Birdfinders' 2006 tour to Texas was another marvelous success. The quality of birding is difficult to better anywhere in the US and this year our group rallied well to cope with unuseasonal heat, and an unusual abundance of mosquitoes. The group total of 307 bettered that of both 2004 and 2005, and we recorded almost all of the local specialties for which South Texas is famous, as well quite a few that wouldn't normally be expected.
On the down side, a persistent southern airstream resulted in a lack of large arrivals (fall-outs) on the Upper Texas coast, and our planned visit to the Pineywoods was scuppered by severe thunderstorms. However, these were minor grumbles for an otherwise very productive tour and we had exceptional views of many Texas specialities such as Least Grebe, Mottled Duck, Muscovy Duck, American Swallow-tailed Kites, Gray, Zone-tailed and White-tailed Hawks, Hook-billed Kite, Plain Chachalaca, Whooping Crane, White-tipped Dove, Red-billed Pigeon, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Golden-fronted, Red-headed 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 (our best views yet!), Golden-cheeked Warbler, Cassin's and Olive Sparrows, White-collared Seedeater, Painted Bunting, Audubon's, Altimira and Hooded 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.
Spring in Texas always includes a surprise or two and this year was no exception. On the very first morning of the tour, whilst taking the pre-dawn drive to Rockport for the Whooping Crane tour, we chanced upon a Short-eared Owl hunting close the road between Tivoli and Rockport. The Whooping Crane boat cruise not only produced the hoped-for cranes but close up and personal look at Caribbean Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber. This bird was apparently banded as a youngster in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico leaving no doubt as to its wild origin.
As our tour headed south into the Lower Rio Grande Valley, we had staggering views of a singing Tropical Parula and an evening at a resaca in Brownsville gave us Couch's and Tropical Kingbirds, Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots and beautiful views of two Green Kingsfishers.
Our second full day in the Lower Rio Grande began at Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary, where the bird of the morning was undoubtedly a bold, singing Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. Later in the day, we were treated to good views of Tamaulipas Crow and finished off with a very close Aplomado Falcon. The latter species, though not officially countable, has been undergoing reintroduction since 1989 and is well searching for in the extreme south-eastern part of the state.
Although requiring an early start, the morning spent overlooking the Rio Grande at Chapeno was a fantastic success with Muscovy Duck, Red-billed Pigeon, Audubon's Oriole, and numerous Brown Jays all being seen before 9am. This left us with plenty of time to reach San Ygnacio where we had unbelievable views of a singing male White-collared Seed-eater.
The following day we journeyed across the desert, north of Laredo finding some exceptional birds. Scaled Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Cactus Wren, Pyrruloxia, Vermilion Flycatcher, multiple Audubon's Orioles, Bell's Vireo, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and a bonanza of sparrows – Lincoln's, White-crowned, Savannah, Grasshopper, Clay-coloured, Lark, Black-throated Olive and Cassin's Sparrows were all recorded here.
We arrived at Neil's Lodges on the Edward's Plateau later that day. Here some of our party had amazing views of Greater Roadrunner and all of us a had great views Rufous-crowned Sparrow. We narrowly missed a Rufous-capped Warbler at a feeding station behind Cabin 61 at Neil's the very same evening, and this little skulker was to lead us on a merry dance around Neil's Lodges for the next three days. We never did get to grips with this rarity. That said, we had our best views yet of Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, and were lucky enough to have a Zone-tailed Hawk in a spring when there appeared to be very few around.
The last word on the Edward's Plateau has to go the Frio Bat Cave where enjoyed an evening with millions of Brazilian Free-tailed Bats, and had the site to ourselves. A Say's Phoebe around the cave at dusk was a big surprise, and as left we listened to Chuck-will's-Widows, and a distant Common Poorwill. On the drive out we encountered numerous Armadillos and Racoons.
The final days of the tour, spent on the Upper Texas Coast, were full of changing fortune. After some patience, we enjoyed good looks at Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, with numerous Red-headed Woodpeckers, Pine Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos in the same woodland.
Although passerine arrivals were on the slow side this year, we actually got to grips with some quality birds including Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Cerulean, Kentucky, and Hooded Warblers. Two state rarities seen by some, though not all, of our group were Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Black-whiskered Vireo – the first year that we'd recorded either on a Birdfinders tour in Texas.
Bolivar Flats was, as always, a superb spectacle for gatherings of water and shorebirds. The evening, on the way to the flats, we had exceptional views of Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows. On the flats we viewed Wilson's, Piping and Snowy Plovers, Marbled Godwits, Buff-breasted Sandpipers and four immaculate Wilson's Phalaropes. We even had a 'peep-sweep' with wonderful comparisons between Semipalmated, Western, Least, White-rumped and Baird's Sandpipers. There was also no less than eight species of tern, including our first Black Terns of the trip.
This year we found the best rice fields to be north-west of Winnie and returned with some fabulous totals. the highlight being well over 1300 Hudsonian Whimbrel, along with 17 Hudsonian Godwits, eight American Golden Plover, 25 Buff-breasted Sandpipers and 17 Dickcissels.
We finished off the last morning of the tour by visiting a Nature Center close to the airport which gave us great views of Pileated Woodpeckers and two Prothonotary Warblers, arriving at the airport in good time for our respective check-ins and the journey home.
Special thanks go to Peter Lansdown for his fine co-leadership and to our group: Peter and Paddie Adams, John Bayliss, Brian and Mary Chilcott, Neil Clowes, Roy Evans, David and Janet Kingman, Steve Watkins, and Kevin White, all of whom made a huge contribution to this year's tour.