Monday, April 14, 2014

Birding High Island, TX - 10 Apr 2014

Robin and I flew into Houston yesterday afternoon. She was attending a Knowledge Management  Conference at The Houstonian, the hotel and conference center where we were staying. I took the opportunity to bird the legendary Upper Texas Coast. My plan was to hit High Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Skirting Anuhuac

I was up at 5:30 am and out the door at 6 am for the 2-hr drive to High Island. Heading out I-10 N to TX-73 I turned south on TX-124 toward High Island. A wrong turn gave me the chance to see a flock of Helmeted Guineyfowl along a dirt road. But once I got back on track I realized that TX-124 runs along the east side of Anuhuac NWR, which afforded a chance to do some roadside birding. With almost no traffic on the road I could cruise the shoulder and scan the fence line for Savannah Sparrows, Boat-tailed and Great-tailed Grackles, and the puddles for Blue-winged Teal, Willet, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Black-necked Stilts!

I spotted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on an overhead wire to my left and had to turn around to go back to photograph it. Too bad it was on the east side of the road, so it was partially backlit. But I didn't mind...

A bit farther up the road I slowed down to photograph a pair of Great-tailed Grackles when I spotted an American Bittern in the ditch to my right. Right in the open! It was frozen in its typical bittern pose and allowed me to get some portraits from the passenger window. Before driving on another Scissor-tail lighted on the fence and posed beautifully in the morning sun. He then flew to a nearby shrub and posed for a few moments. Moments later I was able to get quick photos of an Eastern Kingbird and Eastern Meadowlark.

I then found a Greater White-fronted Goose farther back beyond the fence, so I grabbed the scope and digiscoped it from the roadside.

The Gems of Houston Audubon

I arrived at High Island and the Boy Scout Woods promptly at 8 am. The folks from Tropical Birding Tours were just starting their morning walk, so I dropped in to join them. They were already on a Yellow-throated Vireo while a Blue-winged Warbler sang from a tree top. Moments later a Hooded Warbler appeared, followed by a Summer Tanager. Brief looks at a Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting a few moments later had us all pumped for a great morning. But then our guides announced that south winds would harken a slow day of birding. Sure enough, we would see practically no more birds the rest of the morning.

We did spot a Yellow-breasted Chat and a fly-by Merlin, but the rest of the morning was spent looking at Brown-headed Cowbirds, grackles, and overhead Purple Martins and Tree Swallows.

So, I grabbed the gear and headed over to Claybottom Pond to look for the Heron/Spoonbill Rookery. The rookery was hopping with breeding Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and hundreds of Roseate Spoonbills. I spent a half-hour digiscoping the spoonbills and herons while grabbing flight shots of flyby birds.

Adventures in Bolivar

From there it was time to drive to Bolivar Peninsula. TX-124 to TX-87 took me along the Gulf Coast toward Galveston where I was hoping to find shorebirds to keep me busy during the afternoon. The south winds were bringing crashing waves to the coast so I was worried that I might be disappointed. Every home and business along the coast is built on pillars so the threat of hurricanes in this region is an everyday reminder.

I spotted another Scissor-tail on a fence line to my right and slowed to photograph it. Traffic forced me to turn around, so turned off the the first road I could find. No sooner did I stop that a Northern Harrier flushed from the ditch in front of the car! The Gray Ghost drifted right over the hood of the car so I tried to photograph it thru the windshield, but couldn't focus. I was able to get the door open and grab a few pics before he got away.

I got back into the car and noticed a pair of Crested Caracara on some dirt mounds down the road I had turned. They were in a construction yard so I had to settle for a few pics through the fence. A Northern Mockingbird a few feet away were a nice consolation. 

As I drove back to TX-87 to continue on I suddenly decided to cross the road and continue on toward the coast. I was shocked to find that the road I was on was the Bolivar Flats Audubon Sanctuary. To my right were open wetlands and mudflats filled with courting Willets. Birds were calling, displaying, and flying in short bursts. At the end of the road I found a single Mottled Duck in a pond next to the beach.

Out on the beach was a flock of Royal Terns with a few Common and Sandwich Terns, Sanderlings, Dunlin and a single Long-billed Curlew. I had hoped to spend some time digiscoping the birds but the Beach Patrol busted me for parking too far out on the beach. I didn't have correct change for a parking sticker so I opted to continue on my way.

Avocets Assemble!

I headed back to TX-87 and continued on hoping to find an entrance to the Audubon Sanctuary, but instead found a road that ended at a pier and breakwall that jutted out into the Gulf about 2 miles (17th Street). I didn't expect to see much given the winds coming off the Gulf but I saw scads of shorebirds out on the exposed mudflats. Score!

As I walked out on the pier and started scanning dozens of Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, Willet, and a few distant Black-necked Stilts with my bins noticed large 'brown' weed beds along the shoreline. They were odd-looking, so I put the scope on them. Holy cr*p! American Avocets! Literally 3000 birds packed shoulder-shoulder forming small islands of color on the mudflats. I attempted a few photos from long distance then opted for a video-scan. Incredible!

Shorebirds could be seen as far as my bins could take me. So I walked on toward the end of the pier and continued scanning shorebirds. Most were still wearing winter grays, so a scope was necessary to ID them. Red Knot! WhimbrelWestern Sandpiper, Dunlin, Marbled Godwit!

But wait, what have we here?

Least Terns!

Out ahead of me on the mudflats were a pair of tiny white birds with bright yellow bills. Least Terns! I got the scope on them and enjoyed some lovely looks before attempting to digiscope them. I then noticed a whole flock of them about a quarter mile away on the flats. The pier, however, ended, and was replaced by 4'x4' granite slabs that extended 2 miles out into the Gulf. Visitors were uged to proceed at their own risk, so I hopped the slabs and made my way out toward the mouth of the estuary.

I wanted to get past the birds so that I could digiscope them w the sun behind me. They occasionally flushed and scattered, but quickly returned to the same spot. Out on the rocks ahead of me were small groups of Semipalmated Plovers that blended nicely with their surroundings.

I finally got ahead of the Least Tern flock that numbered up to sixty birds, hunkered down out of the wind, and proceeded to digiscope birds as close as 30'. Some were courting by holding fresh-caught minnows in their beaks, while others just faced the wind and preened. I enjoyed stunning views of North America' tiniest tern and a 'species of concern'.

Out in the mouth of the estuary I was again stunned to see another massive island of American Avocets! I put the D7100 on continuous mode and rapidly shot a panorama to try and capture a sense of how many birds there were. A digiscoped video scan followed. It was amazing to watch a thousand birds synchronously forage like a murmuration of starlings.

I could have stayed all afternoon, but I noticed the tide moving in. The sandbar occupied by the Least Terns were suddenly under water and and the terns were gradually being replaced by larger Common Terns and Forster's Terns. The avocet flock was suddenly starting to disperse into tiny groups that flew back toward shore and the large flock there.

I took their queue and started heading back, myself. I entertained myself by photographing Least Terns that were battling the winds, and any shorebirds still hugging the mudflats next to the pier.

I was suddenly made aware of large groups of flyby avocets that were passing close enough that I could hear their wing beats. The large flock that was at the mouth of the estuary was now almost completely dispersed, so I looked for groups of birds heading in my direction. Tracking was made difficult by the wind and choppy waters, but I managed a few keepers. Now it was just a matter of making one last scan of the shoreline for avocets and any new birds: Ruddy Turnstones and Short-billed Dowitchers.

Horseshoe Flats Audubon Sanctuary

Once back at the car I continued on for the tip of the Bolivar Peninsula to look for something to eat. It was 1:30 pm and the sun was high in the sky. In a very short time I had reached the entrance to the Galveston Ferry and was about to turn around, but a side road to the right looked inviting, so I turned at the last possible moment for a small detour. Unbeknownst to me I was entering the Horseshoe Flats Audubon Sanctuary. The road curved around and suddenly I was looking at another mudflat filled mostly with Willets, Short-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers and Black-bellied plovers. I spent a few minutes photographing the near birds and cursing the Whimbrel that waddled behind the car and out of view. 

Up around the curve was a sign indicating that the bridge was out, so I had to turn around. At the end of the road, however, was a female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched 2' off the ground. I was able to pull up and photograph it through the window. When she didn't move I decided to untangle myself from the seat belt, camera and binoculars, and try to digiscope  her. I was able to get the scope out and grab a few digiscoped images before she finally flew off into the wind.

As I drove back out toward the main road I spotted a pair of large, dark birds in an open patch of reeds next to the roadside. Clapper Rails? King Rails?! I was able to get a few pics from the car just before they disappeared back into the reeds. I sat for the next ten minutes listening to several birds giving loud "tick-tick-tick" calls, along with their grunting call that sounds like an old car engine turning over.

A third bird ran across the open mud into another patch of reeds, then two more rails came from the clump of reeds on the other side of the clump I was watching! Most awesome!

So, given my proximity to the Gulf (literally on the other side of the road) I was inclined to call these Clapper Rails. After all, they tend to prefer salt/brackish water while King Rails prefer freshwater habitats.  But, while consulting Pyle (2008) I learned that these birds are best ID'd by the color of the feathers on their backs: Clappers have 'gray' fringed dark feathers while Kings have 'tawny' fringed dark brown feathers. Flanks on Kings are darker brown with more pronounced white bars while Clappers are paler cinnamon on the chest w/ lighter-brown flanks.  I'm therefore leaning toward these being King Rails.

In the meantime more Willets were displaying and flying above the reeds while a pair of White Ibis were hunkered down in the taller grasses. I drove slowly hoping to spot another rail when I found a pair of Whimbrel in some tall stubble. The posed quietly while I grabbed a few photos before heading back toward High Island.

Late Afternoon Birding

I returned to High Island shortly before 3 pm and sat in the parking lot at the Boy Scout Woods for a bit before deciding to take in a little more roadside birding. Just north of town, along TX-124 the Rice Fields were presenting 7 Glossy Ibis that were chasing each other and soaring over the wetlands. A small service road just south of the inter coastal bridge brought me close enough for some pics of some Black Vultures. Another Gray Ghost would fly over the road but I was not in position to do anything but watch it drift by.

I returned to the Boy Scout Woods and hung around the grandstand area looking for birds visiting the drip ponds located about 100' from the trail. A Yellow-breasted Chat made another appearance or two, followed by the Hooded Warbler, and a pair of 1st yr male Orchard Orioles. I took some digiscoped images but the distance was too far for any real quality captures. A Gray Catbird and Brown Thrasher would make short appearances before I decided to head back to Houston.

The only other activity in the woods was a Worm-eating Warbler that flew into the brush next to the boardwalk. It foraged so close that I had to move backward in order to focus on it. I would later review pics and realize that all of these photos were severely underexposed. Why? I couldn't figure out why - I thought maybe the Auto-ISO was messing up in the late afternoon deep shade. A White-winged Dove in the parking lot exposed just fine...?

Edith L. Moore Audubon Sanctuary

Robin had conference for a half-day Friday (11th) so I remained at the hotel for the morning just relaxing. I walked the grounds and managed to find a singing Worm-eating Warbler and Carolina Wren in the wooded trail behind the hotel, and an Orange-crowned Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the apple tree in front. Monarch butterflies were moving through the area in decent numbers, and I watched them fly, mate in the grass, and dodge Northern Mockingbirds from the comfort of an Adirondak Chair. One Mocker flew in and landed at my feet for several minutes and eyed me from just a foot away. Robin says the bird's call reminds her of me: "idiot-idiot-idiot-idiot, dumb-guy, dumb-guy, dumb-guy, dumb-guy, jerk-jerk-jerk-jerk" :)))

After her conference was over we took an afternoon drive to the Edith L Moore Audubon Sanctuary a few miles away. The sanctuary was much smaller than we expected. We joked that the map was drawn to scale... But, we did manage point blank views of a Carolina Wren, and a White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Chickadees, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and another Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

My pics were still coming out dark, and it wasn't until I realized that the Mode dial somehow got switched to Manual. Arghh. Thankfully, shooting RAW will help me recover a few pics.  Time to head back and get ready for tomorrow's trip home.

Forecasts are calling for south winds for the next few days, but a major cold front is expected to hit Tuesday. High Island could be seeing a major fallout then. I will be monitoring the radar and reports from the Tropical Birding Folks. In the meantime, the place was not what I quite expected. The woods were fully leafed out, so birding is much like Magee Marsh after about the 3rd week in May, when birds are present, but very difficult to see (let alone photograph). But I considered myself extremely fortunate for being able to spend a day in the area, and my birding trip exceeded every expectation. I can't wait to go back!


PChop's Mom said...


Lisa said...

Amazing photos. Beautiful!

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