We all met at Gatwick airport and the Continental flight departed on time towards Houston. However severe storms over the North Eastern US meant we arrived later than expected. We were met by Kevin Easley, our leader for this tour, collected the bus and were soon on our way.
Our first birds were pretty uninspiring, being House Sparrow and Starling, but within minutes of the Airport, we had seen our first "proper" birds in Great-tailed Grackle, Killdeer, and Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Our first stop was to be the W G Jones State Forest, where we were looking for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker. At the feeder there were Northern Cardinals, some Chipping Sparrows and American Goldfinches. Above us a good flock of Cedar Waxwings were seen and at least 3 Brown-headed Nuthatches. In the forest were lots of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but we soon heard, and then saw our first Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. We followed them for over 30 minutes and saw at least 2 and possibly 4 individuals. Back at the van we saw our first evidence of raptor migration with a few Mississippi Kites passing over, and finished with a lovely Eastern Bluebird perched on a wire and a close flyby of the huge Pileated Woodpecker. Not a bad start!
Day 2 - 9th April
Leaving our motel in Conroe, we returned to the W G Jones State Forest, and saw our first hummingbird of the trip, the delightful Ruby-throated. We also saw our first of many Hooded Warblers and an extremely close Carolina Wren. We had a long drive to Rockport ahead of us, so we left quickly, but paused briefly by the Sam Houston Tollway to view a small feral population of Monk Parakeets. We also stopped at the Brazos Bend State Park and had close encounters with many herons (including Green, Little Blue, Black-crowned Night, Great Blue and Great White), and also a few extremely large American Alligators. The highlight though was first one and eventually three Barred Owls, which showed beautifully, and were rightfully voted bird of the day. We also saw Prothonotary Warbler, and Northern Parula in the scrub and Pied-billed Grebe and Blue-winged Teal on the lake.
Day 3 - 10th April
An early start found us down by the beach in Rockport watching our first White and Brown Pelicans, and picking out the different gulls (Ring-billed, Herring and mostly Laughing) and terns (Forster's, Least, Caspian, Sandwich and Royal) loafing by the shore.
We moved round to a small park where we were shown a huge roosting area full of Black Skimmers. We also found one of the newest additions to the Texas breeding population, Eurasian Collared Dove. At the same spot we saw another Prothonotary Warbler this time so close some of us had to step back to focus our binoculars. However the main attraction of the day was still to come.
At 10.00 we boarded the MV Molly Anna for our boat trip into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. We started with a couple of Common Loons before we were out of the harbour. On the way, Red-breasted Mergansers and Bwere on the lagoon, and the shore held many waders including our first American Avocets. Almost as soon as the refuge signs were in view so were our first Whooping Cranes. We were treated to views of about 30 individuals (almost 10% of the world population) and this included one displaying pair at a range of about 50 yards. We also had very close views of Seaside Sparrow, Western and Least Sandpipers.
Leaving for Corpus Christie, we drove via Port Aransas where Kevin decided to try a small reserve: Paradise Pool. It was an inspired choice, small numbers of migrants where everywhere. The boardwalk is only about 40 yards long, but we were constantly moving from end to end as birds passed through. Wood and Swainson's Thrushes, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Grey Catbird, White-eyed, Red-eyed and Yellow-Throated Vireos and Tennessee, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated, Black and White, Kentucky, Worm-eating and Hooded Warblers. Sprinkled amongst them where Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, an Ovenbird and a Northern Waterthrush.
With a brief stop at dusk to check a marsh for Rails (we saw Clapper and Sora), the log call totaled an incredible 132 species, the highest daily total of the tour.
Day 4 - 11th April
We headed into Corpus Christi, to Blucher Park, where a Slate-Throated Redstart (an extremely rare vagrant) had been reported the previous morning. Despite extensive searching (by us, 50 or so other birders and the local TV film crew) we did not see it, though we did turn up some Chuck-will's Widows, Savannah, Lincoln's and Grasshopper Sparrows, Yellow-breasted Chat, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
Next stop was the delightfully named Pollywog Ponds, where we immediately saw Groove-billed Ani, and a short walk produced Red-shouldered Hawk, Least and Pied-billed Grebes and a variety of duck. As we approached a short stop at Sarita, Kevin spotted our first Greater Roadrunner stood on the railway next to the road. In Sarita we found our first Green Jays, Brewer's Blackbird and a lovely Cactus Wren (not on a cactus, but skulking under a pick-up truck).
At the next rest stop on the highway we eventually all saw Buff-bellied Hummingbird as it moved between flowers on opposite sides of the toilet block (I always seemed to be on the wrong side!). After a siesta (afternoon temperatures reaching mid 90's in the shade) we headed to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge where we saw Black-crested Titmouse and Plain Chachalaca. After a short stop at Brownsville Airport where Mexican Crows were said to be breeding (no luck with the crow, but we did see about 40 Upland Sandpipers) we returned to the hotel.
Day 5 - 12th April
Another early start saw us at the unlikely site of the South Padre Island Convention Centre as dawn broke. We were searching for Yellow and Black Rails. We saw Clapper and Sora (again!) plenty of herons (including a white morph Reddish Egret), American Oystercatcher, more Black Skimmers and Sedge and Marsh Wrens. On the way back to the bus, we paused by a small bushy screen and where amazed by a mini fall of eight different warblers there. We headed back to Laguna Atascosa where in the arid scrub we found Verdin and Common Pauraque.
After our now habitual siesta we returned to Brownsville where we were searching for Botteri's Sparrow and Aplomado Falcon, two very localized species. We had a tip off for the falcon and found two fairly quickly nesting on pylons by the road. We also found Horned Lark, lots of Cassin's Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, but sadly no Botteri's (this turned out to be our only major miss on the tour). Calling back at the airport, we found at least four Mexican Crows in exactly the spot we had searched the previous day.
Day 6 - 13th April
Today we were heading inland, up the Rio Grande River, which forms the border with Mexico. Our first stop was to be the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge where a few Tropical Parulas are breeding. Despite searching we couldn't find them, but we did see a Clay-coloured Robin and a Great Horned Owl chick looking most disconsolate as he waited for a food drop. Another target for the day was Gray Hawk, which was nesting at nearby Anzalduas Park. The park was packed, so after a quick drive round (the nest site with incubating bird was found pretty easily) during which we saw a huge Ringed Kingfisher and an Osprey, we left for our hotel in McAllen.
On the way, we called in at the local sewage works (Don't we birders visit some wonderful sites!) where we were greeted with a pool full of waders. Stars included Wilson's Phalarope, Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Least, Semi-palmated, Pectoral and Stilt Sandpipers. After siesta time, we headed for Bentsen - Rio Grande Valley State Park where we were treated to wonderful views of Altamira Oriole, Indigo Bunting, and more Plain Chachalacas. The birds were coming to feeding stations set up around trailer (caravan) parking areas, and they were like magnets.
As the evening drew to a close we, and about 40 others, gathered around a dead tree trunk. Eventually a lovely Elf Owl (at 5.75 inches he is only 2/3 the size of Little Owl) popped his head out of a hole and sat watching us for about ten minutes. Overhead there were Lesser Nighthawks hunting, on the road a few more Pauraques and finally, spotlighted in a torch was an Eastern Screech Owl. An amazing evening!
Day 7 - 14th April
Sunday was very much a repeat of Saturday, except that this time we went to Bentsen in the morning, and Santa Ana later. At Bentsen we walked through the scrub on one of the trails, and saw Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (a type of flycatcher), lots of woodpeckers, a lovely Curve-billed Thrasher, more Roadrunners (running roads this time!) and a wonderful "kettle" of Hawks including Cooper's, Swainson's and Broad-winged. At Santa Ana we finally caught up with our Tropical Parulas, seeing 3 where we had searched the previous day. A return to the sewage works added no new waders.
Day 8 - 15th April
Early starts were becoming a habit now, and today was no exception. We were headed up to Salineno, where a farmer was putting out food for Brown Jays. The birds turned up right on cue, along with another Ringed Kingfisher (displaced from it's perch by an adult Great Horned Owl as we all watched!!), Audubon's Oriole, and down by the river our first American Wigeon. As we were watching the Owl, we also had our only sighting of the stunning Yellow-headed Blackbird as it flew past the feeding station.
As we moved north, the scenery became more and more arid, eventually giving us scenery that any western film director would be happy to use. In this seemingly inhospitable landscape, we stopped regularly, and saw Red-billed Pigeons, Lark and Black-throated Sparrows, more Cactus Wrens (on cacti this time!) and Pyrrhuloxia (a washed out relative of Northern Cardinal). We bought lunch in a small town convenience store and ate it overlooking Falcon Dam on the Rio Grande. Halfway through, Kevin's shout of "Hook-billed Kite" had us all scrambling for our 'scopes. This was another "goody", and a bird that was not at all guaranteed.
En route to our hotel in Laredo, we stopped at Zapata where Kevin had information that White-collared Seedeater was sometimes seen here. We searched, and eventually had slightly obscured views of one bird. An evening trip round Casa Blanca Lake gave us our first House Finches before we headed back for our evening meal.
Day 9 - 16th April
Today we were heading up onto the Edwards Plateau to Neal's Lodges at Concan. It was a long drive, and we were all scanning the verges, as this was to be our best chance for Wild Turkey. We saw them, and also a small group of Scaled Quail by the side of the road. We arrived at noon, and immediately saw Black Phoebe perched by the river. This complex of lodges has a wonderful variety of birds, and a couple of great feeding stations. As we moved from station to station, we were treated to extremely close views of Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Vermillion Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, Lesser Goldfinch, White-crowned, White-throated, Field and Rufous-crowned Sparrows,Bushtit and Spotted and Canyon Towhees. But we were really searching for another local speciality: Black-capped Vireo. We searched through very dense scrub for what seemed like hours as one then two then eventually most of us saw it well.
After dinner, we went to a local cave where we waited patiently for the spectacle of 12 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats leaving their roost. While we waited, we saw Canyon and Rock Wrens, Rock Squirrel and a lovely Green Anole Lizard. As the light began to fade, the bats began streaming from the cave, and almost immediately first one and then up to ten Red-tailed Hawks swooped over the hill predating them. It was an amazing site, and for me was the highlight of the tour. As we turned back to the bus, many Common Nighthawks were wheeling over us, and a Hog-nose Skunk scuttled over the path and off through the brush.
Day 10 - 17th April
This morning we again visited the feeding stations, and also a small residential area nearby, where one house had a Rufous Hummingbird visiting a feeder. We also saw another Canyon Towhee and many Western Scrub Jays. As we were not adding many new birds, we moved on to Lost Maples State Natural Area where we were looking for another two very localized species. At the visitor centre, we were warned about picking up any snakes, because a British birder had been rushed to hospital earlier that day having been bitten by an extremely venomous snake! As we hiked up the canyon, we searched back and forth for our quarry. Eventually, as temperatures soared, we gave one last try, down by the river, and there he was. A beautiful Golden-cheeked Warbler, singing his heart out. Needless to say, on the way back down we saw another, this time sat out in the open for all to see. As we reached the van, Kevin spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk circling above us, and then some Pine Siskin and our final Oriole for the set, Scott's. As the afternoon was drawing to a close, we headed off to our hotel for our evening meal.
Day 11 - 18th April
We had a long drive today, right across Texas to Winnie. But before we started we headed up to the Kerrville Wildlife Area, where we were looking for the Black-capped Vireo again. We eventually found a superb male singing from the top of a bush and all had prolonged views of this superb bird. We started the long haul back to Houston, stopping only at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, where the prairie chickens were not seen, but we did see a few gorgeous Dicksissels, our closest Caracaras, and a Bald Eagle. Closer to Houston we stopped briefly at Katy Ponds, where we saw lots more waders, including our only Wilson's Snipe and Buff-breasted Sandpiper of the trip. Our last stop before Winnie was at Turtle Bayou, where we saw a stunning Red-headed Woodpecker, and Fish Crow.
Day 12 - 19th April
This morning's first stop was the famous Bolivar Flats, where we saw thousands of waders including Snowy, Piping, Wilson's, Semipalmated and Grey Plovers, Marbled Godwit, hundreds of American Avocets, and our target bird Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Offshore we saw more Skimmers, Pelicans, Gulls and Terns, and also a few Northern Gannets, which are rare vagrants in Texas. A short stop by the coast road flushed firstly a Barn Owl, and then a Common Nighthawk, which then perched and posed very nicely.
Next stop was High Island, where we stopped at Boy Scout Woods, which was extremely quiet, and then Smith Oaks, which was not much better. It does hold a large heronry though, and here we saw representatives of all of the Heron Species seen on the trip, and our first American Purple Gallinule. As it was so quiet, we headed for Sabine Woods, and almost immediately found Blue-headed Vireo, Grey-cheeked Thrush, and a wonderful Magnolia Warbler. A succession of birds passed through including American Redstart, another Northern Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks and good numbers of Yellow-billed Cuckoos. We left as the light was failing, and saw American Bittern, and a very close but elusive King Rail was heard.
Day 13 - 20th April
This morning we, and what seemed like a hundred other birders, joined the warden at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge for a "Yellow Rail Walk". This involved walking through knee-high swamp, dragging plastic containers full of stones! On the drive out to the walk site, we saw another American Bittern, this time stood out in the open. However unlikely the walk seemed, it really worked, as first we flushed Sora, then Virginia Rail, and then a Yellow Rail, all of which were seen extremely closely. On the walk back, a real bonus were several Le Conte's Sparrows another extremely localized bird. As we headed out of the reserve, we saw a male Bobolink.
No siesta today, as we headed northwest to Liberty where a single pair of American Swallow-tailed Kites were breeding. After a long wait, during which we were amply entertained by the local dads "bonding" with their kids on the baseball diamond, the bird eventually showed, and soared along the river valley for ten minutes giving everyone superb 'scope views. We headed back towards Winnie via China where a small area of flooded fields produced in excess of 1,000 Whimbrel, three Hudsonian Godwits and a Greater White-fronted Goose. An evening call at Anahuac saw no new birds, but we got a good look at another American Purple Gallinule.
Day 14 - 21st April
Today we headed north to the Big Thicket National Preserve, and our first stop was an agricultural area bounded by pines. We saw and heard the usual Vireos and warblers, and then Kevin caught a brief song from our target bird Bachman's Sparrow. We eventually tracked it down to a fork in a pine tree, and we all got good views. A little further down the road we stopped and followed Kevin into the scrub looking for Swainson's Warbler. Hearing it was not a problem, but it lead us a merry dance up and down the track until we finally saw it down to five feet in an open shrub. As we made our way to the next site, we stopped at every creek looking for our missing Waterthrush, (the Louisiana variety), but to no avail. We did see Prairie Warbler, along with Yellow Chat, a lovely male Blue Grosbeak, and our best view of Mississippi Kite before making our way back to High Island.
Boy Scouts Wood was again quiet, so we made our way over to Smith Oaks. We searched through the woods, picking up a roosting Eastern Screech Owl, some Yellow-billed Cuckoos and then a Black-billed Cuckoo, and then we found a small party of warblers. As the afternoon progressed, small groups of warblers continued to move through, and by the end of the day we had an impressive list which included Yellow-throated, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, Blue-winged, Tennessee, Nashville, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Yellow-throated, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Black and White, Hooded, Kentucky and Worm-eating Warblers, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers and Northern Parula.
This was our best experience of warbler migration and was a wonderful sight with all of these birds within a 50 yard area. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a small marshy area, hoping for King Rail. We heard a Clapper Rail, and the rare Black Rail, but all we saw were a couple of common Nighthawks hawking for insects as dusk set in.
Day 15 - 22nd April
Our last dawned bright, and early. We headed straight down to Sabine Wood where we saw another Wood Thrush, a Northern Waterthrush taking a very wide berth around a large Water Moccasin (extremely large poisonous snake) and a very close Prothonotary Warbler. The only new things were the mosquitoes, which took delight in attacking any uncovered skin. We moved on to the coast at Sea Rim State Park, where we saw an out of place Prairie Warbler, a very close Painted Bunting, and Common Yellowthroat. On the sea and the beach were more Northern Gannets, Killdeer, Piping Plover, American Avocet, and Black, Least, Common, and Royal Terns. On a puddle in the car park were Western and Least Sandpipers. It was then time to head back to the airport for the final log call, and our flight back to London.
We ended up with a list of 322 species, plus another 3 heard to give a total of 325. A systematic list with a few notes is shown below. This was a brilliant tour for which we are all grateful to Kevin for being a super leader. His local knowledge and birding skills were unsurpassed.
All photographs in this report are copyright of Mr Tony Crittenden.