Courtesy of James P. Smith
This year's Texas tour proved (once again) that the Lone Star State is second to none when it comes to avian quality and diversity in spring. Our hard working group recorded over 300 species, consistent with previous years and enjoyed amidst perfect weather and tolerable quantities of mosquitoes! Throughout the trip impeccable group camaraderie and humour made for a thoroughly enjoyable tour.
We began the trip in whirlwind fashion with a transfer from Houston to Rockport for a stay of two nights. This provided the perfect stepping stone for an early morning boat tour on which we recorded some of the highest numbers of Whooping Cranes seen on recent tours. The afternoon found us at the migrant 'hot-spots' in Port Aransas where we scored a Worm-eating Warbler, one of the most sought-after warblers on any North American tour. With over 100 species on the first day, the tour opened in spectacular style.
The next day we headed for the Rio Grande Valley stopping at Blucher Park in Corpus Christie along the way. We needn't have worried too much about getting good views of the previous day's Worm-eating Warbler because Blucher Park held a further five of them (!), along with three Hooded Warblers and an especially furtive Kentucky Warbler. Rather unusually, we found two Spotted Towhees here, a species usually seen much later in the tour around Neal's Lodges. Around Raymondville we did well to get views of several Northern Bobwhites after hearing their distinctive calls. Moving on to Weslaco, we settled down for four nights in the Rio Grande Valley. "The Valley" as it's called by the locals, was exceptional good to us. We had unforgettable experiences with Ferruginous Pygmy-owls and Elf Owls, Common Paraque and Chuck-wills-widow. With the exception of the often aloof Hook-billed Kites, all of the Rio Grande Valley specialist species performed well for us. Who could forget the stellar evening from the Santa Ana Hawk Tower when we saw Grey Hawk, Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites whilst a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet sang below us! Santa Ana also gave us the best views that we've ever had of a Tropical Parula, amazingly to be followed by equally brilliant views of a second bird at Neal's Lodges later in the tour.
As hard it was to leave "The Valley", we did so with the keen anticipation of a morning spent by the Rio Grande River at Salineño. Once again this spot provided us with some of the best birding of the trip including at least six sightings of Muscovy Duck, the most we've ever had on a tour. We also had multiple observations of Red-billed Pigeons, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, and a superb show of orioles included Audubon's and Bullock's, both of which were new to the tour. Our 'valley' birding was wrapped up neatly with a young male White-collared See-eater 'teed-up' and singing at a former traditional spot in Zapata.
And so, after a short night in Laredo, we ploughed on to Neal's Lodges (finding Roadrunners and Cactus Wrens along the way) where the whole ambience of the birding changed, and where we experienced one of the best non-birding events in the country – an evening at the Frio Bat Cave.
The weather also changed in the hill country but not the detriment of the birding. Here we found the two key birds rather easily: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler, the latter being an endemic breeder in Texas and the former nearly so. Neal's Lodges always springs a surprise and this year it was the Scott's Orioles on the Cattle guard trail, a species which is often difficult to find in mid-April and potentially missable on a tour. We saw this pair on multiple days and we saw them exceedingly well. If that wasn't enough, perhaps the sole, stand-out event came from Utopia where we happened upon a Barred Owl in the middle of the day. Not only did this bird fly straight towards us but it also gave the classic 'who-cooks-for-you' calls just meters away in a breathtaking display. For some in our party this was the highlight of the entire tour and, by the way, all happened spontaneously without the use of a recording.
As tradition demands, we finished off the tour with the long drive east along Interstate 10 to Winnie, our final base of the trip. On arrival we didn't hang around, having heard of a good fall-out of warblers at High Island the previous day. True, many of these birds would have moved on by the time we arrived but some would certainly still be present and with this in mind we enjoyed three very pleasant hours at Boy Scout Woods before the fading light finally prompted us to go supper. The pre-supper species selection included: Grey-cheeked, Swainson's and Wood Thrushes, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Golden-winged and Cerulean Warblers, Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, to mention a few. The next day at Sabine Woods was even better producing a true rarity, Black-whiskered Vireo. Many more migrants were present including Veery, Acadian Flycatcher and another Golden-winged Warbler.
Once again, we enjoyed a long day 'up-north' in the Piney Woods around Jasper finding a woodpecker bonanza: Red-cockaded, Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers, as well as other specialist species such as Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pine and Prairie Warblers, and Bachman's Sparrow. But, the lure of migration on the coast drew us back to High Island and Bolivar where had one of the best experiences of the trip when a severe storm approached from the north-west. As heavy storm clouds gathered, it was sobering to watch hundreds of migrants feeding along Tuna Road on the Bolivar Peninsula. Small willow bushes filled with Orchard Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks and Summer Tanagers, whilst in the open scrub at least 100 Dickcissels wheeled around, and Bobolinks perched on the bush tops. Overhead, the 'pneeet' call of Common Nighthawk was a common sound as the storm began to roll in. We had our last looks at Yellow-throated and Black-and-white Warblers before the storm sent us scurrying to the bus.
The storm cleared nicely for our last morning in Texas but we were far from done and there would be no easy last morning for us! News began to emerge of a 'possible' Tropical Mockingbird found the previous day at Sabine Woods and, despite an air of uncertainty, it seemed like a reasonable goal for the last morning of the tour. After the one-hour journey that included stopping for our one and only Fish Crow of the tour, the Tropical Mockingbird was seen well by all and its identification duly confirmed. Not just another vagrant but actually potentially new to North America, the record will have to be critically evaluated before finding a place on the AOU and ABA lists. However, for us it was a completely appropriate and exciting end to what had been an utterly fantastic trip. Texas remains a 'must visit' location for anyone interested in North American birding.
Very many thanks to all of our group for making the tour so enjoyable to lead, and especially to Carole Walker for composing the following list of butterflies recorded on the trip, many of which we enjoyed photographing; American Lady, Red Admiral, Common Buckeye, Queen, Question Mark, American Snout, Mourning Cloak, Tawny Emperor, Coyote Cloudywing, Bordered Patch, Great Southern White, Checkered White, Gulf Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Pipevine Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail, Palamedas Swallowtail, Grey Hairstreak, White M Hairstreak, Juniper Hairstreak, Southern Dogface, Orange Sulphur and Large Orange Sulphur.
James P. Smith, Gill, MA, USA