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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
TEXAS 1997 - DIY OR ORGANISED TRIP?,Bren and Ruth McCartney
Since our highly successful trip to California in the Spring of 1996 we had planned to return to the USA this year and our preferred destination was Texas. Articles in various birding magazines plus Harold Holt's excellent books on birding the Texas Coast and Rio Grande Valley provided enough evidence that Texas in Spring should be every birder's "most desired destination", primarily because of the chance of major "falls" during migration. We decided to go for two weeks during late April/early May, which everyone said was the best time. Ruth particularly wanted to see Crested Caracara, American Avocet and Painted Bunting and Brendan longed for Anhinga, Yellow-Crowned Night Heron and Yellow-Billed Cuckoo; we both desperately wanted Roseate Spoonbill and White Ibis. We were not to be disappointed!
Our previous overseas trips had always involved just the two of us but this time we decided to investigate the various organised birding trips on offer in the various magazines. Prices staggered us and we simply could not understand how such high prices were arrived at, as the USA is just about the cheapest place on earth for travel, accommodation and food. Also, air fares are very low. Towards the end of 1996 one of the off-the-shelf birding magazines to which we subscribe announced an organised trip to Texas costing £1,575, including flight, accommodation, food, transportation, entrance fees and services of leaders, etc. A quick glance at the travel sections of the Sunday newspapers revealed that return fares to Texas were available for around £300 so we considered £1,575 to be too much and decided to go it alone.
We planned a return flight Gatwick-Houston, car hire from Alamo and accommodation in Best Western motels throughout (during previous trips these had proved clean and acceptable). Following study of Harold Holt's books we drew up a short list of "must see" destinations - High Island, Bolivar, Anahuac, Brazos Bend, Aransas, etc., in order to maximise a) our chances of seeing new species during migration and b) to increase our US list generally.
We started making arrangements in December but were somewhat taken aback when we were unable to obtain accommodation at High Island or Winnie (nearest BW motel) - everywhere was full. Eventually we obtained a room at the BW Galveston - some 30 miles from High Island but necessitating passing through the Bolivar area to reach the birding Mecca at High Island! Our planned itinerary was four nights in Galveston, two in Lake Jackson, three in Rockport, one in Sealy (to visit the Attwater Prairie Chicken Reserve), one in Conroe (to visit a couple of State parks), two at Lufkin to combine a meeting with friends with a visit to Davy Crockett Forest in the hope of picking up Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, then a day in the Houston area before flying home.
When we booked our air tickets we were pleasantly surprised to find that the fare price had dropped to below £300. With airport taxes, etc., the air fares for both of us amounted to £621.
The organised trip referred to earlier took place a few weeks before we were due to leave and one of the birders on our local patch took part. On his return we learned that the group had seen well over 200 species during the two-week trip so we were hopeful of breaking our previous record of 140+ during a visit to Africa.
We arrived at Houston early-afternoon on 2 April and headed for Galveston (via a patchwork shop - one of Ruth's other passions). We arrived at Galveston around 5pm and checked in to the motel. First tick was Laughing Gull - we got quite excited at the first one but must have seen ten thousand or more the next day! Common and Great-Tailed Grackle soon followed plus a few of the more common passerines and water-birds.
Next morning we headed for High Island. En-route, via Bolivar and Rollover Pass, we ticked 25 species including Brown and White Pelicans, American Avocet, Boat-Tailed Grackle, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, etc. High Island was just mind-blowing with dozens of lifers, including Painted Bunting, Ovenbird, Cedar Waxwing, Baltimore, Bullock's and Orchard Orioles by the dozen, Solitary Sandpiper and loads of warblers! Before leaving the UK we had made contact via the Internet with two Texas-birders (Nancy and Bob Bird) who were prepared to advise visiting birders (why don't we have something like that over here?). Amazingly we met this couple at High Island and they provided a great deal of help identifying some of the tiny, colourful and fast-moving warblers.
Next day, we visited the Anahuac NWR but we must have timed our visit badly as we saw hardly anything. However, we picked up Osprey, American Oystercatcher, Stilt Sandpipers, Purple Gallinule, Seaside Sparrow, Black Tern, Black-shouldered Kite and a few others in the general area.
Our last day in Galveston was spent birding the general area around town. We met a family of US birders who took us to a remote beach area where there had been a "fall" of warblers. We stood beside two very small bushes, in pouring rain, for around one hour totally bemused watching the dozens of drenched and wind-swept birds. We picked up ten lifers in five minutes in one bush!!
Next day we visited Brazos Bend State Park on our way to Lake Jackson. Brazos Bend had been billed as a real stunner, but not on the day we visited! However, it did provide crippling views of Anhinga - also of Alligator, which were somewhat closer to the pathways that one would like! Other ticks included Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebird Great Crested Flycatcher, Prothonotary Warbler and Black-bellied Whistling Duck and the long awaited Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. Later, on our way to Lake Jackson, we saw several Crested Caracara at very close quarters among the Black Vultures beside the roads. During our short stopover at Lake Jackson we visited Matagorda Island, where there had been another "warbler fall". The general area provided us with Broad-Winged, Swainson's, Red-Tailed and White-Tailed Hawks, American Kestrel, Northern Bobwhite, Clapper Rail (walking slowly across the road in front of our car), Pectoral and Spotted Sands and Common Nighthawk. The sight of a dozen or more Common Nighthawks flying high at midday is one we shall not easily forget - it occurred several times during our trip.
San Bernard NWR had yet another fall of warblers, but nothing new for us! However, it was good to be able to readily identify Worm-eating, Magnolia, Kentucky, Pine, Yellow, etc., entirely unaided from the comfort of our slowly moving air-conditioned car (it was around 30C outside). San Bernard also gave us American Bittern but we missed a family of Black Rails (Mum and chicks) by about one minute!
Our southern-most stopover - Rockport - was to be our base for visiting Aransas NWR and the Corpus Christi area.. The much vaunted Aransas NWR was another disappointment, made even worse by a warden telling us that fifteen straggling Whooping Cranes were still on the reserve "but not where you'll see them". Well, thanks a bunch! During our stay in Rockport we made an early start one morning to find the elusive Prairie Chicken but, despite extensive searching at a guaranteed site, we were unlucky. Furthermore we were told that at Attwater the breeding season had started so we would not be able to see them there. A consolation prize was a field full of Broad-Winged Hawks - well over 100 - but a real downer was being told that the previous afternoon, whilst we had been watching shore-birds at Aransas Pass, there had been a fly-over of 230+ Mississippi Kites (which we never did see).
At this stage we changed plans and headed straight back to Galveston, which had been more productive, and a further shot at Bolivar and High Island.
Next morning as we were driving out of the motel car park Ruth screeched "STOP!" Right alongside the car - sitting on the fence no more than eighteen inches from the passenger window - was a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo! Brendan got two shots before the bird departed. Wow! High Island was dead - like DEAD! No birds and no birders. Whilst we had been down south there had been the biggest fall for ten years and, tragically, birds were being killed in the street as they fell in front of cars; twenty three species of warbler were seen in one tree; birds were tumbling out of the sky in the heavy rain..... but they soon recovered and continued north. You have to be there when it happens, not later. However, we did pick up Buff-Breasted Sand, Ovenbird, Wood Thrush and 70-odd other species for the 1st May and a visit to nearby Smith's Wood provided views of an amazing heronry, with hundreds of examples of five species.
So to Lufkin, where Nancy and Bob Bird invited us to their fabulous house in the country - a veritable birder's Paradise with a garden list of well over 100. The feeders in the garden were attracting Painted and Indigo Buntings, Chipping Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Red-Bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Ruby-Throated Humming Bird, Pine Warbler, Blue Jay, Inca Dove, American Robin, Tufted Titmouse, etc, etc... Next day Nancy & Bob took us out for five hours of birding - primarily to find a few rarities rather than numbers. The prize was Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, of which we had stunning views of several birds. We also added Brown-headed Nuthatch. That ended our Texas birding and we returned to the UK two days later.
Statistics? We logged over 170 species largely without assistance. The figure includes 92 lifers and 102 additions to our American list. Had we been able to identify everything we had seen (LBJs) the total would probably have been in excess of 200.
Costs? We hired a full-size four-door luxury car - something like a Scorpio - for the duration and used motels throughout. We're not big eaters and most motels provide a free continental breakfast, which was perfectly adequate. We went for fruit/snacks for lunch and take-aways most evenings, only using more formal restaurants when we felt really hungry. All bills in the US were paid by credit card but the breakdown of costs for the two of us, based on current exchange rates, are as follows. Note that the car hire is "all-in", including collision waiver and extra insurance:
Air fare: British Airways Gatwick-Houston booked via Going Places £621
Car hire: Full-size four-door saloon - true luxury - Alamo Car Hire £370
Accommodation: Best Western motels King-size rooms throughout £500
Petrol: Average cost around $1.15 per litre £60
Food & incidentals: Difficult to be accurate, but a generous estimate £150
Entry fees: Reserves charge around $3-5 but some are free £31
So we did it alone for £866 each, some £700 less than the arranged trip. Given that the hire of a coach for a party, and block bookings anywhere, are generally cheaper than for individuals we have to conclude that someone, somewhere makes a LOT of money out of birding tours. (A smaller car could have been hired for half what we paid). Our strong recommendation is to go it alone, or simply arrange your own party. American birders are the friendliest ever and are delighted to have British birders tag along with them. Give it a whirl - birding in Texas in the Spring is truly fantastic, but take along some insect repellent - the Mosquitoes are something else!
We'd be delighted to provide further details about our trip or more information on Texas birding to anyone contemplating a trip to Texas (or California) - call us on 01189-732393 or Email at firstname.lastname@example.org