Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Grasspipering, Winnie Pro Tips, Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Woods

Being true to my nature, I am really dragging out reporting from Texas this spring, but we are getting close to the end. Also, this post somehow seems more relevant now than a couple of months ago, as we are all again experiencing the passage of shorebirds and passerines that are such a big part of what makes us do what we do.

Before BB&B leaves the High Island area entirely, a few more quick notes...grasspipers and Hudsonian Godwits were target species for the trip, and we did quite a bit of driving around in Chambers County (where Anahuac NWR is) before sweet victory. American Golden-Plovers (front bird in the above photo) were fairly common and not difficult to find, but it took a while before we finally connected with Buff-breasted (above) and Upland Sandpipers, which are both marvelous species that I am perpetually starved for here on the west coast. I dig the white wing linings glowing on one of the Buff-breasteds above.

There are a plethora of roads on the coastal plain that could potentially lead you to good shorebirding or grasspipering; we barely scratched the surface. Our Field of Dreams for grasspipers was a very large field with very short grass on farm road 1941, west of TX-124. Flooded fields in a few places had additional Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones (which I don't consider to be ag field birds, but they know better), White-rumped and Baird's Sandpipers, etc.

A few logistical tips for anyone planning on making the trip next spring:

*We stayed at Motel 6 in Winnie. It was relatively cheap and totally fine, aside from the clogged sink that the staff took days to fix. I would stay there again though.

*In Winnie, we ate at Al-T's steakhouse a lot, which you should do as well. We also ate at the Crawfish Box, which was awesome. That was my lifer crawfish meal, and I can't wait to do it again. I also made Dan and Nate eat at Waffle House, because I love Waffle House.

*I looked into Airbnbs before the trip, but the only options in the immediate area were out on the Bolivar Peninsula and they were not cheap, though if you were travelling in a group renting out a beach house would definitely make sense. Any resident of Winnie or High Island who lists their place on Airbnb could potentially rake it in March-May, provided their listing consisted of something nicer than a decaying trailer (which are locally common). 

*As far as we could figure, the best coffee in Winnie (which is not the same as good coffee) is at Brewed Awakening.

*The Market Basket in Winnie has all the groceries you need, aside from liquor.

With the Galveston and Chambers sites wrapped up, let's move on to Jefferson County! Jefferson is the easternmost county on the UTC and is right on the Louisiana border. Sea Rim State Park is one of the hotspots in the area. According to Steve from Kansas City (Hi Steve!), Sea Rim once hosted a willow patch that was an absolute gem of a migrant trap, but was inundated with brackish water from a hurricane several years ago and is no more. The park is still good for a variety of water birds though, including this confiding Solitary Sandpiper.

I'm not saying this is a skulky or wary species, but I have had a hell of a time getting to close to them most places. This bird had no qualms about lingering in crush range.

I think the bird is just expelling some salt out of its nostrils, but this appears to be the equivalent of a Solitary Sandpiper sneeze.

Lesser Yellowlegs are one of the most abundant shorebird migrants on the UTC. This one was still mostly in basic plumage.

Oddly, Greater Yellowlegs were an uncommon bird everywhere we went, which just doesn't compute to me considering the abundance and diversity of shorebirds in the region. Compare the bicolored, recurved and longer bill on this bird with the Lesser Yellowlegs above.

Long-billed Dowitcher. It's not a field mark I use, but supposedly the kink in the bill visible in the first photo is supposed to be a helpful field mark for Short-billed Dowitcher. These days everyone seems to have their own suite of field marks they like to use to ID dowitchers that they apply very liberally...what happened to caution? Has it been thrown to the wind, no longer warranted? At least Short-billed X Long-billed Dowitcher doesn't seem to be a popular identification yet. The increasing (yes, still) tendency of birders to identify birds as bizarre hybrids continues to be disappointing.

Least Bitterns, on the other hand, are never disappointing, even if they prefer to stay hidden in the reeds.

Even Boat-tailed Grackles aren't disappointing if you go long enough without seeing them. This one was doing its best to strike a pose that would eliminate all iridescence and recall a Melodious Blackbird (perhaps the most overdue Mexican bird yet to be found in the states), but with such a boaty tail and unmelodious voice it had no chance.

When Roseate Spoonbills are flying overhead at sunset, all is very briefly right with the world.

Common Nighthawk was a common migrant during our week on the UTC. This one chose to roost on the boardwalk out over the marsh. Like all nightjars, they are extremely novel to see up close.

Sea Rim was nice but not exactly thrilling, though I'm sure it can get really birdy at times. And we didn't even get out to the beach, so who knows what was lounging on the sandy sand? We gave a valiant effort to try and hear a Black Rail, donating blood to mosquitoes at dusk, but none vocalized. We really let Nate down, which haunts me to this day.

The last hotspot BB&B is going to cover from Texas is Sabine Woods. The first afternoon we visited yielded tons of birders (gross), which brought Boy Scout Woods to mind, but more importantly lots and lots of birds, mostly ground-loving and low-in-the-canopy species like this Worm-eating Warbler. Not a fallout, but there were a shitload of migrants. It was an impressive showing - migrants seemed to be everywhere at times - and yet another reminder that migration in the region really is a spectacle. The patch itself was really nice to bird - large, canopy openings, drips, ponds, edge habitat, relatively low numbers of mosquitos, lots of room to spread out and get away from other birders when necessary.

Who doesn't love Black-billed Cuckoo? Everyone was stoked to see Black-billed Cuckoo, especially considering their status as a MEGA (and a BLOCKER) in California. Nate and I had seen one earlier back at Hooks Woods but this is the only one of the trip that was chill enough to be photographed. I'm glad I don't see them very often because I suspect I could get strongly emotionally attached to them if I lived within their range.

There will be one more Texas post, featuring nothing but Sabine Woods, and the best day of birding the entire trip.


  1. I've made at least one trip to the UTC every spring for many years (from my home near Austin), and was there at the same time you were there this past spring. I have some extra leave to burn at work, so I'm going to make my usual spring route during fall migration about a month from now. The list of possible birds will be somewhat different (and many won't look a snazzy, obviously), but I am looking forward to much smaller crowds of birders. I'm anticipating something on the order of 1-5% of the usual teeming hordes. It's also possible there will be clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies, but that's a price I'm willing to pay.

    1. I bet it will be really good! Those patches will seem ghostly without Geri everywhere.