Not long after the small regional jet took off from Love field, I noticed the tall thunderheads off the left side of the plane. They were between Dallas and Houston, a line of thunderstorms preceding a strong, fast-moving cold front. The same front that I hoped would produce a fallout of migrating birds like never had been seen before.
When your job requires you to be a road warrior, you squeeze in birding trips when you can. I flew into Dallas for a conference the next week and used frequent traveler points for the flight, car, and hotel to position me at Beaumont Friday night, April 7. Then an all day Saturday adventure along The Great Texas Costal Birding Trail (GTCBT), from the Texas Ornithological Society (TOS) Sabine Woods sanctuary to the Houston Audubon sanctuaries at High Island to the flats shorebird sanctuary at the tip of the Bolivar Peninsula. I fantasized about members of the Houston Audubon Society talking about the “Big High Island Fallout of April ‘00” for years to come and I would know that I was there.
The pilot came on the intercom. Due to the storm, we were being re-routed west to Abilene for fuel and would then fly around the storm, coming close to San Antonio, and come into Houston from the southwest. At Abilene, they let us off the plane to buy drinks and visit the facilities. The chemical toilet on the plane was not working well. You do not want to know more.
Walking into the terminal, I spotted several birds flying in and out of a mesquite tree. They were fairly large thanks to their long divided tails. I went back to the plane and retrieved my binoculars for a look. Sure enough, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, a new life bird for me! The ground maintenance man told me that these birds were highly accurate weather forecasters. Once they appear, farmers know that the last annual frost is history.
In the midst of passenger groans and cries for free drinks (duh, not soft either), the flight attendant announced my new bird and that I might be the only one who was happy about the detour. For a while, I could feel the hate dripping from the other passengers. Eventually, they got their free drinks and forgot about me.
I left Beaumont early Saturday morning for Sabine Woods. Trans-gulf migrants are generally expected to reach High Island around Noon; however, today the birds would be facing a 20-30 MPH headwind out of the North. I figured I had plenty of time to get to High Island.
I found a couple of good birding sites on the lee side of Sabine Woods. Several friendly and helpful birders from all over Texas joined me. Among the birds sighted: White-throated Sparrow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Purple Martin, Great Crested Flycatcher, Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, White-eyed Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat. There were a couple of sightings of a Cerulean Warbler but unfortunately not by me.
Between Sabine Woods and High Island, part of Texas Highway 87 is closed, requiring a 63-mile detour. My total one-way trip would require another 38 miles to the Bolivar Flats.
Crossing the high-rise bridge into Galveston County, I was treated to a sight of three Scarlet Ibis and two Black-necked Stilts on the High Island side of the bridge. I watched the Ibis land in the marsh and disappear behind the saw grass. I never saw them again, though several drivers blew their horns at me, the birds did not flush.
There was no fallout at High Island that day. Unless you count birders. I rotated visits to the Audubon sanctuaries from 1PM to 8PM; with side trips back to the bridge and to the Bolivar flats. My best guess is that most birds leaving the Yucatan Peninsula the evening before were caught up in the strong Southwest winds preceding the front and ended up visiting Florida.
In all, it was still a great trip! Birds noted at High Island included: Eastern Kingbird, Painted Bunting (female), Blue-winged Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Summer Tanager. Bolivar Peninsula birds included: Roseate Spoonbill, American Oystercatcher, Willet, Sora, Blue-winged Teal, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and White-tailed Kite. In total, I checked off 59 species for the day. I had expected more. I had to make myself not count the plastic flamingo spotted at a beach cottage’s mailbox.
In preparing for the trip, friends at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston pointed me in the right direction and I did some Web research. Should you go, I suggest starting with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), Houston Audubon, and TOS Sanctuaries Websites at www.tpwd.state.tx.us, www.io.com/~pdhulce/audubon.html, and www.io.com/~pdhulce/tos.sanc.htm) respectively. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas Department of Transportation have recently published, in three sections, an excellent map for the GTCBT. For this trip, order the Upper Texas Coast section of the map from the TPWD Website.
The author, John Ennis, is a full time health care consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around. He lives in Johnson City, Tennessee.
John B. Ennis ã 2000