Upper Texas Coast: Whirlwind Migration

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Nothing comes close to the Upper Texas Coast when it is pumping in April, with a real chance of getting over 150 species in a single day. This tour covers all the varied habitats of the region, including migrant traps on High Island, the inland Pineywoods, and coastal beaches and marshes. As this tour is all about responding to the latest migration events, staying in a central location is the key to success, so we will be based out of the town of Winnie. Trips to the world-famous Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and Bolivar Flats are sure to add to our burgeoning list of marsh and shorebirds. Bolivar Flats is arguably the best shorebird site in the US, where up to 10 000 American Avocets amass each spring, and more than a few renowned shorebirders have cited it as the most exciting shorebirding venue in North America.

We’ll also spend a night further north in Jasper, close to the Pineywoods, where we will track down such key birds as the extremely rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Swainson’s Warbler, and delightful parties of Brown-headed Nuthatches. Finally, our last night will be spent in the Brazosport area, offering another shot at migrants, as well as the chance to see birds of the more southerly coastal prairie, like Vermillion Flycatcher, Couch’s Kingbird, Crested Caracara, and maybe even the critically endangered “Attwater’s” Greater Prairie-Chicken.

Day 1: Houston. After meeting in Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport at 3pm we’ll bird some woods en-route to our High Island motel, our base for the next five nights. This may produce the standout Red-headed Woodpecker, and we will also get our first shot at the cute Brown-headed Nuthatch.

One North America's top birds, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is easy to find on this tour
One North America's top birds, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is easy to find on this tour (Ken Behrens)

Days 2-3: High Island, Anahuac NWR, and the coast. Four full days will be spent birding some of the coastal hotspots. Birding here depends very much on weather patterns, so the plans will change instantly if there is a fallout on High Island or one of the other local migrant hotspots. With luck, the coastal mottes should literally be crawling with hungry birds, including Kentucky, Prothonotary, and Hooded Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Indigo Bunting, and Yellow-throated Vireo. One of the other highlights on the island are the mulberry stands that can attract hordes of colorful migrants like Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, that can all often be seen gorging side-by-side. To keep on top of the latest bird news in this fast-moving season we will regularly drop into the Tropical Birding Information Center. There are several top sites on High Island, with the main ones being the Houston Audubon sanctuaries of Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks.

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We’ll spend some time birding Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, a good site for rails and freshwater species. Peering through the reeds, we could see American and Least Bitterns, Purple Gallinule, or Fulvous Whistling-Duck, and by scouring the coastal prairie, we might even turn up Yellow or Black Rails. Adjacent rice fields often play host to great numbers of shorebirds; we’ll comb through more common species in search of show-stoppers like Hudsonian Godwit, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, or the elegant Wilson’s Phalarope. These boggy pastures are also a haven for wading birds, and we should expect to see Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, White-faced Ibis, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, and even Glossy Ibis.

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Day 4: Pineywoods. The Pineywoods north of Beaumont are a complete contrast from the coastal woodlots. The oak-hickory-pine forests here, remnants of the much larger Big Thicket, are home to special targets including Louisiana Waterthrush and a host of other warblers including Worm-eating, Prairie, and Swainson’s Warblers. Although we might also bump into some of these in the coastal hotspots if the winds hit right, the Pineywoods are by far and away the most reliable place to find them. We’ll hit a number of varied bird spots in the Pineywoods region, such as Angelina National Forest, Boykin Springs, the Jasper Fish Hatchery, Martin Dies State Park, and Big Creek Scenic Area. With a bit of luck, we might also find a graceful Swallow-tailed Kite gliding over the treetops. We will head to a known spot for one of the tour’s rarest and “most-wanted” birds, the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. These beautiful mature southern pine forests are the last stronghold for this striking woodpecker that has declined dramatically in the last century due to large-scale logging of this crucial habitat. We will arrive at dawn near the nesting areas for some of these handsome birds and hope to catch sight of their exodus as they head out to feed for the day. Even before they emerge, the ethereal song of Bachman’s Sparrow echoing through this special forest should enchant us. Later on, we can look for stunning Red-headed Woodpeckers, lively troops of Brown-headed Nuthatches, and entertaining parties of chunky, vivid-red Summer Tanagers moving through the treetops. The night will be spent in Jasper.

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Day 5-6 : The Bolivar Peninsula. We have two more days day along the coast, after returning from Jasper in the morning. An evening trip to the famous Bolivar Peninsula is just fantastic, as thousands upon thousands of terns, gulls, skimmers, and shorebirds come to roost in the evening. The pace of the birding could be frenetic as we comb these massive mobs on the shoreline for particular target species. We’ll look for pallid Snowy Plovers, plump Piping Plovers, and elegant American Avocets on the beach, that sometimes congregate here in epic numbers. Other possibilities include the increasingly rare Red Knot, and maybe an early White-rumped Sandpiper. It is for good reason that many birders refer to Bolivar as the ultimate US shorebirding destination. We’ll also search the dunes and adjacent grasses for Wilson’s Plovers, well-endowed Long-billed Curlews, and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows. These days can also be combined with repeat visits to High Island or Anahuac, depending on where the best birding is at the time.

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Day 7: Houston. We’ll say our goodbyes this morning as the tour ends at Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport.

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)