HIGH ISLAND MIGRATION
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 onlyAbbreviations and Annotations:
h = heard only
* = endemic to the Pineywoods