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Springtime in Texas

April 27, 2010

I’ve always been of two minds about birding in Texas.  I’d heard so much about how exciting it was, with the tantalizing list of tropical species spilling across the Rio Grande and the fallouts of warblers at High Island.  But I’d seen most of the species many times before in Mexico and Central America and felt that struggling to find White-collared Seedeaters and Northern Beardless Tyrannulets just to put them on your North American list didn’t make a lot of sense. Then an April trip to Bhutan fell through, and I was casting about for somewhere else to go for some fun birding.  And Texas birding and April go together like peanut butter and jam.  So I asked my son Russell if he’d mind taking two weeks off his British Columbia Big Year efforts, and after a millisecond pause he said yes.

Russell looking for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers

We flew to Houston on April 7 via a circuitous route (Penticton-Vancouver-Toronto-Houston) because this was all done on airline points.  Early the next morning we arose to strange songs and calls that we couldn’t figure out in the dark, but later realized they were common species such as mockingbirds and cardinals.  It always takes me a few days to acclimatize to those sounds, even though I’ve heard them before in other places.  It certainly serves to show how important our sense of place is when we are identifying birds.  Our first hour was spent at W.G. Jones State Forest, where we strolled through the pine woods and quickly found the specialties of the area–Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler.

We then drove a long ways (Texas is pretty big, apparently) to Harlingen, near the mouth of the Rio Grande.  The next morning we met up with Bill Clark, since he’d offered to take us out hawk banding–an offer too good to pass up.  It was great to spend the morning on a steep learning curve about raptors, local birding spots, and Texas.  We did catch a beautiful Harris’s Hawk along a roadside near San Benito, but didn’t find the flocks of Swainson’s Hawks around the sugarcane harvest areas we were hoping for.  We also saw 5 Aplomado Falcons, which I must say is my favourite falcon.  These long-tailed hawks are simply gorgeous.

Bill Clark with Harris’s Hawk

Over the next few days we visited all the birding hotspots in southern Texas, including South Padre Island (missed the Black-vented Oriole by a few hours), Laguna Atascosa, Santa Ana NWR, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Falcon State Park, Salineno, San Ygnacio, and Zapata.  In the middle of that itinerary we drove back to Rockport-Fulton to take the Whooping Crane tour with Captain Tommy Moore aboard the SS Skimmer.  I had always missed this species on searches in Saskatchewan during fall migration and was worried that we might have left this trip to late, but luckily we managed to see 7 of these magnificent cranes that hadn’t yet migrated back to Canada.

It began to rain steadily and heavily after a few days, and by the time we drove north from Laredo to the Edwards Plateau the monsoons were well in place.  Rivers were flooding roads and binoculars were often misted over.  We diverted from the usual route to go to Choke Canyon State Park to see a Northern Jacana that had been found there.  I’d seen jacana before in Arizona (and many times in the tropics), but it would be new for Russell, and we’d already missed another that was at Santa Ana just before we got there.  After a long search in the wind and rain, we did manage to find it hidden in the reeds on the other side of a large lake.  Relieved, we drove on to our destination, the legendary Neal’s Lodges at Concan.  We just about didn’t make it, as the last river crossing was pretty dicey–the highways people were looking anxiously at the volume of water racing over the road, and the “Road Closed” sign was by their side, ready for use.  But the little Chevy Cobalt made it through in a spectacular spray of water and we were soon ensconced in our rustic cabin.

The Texas hill country is gorgeous (especially after the flat flat monotony of the rest of the state–sorry Texans, but I’m used to mountains!), the slopes covered in oaks and juniper.  Despite the rain, we found the endemic Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos quite easily, though we got thoroughly wet in the process.  At Neal’s we met James P. Smith and his Birdfinders tour for the second time (the first was at Salineno) and exchanged information and birding stories.  After a second night in the cabin, we drove clean across Texas (as the road signs say) to beautiful downtown Winnie, a freeway town just east of Houston, known in birding circles for its proximity to High Island, the shrine of spring migration birding in America.

Bobcat at Laguna Atascosa

We spent the next four days exploring the upper Texas coast, finding 5 species of rails in the vast marshes of Anahuac, trees full of tanagers, orioles, buntings and warblers (we ended up with 30 species of warbler for the trip!), frigatebirds sailing over the outer beaches, and the shorebirds of the Bolivar Peninsula.  We met a few old friends at High Island, including Tamie Bulow and Andrew Harcombe, and made a few new ones.  Birding at High Island certainly can be more of a social event when migration is slow!

The last day of the trip we drove north to Jasper (where we met the Birdfinders gang for the fourth time–their itinerary turned out to be almost identical to ours) and ticked off the last few species:  Swainson’s Warbler, Bachman’s Sparrow, Chuck-will’s-widow, Prairie Warbler.  All through this area we were singing Austin Lounge Lizards songs such as “Anahuac” and “Golden Triangle“–if you haven’t heard these classics you should check them out!  After a swing through Louisiana just to say we’d been there, we left I-10 at Beaumont one last time to see Fish Crows at Tyrell Park, then headed back to Houston.  In the hotel lobby there we met Chris Charlesworth’s tour group that were stuck there because of the Iceland volcano eruption, but luckily our flight was on and we were home the next day.

Greater Roadrunner at Falcon State Park

We’d seen 304 species–12 of which I must admit I’d never seen before anywhere! Springtime in Texas–I’d heartily recommend it!

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