Upper Texas Coast and the Hill Country - Birding Tour
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 perhaps 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.
Main Tour: 20 - 25 April ($3590; single supplement: $375)
Extension: 25 - 28 April ($1990; single supplement: $200)
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Other Tour Details:
Length: 6 days (9 days with extension)
Starting City: Houston
Ending City: Houston
Physical Difficulty: Easy
Group size: 8 + 1 leader
PLEASE NOTE: This tour is designed to be flexible, in order to respond to the latest, local migration news. Therefore, the exact order in which these sites are visited may be changed in response to this.
Day 1: Arrival in Houston; transfer to High Island
Following an afternoon meet up (1:00pm) 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 Hooks 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/Smith Oaks, 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).
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.
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 Hooks 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, but 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 and a canopy walkway 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.
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.
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.
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.
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