This report is deliberately succinct. The reason being to get the thing on the 'net asap! There are countless Texas Trip Reports on the 'net where you can site pick Target Birds. The idea of this report is to give topical information on specific species that I needed…and maybe you need…we all have different agenda's…right?
My plan was to try and see as many Target Birds as possible…concentrating on late wintering species, as Easter was so early, plus as many of the rarities that were still around (some twitching US style). It would be difficult, but enjoyable. As for most birder's I guess, the need to see new species gets stronger and harder! Diminishing Returns. One birder's rarity is another's easy peasy.
This was my 5th trip to Texas during the Easter fortnight in 6 years (missed last year due to an operation). For me Texas is an extension/continuation of my British Birding. Sure I could go to Africa, South America, Asia etc and rack up many hundreds of ticks in one trip…but I prefer to build a list in one specific area i.e. Texas/N.America. Doubling the fun is the preperation of the trip, using the internet, contacting fellow birders and following the latest news on the various e-mail sites i.e Texbirds.
I was hoping to bump my Texas list up to 400.
Texas ticks in capitals…allow me some small self-indulgence to tell my little story.
Met with Jesse Fagan who showed me around some sites in the Nacogdoches area. We started at Kurth Lake looking for Horned Grebe, no luck, but scored with 2 BALD EAGLES. This species is apparently on the increase as a breeder in Texas. Moved on to the Nacogdoches Treatment Plant where we managed good flight views of WOOD DUCK. We then tried Saint Rests Rd and heard but unfortunately didn't see EASTERN TOWHEE.
Jesse then took me to a private sight for the big prize of HENSLOW'S SPARROW…eventually having excellent views of a bird sitting low in brambles. A bonus was to be had when Jesse gave me directions to the Airport where I scored in the shape of SPRAGUE'S PIPIT…seen doing it's characteristic "flush flight pattern"
Arrived at dawn at Bear Creek Park, west of Houston hoping to connect with a late Red-breasted Nuthatch…3 Hours later I was beginning to wonder.
Moved on east to find Russ Pitman Park in downtown Houston hoping to "twitch" (a strange English term for chase!) a Rufous Hummingbird. After finding my way to the feeders I didn't have to wait long before I was looking at a fine female RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD.
Long afternoon/evening drive to McAllen arriving @ 9pm. Good rest and ready to (hopefully) see some of the many rarities the valley was holding in this special winter.
Thought (hard) about a detour to try for the Streaked-backed Oriole @ Brazos Bend…but with no definite info' made a pass. Hope that was the right decision (I'm sure someone will let me know if it wasn't!)…Still there April 8th!!! Oh dear.
Dawn start (7.30am) @ Frontera Audubon, Weslaco. Acting on a tip from a fellow birder (thanks…can't remember his name) I tried the Mulberry on 11th St and within 10 mins found myself looking @ WHITE-THROATED ROBIN. I then moved back to the actual reserve (8am opening) and paid my dues. The lady behind the desk said she could hear the Ani's calling, with the door still swinging I was feasting myself on great views of 4 GROOVE-BILLED ANI'S (they later became much more elusive). Strolled round the reserve for the next hour or so hoping to see Crimson-collared Grosbeak and/or Elegant Trogon. It was starting to warm up now and bird activity was low. Tried the feeding station…good decision, for as soon as I sat down a female CRIMSON-COLLARED GROSBEAK hopped into view! Pushing my luck now I continued my search for the Trogon (I thought I'd be looking in Arizona for this one!). I remembered someone in reception mentioning yesterday's sighting near the "taped off" area, so I thought I'd hang around there for a while. Another good decision…for as I rounded the corner and saw the tapes the ELEGANT TROGON flew across the path in front of me, alighted briefly, and then disappeared. Apparently mine was the only sighting that morning. A brilliant experience…4 lifers in one morning…you can't buy it in a bottle!!
Spent the afternoon @ my favourite valley location Santa Ana. Main target here was the Roadside Hawk, with chances of Tropical Parula and Hook-billed Kite. No luck with any of these but on the way back to my trusty rental after a fruitless vigil @ the Roadside Hawk "pre-roost tree", I mentioned to one of the staff I still needed Great Horned Owl. She advised me to hang around the tall mast (there's only one) as one usually perches up there about 6.50…guess what…GREAT HORNED OWL 6.50. Brilliant 'scope views.
Left the Motel…I'm a committed 6 man! Well before dawn. Grabbed the mandatory French Vanilla 24oz coffee (wish they had those machines @ English stations) and Apple Danish and set up beneath the Chase Bank Tower in McAllen. Target Peregrine Falcon…no recent info, but sure enough as day dawned a PEREGRINE FALCON materialised sat preening on the letter H!…can't guarantee the letter.
Drove back down to Santa Ana to join the Hawk Watch. Signed in with Gene (didn't catch his second name) then, as it was a little early for raptor activity, I decided to try for the Tropical Parula that had been reported singing yesterday. Sure enough within 15mins I could hear a Purula singing, but which one? I mention this because the "bird" had characteristics of Northern i.e. eye arcs…note Sibley illustrates example of rare variant…comments welcome?
Speaking later to Gene he convinced me that it was a TROPICAL PARULA mentioning a Northern wouldn't be singing @ this location?…after all I'm only a Limey!
Back to the Hawk Watch hoping for my Nemesis Hook-billed Kite…no joy on that score, but tremendous fortune again, as on my return I found Gene and others 'scoping a "Hawk" in a tree. After much deliberation based on plumage detail and behaviour ROADSIDE HAWK was the conclusion…Brilliant. Also had superb views of Ringed Kingfisher here.
Drove through the heat of the day down to Sabal Palms @ Brownsville to try for the Gray -crowned Yellowthroat. As I was coming down the Valley for the Parrot roost I thought I would give it a try, although I wasn't that confident as my timing wasn't ideal. Found the spot and gave it 2 Hrs (2 - 4)…not even a hint.
Moved on to San Benito to try and finally catch up with Red-crowned Parrot. Acting on information from two birders I met at Frontera…thanks lads, I positioned myself outside the Dairy Queen @ 5.30pm…no sight or sound!
About 5.45 I saw three probables fly over in the direction of the Camino Real Retirement Camp. I decided to drive onto the site (behind Dairy Queen) and immediately heard the unmistakable "squawking" of Parrots. Arriving @ 5th and Palm I could see Parrots on the wires. Estimated c30 RED-CROWNED PARROTS, C10 Green Parakeet and what looked like a Red-lored?
Second attempt for the Yellowthroat. Arrived @ Sabal Palms 7.15am and waited. 8am had the bird singing but couldn't get a fix on it…frustrating! Finally after much searching, I had it in my 'bins. GRAY-CROWNED YELLOWTHROAT singing at the base of its usual bush…I did stay behind the fence!
Next stop Brownsville University to try for Golden-crowned Warbler. There had been no reports for a while but I thought I'd give it a go while I was in the area.
Basically…no warblers at all @ this site.
Heat of day and beyond drive…to visit Allen William's house in Pharr. This location had been mentioned frequently on Texbirds and I was looking forward to seeing it for myself. Arrived fairly late (got lost) @ 5.30pm but immediately saw another Crimson-collared Grosbeak…a male this time. Allen then arrived home and as we were talking we had the bird I was hoping to see…ROSE-THROATED BECARD sitting in, you guessed it…a mulberry tree! Also of note @ this location was a singing Clay-coloured Robin, Buff-bellied Hummingbird and Eastern Screech-Owl.
Started Good Friday @ Bentson for another Hawk Watch…Hook-billed Kite? Was walking down to the Platform…and what a platform (a lot of money!), when I was offered a lift by the guy in charge…didn't catch his name but saved me a walk…thanks. Enjoyed the 4 hours of raptor watching, but still no Kite. This was becoming a problem bird for me. Apparently they had 3 Hook-billed Kite's regularly over the platform the week before…no more snails?
Dusky-capped Flycatcher…not a bird I'd considered. There had been reports earlier in the winter, but nothing definite recently! Anyway, again through info' from a fellow birder, I grasped a rumour that the bird was still present on Cannon Road.
I have seen this bird in Arizona, but I do like my Texas ticks. Made my way down on the "Old Military Highway" mid-afternoon. Found the Cannon, then the site and waited. Distinctive call heard from other side of drain but in two hours no sign. As I was contemplating giving up for the day a 4x4 approached along the track. It turned out to be the man who originally found the bird! (again can't remember his name). He told me it had been seen on both sides of the drain. He also told me he had had two other Dusky-capped Flycatcher's this winter, one of which was in his garden! Anyway, he told me I could access the wood from the other side of the drain, so I planned to try first thing in the morning. Blank Day.
Back past the cannon @ dawn and into position. Heard the bird calling almost immediately and made my way into the wood. The guides say this species prefers the shade near water and this bird certainly confirmed that. After a 20 minute wander I was looking @ a calling DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER, the bird was in my bins perched on a dead snag. All sorted by 8am. I particularly enjoyed this adventure…a surprise tick and a good twitch/chase.
Big drive for the rest of the day as I left the Valley in preparation for my meeting with Martin Reid @ Pearsall for my attempt to see the Rufous-capped Warbler. Made a brief/futile attempt to make it to the sod/turf farm NW of Pearsall to locate any late Mountain Plovers…like I said futile, they left over a week ago.
Met Martin @ the arranged spot and together with a couple from Oregon…(yep, didn't get there names!) we made our way to the Halff Brothers Ranch. Martin (a fellow Englishman and Football/Soccer fan) gave us the disappointing news that the bird was not seen during his previous visit on Friday. Undaunted we searched the area thoroughly but we were to be thwarted. There was some consolation for me @ least in the form of a wintering CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHER, no big deal in rarity terms but a bird I did not expect to add to my Texas list this trip. Had a good chat with Martin…cheers pal, then I was on my way north-west again.
I had decided to have a go for the Texas Mega…Red-breasted Sapsucker @ Lawrence E Woods picnic area in the Davis Mountains. I figured even if I struck out on this bird there were other birds I needed in this area that might still be around.
Left the 6 @ Fort Stockton well before dawn and arrived @ the picnic area just after. I won't bore you (maybe I already have!) but despite an overlong search of the area for 3 hrs, no sign of the Red-breasted or any other Sapsuckers. My theory is the bird departed over the Easter weekend, maybe due to disturbance from picknickers @ the site?
Note: Saw some female type finches briefly, marked on face…Cassin's? Would you get House Finches @ this altitude? Help.
Although I would be arriving at noon I had to try Fort Davis S.P. as I was to have a go for a bird that had eluded me on several occasions…Phainopepla. After paying more dues I was directed to "the birder" in the RV by the feeding station. The same spot where 2 years ago I (and I'm sure many of you) watched a pair of Montezuma's Quail magically appear then disappear! The man informed me (mysteriously from behind the screen of his RV door!) that my best chance was to try the primitive area across the road from the entrance. I retraced my steps to the reception area and was given the code for the lock to access this area. I needn't have bothered, because as I walked across the main road a cracking male PHAINOPEPLA flew over my head and landed in a bush 20m away! I had searched long and hard for this bird in west Texas so I considered this payback time.
Moved on to try the Sheffield Picnic Area (exit 343 I-10) for another Nemesis bird of mine…Gray Vireo. All I got was a nice tan!
Spent late afternoon down some farm roads looking for sparrows. All the roads I checked are well known and publicised…suffice to say I notched my not so difficult BREWER'S SPARROW.
Drove the evening into the Panhandle…my first visit.
I had arranged to meet Anthony Hewitson in Lubbuck. I called him for directions to his house and he told me to first try Clapp Park for one of my targets, Hooded Merganser. After some confusion I found the lake in question and was soon 'scoping 5 HOODED MERGANSERS…a good start to my time in the far north of the state. After visiting Anthony…many thanks, I decided to head northwest to Mulshoe NNR. Unfortunately the weather now came into play in the form of a very strong westerly wind. The dust storm in central Lubbock was something else!
At Muleshoe the wind strength was no less, but much less dust i.e. I could see! My so-called sure thing (yes, I know, there's no such…) here was Sandhill Crane. Now due to my extended stay in "the valley" I admit things were getting a little/very late but I felt there might be a few late stragglers still about. After speaking to the warden I realized my vigil was in vain, as due to the unusual amount of rain and therefore the full lakes, the Sandhills had transferred to New Mexico.
Drove the evening to Amarillo.
Had arranged to meet with Dick Wilberforce @ 5am in Canadian to go with him to the Lesser-Prairie Chicken Lek. This meant leaving the 6 @ Amarillo @ 3am! Made it…just…and off we ventured into the night. Arrived @ the site just before dawn, walking the last hundred yards to the purpose built hide. It was a beautiful clear, crisp (bloody cold…3000+ feet remember) morning and we could hear plenty of calling all around us. Once in the hide/blind we settled down and were treated to an amazingly close display by c40 LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKENS over the next couple of hours. You could see where the Native Americans got their dances from! Dick then took me back via Lipscomb a lovely spot…if you want to see Wild Turkeys well, this is the very place for you.
Having said goodbye to Dick…and paid my balance! I moved onto Lake Marvin…nice spot but few birds, although I did see another pair of Hooded Mergansers…to late?
It was late afternoon now and my strategy was to try the farm roads for Ring-necked Pheasant. Don had given me a tip; I tried the road north out of Miami (285). After 5.5miles I was looking @ a male RING-NECKED PHEASANT.
Don said this road has plenty of pheasants early morning and late afternoon but I only saw one. One will do, right.
Made my way back to Amarillo via Miami and scored big style by "lucking" on a fine FERRUGINOUS HAWK perched on a roadside pole. I was beginning to think I would miss this bird…marvellous.
Time to drive up to the far northwest of the Panhandle and visit Rita Blanca Grasslands. Tried the famous Area 18 and connected nicely with @ least 4 LONG-EARED OWLS…which flushed only once…honest! This was definitely a bonus tick. I had fantastic 'scope views…those orange eyes.
Continued on to Thompson Grove were I had a group of Bluebirds briefly. Some of the female types had no colour on the underparts. Suggesting Mountain. Help.
Drove through midday back to Lake Rita Blanca…it was now SNOWING…soon to become a BLIZZARD!!!…not great views…and slightly different conditions to the 100F of the Valley! Managed to find a spot by the lake and using the car as a hide I managed to 'scope the wildfowl on the lake edge, and there was plenty, a nice spot…Bingo…7 ROSS'S GEESE with Snow Geese for comparison…I was doing well. Apparently this is another species on the increase in Texas.
Tried Cactus Playa (gate locked) and Lake Meredith (very quiet) on the way back to Amarillo.
Received a text informing me of a male Belted Kingfisher back home in England…April fool? Apparently not. Should I catch a plane home…mmmmmm.
Met with Barrett Pierce and had a thoroughly enjoyable day as he took me around some of his regular spots…thanks again Barrett. We started in the Alanread area, were he took me to a site which eventually produced a single late AMERICAN TREE SPARROW…sure thought I'd missed that one! Likewise the next species. As we 'scoped Greenbelt Lake we managed to pick out 2 HORNED GREBES. Other notable sitings during the day included fantastic 'scope views of a Great Horned Owl nest…adult and 4 young, another Ferruginous Hawk, many species of Wildfowl and Waders @ various Playas along 1258…never seen so many Kestrels! Finally, back to the trusty rental via 1151 and the Prairie Dog Colony with mandatory Burrowing Owls.
Looooooong drive back to Houston, Friday evening - Saturday morning
Total 4,230 miles!!!…didn't make it to the North East!
Well…another fantastic Texas adventure. 13 days dawn to dusk birding. These holidays are Utopia for yours truly, combining all elements of my idea of a quality time…well nearly all! Scraped to the 400 mark. Some excellent Texas ticks and some great memories. Many of the birds on my miss list had probably, some certainly, gone. To say I was chasing the calendar I am well pleased. Winter visit next.
Special thanks to: Margo Holst, Jesse Fagan, John Odgers, Allen Williams, Martin Reid, Anthony Hewitson, John.P.Gee, Dick Wilberforce, Barrett Pierce….who were contacted during my visit.
Thanks also to: David Bradford, Howard Laidlaw, Nick Block, Jim Hinson, Rich Armstrong, Guy Lineau, Rich Kostecke, Bert Frenz, Eric Carpenter, Sheridan Coffey, Derek Muschalek, Martin and Connie Hagne, Lawrence Duhon, Phil Craighead, Lee Lemons, Brandon Best, Dale Ohl, Mark Lockwood…who provided me with excellent information.
Other Birders mentioned in report whose names I didn't note.
Sites mentioned, unless stated, can be found in the extensive literature available.
Feel free to contact me. Hope there are not to many errors!
Alan Whitehead, York, England
Derwent.Ings AT Spl.at
You can't please everybody…so you've got to please yourself!
Footnote…Just to bring me back down to earth, I've just read the Streaked-backed Oriole IS still present April 8th @ Brazos Bend!!!
Texas Targets Seen - in Chronological Order
GREAT HORNED OWL
AMERICAN TREE SPARROW
Texas List 400!
Targets missed - which were tried for