Birding High Island and the Upper Texas Coast, April 23-27, 2016

After five (5) full days of birding the Upper Texas Coast (UTC), submitting 31 checklists to e-Bird and taking 1200 photos, I do not have sufficient words to describe the exuberance of birding Texas’ High Island area. 

Local birder friend, Lois Lorenz, and I traveled together to Houston on Friday, 4/22, and were delighted to be joined on the same flight by Kay Hawklee of Sedona, whom I met last year on a Big Bend NP birding trip. We would meet “our group” at dinnertime.

After meeting the eleven (11) other participants and the leaders of this Victor Emanuel Nature Tour (VENT), I felt like I had made a good investment - and I was correct. The birders wanted to bird - whether they were fairly new or quite advanced. No one was late for the two vans at any time and the two leaders, David Wolf (lives in Texas with years of experience as a guide with VENT) and Erik Bruhnke, a young guide who divides his living time between the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and his home in Duluth, MN, proved to be invaluable.

Saturday, April 23rd: Day #1
Our first stop after a night in Houston was Piney Woods on our way to Winnie where we would stay put for day trips out and about.

What a start!  To see the rare RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER in WG Jones State Forest almost immediately seemed a good omen for the trip. It was a LIFE BIRD for me as well as the other birders. It likes mature pines and can be found clustered in limited areas of southeastern USA. We saw four (or more) altogether. Its white cheeks and black crown are key to spotting the bird. Photos are usually of its back as it works the pine trunks. 

Red-cockaded Woodpecker
WOOD DUCK: Strange site in the Piney Woods forest on a snag with the Red-cockaded Woodpecker

On our way to Winnie, we also checked out Big Creek Scenic Area (UTC 035) where we enjoyed some good birds.  

Most of our birding group; Leader Erik carrying scope; David in jeans and brown shirt, 4th from right
After settling in at our Holiday Inn Express, we birded a Turf Farm area where I would see a bird I’ve been curious about ever since I saw it in the Sibley Field Guide: UPLAND SANDPIPER - my second LIFE BIRD. Unlike sandpipers that chase waves at the seashore, this one likes grassy fields with some open ground. It stands tall on yellow legs, with a small head balanced on its thin neck, its bill yellow tipped with black. Although a very poor photo, you might notice why it’s sometimes called the “Bug-eyed Sandpiper”. Felt lucky to find this super cool bird during its migration.

Lousy photo but proof that I saw it
Upland Sandpiper (internet photo)

Finishing up our first day with a visit to Boy Scout Woods in High Island, I saw at least 16 species and staying by the pond instead of walking the loop, I saw my first-ever NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH.  I would get better looks at this bird during the week. Photo posted is not the NOWA in its normal skulking habit of approaching the pond through leaf litter, branches and mud, but on a tree where it could be seen well later in the week.

White eyebrows shorter than LAWA
Three Lifers on Day #1. 

Sunday, April 24th: Day #2
The flexibility of our leaders worked out well. An early start at a private location gave me one of the biggest thrills of the trip. Four years ago in Ontario, two young men in their teens (their mother drove them from spot to spot) wanted to show me a Nelson’s Sparrow. We stomped through sedge grasses, reeds and cattails on the far edges of the Royal Botanical Gardens for a couple hours but came up empty. Now, I was in an area where this bird was another long-shot possibility. Would I get it?

The first bird was a very dark sparrow - good news! It was a SEASIDE SPARROW, another difficult bird to find.  Then, a SEDGE WREN called from a bush and I actually got a photo of it. Although I had seen one with a very good birder friend back in the 1970’s, I barely remembered it and only knew I had seen it because it was within a Haiku I had written. This time I got a good look that I’ll remember well.

When the guides looked like they might be wrapping up at this site, I said, “What about Nelson’s Sparrow? I really wanted to see this nemesis.  After jesting about my being greedy, the guide gave it a try by playing its song. Whoopee! Not only did we get a response, this NELSON’S SPARROW behaved like it owed me one - it modeled for the camera!

Seaside Sparrow above and below (appears very dark in the field)

Beautiful Sedge Wren; note the tail

A nemesis bird, no more; NELSON'S SPARROW 

All of that happened within 45 minutes of birding.

Next stop: Sabine Woods. That turned out to be so thick with birds, we changed plans after lunch and a brief visit to Sea Rim State Park, to return to Sabine Woods for a full afternoon.  

Such a diversity of species!  Lots of new birds for me here; I’ll just list them because many warblers are hard for me to photograph. I noted that one of our group was very skilled at spotting and identifying these birds flitting in and out around the leaves. Karen saw several, including the Cerulean, that I missed. But I’m not complaining. (She's from the Arlington, VA area and more familiar with these eastern species.)


Coral Bean flower

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Traill's Flycatcher (Alder/Willow FC)
Scarlet Tanager
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Eastern Kingbird
Surprising find! Barn Owl at rest not far from trail. Birders gave respectful distance for photos.
Eleven Lifers on Day #2.
No post for private spot.
Monday, April 25th: Day #3
Having lived for twenty-some years in Virginia before moving to Arizona, I had seen and noted many shorebirds just because I liked to keep track in my field guide when I saw a new bird. Birding had not yet become a QUEST!

Today was all about the shorebirds. It was good to see again some of those East-coast Ruddy Turnstone’s, Sanderlings, Willets, Yellow-crowned Night Herons and terns. 

We visited places with cool names like, Rollover Pass (SANDWICH TERNS), and Bolivar Flats. It was at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary that I saw two plovers that were new to me: WILSON’S and PIPING PLOVER. Here, too, Kay Hawklee who used her own scope found a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a life bird for many on the trip. Thanks to Joe Neely who reported it (December 2013) and Tommy D who was at the Thunderbird Conservation pond with his spotting scope on the gull when I arrived, I had already seen this bird in Arizona.

After lunch, we stopped at a field where Erik heard a DICKCISSEL — on my Want List.  With good views through the scope, I saw yet another new bird.

Internet photo of Dickcissel

A loud, raucous, colorful drama unfolded for us at the Rookery in Smith Oaks of High Island, our final stop of the day.  The woods surrounding us also produced a BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER for me.

Below our platform, PURPLE GALLINULE
Across the water from us within the rookery, ROSEATE SPOONBILLS

Great Egret shaking its plumes; young in the nest

Directly beyond our platform, below us and prior to the water, YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO

More ROSEATE SPOONBILLS in breeding plumage

Four Lifers on Day #3.

Tuesday, April 26th: Day #4
Each morning while waiting for the vans to pull up at 7:00 a.m., several of us would be birding, usually with David’s help. He could pick out by ear what we saw flying overhead, which on this date was Whimbrel and Cedar Waxwing. eBird reports for Winnie reflect that morning bird count.

I’ve always liked “words” so today’s outing at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge caught my attention before we even reached the place. In some ways, it reminds me of our word, saguaro.  Just exactly how is this word pronounced? Anna-wack.

The place also reminded me of many outlying areas in Virginia and North Carolina where water infiltrates fields and marshes from inlets, streams and other bodies of “bigger” water. My local friends know I’ve been looking for a COMMON NIGHTHAWK for several years; today, I was rewarded. One was resting on a limb near our restroom stop.

Common Nighthawks - two different birds above

Also around the buildings at the entrance to Anahuac were Cliff Swallows

But the BIG FIND here occurred as we slowly drove the canals looking for bitterns and rails. We found lots of “purple chickens” and “moorhens”, and, then, a quick stop. OMG! Less than 30 feet from the van, across the canal, preening on a small rounded bunch of flattened reeds stood a KING RAIL. Whoop! Whoop! I was ecstatic.  

King Rail 
During this 3-hour exploration, we saw at least 17 Fulvous Whistling-Ducks in addition to Black-bellied WD, Blue-winged Teal, Tricolored Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White and Glossy Ibis, Purple and Common Gallinule and more Dickcissel.

Quite distant from us, three of many FULVOUS WHISTLING DUCKS 
Back at Smith Oaks to wrap up our day, we stopped by the Rookery to study the birds for awhile.

Two of these three Great Egrets have the green lores of high mating stage
Neotropic Cormorant in breeding plumage
Tri-colored Heron

More Roseate Spoonbills

Snowy and Great Egret

After leaving the rookery, I saw my first PAINTED BUNTINGS, a female and first-year male.  Disappointed that they were too distant for photos on a brush pile.

Three Lifers on Day #4

Wednesday, April 27th: Day #5
This was the day to remember. Although I bought my muck boots for slogging through wet rice fields in hopes of flushing a Yellow Rail, that was not going to happen. Rice fields had just been planted; they were plenty wet but rice was still in its infancy.

Today, was the day for raincoats and boots on the Upper Texas Coast. That is good news. While the winds were not from the north (a good stopper of birds migrating northward from the Gulf), our severe morning front and thunder shower provided swirling winds even as we stood out in the drizzle next to some flooded rice fields covered with shore birds. They had stopped. Birds like WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER usually seen by ones or twos, were 70 strong out there. They were also the most fidgety. They seemed to know they should be flying northward to their distant breeding grounds, so a small flock of 10-15 would lift off, circle and return. It was a feeding frenzy in the field…gobble…gobble…gobble…whatever it was they were searching for got eaten. 

Up from a distant corner of the field rose a large bird — Dave called it as it flew towards and overhead and onward.  HUDSONIAN GODWIT. It was a quick and unsatisfying look at the godwit, but I saw it and will hope to see another much more fully.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were frequently seen on overhead utility lines or on perches near our birding spots.
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher; male with long tail; female with shorter tail
Two exciting experiences on the way to a later destination provided an interesting photo op.

A White-tailed Kite, seen by driver, David, caused him to make a U-turn and park across the street from where it sat on top a fence post eating its prey. He radioed the other van that also returned for good looks at the kite devouring a vole or other rodent. With a sipping motion, the tail went in; and then the rest of the hairy creature in one big gulp. Ugh.

White-tailed Kite enjoying lunch - photo taken through the car window

Next, we stopped at someone’s flooded front yard, their beach house set back from the road quite a bit. Great opportunity for shorebird photos right in front of us!

Short-Billed Dowitchers
Ruddy Turnstones
Semi-palmated Plover in a flooded front yard!

When we arrived at Rollover Pass, our destination, we enjoyed many gulls, terns, and preening Black Skimmer’s, American Avocet and a variety of gulls off in the distance.

Black-bellied Plover

Tri-colored Heron

Two SANDWICH TERNS   (note pale tip on bill)
Finishing off the day with another stop at High Island proved prescient on David’s part. Having a hunch that the passerines would arrive later than the shorebirds at the morning fields, we took time for a good lunch before starting to bird Smith Oaks at 2:20 p.m.  Experienced guide! (Or, just plain lucky!)  The songbirds arrived about the same time we did. What a FALL OUT!!  Erik estimated 400-700 Baltimore Orioles - he called it a River of Orioles. Thus, I counted 20 and got my best photos.

It was also my day for BLUE-WINGED WARBLER and BAY-BREASTED WARBLER, not to mention the Male PAINTED BUNTING — not one, but three!

Male Baltimore Oriole

Chestnut-sided Warbler waiting its turn for a bath. Black & White Warbler still not finished.
Ahhhhhhh.  Needed this after that flight.
Eastern female Summer Tanager

Anole changed colors in front of us, from brown to green and back again

There was also a Western Kingbird (flown off course), Orange-crowned Warblers (unusual there), Ovenbirds, more Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warblers and the handsome male Chestnut-sided Warbler.  Rose-breasted Grosbeak were seen almost every day but in greater numbers today.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are one of my favorite birds and they, too, were present (as local birds, I think).

Seemed strange for everyone to be looking so hard at a Western Kingbird. Yikes! MALE PAINTED BUNTINGS.

Finally, I saw the male Painted Buntings. Do you see all three? My final LIFER on the trip.

Yet again, a great day of birding!

Four Lifers on Day #5

Thursday, April 28th: Day #6
Our guides had allowed for a birding morning before any of us had plans to fly out of Houston for home. This was our final day of relaxed non-stop birding at the best sites around the area.

Both vans, loaded with suitcases, headed out to Craigen Road in search of the Swainson’s Warbler that, upon my return home, I noted was seen in New York’s Central Park while we were looking for this migrating bird in Texas! Not going to happen for us — but we had Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-crowned Night Herons and more good birds during our hour’s visit.

After a quick lunch at Subway, the first van headed to the airport with those who had scheduled afternoon flights.  Our non-stop flight, didn’t depart until 9:30 p.m., so we had no anxiety about our van stopping for more birding on the way to the airport. Everyone was okay with that, so we visited Liberty Municipal Park where lawnmowers were drowning out bird song. 

Overhead I spotted several Mississippi Kites in migration but the perched Red-shouldered Hawk was, for me, the bird of the day. 

Red-shouldered Hawk

While Lois got 55 Lifers; I got 25. But a fairly new birder from Colorado collected 95 Life Birds.

High Island gave me a BIRDING HIGH!

0 Lifers on Day #6.

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  1. Babs, I cannot like this post enough. You REALLY had an epic trek of finds. That is incredible. The Nelson's Sparrow sitting out in the open like that??!!! I'm absolutely jealous. This is definitely going on my trip list for down the road. Thanks for sharing the info. Hugs, Me:)

  2. Thanks, Chris. I'm still flying high - having trouble getting motivated to go out for desert birds!