Monday, June 11, 2018

Anauhac National Wildlife Refuge

If you haven't been, one of the great things about doing a trip to the High Island area is all the other superb birding opportunities (that can be as good or better) that are there for the taking within an hour's drive. Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is a large refuge northwest of High Island that demands attention, and I went a couple different times with This Machine Nate and Dipper Dan. Chances are you've been there or have heard about it, so I won't blast you with too many accolades about it other than saying that I think it might actually be underrated for viewing springtime Neotropical migrants - marsh birds typically get most of the attention there.

This tyrant isn't exactly newsworthy - Eastern Kingbirds are abundant at Anahuac - but I will give EAKIs the attention they deserve, especially when they are down to be crushed.

Migrants can and do appear frequently and randomly along the roadsides, like this Blue Grosbeak. This is a big refuge so a lot of migrants are dropping in throughout the area in spring, but there aren't many conspicuous wooded areas to concentrate warblers, vireos and other tree-hugging species.

Where there are trees, there can be quite a few birds. The area at the main entrance of the refuge (across from the restroom) had a smattering of migrants, although the scattered planted trees there didn't exactly scream "migrant trap"...but in this area, practically any clump of trees can hoover in spring migrants. This obliging Philadelphia Vireo gave great looks.

I've seen a lot of vireos over the years, and have come to the following conclusion: the most obliging vireo species north of Mexico are Philadelphia and Hutton's. Perhaps this behavior, what biologists describe as "not giving a fuck", lends these species species certain advantages, much as it can with Homo sapiens.

Tell your friends.

Some Scarlet Tanagers were also being obliging, giving only one or two fucks.

You know it's happening when stuff is on the ground that shouldn't be on the ground.

I may be #7, but I am not a King Rail expert. That said, I will claim that Anahuac is one of the best places to see them, and there are great numbers of them there (and Clapper Rails, and presumably intergrades too). This little King Rail chick got separated from its fam and was running around on the road and Shoveler Pond boardwalk, calling pitifully for its parents before finally leaping off the boardwalk back into the marsh. I was afraid some rednecks were going to push it all the way to the end of the boardwalk (where it most certainly would be fucked), but they were surprisingly patient with it and waited for it to go on its way. I say this because a few minutes earlier one of them tried to move a big turtle off the road, but then dropped it onto the pavement upside down, kicked it back over, then left it there.

That's not how I would have done it.

Here is an adult King Rail Officer Shaw rustled up for us in a ditch just outside the refuge. Heckof colorful, even when partially obscured. This is a bird I haven't seen in over a decade...not quite a "relifer", but close to it.

This Machine picked out this American Bittern hunting near the Shoveler Pond boardwalk. It's been some years since I had the chance to see one this well. Mellowing.

Other events that transpired on this boardwalk:

*We saw a Glossy Ibis. Twice. That's a good bird. Double good.

*One birder was totally bored and unimpressed by the above bittern because it wasn't a Least Bittern. I've never seen a birder so utterly unenthused by an American Bittern before, didn't know that was a thing.

*Another birder thought this was a Least Bittern!

*Barn Swallows were nesting under the boardwalk, offering point-blank views as they are prone to do. A pair of birders identified them as Purple Martins...unbelievable. They were from Oregon.

*At the parking area, some out of shape Geris asked us if they should even bother walking on the boardwalk. They were not joking, they really wanted to know.

The boardwalk seems to be an excellent place to document birder blunders and to take in all the beauty and grace that mankind has to offer.

The UTC is thick with Least Bitterns. This one was teed up on a shrub next to the road, which I suppose is not a weird thing there (it is in California).

To this west coast birder, Sedge Wren is a really good bird. I've never seen one in California and maybe never will...haven't seen one in years anywhere, in fact. I was surprised to find that not only are they abundant in the UTC, they remain so all the way through April, even though they don't breed in the region.

Once I locked down their song in my head, it didn't take long to realize I was surrounded by Sedge Wrens almost everywhere I went. Bizarre...I did not know they were so abundant there.

Novel Sedge Wren pose. It's hard to believe that a number of species shaped like they shouldn't be flying more than ten feet at a time are actually accomplished migrants, i.e. Sedge Wrens, Yellow Rails. Impressive...most impressive.

My worst misidentification of the trip (I think) was of this fat black water was big and girthy and sunning itself at the edge of a pond. I thought it was a cottonmouth at first.

But look at that face. That blank, vapid, round-pupiled face. That is not a cottonmouth face.

The first thing some visitors will see at the refuge is a Cliff Swallow impaled on a spike (left bird) under the veranda where folks like to get lunch. Come on refuge, dick move.

This post is running long...more from Anahuac in the next post! And Bolivar Flats!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Smith Oaks, Hooks Woods, Eubanks Woods Sanctuaries

Smith Oaks was extremely productive for us on multiple days and hella fun to bird, generally better than Boy Scout overall. Smith was consistently somewhere between "moderately birdy" and "guhhhhhh birds everywhere" throughout the week...eBird checklists were best characterized as "corpulent". Here are a few of the hundreds of migrants we met there, starting with this Chestnut-sided Warbler.

As expected, the always becoming CSWA was a fairly common migrant throughout the week at all the migrant traps we visited.

A female Blackburnian Warbler with a trophy-sized worm of inches.

This is the same male Blackburnian that was hanging out next to the egret rookery in the last post. I'm still suffering from heart palpitations from seeing so many of these crippling heart-stoppers that week, which were one of the most common warbler species. So many glowing Blackburnians everywhere were difficult to cope with, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Another crippling gasper, Golden-winged Warbler was certainly not a common migrant, but we did connect with more than I thought we would. We didn't come across any particularly confiding birds unfortunately, but who is complaining? Not me. A couple of them were singing, which is the first time I've ever heard them.

Though not a lifer, Cerulean Warbler was one of the main target birds of the trip for Yours Truly, #7. We had great success, and pleasantly saw a modest number of them.

Also like Golden-wingeds, they were hard as fuck to photograph/see well. Fitting, I suppose, for such a sought-after gem of a bird.

Female Cerulean, showing off her distinct long undertail coverts and almost stub-like tail.

Hella Wood Thrushes that week; we saw hundreds of them. This is not something I expected or have experienced before. Stoked.

When one encounters This Machine Nate on a trail, only one thing can be said for sure: you are in for a treat.

Nate's treat was met by a mix of intrigue and revulsion.

We also spent a lot of time at Hooks Woods. It's a lot smaller than Boy Scout and Smith, but it's the closest patch of trees to the coast, the habitat is good, and the concentrations of Geri there seem to vary between "low" and "bearable". This was the first Blue-headed Vireo of the trip; we would go on to see a handful spread out over the week.

I should mention that birding the road in front of the sanctuary can also be productive; this is where This Machine lifered Black-billed Cuckoo.

Here it is, your friend and mine, SWAINSON'S WARBLER, THE BROWN WONDER. This one was Dipper Dan's lifer. This was a good spring for these skulkers on the UTC apparently.

A surprise to one, Eastern Wood-Pewees adorned the migrant traps in large numbers. Lord knows how many of them were misidentified by Geri and friends.

Veeries were uncommon but dependable throughout our trip. Hooks Woods, and the lawn directly across the street from the entrance, was spilling over with Catharus the entire week. Thrushes were just littering the ground. We even saw some poor completely black thrush that had clearly just taken a bath in an oil pan someone had left out.

What a fucking bummer.

Where there are mulberries, there are Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Mulberry trees are magic.

On our last day of birding the coast (April 27), Officer Shaw picked out this Olive-sided Flycatcher up in the canopy at Smith Oaks. Though not a late migrant on the west coast, it is in the eastern half of the country. It would be the only classic "late" migrant we would end up seeing; we did not connect with Alder, Willow or Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, or Mourning Warbler. We somehow dipped on Least Flycatcher as well, which seemed bizarre to me. I don't know if they are just not abundant on the UTC, or if they simply weren't moving through the area that week for whatever reason. We had several days with tons of Acadians...migration is weird.

Wrapping up High Island...Dipper Dan and I birded the High Island Historical Park (walking back to Guirdy Road) during the one very brief "slow" period we was predictably slow, but I could see it being good when there are migrants around. We checked out Eubanks Sanctuary (mostly because we kept driving by it) on a birdy day and found it to be rewarding, although the habitat is overgrown and pretty much the same throughout the patch. Here is our eBird checklist; of note were Cerulean, Golden-winged and Canada Warblers (a new bird for the trip at the time). There is a pond in the back of the sanctuary that attracts a lot of birds, it is worth loitering around there for a bit. And amazingly, there were no other birders there! So if there are birds around and you want to take shelter from Geri, it is worth taking a look. We never did make it to the Crawford or Gast sanctuaries.

That wraps up our High Island coverage; in summary, it was as advertised. Absolutely ace birding, hordes of Geri, rampant misidentifications, and worthy of revisiting repeatedly.

Anahuac is up next!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Smith Oaks Rookery: Spectacle of Life, Specter of Death

Moving on to the other side of High Island...the other big sanctuary here is Smith Oaks. As a migrant trap, it is better than Boy Scout Woods for many species, but this post is about the awesome, enormous rookery on the east side of the sanctuary. Before visiting the rookery, I lacked a decent photo of a Roseate Spoonbill (how embarrassing)...I no longer have that problem.

The Smith Oaks rookery is sprawling, loud and stinky; a spectacle. I was really impressed with it. The spoonbill show is something else...just look at these things. Why are they the way that they are? We are fortunate to have the world's best spoonbill species here, all of the others are vanilla in comparison.

I think we were too early to see spoonbill chicks, which is too bad. Surely they must look absurd.

It could be sharper, but this crop pleases me to no end for some reason. Makes me think of dinosaurs.

Roseate Spoonbill-Common Gallinule combo. The UTC is a region rich in combos.

Spoonbills are the main attraction, but Great Egrets seemed to be the most abundant species and they are difficult to ignore.

I don't think I've had the chance to sit and watch Great Egret nests close up all felt very National Geographic. Speaking of which...

There are hella alligators at the rookery. This fairly large one slipped into the water and started hunting as we watched.

After some time it reemerged, taking a very direct path towards something...

...which turned out to be a Great Egret chick that had fallen from its nest.

I believe this was the chick's final moment before it went to that great big nest in the sky.

The last crunch.

The gator dispatched the egret chick very quickly and was back in the water in short order. Damn! Was not expecting to watch something like that unfold, let alone capture it all on the crusher. For the egret chick, you might be thinking "life is pain", but if not the for merciful reptile it would have died the slow and brutal death of exposure and starvation. Next time you run across an alligator, thank it for its service.

A couple days later we saw probably the same gator come striding out of the colony with another egret chick, though this time we did not bear witness to the chick's demise. I bet the local alligators hardly eat for much of the year compared to when the rookery is active.

Neotropic Cormorants also breed in large numbers here. In trip bird news, we managed to see all of one Double-crested Cormorant for the whole trip, an immature at this rookery.

These Almost-Geri demanded that Dan stop taking spoonbill photos and take their picture instead. In time, they will expect even more from us Non-Geri. That is the way of things...the way of The Geri.

Though the rookery is incredibly distracting (rightly so), don't forget to keep looking for migrants next to the viewing platforms (tired migrants aren't necessarily put off by throngs of loud Geri and photogs) and along the main rookery path. This glowing Blackburnian Warbler was right next to the observation deck pictured above.

More migrants in the next post!