Twenty-three Whooping Cranes, 500 Mississippi Kites and 200 Buff-breasted Sandpipers – these were just a few of the impressive day counts logged on this year's Texas spring tour. Birdfinders had yet another incredibly successful trip to the Lone Star state with a group total of almost 300 species recorded. Our bird-packed agenda assured that there wasn't a dull moment on the entire trip and highlights, as always on the Texas tour, have been difficult to select. In terms of a sheer natural spectacle, the emergence of 17 million Brazilian Free-tailed Bats into the Texas evening sky is difficult to beat and was hugely enjoyed by all. It's become such an essential component of our three nights stay at Neal's Lodges and not to be missed.
This year we connected with virtually all of the Texas and regional specialties including Least Grebe, Muscovy and Mottled Ducks, Hook-billed Kite, Gray and White-tailed Hawks, Plain Chachalaca, Whooping Crane, Red-billed Pigeon, White-tipped Dove, Green Parakeet, Groove-billed Ani, Elf Owl, Chuck-will's-Widow, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Golden-fronted and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Couch's Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, Green and Brown Jays, Cave Swallow, Long-billed Thrasher, Clay-colored Robin, Black-crested Titmouse, Tamaulipas Crow, Black-capped Vireo, Tropical Parula, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Bachman's and Olive Sparrows, White-collared Seedeater, Painted Bunting, Audubon's, Altimira and Scott's Orioles, and Boat-tailed Grackle. We also had great looks at Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner and Cactus Wren much to the pleasure of certain members of our group.
A slight change to the itinerary gave us an extra night in the Rio Grande Valley and more flexibility in "The Valley". We did very well, having extremely good views of Aplomado Falcon (not yet officially countable under ABA rules), two good views of Hook-billed Kite, our traditional Tropical Kingbirds and two major rarities – Elegant Trogon which was only the sixth state record, and Crimson-collared Grosbeak. We saw not one, but two of the latter, a male and a female. These birds were lingering in the valley after a remarkable winter influx brought multiple numbers to the Lower Rio Grande more than doubling the previous number of state records. Crimson-collared Grosbeak is endemic to north-east Mexico and an amazing find on US soil. To see two of these on one spring tour is without precedent.
Our night excursions in the Lower Rio Grande Valley were also productive with good views of Eastern Screech and Elf Owls, Common Paraque, Chuck-will's-widow and Lesser Nighthawk, and several 'heard only' Ferruginous Pygmy Owls.
Neal's Lodges was again a pure joy, and three nights was just about the right amount of time to see all the required species and relax a little in the beautiful surroundings of the lodge. The two special birds of the region did not disappoint and we had terrific views of both Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler.
On reaching the northern coast at High Island we found plenty of birders as well as birds! Although, due to the weather patterns, we never experienced a true 'fall-out', migrants were in good supply throughout most of the woodland walks. Particularly memorable amongst these were Blue-winged Warbler (six individuals seen), Yellow-throated Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler (an amazing six birds seen, all close!), Kentucky Warbler, and Hooded Warbler (over a dozen found), plus numerous vireos, tanagers, buntings and orioles all producing an absolute riot of colour.
The birds of the Piney Woods were equally impressive and this year we found several singing Bachman's Sparrows near Silsbee, which was also good for Pileated Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Prairie Warbler and Blue Grosbeak. The ever-dwindling woodland around Houston still gave us amazing views of Red-headed and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and a cracking pair of Yellow-throated Vireos on the very last morning of the tour.