Birding Texas Trip November 2000

I originally took at trip to Texas in early spring 2000 on the recommendation of a fellow Central Park birder. I had such a great time in the Rio Grande Valley that when I found a conference in Houston in November 2000 I immediately planned another trip there with some time built in for birding.

Ironically, both trips I've taken to Texas in 2000 have coincided with birding festivals in the Rio Grande Valley. I could claim that this reflects impeccable timing on my part for optimal birding, but in fact it's just random - my spring 2000 TX trip was postponed due to technical issues (car crash) and my late fall 2000 TX trip was tied to a conference I was attending in Houston. The November trip coincided almost exactly with the Rio Grande Birding Festival on Nov. 8th-12th, so I decided to fly in one day early so I could attempt to clear out of the valley before the multitude assembled.

Birding for me is not a team sport. Groups of birders are noisy, which partially defeats my purpose of being out there in the first place - to see birds, not least of all birds that aren't particularly attracted to the flocking calls of Homo sapiens. One of the more "memorable" moments of spring 2000 trip was getting to Anzalduas State Park and being confonted with a bus load of birders who had got there before me. In November, I drove into Anzalduas just as 4 bus loads of birders drove out. Close call. This time I wasn't as lucky at Anzalduas, but at least there were fewer birders.

My main targets in TX in mid November were sparrows and geese. I got the three main species of Geese (somehow managing to miss Canada!) but I largely struck out on sparrows, perhaps because it wasn't really winter yet, and they hadn't arrived in large numbers. Or perhaps because my birding style on these trips isn't optimal for sparrows.

The trip followed my standard "skim" method where I do a site in 1 or 2 hours instead of spending most of the day there. I miss many birds, but ultimately end up with a larger selection of sightings. This time the skim method probably cost me a few lifers, as did bad luck and inexperience with the more obscure sparrow species. C'est la vie.

Irony: (definition) my #1 target species for the TX trip was seen back in NYC two weeks before I left - an immature Ross's Goose in a flock of Snow Geese at Jamaica Bay NWR. (There were, prior to the freeze at Jamaica Bay, two of them).


Trip Report

Life species are rendered in bold type.

I arrived at Houston Intercontinental at 11am, hopped in my rental car and headed south. For the next couple of hours I birded at 70mph, getting a relatively modest collection of common birds and a solitary Wood Stork in a wetland just outside Victoria along Rt.59. My first stop of the day was Aransas NWR to take a look at a couple of Whooping Cranes. I found the mosquitos every bit as enthusiastic as my spring trip, which eliminated any enthusiasm I had to bird the Rail Trail, and also found that the majority of the wildlife drive was closed. Pretty much all my birding at Aransas consisted of driving down to the observation platform, finding two Whooping Cranes, and driving out of the reserve. Intruigingly, the two Cranes that I saw were in exactly the same location as my life birds in spring 2000, except that this time there was no juvenile along with them. The weather wasn't particularly conducive either, since a strong wind combined with low overcast keeping all the passerines deep in the scrub, roughen up the sea, generally make the lighting terrible.

So it took me a little time to realise that the gulls flying over my head weren't all Laughing Gulls, but most of them were migrating Franklin's Gulls on their way south for the winter. Since I'd seen Frankin's only once before, this was an added bonus, and a presage of what awaited me down the coast.

With no additional incentive to remain at Aransas I sped off to Goose Island State Park. Withing the park itself the wind kept the passerines to an absolute minimum, but outside the park I got good looks at Black-bellied Whistling Duck, hoards of Great-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. Nothing too special but the warmer-than-NYC temperatures and the setting sun made for a pleasant start to the evening. I then drove a couple of hundred miles down past Corpus Christi to spend the night at McAllen.

The next morning (Day 2) I navigated myself out to Sparrow Alley just west of La Hoya. Conditions were pretty good - a mostly clear sky and relatively little wind. I snatched failure from the hands of success while failing to identify Vesper Sparrow, probable Cassin's Sparrow, and probable Scaled Quail all in the space of 30 minutes. All would have been lifers. The Cassin's was in partial cover over the other side of the car, and the view was too distorted by the windshield. The Scaled Quail suffered a similar fate, scurrying across the road before I could assimilate a good enough look the windshield. The Vesper Sparrow was the worst of all, since I was staring right at the bird and couldn't figure out what it was. Later in the trip, after getting my eye in on many Savannah Sparrows, Vespers would prove to be pretty straightforward. Staring right at this Vesper, however, I was both clueless and exasperated. I had Rising and Sibley in the back of the car, and in retrospect the bird was fairly obvious, although it lacked any traces of chestnut on the wings and the head pattern was a little subdued. Later on I was to see several classical Vespers to reassure me of the ID.

Chalk one up to inexperience.

Still, Sparrow Alley was not a complete wash. Curve-billed Thrasher, Greater Roadrunner, Lark Sparrow (even I could ID this one), Say's Phoebe, Green Jay and a few other things brightened mood a little. Swainson's Hawks migrated in a small group over the fields. A few Accipters terrorized the sparrows but I passed on attempting to speciate them on the basis of fleeting looks.

I headed down to Chihuahua Woods Preserve in a relatively peeved mood. Birds chipped, clacked and taunted me from the scrub, but remained hidden. I did extract White-tipped Dove, Curve-billed, Long-billed Thrashers and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but the going was quiet. The Harris's Hawks were more cooperative, perching on the telegraph poles and resisting my attempts to turn them into Hook-billed Kites. A migrating Sharp-shinned Hawk passed by. I was surprised that hawk migration was still very much in evidence in early November, since the peak in NY/NJ seemed to be early October. Texas in early November seemed to be in late fall, rather than the early winter of NYC (an abundance of migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were to be seen nearly every day of this trip).

I pulled into Bentsen Rio Grande State Park hoping that the birding would pick up. Over the resaca a Northern Harrier fought with a Red-shouldered Hawk and a Ringed Kingfisher dropped by giving excellent views. My camera was, naturally, in the car. I'd been to Bentsen a few times last spring, so wasn't quite as blown away by the bird life this time, but it also didn't disappoint. Green Jays were everywhere, Plain Chachalacas posed conveniently next to the feeders, a Great Kiskadee called from the trees and a couple of White-tipped Doves stepped out timidly from the undergrowth. I even got a look at a Nighthawk attempting to sleep on a tree limb on the trailer loop (probably a Common). As I was leaving Bentsen I got a distant look at a dark Hawk flying with characteristically droopy wings and what appeared to be a barred tail - a dead ringer for a Hook-billed Kite but it never quite got close enough. Struck out on 4 lifers for the day by noon !

I spent the afternoon driving up to Falcon Dam, finding nothing of note there (an Osprey), driving around Falcon State Park and finding very little there either, then driving back down to McAllen to scour the area for parrots before the sun set. Little or no success, and no parrots. I headed out to Brownsville to spend the night.

The following morning I finally got some reward for my efforts - I tracked down a small group of Red-crowned Parrots in residential Brownsville at dawn, and managed to get a single Green Parakeet at the Holiday Inn at Fort Brown a little after sun-up. My plans for the day had me skipping Laguna Atascosa NWR based on a report that it was pathologically dry (cf. a similar experience of mine last spring) and to go to South Padre Island instead. I parked at the conference center and right at the head of the boardwalk there was a Couch's Kingbird flycatching in one of the low bushes.

Out on the boardwalk a Clapper Rail called and all sorts of terns popped overhead - Forster's, Royal, Caspian and Sandwich and White-tailed Kite hovered over the saltmarsh. Out on the flats a monstrous flock of gulls was sitting - the motherload of Franklin's Gulls, I'd estimate 3000-4000 of them from quick counting, with a few Laughing Gulls sprinkled in. Probably most of the smaller gulls I saw in the first two days of this trip were Franklin's, heading down the coast to winter in balmier climates.

South Padre Island was also pretty good for shorebirds - Willet, Piping and Black-bellied Plover, both Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Marbled Godwit. The only Reddish Egret for the trip hunted in the shallows. A Belted Kingfisher dropped by and a small group of Pintail (moulting out of eclipse) were cooperative enough for pictures. Sparrows were conspicuous by their absence - a single Savannah Sparrow perched on the walk itself, but nothing else was in evidence.

Driving back towards Brownsville I dropped by the Sanitary Landfill and carefully checked for Tamaulipas Crows. No luck, though there were any number of Great-tailed Grackles that had my adrenaline going for a second. There were a few Franklin's Gulls here too, and some Chihuahuan Ravens. Nothing to detain me for too long, apart from the 10 minute wait to get in.

I got to Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary at mid-morning and staked out the visitor center feeders long enough to get Green Jay and Tufted Titmouse. There were a surprising number of eastern warblers on the trail, including many Orange-crowned, Nashville and Tennessee. Some of them even cooperated a little for my camera.

I seached unsuccessfully for Tropical Parula, Olive Sparrow and Altamira Oriole, but was very happy to walk into the hide that overlooked the pond to find three Least Grebes fishing right in front of it. Four rolls of film later, I scanned the rest of the pond to find an assortment of ducks.

I strolled back to the visitors center to wait for Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and was confronted by the most surprising bird of the trip - an adult male Golden-winged Warbler popped up right in front of me not far from the end of the trail !! I had searched for this bird, declining in NY and NJ, earlier in the spring in the NJ highlands with a total lack of success and here it was right in front of me. It wasn't quite cooperative enough to get a photo of it, but then I was standing there with my jaw dropped for more than a few seconds before I even thought to set up for a shot.

After that, the Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and Long-billed Thrashers back at the feeders were a little of an anticlimax.

In the early afternoon I resolved to make a quick sprint for Santa Ana NWR. I got there from Sabal Palm in about 45 minutes through a bit of systematic (though not excessive) speeding. I found that Willow Lake was dry, absolutely terminally dry, so my hopes for Stilt Sandpiper were not fulfilled. Pintail Lake was somewhat more productive however, with Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Mottled Duck, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilt and assorted shorebirds (mostly Yellowlegs). Huge flocks of Turkey Vultures held the promise of something more exotic, which prompted me to get a little too excited over one of the local Harris's Hawks that sped over. After a little bit of waiting I had a rather shy Olive Sparrow finally give be a good-enough look to be definitive.

I cut short my time at Santa Ana and drove back to Brownsville to witness the noisy Green Parakeet roost at Fort Brown, and the somewhat bizarre sight of the parakeets hanging upside down and staring at me from the palm trees. After sunset I drove back to McAllen to spend the night, rearranging the trip slightly to give me an extra half day in the Rio Grande and another try at Sparrow Alley.

The second time around at Sparrow Alley the weather was cloudy and windy - not perfect sparrow conditions, but after a little rummaging around I came up with Vermilion Flycatcher, Say's Phoebe and finally a definitive Vesper Sparrow, along with a Lincoln's. The Cassin's Sparrow and Scaled Quail sadly did not put in a repeat appearance, but at least I got some sort of compensation.

I skipped a second pass at Chihuahua Woods to spend time at Anzalduas State Park. I arrived there just as four bus-loads of birders were heading out. Apart from Northern Rough-winged Swallow and a somewhat unexpected Black Phoebe the first part of the park was quiet. However on the overlook of the damn spillway I picked up Neotropic Cormorant and a Belted Kingfisher.

I brief pass at Bentsen didn't produce anything new except Orange-crowned Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and rather a lot of House Wrens on the Rio Grande Trail (the sort of trail that seemed to go on interminably). I then repeated my brief skim of Santa Ana NWR, adding American Avocet and Roseate Spoonbill to the previous day's sightings.

I cut north out of the valley, taking back roads to Rt.74 north to Kingsville, racing the setting sun and a rather evil looking weather front that rolled in from the west. Caracara and Red-tailed Hawk were frequent, but I only had one uncertain look at a White-tailed Hawk as I drove underneath it at 65mph - not enough to be sure it wasn't a Swainson's.

Dick Kleburg State Park was relatively disappointing, having just a few Chipping Sparrows, a Curve-billed Thrasher or two but not much else in the blustery and somewhat chilly conditions. A few Bronzed Cowbirds enlivened the gloom just before the park exit. I got to the Hilltop Community Center in Corpus Christi pretty much at dusk, so the light was miserable and although there were a few birds around the only one I was really sure about was an Indigo Bunting.

The following morning I set off before dawn to head up I-37 to Choke Canyon State Park. I didn't manage to get there at dawn, but was relatively prompt, albeit delayed by what seemed interminable road construction. Choke Canyon was not a great success, but the birds and wildlife were very tame - Wild Pigs that didn't scurry away in fear, White-tailed Deer that were similarly tame, some very cooperative American Pipits, and a few Vesper, Savannah and Lincoln's Sparrows. Snow Geese, White Pelicans and some unspeciated Cormorants dotted the lake. A group of Wild Turkeys wandered around the camp roads. Down at the camp site below the dam, I added a single Cave Swallow and Carolina Wren.

I headed across the rolling farmland through back roads up in the direction of Houston. American Crows started to put in an appearance about 100 miles SW of Houston. I rolled into Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR in the early afternoon. I took the Pipit Trail around the grasslands. Sparrows leaped up from the grass and sped away in the harsh light, yielding few clues as to their identity (they were probably Savannahs). The one sparrow that did stop on the trail for me, allowed me to get remarkably close, close enough to ID it as a McCown's Longspur, a male with traces of summer plumage. This bird didn't even prove to be on the reserve's checklist. A White-tailed Hawk soared over me, close enough to leave no doubt as to it's identity. Vesper Sparrows (and a possible Grasshopper) occupied the edge of the fields, but I didn't reap a bumper crop of sparrows. Around the drive trail I encountered Indigo Buntings and American Pipit but ultimately left the reserve with the impression of not having seen much, and getting somewhat gnawed on by chiggers.

Going down unpaved farm roads headed in the direction of Brazos Bend State Park there were many sparrows perched up on the wires (probably mostly Savannah) and it was clear that this area deserved more attention. Instead I got to Brazos Bend only a little while before the sun set, and scuttled around looking for sparrows. Here I found my only Song Sparrow for the trip, but as at other places the number of sparrows was generally low. There was, however, a huge roost of American Crows and several flights of Snow Geese overhead in the gathering dusk.

After nightfall I left Brazos and worked my way out to Beaumont to stay the night. On the last day of birding before the conference I found myself on the way to Anahuac NWR at dawn, although it was obvious that the flocks of geese had already taken flight. Fortunately, one flock decided to assemble in a rice field close to the reserve entrance, and I spent 45 minutes watching groups of Snow, Ross's and Greater White-fronted Geese fly in and out of the area as the sun climbed into the sky.

The water on Shoveler Pond in the reserve itself was much higher than when I was there in April, and the ducks on the impoundment seemed remarkably skittish. Here I had my only Mallard for the trip, although fittingly Northern Shoveler was the most frequent bird. The skittishness was to serve me well as a small group of Fulvous Whistling Ducks made their presence obvious by periodically taking flight. I also came across an immature Bittern by the side of the trail, Stilt and Least Sandpipers, and the only Boat-tailed Grackles of the trip - indeed I didn't see any Great-tailed Grackles at Anahuac.

After Anahuac I went to Smith Woods at High Island. Since this wasn't even remotely the passerine migration I got very little there, although a Brown Thrasher (only one for the trip) was a bonus. There were too many people at Rollover Pass further down the Bolivar Peninsula to make the birds comfortable with coming in close, so I got nothing novel there (except the sight of Sanderlings running around in the parking lot). The number of shorebirds at Bolivar Flats was also low, although I did get the "four plovers" (Semipalmated, Piping, Snowy, Wilson's) here as I did last spring, and Long-billed Curlews out in the heat haze.

I shot a few more rolls of film on the Laughing Gulls (and one juvenile Brown Pelican) lurking off the back end of the Galveston Ferry, and headed up to Texas City Dike for a shot at Sprague's Pipit. No luck, so I finally conceded and headed to the other side of Houston to turn up at the conference center for the evening's reception.

The next day was spent entirely at the conference, with little bird spotting except Black-bellied Whistling Duck on the lake at the country club, Yellow-throated Warbler in the pines and a roost of Black Vultures on the building's roof. The most interesting sighting of the day was the assembled multitude for the Cattle Baron's Ball that evening (an event entirely separate from the scientific conference I was attending). Rich Texans are definitely an exotic suspecies.

Reserve Notes

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 loop. 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 popped up. 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 tolerant of humans.

Notable species seen here: Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kite, Northern Bobwhite, Fulvous Whistling Duck.

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 across 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. In early-November the site was very quiet (as expected). Photography is probably not ideal here, since the canopy is high, but there is a blind in the southerly section at Smith's Woods that has conventient lens holes cut in it.

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 the 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 trips were very rewarding. The shore was packed with waders, including my muched 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. One would need to do extensive stalking to get close to birds here - plan on getting muddy.

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.

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). It was a little less productive in early-November, but still worth checking out for migrating passerines.

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 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. When I went back there the following November I found Whoopers again, and was again greeting by enthusiastic swarms of blood-sucking insects.

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

Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary - reserve info
Based on the first 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 center 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 and Hooded Oriole also joined the party. In November my first Golden-winged Warbler popped up in front of me not 50 yards away. 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.

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, an event that supposedly reoccurs often. 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 a 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. In November it was quieter but still gave close and memorable views of Green Jay, Ringed Kingfisher and Plain Chachalaca.

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

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.