Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Best Birding of The Year: April in Sabine Woods

I'm not sure if anyone has noticed, but I am pretty awful at finishing trip reports in a timely manner. However, I love trip reports (though they seem to be dying) and I love fantastic birding, so I would be crazy to not make one last installment from this year's trip to Texas. Our second trip to Sabine Woods not only warranted a blog post, it was the best birding I experienced the entire year. So hop on in to the BB&B time machine one last time, as we make the quick leap back to April of 2018...

The day started out innocently enough. After Great Success earlier in the week at Sabine Woods, Dipper Dan and I headed back, hoping for a repeat. The southerly winds that prevailed over much of the previous day had switched to winds out of the north, so conditions were right for a good morning, if not a facemelting one.

At dawn we started the birding the trees at Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge, which is right on the way to Sabine Woods. It's not an impressive looking patch (some pieces of private property in the area appeared better suited as migrant traps), but since this is the UTC it should be checked! It was really slow at first, but after a while we began to see sweet sweet migrants coming in off the coast. Not many were stopping, but it was encouraging. The Northern Parula above was very accommodating, and ended up being the only one we would see that day.

After exhausting the relatively small Texas Point patch, we returned to Sabine Woods. Birding was on the slow side at first...acceptable, but not anything crazy. The forest floor was not crawling with Ovenbirds and thrushes, like it was when we visited earlier in the week though. This Canada Warbler that Dipper Dan found was an early highlight.

After talking to BB&B reader Steve from Kansas City for a while and learning about how terrible fans of the Kansas City Royals are...and looking at the Cerulean Warbler he pointed out to us...I found this Blue Jay getting high on sunbeams in the forest floor. Things were getting interesting.

Incrementally, the birding got better and better as the morning progressed. What began as dull birding became mediocre birding, which turned into decent birding which turned into good birding. A few hours after we arrived, the number of birds in the patch had seemed to double, then triple. By about 2PM there were simply birds all over the place. Woods totally empty of Ovenbirds earlier now were filled with them. The birding had gone from good to great; migrants just seemed to be piling in to the patch.

Eventually, we came to that rare and special realization that it was happening, much like it was at High Island the first day of the trip. This was the birding I had come here for, the birding I had hoped to experience but dared not expect. There were simply too many birds, too many birds to look at, mainly thrushes, vireos and warblers. Migrants galore. At one point, Dan and I split up for a while, and he encountered this Swainson's Warbler (left). It was only a few feet from him, falling asleep inside a bush, so the only photo he could get of it was with his phone. Obviously, the bird had just dropped in from who-knows-where and needed a nice nap before turning up the skulk meter to normal Swainson's Warbler parameters.

Well, when it's happening, it's happening. This is the sort of thing that happens when it's happening.

I missed Dan's sleepy Swainson's by a few minutes but managed to find my own in a different part of the patch. It was slightly more cooperative than I expected, which I was happy about. The brown wonder was a lifer only a few days before.

We birded vigorously through the afternoon. It was great. Not a fallout...lots of very approachable but otherwise normal-acting birds...but I had difficulty thinking that the birding could be much better than it was.

Eventually, we were fully saturated by migrants and the day was drawing to an end. We made our way back to the entrance, where a confiding Worm-eating Warbler greeted me...

...and promptly flopped down to the pavement. I love seeing warblers flopping around on the is a sign of excellent birding. Sure, some warblers are inherent ground floppers, and some may flop at any height...but it can be a sign. Worm-eating Warblers aren't exactly ground-phobic though, so I merely appreciated the bird's gesture and went on my way.

But I didn't get far. The day's final act was about to unfold, and the few tattered remains of what was once my face were about to melt off completely.

Right next to the entrance, some birders were looking at some Blackburnian Warblers...certainly not an unusual event but I felt these Blackburnians needed some special attention.

It turns out these Blackburnians were especially tired. They were in full just-crossed-the-Gulf mode and treated us with the same amount of caution they would give to an oak other words, we might as well have been invisible. I've met some confiding Blackburnians before, but these really took it to another level. When one of them started passing out on an open branch about 15 feet away, I knew that not only was it happening, it was happening really hard.

In short order they flopped to the ground and did their best Brewer's Blackbird-in-a-parking-lot impressions. I've been lucky enough to be really close to Blackburnians before, but this was a different level of close.


Here is an uncropped photo - the dark blob on the right is my shadow.

I looked up into the trees and saw a Bay-breasted Warbler, then two. They had been fairly common the past few days, but it was strange to see them perched just a few inches from one another; I got the clear impression that they had just fallen out of the sky together, their long Gulf crossing just completed. The Worm-eating Warbler on the ground had foreshadowed what was unfolding before my very eyes...

Warblers were now flopping around on the ground in front of us. This adult Tennessee Warbler, a known ground hater, flopped about without apologies.

Another Tennessee jumped into the ground frenzy. The growing terrestrial congregation of fearless warblers wasn't completely surrounding us, but were very focused or concentrating on an area in front of us about the size of a small lawn.

A Hooded Warbler, known to groundabout, was especially floppy.

The pair of Bay-breasted Warblers descended from the trees to join the growing flock of warblers in the grass for soul-satisfying looks.

Considering all the warblers on the ground, gravity must have been especially strong. This Blue-winged Warbler felt the pull but mostly managed to stay a few feet above it.

Gravity's pull was so forceful here that it was holding on to a leaf with one foot for dear life. Clearly, this was some sort of Bermuda Triangle for warblers.

This crippling Chestnut-sided Warbler materialized a few feet above the ground-fray.

The Bay-breasted Warblers in particular had little interest in going back up into the trees.

We should probably make sure a combo gets in here...Blackburnian/Bay-breasted ground combo is a sweet one. There were other warblers here in groundtown as well, but this post has to end eventually!

I'm still not sure how to describe this event. This was not normal. Kansas City Steve, who had logged a great many years of springtime birding at Sabine Woods, admitted he had never seen anything like it. It was like what I expect a full-blown fallout to be like, except happening on a weirdly small scale. I have always maintained that there is no such thing as a small fallout, but it appears time to reexamine that position. Keep in mind, of course, that there were huge numbers of birds in the patch that were not acting like this, but I'm thinking a small wave of extremely exhausted migrants had arrived at the edge of the patch just as we were leaving, giving us....well...a micro fallout? It makes me wince to read that but I can't think of a better label for the event. No matter what it was, it was unlike anything I've experienced before, things will never be the same, and I really hope a springtime return to the Gulf Coast happens sooner than later. We ended up getting new high counts in eBird for Acadian Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush and Ovenbird at this heavily birded site.

I did have one more day to bird in Texas with Dipper Dan and Officer Shaw at High Island, which was ok but nothing like what happened at Sabine Woods the previous day. We then went to Shaw's, where we drank incredibly good beer, I had an incredibly bad allergy attack (how embarrassing), and a freaking Chuck-will's-widow flew over his suburban yard in broad daylight!

This will conclude BB&B's coverage of 2018's fantastic foray to Texas. Thanks to This Machine Nate for coming all the way out to the coast, shortly before being banished to the depths of an uncharted corner of Ohio. Thanks to Dipper Dan for being my ride or die and coming out from SoCal. Thanks to Officer Shaw for meeting up with us (twice!) and letting us crash in the Land of Sugar. You all battled Geri, you all won, and you are all birding heroes.


  1. Wow, incredible! This was definitely worth posting, even belatedly. (Glad to see I'm not the only one who takes forever to write up trip reports, too.)

    1. I don't know why I can't just bust them out, but now that I don't attempt to capture a lot of the birding I do in the blog I should be able to focus more on birding trips. I don't think I ever finished blogging my Costa Rica trip (2013), oh well.

  2. NPR had covered a cool study where they showed that procrastinators perform better because they have had time to think about whatever their project is. Maybe your procrastination is your secret sauce.

    1. Unfortunately, I think I probably just forget blogworthy interesting/funny things that happened. I still remember the birdgasms from this day very clearly though.

  3. I'm kinda glad you sat on this one for seven months. The last day of November really makes me appreciate fantastic birding even more.

    1. Really going to try and blog the whole Belize trip before summer ends...not exactly ambitious but better than I usually do. July is the month that makes me appreciate great birding.

  4. It was nice to finally meet you after reading the blog for the last few years. Hopefully you saw why I have made the trip there the last 20 consecutive years. I have video almost identical to your photos. I will let you know when I ever get around to getting it online. I will put my procrastination skills up against anyone

    1. To say "yes I can see why" would be an understatement, to put it lightly. Good to meet you Steve! Would love to see the video from that day.

  5. Replies
    1. Dude it was sick. That day with you and Shaw was close in quality though.

  6. So, classifying it as “contained fallout” ?

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this. I can’t imagine what I would do in such a situation. Probably nothing—would just freeze up from the melting.