Thursday, May 17, 2012

High Anxiety

The morning we departed Brazos Bend State Park we were treated to large kettles of migrating Mississippi Kites. Our chosen route today steered us through Galveston as we avoided the congested Houston area, and, as an added bonus, provided us with an 18-minute pelagic (of sorts) cruise aboard the Port Bolivar-Galveston free ferry. Landing in Port Bolivar we continued up the Gulf of Mexico coast on the Bolivar Peninsula headed toward THE birding mecca of Texas, High Island.

Port Bolivar-Gavelston ferry
Two years earlier we had traveled this route which at the time still exhibited much of the damage inflicted on this section of coastline in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. While there were lingering signs of storm damage, a lot of the mess had disappeared, and, although fewer in number, newly constructed beach houses and businesses dotted the coast.

our site at High Island RV
Like Avery Island, High Island sits atop a salt dome. The metaphorical "island" is applied in this instance because it has often served to protect residents from storm surges when in fact the dome had become an island surrounded by water, if only temporarily. At 32 feet above sea level, the adjective "high" didn't seem relevant either. However, looking at it from afar as a migrating bird might do as it completes an arduous flight across the Gulf of Mexico, one gains a new perspective of the suddenly visible food rich vegetation and fresh water resources that High Island offers to low-on-fuel migrants.

an afternoon matinée at Boy Scout Woods water drip
The Houston Audubon Society (HAS) recognized the importance of this safe landfall for migrating birds and in 1981 began to acquire property to establish sanctuaries atop the dome. Because of its history for being a migrant trap, High Island is the place to be in Texas in April.
For this reason we had made a week-long reservation at the High Island RV Park which put us within easy walking distance of the core sanctuary visited by most birders - the Louis B. Smith Sanctuary or more commonly known as Boy Scout Woods. We had arrived with high hopes that we would experience what we had so far missed this year - a major migratory bird fallout. In birding parlance a fallout does not mean a heated argument between birds but rather a phenomenon where lots of birds become concentrated in a small area, usually in response to a weather event that prevents them from migrating. For birders this is akin to the idiom "shooting fish in a barrel". In other words, a fallout is a situation where birders are guaranteed to see a maximum number of bird species in a short period of time while expending little energy.

patch worn to signify the bearer has purchased an annual pass
Shortly after arriving we spent the afternoon settling into our RV site, purchased HAS annual passes (in the form of patches) that granted us unlimited HAS access, and then checked the pulse of both Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks for bird activity. Two years earlier we had parked at an RV park in the town of Anahuac some 35-miles from High Island. Being so close this time afforded us repeated opportunities to track local bird activity so we could plan our birding days accordingly.
We learned that a Yellow-green Vireo had been seen and photographed at Smith Oaks but our attempts to re-find the bird failed. It would have been an ABA life bird. We would search in vain during the next few days as more reports of the bird surfaced.

Chuck-will's-widow roosting deep in Boy Scout Woods
Tropical Birding was in its fifth year of providing free daily tours (8:00 a.m., Noon, and 4:00 p.m.) at Boy Scout Woods, Smith Oaks, and various Bolivar Peninsula coastal locations. It was like old home week to bump into some the guides again. Among them was Luke Seitz. Faithful readers will recall that Luke had replaced us at Tandayapa Lodge as the next volunteer host. We were delighted to learn that Luke had been accepted at Cornell and would start in the Fall. One evening the TB lads put on a BBQ at the Tropical Birding house (High Island Birding Information Center) for the HAS volunteers and included an invite for us. Until then we had been under the impression that all Australians were natural born with "grill it on the barbie" skills but Australian-born Iain (Iain Campbell, one of the Tropical Birding owners) clearly dispelled that belief. Thanks goodness for some of the HAS volunteers who stepped up to put on a real Texas style BBQ. Iain is far better better behind the lens of a camera.

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks rookery
A storm had pushed through during one evening but the much anticipated bird fallout never materialized. Sigh. Still, there was no lack of birding opportunities. A Black-whiskered Vireo had been reported at Sabine Woods which would make a nice annual tick but it wasn't until a Tropical Mockingbird was reported at the same location that we decided to chase. The Tropical Mockingbird, if accepted by the ABA, would be an ABA record first. After the hour and a half drive to Sabine it took 45-minutes to locate both birds. Both were nice ticks, especially if the mockingbird makes the grade.

birding at Rollover Pass, Bolivar Peninsula
With bird migration slowed to a crawl at High Island, we opted to drive to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for half a day where we picked up a handful of FOY marsh dwelling birds that included several good looks at King Rails. At the gift shop we purchased a copy of "Uncover A Frog" for grandson Alrick plus some T-shirts for ourselves (clothes hounds that we are). That evening we had the Tropical Birding guides, Sam Woods, Scott Watson, and Luke (Iain had departed for a photo gig in Florida) over for a home cooked meal. Happy guides, happy birders is our motto. A great time was had by all recounting many bird tour stories - amazing how well traveled these guys are. We also picked Scott's brain of locations for five target birds in The Big Thicket (part of the Piney Woods) that we had been wanting to nail down.

left-right: Tom, Scott, Sam, Luke working up an appetite
Early the next morning after first checking Boy Scout Woods (which was slow) and following Scott's precise instructions we headed north to an area above The Big Thicket, the Angelina National Forest. No sooner had we arrived at a specific location in the forest when Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches appeared overhead. How easy was that! And as foretold, the same location had Bachman's Sparrows calling from a handful of spots. We had been cautioned that as vocal as these birds are, they are difficult to see. True to form, we struggled to get out bins on one of the little devils. We were almost ready to give up and mark them as "heard only" when Carol spied one sitting atop a low bush. Good thing. Out of the five target birds this was a lifer for both of us.

cooperate King Rail at ANWR
Least Bittern, ANWR
With three of our five targets in hand we drove to two more locations and found in quick succession, Prairie and Swainson's Warblers. Neither were life birds but we knew that the further north we would travel later in May, either of these birds would be harder to find. So. Within two hours of searching we had found all five target birds. Thank you Scott! The frosting on the cake came when we returned to High Island late in the afternoon and checked Boy Scout Woods. Word had just come in that the Yellow-green Vireo had been spotted once more at Smith Oaks, this time on one of the Tropical Birding bird walks. Off to Smith Oaks! In record time we caught up with the group and finally saw the vireo! Excellent timing because the next day we would leave High Island - this was our last shot at the vireo.
Sadly, we had again missed a peak migration fallout at High Island. During our previous visit two years earlier we had been too late. This time we had been too early. But no matter. We still managed some pretty good birds and very much enjoyed all the people we had encountered. Next up was a four day stay in Lafayette, Louisiana where we would be attending a music festival and revisiting with friends from Iowa. True, no High Island fallout to brag about but we had no reason to complain. We would leave Texas with just over 300 species for the year and lot of good memories. Not a bad start to our birding year and we still had May in Wisconsin coming up where warbler fallouts had already been reported.

watching, waiting, hoping
Great Egret

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