Synopsis: a tale of two birdspotters in a foreign land; this is part one of their story in which dry, uninspiring prose is peppered with immature and unnecessary profanity such as the F-word and other words like ‘twatting’ and ‘shitbags’. Enjoy. Or don’t. Take your pick.
Participants: me and my wife (she’s the girly looking one, whereas I’m the feminine looking one). Why do trip reports always have this bit in?
Cost: in relation to western Europe, Texas is dirt cheap. Everything is payable with Visa and Mastercard, even jam and pencils.
Travel: piece of piss. No need for steering wheels in Texas as all roads are perfectly straight, so you can quite safely (and legally) fall asleep at the wheel.
Food: didn’t get to eat much food, instead we were served food substitute which seemed to be a strange synthetic material consisting entirely of either salt or sugar, depending on which page of the menu it was on. Seriously though, people of America: what in the name of Satan’s fettered foreskin is going on with the food? That is NOT cheese!
Weather: freezing cold throughout. Take plenty of fleece jackets, down jackets, gloves, sleeping bag, thermal underwear, gel hand-warmers, hats, scarves and emergency fire-lighting kit for when it gets really really cold. Be warned, it is absolutely freezing cold in Texas.
Dangers and annoyances: alligators, snakes, giant crabs and other flesh devouring beasts are all over the place, but you’ll not come to any harm unless you are spectacularly stupid. Mosquitoes are a total pain in the arse but absent from the Hill Country. Bites around your ankles from Chiggers make for great fun picking scabs and smearing blood all over your shins and calves. Have your passport ready if you’re snooping about looking for birds around the border. Immigration at Houston airport is a total and utter buttfuck – just put on your best facial expression of British confusion.
Books: we took Sibley backed up with Advanced Birding by Kaufman. Pre-trip swatting up was made enjoyable by the new Crossley ID Guide, though weighing in at 75 tons this great book will never make a travelling birder’s luggage. The ABA guides to the Texas Coast and Rio Grande Valley are absolutely brilliant, though a couple of maps are not accurate in terms of scale. Few trip reports online are of any use for the independent birder (mostly just summaries from tour companies) but I did get a great one from Chris Kehoe from his trip in 2001. Vocals were compiled on iPod by downloads from the amazing Xeno-Canto.
This was the first trip where I’ve harnessed the full power of the world-wide-intranet’s social media tools, and Facebook contacts provided top advice: thanks especially to Rich Hoyer, Dan Jones, Kenn Kaufman, Chris Kehoe and Bill Schmoker. Whilst we’re at it I’d like to thank the kind people at Mettrick’s butchers in Glossop for such fine quality meat products over the years, and also Mrs Himmin who runs the cheese stall in Glossop indoor market – I couldn’t do any of it without you guys. Peace and love.
Part one – High Island & Lower Rio Grande Valley
Arrived Houston from Heathrow via Amsterdam, went to a very big car park with a very big woman and picked up a not-very-big car from Hertz, then screamed obscenities at the baffling Sam Houston Tollway. We arrived at the East Bay Bayou section of Anahuac NWR for a brief taste of birding before checking in at the Comfort Inn in Winnie and feasting on low grade burgers. The walk along the river at Anahuac got us a few nice birds: Myrtle Warbler, American Bittern and a flock of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks on the roadside pools, birds which were to prove tricky for the rest of the trip. Belted Kingfisher, Green Heron, Swainson’s Hawk and amazing views of Killdeer alongside lots of trip fodder made for a nice opening evening, but the star attraction were the thousands of waders (mostly Hudsonian Whimbrels & Willets) flying south to roost in the vast coastal marshes, and also a big pile of white dog shit. More on that in a future blogpost (yes!). There was bad news for Sarah, who within minutes of arriving was savaged by mosquitoes and afflicted with elephantitis.
Boy Scout Woods, Smith Oaks rookery, Rollover Pass, Bolivar Flats, finished up back at Boy Scouts
After the first of eighteen successive mornings of plastic breakfasts on plastic crockery eaten with plastic cutlery (how do Texans get scrambled egg that yellow?), we decided to brave the famous Boy Scouts wood. After signing in and buying a monthly pass we took a look at a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, before taking a seat at the grandstand (yes you read that correctly, a four tier grandstand) and then, after realising that there were very few birds around, we spent most of our time talking to Nick Leseberg from Tropical Birding and a few Texan birders. The drip was attracting only a handful of birds, but we still picked up a few migrants, the stars being a pair of Eastern Towhees, Swainson’s Thrush and a male Scarlet Tanager. But the real excitement was when I identified a vireo as White-eyed which was then lost in translation and got back to a group of alarmed birders as being a ‘Siberian Firetrap‘. Must learn to speak English in a less English way. Next we shifted to nearby Smith Oaks sanctuary and enjoyed the chaos within the packed heronries (called rookeries – why?), a few big Alligators and a singing White-eyed Vireo.
After multiple pints of Dr.Pepper from the High Island motel, we drove down the Bolivar Peninsula to Rollover Pass and had a great time working through the massive flocks of waders and terns. A thrash around the saltmarsh vegetation at Bolivar Flats failed to kick out good sparrows, but it did get us a few decent waders and shit-awful sunburn, and back on the beach we found a flock of small plovers containing both Piping and Wilson’s. We finished the birding back at Boy Scouts Woods where a few warblers were showing around Purkey’s Pond, and after everyone had cleared out we were treated to a Hermit Thrush and Hooded Warbler all loved up and chasing each other around (I’d love to see that hybrid!), and a mega-monster-munch tree-creeping Black-and-white Warbler. A lone Mississippi Kite over the woods at dusk was the only one we saw in the area.
Yacht Basin Road, High Island, Winnie, High Island
A very early start and we were back at Rollover Pass on Yacht Basin Road. Midway along we found a patch of cordgrass and, as recommended in the ABA guide, began to pish. Literally within seconds 2 Nelson’s Sparrows popped up and sat perfectly still until we eventually had to leave them behind to continue along the road. Commotion on the saltmarsh saw 2 Clapper Rails calling and chasing around, one of which eventually allowed us a long decent view. At the end of the road we met two locals (I’m sure one was Lemmy from Motorhead) who explained why the whole area looked like a building site – the entire peninsula was demolished in 2008′s Hurricane Ike and it’s a long way from being rebuilt. Back at High Island we watched a downy Great Horned Owl chick at its nest in Hooks Wood, before heading up to Winnie to watch 4 Upland Sandpipers, 2 Wilson’s Snipe and our first of many billions of Eastern Meadowlarks in the roadside rice fields. Hoping for another eleventh hour burst of birding, we finished the day back at Boy Scouts and were rewarded with absolutely nothing. KAPOW! Like any other migrant trap, when the weather’s off it’s dead, I mean really dead, and we had a rethink and made plans to get away from the area the next day.
Anahuac NWR (rail walk), Bolivar-Galveston ferry
Today will forever be remembered for our participation in the most mental thing in birding, the kind of thing which perhaps confirms that birdspotters really are a very unique group of people. Arriving at Anahuac at 07:00, we met up with Houston birder David Sarkozi and headed out into a private section of the reserve for an organised rail flush. Us fifteen equally mental birders spent three hours marching through the marshes dragging plastic milk bottles filled with stones tied to a long length of rope. It was absolutely exhausting, filthy and riddled with mosquitoes. It was also hilarious and strangely good fun, made all the more enjoyable by David. Anyway, we didn’t see Yellow Rail, but excellent views of Seaside Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, 4 American Bitterns and a Sora made the exhaustion almost worthwhile. Almost. Believe me, it’s no exaggeration to say that this rail walk is a blood bath! Lashings of free coffee back at the visitor centre pretty much saved my life (‘I’ve told you a million times, do not exaggerate!’).
So that was the High Island area, and although we’d hit the jackpot with a full sheet of waders, wildfowl and herons, sadly it had been a total wipeout in terms of passerine migration, but that’s the way these things go, and we would thankfully have another stab at the place later in the month (plot spoiler alert: it was fucking great when we came back). But for now we headed west to the end of the Bolivar Peninsula and took the free ferry to Galveston where we were astounded to see 3 early Magnificent Frigatebirds, one taking a kicking from the swarms of Laughing Gulls in the wake of the boat. Driving through Galveston we then saw another immature Frigatebird flying west over Walmart, presumably in search of real cheese (Kraft slices are NOT cheese!). Later we saw our only Swallow-tailed Kite of the trip in Jackson County by the 59. Night in the Quality Inn in Victoria, and next door an actual great meal at the Baytown Seafood restaurant – grilled tuna steaks with actual real genuine vegetables. Wowzer!
Kleberg County grasslands, Sarita rest stop, Laguna Atascosa
A lazy Sunday start kicked off with a hi-sugar breakfast consisting of a bowl of sugar with milk (honey Cheerios) and a large squidgy piece of sugar (a Danish pastry, allegedly). Heading down the 59 towards ‘The Valley’ we took a detour along the back roads through Kleberg County grasslands where, despite the ridiculous heat haze, we had reasonable views of a White-tailed Hawk. A quick piss-stop at Sarita rest stop was very useful as it got us our only Brewer’s Blackbirds of the trip, also 3 male Hooded Orioles and a Parula sp which we heard singing but the little shit refused to show – Tropical Parula are regular at Sarita rest stop. Couldn’t identify it either way with my untrained ears.
We arrived at Laguna Atascosa late afternoon and found a great selection of target birds just around the visitor centre: Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Couch’s Kingbird, Black-crested Titmouse, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow and Bronzed Cowbird were all common and easy to see. But the bird of the day award had to go to that iconic bird of the southwest USA, and 2 Roadrunners were found just before dusk. We checked in to Hampton Suites in Brownsville for two nights and headed out to gorge on ‘fajitas’ (trade description laws?).
South Padre Island, Laguna Atascosa
Yesterday afternoon at Atascosa we were told that a cold front was to hit the south Texas coast overnight which would hopefully throw a few nice migrants out of the sky. Arriving on South Padre Island at the tiny woodlot at Sheepshead, it was soon obvious that today was to be no record-breaking warbler day. Still, the visit was entirely worthwhile as we got to meet Leonard Cohen’s cousin Robert. I kid you not. Birds were required, so an immediate schedule change cut short the driving and took us back to Atascosa to see the full reserve. A brilliant decision. My decision as well. I rule.
Passing back over the bridge to Port Isabel we had a quick snoop at a Reddish Egret, but the birding was top quality once we hit the approach road to Atascosa, especially past the entrance to Cameron County airport. Harris’s Hawks were regularly seen on roadside poles, a White-tailed Kite was hunting over the ploughed fields above Lark Sparrows with 3 White-tailed Hawks in the area. In the roadside mesquite we managed 3 Verdin, 2 comically growling Cactus Wrens, great views of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and bucket loads of the south Texas specials which we’d already seen the previous evening. There were 2 enormous orange male Altamira Orioles in the car park as we paid for the permit and then drove around the 12 mile Bayside Drive. Highlights around the loop were 20 American White Pelicans, 13 Franklin’s Gulls flying north, heard-only Groove-billed Ani and a Western Kingbird, as well as plenty of good waterbirds and waders alongside the south Texas specials. The heat was extreme and there’s no shelter along the loop, so much so that 3 Turnstones were sheltering in the shade between the legs of an Osprey resting on the ground. Piss funny! Unfortunately Turnstones and Osprey don’t seem to merit bold font. Oh go on then: Turnstones, Osprey. Night again in Brownsville, where tonight our tastebuds were to be violently assaulted by a visit to Red Lobster (you call that flounder? My arse/ass!).
Santa Ana NWR, Bentsen State Park
The Texas/Mexico border holds a number of subtropical species at the very far northern edge of their range and continually attracts extraordinary vagrants, and because of this American birders speak of the Lower Rio Grande Valley with reverential awe, especially its two main reserves Santa Ana NWR and Bentsen State Park. Today we visited both. Starting at Santa Ana we first worked the Chachalaca Trail and quickly added numerous Brown-crested Flycatchers and Great Kiskadees to our list of ‘valley specials’, but Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet required an enormous amount of effort. And by Christ was that effort worth it! (The previous sentence may be heavily loaded with sarcasm.) From the observation platforms over the shallow lake we had close views of 5 Least Grebes, a male Cinnamon Teal and swarms of waders which you’d quite gladly hack your bollocks off with a rusty blunt breadknife to find in Britain. But even though we only had brief views, the star attraction was an enormous Ringed Kingfisher, something we’d seen plenty of before in Peru but still a winner – pity the ringer/bander who has to tackle the bill on that big bastard! At least 200 Broad-winged Hawks were kettling, a sign of things to come in the next couple of days, and a White-tailed Kite decided to batter the crap out of a lone Red-shouldered Hawk. After purchasing a splendid baseball cap adorned with an Ocelot that made me look super-fucking-kool (others may disagree), we smashed the Chachalaca Trail again, this time flushing a gigantic Chuck-Will’s-Widow which stopped only briefly before vanishing into the plants-and-trees-and-stuff. Unfortunately the extreme arid conditions were clearly affecting passerines with Common Yellowthroats and Northern Parula being the only warblers we could manage. Worrying that we might actually dip one of the supposedly easy valley specials, we were very relieved to be shouted over by a Californian birder who showed us our one and only Clay-coloured Robin, a bird which for some strange reason was proving a real shit to catch up with for everyone visiting – thanks, Lewis!
We finished the day at Bentsen, first watching a big colony of Cave Swallows nesting on the bridge where 2 very dodgy and un-tickable Muscovy Ducks (scabby white heads and white on wing coverts) also flew downriver, then headed along the road just past the visitor centre and waited for dark. We were joined by the Environmental Partners, three manic bird racers hoping to retain the Big Week title in the Great Texas Birding Classic for their eighth consecutive year. Not surprisingly, they had an amazing list of guaranteed stake-outs for all of the difficult Texan birds, and they were only too glad to share them with us. Just after 20:15 an Elf Owl began to call but was only seen in flight, followed by Chuck-Will’s-Widow and a churring Lesser Nighthawk, two of which eventually showed well in good light. The team waited just long enough to get Pauraque on their list then left, apologising for such a quick visit, but as they explained: “We need to get going. We’ve got a lot of miles to drive.” Yep, I’d say driving 3,500 miles in five days counts as quite a lot of miles. Night in McAllen.
Bentsen State Park, Santa Ana NWR
Impressed by the two big valley reserves, we did both again today but swapped them around with an early start at Bentsen. We were excited to see a large Bobcat near the reserve entrance and then saw the resident pair of Black Phoebes breeding amongst the Cave Swallows. Last night we’d noticed raptors skimming low over the trees dropping in to roost, and we returned early enough to see 40+Mississippi Kites and huge numbers of Broad-winged Hawks leaving their roost. The hawks were kettling in immense numbers right up until mid morning, the count comfortably exceeding 1,000 birds, and constant eyes up at the raptors scored us an impressive 4 resident Grey Hawks (1 ad & 3 imm) amongst migrating Cooper’s, Swainson’s and Red-tailed, yet not a single Hook-billed Bastard-Kite. Our first Black-chinned Hummingbird back at the visitor centre became the default hummer throughout the valley and in the Hill Country with Ruby-throated virtually absent, then back on the trails we found 2 monster orioles one of which was a slam dunk Altamira Oriole, but the other was a cockup blotchy thing and likely to be one of the regularly seen hybrids, a genetic abomination crossed with Audubon’s Oriole. Constant eyes up still failed to produce any kites with hooked bills, but the intense sunlight did induce epilepsy and a headache which I thought was only possible when someone drives an axe into side of your skull.
Further raptor torture at Santa Ana pulled out another adult Grey Hawk and confirmed that Hook-billed Kites really are a rotten bunch of uncooperative bastards. A near collision with a 7 litre SUV was the perfect prelude to a meal of deep fried plastic wrapped in bacon and cheese.
So that’s part one. Join me next week when you can read all about me doing more birdspotting and the time when I got a gun pointed at me. And there’ll be more rude words as well. Maybe even the C-word.
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