American Oystercatchers - Michael Retter

The Legendary Upper Texas Coast
21–25 April 2008

Tour leader: Michael Retter
photo at right: American Oystercatchers

Our "High Island Migration shorts" are a great opportunity for those with limited time to visit the legendary Upper Texas Coast and still see an amazing variety of birds. Over the 5-day period, we visit all the varied habitats of the region, from migrant traps on High Island, to the inland Pineywoods, to coastal beaches and salt and freshwater marshes. In order to minimize the hassles of packing and unpacking, and also because it allows us rapid access to High Island in the event of one of the Gulf Coast’s famous fallout events, our nights are based in the town of Winnie. Trips to the world-famous Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and Bolivar Flats add to an impressive list of marsh birds and shorebirds. A day in the Pineywoods targets Bachman’s Sparrow, Swainson’s Warbler, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Day 1:  High Island
After rendezvousing at the airport, we left Houston and proceeded directly to Winnie to drop off our luggage.  Then it was straight to High Island!  A Swainson's Hawk along the way was a nice surprise as we combed through hundreds of flying waders, learning to differentiate Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, White-faced Ibis, White Ibis, 2 night-heron species, and 3 egret species in flight.  No one seemed to need help with the Roseate Spoonbills!

After checking in at the High Island Information Center, we determined that the best plan for the afternoon was to bird Houston Audubon Society's Boy Scout Woods, followed by a trip to HAS's Smith Oaks Sanctuary.  Migration was on the slow side today, but we still managed to find a few goodies at Boy Scout.  A Gray Catbird was bathing in the drip when a gaudy cobalt, red, and chartreuse bird appeared.  Everyone loves a Painted Bunting, right?  Above us, flashes of red, rose, orange, and white passed through the leaves, as Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Northern Cardinals were joined by numbers of both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers and both Orchard and Baltimore Orioles at the grandstands' famous mulberry tree.  Just down the trail, a female Hooded Warbler quietly passed through the understory, and we enjoyed her thoroughly until our attention was diverted by the jerky strutting of a nearby Ovenbird.  Other birds we found at Boy Scout include Tennessee Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, and White-eyed Vireo.

Then it was on to the evening spectacle of the Smith Oaks rookery.  We settled in just before evening and watched the show begin.  Hundreds of birds began to stream in: Roseate Spoonbills, Tricolored Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons.  We watched from just yards away as all these birds tended to their (not so beautiful) young.  A Common Moorhen walked under the nests, affording nice views of its bright red and yellow bill.  Nearby, an Anhinga sunned itself in the fading light.  The close proximity of both Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants provided an excellent study in identification.

Day 2:  Pineywoods and the Bolivar Peninsula
It was an early morning rise today, as we made it north to the Pineywoods by dawn.  Out of the van, we were immediately surrounded by dozens of singing Pine Warblers.  Then, the haunting song of a Bachman’s Sparrow filtered through the early morning fog.  This was one of our main targets, but we had a schedule.  We proceeded to a Red-cockaded Woodpecker colony, where after a little patience, we were rewarded with excellent views of up to four of these endangered woodpeckers.  We then headed toward a singing Bachman’s Sparrow, but we were distracted by the toy trumpet sounds of a small troop of the adorable little Brown-headed Nuthatches.  After a bit of work, we had a prolonged scope view of a singing Bachman’s Sparrow from only about 30 feet away.

Pine Warbler - Alan Davies Bachman's Sparrow - Alan Davies
Pine Warbler
Bachman's Sparrow

A short stop in some nearby second growth was extremely productive.  A Prairie Warbler showed off next to the van, and as we enjoyed his buzzy song and rufous mantle spots, we noticed a pair of Mississippi Kites perched in a nearby snag.  Eventually they took flight, and enjoyed their gleaming white secondary panels.  Across the road, a Blue Grosbeak, a Painted Bunting, and a Yellow-breasted Chat teed up to sing for us.

Our next destination was a moist deciduous woodland, where we quickly found a subtly beautiful Worm-eating Warbler.  A Swainson’s Warbler was singing quite vociferously as he traveled up and down the creek, but try as we might, we were unable to get a nice view of this furtive species.  Meanwhile, though, we enjoyed an obliging Acadian Flycatcher and a stunning male Prothonotary Warbler.

After lunch, we headed back to the High Island Information Center, where we found out that songbird migration was on the slow side, so we opted to bird our way down the Bolivar Peninsula. But not before a quick spin around HAS Boy Scout Woods across the street, where we saw a very cooperative male Canada Warbler at arm’s length!

Tuna Road was very good to us today.  A Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow preformed right on the edge of the grass, providing amazingly close studies of its sophisticated orange and gray plumage.  Next, we compared what we’d just seen with the many Savannah and Seaside Sparrows.  Whimbrels and “Eastern” Willets walked along the road, and we studied the latter closely so that we could later compare them to their western cousins.  Clapper Rails were quite easy today, with a handful walking out in the open on the edge of the marsh, and even across the road!

The famous Bolivar Flats was, predictably, covered with terns and shorebirds, but most of them were north of the shorebird sanctuary, so we opted to slowly drive the beach, using our vehicle as a blind.  This proved to be very fruitful, as we got very close views of birds, allowing us to get into detailed discussions of plumage and identification.  In particular, we discussed the terns, peeps, and the small plovers.  We found 7 species of tern, 5 species of plover, and 10 species of sandpiper. We noted the structure of the migrant “Western” Willets here, which were taller, paler, and more godwit-like than the “Eastern” Willets we’d just seen on territory along Tuna Road.  Eventually, we did visit the shorebird sanctuary, where we lingered until dusk to witness the awesome spectacle of tens of thousands of birds coming in to roost. Marbled Godwits probed the depths of the deeper water, while numbers of Black Skimmers lighted on a nearer sandbar. On the drive back to the hotel, a couple people were lucky enough to see a Barn Owl and a Crested Caracara fly across the road.

Day 3: Anahuac NWR, Beaumont, and Sabine Woods
Dawn found us at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, a famous freshwater marsh.  Along the entrance road, we found an Upland Sandpiper in a cattle pasture, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched up on a wire, and a number of Dickcissels newly on territory in a weedy field.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Michael Retter Dickcissel - Michael Retter
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

We scanned the shorebird pool closely, hoping to find something unusual.  Gull-billed Terns fed over the marsh, which was full of White-faced Ibis, Mottled Ducks, and Black-necked Stilts. Again using the vehicle as a blind, we slowly drove the auto loop, where everyone saw Purple Gallinule, Pied-billed Grebe, and Common Moorhen.  The boardwalk at Shoveler Pond offers unique access into the heart of a freshwater marsh.  A King Rail called from the dense cattails, and we were able to watch it slink through the reeds and call back with some patience. We also saw Marsh Wrens and Swamp Sparrows here.

Happy with our success at Anahuac, we traveled east to Beaumont. No birding trip is complete without a trip to a sewage treatment plant, so we stopped at Beaumont’s.  A flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks grazed the lawn with their electric coral bills. A Loggerhead Shrike hunted from the barbed wire fence. A pair of Fish Crows flew by, but we desired a better view, so we headed to Tyrell Park, where we had nice views of them.  They even did a fair bit of calling for us to show off their nasal voices.

Texas Ornithological Society’s Sabine Woods was the next stop.  Like High Island, the impressive oak motte here is the only shelter for miles for songbirds making the dangerous migration across the Gulf.  Not surprisingly, the trees were dripping with orioles, buntings, and grosbeaks. A Blackpoll Warbler appeared overhead. We entertained ourselves with these birds for a while before heading off on a dedicated search for warblers, which turned up a Northern Waterthrush, a Hooded Warbler, and a stunning male Bay-breasted Warbler. A Great Horned Owl flew by at 2 pm, surprising everyone. There weren’t too many warblers around, so we followed a tip that there was a Glaucous Gull on the beach at Sea Rim State Park.  Though we didn’t find the gull, we had a nice mix of shorebirds, gulls, and terns, including Ruddy Turnstone and Sandwich Tern.

Day 4:  Anahuac NWR, Bolivar Flats, and High Island
Everyone enjoyed Anahuac so much that we decided to head back this morning.  Though we missed them the day before, today we saw an incredible 12 Least Bitterns!  Most of them were just yards away from the vehicle, allowing us to appreciate subtle details like the hot pink lores and pale blue eyes.  Again, the Purple Gallinules put on a show; it’s just impossible to drive by one!  There were more  and closer shorebirds today, which allowed us to study them in depth, noting things like the hunched back of the Long-billed Dowitchers and the black bellies of the Dunlin.  Meanwhile, an eagle-eyed member of the group picked out a Hudsonian Godwit amongst the Long-billed Dowitchers and Stilt Sandpipers.  Word spread quickly, and within a couple minutes we were surrounded by a dozen birders hoping to add it to their lifelists!

Hudsonian Godwit - Michael Retter Solitary Sandpiper - Michael Retter
Hudsonian Godwit Solitary Sandpiper
Dunlin - Michael Retter
Long-billed Dowitcher - Michael Retter
Dunlin Long-billed Dowitcher

By now it was time for lunch, which we casually enjoyed at the High Island Information Center’s shady picnic table.  Here we learned that the weather looked like it might be productive for songbird migration later this afternoon, so we decided to retune early from our run down to Bolivar Flats in the interim.

Bolivar Flats is often worth a couple visits, because the tides change the composition of the birds dramatically. While the high tide had concentrated all the small plovers onto the driving beach the other day, today’s low tide rendered them nearly impossible to find on the immense, distant mudflats.  American Avocets, nonexistent on our previous visit, were amassed into a teeming flock of thousands out in the deeper water.  A couple Long-billed Curlews were feeding nearby.  A Reddish Egret danced in the surf. We also were able to study molt in a small flock of Red Knots, which varied from totally gray winter-plumaged birds to bright coppery breeding-plumaged birds.  A lovely pair of American Oystercathers landed in front of us briefly before continuing on to the south.

A check of the ponds at Port Bolivar turned up a nice flock of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, which was surprisingly joined by a small group of Marbled Ducks!  There’s a waterfowl farm nearby, though, so we didn’t get too excited upon seeing these (still elegant) escapees.  En route back to High Island, we stopped at the cattle pasture near the Joy Sands motel and found it teeming with American Golden-Plover and a handful of the odd-looking Upland Sandpiper.

Reddish Egret - Michael Retter Fulvous Whistling-Duck - Michael Retter
Reddish Egret
Fulvous Whistling-Duck with Black-necked Stilt

HAS Boy Scout Woods had a nice diversity of warblers, but the numbers hadn’t arrived off the Gulf yet.  While there we found Cerulean, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Black-throated Green. When we arrived at HAS Boy Scout Woods, birds started to literally fall out of the sky. As usually happens, the big birds (which travel faster) arrived first. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo dodged a flock of Blue Jays high in the oaks. Baltimore and Orchard Orioles jumped from treetop to treetop.  We picked through orioles and tanagers for a bit until the warbler started to arrive:  Tennessee, Nashville, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Blue-winged, Hooded, and Yellow to name a few.  We tracked down an odd “winged warbler” song, turning up a male “Brewester’s” Warbler, one of the Golden-winged X Blue-winged hybrids.  Birders were scrambling around frantically, trying to soak in as much of the action as they could, flushing a number of thrushes, catbirds, and Ovenbirds along the way. The birding was so good and the atmosphere was so electric, that it was unanimously decided to scrap our plans to go back to the Pineywoods tomorrow so that we could come back to Smith Oaks at dawn.

Day 5:  High Island and Departure
We returned to a very different Smith Oaks today.  Apparently most of the birds that arrived the prior evening weren’t too tired, because they departed for places north at some time in the night. What’s good for the birds isn’t always what’s good for the birders!  There were still some thrushes around, though.  We found Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s, Wood, and Veery.  Some lingering warblers included American Redstart, Black-and-White, and Bay-breasted. We had to make sure we got the airport on time for departing flights, so we reluctantly headed back to the airport.

Though it was by definition a short trip, we netted 198 species, nicely illustrating how even people with limited time can fully experience the birds of this magical area.

This list includes all the bird species that were recorded by at least one of us. Taxonomy and nomenclature follow the American Ornithologists' Union.  Quotation marks denote a possible future split.  For instance, "Eastern" Warbling Vireo means that the eastern form may one day be split from Warbling Vireo.

Totals:  198 bird species recorded; 3 heard only

Abbreviations and Annotations:
h = heard only
* = endemic to the Pineywoods

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis
Fulvous Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna bicolor
Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors
Marbled Duck (escapees) Marmaronetta angustirostris
NEW WORLD QUAIL: Odontophoridae
h Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus
GREBES: Podicipedidae
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
PELICANS: Pelecanidae
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
CORMORANTS: Phalacrocoracidae
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus
DARTERS: Anhingidae
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
HERONS: Ardeidae
American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus
Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Great Egret Ardea alba
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Green Heron Butorides virescens
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea
IBISES and SPOONBILLS: Threskiornithidae
White Ibis Eudocimus albus
White-faced Ibis Plegadis chihi
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississippiensis
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Swainson's Hawk Buteo swainsoni
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Clapper Rail Rallus longirostris
King Rail Rallus elegans
Sora Porzana carolina
Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinica
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
American Coot Fulica americana
PLOVERS: Charadriidae
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola
American Golden-Plover Pluvialis dominica
Snowy Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Wilson's Plover Charadrius wilsonia
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Piping Plover Charadrius melodus
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
OYSTERCATCHERS: Haematopodidae
American Oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus
STILTS and AVOCETS: Recurvirostridae
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus
American Avocet Recurvirostra americana
SANDPIPERS: Scolopacidae
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius
Solitary Sandpiper Tringa solitaria
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
"Eastern" Willet Tringa s. semipalmata
"Western" Willet Tringa s. inornata
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes
Upland Sandpiper Bartramia longicauda
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus
Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Red Knot Calidris canutus
Sanderling Calidris alba
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Stilt Sandpiper Calidris himantopus
Short-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus griseus
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus
GULLS: Larinae
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
"American" Herring Gull Larus argentatus smithsonianus
TERNS: Sterninae
Least Tern Sternula antillarum
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
Black Tern Chlidonias niger
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri
Royal Tern Thalasseus maximus
Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis
SKIMMERS: Rhynchopinae
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
PIGEONS and DOVES: Columbidae
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Eurasian Collared-Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Inca Dove Columbina inca
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina
CUCKOOS: Cuculidae
Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus
OWLS: Strigiformes
Barn Owl Tyto alba
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus
Common Nighthawk Chordeiles minor
SWIFTS: Apodidae
Chimney Swift Chaetura pelagica
Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubris
KINGFISHERS: Alcedinidae
Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Red-cockaded Woodpecker* Picoides borealis
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus
Eastern Wood-Pewee Contopus virens
Acadian Flycatcher Empidonax virescens
Alder Flycatcher Empidonax alnorum
Least Flycatcher Empidonax minimus
Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus
Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus
SHRIKES: Laniidae
Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus
VIREOS: Vireonidae
White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus
Yellow-throated Vireo Vireo flavifrons
Blue-headed Vireo Vireo solitarius
"Eastern" Warbling Vireo Vireo gilvus gilvus group
Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus
CORVIDS: Corvidae
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Fish Crow Coryus ossifragus
LARKS: Alaudidae
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
SWALLOWS: Hirundinidae
Purple Martin Progne subis
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis
Bank Swallow Riparia riparia
Cliff Swallow Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
TITS: Paridae
Carolina Chickadee Poecile carolinensis
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Brown-headed Nuthatch* Sitta pusilla
WRENS: Troglodytidae
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
"Northern" House Wren Troglodytes a. aedon
h Sedge Wren Cistothorus platensis
Marsh Wren Cistothorus palustris
KINGLETS: Regulidae
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea
THRUSHES: Turdidae
Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis
Veery Catharus fuscescens
Gray-cheeked Thrush Catharus minimus
Swainson's Thrush Catharus ustulatus
Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina
American Robin Turdus migratorius
MIMIDS: Mimidae
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum
STARLINGS: Sturnidae
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
WAXWINGS: Bombycillidae
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Blue-winged Warbler Vermivora pinus
Tennessee Warbler Vermivora peregrina
Nashville Warbler Vermivora ruficapilla
Northern Parula Parula americana
Yellow Warbler Dendroica p. aestivia group
Chestnut-sided Warbler Dendroica pensylvanica
Magnolia Warbler Dendroica magnolia
Black-throated Green Warbler Dendroica virens
Blackburnian Warbler Dendroica fusca
Yellow-throated Warbler Dendroica dominica
Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus
Prairie Warbler Dendroica discolor
Bay-breasted Warbler Dendroica castanea
Blackpoll Warbler Dendroica striata
Cerulean Warbler Dendroica cerulea
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla
Prothonotary Warbler Protonotaria citrea
Worm-eating Warbler Helmitheros vermivorum
h Swainson's Warbler Limnothlypis swainsonii
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla
Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis
h Kentucky Warbler Oporornis formosus
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Hooded Warbler Wilsonia citrina
Wilson's Warbler Wilsonia pusilla
Canada Warbler Wilsonia canadensis
Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens
TANAGERS: Thraupidae
Summer Tanager Piranga rubra
Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea
EMBERIZIDS: Emberizidae
Bachman's Sparrow* Aimophila aestivalis
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina
Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis
Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow Ammodramus nelsoni
Seaside Sparrow Ammodramus maritimus
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
CARDINALIDS: Cardinalidae
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheucticus ludovicianus
Blue Grosbeak Passerina caerulea
Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea
Painted Bunting Passerina ciris
Dickcissel Spiza americana
ICTERIDS: Icteridae
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Boat-billed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
House Sparrow Passer domesticus