Birdathon Report -- 20 April 2009
We were fortunate this year in picking a day when everything was right for a big day. We recorded 161 species on April 20. We covered the area of Gore Store Road and Firetower Road in the Big Thicket north of Silsbee, west Jefferson County, Bolivar Flats, and Sabine Woods and nearby locations. The weather was virtually perfect. A moderate north wind was blowing (helping ensure that the spring migrants would at least pause on the coast), but the wind was not strong enough to cause birds to hunker down and not move around. The morning was cool, but it warmed up to a very pleasant day.
As we journeyed on Texas 62 towards our first target area it was light enough to see Fish Crow, then on FM2246 a few Cattle Egrets, a Great Egret, and some Purple Martins. A Black-crowned Night-Heron flew over in front of us. After we crossed into Hardin County and onto US96, we saw a Barn Swallow, a number of American Crows and a Blue Jay. On FM418 we saw our first Northern Cardinal and Mourning Dove. In addition to more American Crows, on FM92 we saw three Eastern Bluebirds, two House Sparrows, a European Starling, a Northern Mockingbird, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.
Our first birding area in the early morning was along Gore Store Road from FM92 as far as the Beech Creek crossing. Although it was quite early, the breeding birds of the area were already singing. The habitat along Gore Store Road is now at a later stage of succession than in previous years, whereas Firetower Road has been clearcut in many areas, especially in the southern part. A Carolina Wren was in full voice, and two or more White-eyed Vireos were almost equally loud. We determined that a calling vireo was a Yellow-throated Vireo, while several distant Pine Warblers were trilling. The characteristic almost nasal call of an American Goldfinch was characteristic of that species. We heard many Prairie Warblers and enticed one into view. As usual on their breeding grounds, Hooded Warblers were easy to hear but impossible to see. We did see Summer Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Kingbird, Acadian Flycatcher, Carolina Chickadee, Orchard Oriole and Common Yellowthroat. Near the bridge over Beech Creek, we heard Swainson's Warblers and Prothonotary Warblers, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Surprises included a brilliant male Baltimore Oriole and a female Nashville Warbler, the eighth warbler species to be seen. A male Painted Bunting flashed overhead. Two Chimney Swifts twittered away high overhead. American Robins are common enough in the cities of the Golden Triangle, but relatively rare in the countryside, so three seen flying were welcome. A typically tight flock of Cedar Waxwings flew by. A few Common Grackles were already stirring.
Along Firetower Roads, we added Tufted Titmouse as well as Downy Woodpecker. A Pileated Woodpecker could be heard some distance away. Even though it was still early, raptors were already beginning to move. Several Turkey Vultures wheeled overhead. A Broad-winged Hawk flew over low, while a Red-shouldered Hawk was still perched. A Brown Thrasher was working a front yard. Along FM1122, we saw the first of many Great-tailed Grackles. A Black Vulture was seen from FM92.
We made two more stops before leaving Hardin County. First at Sherry Gibson's house in Silsbee, where we very quickly picked up a pair of Pine Siskin (on the feeder when we arrived!) and three Brown-headed Nuthatches (overhead in a pine tree). Both species were quite vocal. There were also many House Finches around, and a Eurasian Collared-Dove looking over the ball park across the street. A Tree Swallow was overhead nearby. The second stop was a brief one at the Nature Conservancy's Sandyland Sanctuary where we found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Brown-headed Cowbird, and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow and some previous seen species.
The journey to Nome on Highways 327 and 326 did not produce any additional species. We only covered a small part of the west Jefferson County area, but were very successful. In the vicinity of Henderson Middle School, just off Highway 90, we found a Northern Harrier, and, on a nicely manicured yard, a Killdeer. Turning down South China Road, we found a sizeable flock of White-faced Ibis, a Green Heron, a Snowy Egret, six Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, numerous Red-winged Blackbirds, a Loggerhead Shrike and two Savannah Sparrows. Two Mottled Ducks were seen flying. A flock of birds got up from a wet field. We assumed they would turn out to be shorebirds, but they were actually American Pipits. We were pleased to find a female Dickcissel on a fence wire but more on that species below. We turned along Lawhon Road where the only new species we found was an Eastern Meadowlark. However, an amazing sight for this area with no large trees was a Pileated Woodpecker bounding just above the road in front of us!
We next turned up Greenpond Road, next to a very swollen Greenpond Gully. A Great Blue Heron was the first of the day. A Little Blue Heron flew by, while five Cliff Swallows hawked for insects overhead. But the highlight was a flock of about 75 Dickcissels perched in very close formation on the top two wires of the fence along the west side of the road. This was the largest compact flock of Dickcissels that we had ever seen. Two Blue-winged Teal flew out of a wet field nearby.
We then proceeded up "Aggie Drive" and in some wet fields north of the A&M buildings were delighted to pick out three Upland Sandpipers on a grassy levee. In the fields themselves were five well camouflaged Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and eight Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, as well as some Western Sandpipers. A Swainson's Hawk flew over the area and one or two Neotropic Cormorants were in the vicinity.
We returned to South China Road, and, after noting a Peregrine Falcon as it flew over us, we found a field on the southern part of the road that held shorebirds including a pair of winter plumaged Hudsonian Godwits among many Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs as well as three Gull-billed Terns. On one side of the road there was a nice Red-tailed Hawk of the Krider's race, and on the other two young Swainson's Hawks and a good number of Little Blue Herons, including some white immature birds.
The next portion of our day was the least productive and the most depressing. We proceeded towards Winnie, and found a loose flock of five Mississippi Kites. The long stretch from Winnie to High Island added only a Belted Kingfisher and several Boat-tailed Grackles, as well as a Laughing Gull as we crossed the Intracoastal Waterway. We made a brief stop at Boy Scout Woods in High Island, picking up a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and four Inca Doves.
In the devastated area along Highway 87 to Bolivar Flats., one can see the beach from the highway in many places, but there appeared to be few birds around other than good numbers of Brown Pelican. Reaching the flats, we found there to be no exposed mud between the water and the marsh grasses, so after noting a Willet, a Black-bellied Plover, several Sanderlings and a flyby Royal Tern, we proceeded to the North Jetty, where, despite the birds being very distant, we were able to pick out the vast majority of the expected species. We added American Avocet (about 4,000 in full breeding plumage), Reddish Egret, American White Pelican (six remained), a single young Double-crested Cormorant, at least 100 Semi-palmated Plovers, a few Wilson's Plover, one Piping Plover, about 20 Roseate Spoonbills, 20 Marbled Godwits, and large numbers of Dunlins and Short-billed Dowitchers. Several Least Terns were working the area at the base of the jetty, and there were many Forster's Terns. A couple of Sandwich Terns were picked out on the distant flats, but Royal Terns were strangely absent. There were relatively small numbers of gulls, mostly Laughing Gulls, but some Ring-billed Gulls and one brown immature Herring Gull. There was a Ruddy Turnstone on the rocks near the base of the jetty.
We decided to check out Yacht Basin Road. There were only a few Willets and one lone Long-billed Curlew in the marsh on the sides of the road, but we were gratified to note that the rookery island in the bay was teeming with the usual Great and Snowy Egrets and some Roseate Spoonbills. In retrospect, we should have noticed then the lack of Tricolored Herons. A few Black Skimmers were seen in the distance on a small sandbar.
We then had a choice between spending the rest of the daylight hours in High Island or driving to the Sabine Pass area. We decided we knew the Sabine Pass area very much better, and so pressed on, not adding any additional species on the 50-odd mile drive along Highways 87, 124 and 73 to Port Arthur. As we approached Sabine Pass from the north along Highway 87, we realized we had not seen either White Ibis or Tricolored Heron. We were able to quickly remedy that! A bonus was a small flock of Long-billed Dowitchers in one of the ponds along the side of the road just north of Sabine Pass. With all the rains of the previous few days, the water in them was presumably quite fresh.
Sabine Woods did not disappoint. There were many migrants in the woods. Everywhere we went, there were Swainson's Thrushes and Hooded Warblers. We also saw many Wood Thrushes, a Veery, and many Gray Catbirds. But of course, everyone counts the number of warbler species they see. We had 21 species of warbler there in about three hours, but these included four of the eight warbler species recorded in Hardin County, so our count for the day was "only" 25. We quickly found a female American Redstart, then the first of many Worm-eating Warblers. Interestingly, the latter species found the deposits of dead marsh grass to be very productive. We watched as the birds pried open the stems of the dead phragmites and cane stems and probed for insects inside. The wind was from the north, so we worked our way along the southern edge of the woods west of the entrance. Immediately a Brewster's Warbler was pointed out to us. This is a hybrid Blue-winged x Golden-winged Warbler and so not counted as a separate species. A few feet further on, w saw the first of several Blue-winged Warblers, and then a nice male Golden-winged Warbler. Also in the low vegetation along the south side was a pair of Wilson's Warbler, and many Kentucky Warblers. We saw several ovenbirds on the ground. Uncharacteristically low, were some of the Tennessee Warblers that we saw. Higher up were Black-throated Green Warblers, two Magnolia Warblers and three Chestnut-sided Warblers with varying amounts of chestnut along the sides. Almost ignored were some Common Yellowthroats, but a cooperative Yellow-breasted Chat was not, even though it was not an additional species. White-eyed Vireos were numerous, as they have been all spring; Red-eyed Vireos less so. Also in the woods were several Empidonax flycatchers, all showing the strongly green back and other morphological characteristics of Acadian Flycatcher. Returning via the main pond, we found a Northern Waterthrush. In the more open old growth woods and open areas, we added Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Tanagers included a good number of male and female Summer Tanagers, and at least three beautifully plumaged male Scarlet Tanagers. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was seen. Several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were present, while Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings were in the open areas. We heard a Painted Bunting, but did not see it. Sparrows seen were White-throated Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow. A late find was a brilliant male Blackburnian Warbler. Birds seen in the air included a number of White Ibis, some Tricolored Herons, and about ten Lesser Yellowlegs. The open marshes nearby enabled us to hear Clapper Rail and numerous Marsh Wrens, including two tantalizingly close to the road but not willing to be seen. Perhaps more interesting in the twilight were the Great Horned Owl seen in the trees to the west, and a Common Nighthawk overhead. Although the light was fading, we proceeded to McFaddin Beach, finding a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks over a pond in what was Sea Rim State Park on the way and a Common Moorhen, and were able to find a Snowy Plover, and a few Least Sandpipers. On the way back to Nederland, four Yellow-crowned Night-Herons plopped into the ditches on the side of the road. We realized we hadn't seen Rock Pigeon during the day, so after eating dinner, we went to the lighted underpass at Spurlock Road and US69 and found species number 161!
John Whittle and Royce Pendergast