The Texas Spring tour just seems to get better and better but this year was truly exceptional... we set a new Birdfinders tour record of 326 species (around 30 more than other more expensive companies) and enjoyed cooler than average weather conditions. This kept the bird activity high and the mosquito activity low, quite a contrast to last year's scorching tour!
The trip began in Houston and quickly transferred for two nights in the coastal bend region near Rockport. From there we drove to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for four nights before heading north-west to Laredo for just one night. We then headed north across the desert, through Carrizo Springs to spend three nights at Neil's Lodges before the drive across the state to Winnie, where we would spend four nights at the end of the tour. This was the only major itinerary change on previous years, as formally we'd stayed in Baytown closer to Houston. Our tour loop consisted of 2555 miles driven, significantly less than the 2675 recorded last year.
We knew we were on for a great trip on the very first morning of the tour. We traditionally set sail into Aransas Bay on 'The Skimmer' and spotted our first American warbler in flight over the bay's choppy waters. It was a male Hooded Warbler! Not only would this boat cruise produce our best views of Whooping Cranes but we also found a Sooty Tern, an extremely rare visitor to inshore waters in Texas. What a start!
The bird finding from our group participants this year was most impressive resulting in some spectacular and memorable discoveries. Perhaps pride of place went to Eamon O'Donnell's ability to pick out the diagnostic head pattern of a Masked Duck at the rear end of a weed choked farm pond just south of Kingsville. Equally impressive was Mark Webster's find of the tiny basket-shaped nest of a White-collared Seedeater just a few yards from a track at Zapata. We were all treated to scope views of the female on the nest without causing any distress to the sitting bird. Towards the end of the tour Kevin Tubb spotted a distant migrating Wood Stork over the Piney woods north of Beaumont. Thankfully, the bird was in the air for long enough for us all to see it well through a scope. Wood Storks are regular in Texas from late summer through autumn, but exceptional in spring. And then there was Janet returning with great shots of a Clay-colored Robin taken with a point and shoot camera while the rest of us endured a bug infested stake-out on the opposite side of the same pond at Santa Ana. Again, thankfully, the bird ultimately gave fantastic views preening and sunning itself.
These were just a few of the highlights on a tour that had few, if any, dull moments. Not only did we record all of the specialties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but for the first time we had prolonged views of a calling Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, and on the same evening had Eastern Screech and Elf Owls, as well as amazing views of Common Paraque. On the Upper Texas coast we were very fortunate with crakes and rails, finding all the possible species – King, Clapper, Virginia, Sora, Yellow and Black Rails, and if that wasn't enough we finished off on the last morning of the tour with great looks at a Bobcat on the track in the Anuhuac marshes!
More great Texas birds deserving of mention included: Least Grebe, Magnificent Frigatebird, American Anhinga, Least and American Bitterns, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Greater White-fronted Goose, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Mottled Duck and Muscovy Ducks, American Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, Gray, Zone-tailed and White-tailed Hawks, Hook-billed Kite, Northern Bobwhite (great views), American Purple Gallinule, Plain Chachalaca, Whooping Crane, Wilson's and Piping Plovers, Long-billed Curlew, Upland, Baird's and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Wilson's Phalarope, Franklin's and Bonaparte's Gulls, Royal and Least Terns, White-tipped Dove, Red-billed Pigeon, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Groove-billed Ani, Greater Roadrunner, Lesser and Common Nighthawks, Belted, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Golden-fronted, Red-headed and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (amazing views!!), Couch's and Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadee, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers, Cave Swallow, Sprague's Pipit, Cactus, Canyon, Rock and Sedge Wrens, Green and Brown Jays, Cave Swallow, Long-billed Thrasher, Clay-colored Robin, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Black-crested Titmouse, Tamaulipas Crow, Bell's, Black-capped, White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Blue-winged, Orange-crowned, Chestnut-sided, Cerulean, Worm-eating, Yellow-throated and Hooded Warblers, Tropical Parula, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Swainson's Warbler (stunning views of a singing male), Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-throated, Cassin's and Olive Sparrows, White-collared Seedeater, Grasshopper, Nelson's Sharp-tailed, Le Conte's and Seaside Sparrows, Dickcissel, Painted Bunting, Orchard, Audubon's, Altimira, Scott's and Hooded Orioles, and Boat-tailed Grackle.
All the members of our group contributed to the exceptional birding this year. The 326 species recorded during 10th–24th April is testament to their efforts. Special thanks to Eamon O'Donnell, Michael O'Donnell and Janet Whelehan, Lothar Keil, Ann Scott and Ian Taylor, Kevin Tubb and Mark Webster for making the tour so enjoyable.
Book early for our next tour to avoid missing what is undoubtedly the best combination of value-for-money and number of species seen on any tour offered to the US.