Upper Texas Coast and the Hill Country

This is a birding tour, designed to pick up as many species as possible in one of the most diverse parts of North America. However, cameras are both welcome, and suggested, with the rookery in High Island, and some of the wetland and coastal visits often offering excellent photo ops.

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, here are our guidelines and tour practices: Safety Tour Regulations and Policy.

The Upper Texas Coast during spring is bursting with migrant birds. The celebrity group among these is the warblers, but the coasts are also packed with waterbirds, like terns, shorebirds, skimmers and pelicans, and the freshwater marshes hold rookeries of photogenic spoonbills, elegantly-plumed egrets, and multicolored herons. In this season, over 25 species of shorebird are found along the coast, along with 10 species of tern, and the coastal woodlots hold up to 30 species of warbler, busy working north from their tropical wintering grounds. This tour is dynamic, following the daily-shifting patterns of migrants on the move along the coast, but also taking in specialty birds of the eastern Texas Piney Woods, like Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow, along with other southern standouts, like Crested Caracara, Reddish Egret, and warblers like Swainson’s, Kentucky, and Hooded Warblers. Our timing allows us not only to pick up these southern-breeding warbler species, but also to see northerly, boreal breeders migrating through; species including Cerulean, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, and Magnolia Warblers. All of these are in their very best breeding refinery at this time.

The tour visits coastal oak woodlots (which act as migrant traps), the pine forests of the “Pineywoods” in East Texas, freshwater marshes, wetlands, and bayous, coastal flats, and then on the Hill Country extension, much drier country with juniper and cactus-laden slopes, and a completely different bird suite including Texas’s only breeding endemic, the gorgeous Golden-cheeked Warbler. The sheer variety of habitats on this tour, and volume and diversity of birds, will allow us the chance to amass some 150+ bird species days! We will be visiting some of the iconic sites on the Texas birding circuit, like High Island, Sabine Woods, and Bolivar Flats.

One of the final highlights of the tour will be non-avian, with a visit to the Rio Frio Bat Caves, home to over 10 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats. This is the second largest bat concentration on Earth that is publicly accessible, and represents one of the largest gatherings of any mammal on the planet. We will be there in the late afternoon, when these nocturnal creatures emerge, and when the local hawks drop in and take notice too. It is truly one of the most amazing wildlife experiences in North America, and it usually happens in great light, making for impressive photos, videos, and long-lasting memories.

Golden-cheeked Warbler is THE specialty of the Hill Country Extension
Golden-cheeked Warbler is THE specialty of the Hill Country Extension (Sam Woods)

A male Prothonotary Warbler in spring is a sight to behold
A male Prothonotary Warbler in spring is a sight to behold (Sam Woods)

PLEASE NOTE: Migration tours often require a high degree of flexibility, and this one is no different. The dynamic nature of migration, with a certain level of unpredictability often governed by micro-level weather conditions at the specific time of the tour, means we will need to be open to changes in tour order. We will visit all of the sites mentioned on this itinerary, and some of these more than once, but the exact order in which they are visited, and number of visits will be dictated by local conditions and bird news. The choices made by the tour leader will always seek to enhance the bird list and offer the best birding available.

Flocks of Scarlet and Summer Tanagers descend on High Island in April
Flocks of Scarlet and Summer Tanagers descend on High Island in April (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Arrival in Houston; transfer to High Island. Following an afternoon meet up at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), we will drive directly to High Island for a short introduction to the migrants in town. This involves a 90-mile drive southeast to the coast.

The general patterns of spring migration on the Upper Texas Coast mean that birds tend to arrive in the greatest numbers and variety in the afternoons. So, our very first visit we will be “Prime Time”. There are three principal songbird sanctuaries on High Island: Houston Audubon’s Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks Sanctuaries, and the Texas Ornithological Society’s Hook Woods Bird Sanctuary. These are all within a mile of each other, making them easily and quickly combined when needed. The “head of operations” is the kiosk in Boy Scout Woods, where Houston Audubon keeps track of sightings, and we’ll be sure to drop in there to get our collectable entrance patches, and to find out where is best for us to go. Whatever the news, we are sure to pick up some of our first migrant songbirds, likely to include orioles, warblers, vireos, buntings, and tanagers too. At the end of the day, we will check into our hotel in the nearby town of Winnie, where we will be based for the first three nights of the tour, and the final two nights of the tour again, (with a single night in Jasper sandwiched in between).

Yellow-throated Warbler near Concan
Yellow-throated Warbler near Concan (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Anahuac NWR and High Island (including Smith Oaks Rookery). Having already arrived and sampled some songbird migrants the evening before, we will shift our focus this morning to nearby freshwater wetlands. Anahuac NWR will be our main destination, along with surrounding agricultural areas, like rice fields, which can host “grasspipers” and other freshwater-loving shorebirds, such as Upland and Pectoral Sandpipers, American Golden-Plover, and Whimbrel, while the fence lines and posts provide perches for Crested Caracaras, Eastern Kingbirds, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Eastern Meadowlarks, Loggerhead Shrikes, and sometimes Dickcissels. Within Anahuac, our attention will be on the marshes around Shoveler Pond, which host Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Purple Gallinule, King Rail, Glossy, White and White-faced Ibises, American and Least Bitterns, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, and Swamp Sparrow. Sometimes the surrounding agricultural landscapes are graced with White-tailed Kites and White-tailed or Swainson’s Hawks on the wing overhead.

Anahuac NWR hosts two bittern species
Anahuac NWR hosts two bittern species (Sam Woods)

The patterns of migratory flights means that the biggest shift in migrants present in the coastal migrant traps like High Island and Sabine Woods are usually noted in the afternoon, when most of them typically touch down, following their 600-mile journey from the tropics across the Gulf of Mexico. By covering some of the other sites in the mornings, we leave the afternoons free to gorge on the new migrants around town, at the very peak time for international arrivals of migrants, such as warblers, nighthawks, cuckoos, gnatcatchers, hummingbirds, vireos, raptors, thrushes, kingbirds and other flycatchers, swifts, swallows, catbirds, buntings, tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks. The exact locations for the afternoon migrant birding will be flexible, involving either multiple sanctuaries in High Island (such as TOS Hook Woods, and HAS Boy Scout Woods and HAS Smith Oaks), or a jaunt further afield to the more easterly-lying TOS Sabine Woods.

While we have mentioned High Island as a migrant trap, “trapping” migrants as they look for shelter following their trans-Gulf crossing, this is not all this small town offers. Smith Oaks Sanctuary also has Claybottom Pond, where large waterbirds are breeding during this season, and deserve at least one prolonged visit during our tour. A U-shaped island provides vital sanctuary for nesting herons, egrets, and spoonbills, and the pond in general is a year-round site for roosting waterbirds, with official counts of over 10,000 birds recorded on some evenings! The main nesting species are Great and Snowy Egrets, with brightened facial skin in this breeding season, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbill, and Neotropic Cormorant. There are a series of excellent viewing platforms to not only see them up close, but to photograph them too. This is a long-time hang out for local photographers, who come each year to shoot birds wielding sticks for their recently built nests, neighboring nesters fighting with each other, and take in the fine plumes of egrets as they “show-of” during elaborate spring displays. The rookery is inside of the critical oak woodlot, and so typically it is best to search for migrant songbirds first, then finish up at the rookery, post-migrant observations. We will return to the town of Winnie for the night.

The Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island hosts breeding Roseate Spoonbills in April
The Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island hosts breeding Roseate Spoonbills in April (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Bolivar Peninsula and Sabine Woods. For the morning, our focus will be the masses of coastal birds that stream through the Bolivar Peninsula at this time of spring. This 27 mile-long peninsula juts out southwest from High Island, culminating at the Houston Audubon Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, just shy of the ferry crossing over to the city of Galveston. Bolivar Flats is one of the best shorebirding sites in all of the continental United States, and is recognized for its importance as a Globally Important Bird Area, and an International site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Thousands of shorebirds and other coastal birds winter there, and many of these are still around in spring, while others use the site as a stopover as they move northwards. Thus, there is a heady mix of species, in epic numbers, congregating on the various sites on the peninsula at this time. These places can be like a one-stop-shop for shorebirds, with many species congregated together, excellent for viewing, photography, and learning how to identify the species with the aid of your tour leader.

Female Wilsons Phalarope in High Island
Female Wilsons Phalarope in High Island (Sam Woods)

Being surrounded by thousands of shorebirds and waterbirds enthusiastically feeding away, with little regard for your presence, is but one of the great experiences of this trip. One of the most spectacular sights in spring are the hordes of wintering American Avocets, now with rust-colored heads in breeding dress, and often numbering up to 10,000 birds in gigantic flocks feverishly feeding on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, while gangly Reddish Egrets, American White Pelicans, and Marbled Godwits stand alongside. A staggering 35 species of shorebird are regularly recorded each spring on the peninsula, including American Oystercatcher, Wilson’s, Piping, and Snowy Plovers, Red Knot, Long-billed Curlew, and thousands of smaller sandpipers or “peeps”. While shorebirds are an inevitable drawcard and focus, plentiful other coastal birds will also entertain us, such as terns and gulls, with nearly twenty species possible, including Black Skimmer, and Black, Least and Gull-billed Terns. By this time, some of these are settling in to breed, with terns like Royal and Sandwich often seen excitedly mating or passing presents of fish to each other during spring courtship.

Bird of Many Colors: Painted Bunting
Bird of Many Colors: Painted Bunting (Ken Behrens)

In the afternoon, we will likely be back on songbird watch, checking out some coastal woodlots in High Island or Sabine Woods for the latest arrivals.

Prairie Warblers breed in young plantations near Jasper
Prairie Warblers breed in young plantations near Jasper (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Eastern Texas Pineywoods. This part of the state contains an extensive area of pine woods, mixed pine-hardwood forests, pine plantations, lakes and reservoirs. This day will feel unlike any other on the tour, as we go 100 miles north of our base, briefly breaking our stay there with a one-night stopover in the town of Jasper, in the heart of Pineywoods Country. The avian targets are the specialties of this southern habitat type, such as the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, cute little Brown-headed Nuthatch, and the secretive Bachman’s Sparrow. The backup cast is no less appealing, Swallow-tailed Kite and Swainson’s Warbler both breed locally. Migrating Mississippi Kites are often noted drifting across the skies. Many of these species are at the very western edge of their US ranges here. We’ll head out very early, to ensure we arrive at sites like Angelina National Forest for dawn, when Bachman’s Sparrows are most vocal and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at their most active. Later, we will check an area of mixed, swampy woods, where Swainson’s Warblers breed in the understory thickets, along with a host of other “southern warblers”, including Prothonotary, Hooded, and Yellow-throated Warblers. We’ll also check riparian areas for Louisiana Waterthrushes. This is the attraction of a day in these Pineywoods, getting specialties, but also getting further chances at finding some southern-breeding warblers that may have eluded us on the coast. This rings true for Prairie Warbler too, a tricky coastal species, but easy to find among the young pine plantations near Jasper, as are Yellow-breasted Chats, now no longer considered a warbler, but sitting more suitably within a family all of their own.

Other avian attractions include locally breeding Bald Eagles, Acadian Flycatchers, and a host of woodpeckers, including seven species, such as the ever-impressive Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers, Wood Ducks, and other waterbirds on the various large lakes and reservoirs that pock the region. A single night will be spent in Jasper, before we head back to the Upper Texas Coast for one final migration push.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests near Jasper
Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests near Jasper (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Eastern Texas Pineywoods to High Island. After some final time during the morning around Pineywoods country, we will make our way south back to the coast, and High Island, in time for afternoon migrant arrivals.

Day 6: Winnie to Houston for DEPARTURES/Start HILL COUNTRY Extension. After breakfast and some brief final birding, we will head west back to Houston, dropping off those who choose not to join the Hill Country Extension. Folks who are continuing on the extension, shall drive west to Kerrville for the night.

The wonderful Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is abundant on the Bolivar Peninsula
The wonderful Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is abundant on the Bolivar Peninsula (Sam Woods)

The coastal birding at Bolivar Flats is epic
The coastal birding at Bolivar Flats is epic (Sam Woods)

Least Terns will be nesting on the beach at Bolivar
Least Terns will be nesting on the beach at Bolivar (Ken Behrens)

A small pocket of the many avocets that winter on the Upper Texas Coast
A small pocket of the many avocets that winter on the Upper Texas Coast (Sam Woods)

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HILL COUNTRY EXTENSION: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Millions of Bats! (4 days)

While short, this extension pulls in a LOT of extra birds, and also makes a visit to the spectacular bat cave at Rio Frio. We head west of Houston to the Hill Country, which is a lot drier than the habitats we will have already experienced, and offers up a wealth of new species. Top among our targets will be the Texas breeding endemic Golden-cheeked Warbler, which breeds in areas that also hold the local, striking Black-capped Vireo too. Along with these comes the chance of roadrunners, Green Jays, Ringed Kingfishers, Lazuli Buntings, thrashers, towhees and Verdin.

Black-capped Vireo, another specialty of the Hill Country Extension
Black-capped Vireo, another specialty of the Hill Country Extension (Sam Woods)

Day 1 (day 6 of the main tour): Houston to Kerrville. Day 1 (day 6 of the main tour): On this day we head west from the Upper Texas Coast, passing through Houston as we do so (and dropping non-extension participants off at the airport), and heading directly for Kerrville, our base for one night. There should be enough time to stop for some roadside birds, such as Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay along the way.

A few days extra can get you Golden-cheeked Warbler, a Texas breeding endemic
A few days extra can get you Golden-cheeked Warbler, a Texas breeding endemic (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Kerr WMA, Lost Maples and the Rio Frio Bat Cave. This might well rank as one of the best days of the entire tour. We’ll start out among the oaks and junipers of the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, on the Edwards Plateau of the Hill Country. Within patchy oak habitat, the Black-capped Vireo occurs, and where there is nice mix of oak species and Ashe Juniper, is the prime breeding environment for the Golden-cheeked Warbler. These will of course, be our main target, but within the same area, we may also find other trip additions, like Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, and Canyon Towhee.

Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay drops in on the feeders at Lost Maples in in the Hill Country
Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay drops in on the feeders at Lost Maples in in the Hill Country (Sam Woods)

Later in the morning we will head out to one of the Hill Country’s most beautiful birding settings, Lost Maples State Natural Area. The scenic limestone hills and canyons of this wonderful protected area are sprinkled with Ashe Junipers, Mesquite, Bigtooth Maples, Laurels and Prickly Pears. It is home to Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Vermilion Flycatchers, 9 species of vireo (including Black-capped, Bell’s and Hutton’s), Lesser Goldfinch, and 6 species of oriole, (like Hooded, Audubon’s and Scott’s). There are also some feeders on site. Lost Maples’ bird list exceeds 250 species, so we’ll have plenty to look at, both in terms of birds and surroundings, which will be in sharp contrast to the flatlands of the Upper Texas Coast which we saw on the main tour.

A tiny fraction of the 10million+ bats that comes out of Rio Frio Cave each day!
A tiny fraction of the 10million+ bats that comes out of Rio Frio Cave each day! (Sam Woods)

Batmen
Batmen (Andres Vasquez)

We’ll spend the end of the day observing one of the greatest wildlife experiences in Texas: the late afternoon emergence of 10 million or so Mexican Free-tailed Bats, from their cave at Rio Frio, near the town of Concan. (We will be positioned in the open, outside their lair, which is also home to Cave Swallows). As the bats head out for the night, raptors feverishly descend on them, excited by a sky packed with prey. Zone-tailed, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Swainson’s and Harris’s Hawks have all been noted here preying on the bats, along with American Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons. The surrounding landscape is also home to Canyon and Rock Wrens. It will ensure an epic end to a landmark day! The night will be spent in the nearby town of Utopia, (or Concan) 20 minutes from the caves.

Ringed Kingfisher occurs around a slough in Uvalde
Ringed Kingfisher occurs around a slough in Uvalde (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Concan and Uvalde to Houston. Our final day of birding will involve checking two nearby areas, Concan and Uvalde, before making our way back east to Houston. At Concan, the feeders and surrounds offer species like Black-chinned Hummingbird, Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers, Verdin, Lesser Goldfinch, Lark and Black-throated Sparrows, Canyon Towhee, and Lazuli Bunting. Occasionally, Tropical Parula is also found in this area.

Uvalde is very different, offering hints of the Texas of the Rio Grande Valley further south, with wetlands and wooded areas holding species like Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, and Ringed and Green Kingfishers. Other notable local species include Groove-billed Ani, Couch’s Kingbird, Black Phoebe, Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers, Olive Sparrow, Cactus Wren, and Pyrrhuloxia. After a final bumper morning of the tour, we will head back to Houston for the final night of the tour.

Day 4: DEPARTURES from Houston. In the morning, the guide will take the entire group to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) for departures out (time for this will be confirmed by the Tropical Birding office). There is no birding planned on this day.

Green Jay is possible on the extension in Uvalde
Green Jay is possible on the extension in Uvalde (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This is not a particularly physically demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but the days will be pretty long. Sunrise at this time of year is around 6:45am, and so in general I would expect to eat breakfast around 6:30am and leave the hotel at 7am (dawn starts are not critical). Some lunches may be field, packed, lunches in order to avoid crowded restaurants. Dinner will generally be taken around 7:30pm, after a short break before that (30-45mins).

The pace is faster on the Hill Country Extension, when two longer days are needed in order to see the Rio Frio Bat Caves in the evening, and also to maximize the birding on our final day there. On these two days we expect not to reach the hotel until later (7pm or so), and eat dinner a little later (7:30-8pm).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the walking will be on boardwalks, gravel roads and wide paths, though we may take a few more (easy) narrow trails. In general most of the walking is on level ground, even on the Hill Country Extension.

On the main tour the longest drives are too and from Houston at the start and end of the tour, which is around two hours. Other drives on the main tour do not exceed 90 minutes.
On the Hill Country Extension the drives are longer, with the one to and from Houston being the longest, at around 4.5 hours.

All of the main tour is in the coastal lowlands, with no elevation concerns. Even in the Hill Country the elevation is not great, with a maximum of around 500m/1800ft reached.

CLIMATE: This part of Texas is typically warm and humid in this season, with some bursts of rainfall to be expected during the changeable weather of spring.
Houston averages 7 days per month of rain at this time, and temperatures of 60-78F (15-25C).
Jasper averages 7 days per month of rain at this time, and temperatures of 56-76F (13-24C).
High Island averages 5 days per month of rain at this time, and temperatures of 64-76F (18-24C).
Uvalde (Hill Country Extension) averages 6 days per month of rain at this time, and temperatures of 80F (26C).

ACCOMMODATION: All the hotels we utilize are fully-modernized with hot water, heating, and wireless internet. Importantly, and because of COVID-19 concerns, we have deliberately selected smaller hotels where the rooms are accessed externally. This will minimize time in communal spaces like lobbies and hallways. All lodgings are high-quality with an emphasis on customer service.

WHEN TO GO: Texas offers year-round birding, but the Upper Texas Coast (UTC) is at its very best during spring migration, with the peak often in the last half of April. This tour is timed to take advantage of the migrant pouring through the UTC at this time.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, chasing the many migrants in the main tour and specialties on the extension. However, a handful of the sites are good for birders with cameras, such as the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island, shorebird photography at Bolivar Flats, and the bat cave visit and Concan (feeders) on the extension. Therefore, we encourage birders to bring their cameras too.

GEAR: Binoculars are essential and a camera is highly recommended too. Scopes will also be very useful if you wish to bring your own too. The guide will have a high quality spotting scope for group use, so it is not essential to have your own.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through to night of day 5 (main tour only), to the night of day 9 (with extension); meals from dinner on day 1 through to breakfast on day 6 (main tour only), through to breakfast on day 10 (with extension); all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; one airport transfer per group at the start of the tour, and at end of the tour done as a group – this applies to both the main tour and extension (times to be confirmed later by the office); Tropical Birding tour leader from the night of day 1 through to the lunchtime of day 6 (main tour only), through to morning of day 10 (with extension); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 1 to 6 (main tour) or to day 10 (with extension) in a modern rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver; printed bird checklist to be distributed by the guide on night 1 of the tour (if you wish an electronic copy in advance of the tour, please email the office for this).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; any flights; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.