High Island Migration Apr 18—25, 2007

Posted by Bob Sundstrom


Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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On the first morning of our 2007 High Island Migration tour we set out with high hopes of an encounter with the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. We were not disappointed. As we first entered the pine woods where the woodpeckers were known to nest, a Red-cockaded Woodpecker called and was soon located. Very likely, it had just emerged from its nest hole in the cool of early morning. The rare woodpecker was soon the subject of viewing in the spotting scopes. Not long after, we had fine scope studies of glamorous Red-headed Woodpeckers and huge Pileateds?and then a group of four or five more of the scarce and local Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers were seen nearby, and Wood Ducks perched on branches. A fine start to the first day!

Soon we were working our way along rural roads, east toward our lodgings in Winnie and the High Island area. Not far from the Trinity River, we pulled over with great excitement to watch an American Swallow-tailed Kite soar low, right over the road?an immediate tour highlight of graceful form and flight. This species was a very nice surprise, being quite scarce in the area. Not long after, several small flocks of Mississippi Kites glided by. A few miles east, a roadside field hosted dozens of migrating shorebirds, among them a number of Buff-breasted Sandpipers foraging in close view.

After lunch and a break at our motel (where we would spend the next six nights), we were on the way to visit the High Island sanctuaries where we would enjoy our first views of trans-Gulf migrants. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard orioles, and Gray Catbirds fed in the sanctuaries' mulberry trees. Wood Thrushes and Swainson's Thrushes hopped on the leaf litter, offering bits of their musical songs.

Over the following days of the tour we would revisit the coastal woods sanctuaries, as well as breeding areas a short drive north, in search of trans-Gulf migrants. Our patient searching paid rich dividends. We saw 27 species of warblers, including many of the highly sought species. A Swainson's Warbler, known as a tough-to-see skulker, sang at eye level in the open, as multiple pairs of binoculars locked onto its tawny form. A male Blackburnian Warbler, its head a brilliant orange, foraged close overhead, inspiring grateful comments. The much hoped for Cerulean Warbler, a male, turned up in the oaks along a residential street in Port Bolivar. We saw multiple Yellow-throated Warblers, true gems of color and pattern, as well as a couple of Golden-winged Warblers, another much sought species. Dashing Magnolia Warblers showed off at eye level, Prothonotary Warblers sang in a cypress bayou, Hooded Warblers flashed their tail feathers, Ovenbirds strode the shady forest floor, and a Kentucky Warbler came to the Scout Woods drip for a bath.

One afternoon at High Island, we watched two different Black-billed Cuckoos?a scant visitor here?as they delicately removed tent caterpillars from their webbing. Yellow-billed Cuckoos were nearly a daily sight. Lush-hued Scarlet Tanagers were present in luxuriant quantities, often with a ripe mulberry in their bills. We picked out a couple of Philadelphia Vireos from the more common vireos for close examination, and had careful studies of Gray-cheeked Thrush and Veery. A couple of migrating Dickcissels perched up on roadside fences, as did pairs of elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

The group took part one morning in an organized rail walk at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. With dozens of birders forming a phalanx, we walked in unison across the Yellow Rail Prairie, and were lucky enough to see the bird for which the area is named. Three Yellow Rails flushed up and were seen well by the group. Some of the group were even luckier, as a couple of rare, tiny Black Rails flushed up, flying only a few feet before dropping back into the vegetation. A morning drive along the freshwater marsh in the refuge turned up spectacular views of miniature Least Bitterns and glistening Purple Gallinules, flocks of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, and small groups of Gull-billed Terns?plus all the alligators one could hope to see.

Shorebirds and seabirds are also big attractions of the High Island area in spring. All four species of small plovers?Snowy, Piping, Semipalmated, and Wilson's?stood on the sand of Bolivar Flats for comparison, as Least Terns clattered overhead. We scoped mixed roosts of Sandwich, Royal, Forster's, and Common terns along the shoreline, as thousands of stunning American Avocets collected in the background. Hudsonian Godwits, Red Knots, White-rumped Sandpipers, and Wilson's Phalaropes numbered among the 33 species of shorebirds seen on our tour. Herons, egrets, night-herons, ibises, and spoonbills were there to enjoy each day. A visit to a High Island heronry left its own lasting impression: brilliant Roseate Spoonbills with tiny pink chicks, surrounded by extravagantly plumaged Tricolored Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets, all attending their nests.

Our High Island Migration tour remains one of the premier venues for watching spring bird migration in North America, making the most of a region that routinely lives up to its renowned reputation.