Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Texas - April 2009

After a month in the US leading tours for Avian Adventures in Texas and Arizona we are both now back in the UK for a week or so. After our time away there's quite a lot of catching up to do, tour reports to write and photographs to process but let's start with a few brief details of our Texas trip.

As usual we began in Texas with a quick visit to W Goodrich Jones State Forest, just north of Houston, where the main target was Red-cockaded Woodpecker but Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers were also seen. We stayed long enough to also find Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler plus the expected Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Blue Jay, etc.

Then we headed for the coast, specifically to the Rockport-Fulton area. Large numbers of nesting Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls are an attraction at Rockport and a good selection of terns, herons, egrets and shorebirds were also found. However, the main feature here was the excellent trip with Capt Tommy Moore on his boat, Skimmer. We thought that by April 20th we would probably be too late to see Whooping Cranes but in fact we found as many as ten of these endangered birds during a wonderful bird-filled afternoon. Other highlights (in terms of rarity) were a nesting “Great White Heron”, a form of Great Blue Heron that we have previously seen only in Florida, and a Lesser Black-backed Gull. Out on islands in Aransas Bay we were surprised to see from the boat several migrant passerines including Painted Bunting, Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-and-white Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler.

Laughing Gulls

Royal Tern

"Great White Heron"

American Oystercatcher

Whooping Cranes

Black Skimmer

Next we headed to the Rio Grande Valley, but not before a diversion to Port Aransas Birding Centre, a wastewater treatment plant located at the northern end of Mustang Island. Again we saw a mixture of wetland birds and passerine migrants, the latter including Blackburnian Warbler, Warbling Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. This is an excellent site and looks as though it is set to expand with more boardwalks under construction.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We had four full days in the valley, based at the Alamo Inn. During this time we managed to fit in visits to four sites that form part of the World Birding Center network: Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Estero Llano Grande State Park and South Padre Island. One has to admire the effort that has been made in recent years to promote birding tourism in this area and to develop some excellent sites and facilities, but really the name World Birding Center is more than a little irritating and could only have been invented in Texas! Other sites visited during this time were Santa Ana NWR, Laguna Atascosa NWR, Frontera Audubon Thicket, Falcon State Park and Saline┼ło and there are plenty more that we could have gone to if there had been time. Many of the special birds of the area such as Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Altamira Oriole, Green Kingfisher and Buff-bellied Hummingbird are not difficult to find but there was no sign this time of Brown Jays or Red-billed Pigeons and, following negative reports from Brownsville, we didn't even go looking for Tamaulipas Crow.

Altamira Oriole

Most of our second week in Texas was spent based near High Island, one of the best-known birding areas in the USA. We stopped on the way there at Brazos Bend State Park, south-west of Houston and it was here that we saw for the first time the destruction caused last September by Hurricane Ike. However, this was just the start and later, particularly along the Bolivar Peninsula, we saw much worse. It is reported that nearly 4000 buildings were destroyed along the peninsula in towns such as Gilchrist and Crystal Beach. Birding in familiar places like Rollover Pass and Yacht Basin Road knowing that so many people had lost their homes and some lost their lives really wasn't a comfortable experience.

Brazos Bend State Park

Rollover Pass

Of course, we were at High Island for the spring migration with our main attention focused on Boy Scout Woods and Smiths Oaks, two of the woodland sanctuaries owned by Houston Audubon Society that in the right weather conditions can attract an enormous number and variety of migrant warblers, vireos, flycatchers, etc. Unfortunately, this year they also attracted an unusually high density of mosquitoes making birding almost impossible in places. Still we saw plenty of birds including gems such as Blackpoll, Blackburnian, Cape May, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Hooded and Nashville Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart and Northern Parula. Surely these warblers are one of the world's most attractive groups of birds! April 28th was the our best day with a sizeable fallout of birds occurring as a result of an overnight storm that brought flooding to parts of Houston.

Blackburnian Warbler

High Island patches are highly prized and have become collectibles over the years among visiting birders

Some of the other well-known birding sites in the area such as Anahuac NWR and Bolivar Flats have suffered severe damage from the hurricane and may never be the same again, but in some ways it is quite reassuring to see the migrants, shorebirds as well as passerines, still managing to use these places in spite of the havoc.

We were also very pleased to find that the Gulfway Motel in High Island had re-opened for business and it was good to see old friends Helen and Becky and enjoy several excellent breakfasts there.

Gulfway Motel, High Island

This was Peter's eighth spring in Texas. We are looking forward to returning in April 2010.

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