Among the more exotic species we hope to encounter is this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a species regularly seen in Texas in the spring. Photo: Stuart Elsom
For the European birdwatcher, a spring trip to North America is guaranteed to produce many birds that quicken the pulse. During April there may be no better birding in North America than that found on the Texas coast, as huge numbers of waders, waterbirds and passerines journey north from their wintering grounds in South America.
The sheer variety of waterbirds guarantees interest, with upwards of 30 or more species of wader and a dozen species of heron, egret and ibis possible, together with an abundance of gulls and terns. Perhaps more spectacular but less predictable are the countless thousands of migrant passerines which cross the Gulf of Mexico to make landfall along the Upper Texas Coast. As they flood into High Island - the region lying northeast of Galveston Bay - they find the migrant ‘traps’ of Boy Scout Wood and Smith Oaks Sanctuary, while nearby on the Louisiana state line are Sabine Woods. With the right conditions these places can literally be dripping with thrushes, vireos, warblers, buntings and orioles, all in stunning spring plumage. Nearby is the Anuhuac National Wildfowl Refuge, a superb wetland where we’ll seek out secretive crakes and rails, and all these places are within easy reach of our base at Winnie. The migrants alone would draw European birdwatchers to Texas but incredibly there’s so much more on offer and we’ll visit several other sites to seek out some of North America’s most sought-after breeding birds.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Houston. From there we drive to our hotel in Winnie. Night in Winnie.
Days 2-7: During these six days we’ll explore High Island and its mosaic of habitats consisting of stands of mature trees, small ponds, boggy swamps, grassy fields, hedgerows and scrub. Many of these areas are well served by good trails and boardwalks and from these we should find a variety of birds including Yellow and Black-billed Cuckoos, Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes, Warbling, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos. North American wood-warblers present could include Black-and-white, Cerulean, Black-throated Green, Tennessee, Yellow-rumped, the gorgeous Blackburnian and the flamboyant Hooded, while dapper Common Yellowthroats should be singing their distinctive ‘witchity witchity witchity’ song from the nearby marshes.
Elsewhere we’ll search for both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, iridescent Indigo Buntings and perhaps Orchard and Baltimore Orioles; species which provide an amazingly rewarding birdwatching experience.
High Island also has its waterbirds: the heron rookery at nearby Smith Oaks Sanctuary allows superb views of nesting Tricoloured and Black-crowned Night Herons, Roseate Spoonbill, and Snowy and Great Egrets. Nearby the sandflats at Bolivar provide a feeding ground for thousands of birds including Ring-billed, Laughing and American Herring Gulls, Least, Forster’s, Sandwich and Royal Terns and a large selection of waders including Semipalmated, Piping and Wilson’s Plovers, American Oystercatcher, American Avocet and the huge American White Pelican. The flooded fields in the High Island area can hold thousands of waders including Hudsonian Whimbrel, American Golden-Plover, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral, White-rumped and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and sometimes Hudsonian Godwit. Here we will also look for the small species of Calidris sandpipers or ‘peeps’ as the Americans call them, including Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers both of which should be in smart breeding plumage.
Just a short drive away are the wonderful marshes at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, home to both Least and American Bitterns, White-faced Ibis, Sora, Virginia, Clapper and King Rails, Green-backed Heron, Purple Gallinule, Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Seaside, Song and Savannah Sparrows and, with luck, the diminutive Yellow Rail. One day during our tour we’ll drive north to a site where we may find both Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kite. Nights in Winnie.
Day 8: Depending on the level of migration activity, we’ll either spend this morning at High Island, hopefully adding a few new species to our list, or if migration is quiet we will visit WG Jones State Forest north of Houston. Here we’ll take our last look at a number of special birds including Red-cockaded Woodpecker, now classed as globally threatened, together with Downy, Hairy, Red-headed, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. Later we’ll return to Houston in time to catch our flight back to London where the tour ends on Day 9.
Updated: 29 October 2013