The Business Birder Springs on the Texas Gulf Coast

 

 

It was time for my annual rite of spring.  Yes, my Third Annual Business Birder High Island Bird, Beach, and Mosquito Festival.  You have heard of it?  Right?

 

This year I broadened my range.  It flew into Houston on March 22, on the way to a business meeting in Lubbock the following Tuesday, and drove to Rockport.  I planned to bird Goose Island State Park, Rockport, Aransas NWR, Mustang Island, San Padre Island, and Corpus Christi, before returning to Houston for my flight to Lubbock on Monday night.

 

To guide my adventures, I brought along The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail maps for the Upper Texas Coast (UTC references) and Central Texas Coast (CTC references). 

 

I spent the night at the Best Western at Rockport and birded Goose Island (CTC 48), South Fulton Beach Road and the Rockport City Marina (CTC 51) the next morning and then took one of the boat tours of Aransas. 

 

Birds seen at Goose Island State Park, Fulton, and Rockport on March 23 included:  Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Snow Goose, Gadwall, Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Sora, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Greater Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstone, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Snipe, Forster’s Tern, Inca Dove, Belted Kingfisher, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Brown Thrasher, Prothonotary Warbler, and Great-tailed Grackle

 

I always recommend restaurants and hotels so that you, the birding public, can concentrate on finding the birding sites.  The Mobilicious Deli (361-727-2424) on South Fulton Beach Road is a great place for eat in or take out lunch prior to the boat ride. 

 

I made reservations on the Warf Cat the day before (800-782-2473) and met them at the Rockport city docks at 1 PM.  The trip was narrated by Ray Little, a crusty, old professional bird guide.  He was actually quite good and mostly accurate. 

 

Ray gave us a great natural history lesson of Whooping Cranes and all of the attempts over the years to bring them back from the edge of extinction.  He told us about the approximately 300 cranes in the Aransas population, a small breeder flock that has been reestablished in Florida, and one crane left from an earlier experiment that winters in Bosque del Apache.          

 

I was not prepared for the crane tour to be so good!  There were a lot of other birds seen.  For instance, we passed a Peregrine Falcon on a channel marker going out, coming within 35 feet of him.  What a look!

 

Ray knew the history of the crane families and their territories.  He told us about the death of a mate, the shrinking of territories within Aransas due to the increasing number of cranes, and described the crane interaction and behavior we observed. 

 

Ray showed us a singles area with ten juvenile cranes.  They had skateboards, tattoos, and pierced beaks.  No, I made that up. 

 

Four singles crossed the Intracoastal Waterway and flew toward a family on the other side.  The male of the family took them on and chased them back across the Waterway.  On his return, he flapped his wings and squawked a lot, bragging about his prowess.  Now, if all of you women will repeat after me:  “You MEN!”  Or use your own slogan of righteous indignation or make the sigh of long suffering, if you prefer.  

 

Back to the story, this male crane’s family was actually encroaching on another pair’s territory and they walked over to express their displeasure.  However, his family held their ground and the other family backed off.  I suppose he really was a bad dude, since he could back it up.

 

Other birds added on the Aransas trip: Northern Harrier, Crested Caracara, American Oystercatcher, American Avocet, Willet, Bonaparte’s Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, and Black Skimmer.

 

This trip had much more that I expected.  It was much more that just recording the Whooping Crane as a lifer.  I suppose I expected to just see a few cranes standing around. 

 

On the way out and on the way in we looked for the Pacific Loon that was being seen at the mouth of the harbor.  We thought we may have seen it just outside the seawall on our way back in.  Guess who decided to mosey out on the seawall to find the loon? The winds were up over 20 knots and the waves were breaking over the seawall.  At the end, the seawall was wider and fairly dry.  I timed my little walk in between the waves and made it to the end without getting totally wet.  I did not find the loon but at least I saw several Eared Grebes.   

 

The next morning I headed out on the Mustang Island Loop.  On my way through downtown Rockport, on TX 35, I spotted a likely place for breakfast, named the Big Bisket.  I got my usual couple of sausage biscuits.  I had not paid any attention to the name of the place and how that might affect my order.  Each biscuit was approximately the size of a catcher’s mitt and had 3 sausage patties.  Wow!

 

At the Port Aransas Birding Center (CTC 57), Mustang Island, Padre Island National Seashore (CTC 63), and Suter Wildlife refuge (CTC 69), I added:  Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, White-tailed Hawk, Virginia Rail, Black-necked Stilt, Sandwich Tern, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, Cattle Egret, American Wigeon, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. 

 

 The Port Aransas Birding Center is an incredibly good birding site.  Its water treatment ponds provided me an incredible number of birds the previous October.  This time, it provided an incredible number of Nutria.  They lay laid side by side, like logs washed up on shore, sleeping in families of three to six in number.

 

My next stop was Blucher Park (CTC 71) in Corpus Christi, which yielded:  Whip-poor-will, Vermillion Flycatcher, Couch’s Kingbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Indigo Bunting, and Bronzed Cowbird.  I had planned to hit Pollywog Pond and another site or two around Corpus Christi before returning to Rockport; however, an eye problem (irritation due sunscreen getting into my eye) and a sudden desire to go to Galveston changed my plans.  So I ended up heading north on US 77.

 

For the trip, I had subscribed to the TEXBIRDS listserver and there were a lot of messages about a Pacific Loon at Galveston.  So I was on my way.   I stopped at Refugio for eye drops and decided not to try to find the Green Kingfishers that live nearby on the Mission River (CTC 38).  I arrived at Offatt Bayou, south of the 61st Street causeway in Galveston (UTC 65) by 6:30 PM, just in time for a great sunset but the loons were so far out I could only see their profile.  I found a great hotel about two miles away and spent the night.  On Monday morning, I returned and found a vacant lot closer to the loons and found the Pacific Loon and several flocks of Eared Grebes in breeding plumage.

 

By going to Galveston, I found myself much farther north than I had intended so I decided take the ferry and hit the Bolivar Peninsular and High Island on the way back to the Houston airport.

 

At the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary and TX 87, Rollover Pass, and High Island, I found, in addition to many of the birds reported above:  Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Plover, Snowy Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Piping Plover, Horned Lark, Long-billed Curlew, Sanderling, Dunlin, American Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kite, Marbled Godwit, Neotropic Cormorant, Black-bellied Plover, Summer Tanager, Hermit Thrush,  and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  At the mudflats, there were thousands of shorebirds in attendance, including at least two thousand American Avocets.  

 

This leg of my spring trip was great, even considering that strong southeast winds were present all three days.  On Sunday, we had 25-30 MPH winds, gusting to 40.  Also, the timing was a little too early for returning warblers and other migrants.  Which is a good segue into my next pounce upon the Texas Gulf Coast. 

 

My trip back to High Island and Sabine Woods was Friday, April 12 through Sunday, April 14.  Believe it or not, I had a free US Airways ticket left over from last year’s adventure in getting to High Island.

 

There I was, tooling down I10 from the airport.  A free ticket and on time arrival courtesy of US Airways, a free hotel courtesy of Hilton, a special weekend rate from Avis (who had upgraded me to a 4X4 Blazer), listening to classical music, sipping on some iced Perrier (anything less would be uncivilized), looking at the Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes, and loving my life.

 

I decided to head for Sabine Woods because of the TEXBIRDS listserver notices, which told of great birding the previous weekend April 6-9.  Sabine Woods (UTC 26) is an oak motte owned by the Texas Ornithological Society and has all of the ingredients to make it a migrant trap: fresh water, Mulberries, caterpillars, and worms. I arrived about Noon.

 

I later journeyed down TX 87 to the willows at the Ocean Rim State Park (UTC 27) boardwalk and then on to a Mulberry stand about a quarter of the mile further down the road.  Both of these sites were new to me.  I read about them in a listserver message.  I picked up a Green Heron and an American Redstart at the boardwalk and my first Scarlet Tanager of the day at the Mulberry stand.

 

A sad thing happened on this side trip.  I took TX 87 south to the beginning of where a hurricane had washed out the road and turned around when the beach started looking a little too soft.  On the way back I accidentally ran over a rattlesnake.  It was about four feet in length.  As my Blazer approached, I could not tell that it was a snake.  I saw something in the road and veered a little left thinking it was a bird that would fly away.  The snake was coiled and just as I reached it, it either struck or tried to crawl off in front of me.  I recognized that it was a snake at the last moment and swerved and braked hard but it was too late.  It was a beautiful, majestic animal and I would have given anything at that moment to be able to undo the damage.

 

At Sabine Woods, I found:  Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-eyed Vireo, Hooded Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-breasted Chat, Kentucky Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Gray Catbird, Prothonotary Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue-headed Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Downey Woodpecker, Worm-eating Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, Painted Bunting, Eastern Kingbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Eastern Wood Pewee, and Black-and-white warbler.

 

Other birds seen at Ocean Rim State Park, the Mulberry stand, and on TX 87:  Blue Grosbeak, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Roseate Spoonbill, Great Blue Heron, Blue-winged Teal, Louisiana Heron, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, White Ibis, and White-faced Ibis.

 

The next morning at High Island, Boy Scout, Oilfield Road Pond and other sanctuaries on High Island, I added:  Black-necked Stilt, Lesser Scaup, Purple Martin, Sanderling, Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Willet, Laughing Gull, Neotropic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Pied-billed Grebe, Eurasian Collared Dove, Inca Dove, Mourning Dove, and Chimney Swift.

 

As I was leaving, I counted 61 vehicles at the Boy Scout Sanctuary, many of which were vans or SUV’s, probably yielding at least 200 birders.  The birders truly outnumbered the birds, even counting the cardinals. 

 

I left to return to Sabine.  Before leaving High Island, I stopped at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church for a barbeque lunch.  It was the best Texas-style beef brisket and Polish sausage I have ever tasted.  The church is just a few blocks from the Boy Scout Woods and every Saturday in April they have a barbeque fund raiser targeting us birders.  St. Matthew is surely the patron saint of Texas barbeque!  Did I mention the cocoanut crème pie?  It was made by the pastor’s wife.  Heavenly stuff! 

 

Saturday afternoon, at Sabine Woods, I added:  Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ovenbird, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

 

On Sunday morning, April 14, I returned to Sabine Woods and added Clapper Rail (on TX 87), Wood Thrush, Swamp Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow to my previous Sabine trip species.

 

On the way back to the Houston Airport, I toured Anahuac NWR for the first time. Species added were:  Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Mottled Duck, Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher, Little Blue Heron, Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen, and Tree Swallow.

 

To get to Anahuac from Winnie take TX 124 to FM1985 (10.8 miles).  From that junction, it is 3.2 miles to Anahuac NWR, (UTC 50, the first entrance).  This site features the East Bay Bayou which is lined with willows.  The second entrance, approximately 7 more miles south, is the main entrance to the visitor center and waterfowl impoundments (UTC 49, I think the sign is down).  In between the two entrances, in the pastures and rice fields on the right, look for shorebirds and ducks. 

 

I will return next year to see the wintering birds and the Yellow Rail.  The waterfowl at Anahuac are followed down their migration path by Bald and Golden Eagles, so look out from above!   

 

I enjoy talking to people I meet on a trip.  Unfortunately, it sometimes turns into one-upmanship.  Other birder: “Did you go to the mudflats at Port Bolivar?” Me: “Yes.  I enjoyed seeing all of the shore birds and I got a Horned Lark just before the parking area.” Other birder:  “I got that one too.”  Me: “And I was happy to see a Long-billed Curlew on the beach.”  Other birder:  “Yeah, I got two of them.”  Me: “And the Orange Bishop?”  Other birder: “Yeah, Yeah.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”

 

What can we do about issues with too many birders at the same place at the same time?  I discovered that by merely recording a sighting on the white board at Boy Scout Woods or other sites, you can clear up birding congestion.  For instance, writing “Scarlet Ibis at Rollover Pass” can alleviate most of the symptoms of birding congestion.  And can we ban all extroverted birders or at least sedate them?

 

I did have several wonderful conversations.  I really enjoyed talking to a guy from Oregon.  He was birding with a friend who has been taking him on birding trips around the country for twenty-five years.  I have found that no matter your experience or credentials, the next birder to come along may humble you.  Heck, I was proud to be visiting the upper Texas coast for a third straight year. 

 

This guy was really good.  He kept talking about how his friend was a much better birder.  Well, his friend, also from Oregon, cannot be all bad.  He has a house near Portal, Arizona.  I did not let my neophyte status stand in my way.  I gave him my card and invited them to join me in some birding if they ever come to North Carolina.

 

Finally, there were two birders at Sabine Woods, one shouldering a video camera, who kept seeing a Swainson’s Warbler.  One would alert several of us each time they found it and we would come running.  I never did see the bird, even looking over the shoulder of the cameraman.  They had us down on all fours looking under thick brush.  I think they were a team from an Ornithological Candid Camera show.  They could have been pulling our collective leg; however, about an hour later, I found an Ovenbird on the other side of the brush where the last Swainson’s “sighting” took place.  Who knows?      

 

As I drove around all weekend, there was a lot of radio talk about the tax deadline.  Blather, blather, blather!  I just smiled. I had already received my refund.  You have to laugh at the publicity for the IRS Help Line, which is now, by the way, the official oxymoron of the Business Birder.

 

The weather conditions were a little unusual for this time of year, featuring light morning fog all three days and light winds (gusting up to 2 mph).  No rain, thunderstorms, nor cold fronts.

 

Each of my April trips to the Texas Gulf Coast has featured certain species, as well as a smattering of everything else.  This time the place was lousy with Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Kentucky Warblers, Worm-eating Warblers, and Scarlet Tanagers.  Other years have featured Yellow-breasted Chat, Painted and Indigo Buntings, Orchard Orioles, Fulvous Whistling Ducks, and Hooded Warblers.  Just depends on your timing and maybe the food available.  The shorebirds have always been abundant.   

 

I researched the area using the ABA Lane Guide, A Birder’s Guide to the Texas Coast, by Harold R. Holt.  It was helpful; however, because it was a little out-of-date (1993), I found the Trail map to be better.  Lane does not do justice to Sabine Woods and, while its description of Anahuac NWR is very complete, it does not note that there are now two entrances for Anahuac.  

 

Texas Birds by Edward A. Kutac, (published in 1982, it is an older book which has probably been revised), was also a good reference.  I purchased this book at a Houston Audubon Society used-book sale last year at High Island.  I also read “The Whooping Crane, On the Rebound” in the April 2002 issue of Birder’s Digest and “Tale of a Texas Sized Fallout” in the April 2002 issue of Birder’s World.  And as a matter of habit, I consulted the April issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife.  This issue is the yearly birding issue and includes the Great Texas Birding Calendar for the year.

 

As I mentioned above, I subscribed to the TEXBIRDS listserver.  It has good trip notes and rare bird alerts.  While I was at it, I subscribed to Tweeters to prepare for a Washington State trip.  This was fruitful in a BIG way.  I was suddenly getting another 60 e-mails a day in my personal e-mail inbox, on top of the 30 plus business and personal e-mails I was already receiving.  Ouch!  You just pick through them, deleting 95% without reading, and, voila, you have great information in the remainder.  You quickly learn by the subject or writer which ones will yield the most information for your unique trip requirements.  Just remember not to subscribe too early and to unsubscribe from the listserver after your trip.

 

For the trip, I field tested the Tattler Tri-pak, a back-pack-like harness for carrying a scope with tripod attached, from The Wandering Tattler (800-231-9209).  You will find it advertised in many birding magazines.  I highly recommend it.  I have a fairly heavy scope and tripod combination and the Tri-pak allows me to carry them comfortably and quickly remove them for set up.  I have a small tripod bag; however, it will hold my tripod with the Tri-pak attached. 

 

And bless you, Avis (the official rental car agency of the Business Birder)!  You keep giving me your best and I keep returning them loaded with dust and dead mosquitoes.  And occasionally with live ones.

 

Of course, I will go back next year.  At Quintana (UTC 121 and 122) there are a couple of sites recommended for finding returning warblers that will be new to me.  I promise to stay away from High Island on weekends and instead do the Yellow Rail walk at Anahuac and go see an Atwater Prairie Chicken or two.  I will come hoping to experience the elusive (for me) Texas fallout and, at the same time, hoping not to see it.  You know what I mean. 

 

***

 

The author, John Ennis, is a full time healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around.  He lives in the Wilmington, North Carolina area. 


John B. Ennis ã 2002

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