Rockport, Texas: A Birding Workshop Feb 15—19, 2015

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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When selecting regions to hold our VENT birding workshops, key elements we consider are a high abundance and diversity of birds, as well as a good number of locations that offer opportunities for close and prolonged study. The Central Texas Coast fits the bill in every way, and this year’s program, based in Rockport, was both delightfully pleasant birding and a great learning experience for everyone.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark— Photo: Michael O’Brien

On our first morning, we didn’t need to travel any farther than the Rockport waterfront to have plenty of subjects to study. A flock of Laughing, Ring-billed, and Herring gulls allowed us to start off with a mini gull workshop, focusing on ways to quickly separate these species in any plumage, and also to determine the ages of each individual with a more detailed view. A close look at several American White Pelicans prompted discussions about bird topography that would be revisited several more times during the workshop. A mixed flock of Redhead and Lesser Scaup received a good bit of attention as we talked about studying head and bill shapes in male ducks to help distinguish the more similar females. And close scrutiny of a pair of Mottled Ducks revealed that the hen was actually a hybrid Mottled x Mallard, as betrayed by her darker crown and whitish tail feathers. As we ventured farther afield, a visit to Cape Valero Drive on Copano Bay easily filled the rest of our morning. Marshes and ponds along this road held numerous herons, so we had lots of practice distinguishing them at all distances by focusing on size, shape, and feeding style. Similar techniques proved helpful for distinguishing Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, which showed themselves well here. Brushy and grassy habitats along this road were also full of learning opportunities, highlighted by good views of Savannah and Grasshopper sparrows, and both Eastern and Western meadowlarks. Meadowlarks can be especially difficult to identify, so this was an exceptional opportunity to review both the “micro” and “macro” field marks to help distinguish these species. An afternoon visit to Sunset Lake on Corpus Christi Bay was a little breezy, but proved excellent for shorebirds. Among thirteen shorebird species here, we especially enjoyed comparing shapes and foraging styles of Snowy, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated plovers, as well as close comparisons of Least and Western sandpipers.

Little Gull

Little Gull— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Our second action-packed day began just south of Rockport, where we pulled off the road to study a close flock of Long-billed Dowitchers. Before we knew it, our attention was drawn to an Osprey carrying a Spotted Seatrout. What was most interesting about this is that as the Osprey flew in and landed on a fencepost, it immediately drew the attention of a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret, both of which were positioning themselves to steal the fish. After several minutes the Osprey flew off, but watching this standoff was interesting. I wonder how often the herons succeed? The remainder of the day was spent in the vicinity of Port Aransas, starting with a visit to the Gulf of Mexico beach by the jetty. This was an excellent place to study gulls and terns, and we were delighted to have close looks at a flock of Black Skimmers here. But the real excitement was an adult Little Gull, a rare visitor to Texas, hiding among a group of Bonaparte’s Gulls on the beach. It was an excellent opportunity to compare the subtle differences in size, bill length, and head pattern between these similar species. Then, as they all flew off, we saw the Little Gull’s diagnostic charcoal underwings.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Visits to several other locations around Port Aransas and Mustang Island provided numerous interesting sightings, but everyone’s favorite stop was the Port Aransas Birding Center. The boardwalk through this freshwater wetland brought us remarkably close to hundreds of birds, including eight species of waterfowl, five species of herons, Roseate Spoonbill, Crested Caracara, and many others. With so many birds to look at, it was sometimes hard to focus, but we took advantage of numerous ripe learning opportunities such as comparing female teal, and the relatively rare opportunity to directly compare Long-billed and Short-billed dowitchers along with Stilt Sandpiper. Aside from these treats, we were endlessly entertained by close views of diving Pied-billed Grebe and Ruddy Duck that we could have reached out and touched, two roosting Wilson’s Snipe just feet away, and, the amazing views of a Sora. It was difficult to tear ourselves away!

Whooping Crane with Blue Crab

Whooping Crane with Blue Crab— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Our third day began with a delightful boat cruise to the back bays of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge aboard The Skimmer with Capt. Tommy Moore. No winter trip to the Central Texas Coast would be complete without a visit to these productive saltmarshes to see one of North America’s rarest birds, the Whooping Crane. We were not disappointed, as the cranes put on a wonderful show for us with much vocalizing and flying around. We even watched one eat a Blue Crab, a key food source for them during the winter. To show that we appreciate all birds equally, nearby Seaside Sparrows created nearly as much excitement as the cranes! Along the way, we saw an abundance of other birds including nice comparisons of Neotropic and Double-crested cormorants, and seventeen species of shorebirds including American Avocet, American Oystercatcher, and Long-billed Curlew. We enjoyed nice comparative studies of Royal, Caspian, and Forster’s terns, and numerous Reddish Egrets performed their animated feeding styles in contrast to the much more passive Little Blue Herons. A surprising highlight was a close pass by a colony of Great Blue Herons; with such close views, their bright breeding bill colors and ornate plumes were stunningly beautiful. An afternoon visit to Lamar Peninsula near Goose Island State Park gave us more looks at Whooping Cranes, along with our closest looks at Sandhill Cranes. A visit to the famous “Big Tree” at Goose Island State Park was productive for studying songbirds, including House Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Nearby grassy fields held several meadowlarks, and our group aced their meadowlark final exam by ID’ing them correctly as Westerns!

On our final morning, we made a visit to Castro Nature Sanctuary, one of Rockport’s newest nature reserves. This small parcel of habitat was just perfect for a morning stroll, focusing on songbirds. Using both our eyes and our ears, we found an interesting assortment of birds including Common Ground-Dove, White-eyed Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, and a nesting pair of Black-crested Titmice. We also discussed the different songs of Northern Cardinal and Carolina Wren. At our final stop on Airport Road, we saw a good diversity of birds, including nice studies of several Common Loons, a close fly-by group of Sandhill Cranes, and two early northbound migrant Barn Swallows—we hope they stopped before reaching freezing temperatures in the Great Plains!