23 April 2012

Chuck's Widow....TEXAS (23 April)

I forgot to mention the good raptor passage we enjoyed during the morning in High Island, YESTERDAY. A couple of Mississippi Kites took off from the woods at Boy Scout Woods, clearly having spent the night there, before we found a kettle of hawks circling along the southern edge of the woodlot that held Broad-winged Hawks (2+), 1 Red-shouldered Hawk and at least 1 Swainson's Hawk too.

Back to today, a lunchtime visit to the shore produced Black Terns at Rollover Pass, many sporting the sharp jet-black dress of breeding plumage, along with several Long-billed Curlews, several Piping Plovers, and Semipalmated Sandpiper there among the hordes of other shorebirds, which also included a healthy batch of American Avocets. Moving down to N Tuna Drive further along the Bolivar Peninsula we switched our focus from shorebirds and coastal birds to passerines, picking out several roving bands of Dickcissels, a handful of Blue Grosbeaks and Summer Tanagers, and a Tennessee Warbler hiding out in the limited scrub available. Sadly though we could not resurrect the Bobolinks that had been around before today, and may well have flown the coup. A couple of hawking, and calling Common Nighthawks may have been enjoying the good afternoon hunting on offer, or simply have recently arrived off the Gulf. Another sat out in full conspicuous view along the side of the road too as it slept the day away.

Returning to High Island we were hit with the exciting news that a Chuck-will's-widow had  been found sleeping in the woods, where thankfully he had chosen a spot with a clear unadulterated view...

High Island...morning report...TEXAS (23 April)

Well, the woods were predictably quiet (considering the winds etc.) this morning, although very enjoyable all the same. The highlights of a foray around Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods included a ridiculously friendly Gray-cheeked Thrush singing within 6 feet of us, while a Wood Thrush foraged behind, which also had a male Hooded Warbler for company. Moving to the pond at the back of the woods for the third straight day we found a very confiding and seemingly very territorial Yellow-breasted Chat which sang from the tops of bushes and took it to a whole new level when he excited us all with a short display flight. Spring was clearly in the air with a pair of Crested Caracaras mating out there too. Returning to Purkey's Pond the muddy edge provided us with a Northern Waterthrush, while a cypress tree overhead held both male Summer Tanager and a male Blackpoll Warbler. A rather confiding Swainson's Thrush once again revealed what a great time it is right now for these mulberry-hunting birds, with good thrush numbers in the woods it seems. 

No photos from the woods-the Gray-cheeked Thrush was frustratingly confined to the darkest shadows-so here are a few shots from the coast taken in the last few weeks: Reddish Egret fishing as only a Reddish Egret can do among a horde of wintering American Avocets down at Houston Audubon's Bolivar Flats, and a very confiding Whimbrel shot from the car at Frenchtown Road (also on the Bolivar Peninsula).

21 April 2012

Dracula's Cowbird...TEXAS (20 April)

Yesterday was not the greatest for birds -with southerly winds and all, and a looming front  moving in. But a couple of "mexican" birds that had been in town of late provided me with some more than mild amusement in the High Island RV Park. A couple of Bronzed Cowbirds had been in the area for several days now, scarce birds which, with the cowbird tag, often raise barely an eyebrow. However, this particularly horny male in town is well worth seeing, as he has been pumped up and ready to breed, and therefore hounding the female in town, puffing up its neck feathers giving it a bull-necked look, and then suddenly taking flight when all puffed up to its fattest, and hovering above her making for a truly remarkable performance, and spreading its wings across in front of its blood red eyes to form a veritable Dracula's cape. Simply awesome.

The afternoon was also exciting as a thunderstorm we hot, shortly after we hit a hyperactive warbler flock that held Blackburnian Warbler, female Cape May Warbler, and later ran into a gorgeous male Cerulean Warbler, before the rain crashed down and we retreated to the annual Houston Audubon crawfish boil! As darkness fell we waited for the proposed drop-in of birds to come, that sadly now in hindsight, I can say did NOT come. Hooray for cowbirds and Ceruleans, which saved the day.

More from High Island soon...

20 April 2012

Lost in High Island (TEXAS)...16-17 April

The first few days of the week were ones to savor. After several days of strong southerlies driving birds north without stopping, which also made the shorebirding equally challenging, as we spat sand out of our mouths during our midday trips to the shore, the weather changed, and so did the birds... 

Monday dawned dull gray, and thundery. Between bouts of rain, fork lightning, and burst of thunder we walked the woods in High Island and took in the bounty of warblers on offer, many of which hung around for Tuesday too. Over 30 warblers were recorded at the High Island sanctuaries during this dizzy spell for migration junkies like me. I managed to rack up 26 warbler species personally during these few treasured days of the spring, and I was not even chasing! Celebrity species included a number of sky-backed male Cerulean Warblers (and at least two less appreciated females!), a fantastic male Prairie Warbler, a number of "flame-faced" Warblers (i.e. Blackburnian), Yellow-throated Warblers, and the crowning jewel for many present (although not for me as I was ecstatic at the Prairie!), several male Golden-winged Warblers with their chickadee-like face patterns. The latter part of the week has been somewhat frustrating in comparison, and a steep comedown from these heady days, when High Island showed off its best birds to many....we await a rumored front approaching soon for the next wave of migration action to hit soon...

14 April 2012

Bloody wind!...TEXAS (14 April)

It being migration season and all, and this being High Island, wind is always a topic of conversation. But today, this was being talked about for all the wrong reasons. A sturdy southerly airflow had birds leaving overnight from yesterday's late mini-flurry, and discouraged others from dropping down in numbers during the afternoon. Our fallback plan when the woods are quiet is of course a trip down the shore to some of the ultimate US shorebirding sites on the Bolivar Peninsula. However, high tides and those wretched winds put paid to these plans, as wind blew in our faces, and very few shorebirds were scattered along the beach compared to normal. Highlights of the morning walk included a brief Merlin darting by, an American Redstart, and a Prothonotary Warbler, appropriately enough around Prothonotary Pond (and another was heard singing in the Tropical Birding Information Center's backyard too). Our lunchtime sojourn along the shore produced a couple of Piping Plovers along Bolivar Flats, while the afternoon at least revealed a handful of new drop-ins with some popular black-and-orange male Baltimore Orioles, a smattering of mulberry-munching Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, my first personal Yellow Warbler of the season, and a nuthatching Yellow-throated Warbler. A few Green Herons taking off from the treetops also betrayed their recent arrival. A closing visit to the drip at HAS Boy Scout Woods produced little activity at all save for this co-operative Gray Catbird.

With a similar situation weather-wise I worry for the 'morrow, although even during the last few slow days we have continued to enjoy a bounce in birds following clear afternoon drop ins later in the day, relieving us of the relative pain of the morning walks...we shall see!

13 April 2012

Blind-sided...TEXAS (12 April)

It was a strange day in many respects on the Upper Texas Coast, the High Island lot at Boy Scout Woods was eerily silent in the morning with little mirants to show for our efforts. However, one of them was this continuing Swainson's Warbler, one of two which regularly showed to me and others this day. Other highlights included a wake-up call from a Prothonotary Warbler that was literally my first bird of the day as I stared bleary eyed out from the breakfast room in the Tropical Birding house on 5th Street, shortly after waking up. Another two "prothons" were later seen cavorting around Boy Scout Woods.

Back in the woods in the afternoon, new birds were in town, including this precious Ovenbirdwhich "chicken-walked" past the Boy Scout photo blind through the afternoon, which had a gaudy male Summer Tanager for company, and and unusually skittish Worm-eating Warbler too, that would not come in and drink for me. Although I dropped in and out of the photo blind in the afternoon I still managed to miss the male Painted Bunting that posed for photos. I have been coming to High Island every April, and for the whole of April, every year for the past 5 years, I have still never had a male Painted Bunting in front of me at the photo blind. It is killing me!

12 April 2012

Now that's a RED Knot...TEXAS

With no photos on the horizon today, despite two Swainson's Warblers in Houston Audubon Boy Scout Woods seen on High Island today, here are some evening shots taken down at the shore...Red Knot and Marbled Godwit from Bolivar Flats a few days back. Nice to see a Red Knot living up to its name. The dozen or so birds that have been seen of late seem to have largely been drab grey ones thus far!

Other birds seen at High Island today by me include a young male Blue Grosbeak, outsizing the surrounding Indigo Buntings, a skittish Worm-eating Warbler, and a Prothonotary Warbler in our back garden before I had even had my first cup of tea of the day! More confiding Prothonotaries were also seen across the street in Boy Scout Woods. A Least Bittern ghosting across the wastewater pond at the back was nice to see and my first of the year, but no Purple Gallinule to speak of so far for me this spring. I'll keep checking, they are surely imminent!

11 April 2012

Ken comes by...TEXAS (11 April)

Missing the morning jaunt around Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods in the migration Mecca of High Island would have been fine, if I had not received news from Luke Seitz, volunteering for Houston Audubon that the sweet Swainson's Warbler was still "shivering" back there, as only a Swainson's can. It managed to elude me today, (in an all too brief search) but please many others. My first real birding of the day was down on the shore, where Rollover Pass was a little light on birds due to a heavy contingent of fisherman, and a high tide scuppering our chances for some of the shorebirds we seeked. However, terns were out in force, and included Common, Forster's, Royal, Caspian, Sandwich Tern, and even a single Black Tern doing a bad job of hiding among the Least Terns actively feeding there. Along with Black Skimmer and a Gull-billed Tern or two hawking behind Houston Audubon Bolivar Flats we completed the nonet of nine regular tern species on the Upper Texas Coast.

Best was to come from Bolivar Flats though when some "pirates" were spotted in the sky: a couple of Magnificent Frigatebirds hanging in the light breeze, and never once showing signs of flapping, as they searched for any unsuspecting victims (i.e. terns and gulls etc.) to rob in the area. Down at ground level a group of 8 Red Knot, including a bricky bird, were noted along with a chodesque Piping Plover or two too. A single, bold, Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwits brought up the rear.

Back in the coastal woods in the afternoon, the Live Oaks were, well, not too lively save for a trio of male Scarlet Tanagers and Summer Tanagers, a lonely Yellow-throated Warbler, and a single Northern Parula. However, a grandstand finish was provided during a short visit to the photo blind in Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods, where a Worm-eating Warbler followed hot on the heels of a Wood Thrush and at least two Kentucky Warblers determined to bathe after their arduous Gulf crossing.

More from High Island to come, very, very soon...

Day of the Swainson's...TEXAS (10 April)

Well, after yesterday's unexpected bumper crop of warblers in High Island, it was hard to know what to expect. I mean after all the weather had suggested nothing out of the ordinary the day before, and actually hinted towards a quiet day with species overflying the woods rather than coming down, and we ended up with a cumulative total of 23 warbler species in the woods. On this day the weather was largely the same but the birds were very different-lower overall numbers (Tennessee Warblers no longer decorated every tree, and Hooded Warblers were no longer inescapable, although both species were still present).

Our morning walk around Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods was quite for a while before I kicked up a brown job in front of me, which was far from insignificant when I clapped eyes on its within my bins: a Swainson's Warbler no less. This is one of the most sought-after species in the coastal migrant traps, and easily missed, so we pursued it with vigor, and soon tracked it down feeding alongside an Ovenbird which could both be appreciated within the same binocular view on occasion. The bird continued to perform for the Boy Scout crowd on and off through the day, and it transpired that a number of these furtive warblers were roaming the same lot, making it a good day for those looking to add this to their life lists. Here is Luke Seitz's photo of the very individual that brought joy to many, including me today.

Over lunch down on the shores of the Bolivar Peninsula, the usual suspects were found, although we could not find yesterday's Snowy Plover unfortunately. Highlights did include around a dozen Red Knot though at HAS Bolivar Flats, and Black Tern at Rollover Pass, among a horde of other coastal birds.

After a scout around Houston Audubon's Smith Oaks woods in the afternoon proved what we expected, the woods were largely quiet, bar a few Summer Tanagers and a glowing male Scarlet Tanager, Luke and I headed back down the coast to shoot birds in the late afternoon light, highlights of which are to come...

10 April 2012

Early Spring...TEXAS (9 April)

Little did we know when we awoke to a hot humid day and southerly winds, what a great day fro warblers this would be. I mean after all at this time of the month, High Island is meant to relatively quite with low diversity...or so they say.

I awoke to a Northern Parula and Tennessee Warbler brightening up our backyard on 5th Street (the parula anyway!), and shortly after a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak planting itself to a mulberry tree openen our Houston Audubon walks across in Boy Scout Woods. By the end of the morning some warblers had pleased: Yellow-throated and Black Throated Green Warblers for one, and a mass of Indigo Buntings had clearlt dropped in overnight. However, Texas's own "rainbow bird" Painted Bunting somehow managed to elude me all day long, and I eagerly await my first of season-today perhaps?

However, I am not complaining as it was the best day of the spring so far with warbler numbers rising to 23 species by the close of business. After an afternoon walk along the shore at HAS Bolivar Flats where I got my season first Snowy Plover with a huddle of portly Piping Plovers, and watched a sorry-looking Red Knot limping along the beach with a couple of healtheir looks birding in tow, I returned to the woods and took on the late afternoon Houston Ausubon walks around HAS Smith Oaks. We needed to work hard for our birds but Yellow-throated Warbler came, and it was very clear that literally masses of Tennessee Warblers had dropped in for the afternoon: barely a moment went by when a Tennessee was NOT in view. A Prothonotary Warbler was more selective showing just once.

Just as we were finishing our walk a male Cerulean Warbler and the quitessential Halloween bird, American Redstart turned up and closed out the walk in dramatic fashion. Luke Seitz and I then enjoyed shooting the Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets in the soft evening light over Claybottom Pond before returning, almost inevitably to the Boy Scout Woods drip, which was pumping with colorful activity...

The day closed with my Leica binoculars rooted to my face, and elbows tired from the constant action unfolding before our eyes. A Swainson's Warbler dropped into the drip, causing more than a little excitement as he also had Kentucky Warbler, Louisiana Warterthrush, and Blue-winged Warbler for company at the time. When migrants rush the drp like this there is no time for rest or comprehension of the insane scenes that unfold. Some of those birds left and then were merely replaced by Worm-eating and Prothonotary Warblers, and then later a black-and-scarlet American Redstart. The warbler regularly adorned the edges of the pool like Christmas lights that clashed badly with another due to their vastly different color schemes. This was one color clash that would have been supported by all present, fashionistas or not!

More to come from the migration Mecca soon..

08 April 2012

Easter Egg Hunt...TEXAS (8 April)

While others searched for eggs today I spent the day hunting warblers in High Island...and with some notable successes...

I started my day as normal on the Houston Audubon walk in Boy Scout Woods, where some of the warblers artfully dodged me for a while, and suggested it might be a day to frustrate more than delight: a Worm-eating slinked away before I could see the tiger-striped head, a Blue-winged glowed yellow, but refused to show me the realm of features to ensure a satisfying view, and the Yellow-throated Warblers just plain avoided me! However, returning to the famed Grandstand there my luck took a turn, and I never looked back. The changing tide brought me a good long look at the often furtive Swainson's Warbler that worked its way to the drip there.

In the afternoon, the trip swapped venue to Smith Oaks, and meeting people in the woods with dire news of migrants (i.e. there are none) I feared the worst. However, in spite of muted expectations, with a southerly wind blowing, and the early afternoon news creeping out of the woods, moments later we were eyeballing a sky-backed male Cerulean Warbler, only my second of this, my fifth spring season, in High Island. There would have been a distinct spring in our step had we walked off, although with regular action in the early-fruiting mulberries, and leafed out Live Oaks overhead, we stood rooted to the spot for at least an hour. The mulberry vibrated with the motions of visiting tanagers, with both male Summer Tanager, and "neon" male Scarlet Tanagers adoring the tree, which also held the odd Tennessee Warbler, which had clearly not read the book that dictated that they feed on insects! Then a movement above revealed a few Northern Parulas moving through the Oaks, with a stunning pair of Yellow-throated Warblers for company. Red-eyed Vireo also moved through the trees with the usual, slow deliberate movements characteristic to vireos.

After all the satisfying warbler action, I wound down at the end of it all with first flight shots of Roseate Spoonbills at Smith Oaks famous rookery, a Hooded Warbler back at Boy Scout, and washed it all down with a good Texas beer - Shiner - with other "Tropical Birders" back on 5th Street.

More to come from High Island very soon...

04 April 2012

High Times...TEXAS (4 April)

After yesterday's deathly quite woods in High Island, our morning walk produced more of the same scenario in general, although glimmers of hope were provided by a Palm Warbler and a Louisiana Waterthrush "dipping" along the edge of Prothonotary Pond in HAS Boy Scout Woods. A menacing Merlin was also seen perched at the edge of the pond there too.

I also saw this cool mushroom in Boy Scout, of which I have no idea of what it is...please let me know if you do?

Our daily coastal foray down to the coast was notable for "award-winning" tacos (if awards were given out by Tropical Birding guides that is), and a trio of Franklin's Gulls and Black Terns, among the hordes of more common coastal birds at Rollover Pass. Rain stopped play early and had us checking the woodlots eagerly for new arrivals which duly came....a short stint in the Boy Scout photo blind saw me watching my first of season Ovenbird creeping past, along with this skittish Brown Thrasher (thrashers have been especially abundant and conspicuous of late in High Island). A return to the Boy Scout drip saw another season first occur when a male Kentucky Warbler made a celebrity appearance during the afternoon, which was later followed by groups of Orchard Orioles, a young male Wilson's Warbler showing hints of the skullcap to come, a handful of Northern Parulas, and the odd Black-and-white Warbler.

A call from Scott Watson patrolling Smith Oaks woods alerted us to lots of Tennessee Warblers, the first flame-throated male Blackburnian of the season (which I missed) and brought us several Yellow-throated Warblers too.

A tern for the worse...TEXAS (3 April)

With all the talk of fronts, tornadoes, and the resulting "fallout" along the Gulf Coast, today in High Island was one of the worst teases in history. This was arguably the quietest day in the woods I have ever known there! After four hours of daylight we had yet to see a single warbler, with the collective effort of all visiting birders yielding one species in total! The only bright spot was provided when Scott and I ventured to Highway 1985, before the warbler walk, and found a couple of Buff-breasted Sandpipers, sharing the only flooded field in the area with masses of Pectoral Sandpipers, and a handful of American Golden Plovers. Unfortunately though when we returned at lunchtime with a group of eager Buff-breast "hunters" there was no sign of them. It was just that kind of day!

The afternoon Houston Audubon walk around Smith Oaks on High Island started off equally dull and we feared the worst. By 4.30pm we were noting that we had still to produce a single warbler on the walks. However, Scott squeezed a Northern Parula out of one of the Oaks, and soon after Black-and-white Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler followed. OK so we had not broken any records, with just four individual warblers, but we had broken our duck and at least we were not walking home, tail between legs with no warblers at all! Best sighting of the afternoon though was a challenging kingbird, either Couch's/Tropical Kingbird, which shared a mulberry with a gaudy male Baltimore Oriole. On balance structurally it was edging the way of Couch's. Sadly the bird refused to call, and so left itself with the tag "probable".

The photo above is a non-breeding Forster's Tern from the coast the other day - no photos today as you might have guessed, so I had dip into the archive!

Let's hope for more out of this migrant hotspot tomorrow...

02 April 2012

The spring has sprung...TEXAS (2 April)

After a decidedly gloomy start, brought about by gray skies followed by prolonged heavy rain, and no birds the day improved markedly for me in High Island. I went for a quick jaunt around Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods, pre-lunch, and pre-shorebirding, and found myself eyeballing three different Louisiana Waterthrushes that were new in today. On returning to the entrance I also got news of a Worm-eating Warbler, and so hurried over there with just a few minutes to spare, and managed to squeeze in this dead leaf specialist before lunch.

Lunch was spent birding along the Bolivar Peninsula, with my first of season Black Terns (1 full jet adult, and a non-breeding bird), and two pink-flushed Franklin's Gulls being the clear highlights. The latter always intuitively feel like they should be more common along the Gulf Coast, although as their broad migration pattern largely takes an inland route they are not too numerous and were much appreciated by me. A surprise came on Bob Road, where a winter plumage Common Loon probably reveals just how much water is lying around the peninsula right now.

Back in the woodlots in the afternoon I saw my FOS Blue-winged Warbler sharing a tree with my FOS Tennessee Warbler, and a nuthatching Black-and-white Warbler too. Before long duty called and I was walking the trails in Houston Audubon's Smith Oaks sanctuary for the afternoon bird walk. Sometimes these can be challenging near birdless affairs (if no migrants have arrived in town), although the bird Gods were smiling today, with rarely a dull moment and plenty to fill a notebook. We knew things were looking good when a party of three Black-throated Green Warblers appeared overhead, loosely associating with another Black-and-white Warbler, and a male Northern Parula. A mulberry tree led me to a mulberry-stained Rose-breasted Grosbeak loafing with intent nearby. Things turned even better when a Worm-eating Warbler (my second of the day no less) appeared unusually high in the Oak overhead. This was followed by a crimson male Summer Tanager, a superb pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that lit up my scope, and a pair of Yellow-throated Warblers.

The day finished in traditional High Island fashion with the fly in at the rookery, where Roseate Spoonbills, as ever, were the headline stealers, although a healthy crop of Louisiana Herons (isn't that name so much better than Tricolored?!) were also much appreciated. My day finished, much as the day before, with a Hermit Thrush bathing thoroughly in the Boy Scout drip.

Storms on the way for High Island, and I await with baited breath...

01 April 2012

Gulf Coast shorebirding...TEXAS 1 April

Anyone projecting a fallout today must have been pulling an April fool. There was clearly no 'big" movement going on today, although there was a trickle of arrivals in the afternoon, preceded by a good run along the coast for me. Our morning folly around Houston Audubon's Boy Scout Woods was generally quiet but punctuated with two bright birds from the migrant crop: a young male Baltimore Oriole comprising my first of season, and followed by yesterday's Yellow-throated Warbler, helpfully "glued" to the same tree.

In the afternoon Scott Watson and I took a trip down to the coast where we swept the small plovers (Wilson's, Snowy, Piping, and Semipalmated) between Rollover Pass and Bolivar Flats, and also admired the healthy crop of Western Sandpipers on the flats. Best of all though was this super-confiding Long-billed Curlew, showing off its most famed feature on the beach, while Least Terns sat unconcerned as our car rolled within feet of them.

Despite a trickle of new birds for most in the afternoon my only "FOS" (first of season) was a Red-eyed Vireo in Boy Scout Woods. My day closed with a Hermit Thrush giving itself a thorough wash at the drip there before I retired to a hearty plate full of brisket, which Scott and I were determined to finish!