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Day 1 Friday 09 th April
We met at Gatwick and our flight arrived on time at Houston , Texas . Mick and Jo were held up by immigration, which were apparently unable to cope with the fact that two people named Mick Jones had traveled on the same flight! However we eventually re-grouped, met our leader Kevin Easley and got on the road. Indeed there was time to get in an evening session in the W.G. Jones Forest , a superb piece of old-growth woodland near our base at Conroe . A nice pair of Eastern Bluebirds, a Summer Tanager and our first Cardinals kept us busy followed by a party of Brown Headed Nuthatch, one of the target species here. Moving on, we were enjoying fine views of a stunning Red-headed Woodpecker, when Kevin picked up the call of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a rare species and our principal quarry in this forest. Soon we were 'scoping' a pair of these splendid birds which gave excellent views, and kept re-appearing whilst we were watching other species such as Pine Warbler, Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee. There were also Chimney Swift, Purple Martin and a frustratingly brief glimpse of a Pileated Woodpecker, before our final stop produced the first American Alligator and a rather nice Hermit Thrush. What an introduction! Back in town we freshened up and went out for our first taste of Texan hospitality with excellent food at a nearby diner.
Day 2 Saturday 10 th April
Back to W.G. Jones this morning, but we had already seen the birds which would have been our main targets! This meant more time could be spent in other parts of the forest, which yielded Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and White-eyed Vireo, followed by two sizzlers, a singing Kentucky Warbler and a male Hooded Warbler. A pair of Wood Duck flew in to some ponds but only the female could be found perched up. Whilst watching her we were treated to Yellow-throated Vireo and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, as well as more Downy Woodpeckers and another Red-cockaded Woodpecker. A flock of Cedar Waxwings disappointingly flew straight over but we encountered our first flock of Blue Jays moving noisily through the canopy. All this was rounded off by a nice flock of White-throated Sparrows before we got underway to our next destination. Stopping en-route to look at a colony of Monk Parakeets, we also picked up some common roadside species such as Black Vulture and White-winged Dove. A second stop provided an introduction to waterside birds including American Darter, American Purple Gallinule and Red-winged Blackbird. Lunch was at Brazos Bend State Park which was extremely busy due to the Easter holiday. On the way through the park we had excellent views of Yellow-crowned Night Heron and two superb Pileated Woodpeckers. Lunch was taken next to the barbecue area whilst American families chatted and played around the water's edge, and then it was on with the birding. Boat-tailed Grackle, Carolina Wren, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Pied-billed Grebe came thick and fast before our attention was diverted by a Red-necked Slider, a Garter Snake and an American Bullfrog in the ditch behind us. Snowy Egret and White Ibis were nice but our first Prothonotary Warbler was something else again! Leaving the park, a brief stop at the coast gave us our first Brown Pelicans, Crested Caracara, Northern Harrier, Royal, Forster's and Least Terns, Herring Gull, of the American form Smithsonianus, Laughing Gull, Willet and Spotted Sandpiper. Finally we dropped in to the Lighthouse Sanctuary where Roseate Spoonbill and the dark rumped American race of Whimbrel, Hudsonicus, were found out on the flats. A Wilson's Snipe was a good species to add to the list before we had an amazing show from several Clapper Rails, an enormous rail which is comparatively easy to see and obligingly ran under the boardwalks below us. The first of many Savannah Sparrows were seen here, as well as a rather nice Swamp Sparrow, a bird we were only to see a couple of times on the whole tour. Whist we waited for dinner in a Pizza Hut the television news carried stories of tornadoes and storm damage to our north. Meanwhile the weather forecast for our area was for heavy rain, coming in that night and running in to the following day. The sky went black out of one window, and by the time we left for Rockport the torrential rain had started. Thunder and lightning then broke out on a massive scale and we began to realize why a holidaymaker at the Lighthouse Sanctuary had asked us if we were storm-chasers! It certainly felt like being in a channel 5 documentary on extreme weather, and though spectacular, I think we were all glad to bed down in our comfortable hotel that night.
Day 3 Sunday 11 th April
A brief drive along the sea-front produced Black Skimmer, American Avocet and Franklin's Gull before we boarded our boat for the trip across Aransas Bay . Small numbers of Black-necked Grebes and Great Northern Divers were in the bay and we had nice views of Peregrine which were nesting in a tower. An American Oystercatcher posed on a sandbank and a Marbled Godwit flew past. The weather was cold, windy and grey and it appeared that a lot of birds had recently left the reserve. Still, we had excellent views of a single Whooping Crane (which had spent the winter alone) followed by a family party, the juvenile still with rusty feathers on the neck sides.
Although the Whooping Crane population now numbers several hundred, from an all-time low of 15, this is still a very rare bird and surely a highlight of any Texan bird tour. White-tailed Hawk, Osprey and Belted Kingfisher provided a fine 'supporting cast`. Back in town we had lunch and met up with some friends of Kevin to discuss news. It transpired there was an Upland Sandpiper on the edge of town so we successfully 'twitched' this, adding American Golden Plover to the list too. A brief check of some nearby lakes produced Fulvous Whistling Duck, White-faced Ibis, Northern Rough-winged and Tree Swallows. We said goodbye to our new friends and headed off to the Paradise Cove and a nearby birding centre. A Sora gave incredible views, scuttling along the track in front of us as we approached a small pool and got our first taste of migration Texas style. A Prothonotary Warbler perched above a Northern Parula made for a 'where are the sunglasses` moment, whilst Black-and-white Warblers were a revelation to several group members who did not realize that they creep up and down tree trunks like Nuthatches. A small group of Tennessee Warblers were moving on a feeding circuit occasionally `picking up` Nashville Warblers and Warbling Vireos, a male Rufous-throated Hummingbird was spectacularly bright, and an Eastern Wood Pewee somewhat duller. Other highlights included Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Grey Catbird. Later Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers competed with a magnificent Black-throated Green Warbler, a superb male Indigo Bunting and waterbirds including American White Pelican and Tricoloured Heron.
Day 4 Monday 12 th April
First stop was a city park with a difference; it's a migrant bird trap. One of the main attractions here is Chuck-will's-widow which migrates through the park each year and can be seen in broad daylight. After some initial running around we had superb views of this very large, rufous nightjar, seeing some 20 individuals. However there was more to the park than that, and we saw Northern Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler and Lincoln's Sparrow, which were followed by Orchard Oriole, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-crowned Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo and Ovenbird. What a morning! From here we headed south towards the Rio Grande and the Mexican border. Our first stop produced Green Jay, Golden-bellied Woodpecker and a brief Bullock's Oriole.
Working our way along a road through a large ranch nearby, we encountered Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Bobwhite, Couch's Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher and a female Vermillion Flycatcher. Star birds here were a Grasshopper Sparrow which obligingly perched up on a fence for several minutes, a rather stately Wild Turkey and our first Roadrunners, which appeared whilst we were watching a procession of Collared Peccaries cross the road! A stop for a Cave Swallow colony only produced a couple of birds but it also gave us our only American Goldfinch of the entire tour.
Day 5 Tuesday 13 th April
We drove on to South Padre Island early to search for Least Bittern, and it turned out to be a wise move. Having had excellent views of 2 Least Bitterns, one a breeding condition male perched in the open, we realized there was a small 'fall' in progress. In the small clumps of bushes and borders around the centre we teased out Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Red-eyed Vireo, Wilson's warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hooded, Black-and-white, Prothonotary and Tennessee Warblers, Northern Parula and Lincoln's Sparrow. Merlin and Piping Plover out on the shoreline were added to our list, before it was time to move on for breakfast. Talking to other birders proved valuable, and one of them dropped by our diner (he knew where we were because he'd recommended it) to tell us the news! Pulling up at a piece of scrub in some suburbs our first bird was a Common Nighthawk perched up on an open bough. Then the bird we were looking for appeared, a superb Painted Bunting. An Acadian Flycatcher was also found and 2 Lesser Nighthawks flew around a back yard down the road. Whilst watching the Nighthawks a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was a very late straggler much appreciated by the group. Finally a splendid Blackburnian Warbler was a particularly special find for Jo as it was a bird she had always wanted to see. At the next stop we picked up Yellow-headed Blackbird along with another Painted Bunting, a Blue Grosbeak and a variety of other migrants, and another stop produced numerous Hooded and Kentucky Warblers, plus Solitary Sandpiper. Finally we dropped in at Betty's place, an amazing house almost completely overgrown by its garden, and open to any and all visiting birders. Thanks to Betty and her incredible hospitality we all had excellent views of Swainson's and Wood Thrushes, though otherwise things were quiet in the heat of the day. The afternoon was spent at Laguna Atascosa and got off to a good start with Roadrunner on the way there. Around the park HQ were White-tipped Dove and Long-billed Thrasher, plus Black-crested Titmouse. Moving in to the park we found a superb Verdin and had excellent views of a Coyote which strolled down the road and round our vehicles. On the lake were Wilson's Phalarope, Stilt Sandpiper and Redhead. A flock of 8 Upland Sandpipers was a good find by Chris, and Vesper Sparrow and Curve-billed Thrasher livened up the latter part of the afternoon. By now it was very hot and we left the park rounding off the day in fine style with an Aplomado Falcon right by the road just outside the park.
Day 6 Wednesday 14 th April
There was another early start in order to get to the Old Port Isobel Road whilst the sparrows were still singing. First up came a Cassin's Sparrow which gave good views, with distractions coming in the form of Black-tailed Jackrabbit, American Golden Plover and a confiding Northern Bobwhite. Cactus Wrens were stunning and then came the bird we were really looking for. After a couple of fairly brief views of one Botteri's Sparrow that would not co-operate well, we pushed on further down the road. Kevin walked in to the scrub a short distance and the Botteri's Sparrow he was listening to jumped up on a small shrub in front of him. It stayed there singing long enough for the whole group to get telescope views, fantastic! On our way back to the main road White-tailed Kite and Chihuahuan Raven were new and then we headed off for Sabal Palms. On the way in to Sabal Palms an immature Grey Hawk was a good find perched in a small tree, while around the HQ, feeders attracted Olive Sparrow and Plain Chacalaca. On the way to the nest of a Short-tailed Hawk we found one of the birds circling overhead, and had excellent views of this species which is very rare in North America . It was another hot day as we walked the various trails notching up a variety of attractive species including Ringed and Green Kingfishers and nesting Altamara Orioles. A flowering tree was attracting hummingbirds including at least two very smart Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. Late in the afternoon we headed out to Bensten State Park to have a look round. A Northern Beardless Tyrannulet was a good bird to get, but the afternoon was otherwise very hot and very quiet, except for the buzz of the mosquitoes which plagued us, and the curses of those being bitten! Whilst doing the log under a shady tree a small passage of Mississippi Kites passed over, some coming down very low and giving nice views. Waiting for the Elf Owl was something of an ordeal due to the number of mosquitoes but well worth it when the birds eventually showed at 8.15 pm . The incoming bird caught a moth and sat peering out of the nest hole for some time, with the unfortunate insect in its bill. There were excellent views of Eastern Screech-Owl whilst driving around the park roads later, and one vehicle caught a glimpse of a Racoon. We returned to our hotel in Harlengen tired but happy.
Day 7 Thursday 15 th April
Refreshed after a good night's sleep we spent the morning at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. After a bit of a struggle a Tropical Parula gave itself up, singing from exposed branches. It turned out to be just around the corner from a Clay-coloured Robin nest and so we enjoyed excellent views of these too. A Hooded Oriole was very obliging, as was Altamira Oriole, and the lakes held Long-billed Dowitcher alongside a variety of commoner species. A Red-shouldered Hawk gave good views as it circled over and walking to the hawk watchpoint we found 3 Groove-billed Anis. The hawk watch, the last of the year, was slow, but Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks were seen, and a flock of 30 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers going through high was an odd sight. A relaxed afternoon saw us at some sewage ponds near town. Waders included Least, Semipalmated, Baird's and Pectoral Sandpipers, whilst a pair of Glossy Ibis was a good find. Returning to Bentsen in the evening we presented a peculiar sight indeed. In the car park a bizarre ritual took place to ward off mosquitoes, where people wearing far too many clothes for the high temperatures drenched themselves in industrial quantities of insect repellent. Elf Owl, are you tough enough? Actually, most people went to look for Ferruginous Pygmy Owl which they heard but failed to see. Meanwhile the people who had been driven to distraction before the Elf Owl appeared the previous evening got a second chance. This evening's performance was even better with one bird hanging outside the entrance hole in full view. There were again excellent views of Eastern Screech-owl, whilst on the way back to town Pauraque showed reasonably well and there was a glimpse of a Barn Owl.
Day 8 Friday 16 th April
There was another early start today in order to reach Chapeņo at 7.00 am. An adult and an immature Great Horned Owl were handsome reward for our efforts, and we also had excellent views of a Bullock's Oriole and a pair of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, before the Brown Jays arrived at the feeders right on cue! Down by the river we caught up with Audubon's Oriole leaving us well ahead of the game. At Salineno we eventually had excellent flight views of Red-billed Pigeon and an unexpected bonus was a lovely Verdin. Among the Blue-winged Teal, a pair of Cinnamon Teal was an excellent find by Fred. A short drive along a back road provided our first Pyrrhuloxia and superb views of a Scaled Quail perched in the top of a bush. Moving on to the Falcon Dam area for lunch we encountered our first male Vermillion Flycatcher, a stunning bird which posed nicely on a roadside fence. After lunch more Pyrrhuloxias were soon found as well as our target bird here, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Unable to go to the dam as a result of security measures we headed off, stopping on our way to add Black-throated Sparrow to the ever increasing list. Arriving at Zapata we soon tracked down the only pair of White-collared Seedeaters, though we did have to wait a while for views. A nice bonus came in the form of a lovely pair of Lesser Goldfinches. The night was spent in Laredo where everyone enjoyed a change of cuisine at an Italian Restaurant
Day 9 Saturday 17 th April
The day started gently with a slow drive in to the Texas hill country. Red-tailed Hawk and Ash-throated Flycatcher were picked up on the roadside and we arrived at Neal's Lodge with plenty of time to relax, eat and get on with the birding. Black-chinned Hummingbirds were on the feeders at the HQ, whilst House Finches hopped around the cabins. On our first walk we picked up Bell's Vireo followed by a very smart Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a lovely pair of Canyon Towhees and a Field Sparrow. A stop by the river soon produced Black Phoebe and we carried on to some juniper slopes. A short walk produced very little, but a variety of birds were coming to the feeding station including White-throated and Lincoln's Sparrows. As we were leaving Kevin heard the bird we all wanted to see most, Black-capped Vireo. This very small vireo gave us all the run-around in the dense scrub, until Dave found it perched up on the top of a dead tree. It really was the most gorgeous looking bird, and all the more satisfying for being rare and difficult to see. Back near our cabins we saw a lovely Bushtit before eating early in order to go on to the bat caves. Arriving early at the bat caves gave us time to look for two very special birds. The first, Canyon Wren, was there when we arrived but disappeared quickly, leaving us an anxious wait before it returned and showed off marvellously. Time was getting on when Kevin found a Rock Wren which gave superb views, what a double act! In the meantime we were treated to prolonged views of a Ringtail Cat, a strange looking beast belonging to the Mustelidae, the family including weasels, martens and badgers. Though widespread these animals are nocturnal and seldom seen. They are attracted to the caves where they prey on the bats and swallows which use them to roost and to breed. The 17 million (no, I still don't know who counts them!) Mexican Free-tailed Bats leaving the caves at dusk was truly a spectacle. Whilst animals were still visible over the ridge tops miles away, a constant stream of bats emerged from the cave, their smell and the noise of their wings was quite overpowering, definitely a tour highlight. A Common Poorwill called as we returned to the vehicles but remained uncooperative.
Day 10 Sunday 18 th April
A second look at the feeding station produced Spotted Towhee and there were brief views of Western Scrub Jay, a good start indeed. We left Neal's Lodge and headed of for the Lost Maples State Park but there were to be some stops along the way. First was a superb piece of spotting from Mick who found the Buff-bellied Pipit we had gone in search of as soon as he got out of the van. Second was a detour for White-crowned Sparrow which worked out nicely with several birds showing well. Next we headed for a park, where a splendid Yellow-throated Warbler sang from a tree top before we located our main quarry, a Barred Owl. This large owl took some tracking down but in the end most people got a good look at it perched up in broad daylight, marvellous! After lunch we made the short journey to Lost Maples, and whilst chatting to a birder at the entrance, Kevin noticed a Golden-cheeked Warbler sitting on the telegraph wires in the clearing. We all had good telescope views of this bird and then walked on into the park proper. A Louisiana Waterthrush was welcome as several people had missed the earlier one on the tour. Other highlights on this walk were more Golden-cheeked Warblers, Canyon Wren and after much searching, a Zone-tailed Hawk. Another nice find was an Audubon's Warbler, the western form of Yellow-rumped Warbler. On the way back to the vehicles the people who had missed the previous day's Black-capped Vireo managed to see one, briefly but very well. There then followed a tour of various car parks which yielded Western Scrub Jay, Common Raven and a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher on the nest, before we finally found our principal quarry, Scott's Oriole. This completed the 'oriole set' in fine fashion. After a short drive to our hotel we enjoyed some traditional southern style cooking at a Country Cabin, an excellent recommendation from Kevin which I think we all enjoyed (though I'm still not sure about grits). I think it may have been here that Mick was introduced to Root Beer, and I don't think I ever saw him drink anything else again. The sight of poor Fred (the mighty atom) peering over the top of his huge bowl of salad, a vain attempt at a small meal, is something I shan't forget in a hurry.
Day 11 Monday 19 th April
Today was a long day on the road as we drove back towards Houston and onwards to our hotel, a short distance from the legendary birding localities of High Island and the Bolivar Flats. Making good time we were able to stop off in San Antonio and visit the Alamo , where preparations were underway for the premiere of the new Hollywood film about the battle. After a good look around, and complete with everything imaginable from the Alamo gift shop, we got back on the road. Dropping in at Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve we found Dickcissel, White-tailed Hawk, and Pectoral and Upland Sandpipers, the latter being present in large numbers in the fields along the roadside as we left. We arrived in Winnie tired but full of anticipation about the next three day's birding.
Day 12 Tuesday 20 th April
Off early to Bolivar Flats and the attractive Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow caused us some trouble, but in the end most of us had good views of several individuals, whilst a Le Conte's Sparrow was even less cooperative. Leaving the salt scrub we walked the beach and enjoyed good views of Wilson's and Piping Plovers, Marbled Godwit and a variety of commoner waders and terns. A nice Long-billed Curlew posed by the side of the road as we left. Next we tried Anahuac where good views of a Swamp Sparrow were followed by a King Rail on the edge of a ditch by the road. Around the screens an American Bittern was found, standing out in the open and apparently unconcerned by its admirers. Leaving we picked up a flock of Wilson's Phalaropes, including some summer plumaged females and a small group of White-rumped Sandpipers. After some lunch we paid our first visit to the woods. The coastal woods are High Island , being islands of trees on the coastal plain and thus acting as superb migrant traps. Our first walk in Boy Scout Woods treated us to Yellow-billed Cuckoo, American Redstart, Yellow, Tennessee , Blackpoll, Prothonotary, Hooded and Blue-winged Warblers, Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. However the star of the show was our first Worm-eating Warbler which gave excellent views during two encounters we had with it. The blackboards here listed little for Smith's Oaks, our next destination, but we were about to change all that. Early on we picked up Hooded Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher, but it was fairly quiet. Then on reaching the back of the woods, an area Kevin knew to be good in the late afternoon, Blue-winged, Tennessee and Kentucky Warblers were found, followed by a couple of Scarlet Tanagers, a number of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, a Blue Grosbeak and a Red-eyed Vireo. Birds were constantly moving through the canopy and a Black-and-white Warbler was eclipsed when Kevin found a stunning male Chestnut-sided Warbler, the only record from the area at the time of our visit. Slowly drifting back to the vehicles an Ovenbird and a Swainson's Thrush were added to the day list when Jo found a Grey-cheeked Thrush on a trail we were about to cross. Whilst we were watching this some friends of ours appeared at the bottom of the trail, beckoning us down. Following my advice on how to go about it, they had just found themselves a very special bird. Anxious minutes followed before I picked up the tell-tale sign of leaves being turned over, and we were all on to a cracking Swainson's Warbler, another species which had not been reported recently. Meanwhile Neil had managed to stay on the other bird which was also turning leaves over, a Brown Thrasher. This splendid day was rounded off in the Chinese restaurant next to our hotel.
Day 13 Wednesday 21 st April
Up and at em' again today, and it was a 40 minute drive to Silsbee and quite a walk before we tracked down a Bachman's Sparrow, but what a performance when we did. Having followed the song for some distance we lost the bird only for it to start singing behind us, and this time it stayed still and we got quite a shock when it popped out of a bush just a few feet above the ground. Needless to say the views were unsurpassable. Other birds here included Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler. After the sparrow though, the key species was Prairie Warbler which performed well, having, as they do, the endearing habit of singing from tree tops. After an excellent breakfast we checked some flooded fields which paid off remarkably well when we discovered a flock of 20+ Buff-breasted Sandpipers, a super little bird and one which is much sought after by American birders. Moving on to Liberty we had to wait a while before Mick found the bird he had wanted to see all trip, a magnificent Swallow-tailed Kite. Unusually the bird was close, although it also passed over fairly quickly. Next we had to pay a visit to Wall Mart to buy gum-boots ready for a 'rail walk' the following day. Much silliness ensued but eventually we were all kitted out, although goodness knows what the checkout staff made of it all. Shopping done we headed back for the hotel via Lake Charlotte . On entering the car park there, an adult Bald Eagle soared over the tree line and kept circling for several minutes. When we went down to the water's edge we realized just how lucky we had been, as the lake is enormous and the corner where the eagles nest is not viewable. After dinner we headed back out to Anahuac . Whilst we were watching a Seaside Sparrow on a fence, a Common Nighthawk which had been perched on a post of the same fence, got up and began displaying. It was a job to know which way to look, with a Seaside Sparrow in full view and the Nighthawk swooping so steeply that the wind rushing through its flight feathers made a loud rippling sound at the bottom of the dive. Given that there was only a short amount of light left we decided we might as well try an impromptu 'rail walk'. Although it was enormously funny watching people flounder about in the long grass, Kevin managed to keep the group under control, resulting in three sightings of at least two Yellow Rails. Heartbreakingly a Black Rail lived up to the species' reputation and remained invisible, even when it was less than a foot from us.
Day 14 Thursday 22 nd April
A walk around Sabine's Woods produced Blackpoll, Yellow, Hooded, Black-and-white and Worm-eating Warblers, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks. As we left we finally caught up with Fish Crow, although I think it fair to say that the group was not spectacularly impressed with this species. Palm Warbler on the other hand, was much appreciated. A brief seawatch produced little of note and after lunch and a short siesta we headed back to Bolivar Flats. An area Kevin knew to be good for the species turned up 8 Bobolinks and a Yellow-headed Blackbird. Heading down to the Galveston ferry we found 3 Magnificent Frigatebirds over the island. Though very distant this was a good bird to see in Texas . On the way back we checked the shoreline and among the waders found a super summer plumaged Western Sandpiper, a species which Fred had not managed to catch up with before.
Day 15 Friday 23 rd April
After a walk around Smith's Oaks, which again came up trumps with a Magnolia Warbler, we had lunch and drove back to Houston . Here we had time to search for American Robin, which we eventually found with an adult feeding a fledgling in the entrance to the university car park. Arriving back in a sunny UK the following morning we said our goodbyes and headed home for a well-earned sleep.