Rockport Workshop Mar 07—11, 2013

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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The concept of a “birding workshop” was developed by Victor Emanuel over 30 years ago. Unlike a traditional birding tour that seeks as many birds as possible according to an established tour route, a workshop-style tour stresses the fundamentals of birding, where learning the “nuts-and-bolts” of field identification is more important than amassing a large list. There are two key ingredients to operating a successful workshop. The first is utilizing experienced field leaders who are well-suited for imparting knowledge without overwhelming the participants with too much information. The second is choosing a location for the workshop where birds are both abundant and easy to see.

This March, we operated our first birding workshop in many years, hosted by Kenn Kaufman and Victor Emanuel, two of the deans of North American birding, in addition to longtime VENT leader Barry Lyon. Victor and Kenn have been friends for 40 years. Together they bring a monumental ledger of field observation and instruction. The Central Texas Coast community of Rockport was chosen as the host site for this workshop as it is one of the country’s premier birding areas, principally for its close proximity to the world’s wintertime population of Whooping Cranes.

Our program included three days of birding a matrix of habitats from Goose Island (north of Rockport) to the beaches of Port Aransas an hour to the south, while each night culminated with an instructional presentation by Kenn Kaufman. Each day our group of 21 participants divided into smaller groups of 7, each group traveling with a different leader. With an eye toward quality over quantity, Kenn set the tone for the trip through his various field “assignments.” On the first day, for example, we were required to use bill size and shape to identify 10 species of birds representing three different families. The point of this exercise was to encourage detailed study of birds. Our routine included prolonged studies of common birds, as demonstrated by the 40 minutes Barry’s group spent at a pond one afternoon watching a Pied-billed Grebe, a Little Blue Heron, and a Redhead; and the long study Kenn’s group enjoyed of an Eared Grebe at Goose Island.

Highlights from our day at Goose Island and the shoreline of St. Charles Bay included a superb tableau of herons and egrets at a roadside pond; studying a variety of sparrows, warblers, and other land birds in the state park; and perhaps best of all, watching Sandhill and Whooping cranes feeding side by side north of the state park. On another day we traveled to the beaches of Port Aransas, which provided exposure to the open Gulf of Mexico. Despite a blustery, stormy start to the morning, we enjoyed a bevy of avian spoils including the season’s first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, an out of range Great Kiskadee, and beaches filled with hundreds of gulls, terns, and shorebirds. An added bonus was a walk out the Caldwell Pier that brought us to within feet of a wintering Black-legged Kittiwake. An afternoon trip to the Port Aransas Birding Center, a jewel of a place, was simply awesome, as the birds here are habituated to people and ridiculously easy to see.

For anyone who birds in Texas, especially first-time visitors, it is the opportunity to see Whooping Cranes that is the focal point of a trip to the Central Coast. And this certainly held true for our group. Our boat trip on Aransas Bay will remain singular in our memories for the more than 15 Whooping Cranes we saw, a number of which were family groups with young. Besides Whoopers, we were treated to a variety of other handsome birds including feeding Reddish Egrets, beautiful American Oystercatchers, Crested Caracaras, and a Peregrine Falcon.