High Island Migration Apr 17—23, 2014

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 High Island Migration tour features amazing birding variety and covers what may be the best birding area in the country in mid-April. The concurrence of ongoing spring migration with varied habitats in just a relatively small area along the upper Gulf Coast of Texas creates remarkable birding opportunities. Here birders can enjoy an incredible range of migrant songbirds, as well as diverse shorebirds and terns, plus a wealth of herons and egrets and their kin. Add to that the close proximity of breeding birds in the bayous and pine woods and you have a recipe for fantastic birding.

Best known among birders in this focal area are the High Island sanctuaries, island-like groves of live oaks and other native trees that are at the receiving end of trans-Gulf migrations of songbirds—warblers, tanagers, buntings, thrushes, cuckoos, and more migrating north from the Central American Tropics. When a strong movement of migrants is underway, the tour has a good chance of encountering 25 or more species of warblers, mulberry trees loaded with tanagers and grosbeaks, field edges jumping with Indigo Buntings, and much more.

And while the birding potential of the wooded preserves is superlative, much more awaits. The coastal shoreline of the Bolivar Peninsula concentrates shorebirds, terns, pelicans, herons, and egrets like few other places on the continent. Here is an opportunity to watch Reddish Egrets dance in the brackish shallows behind a roost of Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers. Thousands of American Avocets converge prior to migration, and Piping Plovers forage along the tideline with Ruddy Turnstones and other sandpipers. Skeins of Brown Pelicans undulate above the surf line.

A nearby road leads to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge—a vast, freshwater marsh system bordered by grassland and brackish marsh. Here one has an excellent chance to see secretive marsh birds like Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule, and King Rail. Adjacent are farmlands that become a magnet for birds too: rice growers flood their diked fields in the spring, attracting swarms of migrating shorebirds of many species, from Buff-breasted and Stilt sandpipers to Whimbrels and many more. And it’s just a short drive to bayou realms where some truly fancy birds—Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and others—are already nesting.

The first morning of the 2014 High Island Migration tour we arose early to visit a pine sanctuary north of Houston. We entered the woods just after sunrise and took up a vigil a safe distance from the roost hole of a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, an endangered species found only in the Southeast. Before long a woodpecker began to peek out of the hole, taking plenty of time before fully emerging, and soon we were watching several of the scarce woodpeckers at close range. In the meantime, Brown-headed Nuthatches peeped overhead, Pine Warblers sang in the tree tops, and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers flew in. Before we left the woods, a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers appeared close to the trail, wowing us with their heads feathered in crimson velvet. Not a bad start, and it wasn’t yet 8:00 a.m.

The following days featured one birding highlight after another. Strong waves of northbound songbird migrants reached the wooded sanctuaries during our stay. On one day, stunning numbers of mid-sized songbirds swarmed into the woods: Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Wood Thrushes and other thrushes, hosts of orioles and catbirds and flycatchers—and more Rose-breasted Grosbeaks than even the most veteran coastal birders could recall. Another day featured a considerable arrival of warblers, enough variety to push our warbler total to 26 species. Magnolia Warblers and American Redstarts foraged mid-story alongside Chestnut-sided Warblers and a gorgeous male Golden-winged Warbler. Trails through the woods sparkled with one flashy Hooded Warbler after another. We watched a Kentucky Warbler walk along the forest floor, and studied a Swainson’s Warbler as it nosed its way across the shaded leaf litter. Each wooded sanctuary now has at least one “drip” as well, a small pool of water placed below a slim drip hose that attracts birds—even some of the shyest—to bathe and drink. Warblers, orioles, and even secretive Yellow-billed Cuckoos flew in to the drips, offering rare open views. We had the good fortune to see all the shy thrushes at one drip or another: Veery as well as Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s, and Wood thrushes.

Anahuac refuge offered its own class of highlights. As we drove the dike road around a huge freshwater marsh, we noticed that the narrow grassy berm that sloped down to the marsh had just been mowed. Apparently mowing had created a bonanza of feeding opportunities, for as we drove the dike the cropped grass was brimming with Soras and Purple Gallinules, all very much out in the open. Sharp eyes also spotted several petite Least Bitterns along the marsh edge, flocks of Black-bellied and Fulvous whistling-ducks passed in review, and watchful alligators basked on the shoreline. On nearby farm roads, we stopped to scope Upland Sandpipers and took time to admire pairs of elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, flashing the salmon-pink under their wings and fluttering those stunningly long tail feathers.

But the King Rails provided the supreme highlight of the tour. King Rails are typically secretive marsh birds, and one feels lucky to catch a good view of even one bird. One morning, as we drove along a marshy roadside, we were surprised to see a handsome, golden-brown King Rail standing in plain view. Then we saw its mate, too. And then another pair, and another—this was remarkable and unprecedented. As we stopped to study a pair of King Rails, one of them quickly snatched up an unwary crayfish, which the rail quickly dispatched. A moment later we watched the rail walk to a bed of fallen reeds where, to our astonishment, nine tiny rail chicks—feathered in downy black at this age—eagerly awaited a meal of crayfish. This was too good to be true! A few minutes later, one of the adult rails coaxed the chicks to its side and, as it began to sit belly down on the reeds, as many of the tiny rails as could fit crowded under its body.

Even in the final two hours of the trip as we drove toward the airport and afternoon departures, it wasn’t too late for a final serendipitous moment. Parking along the roadside, we hopped out of the van to watch a couple of soaring Mississippi Kites, the first ones we had seen and a much hoped for sighting. And just as we were about to re-board the van, another shape came gliding into view: a Swallow-tailed Kite, sliding effortlessly along the air currents, banked and drifted directly over us. A rare sighting in the area, this extraordinary raptor put the final exclamation point on a wonderful tour.