High Island Migration Apr 16—21, 2010

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 ranks as perhaps the best birding spot in the country that time of year. The relatively small area covered on our High Island Migration tour offers more amazing birding variety than just about any week of birding in North America. The High Island wooded sanctuaries are the best-known feature of the area, as hot spots of prime coastal migrant habitat now set aside from development. But our High Island tour is not just about the woods. Other natural features of the Upper Gulf Coast region rival the sanctuary woods as must-see birding sites, including 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 and nearby coastal sites, known for impressive shorebird and tern aggregations; and rice fields throughout the area, which when flooded temporarily during cultivation can host thousands of migrating sandpipers, plovers, and wading birds.

On the first morning of our 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 a ready subject for viewing in the spotting scopes. At the same time, we had fine scope studies of glamorous Red-headed Woodpeckers and a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches clinging to a trunk nearby. A fine start to our 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 watched with great excitement a group of American Swallow-tailed Kites soaring over a nearby granary—an immediate tour highlight of graceful form and flight. This species was a very nice surprise, being quite scarce in the area. A few miles east, a roadside field hosted migrating Upland Sandpipers and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, both species that can be tough to pin down during migration.

After lunch and a break at our motel, we were on the way to a first visit to the High Island wooded sanctuaries, where we would enjoy our first views of trans-Gulf migrants. Here were Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Gray Catbirds, Orchard Orioles, and an assortment of warblers coming to a small pond in the High Island woods. It is with hopes of a nice variety of warblers that every High Island trip begins, and we were fortunate to see 25 species of warblers during this six-day tour—despite the fact that spring arrivals of birds from the Tropics were running a week or so later than normal.

The more than two dozen warblers we saw included Blue-winged Warblers—tiny, deep yellow warblers flitting out from the woods' shrubby understory, and singing Northern Parulas, at nest sites in the bayous and foraging in the migrant woods. Chestnut-sided Warblers just began to arrive the last days of the trip, and we had close views of a couple of males. Beautifully ornamented Yellow-throated Warblers turned up as migrants in the coastal woods, and nesting in the same bayou area where we had the view of a lifetime of a male Swainson's Warbler as it sang in the open on a bare twig. Several male Cerulean Warblers were crowd pleasers, gleaning methodically overhead and showing tidy blue necklaces and stunning blue backs. American Redstarts flashed their bold orange and black patterns, and glowing-yellow Prothonotary Warblers sang in the bayous and stopped by as migrants. We came upon a wealth of Worm-eating Warblers, a somewhat secretive species that can sometimes be a challenge to find; we must have seen a couple dozen! Both Louisiana and Northern waterthrushes walked the edge of the same wooded pond—a very edifying comparison. And there were lots of migrant Kentucky Warblers, walking the forest leaf litter, and loads of tail-flashing Hooded Warblers.

Warblers are hard to beat, some of the finest gems of all North American birds. But we also enjoyed bevies of thrushes—Wood, Swainson's, and Gray-cheeked—hopping over the shady forest floor. There were neon-orange Baltimore Orioles, lots of chunky Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and we had wonderful views of both Black-billed and Yellow-billed cuckoos. After some midday thundershowers, we found brushy edges full of Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, and some early-arriving Dickcissels. We took time to admire several pairs of elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, already nesting in the open country near High Island. Merlins showed nicely too, speedy predators also migrating north.

At Anahuac Refuge, the freshwater marsh was showing signs of recovery from 2008's devastating Hurricane Ike, as a drive along the marsh turned up nice views of miniature Least Bitterns and glistening Purple Gallinules. King Rails, including a pair with chicks, offered superb views, as did the Clapper Rails of the salt marsh.

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—posed nicely. We scoped mixed roosts of Least, Sandwich, Royal, Forster's, and Common terns along the shoreline, often alongside flocks of Black Skimmers. Hudsonian Godwits turned up a number of times in the rice fields and tidal areas, always a treat to find in migration. 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, 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 more than lives up to its storied reputation.