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High Island Trip List and Narrative

High Island - April 26- 28, 2013
MB Class

The NCTexas MB group took the weekend off for a trip to High Island. The trip was attended by all the participants with the exception of Sahar (who fortunately made the trip several days before we did…and I’m sure got just as much out of it). Winnie, Texas was our home for several days while we hit the birding hot spots.

In general, we were very fortunate to hit the tail-end of a rather epic fallout – one that only happens maybe once or twice a decade. Sometimes this is measured by not just by numbers, but how exhausted the birds have become – sometimes to the point of walking around at your feet or simply being very slow to flee what would normally be danger. While this allows up to visually soak up the amazing diversity and beauty of several species, it also allows us to bear witness to one of the most grueling events in animal migration – the Trans-Gulf movement of neotropical birds.

While the group would not officially meet until Saturday morning, it was clear most every oak motte at High Island was teaming with birds on Thursday and Friday. At the Boy Scout Woods on Friday afternoon, our group watched a Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Wood Thrush, and Swainson’s Thrush all sitting on the ground in the same binocular field. Since they weren’t more than 15-20 feet away, binoculars weren’t actually necessary. Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks filled every mulberry tree. Some warblers walked casually in front of the trail as if we didn’t exist. It was rather extraordinary in terms of numbers. Plus, Saturday and Sunday would still be B+ days comparatively speaking.

We started out on Saturday morning at Anahuac NWR. It’s important to start there because the rails become more difficult by mid-day. I believe everyone had excellent views of a strutting King Rail (one vehicle stopped for a King Rail with chicks) and a cooperative Sora. A few of us had good looks at a darker Clapper Rail, and all of us, I believe, were able to see American and Least Bittern – although not the same birds for each vehicle. Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were common, Purple Gallinules were seen periodically and White-faced and White Ibis were everywhere. We missed Seaside Sparrow as they weren’t singing in any of the typical locations.

We dipped on the Ruff at the Skillern tract of Anahuac, and I was probably remiss in not spending more time with the dowitchers… but time was of the essence, and there was mega-fallout of passerines still to witness.

The next stop was at Smith Oaks about noon. Birds weren’t as heavy as they were on Friday, so we picked up a few warblers including a secretive Blue-winged Warbler. We then went to Bolivar to pick up several shorebird species and were not disappointed. Red Knots and Reddish Egrets were common, we had good looks at a Gull-billed Tern over the field, and then Sandwich, Royal, Black, Forster’s and at least one Common Tern on the beach. We also had good looks at Snowy and Wilson’s Plover, although we dipped on Piping Plover.

We came back to Smith Oaks where conditions had picked up. We had very good looks at Blackburnian, Hooded, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Prothonotary warblers, A Yellow-throated Vireo also allowed casual looks. Thrushes allowed fairly close study. We had already become slightly jaded at the number of tanagers and grosbeaks, so they only got our attention when we had nothing else to look at.  We left around 6:30.

At this point, the sky got quite dark on the way back and it rained all night.

Sunday morning did not look promising, but just as I was ready to throw in the towel, it quit raining. I decided to hit Sabine Woods with most of the group – the Berks went on to look for a few species and then drove back to Dallas in their vehicle. They had almost a week there… and I’m still jealous about that.

Sabine Woods was hopping with warblers. We immediately picked up Yellow-throated Warbler before we entered the gate. Then it became difficult to bird as a coherent group. Most of us got the same birds, but not all of us as things moved too quickly for sustained views. The walk was interrupted by the event of the trip – a Swallow-tailed Kite coming to the edge of the motte in order to rob a Loggerhead Shrike nest. The battle was on, and we got to witness the conflict within 20 feet of the group. Most if it required no binoculars. We truly had eye-level, knee-buckling looks at Swallow-tailed Kite while the bird performed a behavior almost never seen by birders – the robbing of a nest. The shrikes finally were able to successfully defend their turf, and the kite grabbed a bug in mid-air to take a consolation prize. It was pretty darned amazing. That event will be officially archived in our memory banks.

More warblers were seen. Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, and a female Cerulean Warbler were seen in the same group of trees and in good light. Hooded Warblers were common, Kentucky Warblers allowed some of us good looks, and a Golden-winged arrived to show-off for a smaller group. Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos were abundant.  A few of our group who been there earlier in the week got looks at Swainson’s Warbler.

Over the course of weekend, many people got good looks at Black-billed Cuckoo – a bird sometimes missing from UTC fallouts. We did not spend much time with flycatchers, as I personally don’t think it adds much to discuss a bird we would have trouble identifying without calls or songs. These birds need a prolonged study. The best way to start would be to spend time with Acadian Flycatchers which nest in Texas. Or perhaps join Chris Runk on a WR lake hike in spring to see if you can pick up some migrant chip notes as they move through. High Island is a not a great place for a good study as very few call or allow for sustained looks early in migration. Only the Pewees would allow leisurely looks.

We reluctantly left Sabine Woods for a shoot-from-the-hip idea of finding a Prairie Warbler in the East Texas piney-woods. Ron stayed to bird some more at HI. He also had a fishing pole with him, so I’m sure we’ll get a fish story next time we meet. The story will almost certainly include puns.

Finding Prairie Warbler habitat was rather absurd as I hadn’t done this trip in at least a decade and hadn’t even considered doing this extension when I left Dallas. Screaming “I don’t know where I’m going, and I am not responsible” didn’t seem to dissuade the group.  Still, I had no idea where my fading memories would take me.

Somehow, I found my way to a few cleared pine lots used for Christmas Trees where the bird frequently nests in Texas. On our first stop, we surprised a Yellow-breasted Chat which jumped out of the bushes, flew around us, and then proceeded to disappear back in the bush. That was an unexpected lifer for several. There was no warbler at the first stop, but we tried for another down the road. Julie thankfully had a good tape of the bird, and at 2:00 in the afternoon we found singing Prairie Warblers. They then proceeded to give us crippling views singing at the tops of the small fir trees and then darting down low for good looks without back-lighting. They were stunning looks really. I’m not sure it would be possible to have a better look unless you had the bird in your hand.

I left out a few storylines that were car-specific. For example, our car went to W.G. Jones forest on the way down where we had a chance encounter with a forest researcher checking Red-Cockaded Woodpecker nest holes. Other cars from our group arrived at HI on Thursday to pad their trip list with more migrants. I’m sure there’s more to tell... I just don't know it all.

Before the trip departed, I got a good photo of the remaining group which I will send out later.

It was a spectacular time all-in-all. I hadn’t been to HI in about 5 years. I was thrilled to go back at such a good time, and with a group that had such boundless enthusiasm. I took note that a lot of post-50 year olds will still actually “run” to see a bird.

I’m also happy that some MB objectives were met amidst the fallout chaos. We had good comparative studies of thrushes and warblers, a greater understanding of both bird habitat and Gulf-coast migration, and a long weekend of assimilating field marks.

I will ask for personal lists from this trip in a separate email.

It was a great time. I’m glad to be off my nuts and granola bar diet, but I’d go right back on it if I thought I could still trade for a few more days on the coast.

SPECIES SEEN from the afternoon of April 26, until Sunday afternoon April 28. Since that was our planned time frame, I've used this time frame as our window... even though we were not all together every moment.

Not all cars did the same itinerary on the way down. Our vehicle stopped at W.G. Jones forest where we had several species we did not have on the coast. These included Red-headed Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Chipping Sparrow, and Pine Siskin.

Pied-billed Grebe

American White Pelican
Brown Pelican

Double-crested Cormorant
Neotropic Cormorant

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Reddish Egret
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Least Bittern
American Bittern

White Ibis
White-faced Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill

Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Canada Goose
Mottled Duck
Northern Shoveler
Blue-winged Teal

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture

Swallow-tailed Kite
Northern Harrier
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Swainson's Hawk

Crested Caracara
American Kestrel

Northern Bobwhite (H)

King Rail
Clapper Rail
Purple Gallinule
Common Moorhen
American Coot

Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet

Black-bellied Plover
Wilson's Plover
Snowy Plover

Long-billed Dowitcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Red Knot
Least Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Wilson's Snipe

Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Laughing Gull

Gull-billed Tern
Sandwich Tern
Royal Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Black Tern

Rock Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
White-winged Dove
Inca Dove

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo

Common Nighthawk

Chimney Swift

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

Acadian Flycatcher
"Trail's" Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Loggerhead Shrike

Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow

Marsh Wren
Sedge Wren (H)

Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher

Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Blue Jay
American Crow

European Starling

White-eyed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo

Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
Swainson's Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Kentucky Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat

Scarlet Tanager
Summer Tanager

Savannah Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting

Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle
Common Grackle
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bronzed Cowbird

Baltimore Oriole
Orchard Oriole

House Sparrow

[161 Species from Friday Afternoon - Sunday Afternoon]
[175 Species from Thursday-Sunday]