High Island Migration Apr 20—25, 2011

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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On the first morning of our 2011 High Island Migration tour, our group set out with high hopes of an encounter with the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. We first entered the pine woods where the woodpeckers were known to nest just before sunrise, and set our sights on several trees with evidence of use by Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. After a quiet vigil of 10 minutes or so, a woodpecker began to peek out from a nest hole in the cool of early morning. Within another 10 minutes there were several Red-cockaded Woodpeckers ranging up and down the trunks of nearby pines, ready subjects for viewing in the spotting scopes. Not long after, we had fine scope studies of glamorous Red-headed Woodpeckers and the first Pileated Woodpeckers of the trip. Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers flitted nearby, and Wood Ducks flew through the trees. A fine start to the first day of our trip!

Soon we were working our way along rural roads, east toward our lodgings in Winnie and birding in the High Island area. As we drove through the town of Liberty, soaring birds caught our eyes—a group of Mississippi Kites were moving through, low over the big trees in a residential area. Farther east, several Upland Sandpipers posed in a pasture they shared with Brahma cattle.

After lunch and a break at our motel (where we would spend the next four nights), we were on the way to visit the High Island sanctuaries, where we would enjoy our first views of trans-Gulf migrants. The unusual weather this spring—many days of extremely strong winds from the southeast coupled with a prolonged drought—made the search for migrating songbirds more difficult than during a typical year. It is a testament to the richness of the birding in the High Island vicinity that we still put together an admirable list of birds, with an especially amazing showing of migrating shorebirds.

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 watched a male Swainson's Warbler—one of the most notorious skulkers—singing in the open from a series of perches, including a utility wire. A Blackburnian Warbler, perhaps the most brightly colored of all warblers, gleaned methodically through the leaves of an oak, as we followed it in our binoculars. Prothonotary Warblers, feathered in the deepest of yellows, sang from cypress knees. A male Painted Bunting sang from atop a bush, patiently waiting for all to view it in the spotting scope. A Kentucky Warbler walked calmly out into the open at the edge of a small pond, posing for all to see. Baltimore and Orchard orioles flocked to the tassels of pecan trees. An orange-faced Nelson's Sparrow perched in marsh grass not 15 feet from the group.

The High Island area is also one of the best in the country to see rails. A group walk through a marshy expanse at Anahuac refuge resulted in fine views of King Rail and the notoriously secretive Yellow Rail. Clapper Rails and Soras were surprisingly cooperative. Tiny Least Bitterns, a good find anywhere, posed at close range for long views and photos.

And we truly hit the jackpot with shorebirds. Between the coastal beach and dunes of Bolivar Flats and inland flooded rice fields, we had excellent views of 35 species of shorebirds. Hundreds of American Avocets in breeding plumage packed together at high tide, alongside Marbled Godwits and American Oystercatchers. Red Knots roosted shoulder to shoulder with Dunlin, Sanderlings, and Black-bellied Plovers. Almost side by side were the continent's four small plovers: Snowy, Piping, Semipalmated, and Wilson's. In the rice fields, when flooded for cultivation and the water is just the right depth, the shorebirding can be astounding. In one field alone there were American Golden-Plovers, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Stilt Sandpipers, and 18 Hudsonian Godwits, plus 10 other species of shorebirds. Whimbrels strode the fields by the hundreds, and a few Wilson's Phalaropes spun in the shallow water. As we drove the open farm country to reach the flooded fields, we stopped to enjoy Dickcissels and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers perched on fence lines along the road, as well as a pair of Northern Crested Caracaras and a rare-for-the-area White-tailed Hawk.

As if this weren't enough, there is a very busy nesting area for wading birds in High Island, which can be viewed from a short distance. Dozens of pairs of Roseate Spoonbills nest alongside Tricolored Herons and Great and Snowy egrets, as pairs of Neotropic Cormorants grunt from their nests higher up. Alligators swim by in the moat between viewers and waders, while enormous softshell turtles bask on the bank. Here too, a pair of Purple Gallinules showed every hue of purple, blue, and green iridescence.

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.