Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Birding in USA – Three days in Texas – April 20-22.

Famous sign

I recently went to the USA for various reasons but not least among them was the chance to spend three days in South Texas for a bit of birding. Texas is famous for its exceptional birding, especially in spring as the migrant birds return to North America. One of best places to take it all in is at High Island where it is possible in the right circumstances to witness a phenomenon known as ‘bird fallout.’ This can occur when migrating birds are forced to push against a north wind before they reach the Texas coast on their journey from South America. Apparently when this happens - once or twice in a season - the birds literally fall out of the sky in desperation for something to eat in the trees at High Island. High Island is one of only a handful of places along this stretch of coast to sport a forest so the birds are drawn to it like coffee addicts to an espresso machine.

Incidentally if you are a coffee addict and espresso machines are a vital element of your day, then High Island is not going to be a fun place for you. I would have paid a hundred dollars for a decent coffee in High Island (or indeed anywhere in USA) and I strongly recommend you take your stovetop espresso machine if you plan on not tearing someone’s eyes out of their head. I think I did pretty well with the lack of proper coffee, all things considered, although I must confess the fact that Texas still has death sentence for murder did offer some deterrent effect when I was informed that espresso machines do not exist anywhere near High Island. Anyway apart from occasional caffeine-less induced mood swings that had me toying with the merits of murder, High Island has some brilliant birding.

After a few days in San Diego where I was not really able to do anything serious apart from a handful of common birds in the outer suburbs, I was keen to really get into some proper birding. I arrived by air in Houston from LA just as the sun was setting which was a little disconcerting as I was about to hire a car and drive on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car for the first time in my life. Fortunately it didn’t take long to sort of get used to it but the GSP guide was more to thank for this than anything. I made my way gingerly out of the airport injuring only a small number of people in the process but once on the freeway it was plain sailing from then on. If there is one thing that sets USA apart from all other countries then it’s their amazing freeways. Sure they’re soulless manifestations of concrete ugliness but I was grateful my first USA driving experience was so convenient. Anyway I set off for High Island to the South East of Houston about two hours’ drive away.

I arrived in High Island at about 10pm but there was no accommodation available (incidentally there is very little accommodation available on High Island itself) so I kept driving hoping for a 24hr motel somewhere down the road. I eventually found one about 20 minutes further on. I don’t know how the star ratings for hotels work in USA but I think I’m pretty safe in saying this was a solid half star affair complete with cockroaches, broken TV, 1970’s carpet and décor, and a general air of neglect. But I was too tired to care so dragged my gear in and fell immediately to sleep.

Day one – Friday April 20

the crowds gather at the 'grandstand'
At dawn I headed straight over to the famous Boy Scout Woods near the centre of the island which is the unofficial capital of birding in Texas. There’s an excellent information centre here where you can meet some of the local volunteer birders from the Houston Audubon Society who can point you in the right direction. It really isn’t necessary for a visiting birder to hire a guide at this venue as the local volunteers really know their stuff and were a huge help. There were several tag-a-long tours organised each day which include a morning walk around the Boy Scout Woods, a midday tour of the best wader sites, and an evening stroll around a freshwater rookery. They have bird lists, field guides, and other bits and pieces that make it all the more rewarding. Best of all is chatting with the volunteers who can keep you up to speed with the latest and best sightings.

Roseat Spoonbills at the rookery

After a quick stroll around the woods I soon had some of the more common species on the list such as Wood thrush, Brown Thrasher, Grey Catbird, Summer Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Red Cardinal, and Inca Dove – to name but a few. But April in the Boy Scout Woods is really all about the Warblers more than anything else but unfortunately they were a little thin on the ground this season because of favourable winds – for the birds that is. There was a continuous trickle of Warblers coming through but it was hard work finding them.

So I opted to go looking for waders instead as this area is just as famous for its migratory shore birds as much as for its Warblers. It didn’t take long to start racking up a whole bunch of waders on my life-list such as the ubiquitous Killdeer and Willet, both very common. I also picked up Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plover, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Dunlin, and Oyster-catchers, Avocets, various Herons and Terns - including the Black Skimmer, a most curious looking bird. There were plenty of other common birds around too such as three species of Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Mockingbirds, and gulls.

Willet were common

Late in the day the wind began to turn and it looked like a fallout could be possible. I went back to the Boy Scout woods where all the locals had their fingers crossed for a possible fallout either later in the day or early next morning.  Unfortunately, even though a storm front did pass through, it was too late in the day to effect a fallout.

It had been a tough day’s birding but I still managed to substantially build the life-list and met some great people too. That was one of the other features of this trip - watching the watchers. There were hundreds of birders scattered around the various birding venues in and around High Island and they were mostly friendly and helpful. Naturally there were the usual sociopaths among them but you get used to that as an unavoidable element of the birding fraternity. Many of the birders were from the UK or other European countries but I didn’t meet any other Aussies there.

Many of the USA birders dressed in highly camouflaged clothing that made them next to impossible to detect until you virtually standing next to them. I’m a little concerned that I may have taken a slash on a few of them during the course of my three days there but will never know. That was the other thing – USA birders are incredibly polite and friendly. Although with hindsight that may have had something to do with the fact that they were oddly enthralled by my accent and would deliberately keep asking questions to get me to talk. If I ever needed to endear myself to them all I had to do was look at a bird through my bins and say something like:  “Crikey, have a look at this little bewwwdy…” and such. I’m not proud of this but it did generate some useful intel on the latest sightings and such.

That night I decided to try a different place of accommodation but still ended up in a solid one star motel. Still it was just a place to sleep so no matter.

Day 2 – Saturday April 21

After the storm the previous evening the north wind had stiffened during the night and I was hopeful of some better warbler action today. Obviously the word had spread that a fallout was possible because overnight, birders from all over the USA arrived by the bus load. Yesterday’s hundreds swelled to thousands today. It was a spectacle in its own right to see so many birders sitting in the ‘grandstand’ at the Boy Scout Woods and thronging about on the trails. Sadly however the fallout never happened and we all had to content ourselves with the bits and pieces that trickled through. I did manage a Magnolia Warbler which was spectacular in colour and sound, along with other colourful additions such as Scarlet Tanager, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow Billed Cuckoo and much more besides.

Hummingbirds are amazing and a real novelty for an Aussie birder. I saw my first Hummer in San Diego a few days previous but these little Ruby Throated Hummers were just as incredible. Their wings literally hum as they hover over flowers and dart back and forth at will. I would really like to get an eyeful of more of these remarkable birds.

Two species of vulture, the Black and Turkey vulture, are common here and were ever present overhead. Apparently if you lie down on the ground and remain still they will put in a much closer and hopeful inspection of you. They were ugly as can be but fascinating all the same.

Enthralling though all this was the birding was quite slow so I opted to join the midday wader watching group. About 50 birders gathered at the designated meeting site before heading off down the coast and stopping at a small estuary where large rafts of waders were roosting. I was glad of the expert help and scopes of the local birders who helped to identify such wader wonders as Semipalmated and Least Sandplover, and Long-billed Dowitcher. We then moved over to an area of freshwater marsh and soon had Green Heron, Lesser and Greater Yellow-legs, and all the other usual suspects.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Next we drove down the coast to the famous Bolivar Flats where we soon added Brown and White Pelicans, Reef Herons, various ducks, and a handful of other waders to the list. On the way back we turned off at an open lawn area in among houses near the beach and I couldn’t imagine a less promising venue. But before long our hosts pointed out Upland Sandpipers in the grass. We saw up to 20 of them sulking around. Reminiscent of Little Curlews the Uplands are odd looking waders with tiny heads and round bodies. Meadow Larks were also a nice bonus here and I also managed to sort out all the swallows and martins with the help of the local experts.

Now that I was in the mood for waders somebody suggested I nip over to the Anahuac Wildlife reserve just a short drive away to check the extensive wetlands there. A short while later I drove into the reserve and immediately realised this was a seriously brilliant birding spot. In the late afternoon sun the wetlands looked spectacular and there were birds everywhere! Ducks, herons, waders, sparrows, larks, bitterns, nighthawks, raptors, crakes and rails and plenty of other bits and pieces as well. I simply couldn’t keep up with the overwhelming diversity of birds in this spot.

The most amazing bird here was the Common nighthawk which could be seen roosting on some dead trees and also flying overhead and filling the air with their unusual cry. They fly in a weird but wonderful way with fluttering wings and bouncing flight.
There were plenty of Alligators here too but apparently they are generally quite harmless and shy compared to our own Saltwater Crocodiles. That wasn’t a theory I was willing to test out however. Anyway I managed to pick up Stilt Sandpipers and Solitary Sandpipers here and also an assortment of other waterbirds as well. Sadly the sun began to dip beneath the horizon but I was resolved to return in the morning.

Night Hawk roosting
Day three, Sunday April 22.

Next day I was up before dawn and returned to the scene of the crime from the previous day at the Anahuac Wildlife Reserve. Clearly the slow pace of birding at High Island saw many of the other frustrated birders finding their way to Anahuac. There were carloads of birders with scopes, cameras and bins all over the place but the birds seemed content and unperturbed by all the traffic.

In the early morning light some of rarer shier birds put in an appearance. I saw a Sora, and a Least Bittern here and a host of other waterbirds and waders besides. I could have spent a whole week in this reserve and still had plenty more to see and do but had to content myself with what I could see in the limited time available.

Looks mean but not as dangerous as our own Saltwater Croc
Least Bittern well protected

I had a plane to catch later that day so reluctantly left Anahuac behind and opted for birding in the woods in Houston itself. There are many conservation reserves tucked away in the city and surprisingly they offer brilliant birding in spring. The migrant warblers and other birds need food to carry them on their northward journey and have little choice but to visit the reserves as they pass through the city. I visited the woods around the Audubon headquarters and had a great time catching up with Prothonotary warblers, American Redstarts, Eastern Bluebirds, and various Woodpeckers as well, to name a few.

Eastern Bluebird

Sadly my time was up and reluctantly I headed back to the airport but I am resolved to make a return visit to the Texas Coast some time in the not too distant future. Next time with more time. All up I only managed around 140 birds but there are many more waiting to be seen in the region.




No comments:

Post a Comment