High Island Migration Apr 17—22, 2009

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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The Upper Gulf Coast of Texas in late April may just be the best birding spot in the country at that time of year. The relatively small area covered on our High Island Migration tour offers as much amazing birding variety as any week of birding in North America. The High Island wooded sanctuaries are the best known feature of this amazing spring birding spot, areas of prime coastal migrant habitat now set aside from development. But it's not just the woods. Other natural features of the Upper Gulf Coast region rival the sanctuary woods as must-see birding sites. These include Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, a vast, freshwater marsh system set inside many more acres of grassland and brackish marsh (Anahuac is recovering gradually from the effects of Hurricane Ike in 2008). Bolivar Flats is known as one of the continent's most impressive coastal sites for shorebird and tern aggregations; and rice fields throughout the area, when flooded temporarily during cultivation, can host thousands of migrating sandpipers, plovers, and wading birds.

On the first morning of our 2009 High Island Migration tour we visited a pine sanctuary north of Houston, with the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker topping the list of birds we hoped to find. We entered the woods just after sunrise, while it was still too dark to make out the blue of a nearby Eastern Bluebird. The loud calls of a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers first grabbed our attention, and very soon we were watching them flying overhead and perching on a grand old nest snag. It wasn't long before a Red-cockaded Woodpecker called, and we tracked a pair to the higher reaches of the nearby pines, scoping them as they climbed and peeked out from the branches. Ultimately, we saw about half-a-dozen of the endangered birds, just leaving their night roosts to range widely through the woods. A few minutes more, and a pair of petite Brown-headed Nuthatches posed overhead, as did a Pine Warbler.

By lunchtime the same day we were within shouting distance of the High Island sanctuaries, with visions of warblers and tanagers and buntings. As usual, the trans-Gulf migrations delivered the birds. There were bushes full of Indigo Buntings, the same bushes sprouting orioles and Eastern Kingbirds. Two dozen Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were munching fruit in a couple of modest mulberry trees. And there were lots of warblers, 27 species by the time the tour ended. A male Chestnut-sided Warbler foraged through leaves at eye level—you could have just about touched it. Sky-blue male Cerulean Warblers worked the small branches of a live oak, above a flashing Magnolia Warbler. Kentucky Warblers and an Ovenbird, terrestrial by nature, strode purposefully across the leaf litter in search of food to fuel the next stage of migration. A dazed Yellow-breasted Chat, storm-tossed by recent rain showers, perched in the open. A male Blackpoll, then a male Bay-breasted Warbler, gleaned intently on low branches, while male Hooded Warblers flashed yellow and black. A Philadelphia Warbler foraged methodically along another oak branch, allowing diagnostic views as it examined each leaf for potential inch worms. Along bayous, in canebrakes, and in young pine plantations we found some warblers already nesting: loud-voiced Swainson's Warblers, fancy Prothonotary and Yellow-throated warblers, and buzzing Prairie Warblers.

Each day the renowned coastal patches of woods revealed the reds and yellows of Scarlet and Summer tanagers, the orange and chestnut of Baltimore and Orchard orioles, and the many hues of male Painted Buntings. Wood Thrushes, Swainson's Thrushes, and an occasional Gray-cheeked Thrush hopped in the shade of the large trees.

The Bolivar Flats sanctuary of coastal beach and dunes, though damaged by September's Hurricane Ike, still showed us an amazing variety of shorebirds and terns. Piping and Semipalmated plovers strode side by side, and later a Wilson's Plover eyed us carefully. Red Knots and Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlin all showed rich breeding colors. Terns clanked and growled overhead or stood together side by side on the sand for careful comparison: Sandwich Terns alongside Royal, Forster's, Common, Least, and Caspian, with a raft of Black Skimmers alongside as well.

We also scanned flooded fields inland from the coast for migrating shorebirds, and were rewarded with hundreds of birds, from White-rumped to Pectoral sandpipers. In drier fields we found Upland Sandpipers, a few of these almost standing on the road, and American Golden-Plovers. An agricultural pond was loaded with dowitchers and, among them, one Hudsonian Godwit. Deeper pockets of freshwater hosted a couple of Least Bitterns and scintillating Purple Gallinules. And the High Island heronry shone with brightly-feathered Roseate Spoonbills.

The group took part one morning in an organized rail walk at Anahuac Refuge. With a couple of dozen birders forming a phalanx, we walked in unison across the marsh, and to everyone's delight flushed Yellow Rails, Soras, and Virginia Rails—not to mention Sedge Wrens, Seaside Sparrows, and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows. The same day we came upon a pair of King Rails, one of many welcome surprises of this memorable tour. Just when it seemed like we had seen almost everything possible, a kettle of 100+ Mississippi Kites swirled in low over High Island—an unforgettable moment.