I guess the inspiration to make this trip came when I received my registration packet for the ABA Convention in Beaumont, Texas. As I perused the species list and did a bit of homework I realized I stood to pick up a good number of species for my North American life list. I was unable to find anyone else interested in making a trip to the upper Texas coast so I decided to sign up for some of the field trips so I would at least have some interaction with other birders during the course of the week. As it turned out being in the company of other birders should have been the least of my concerns.
I flew into Houston on frequent flier miles courtesy of Southwest Airlines, picked up my rental car and headed east for Beaumont. I arrived about an hour and a half later and checked in at the registration desk for the convention. I then left the host hotel and headed for the Beaumont sewage ponds where a Little Gull had been reported earlier in the week on Texbird. There were other birders present but no Little Gull. I checked into La Quinta Inn, being on my own I was trying to be frugal and this place set me back about $50 a night. Beaumont turned out to be an okay place to stay. The location was quite suitable for birding in that most birding destinations were less than an hour away. This first night I decided to splurge and go for a good Cajun meal at Pappadeux's. Stuffed crab and some tasty Gumbo washed down with Shiner Bock was quite good.
April 19th 2001
I'd been following bird reports via the internet on Texbird thanks to Jack Siler's excellent website www.birdingonthenet.com. Migration had been quite slow. Unfavorable weather conditions for birding-winds from the south and overcast had texbirders complaining prior to my departure. Luckily the wind direction changed to the north the day of my arrival and this day would prove to be a fine day on the upper Texas coast. I met up with the busload of ABA birders at the Holiday Inn at 6 am and we headed south for Sabine Woods-a migratory bird refuge protected by the Texas Ornithological Society. En route we passed through the second largest oil refinery in the world at Port Arthur. Which was easily the ugliest place I have ever been.
About twenty minutes later we arrived at Sabine Woods chomping at the bit. This sanctuary, like High Island, is a wooded area in the midst of a vast wet prairie. Migrants crossing the Gulf of Mexico see these oak mottes as an oasis in the middle of this endless flat prairie. We got off to fast start with Red-eyed Vireo, a lovely male Painted Bunting and Scarlet Tanager! A Prairie Warbler got the Texans excited and a Golden-winged Warbler did the same for us. Blue-winged, Worm-eating, Tennessee, Yellow, Prothonotary, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Black and white, Kentucky, and Hooded Warblers kept us busy. Being from the west coast I thought I'd died and gone to warbler heaven.. Rounding out the morning we had White-throated Sparrows, Ruby Throated Hummingbirds, Wood Thrushes, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Kingbirds, White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, and numerous Northern Cardinals, Orchard Orioles and Blue Jays.
Our bus departed Sabine Woods mid morning. Aboard the bus we spotted a flock of Black -bellied Whistling Ducks and our first of many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Our next stop was Texas Point. The bus driver dropped us off near the end of the road and we walked the last mile in hopes that perhaps a rail might cross the road for us. The road runs through a Spartina grass marsh. Here we had Neotropic Cormorants on fence posts, Seaside Sparrows responsive to pishing, a fly-by Chimney Swift, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons and a co-operative Clapper Rail crossing the road. For lunch break we stopped at Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park to dine on our meager box lunches. Of interest here was viewing Great and Boat-tailed Grackles side by side for the sake of comparison. Over the waters of the pass there were Laughing Gulls, Least, Forster's and Royal Terns.
Our next stop was Sea Rim State Park for a quick stop at the Boathouse to view nesting Cave Swallows which have only recently begun colonizing this area. At the most eastern section of Sea Rim State Park we walked the boardwalk. By now the wind was really blowing but we still managed looks at Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow Warblers, Summer Tanagers and more Orchard Orioles. Upon returning to Beaumont I swung by the sewage ponds where two birders had the 1st winter Little Gull in their scope! We were able to view it and a Bonaparte's Gull together.
April 20th 2001
This day I was on my own opting to bird rather than attend any workshops at the convention. Via the internet I discovered that a Yellow Rail walk would be held this morning at 7:30 at the Anuhuac National Wildlife Refuge. I raced out there to arrive in time for the walk. There were several birders already there. I made the mistake of asking one of the employees at the refuge how wet the fields we were going to walk were. I didn't bring my wellies along. He said the water would be mid calf deep. He also told me that the walks had yet to produce any Yellow Rails this year. So I decided to forgo the walk and bird on my own. (This proved to be a big mistake-I met some of the birders from the rail walk later in the day at High Island. The water level was quite low- just barely to the ankles. They also had two Yellow Rails, one of which was nearly caught in the hand of a surprised birder. Oh well.)
I proceeded to bird the Willows and Shoveler Pond at Anahuac. Not much of anything to report. Water levels seemed high which only made the alligators happy. A couple of Coots and lots of Boat-tailed Grackles but not much else. I decided to head for the infamous High Island. En route I passed a section of Anahuac that is made up of rice fields and decided to stop. Here were lots of Blue-winged Teal, Dowitchers, Black-necked Stilts, a single Stilt Sandpiper, Least and Westerns too. But what is this shorebird? A new one for me White-rumped Sandpiper! Then I meet up with the first of many gangs of roving Brit birders I will encounter on this trip and they've found a Buff-breasted Sandpiper in a field with three American Golden Plovers.
The previous day I'd racked up 10 new ABA birds and somehow that had sent me into a frenzy. I was in a bit of a hurry to get lifebirds and I realized what I really needed to do was slow down a bit and try to enjoy the day and the birds whether I racked up any new ones or not. My next stop was Smith Oaks. There weren't many other birders present which was nice but not a lot of birds either. Winds were strong from the south today. Saw lots of Wood Thrushes, a Merlin, Hooded, Tennessee and Kentucky Warblers. Scarlet and Summer Tanager were active in the Mulberry trees.
I then moved over to the infamous Boy Scout Woods and it seemed like there were more birders here than birds. There is a small grandstand that looks out over a drip and it was full. Birders roving the trails greeting one another with the same phrase-"Pretty quiet today isn't it?" I didn't tarry long here as today would be my only chance to visit the Bolivar Peninsula and I would return to High Island tomorrow.
I only made a couple of stops along the peninsula. The wind was really howling. I stopped by the Crab Festival grounds where an Upland Sandpiper had been reported the previous day but no luck. Lots of fisherman at Rollover pass and terns on the sand spit. I was getting hungry but not finding any place to eat until I stumbled upon a newly opened Subway Sandwich place at Crystal Beach. I turned off Highway 87 at Rettilion Rd. and drove down the beach to the Houston Audubon Society's Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. Here I came upon two more gangs of roving British birders.
Bolivar Flats was remarkable in the sheer numbers of birds, we're talking American Avocets in the thousands. Shorebirds were plentiful - Red Knots, Black-necked Stilts, Semipalmated, Western and Least Sandpipers, Roseate Spoonbills and Egrets including a single Reddish. Terns galore - Least, Gull-billed, Royal and Sandwich roosting together. Lots of Semipalmated and a few Piping Plovers but no sign of my target species for this locale-Wilson's Plover. The Brits tell me they saw two on the short walk in along the beach but I can't relocate them. I spend a good amount of time scrutinizing plovers and peeps through my scope. On the way back to the car I come upon a single Wilson's Plover side by side with a Piping Plover and I'm a happy guy. On the way back to Beaumont soaring over the rice fields along I- 10 I spot a single Mississippi Kite.
April 21st 2001
Back to High Island today with the ABA convention. Today being a Saturday our busload made Boy Scout Woods the most densely populated venue I have ever birded. Grandstand at the drip full, the deck at the Cathedral elbow to elbow. With the winds still from the south. Once again there were more birders than birds. Except for Gray Catbirds which were ubiquitous. This is also the first day that has been hot and humid -normal for this area. I do manage to see new trip birds - Blackpoll Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Swainson's Thrush and Veery. We spend the afternoon at Smith Oaks which wass blessedly less crowded. The highlight being a visit the rookery here to see Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills on the nest - very colorful and picturesque.
Just past the town of High Island we make a left turn onto a dirt road that leads to an abandoned oil field. There are wetlands here and we find Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Blue-winged Teal and a Lesser Scaup on the water. The fence posts are occupied by terns - Royal, Gull-billed and Forster's. In the shallow puddles we find shorebirds -Least, Western, Spotted and a couple of Stilt Sandpipers along with Black-necked Stilts and Dowitchers. After returning to Beaumont I make a loop through Tyrell Park and tick a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in a ditch.
April 22nd 2001
Another day on my own so I opt to try a new birding locale in another state. The Louisiana border isn't far and rumor has it there are is a place that rivals High Island. I head east on Highway 82. As I'm crossing over Sabine Pass on the high span of the Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge I'm surprised to see a Magnificent Frigatebird pass overhead. The bridge is several miles inland from the gulf. I pull off at Pleasure Island Park and watch the bird from inside the car thankfully because when I get out of the air conditioned cab my bins are immediately fogged up. It takes me about a half hour to reach the Holleyman-Sheely Migratory Bird Sanctuary just outside of the small community of Johnson's Bayou. There are only a couple of cars in the parking lot but the wind is really blowing up from the south. This sanctuary is quite small but very peaceful. An American Redstart is new for the trip as is Philadelphia Vireo. But on the whole it is pretty quiet here. Those darn south winds!
It's still early so decide to head back to Texas and revisit Sabine Pass and Sea Rim. En route I'm getting hungry for lunch but there is a dearth of places to get food. I stop in at the Sabine Pass Market where they sell Poorboy Sandwiches. I decide to try a Boudin Sausage in a bun. This is a concoction called dirty rice put into a sausage casing and I'm telling you it was good and a bargain at $2.09. Sabine woods still had a good deal of warbler activity but it was quite crowded on this Sunday so I called it a day early and returned to my cell at La Quinta.
April 23rd 2001
Stormy looking skies this morning. I meet up with the ABA conventioneers at 5:30 am . Today we will visit the Piney Woods also known as the Big Thicket. In the course of our hour and twenty minute drive north of Beaumont we pass through a few minor squalls. Our initial target this morning will be Red-cockaded Woodpecker which are apparently most active in the early morning. Our leaders-Rich Hoyer and Brian Gibbons have a pair staked out. Our busload of birders tromp up a short ways into the woods where several trees have been marked indicating the presence of these threatened woodpeckers. We hear their calls almost immediately and manage to spot a very active pair. In the middle of viewing the Red-cockaded we hear another bird singing very close by and this turns out to be a Bachman's Sparrow! We enjoy some great looks from only fifteen feet away.
In the same area we come across some Pine Warblers high in the Longleaf Pines when all of a sudden in comes these twittering little Brown-headed Nuthatches; the last of our target birds for this particular habitat.
Back onboard the bus we travel to another area. The Boykin Springs Area is in Angelina National Forest near Lake Sam Rayburn.. We stop in a nondescript spot climb off the bus and almost immediately we hear the distinctive song of a Swainson's Warbler. Rich Hoyer has a great mnemonic for this species- Ew, Ew, Ew I stepped in Poo. A little tape playback goes a long way and this little guy is back and forth across the road giving us all spectacular views in the scope!
Our next stop is in a completely different sort of ecosystem the more densely wooded deciduous bottomlands. Right off the bat we see Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse who get really worked up over Rich's Eastern Screech Owl imitation. Red-eyed, Philadelphia and Blue-headed Vireos make an appearance. Warblers on the scene are Hooded and my first Yellow-throated - what a great looking bird! A couple of woodpeckers turn out to be both Red-headed and Red-bellied. During lunch break we hear some Pileated Woodpeckers. Afterwards we play a tape and I enjoy the best looks I've ever had at these birds right overhead.
We walk a short ways down the road a until we hear a new call and use a little playback to lure an Acadian Flycatcher into view and we get to see this through the scope too.
Back in Beaumont I enjoy a great dinner of real Texas Barbecue at Willy Ray's. The Weather Channel is predicting the arrival of a storm front in the middle of the night and the winds will shift to the north at 10-20 mph! These are the conditions one can only hope for on the UTC.
April 24th 2001
I was signed up to visit Anuhuac this morning with the ABA but the conditions merit a visit to High Island. In researching this this trip I kept reading about the infamous fallouts on the Upper Texas Coast and now it looked as though I may have a chance to experience one. When migrants are crossing the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula and a south wind is prevailing they ride those winds further inland. When the wind is from the north however the birds expend more energy in the crossing and hit the coastline exhausted, hungry and thirsty. High Island isn't actually an island its a salt dome covered with trees in the middle of this vast wet prairie. To migrant passerines it is an oasis.
I awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of rain and thunder. At 5:30 am the skies still looked threatening. According to the Weather Channel winds were from the north at 15-25mph and they called for rain through the morning into the early afternoon. I packed my stuff up and loaded it into the rental car and headed for High Island. It wasn't raining when I left Beaumont but as I approached Winnie it started. I just figured I'd make the most of it, my flight home wasn't departing until 3:30. Ah but the birding gods were with me! Outside of Winnie the rain relented and the skies began to clear, the wind remained constant.
Being a Tuesday I thought the crowds would be less but no such luck. Two busloads of ABA conventioneers to boot. I hustled by the grandstand stopping briefly to inspect yet another Northern Waterthrush, never did see a Louisiana. Then I headed straight for the Cathedral which is a a large deck area set under the canopy of trees. I grab a seat along the railing to conserve my neck. Overhead a Honey Locust treeis alive with warbler activity. Never in my life have I seen this many warblers in one tree. Initially most of the birds seem to be Tennessees and Red-eyed Vireos but soon things begin to pick up. Black-throated Greens appear and then a Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Black and white and Blackpoll. A Magnolia is new for the trip. Victor Emanuel shows up with a tour group in tow and now there are about 65 pairs of eyes working the Honey Locust. A Blue-winged Warbler appears and a Golden-winged too. Someone calls out Bay-breasted and I get on it for a lifer. The locust keeps pulling them in, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Philadelphia Vireo, a male Blackburnian Warbler elicits oohs and aahs from the crowd. I see a bird in an adjacent oak that I've never seen before, bluish in color with a breastband. I peruse the field guide briefly to be sure and then call out Cerulean Warbler and direct the crowd so everyone gets on it, there's a female too. On the ground someone sees an Ovenbird and for the second time I see one scurry away-an unsatisfactory look. Yet more birders arrive and even though this has been one of the most incredible experiences I've had in North American birding the crowd is too much for me.
Smith Woods is just the opposite, only a few cars in the lot. But here too are lots of birds. Hooded and Kentucky Warbler close to the ground, another Magnolia, Blackpoll, Black and white, a Worm-eating, lots of Prothonotary and finally a very co-operative Ovenbird flies up on a stump right in front of me for my first really good look at this bird. I change clothes in the parking lot and head back to Houston for my flight. Outside of High Island I see two more Mississippi Kites overhead. Just outside of Winnie on I-10 I make my last tick of the trip at 70 mph - a Crested Caracara being chased by a Great-tailed Grackle.