High Island Migration Apr 16—22, 2015

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 ranks, hands-down, as one of the best birding spots in the country in April. Even in the relatively small area covered by the High Island Migration tour one can find as much amazing birding variety—200 species, give or take a few—as in any week of birding on the continent. Best known among birders in this focal area are the High Island sanctuaries—preserves of live oaks and other native trees that are at the receiving end of trans-Gulf migrations of songbirds including warblers, tanagers, buntings, cuckoos, and more migrating north from the Central American tropics.

On this tour, it also helps to have the weather on your side. What would be unfortunate weather on many tours—thunderstorms over several days—actually increases the odds a High Island birder will see greater numbers and variety of species. Thunderstorms can stall birds over the Gulf of Mexico, which they hope to fly across efficiently, causing more migrants to stop in sanctuaries right along the coast.

This year we had the thunderstorms, and they no doubt helped produce a wealth of birds in the coastal oak groves. In one short week we saw 27 species of warblers; 6 vireos; loads of tanagers, orioles, and buntings; a good showing of thrushes; and more. Gems that they are, warblers often elicit the most eager searching and the greatest applause: Worm-eating Warblers gleaning through dead leaves at eye level;  Hooded Warblers flashing back and forth near the ground; Kentucky and Swainson’s warblers and Ovenbirds—terrestrial warblers in many respects, toeing the ground; bright yellow Blue-winged Warblers, and Blackburnian Warblers with faces of flaming orange; tiny, blue Cerulean Warblers carefully gleaning from leaf to leaf, twig to twig; a few Golden-winged Warblers, scarce and a special treat, showing for a moment then seeming to disappear; and Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided warblers, hungry from the long flight, foraging almost in our faces. There were plenty of other songbirds too: Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Orchard and Baltimore orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks feasting on mulberries, scintillating Indigo and Painted buntings, and stealthy cuckoos.

While the birding potential of the wooded preserves lived up to its reputation, the surrounding area offered other birding riches. The coastal shoreline of the Bolivar Peninsula concentrates shorebirds, terns, pelicans, herons, and egrets like few other places on the continent. Here we watched Reddish Egrets dance in the brackish shallows behind a roost of Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers; thousands of beautiful American Avocets fluttering over the Bolivar dunes and along the surf line; and Piping and Wilson’s plovers, along a shoreline dotted with Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, and assorted small sandpipers. Handsome Black Terns stood out in contrast among seven other species of terns. 

At Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where an enormous freshwater marsh borders grassland and salt marsh, we encountered secretive marsh birds: a dozen Purple Gallinules in iridescent shades of blue, purple, and green; a bold and noisy King Rail; and diminutive Least Bitterns right by the dike road; Fulvous and Black-bellied whistling-ducks too. Farmlands and plowed fields, many now flooded by rain, were a magnet for migrating shorebirds of many species: a dozen Hudsonian Godwits, slate above and brick-red below; Stilt Sandpipers; hundreds of Whimbrels; American Golden-Plovers; and many more. Migrating Upland Sandpipers paused on the green of a sod farm. Lovely, tall wading birds were a frequent sight throughout the tour. Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets crowded together in a bustling, noisy heronry alongside Neotropic Cormorants. Tricolored Herons stalked brackish marshes, huge flocks of White-faced Ibis flew across the open landscapes, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons foraged in roadside ponds—among 15 species of herons, egrets, bitterns, and ibis seen on the tour.

So many migrants. Yet the first morning of the tour found us, before sunrise, at a pine woods preserve north of Houston, in search of a very special endangered species, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Just after sunrise, we heard the woodpeckers’ first rough calls and soon had excellent spotting scope studies of woodpeckers hitching up pine trunks, showing the conspicuous white patch on the face and black-and-white barred back. Some came close enough for close binocular views. Soon someone spotted a gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker, which posed alongside a nest tree showing its velvety-red feathering. Taking a bit more time in the pines, we turned up Brown-headed Nuthatches (like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a Southeastern specialty), Pine Warblers and a few more.

The concurrence of ongoing spring migration with varied habitats in just a small area along the upper Gulf Coast of Texas creates remarkable April birding opportunities. I’m already looking forward to next April.