Birds Florida/Texas Trip Feb/Mar 2000

The excuse for this trip, and many other birding excesses for the year 2000, was to see as many US species in one year as reasonably possible. Reasonable, of course, is in the eye of the beholder so to some of you my progress will seem somewhat lame.

Part 1 of this idea was to drag various unsuspecting birders (especially the very forebearing Phebe) with me around NY and NJ in search of the usual winter species in Jan and Feb. Part 2 was the epic Texas-Florida trip, timed to coincide with the heron breeding season in Florida, and me becoming jaded of the winter birds up here in the frigid Northeast. Both of these plans got a little dented by some moron pulling out in front of my car in southern NJ, rendering it undrivable - my mid-Feb TX/FL trip was bounced to early April. Still, early spring in TX was nothing to be sneered at, although I was a week or so too early to get the main push in the warbler migration (see later).

A local NYC birder Lloyd Spitalnik is one of the reasons I went to TX in the first place, after he advised me that Texas is truly a special place to birdwatch. He wasn't wrong.

I web-researched about 40 wildlife refuges/state parks, bought the Falcon Guide to Birding Texas and the DeLorme gazetteers for TX and FL, and set up an itinerary which centered around big drives (NYC-TN-LA and FL-SC-NC-VA-NYC) on either end of a two week period. Latterly I've also acquired the ABA birding guides to the Rio Grande Valley and the Texas Coast, but neither of these books would have changed my itinerary significantly (any more than thunderstorms, tire failures and an oil change did). The reserve notes section deals with my impressions of each place from a birding and photographic point of view. The Trip Report itself is just an anecdotal ramble. Since I'm going to go back to TX before too long (possibly before the end of the year) this trip report basically serves to supplant my increasingly unreliable memory, and possibly as an additional web resource for others.

Sane, normal people would do well not to emulate my own itinerary, least of all in an aging and battered 1992 Honda Prelude without a radio.

All comments etc on the content of this page cheerfully incorporated or ignored, depending on my mood at the time.

Actual itinerary

Trip Report

Life species are rendered in bold type.

Day 1: Purely a drive day, enlivened by a Peregrine hunting on the Delaware Memorial Bridge (doing 40+ mph on the level - one of the few times I've seen a Peregrine going flat out horizontally, I lost track of it after it started the stoop), and a Red-shouldered Hawk across I-95 north of DC. Otherwise, it was just 900 hard miles down I-95/I-66/I-81/I-75, with an overnight stop just south of Chattanooga, and some picturesque views of the Appalachian chain. The sun set when I was stuck in my second traffic jam in Knoxville (I have very little good to say about the traffic systems in Knoxville and Chattanooga), and I had trouble finding a hotel that wasn't full that night, ending up in Trenton, GA.

Day 2: The Days Inn parking lot in Trenton was somewhat productive - Song Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, and a Carolina Wren singing away in the scrub (remember, I'd just emerged from March in New York - these were relatively decent finds). A few Red-shouldered Hawks were seen in the drive across AL and MS. Once in LA, with low threating clouds, I stopped at a small park at the interesection of LA 190 and LA 90 and found Northern Parula, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Carolina Wren and a Yellow-throated Warbler. Out on the boardwalk into the swamp I found an immature Bald Eagle and assorted herons, egrets and ibis. Then I found I had a flat tire, and ended up replacing both rear tires (at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon - try that in Manhattan) at a Firestone dealer. By that time there was little point trying anywhere else so I headed across LA to Lake Charles.

Day 3: The Weather Channel was offering dire warnings about the weather around Houston, but around Lake Charles, LA, there was still some sun filtering through the low clouds. I got to Cameron Prairie NWR at 8am, and took the Pintail Wildlife Drive. The birds on the drive were generally wary, and even moving slowly in the car I flushed herons and egrets. Perhaps a sign of hunting in this vicinity. A pair of Purple Gallinules were somewhat unexpected but also not thrilled to see me. Orchard Orioles were singing, and there were a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, but migrants were thin on the ground. Further down the road from Cameron Prairie was perhaps more productive - the road crosses extensive freshwater wetlands which harbor ducks and herons (Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Roseate Spoonbill seen here) but offered few stopping places. I tried my luck at the nature trail at Sabine NWR, but apart from futile searching for the King Rail that was calling not far way and flushing a probable Sora, I got nothing except mosquito bites and a few Chipping Sparrows.

The road out of Sabine towards Port Arthur in TX featured several flocks of Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls along the beach, although they became nervous when I stopped the car to look at them more closely. The birding got better, and the weather worse, as I crossed into TX and I got a Bonaparte's Gull (basic plumage) on the ferry in LA. Port Arthur's charming oil refineries did not make for the most esthetic experience, so there was nothing to detain me before I got to Anahuac NWR. Just outside Anahuac NWR I found my life Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the wire beside the road, and a White-tailed Kite hunting near the visitor's center. There was a Wilson's Phalarope out on the Shoveler Pond loop, but I didn't go flushing Yellow Rail (seen by others that day) mainly because I harbor no ambition to be bitten by snakes. Savannah Sparrows littered the roads everywhere. There were no migrants to be found in The Willows at the approach to Shoveler Pond, except for one or two Eastern Kingbirds. Anahuac was generally quiet, and felt like a scaled down Brigantine NWR, but the Wilson's Phalarope was a good find for me (it was my only one for 2000). Eastern Kingbirds were numerous, but I realised later that they abruptly vanished just a little south of here.

High Island was "quiet", although it was significantly more alive than on my second visit a week later. High Island in March is not the sort of place you'd want to visit without insect repellent, as some Brits I bumped into whilst there would attest to. Amongst intermittent downpours I found a female Hooded Warbler, a Northern Parula, a possible Wilson's Warbler, a flock of Orchard Orioles, a White-tailed Kite, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill and Royal/Forsters/Least Terns. In retrospect, High Island was probably doing quite well that day since one week later it was almost certifiably dead - apparently the bad weather of my first visit was forcing what few migrants there were to hang around. Continuing on down the road, I got to Rollover Pass just as a squall rolled in off the Gulf, and as I sat in my car and waiting for it abate, I found that a whole raft of Gulls and Terns (including a Sandwich Tern with a pink belly), had settled in the parking lot next to me. Sandwich Tern is a USA-list species for me, though I've seen many of them in Britain, and one of my target birds for the trip. The Skimmers were fishing just off shore, but the weather was too rough to think about taking photos, though I made a mental note to make a return visit. Off I headed down the shoreline.

New tires or not, I had visions of getting buried up to the axles in the sand at Bolivar Flats, but was rewarded for the few hundred yards of nervous beach driving by a bumper crop of plovers: Black-bellied, Wilson's, Snowy, Semipalmated, and one Piping Plover were accompanied by Dunlin, Sandlering, Least and Western Sandpipers. Long-billed Curlew flushed out of the marsh as I climbed the observation tower, Marbled Godwit and American Avocet could be seen in the distance, probable American Golden Plovers circled periodically, and a flock of Greater Scaup hung out with a few Blue-winged Teal off-shore. This is probably the first time I'd seen American Avocet swimming (at least I think they were swimming).

I took the ferry into Galveston as night fell, but no spectacular pelagics dropped by to impress me. I stayed overnight about 30 miles SE of Houston along the highway from Galveston in the sort of generic Motel 6 that I frequented most of this trip.

Day 4 dawned wet. Very wet. The long line of storms that had deluged Houston the previous day (10 inches in places) was turning the Motel 6 parking lot into a small lake, and the Weather Channel radar did not look promising. I finally made my way to Brazos Bend State Park in- between downpours, getting there at a tardy 9am, and found the birds very obliging - an Orange-crowned Warbler (showing an orange crown for once), Northern Parula, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, noisy and cooperative Pileated Woodpeckers, Black-and-white Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Red-shouldered Hawk, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, very tame American Bittern, and Anhinga were easy to find. Swamp Sparrows were ubiquitous, along with a few Chipping and White-throated. The promised "abundant" Prothonotary Warblers were nowhere to be found, but I think I was about 2 weeks too early. Brazos Bend was pretty wet while I was there, but I headed south west, and found the Weather Channel's promise of clearing weather to hold.

The weather had cleared nicely by the time I made it to Aransas NWR, and I think the rain and heat had awakened every mosquito on the TX coast in preparation for my arrival. Despite liberal quantities of DEET, I was the center of attention of something like 50 mosquitos at times on the Rail and Heron Trails. Personally I have an aversion to mosquitos, so just assume that I birded these trails at a pace that bordered on a jog at times. The numerous but shy White-eyed Vireos were just not quite interesting enough to deal with the accompanying swarm of bloodthirsty insects. (The author is a fair-skinned northern european, and is beloved by many a biting insect). The downside of moving rapidly on shady trails is that I almost stepped on a snake (Garter, I think, but snakes are not a strong point of mine).

The mosquitos may have skewed my attitude, but I found Aransas a little disappointing. I did get distant looks at a couple of Whooping Cranes, but the reserve was hardly teeming with bird life (a few shorebirds and White-eyed Vireos did not make for a startling experience after the previous day). I did have an intruiging distant look at a perched hawk through the heat haze - my best guess being a Swainson's. The best birding came as I was exiting the refuge - amongst a crowd of Black Vultures busily devouring a recently dead deer there was a single Crested Caracara, giving excellent views but tragically too shy to get photos of (although a single bold Black Vulture was much more cooperative). Outside the refuge, scanning the fields as I drove along, I came across a small group of Upland Sandpiper, which lingered long enough to get a few shots of.

The time was getting on, but I still managed to extract enough light to make a short pass around the Goose Island State Park camping loop, yielding me a few Inca Dove and a probable Varied Bunting (a brief view only of it's head). I probably should have spent more time here checking carefully, because only later did I find out that there was an ongoing warbler dropout down at South Padre Island. As the sun got low in the sky I was greeted by more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks as I scanned the boat ramp for exotic birds. Crossing the channel into Rockport/Fulton did not yield any other interesting birds, despite skimming a couple of sites briefly. There were a lot of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers sitting on the wires, and 20/20 hindsight suggests this was another sign of the migrant dropout.

Despite 5 life species for the day, I was left with the slightly disquieting feeling that I was not doing as well as I might have done, as I settled down to sleep on the outskirts of Corpus Christi.

Day 5 dawned with good weather. I headed out to the north end of Padre Island, towards Aransas Pass, keeping my eyes peeled for White-tailed Hawk (none). I stopped at the Aransas Pass Wastewater Treatment Plant and immediately came across Northern Parula and Yellow-rumped Warbler. But it was the water birds that were the specialty here: Green-winged, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Mottled Duck, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Shoveler were all over, herons and egrets perched on the boardwalk out into the marsh, and I got my first Marsh Wren of the trip. A couple of Eared Grebe lurked in the middle of the pool, molting into breeding plumage, and Caspian and Forster's Terns circled overhead. It was a Yellow-headed Blackbird (my first in years) that provided the most surprising bird of the day, something almost trumped by the sighting of a possible Black Rail by a pair of birders. Further searching yielded no sign of it, however.

I skipped Mustang Island State Park, in view of my morning's success, and headed out towards Kingsville on the local back roads. This turned out to be some sort of Swainson's Hawk haven, and I must have seen at least 5 of them, plus the unusual sight of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks, one dark morph (a first for me) and one light morph.

Dick Kleburg State Park, just south of Kingsville, is not the most promising looking birding venue as you first arrive - it looks a little too barren to be productive, so of course I was proven wrong inside the first 5 minutes: Lark Sparrow, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Green Jay and Great Kiskadee did not prove to be the greatest ID challenges of the trip. I couldn't track down the Cave Swallows (though I was to see many more later) but did find another Swainson's Hawk, a Harris's Hawk, and a Broad-winged Hawk found by accident while looking at the Swainson's (probably one of thousands passing by at high altitude). In retrospect I also saw Couch's Kingbird here, though I wasn't certain at the time. The Couch's weren't there when I came back to this place, so they must have been heading north.

Further down the highway I stopped briefly at the Sarita rest stop, and was confronted by the only Brewer's Blackbirds I was to see the whole trip, and a pair of Hooded Orioles. I was blissfully unaware of the rarer birds seen there recently (e.g. Flammulated Owl), so carried on driving south. I got distant views of White-tailed Hawk circling over the grasslands, and one or two Crested Caracara's came a little closer, but there was little to distract me from getting to Brownsville. My master plan for the afternoon came a little unstuck when I arrived at Sabal Palm Sanctuary at 5:30pm to find the gate locked, but redeemed the situation slightly by picking up a group of Chihuahuan Raven and another White-tailed Hawk out along the Boca Chica road (but precious few shorebirds), and made it out to South Padre Island in time to see a couple of Soras before the sun set.

I stayed at the Motel 6 in Brownsville for the next 3 nights, although somewhere like McAllen or Harlingen would have been better bets in terms of a central location. First thing in the morning of Day 6 I turned up at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary to find a group of birders from Massachusetts there ahead of me. Even while plotting how to avoid them, I practically stepped on the White-tipped Doves, and found Couch's Kingbirds calling emphatically on the wires. If you've never heard a group of Plain Chachalaca calling, you can take me on my word that it is memorable. You do start to doubt yourself when you can't actually find this Turkey-sized bird, although I found some later. The trails around the reserve handed me some rather elusive Olive Sparrows, a nest-building Altamira Oriole, and a Great Kiskadee. The pond produced at least five Least Grebes and an assortment of herons. There were few warblers, however, and no Tropical Parulas.

The feeders outside the visitor center were by far the most productive part of the reserve. It was here I first found the White-tipped Doves, and here again I found the Plain Chachalaca, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Bronzed Cowbird, Long-billed Thrasher more Olive Sparrows, Green Jay and even a Worm-eating Warbler. A Hooded Oriole came to the sugar water feeders only when I was nowhere near my camera. It's very hard to argue with eight life species in a single morning, however.

The reported Kelp Gull at Brownsville Dump failed to lure me (I've seen them in New Zealand), and I headed out to Santa Ana NWR. Had I not been to Sabal Palm earlier, Santa Ana would have been a goldmine. As it was I saw quite a few "duplicates" of the Sabal birds. I did pick up the rare Gray-crowned Yellowthroat (fleeting but adequate views), and many more Couch's Kingbirds. I also strained to convince myself about the Cormorants, but it was the following day before I decided I had actually seen a Neotropic (and another trip to Dick Kleburg State Park before I saw both Neotropic and Double-crested together).

Although the rain of Houston had given way to continuous sunshine, it was still more than a little windy, and this proved to be a major problem at my next destination, Anzalduas State Park. I was outwitted by a Tropical Parula before I finally gave up and went to McAllen Sewage Farms. I must have been having a bad moment here, because I failed to look in the right place - it took until the following evening before I found out where the birds actually were.

A frustrating afternoon (including the World's Slowest Burger King drive-through) abruptly redeemed itself by a visit to Bentsen Rio-Grande State Park in the early evening. Just as I stepped out of the car and began to bird the Trailer Loop, a huge kettle of Broad-winged Hawks dropped out of the sky above the park, filling my vision with more Broadies than I had seen in my entire life to date, along with a single Mississippi Kite and a few Anhingas. A lone Swainson's Hawk topped off the list. Purely by chance I bumped into a whole hoard of birders (including people I had met at High Island and Sabal Palm), and stayed to watch the nightly emergence of the Elf Owl and Eastern Screech Owl from their obligingly-situated roost holes. I failed to get the Common Paraques that night, however.

Shucks, only 12 lifers for the day.

Day 7 was more of the same plan. I returned to Anzalduas State Park "early" to find an entire bus load of birders was there before me. I truly loathe birding with that many people, so went looking for Tropical Parula while avoiding the 50 other birders. Luckily, the only Parula's singing were Tropicals, so that was rather easy. In retrospect, Tropical Parula proved to be my #600 for my World List (increasingly dominated by USA sightings). I didn't get the Rose-breasted Becard that everyone was searching for, but I did find a Vermilion Flycatcher (or rather, it found me) as it flew onto the wire next to the Couch's Kingbird I was photographing.

Anxious to get away from other birders, I drove up onto the levee near the entrance to the park, and found a couple of Greater Roadrunner on the fence there, more Kingbirds, the beginnings of the day's Broad-winged Hawk kettles, but no Gray Hawk or Hook-billed Kite.

Since I was headed that way I decided to drop in at Bentsen State Park again and see what was about. I picked up Altamira Oriole and Bronzed Cowbird near the outer loop boat launch, a Lazuli Bunting (1st year male) and a few Indigo Buntings at the Trailer Loop Feeders (I regret not remembering the names of the very hospitable birders at site #19) and a Ladder-backed Woodpecker while walking the trailer loop. My plans lead me elsewhere, so I didn't stay for long, but I could perhaps have done nearly as well had I stayed put.

I headed up the Rio Grande, watching the change in the scenery as the elevation climbed a little and the land became more arid. I hurtled past probable Cave Swallows at the culverts underneath the road. I got to Falcon Dam just as the day was starting to get very hot, but did find a few overheated Savannah Sparrows, my first convincing Neotropic Cormorant, and precious little else. It was baking hot here and the woodland below the spillway did not hold my attention for long. Although this is a famed sight for Cave Swallows, the only ones circling overhead were Cliff Swallows (although there was a swarm of swallows nesting on the dam itself, too far away to ID), although these did prove to be my only ones for the trip.

I headed out from Falcon Dam to Falcon State Park. I don't know about you, but I can't forsee feeling a need to camp in a metal trailer in a relatively arid state park under a baking hot sun, but there were some hardy types on the trailer loop. What few birds there were favored the shade of the picnic tables and the scattered small trees. This actually made them relatively easy to find, and I got a second Vermilion Flycather, Verdin, a Curve-billed Thrasher, and a few Pyrrhuloxia. I searched in vain for the "common" Black-throated Sparrows, however, and had to content myself with more Lark Sparrows.

I knew I was out of season at Salineno, and the no-one was around. The narrow view of the Rio Grande from the boat launch (where they were, in fact, launching boats) did not reveal any Green Kingfishers or Muscovy Ducks. I wimped out a little at this point, as I was getting tired of being fried by the sun, and headed back down the road towards McAllen. I decided to stop at the McAllen Sewage Ponds again, and this time I used my brain and found the (quite extensive) ponds beyond the facility. Despite challenging blustry conditions my scope found me Baird's Sandpipers amongst the Least and Western's almost immediately. Although the Black-winged Stilts were the most numerous birds, there were a fair number of other shorebirds including Stilt Sandpiper and a single American Golden Plover.

I cut it a little too fine at McAllen, and didn't get back to Bentsen State Park until after the evening's hawk dropout. I stayed to watch the Elf and Screech Owl emerge again (better views this time, using the scope), and on a circle of the outer loop I finally picked up the Common Pauraques that the park is renowned for.

Day 8: On my last day in the Rio Grande Valley I started my morning at Santa Ana NWR again for a better look at the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. I didn't see it again, but I did hear it sing 20 or more times before it became obvious that it wasn't going to ante up and I headed off. I did have a Ringed Kingfisher flyover while I was on my way out, however, which made up for an otherwise futile skim. It was also my last life species in the Rio Grande Valley for now, although most certainly not my last one ever since I forsee being back there before too long. (e.g. read about the trip back there in Nov 2000)

I headed out of Santa Ana and decided to try my luck at Laguna Atascosa NWR. I had heard reports that Laguna was dry, but I didn't realize quite how dry until I was on the wildlife loop. The absence of any water in the ponds around the loop made the most interesting bird here a lone Whimbrel (the only one for the trip). The lagoon itself was so dry that the shorebirds on its edge were lost in the heat haze. My lack of enthusiasm was coupled with the fact that my gas level was getting pathologically low. I can't say I that Laguna Atascosa was a waste of time - I got very good views of a White-tailed Hawk on the approach road, but unless it gets more rain it is not going to live up to its potential. Other people had seen Aplomado Falcon here recently, but given that these are hacked birds I didn't hang around to look for them.

I headed north again, away from Brownsville. Another stop at the Sarita rest stop gave me exactly the same birds as last time. I had more Crested Caracaras hunting over the grassy plains, but no White-tailed Hawks. A return visit to Dick Kleburg Park got me the same species as the first time, plus the resident pair of Curve-billed Thrashers. Then overhead, the sound of not-quite-Laughing Gull calls made me look up and witness a "kettle" of Franklin's Gulls working their way north over the park, though they showed no sign of stopping.

I meandered back into Corpus Christi, checked into a bright pink and somewhat run-down motel, and headed out to Hazel Bazemore State Park. Apparently the hawk watch had given up for the day, but I managed to finally get convincing looks at Cave Swallow amongst the Tree, Barn and Northern Rough-winged's as the sun set.

The following morning (Day 9) I retraced my steps north through Rockport/Fulton where I found precisely nothing of interest in the two spots I checked. Goose Island State Park was much quieter than previously, and also held quite a lot more humans. More assaults by mosquitos on the forest trail didn't dampen my desire to head up the coast. I headed towards Aransas NWR to check the fields near the entrance and almost immediately upon leaving Rt. 77 I found an Upland Sandpiper. Just the one, as it turns out, and nothing nearer the reserve. I didn't go into Aransas itself as I was already behind schedule for the trip.

Heading north again I screeched to a halt just past a culvert and got another lot of Cave Swallows. The land was much greener, and I started seeing the familiar birds from the Northeast - Blue Jay and American Crow. I stopped again at Brazos Bend State Park, and finding it rather full of people on the weekend, lingered only long enough to get more excellent views of American Bittern. This was probably a good thing, as I bought myself enough time to get through Galveston, hop on the ferry, and make my way out to Bolivar Flats again. Nothing new here, except better views of Marbled Godwit, Wilson's Plover and American Avocet.

Rollover Pass was full of RV's and people and the birds were further offshore, but there were still large numbers of them. The original plan was to take pictures of Skimmers feeding just offshore but the number of people precluded that, so I turned right around and headed out to High Island. The first time I was at High Island it seemed quiet, but this time it was stone dead, with only a migrating Peregrine to enliven the mood. I saw one or two Yellow-rumpeds and no other warbler there.

Since there was nothing to keep me at High Island, I headed out to Anahuac NWR. Just north of High Island a Rail flew along the road in front of me, before dropping off into the marsh. If I was better acquainted with King Rail I'd probably call it as one, but it has yet to make an appearance on my life list, lacking convincing views (I'd also heard a probable one at Sabine NWR in Louisiana).

Still, Anahuac NWR made up for the near miss. At the new rice field section of the reserve I immediately found 13 Buff-breasted Sandpipers, which were obliging enough to hang around and let me set up my scope, before coming relatively close and giving excellent views (although not quite enough for photos). The rest of Anahuac NWR was relatively quiet, and a setting sun did nothing to improve viewing conditions. I wimped out on the Rail Trail again, but was greeted by a Northern Bobwhite popping out onto the road before the sight of my car flushed it. My last bird in TX was a Crested Caracara hunting over the Anahuac entrance road, as I made my way (ultimately) to Lake Charles (Louisiana) for the night.

This was the last stage of the Texas part of the trip, and reflected a switch in emphasis from birding to bird photography. By now I was getting tired with the relentless birding and early mornings, and was a full day down on my pre-trip schedule. Ultimately I chopped bird reserves (Dauphin Island etc) from my itinerary and a whole two days from my FL trip. Still, I didn't do too badly.

On the morning of Day 10 I drove out of Lake Charles to make another visit to Cameron Prairie NWR, mainly for photographic reasons. Typically, opportunities for good photos were relatively few and far between except for a couple of distant Roseate Spoonbills. A duck that looked rather like a Fulvous Whistling Duck flew over, but I had the camera with me and the binos were in the car, so we shall never know - it was too small on the slides to be certain.

The rest of the morning was spent heading East through southern Louisiana. I made a short stop at the LA Rt.90/Rt.190 park again, and got better views of Yellow-throated Warbler (and no flat tire this time). The sheer distance to be travelled precluded me from doing any other reserves that day and I ended up staying in Tallahassee overnight.

The following morning in the parking lot I had tantalisingly brief views of a flock of probable Cedar Waxwings (a bird I didn't see in 2000 until May 8th), and then found out that one of my new tires had gone flat. I put some air back into it and headed out to St. Marks NWR. It took me a while to find St. Marks, because I wasn't completely sure where the visitor center was. Finally inside the reserve (and finally birding in FL) I found Yellow-throated Warbler and Pileated Woodpecker at the visitor center, and my first Red-eyed Vireo for the trip. St. Mark's was relatively quiet, all told, but there were far more warblers in this area than at the Upper TX Coast. I had Pine Warbler feeding young, Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Common Yellowthroat. A small gathering of waders near the end of the wildlife drive included a couple of Marbled Godwits. A pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches provided the sole life bird for the day, but the best bird was a male Prothonotary Warbler singing over a creek on the way out of the reserve.

My tire was going soft again, so I lost some time in Perry, FL getting it fixed. I decided to skip more marginal bird reserves like Crystal Creek and Lower Suwanee and decided to push towards Myakka State Park north of Ft. Myers. This seemed like a good idea until I arrived at Myakka only 15 minutes before closing time, and balked at paying $5 for barely enough time to step out of my car. I found a small cheap hotel on the outskirts of Ft. Myers and slept well after 2 days of hard driving.

Next morning I found the slowest possible route to Sanibel Island through downtown Fort Myers, but still got there around 8am. At Ding Darling NWR, the tide was such that the herons and egrets stayed away from the path, so the photography was less than spectacular, and I ended up with just the usual Floridian targets - all the herons plus a few pelicans. Not knowing what a Mangrove Cuckoo sounded like, I made a couple of dilettante efforts to find one, with no success. The south end of the island near the lighthouse had a few Snowy Egrets on the beach, but nothing special - I probably should have started here, since apparently in previous days this part of the island had been hot for photography.

I made my way back across the bridge (Caspian Tern a bonus) to the mainland and headed out to Corkscrew Swamp. Considerable fears about swarms of mosquitos proved ill-founded, although I was wearing half a can of DEET as I walked around the sanctuary. The Red-shouldered Hawk on the nest was too distant to get useful shots of, but just around the far corner a cooperative adult and juvenile Barred Owl made my day in terms of photos. The herons and egrets were very cooperative on the small ponds, and a Roseate Spoonbill dropped down practically right in front of me, though by then the light was a little contrasty. I ended the day by zipping across the Tamiami Trail into Florida City on the east coast.

The following morning I rolled into Anhinga Trail in the Everglades almost as the sun rose. I got pictures of the roosting Turkey Vultures before they lifted off on the first thermals, and picked up a few warblers (including a very wet male Cape May Warbler). Anhinga trail held Anhingas (duh) and the usual selection of Herons in various breeding poses. I took rather too many pictures of these birds, then headed further down into the Everglades. Pay-hay-okee lookout was uneventful, Mahoganny Hammock was mostly closed for trail reconstruction, Mracek Pond was relatively empty except for an immature Tricolored Heron and a White Pelican. I bumped into a photographer at Eco Pond down in Flamingo, but by that point the light was so contrasty that I just left the camera in the car. I headed back out of the Everglades down into the Keys.

I had one main target in the Keys - the Wild Bird Sanctuary in Tavernier - well worth anyone's time and money for the work they do rehabilitating Pelicans, Herons etc, and also for the chance to get really up close and personal with wild Egrets, Pelicans and Cormorants that hang around looking for free handouts. I didn't get the Wurdemann's morph Great Blue Heron that I found here last time, but I did find White-crowned Pigeon which was an unexpected bonus.

On the way back north out of the Keys I drove the alternate route through part of Key Biscayne National Park. Just as I approached the toll booth I pulled over to check out a flycatcher and was rewarded by a Gray Kingbird perched on the wires - easily distinguishable from an Eastern. To finish off the day I picked up the Cave Swallows on the highway underpass based on directions in the Pranty/ABA Guide and headed back to the hotel to sleep.

On my last day birding in Florida I set of early to make it to Shark Alley as it opened. In the end I arrived about 30 minutes after. I passed on trying to ride around the trail on a rented bicycle with my 600mm lens over my shoulder, and just stalked a few hundred yards of roadside ditches for herons and gallinules. Purple Gallinules were a little shy, but the juvenile Green Herons were particularly cooperative.

After Shark Alley I headed north to Loxahatchee NWR in search of Limpkin and Smooth-billed Ani. I struck out on both and settled for decent pictures of Mottled Duck and the usual Everglades-edge birds.

Further north still I stopped at Hobe sound to look for Florida Scrub-Jay, walked the entire trail and came up with precisely some of them - perhaps the impending thunderstorms were making them reclusive. With Hobe a wash, I rolled into my last reserve of the trip, Merrit Island NWR, with less than the full degree of optimism. Eastern Meadowlark hopped obligingly along the trail, permitting photos, and a Black-necked Stilt fed right in front of the dike road.

Leaving the car tour trail I took one more stab at Scrub Jay. As the sun was setting and the light was failing one flitted from the scrub to put on a show for me as I stopped by the roadside. Florida Scrub-Jay was my last life bird for the trip, and almost my last bird in Florida as I headed back out to I-95 as night fell.

Via massive consumption of caffeine I managed to make it up to Savannah, GA late in the evening before I stopped for the night. The next day I got all the way back to NYC without any further problems or memorable sightings.

Reserve Notes

Bombay Hook NWR - about 160 miles from NYC, Bombay Hook NWR has a special place in my personal birding mythology, along with Brigantine, as one of the bird reserves that got me into birding in the USA. In winter it's best known for things like Tundra Swan, but I saw my first and so far only Greater White-fronted Goose (Greenland race) in the USA right here. I actually did Bombay Hook (and Brigantine) on the weekend prior to my departure, to cut down on the masochistic aspect of the first day's drive.

Notable species seen this time around (3/27): Blue-winged Teal, American Avocet, Peregrine, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Eastern Bluebird, Tree Swallow, Fox Sparrow, Great and Snowy Egret.

Cameron Prairie NWR - reserve info
The reserve has a short (1 or 2 mile) wildlife drive that is surrounded by water -filled dikes and harbors a variety of herons (at least while I was there). I suspect this is a relatively new facility because the birds were quite wary and flushed quite frequently even when approached carefully in the car. Nevertheless it's possible to get pretty close to many heron species here. Further south on the road that runs through the reserve, there are many herons and ducks to be found on the freshwater marsh. Stopping opportunities are limited on this stretch of road, but I saw things like Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Roseate Spoonbill (and a possible Fulvous Whistling Duck) from this stretch of road. Photographic opportunities are probably also best along this stretch of road, although the species are not completely tame and perhaps a little distant. The visitor center pond held Common Moorhen and Black-winged Stilt.

Notable species seen here: Purple Gallinule, Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill.

Sabine NWR - reserve info
There is limited access to the reserve via a small marsh trail, which was heavily populated by mosquitos. Fishing in the neighboring dikes is more popular than visiting the reserve. There are certainly rails around here - I heard a King Rail and flushed a probable Sora right next to the parking lot, though I didn't venture far down the trail. Cameron Prairie is probably the better bet.

Notable species seen here: Rails (heard), Chipping Sparrow.

Anahuac NWR - DeLorme 81-A11 - reserve info reserve info
Billed as one of the big reserves on the Upper Texas Coast, Anahuac was relatively quiet both times I visited it, but ultimately worthwhile. I found White-tailed Kite and Crested Caracara on or near the reserve, a variety of waders including a Wilson's Phalarope on the Shoveler Pond drive. People reported Yellow Rail from the Rail Prairie but I didn't go flush them out for myself. As of early April, however, passering migrants were scarce - Orchard Oriole, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Eastern Kingbird being the ones that come to mind. The newest section of the reserve out near the rice fields, provided me with Buff-bellied Sandpiper on my second visit and is definately worth a trip. Photography may be reasonable, since the birds seem relatively tame, but probably suffer from the same problems as Brigantine - i.e. often too far away for really good shots.

Notable species seen here: Crested Caracara, Wilson's Phalarope, White-tailed Kite, Northern Bobwhite, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

High Island - DeLorme 81-A12 - reserve info
Although a famed warbler dropout site, High Island was quiet the first time I went there and even quieter the second time, although I almost got a King Rail flying accross the road just north of there (I've never seen a King Rail good enough to count it as a lifer, though I'm up to two probables). Nevertheless, dropouts here are legendary, and a week or so after I left they were getting good numbers of migrants. Photography is probably not ideal here, since the canopy is high, and the woodland is dark.

Notable species seen here: Hooded Warbler, Peregrine.

Rollover Pass - DeLorme 81-B11 - reserve info
Rollover Pass is little more than a parking lot overlooking some mudflats, but these flats were packed with Terns and Gulls both times I went there. Luckily, some of these Terns were Sandwich, a personal target of mine. In the right light, this place would be exceptional for close views of wading and gull species. It is probably best avoided on weekends since the parking lot appears to fill with RVs and the like.

Notable species seen here: Sandwich, Forster's, Royal Terns and Black Skimmer.

Bolivar Flats Sanctuary - DeLorme 81-C10 - reserve info
Although driving down the beach in my Honda Prelude made me nervous, I didn't end up sinking in the sand and the trip was very rewarding. Both times the shore was packed with waders, including my much hoped-for Wilson's Plover, although a scope is really necessary to get the most out of this place. Numbers of birds were memorable, and the viewing platform makes finding them even easier.

Notable species seen here: Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, American Avocet, Brown and White Pelicans, Piping, Snowy, Semipalmated and Wilson's Plovers, and many other shorebirds, Savannah Sparrow.

Brazos Bend State Park - DeLorme 80-C5 - reserve info reserve info
Brazos Bend State Park is a promising mixture of open marsh, swamp and woodland and even in the dead time immediately before spring migration had many interesting species. Most interesting of all were the incredibly tame American Bitterns that posed in the marsh to the edge of the trail to the observation tower. I also saw Orange-crowned Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and an assortment of herons while I was there. Later on in the spring the place is supposedly packed with Prothonotary Warbler's, though I didn't see any of them while I was there. On weekends it is also packed with Texans, so a weekday morning is your best bet. The Bitterns and other herons would be best bets for photography, although the forest should hold some passerines up in the canopy (possibly too dark and too high).

Notable species seen here: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Orange-crowned Warbler, American Bittern.

Aransas NWR - DeLorme 85-B10 - reserve info
My experience of Aransas NWR was slightly negative. I had expected the Whooper's to be waaay out there, and I did manage to get views of two of them through the heat haze from the observation tower. What I didn't expect was the phenomenal swarms of mosquitos that inhabited the Rail and Heron Trails. They were sufficiently determined that although OFF/DEET kept them off me (mostly) I still had 50 hovering around me at times waiting to have a try. The rest of the reserve apart from the observation deck was very quiet in early April, though I did find Crested Caracara feeding with Black Vultures on a dead deer, and Upland Sandpipers in the fields along the entrance road before the reserve proper. This reserve is probably not very useful for photography - the cranes are way beyond the limits of any conventional lens, and none of the other birds have much of an incentive to get close to your car.

Notable species seen here: Whooping Crane, Upland Sandpiper, Crested Caracara.

Laguna Atascosa NWR - DeLorme 89-H7 - reserve info
Laguna Atascosa was pathologically dry when I was there, so much so that the only bird of note that I saw was a Whimbrel. The ponds around the wildlife drive were almost totally dry, and on the lagoon the water was so far out that the waders were distant and somewhat indistinct in the heat haze. Very little there (although people had seen Aplomado Falcons recently), and not recommended during dry conditions. The short trail by the visitor center gave a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Notable species seen here: Whimbrel.

Boca Chica Wetlands/Sanctuary - DeLorme 89-J8 - reserve info
I never really gave the whole Boca Chica area a fair shot, since the sun was going down and I was pissed off at not getting into Sabal Palm Sanctuary. I didn't see much along the road itself (traversed rather too quickly, probably) except a small group of Chihuahuan Ravens, and there were little or no shorebirds (interesting, considering the swarm at Bolivar Flats). The ABA/Lane guide suggests I should have been trying much much harder here for things like Botteri's and Cassin's Sparrows.

Notable species seen here: Chihuahuan Raven.

Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary - reserve info
Based on one morning spent birding there, I'd rate Sabal Palm as nothing short of phenomenal. One of the major contributors to that rating is the feeding station at the visitor center - nearly all my Sabal Palm lifers turned up at the feeders, including Plain Chachalaca, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Bronzed Cowbird, White-tipped Dove. Worm-eating Warbler. Hooded Oriole also joined the party. There were about 8 Least Grebes on the pond. Not to be missed. I used 200ASA film and my 600/4 lens on my Canon, and came away with reasonable (but not spectacular) photos - the feeders are probably the most useful site on the reserve for photos. The only downside - it closes at 5:30pm !!

Notable species seen here: Least Grebe, Altamira Oriole, Olive Sparrow, Plain Chachalaca, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Bronzed Cowbird, White-tipped Dove, Couch's Kingbird, Long-billed Thrasher.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park - DeLorme 88-A1 - reserve info
It's a close run thing between Sabal Palm and Bentsen as my favorite TX reserve, but Bentsen wins. What finally clinched it for me was an experience as close to religious as I'm likely to find: a thousand or more Broad-winged Hawks dropping out of a kettle to skim the park in the early evening (~7pm) while I was walking the trailer loop. Along with many other birders I stayed to watch the Elf and Eastern Screech Owls emerge at dusk, scanned the outer loop for Paraques, watched an immature male Lazuli Bunting at the feeders on the trailer loop. A magical experience, although the reserve itself may be threatened by development on it's doorstep.

Notable species seen here: Elf Owl, Lazuli Bunting, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Common Paraque, Plain Chachalaca, Mississippi Kite

Dick Kleburg State Park State Park - DeLorme n/d -
Dick Kleburg State Park, on the south side of Kingsville, looks totally unpromising on entry - very little cover, dry, dominated by a convention center. But it held a lot of the common Texas specialties: Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Couch's Kingbirds. It also held other lifers for me: Curve-billed Thrasher, Lark Sparrow, Frankin's Gull, Harris's Hawk. You won't get a lot of shy cover-loving birds here, but the drier scrub birds seem perfectly comfortable in this environment and may actually be tolerant of humans since I imagine the park is popular on weekends.

Notable species seen here: Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Curve-billed Thrasher, Lark Sparrow, Frankin's Gull, Harris's Hawk

Ding Darling NWR - reserve info reserve info reserve info

The first time I went to Ding Darling NWR I had my life Yellow-crowned Night Heron practically walking at my feet (still my best pictures of that species), Common Ground Doves resting in a small bush, and the drive was quite active. This time around things were notably slower, and everything was too distant for good photos Notable species seen here: Little Blue Heron.

Corkscrew Swamp - DeLorme 111-B3 - reserve info

A good omen for this trip into Corkscrew were the Swallow-tailed Kites that I saw on the entrance road (plus one overhead in the reserve itself). The reserve wasn't hopping with birds (still to early for spring migration) but did have some interesting sights - Red-shouldered Hawk on the nest, Barred Owl feeding young, numerous Wood Storks flying to/from the nearby colony and the usual assortment of Herons on the ponds, plus a Roseate Spoonbill. Good photo opportunities included the aforementioned owl, a Roseate Spoonbill, assorted small egrets and herons, and a pair of Northern Bobwhites upon my exit from the reserve. My only complaint - it closes too early !

Notable species seen here: Barred Owl, Roseate Spoonbill, Northern Bobwhite

St Marks NWR - DeLorme 50-D1 - reserve info

Notable species seen here:

Shark Alley/Everglades - DeLorme 117-C3 -

Notable species seen here:

Tavernier Bird Sanctuary - DeLorme 112-D2 - reserve info

Notable species seen here:

Biscayne Natl Park - DeLorme 123 - reserve info

Notable species seen here:

Loxahatchee NWR - DeLorme 115-A1 - reserve info

Notable species seen here:

Merritt Island NWR - DeLorme 82-C1 - reserve info

Notable species seen here: Florida Scrub Jay

Hobe Sound NWR - DeLorme 103-D2 - reserve info

I went to Hobe Sound NWR solely to get a glimpes of Florida Scrub Jay. Despite following the trail through promising habitat, I found none. I also found very little else in the way of bird life, and left as it started to rain.

Target Species (Lifers etc)

See master list for full list of very optimistic targets. Warning: this list will stress many browsers - it's a Huge table.