High Island Migration Apr 18—25, 2008

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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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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Our High Island Migration tour offers as much amazing birding variety as any week of any birding tour in North America. The High Island sanctuaries, areas of prime coastal migrant habitat now set aside from development, are the best known feature of this very bird-rich region. But other facets of the Upper Gulf Coast region rival the sanctuary woods as phenomenal birding sites. These include Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, a vast, freshwater marsh system set inside many more acres of grassland and brackish marsh; Bolivar Flats, one of the continent's most impressive coastal sites for shorebird and tern aggregations; and the spring rice fields throughout the area, which are flooded temporarily in the cultivation process and serve as prime stopover areas for thousands of migrating sandpipers.

The first morning of our 2008 High Island Migration tour took us to a pine forest preserve north of Houston in search of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. We entered the woods just after sunrise, in the cool of the morning. Within a few minutes a Red-cockaded Woodpecker was heard calling. Soon we were watching half-a-dozen of the endangered birds, just leaving their night roosts. A few minutes more, and a trio of boldly-colored Red-headed Woodpeckers perched for scope views, followed quickly by a pair of huge Pileated Woodpeckers, which posed right above our heads. By now the forest had come fully alive with morning activity, as Brown-headed Nuthatches, Pine Warblers, and other birds flitted among the branches.

A memorable encounter with an endangered woodpecker is a great way to start a day of birding. But what most birders have foremost on their minds on a spring visit to the High Island area are visions of warblers. All kinds of warblers. And we weren't to be disappointed, as 27 warbler species were seen by our group during the course of the tour. We watched for ten or more rapt minutes as a diminutive male Cerulean Warbler foraged methodically through the leaves of a huge live oak. Kentucky Warblers and Ovenbirds walked across the leaf litter, Hooded Warblers flitted like sparks of yellow and black, and American Redstarts hovered and flashed their tail feathers. One early evening at Smith Oaks it seemed to rain Black-throated Green Warblers. Dashing Magnolia Warblers showed off at eye level, and a male Canada Warbler—a scarce visitor here—showed itself in fine detail. Some warblers we found already on nesting territories: strong-singing Swainson's Warblers in the canebrakes, and sweet-singing Prothonotary and Yellow-throated warblers in the feathery leaves of bayou cypress trees.

Nearly every visit to these famed coastal patches of woods was rewarded with bright splashes of color: Scarlet and Summer tanagers plucking ripe mulberries alongside Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Our first afternoon at High Island, a multi-hued Painted Bunting bathed in a shallow pond in the woods, as all pairs of binoculars turned its way. Yellow-billed Cuckoos glided in, most in search of tent caterpillars. A Philadelphia Vireo worked methodically through the leaves, revealing its yellow underparts and distinctive face pattern.

The Bolivar Flats sanctuary of coastal beach and dunes lived up to its stellar reputation. A petite Snowy Plover stood side by side with Piping and Semipalmated plovers, as a thousand or more burnished copper American Avocets strode in the background. Terns called raucously overhead or sat together on the beach—Sandwich Terns alongside Royal, Forster's, Least, and Caspian. Reddish Egrets danced in the shallows just off the beach, as they plucked prey from the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Grassy and flooded fields inland from the coast provide havens for migrating sandpipers and plovers. We scoped Upland Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers stalking among herds of Brahma cattle. Wet fields were a magnet for White-rumped, Pectoral, and other sandpipers on the way north from South America. Our final morning, a newly flooded complex of rice fields was crawling with Buff-breasted Sandpipers, as migrating Dickcissels called in the background.

Our group took part one morning in an organized rail walk at Anahuac Refuge. With dozens of birders forming a phalanx, we walked in unison across the Yellow Rail Prairie. Several Yellow Rails—a much-wanted sighting for many birders—flushed up, fluttering in plain view. Even luckier, we flushed up a couple of rare Black Rails, close enough to see the rusty brown highlights on the tiny bird's charcoal-gray back. A drive along the nearby freshwater marsh gave us terrific views of secretive Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinules, not to mention a goodly supply of alligators.

The High Island Migration tour remains hard to beat as a spectacle of spring bird migration in North America.