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 encountered....it 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 before....it 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!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Boy Scout Woods: Facemelt, A Lifer, The Faint Scent of The F-Word

On the first morning of sweet sweet UTC birding, This Machine Nate, Officer Shaw and I headed straight to Boy Scout Woods on High Island. Upon getting out of the car, it was obvious there were a lot of birds around; it was happening. The first (and last) Yellow-throated Warbler of the trip was out along the road as soon as we left the parking lot.

The crowds of birders that I expected did not disappoint...there were so many birders....or, in festival parlance, so. many. birders. It was ghastly. But the birding....ohhhhhhhh the birding was off the chain. The cold front that just blew through left hordes of migrants in its wake...there were birds everywhere. It was everything I had hoped for and more. I even managed to find my lifer Swainson's Warbler there that first morning (no photos), which was a huge relief...in part because I didn't want to owe someone an hj. Meeting the big brown ground warbler with the long bill and rusty cap was a very pleasant experience, and like the multiple others we would see later in the week, it was within a few feet of a Wood Thrush. You show me a Wood Thrush and I will show you a Swainson's Warbler. I'm already working on the paper, don't steal my idea. We also found our first Cerulean Warblers of the trip, which we would go on to see somewhere almost every day we were there.

Boy Scout is probably the best known Audubon sanctuary/birding site on High Island, though arguably not the best to bird - the habitat there undoubtedly has huge value as a stopover site, but much of it is fairly homogeneous and doesn't have a whole lot of openings/edge habitat, which can make viewing canopy species difficult. The ponds/drips are nice though, for sure, if you can cut through the Geri to see them (we never bothered trying to get into the photography blind). So much of the sanctuary is great for Catharus and ground-loving warblers, but due to the closed canopy one has to work a bit harder for many of the other warblers that prefer to be above eye level. I went three times, so that makes me an expert, right? I also highly recommend birding the road/across the street from the entrance.

Another afternoon Dipper Dan and I spent some time at the "grandstands" near the entrance, a target of much scorn from some birders but placed in a good spot to see birds. A Scarlet Tanager was coming down ridiculously low to feed on precious mulberries, repeatedly within 10 feet of me...what a crippler. It dropped a mulberry on my head so I crushed it.

We saw lots of Indigo Buntings every day, including some pretty big flocks. Stunners.

I know, I know, this isn't a good picture, but bear with me. On the first morning, this Painted Bunting dropped into the trees across from the sanctuary entrance (I believe this is known as "the barnyard", and demands to be birded) and immediately started passing out - it clearly had just finished its Gulf crossing and needed to recuperate - too tired to feed. I don't think I've seen anything quite like that before. We then went around the corner to go after a Cerulean Warbler that This Machine had seen, and was greeted by this bird instead...

A Prothonotary Warbler falling asleep on the ground! Keep in mind this is all happening at about 8:00 AM in the morning, these aren't birds taking mid-day naps in unusually visible places. I would not dare say the F-word here, but with the numbers of birds present we would see at High Island that day and birds doing crazy stuff like this, the smell of F-word was certainly in the air.

Prothonotary eventually woke up to do some preening and light foraging, glad we didn't watch it expire on the ground. We would find no more Prothonotaries after the first day.

This is no ordinary Little Blue Heron, this is a Little Blue Heron (present in this same pond for days) that Geri proclaimed to be a Reddish Egret, the first ever seen in Boy Scout Woods! Hooray!

Kentucky Warblers were common all week long at many sites. I haven't seen hella before this trip, but now I can say I have seen hella and I had a great time doing it.

I just know you were waiting to see some Geri...here they are! I think they were looking at a Blackburnian Warbler.

As This Machine pointed out, how about getting Swainson's Warbler, Swainson's Thrush and Swainson's Hawk all at the same spot? We enjoyed triple Swainson's at Boy Scout our first morning there. Overall we did not fare well with raptors on the trip, but that is not something I am about to whinge about.

The number of birds on the ground at times was staggering. Thrushes, catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Ovenbirds, Hooded and Kentucky Warblers, etc., were ceaselessly thrashing and sifting through the leaf litter or parading around on lawns and paths. On several occasions over the week, at Boy Scout and other spots, there were simply too many birds to look at, which is a phenomenon I generally reserve only for birding in the Neotropics. Wood Thrushes were abundant throughout the week, rivaling Swainson's Thrushes in numbers.

The crowds here are no joke.

Another Scarlet Tanager shot, just because.

All photos were taken at Boy Scout Woods, or across the street from it. Much more Texas material coming up!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Withering Waves of Migrants Pummel The Gulf Coast: A Brief Dispatch From Max Rebo and Friends

Most of the Philadelphia Vireos I've come across in Texas are very confiding for some reason. This one is showing me the spider it just caught, because that is what they do there. Photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

The Upper Texas Coast. The place where birding legends are made. Where a birder's skills are constantly tested. Where a birder's tolerance for being around other birders is also constantly tested. Where the quality of birding can exceed the highest of expectations, or equally likely, be so disappointing that a birder may just have to take the next year off from birding and work on cultivating their Facebook personality while completely relying on Arby's for sustenance.

No point in trying to build any more suspense...the trip is done, and the birding was fantastic. At times, the number of migrants present were just flabbergasting. I'm not talking about mixed flocks, I mean swaths of woods just saturated with migrants...the never-ending flock that we all have been searching for. Most days I found myself being absolutely drunk on birds at one point or another. We arrived at pretty much the perfect time, and left at pretty much the perfect time; for those unfamiliar with birding out that way, the number and diversity of migrants is highly dependent on which direction the wind is blowing, the presence/absence of cold fronts and stormy weather, etc. We began birding High Island as soon as a cold front from the north had blown through (April 22), and the woods were jammed with birds. One day of moderate south winds mid-week meant a lot of turnover and new birds dropping in, as the winds reversed a day later and deposited the heap of new birds right on the coast, instead of allowing them to cruise inland on a comfy tailwind.

I'll do some more thorough posts highlighting specific areas, but wanted to get something out into the Birdosphere post haste while the sweet taste of birding victory is still fresh in the mind. 

This exhausted Prothonotary Warbler passing out on the ground in a small garden was absurdly tired and had just successfully fought through the storm that passed us earlier that morning. If there is such a thing as a poignant bird, this is one of them. I have never seen anything quite like it...it was plain old pooped. Crossing the Gulf of Mexico is hard. Photographed near Boy Scout Woods on High Island.

I knew there would be an opportunity to see spoonbills up close, but getting to hang out next to a huge rookery was, as Geri would say, just lovely. Photographed at the Smith Oaks rookery on High Island.

Bay-breasted Warbler was one of the most common warbler species in the second half of the trip...didn't exactly expect that. Their bretheren, the Blackpoll, was comparatively uncommon while we were there. Photographed at Smith Oaks.

You may have thought little of me before, but now I will stoop even lower and post a picture of a grackle. Three species of grackle are common in this area, which I don't think is something I've experienced before. This Boat-tailed Grackle dropped into a pond to a grab a little shrimpy. Very enterprising. Photographed at Sea Rim State Park.

Lots and lots and lots of tanagers were moving through while we were there, especially in the first half of the trip. Scarlet Tanagers outnumbered Summer (above), but not by much. I made the mistake of parking the car under a mulberry tree on the first morning, and later found it coated in droppings and berry residue from numerous tanagers, thrushes, grosbeaks, catbirds, Tennessee Warblers, etc. How embarrassing. Later I got mulberry butt (locally known as "butt period" apparently) from sitting on the "grandstand" seats at Boy Scout...thwarted again by tanagers and trees!

Oh! And if you were hoping to hear about a nice Geri moment, Officer Shaw assisted a Geri with a Summer Tanager he was struggling with. No, Geri didn't think it was a Scarlet Tanager...he thought it was a Blackburnian Warbler. Just another day birding the Texas coast. Photographed near Boy Scout Woods on High Island.

Friends of the blog, Dipper Dan, This Machine Nate, and Officer Shaw all got in on the sweet sweet migrant action multiple days, and MAX REBO was more than pleased about how the tour went...MAX might decide to run it again next year, especially if folks inquire about it now! That's right, you may get another chance to get completely humbled by migrants! Stay tuned for more highlights from the trip, I assure you these posts won't be of the "make lemons into lemonade" variety, more like "make opium into heroin". And who doesn't like metaphorical avian heroin?