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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Texas

            In January 2005, I received an e-mail from my friend Alan Martin asking if I would join him in Brazil for a birding and ringing trip. What an offer! “Just get to Rio and I will pick you up." said Alan. The problem was I new there would be a slight chance to go to Texas in the spring and I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity. The thought of looking at exotic birds in the jungles of Brazil was overwhelming, it was second to the passion that had overtaken me in the last year; North American Birds!!
            Since 2004 British Columbia had got me completely and utterly hooked on North American birds. I have enjoyed learning this new avifauna and especially enjoyed the company of some great birders and friends.
            Hearing stories of Arizona, California, Florida and Texas got me thinking of these places and when I learned of an opportunity to go, I was really excited. Within two weeks I was booked!!!
            Over the months I pawed over my Sibley guide, swatting up on the birds we could see. The plan was to travel to Houston with my birding buddy Trevor Forder and then meet up with Chris Charlesworth. So, on the 30th of April 2005, that is exactly what we did. We arrived at Houston International Airport at 05:00 p.m. and within minutes we met with Chris. This was pure luck as in our planning we had forgotten to confirm a meeting spot at the airport. Chris had just finished leading a tour for his own company; Avocet Tours. Anyhow, within a short time we were heading for Conroe in our budget rental car.
            Initially we were going to go straight to the motel for a good night sleep. That, however, quickly changed. There was plenty of daylight left and we all agreed that we should bird until dusk and try get some specialty species, so that we could travel the following morning and maximize our time.
            One hour later, we were entering Jones State Forest Park. The whirlwind had started! I already tallied three lifers since leaving the airport: Northern Mockingbird, Chimney Swift and Red-shouldered Hawk.
            As I climbed out of the car there were birds, literally, darting this way and that, birds that I had only seen in books. Our target species for this park were Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, these were seen immediately along with some other lifers: Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, Indigo Bunting, Carolina Chickadee and Carolina Wren. A quick drive to Peoples Road brought great looks at Red-headed Woodpecker, Pine Warbler and Black-bellied Whistling Duck. On the way to the motel and en-route, we encountered another couple of gems:  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Loggerhead Shrike.
1st May 2005-Big Thicket
            Our day started with an early alarm call and armed with coffee and binos we hit the road, our destination, Big Thicket! We spent four hours birding along the quiet lanes. There was a mixed habitat of coniferous and deciduous trees, open fields, scrub, hedgerow and bushes. Our first stop was amazing; there were Cattle Egrets in the fields, Yellow-breasted Chat singing from the bushes and Black Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk flying over. On the wires there were Northern Mockingbirds, Hooded Warblers in the trees, Indigo and Painted Buntings along the hedgerows, Blue Grosbeaks, Carolina Wrens and so on. It was an incredible feeling, but tricky to know which way to look. So this had set the standard for the rest of our time in Big Thicket. Mississippi Kites coasted over, a Yellow-throated Warbler up in the willows, Prothanotory Warblers in the wet wooded areas, Brown Thrasher, Acadian Flycatcher. Summer Tanagers flitting in the trees and a Swainson’s Warbler that eluded a view but sang for ten minutes. We departed Big Thicket at noon. 
Blue Grosbeak

Hooded Warbler
            Tyrell Park is a multi-use park that has a formal garden, picnicking, a golf course, wooded areas, and a large man-made wetland. The variety of birds is impressive in the park; it is located on the south side of Beaumont, an easy side trip as you travel between High Island and Sabine Woods. We made a quick stop there and added Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Fish Crow and Blue Jay to our species list.
Yellow-crowned Night-heron
            Sabine Woods is a small treed area in a treeless marshy world just inland from the Gulf Coast, where Texas meets Louisiana. If you follow directions for Sea Rim State Park, moving south on route 87 from Port Arthur, you'll come across a small parking area on the right, with a gate, just about five miles from Sabine Pass. This little migrant trap can have all the same birds as High Island and because it has a more open under-story, it provides great opportunities for viewing ground loving warblers and thrushes.
            We arrived here at 1:30 p.m. and departed at 6:30 p.m. and for good reason; the trees were literally dripping with warblers: Golden-winged, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Worm-eating, Kentucky, Cerulean, Blackpoll, Canada, Wood Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Parula and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
            Sea Rim State Park is a developed tourist beach spot between the Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and the McFaddin Marsh NWR at the most south-easterly point of Texas. The wildlife refuges are huge spartina-grass marshes with very little access. As there was still light left, we headed for Sea Rim State Park. We made two stops along the road and added many new species to our ever-increasing list. There were Gull-billed Terns, Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns, Least Terns, Caspian Terns, all flying by. Piping Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt at the shoreline, Eastern Meadowlark were singing from the surrounding fields, Dickcissel perched on the nearby bushes and Sedge Wren calling from the reeds. It was the perfect end to a perfect day. We headed for Winnie where we stayed the night.
2nd May 2005-Anuac
            Anauac National Wildlife Refuge is located approximately 20 miles from High Island on the Northeastern edge of Galveston Bay. The area has mixed habitat including, marsh, rice fields, ponds and wooded areas. En-route this morning, we made a few stops, while scanning fields for shorebirds. Here we saw Hudsonian Godwit, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. There was 1 Mottled Duck in the field and a Northern Bobwhite on a fence post, plus lots of Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike and Northern Mockingbird.
            Our first stop was at Shoveler Pond where there were so many of Warblers in the willows and shorebirds in the mudflats including 1 White-rumped Sandpiper. We then took a slow drive around the reserve and within minutes got great looks at American Bittern.
            As we made our way along the roads, Least Bitterns were feeding in the fringes of the marsh, Purple Gallinule and Common Moorhen and Black-crowned Night-heron were also present. A few American Alligators were enjoying the morning warmth; sunning themselves on the marsh fringes, while Snowy Egret and Cattle Egret were flying above. Yellow-billed Cuckoo were calling from the woods and a big treat was a fantastic look at King Rail which decided to walk across the road in front of us.
American Alligator

Least Bittern
On our way out we checked the fields and got great looks at a Common Nighthawk asleep on a fence post. There were Eastern Meadowlark calling and a singing Seaside Sparrow, perched daintily on some grasses. We got 65 species in two hours within the reserve.
            High Island is not really an island in the way we envision islands; it's a raised bit of ground in a sea of marshland and the only place, for many miles in all directions, that actually supports trees. So, it is an important stop-off for migratory land birds.
            Before coming to Canada my knowledge of North American birds was very limited; I began reading as much as possible about birding here. Though I have now read quite a few books on the birding scene, the one that really stands out is Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. In this tale of birding adventure, Kaufman talks about High Island. So, visiting this fantastic and famous migration point was extremely exciting for me.
            As we were getting parked I got my first look at Inca Dove, feeding on a front lawn. We entered the park and paid our entrance fee at a little stand, which also sold t-shirts, badges, patches etc. Next to this was a drip where there are benches to view birds bathing and feeding. The woods were quiet compared to Sabine Woods the previous day though there was still a lot to see. That said, we did get over 50 species within the woodlands. Next we travelled up the road to Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. There is a U-shaped island in the middle of a large pond, which was home to Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tri-colored Heron, Roseate Spoonbill and Neotropic Cormorants. As we watched the coming and goings at the rookery, American Alligators patrolled the margins, waiting for chicks to fall from the nests. There was also Anhinga flying around the pond, which was a great treat.  The day was still young and to cover the areas we wanted, we had to make tracks to our next stop.
High Island

Chris Charlesworth and Rich Mooney
            Rollover Pass is located on the Bolivar Peninsula in the small community of Gilcrest.   On the bay side there are extensive mud flats where Reddish Egrets, Marbled Godwits, most kinds of herons and egrets, gulls and terns can be found. We made a quick stop here and picked some new trip birds including American Oystercatcher and Black Skimmer; fifty in total, and there were more terns, pelicans and Laughing Gulls.
            Bolivar Flats is the shorebird spot in Texas. Created by the 100 year old jetties that protect the entrance to Galveston Bay, Bolivar is a great expanse of accessible mud flats. There is a year round rotation of thousands of sandpipers, plovers, terns, gulls, and herons, which are made up of resident or migratory birds.
            A quick stop here was well worth it. A short walk out onto the beach produced a nice selection of shorebirds to sort through: Sanderling made up the bulk, but also many Black-bellied Plover, Willet and Ruddy Turnstone. In the dryer areas we were lucky to see a Wilson’s Plover and Horned Lark, and then out at the seashore was a single Reddish Egret. Next we travelled down to the ferry and made our way to Galvestone. We heard that there was a rare bird at Apfel Park, a very busy tourist beach. On the way we picked up another 2 trip birds: White-winged Dove and Crested Caracara. Our rare bird was still in the bay. It was a King Eider!! Of all the birds I thought about seeing, this definitely was not on the list. Wow!  Another two-hour drive and we stopped for the night in Angeltown. We were all very tired. After a pizza and a few beers we were all ready for bed.

3rd May 2005-Weslaco
            Though our first stop was to be Weslaco, we had already decided to detour slightly off highway 77 to include a road known as Hawk Alley on road 285. Just before we reached the turn off, we made a quick stop to enjoy watching about a hundred Cave Swallows hawking above a field. As well, we had a great look at Crested Caracara.
            Hawk Alley lived up to its name: Mississippi Kite-17, Turkey Vulture-5, Harris’s Hawk-2, Swainson’s Hawk-1, Crested Caracara-1 and White-tailed Hawk-1. Also, Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Golden-fronted Woodpecker were seen from the side of the road.
            Frontera Audubon is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the environment of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This little oasis is located in the town of Weslaco. It is a relatively small reserve but do not let that dissuade you, there are plenty of great birds to see. New species seen here include Least Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Gray Hawk, Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Couch's Kingbird, Green Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, Bronzed Cowbird and Lesser Goldfinch.
Curve-billed Thrasher

Great Kiskadee
            A quick stop at State Farm resulted in a Tropical Kingbird,  Red-crowned Parrot and Great Kiskadee. We then made another stop at the fish hatchery for a half hour of birding before bed. There were Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, Tri-colored Heron, Least Grebe, Blue-winged Teal and Common Moorhen. We then headed for our motel in Brownsville.

4th May 2005-Sabal Palm
            Our first port of call was the Brownsville Airport. Besides the Brownsville municipal dump, the airport is the best place to see Tamaulipas Crow. A pair have bred under the weather tower in years past, unfortunately we did not see them but we did see a Chihuahuan Raven in Boca Chica.
            Sabal Palm Audubon centre and Sanctuary is one of the most beautiful and critical ecosystems of South Texas. Sabal Palms once grew profusely along the edge of the Rio Grande in small stands or groves. Today, only a small portion of that forest remains, protected on 527 acres of this Audubon sanctuary.
            On arrival at the centre, we checked in to see if any rare birds had turned up. We were informed that a rare Yellow-green Vireo had been seen nearby. This was a lifer for all of us, so we headed across the boardwalks to where it had been seen last. Chris and Trevor raced ahead, as they had both been to Texas before and this was a big one for them. I was still fumbling with my scope, as luck would have it, to zoom in on a Green Kingfisher! In fact, I got two kingfishers, as north America’s largest kingfisher: the Ringed Kingfisher, made an appearance at the same time! We all eventually got to see the Yellow-green Vireo, though it was a tough chase; the vireo playing hide-and-seek, singing and taunting us from the tree canopy. This was quite the morning; we had torrential down pours while trying to see the Vireo, where we huddled under the palm trees waiting for it to pass. Once the weather cleared, we all went our own ways around the sanctuary. It was very enjoyable with great views of Green Heron, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-winged Warbler and many others.
Green Heron

Trevor Forder and Chris Charlesworth - Sabal Palm
            We then headed back on the highway to McAllen where we would spend the night. Once we got sorted in our room, we headed out for some nocturnal birding at Bensten State Park. Benten State Park is located next to the Rio Grande and as such, makes it a good place to look for Mexican vagrants and a great place for owls and goatsuckers! During our two-hour walk we got a momentary view of an Elf Owl; flying across the road, though we could hear about four calling. We also heard Chuck-wills Widow, Common Paraque, Lesser Nighthawk (seen), Common Nighthawk, Great-horned Owl and to end the night as we were leaving, Chris tooted up an Eastern-Screech Owl. Our departure from the park was actually quite comical. After bumping into a family group of wild Collared Peccary, or Mexican Hog, our senses were put on high alert. We gave these large mammals a wide birth and continued on. A little later, just before we were going to head back to the car, we heard gunshots from across the river. This definitely put a spring in our step and as our pace quickened, all three of us bunched together until we finally found the exit. 

5th May 2005-Santa Ana
            With more than 2,000 acres of tropical thorn forest along the Rio Grande River, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge has a bird list of almost 400 species. Its specialties include Hook-billed kite, Gray hawk, all three kingfishers, both whistling ducks, and occasionally: Muscovy Duck and Masked duck. There is a huge visitors centre Santa Ana, which has good information on what has been seen recently and where. Once through the centre, there are lots of different trails, covering a mixture of habitats including open fields, ponds, moss covered woodland trails, cactus scrub and much more.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
            It was a very leisurely day and we all enjoyed birding at a slightly slower pace. By mid-day all of us had split up and took some time to walk the trails. There were lots of good birds around and even a few lifers for us. During the morning, we spent some time watching the comings and goings of two Altamira Orioles at a nest site.  54 species were recorded during our visit; the most memorable for me was a Clay-colored Robin. It took me some time to, finally, see this bird. I had heard it through the day but had not seen it. On my last effort before we had to leave, I finally got to see it. Our final trip bird before leaving Santa Ana was a Common-ground Dove. The remainder of the day was spent driving as we needed to get to our next destination as time was beginning to run out and we wanted to see as much as possible.

6th May 2005
            As you travel towards Falcon Dam, there is a turn off you have to make. It is in an area known as Chapeño, though the sign you follow is a white sign that reads RV Park and another that says Not Responsible for Accidents or Theft. My first impressions were not good. It looks like a rough trailer park but don't let that put you off. Look around and you will notice several feeder stations. When we arrived we were greeted by a lady who told us a little about what birds were being seen. We paid our $2 fee and, believe me, it is worth it! This is probably the most reliable place in North America to see Brown Jay. There is a small room located in a big shed where you are able to sit and wait for the birds to show up; so that’s what we did. Within a short time, we were watching Green Jay, Audubon’s Oriole, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and finally 3 Brown Jay's came to the feeder; it was amazing.
            We then walked down to the viewing platform and looked across the Rio Grande. There was a lot of activity along the river; Ringed Kingfisher and Green Kingfisher were flying up and down, vocalizing and perching on snags. A Tropical Kingbird was singing, Black Vulture, Mississippi Kite, Osprey and American White Pelican, all flying over. There was an Indigo Bunting up in a small bush and a Great Kiskadee calling over our heads. Across the river a Red-billed Pigeon taunted us from its perch in Mexico. We also spent some time viewing a beautiful Gray Hawk, on a nest across the river and a Blue Bunting made a brief appearance, though I didn't see it. When we were walking back to the car we noticed some other birders had shown up. They were actually photographing a huge 8-foot Indigo Snake.
White-tailed Kite
            As we were leaving Chapeño, we got another great look at Painted Bunting. The habitat had already changed and I really noticed how arid it was, with thorny bushes and lots of cactus. Now I look back, the next ten-minute spell of our drive was one of the most memorable events of the trip. As we passed a huge field of cactus, Trevor shouted to stop the car. I got to see a bird that I had very high on my wish list: a Greater Roadrunner. Feeling very excited to have seen this bird, we continued on and within five minutes it was me shouting to stop the car, for a “Pyrrhuloxia”, another wish list bird. I jumped out of the car, as the bird had flown down below a hedge. I ran to the spot and waited. Nothing. So, I began to pish and heard a scalding of a bird. To my surprise, two Cactus Wren came within twelve inches of me. It was incredible and something I will never forget. Time was ticking, so with the euphoria of the last ten minutes logged forever, we moved on.
            Originally, one of our main destination areas was Falcon Dam; a very famous place to see Ringed and Green Kingfisher. However, we had already seen both target species earlier in the week, which was just as well, because since the 9-11 attacks on The Twin Towers, no one has been allowed down to the dam for fear of terrorism.  With this disappointing news, we carried onto Falcon State Park.
            Mesquite, huisache, wild olive, ebony, and cactus native grasses cover gently rolling hills. As we parked the car to start our walk, we could hear a Cactus Wren scalding in the distance and a Northern Mockingbird singing from the wires. We began our leisurely stroll and started seeing the resident birds of this arid habitat. The first was a male Verdin perched on a small bush. Then we watched a pair of Pyrrhuloxia make there way slowly across in front of us. Above us were: Mississippi Kite, Turkey Vulture, Broad-winged Hawk and Black Vulture. A Black-throated Sparrow was next on the list, followed by Greater Roadrunner and a pair of Harris’s Hawks. Twenty-five species seen here in total: time to move onto our next stop. Though the exact place name eludes me, the area we stopped in is known as Zapata. We made our way along a small streambed that did not appear to be a spectacular birding area; two fields, some wasteland and hedgerow near a main road. This seemingly insignificant strip of land was extremely important to us, as it is the place to see White-colored Seedeater. There were a few anxious moments, with some un-identified birds flitting from one side of the field to the other. Luckily, they finally stayed still long enough for us to see that they were indeed: White-Colored Seedeater! Another treat here was a Cassin’s Sparrow and we were lucky enough to watch it perform its flight song from a bush. Then, at the top of some grass covered rubble stood our first and last Scaled Quail.
Black Vulture
            We arrived at Uvalde at 5:40 p.m Chris decided that he was going to stay in and catch up on his trip report from the previous week. So, Trevor and I decided to spend a couple of hours birding before dinner. We had a really memorable evening cruising the quite lanes in Hill Country; 39 species in three hours.
            The countryside and fields were beautiful, with Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Painted Bunting and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, skulking in the hedges.  There were swarms of swallows hawking the skies, including four Purple Martin. There were also Mississippi Kite, Black Vulture and Red-tailed Hawk. One of the stops we made was amazing. There were more than forty Lesser Nighthawk flying above us; mostly silent but occasionally they would call. Further along the road, we were scanning the hedge tops when we noticed a bird with its back to us on a wire fence. It then flew off to catch an insect and returned to the same spot, this time facing us; it was a brilliant male Vermilion Flycatcher! The male is unmistakable; with its scarlet underparts, crown, face and blackish brown mask through the eye.  This was the only one we saw during the trip and we relished every minute; watching it flitting from post to post, pumping its tail and flycatching until it finally flew off. A quick stop at the river after seeing our first Armadillo produced a female Green Kingfisher and Black Phoebe.
            Once we got back to the room we had a nice meal then turned in for the night. Tomorrow was our last day and we needed to get back to Houston, though we had one very important stop to make on the way.
7th May 2005
            Located along the Sabinal River, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country is the breathtaking Lost Maples State Natural Area. It has a mixture of sheer limestone cliffs, deep canyons, dense woodlands, and various streams. Lost Maples State Natural Area contains the states largest stand of Bigtooth Maples. The big attractions, for birders, are two very restricted species: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler. As we only had two hours here, we checked at the advice centre to ask where the best place was to see these two birds. Though the weather was very drizzly, it cleared long enough for us to locate and see both species. We also added Canyon Wren and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and then just as we got to the car to leave, Chris spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk flying over. Quite an incredible morning!
            Back at Houston, we booked into our room as we had a very early flight the following morning. I took one more walk outside before we headed for the restaurant for our end of trip meal. I had a fantastic look at Logger-head Shrike devouring a dragonfly on the roof of our hotel. In one week we got to see and hear over 235 species; 143 of which, were lifers for me.

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