Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gone 'Round The Bend

Painted Bunting
Spring: the time of year when birders try to be in the right place at the right time to observe as many migrating neotropical bird species as possible as birds migrate north from wintering grounds in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean Islands.
In addition to the time of year, birders must also be mindful of the four main migration flyways birds use as they pass into or through the United States: Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic. Given our location in Texas, keeping to the Central and Mississippi flyways would provide us with our best shot at catching many of the migrants as they - and we - headed toward Wisconsin.

four major migratory flywways
We departed Kerrville and headed east toward "Texas Coastal Bend", an area encompassing the entire Texas coast stretching from Brownsville in the south northward to the Louisiana border. The "bend" is further divided into three geographic sections: lower, central, and upper. During the next two and a half weeks we would concentrate our efforts in the central and upper regions that included the Rockport-Fulton area (central), and two areas near Houston (upper).

site 149 at Goose Island State Park
Our first destination after leaving Kerrville was Goose Island State Park (GISP) northeast of Rockport-Fulton. Upon arrival it was a bit of a shock to find ourselves back in the muggies as we jockeyed the park's narrow interior roads, ever mindful of low overhanging tree branches. Unfortunately not mindful enough. During our first attempt to back into a site the rig's roof and side were scruffed a bit. Our second site selection turned out to be far easier but still required Tom to trim back low hanging branches once we were parked.
Aside from narrow roads, tight sites and the muggies, the next impossible to overlook problem was a multitude of voracious mosquitoes. Hordes of them. During our week's stay we were never able to spend any time outside without mosquito repellent. Strong mosquito repellent. If there had been as many birds as there were mosquitoes we would have been in birding nirvana.

one of the Geiger's water drips (note small depression to collect water)
Larry and Judy Geiger
hanging out at the Geiger's
We had visited GISP before. Once in 1999 and again in 2010. But we had never stayed at the park. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that the park had "bird hosts". Typically, a park will have "park hosts"...volunteers or work campers who help campers get situated or attend to any camper needs.  But "bird hosts"? These turned out to be a couple from Montana, Larry and Judy Geiger, who have volunteered at GISP for the past several seasons. Their sole purpose was to assist visitors in finding birds in the park and invite anyone interested to visit their site where they had setup up bird feeders and water drips. And chairs. Conveniently located a short walk from our site, over the course of the week we found that the best birding in the park was at the Geiger's water drips.

Black Skimmer
Our first full day at Goose Island SP was spent sticking close to the Rockport-Fulton area. This included visits to the Rockport Beach Park ($4 daily admission) to protected nesting sites of Black Skimmers and Tricolored Heron, a stop at the local chamber of commerce (friendly folks but not terribly "birdy"), a drive along Fulton Beach Road, and a stop at the local McDonald's to use their free wi-fi. The park had poor cell service and no wi-fi at sites so thanks goodness for Ronald McDonald.
One could not visit Rockport without learning about Connie Hagar, a backyard birder who's early observations of bird migrations set the widely held migration theories of professional ornithologists on their heads. As a result of her work many long held bird migrations theories would be overturned and rewritten.

Orchard Oriole (male) seen from tower at Aransas
We spent Tuesday taking a long anticipated drive to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge ANWR) only to discover that our mosquito problem at GISP paled in comparison with what we found at Aransas. Furthermore, we found that most of the boardwalk access points to the water had been closed due to recent inspections. Bummer. The only access point of note was on a tall tower that looked out over a broad marsh where we surprisingly found three Whooping Cranes. Most of the cranes had already departed for northern breeding grounds so we considered ourselves lucky indeed to have found a few. And upon reflection, given the overwhelming numbers of mosquitoes, access to any trails became a moot point anyway.

Inca Dove on nest
Switching to plan B we continued to drive north to a few other spots along the coast and explored back roads along the way to Port O'Conner and Port Lavaca before returning to Rockport. Back at our site we discovered that a pair of Inca Doves had built a nest next to our RV at eye level!

view from Charlotte Plummer's
Having learned from the Geigers about a Wednesday morning field trip at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center (located at the Port Aransas waste water treatment plant) we set out early in the morning in order to catch the trip leader, Nan Dieters, who we were told held a wealth of local birding info. She in fact did share lots of local birding info but when more people showed up for the field trip not wearing binoculars we excused ourselves to follow up on some of Nan's tips - like visits to Paradise Pond and Charlie's Pasture. Once we thought the field trip had ended we circled back to the birding center and walked on our own.
In the afternoon we stopped at Mustang Island State Park before catching the free ferry back toward Rockport and a stop at McDonald's free wi-fi. Foregoing McDonald's menu we opted for drinks and dinner at Charlotte Plummer's Seafare Restaurant overlooking the Rockport harbor.

breakwater jetty at Mustang Island State Park
Aside from exploring a few more back roads around Rockport we found that the best birding was still to be had sitting at the Geiger's site...with sufficient insect repellent. There's something relaxing about sitting in comfortable chairs and having the birds come to us. This was also a time when Tom discovered using our iPhone's camera to record video through our spotting scope of birds visiting the water drips. Tom was so impressed with the simply water drips that we drove to an Ace Hardware to purchase enough tubing and spray/drip attachments to make our own drips wherever we find ourselves parked for a while.

unusual in east TX but record early as well MacGillivary's Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
White-eyed Vireo taking a mister bath
Overall our stay at Goose Island SP was a bit disappointing bird-wise. A hoped-for warbler fall outs never materialized. During the week we added twenty First Of Year (FOY) birds plus a few life yard birds (Kentucky and Worm-eating Warblers) plus Tom recorded a surprise sighting of a MacGillivary's Warbler, a warbler more easily found in the western United States and a rare visitor to east Texas. In fact this bird was a Texas record sighting for early May according to those who keep track in Texas.

site at Brazos Bend

We had heard many good things about Brazos Bend State Park located further up the Texas coast just south of Houston. With a nice southerly tailwind to push us north (the same southerly winds that no doubt kept pushing migrants further north and out of our sight) we arrived at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). Where narrow roads and tight sites were the norm at GISP, it was quite the opposite at BBSP. Huge sites separated by lots of space. A power outage during the early hours following our first night at first seemed like a major inconvenience - we might have to move to another section. The ranger offered everyone in our section the offer to move but also seemed convinced the problem would be fixed late in the day. The two other sites that were occupied elected to move but we stayed and in the end, wound up having no neighbors during the rest of our stay...unless one counted numerous Barred Owls and a new life yard bird: Acadian Flycather.

signs were everywhere
as were alligators

The big draw to the park for many folks isn't birds but American Alligators. So numerous are the gators that signs are posted everywhere to beware and to stay a minimum of 30 feet away. Apparently the gators failed to get the memo or if they did to ignore the distance rule. Quite often we would come across a gator sprawled on one of the trails. You have to realize that most of the trails are hardly 12 feet wide. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the gators were more afraid of us than we were of them as we gingerly skirted any we encountered. A little disconcerting at this time of year as bull gators were heard and seen roaring in the surrounding bayous and lakes.

view from Elm Lake overlook
one of many oxbows
While we again didn't find too many FOY birds at BBSP, the park layout was very attractive as well as staffed with so many helpful volunteers and park rangers. We especially liked hiking around 40-acre Lake, Elm Lake, and the Creekfield Lake trail where nesting Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were abundant. If you're ever in the vicinity of BBSP be sure to make time to stop if only for an day.

Purple Gallinule

Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Black-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
always had to be on guard


  1. Very informative. Hopefully we will get to Brazos Bend soon. Have not missed the mosquitoes since we left the south.

  2. Yes, we ran out of mosquitoes in southern Illinois...and now finding cooler temps, too!