High Island Migration Apr 22—28, 2016

Posted by Erik Bruhnke

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Erik Bruhnke

Erik Bruhnke has had a love for birds since he was a child. He graduated from Northland College in Wisconsin with a Natural Resources degree in 2008 and taught field ornith...

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VENT’s High Island Migration tour offers a breathtaking array of birdlife found throughout the pine forests and upper Texas coast during peak migration. Each day brought unique thrills of birds, as well as scenery on the ground and up in the sky. Every day was a “birdy” day, but several days were exceptionally noteworthy due to migrating birds reaching intense storms. By the end of this tour we had observed 205 bird species, 26 of them warblers. The smiles were nonstop.

Our first morning was spent walking through pleasantly aromatic and tall-growing pine forests not far from Houston. Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked and fed high above our heads as three Red-cockaded Woodpeckers fed along the pine trunks. Both of these species are specialists to this habitat called the Pineywoods. It is a truly remarkable feeling to be in the essence of the Pineywoods. The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were exceptionally cooperative, giving excellent scope views. Buzzy call notes of overhead Indigo Buntings were heard numerously. One of them was seen at close range in the open morning sunlight, showing off intense ocean-blue hues. A pair of Wood Ducks meandered between the massive pine trunks in search of a feeding spot and perch. Following the morning Pineywoods thrill, we headed to Sam Houston National Forest where Black-throated Green Warblers danced in the leaves overhead. Worm-eating Warblers teased us as they sang deep in the thickets, well beyond the viewing limits from the road. Kettles of Mississippi Kites were seen streaming overhead. After a birdy morning, it was time to head eastward.

While en route to the coast we birded various rice fields, catching views of the vocal Upland Sandpiper and the tundra-bound Buff-breasted Sandpiper. After a little Mexican cuisine, we made the trek to High Island where we birded Boy Scout Woods. Boat-tailed Grackles greeted our presence as we approached this raised birding matrix along the coast. A Chestnut-sided Warbler was observed feeding along a thicket, showing off his dapper colors of rusty-red and neon-yellow. The late afternoon trees glowed in gold as recently-arrived birds made themselves known. We ended the day with outstanding local barbecue.

Birding along the upper Texas coast offers so many possibilities, and starting the day off at Sabine Woods is a beautiful experience. Thrushes frantically upturned leaves covering the ground as Great Crested Flycatchers called throughout the tree tops. Singing Summer Tanagers serenaded the atmosphere. Before lunch we soaked up an amazing array of shorebird life, in addition to gulls and waders at Sea Rim State Park. The waterbird life is nonstop at these protected natural areas. The winds were increasing, and the skies were darkening as the midday hours approached. What did the afternoon have in store?

Waiting out the rain for a bit proved beneficial as thrush numbers increased. Summer and Scarlet tanagers fed together throughout the branches, with several binocular views hosting both species at the same time. Hooded Warblers patrolled the understory as Northern Waterthrushes waltzed along the ponds. A few people glimpsed a Cerulean Warbler shortly before locking our views on a dapper Prothonotary Warbler! Two amazingly close male Golden-winged Warblers left us speechless, with each bird giving us nearly 10-minute views. The birds were hopping!

The upcoming day started out along various key areas of the Bolivar Peninsula. This stretch of land is a truly magical area for birding, especially when the tides are just right. Hundreds of Sanderlings raced along the shore as the solitary-dwelling Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, and Wilson’s Plover provided great scope views. A family of Clapper Rails with black fuzzy chicks were seen trekking along the roadside. With the intense clouds and blustery conditions came a fly-over Magnificent Frigatebird. Least Terns and Royal Terns made their laps up and down the shoreline. Before lunch we had our eyes on hundreds upon hundreds of American Avocets, with a few American Oystercatchers, eight species of terns, and hunkered down Savannah Sparrows for good measure. Long-billed Dowitchers probed nearby grassy fields with Willets and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is a wildlife hotspot not to be missed, and the following morning we were immersed in the beauty and sense of place found within this unique landscape. We got comparison views of a Glossy Ibis among dozens of widespread White-faced Ibis, a King Rail among Clapper Rails, waterfowl galore, and nonstop fly-over herons, egrets, and Roseate Spoonbills. The gurgly Marsh Wrens made themselves known throughout our entire morning. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks flew in formation overhead. The morning was yet another breathtaking portion of the tour. We ended the day at High Island where the neon-pink nesting Roseate Spoonbills are found. The circle of life came around to two young nestling Great Egrets as they fell into the waters where alligators dwell. It is very eye-opening to see “nature take its place.” Baltimore Orioles sang in the trees overhead as our day came to a close. 

Our last day was a real grand finale. Iridescent pink flashes of lightning shot through the sky among opaque black clouds before we departed the hotel. After delaying our initial departure by about 20 minutes, the rain began to lighten up. The sparse rain was quickly diminishing as we approached our first stop for the day, a recently-flooded rice field. We didn’t need to go anywhere else. The birds were here…in waves. During our several hours of birding at this spot, thousands of Long-billed Dowitchers would fly in from the south, land, feed, and continue going north towards the stormy clouds. White-rumped Sandpipers among hundreds of Dunlin pecked delicately, yet frantically atop the muddy surface as distant Marbled Godwits called. Painted Buntings sang softly during this explosion of shorebird activity, and we ended our time at the field with a fly-over Hudsonian Godwit. Midday views of hundreds of terns, gulls, shorebirds, and wading birds kept the smiles going strong. We ended the day at High Island again where a fallout was taking place. Hundreds of Baltimore Orioles gleaned atop the trees, throughout the trees, and right in front of us. Eastern Kingbirds moved through in river-like formations as they picked out wooded edges to feed from. Six flycatcher species were observed that afternoon, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks blew us away with their surround-sound song. Nineteen warbler species that afternoon and several adult male Painted Buntings near our parked van ended our last full day on a special note.

The bird life and unique landscape of the upper Texas coast is special. The weather changes quickly, and the birds as well. It was a really special experience witnessing this migration with everyone, and I’m looking forward to doing so again next year!