Prairie Warbler, a breeding species that reaches east Texas via Florida and then inland through the Gulf States.  Later at Angelina National Forest we eventually located and had good views of a singing Bachman’s Sparrow and at nearby Boykin Springs we added a territorial Louisiana Waterthrush.  Later we added another Louisiana Waterthrush at Sandy Creek Park along with a singing male Northern Parula.  Our owling expedition was not so productive.

The following morning we woke to heavy rain, which was an off-and-on experience this year.  We learned that between midnight and five in the morning that over 10 inches of rain had fallen just north of Houston at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.  Having seen what we needed the day before in the Piney Woods, we headed south to the coast and back to Sabine Woods.  Here the rain caught up with us and we spent well over an hour in the pouring rain watching shorebirds at close range in the flooded parking lot at the park at Sabine Pass where over 150 years ago the South defeated a much larger Union force in early July 1863.  Eventually we did get to bird Sabine Woods again which was quite flooded.  But migrants were everywhere.  Thrushes were especially numerous and we tallied some 40 Veeries, 10 Gray-cheeked, and 50 Wood.  In contrast we had only six Swainson’s.  Red-eyed Vireos were all over and we estimated about 50.  Other migrants of interest included a male Blackpoll, three Chestnut-sided and three Magnolias.  A male Prothonotary Warbler with an oddly reddish-pink hue that certainly made him stand-out from the rest of the group.

Our next morning took us to Cameron Parish, Louisiana.  Our daily tally for Louisiana was a most respectable 128 species.  Water birds were especially numerous and adding American Oystercatcher along with numerous King Rails, including downy young.  Other notable species included four Crested Caracaras, a species on the increase in Louisiana, three Swainson’s Hawks, including a unique nest, our only Chipping and Lark Sparrows (singles of each), and four Painted Buntings, including a very cooperative adult male almost within reach of the van! Our most unusual species of the day, and perhaps of the trip, was a male Common Ground-Dove on a lawn west of Johnson Bayou. This species used to be a rare to uncommon resident in Louisiana but is believed now to be extirpated.  Warblers were rather scarce today, but we did see a single male Cerulean and a male Blackburnian. 

On the final full morning we ventured down the coast where we spent more time than intended just west of Rollover Pass.  At High Island we explored the heronry where nesting Roseate Spoonbills were only a short distance away, a flock of Anhingas in flight and also a male Prothonotary Warbler.  Later at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge we had leisurely views of Least Bitterns, Purple Gallinules, and Clapper Rails as well as Seaside Sparrows who were especially cooperative.  Later we headed back to Houston for our final dinner and hotel.

Prior to departing for the airport the last morning, several of our group drove to W.D. Jones State Forest where shortly after dawn we tallied three Red-cockaded Woodpeckers to finish off our list.  What a way to end a tour!

Jon L. Dunn -

Updated: June 2016