High Island Migration Apr 18—24, 2013

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 locale in the country at that point in the spring. The relatively small area covered during 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 preserved aside from development. But the 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: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, a vast, fresh water marsh system set inside many more acres of grassland and brackish marsh; 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 the 2013 High Island Migration tour, our group set out with high hopes for an encounter with the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  We were not disappointed: during a sunrise vigil about 50 yards from an active nest cavity we watched a Red-cockaded Woodpecker first peek out from the nest hole and, before long, emerge and scale up and down the nest tree. A few minutes later, we scoped a glamorous Red-headed Woodpecker at its nest hole, and then a tiny Brown-headed Nuthatch that paused among the pine cones overhead. A fine start to the first day!

Soon we were working our way along rural roads, stopping along the road to enjoy our first views of Dickcissels, and then arriving in the town of Winnie. Winnie would be our base for the next five days of birding, as we explored the rural countryside, visited the wooded sanctuaries, and scoped the dazzling array of shorebirds, terns, and waders at coastal tide flats and flooded fields. Our focused, concerted birding efforts were rewarded with 206 species of birds.

After lunch and a break at our motel, we were on the way to a first visit to Sabine Woods sanctuary, where we hoped to enjoy our first views of trans-Gulf migrants. We had barely emerged from the van near the entrance to Sabine Woods when it became clear this would be a scintillating visit to the woods. Two modest oak trees overhanging the gate into the refuge—we hadn’t even entered the woods yet—were crawling with warblers. Tiny Northern Parulas, striking Yellow-throated Warblers, Black-throated Greens and Black-and-whites, golden Prothonotary Warblers, subtle Tennessees, and more. Once inside the woods we encountered warblers of the shade and understory: a Kentucky Warbler walking across the ground and hopping straight up to catch insects, and multiple flashy Hooded Warblers. Another stand of big oaks held further prizes: a Canada Warbler slowly working across a massive, low branch; a confiding male Chestnut-sided; and a couple of Blackpoll Warblers. Aside from warblers there were brick-red Summer Tanagers, boldly patterned Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Orchard and Baltimore orioles, a couple of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and a roadside Blue Grosbeak. It was an exciting start to our quest for trans-Gulf migrant sightings.

It is with hopes of a nice diversity of warblers that every High Island trip begins, and we were fortunate to see 28 species of warblers during the course of the 2013 tour. Among them were American Redstarts flashing their bold orange and black patterns, and a sky-blue Cerulean Warbler gleaning overhead.  Even the last morning in the woods brought us good warbler fortune, with our first brilliant orange Blackburnian Warbler and a scarce Golden-winged Warbler. By driving north from Winnie to breeding habitats, we were able to watch male Swainson’s and Prairie warblers singing on their nesting territories. There were migrant vireos and thrushes, as well as close views of the secretive Black-billed Cuckoo. Painted Buntings bathed in a tiny pool at Scout Woods. And we took time to admire pairs of elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers nesting in the open country near High Island.

And there were many other birds to see aside from the dazzling songbirds. At Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge we took part in a group rail walk, and had good views of a Yellow Rail flushed by our efforts. We watched King Rails calling in freshwater marshes and Clapper Rails skulking through brackish marsh. There were nice views of petite Least Bitterns and larger American Bitterns, plus scope studies of glistening Purple Gallinules. And the area supports perhaps as wide a variety of shorebirds as possible anywhere on the continent in a week. Between shorebirds seen on flooded rice fields, at tidal edges, and in grassy habitats we saw an incredible 32 species of shorebirds, among them a North American rarity—a Ruff hanging out with dowitchers, yellowlegs, and Stilt Sandpipers. There were thousands of beautiful American Avocets, a foraging American Oystercatcher, such much-sought-after species as Upland and Buff-breasted sandpipers, and wonderful comparisons of four small plover species. We scoped mixed roosts of Least, Black, Sandwich, Royal, Caspian, Forster’s, and Common terns along the shoreline, and enjoyed hundreds of Black Skimmers. Elegant herons, egrets, night-herons, ibises, and spoonbills were plentiful enough 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.

The 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.