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Report on Field Trip October 17, 2009

Field Trip to Sabine Woods 17 October 2009

       In our October field trip, we look for three categories of birds: the tail end of fall migration of Neotropical migrants, the first arrivals of our wintering species, and any birds of species that winter north of the coast but initially overshoot on their push south and stop at the sight of all that open sea to the south. The best days for all three are the first and second days after a cold front pushes through, unless the cold front stall visibly offshore when the Neotrops may wait a few more days to head south. On this occasion, the cold front passed through in the early hours of Friday morning (October 16) and kept going well into the Gulf. Some migrants apparently headed south on Friday night, but there were enough remaining to keep Sabine Woods very interesting.

      As our group congregated just outside the Woods, we soon saw what was to be the second most abundant bird of the day. A Broad-winged Hawk was seen  perched in a tree close to the south side. As we walked along the side of the highway, we saw another then another, until it became clear that about fifteen were in the immediate vicinity. Apparently, a significant number had roosted overnight in the Woods. It was still early, and the birds were not quite ready to leave to head westwards along the coast. We saw them moving around until about 9:00 a.m. when a couple of small kettles of 10 birds were seen. It was a little after 2 p.m. when we saw more Broad-winged Hawks. This caused us to search the sky even more diligently, and we found, in the medium distance to the west, a large kettle of hawks, which couldn't realistically have been anything other than Broad-winged Hawks. The kettle – probably several conjoined kettles – stretched over quite a distance horizontally and towered to quite a high altitude. We think there were probably about 500 hawks, a very good number of Broad-wings for mid-October, in it.

      Estimating numbers of hawks was easier than on the September field trip, but estimating numbers of other species was challenging, as we moved around the sanctuary, passing through most areas several times, while many of the birds themselves moved around in the loose feeding flocks that are typical winter behavior for many passerines.

      On our walk along the highway, some of the group got brief looks at two Lincoln's Sparrows, and everyone saw the first of many Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. There were a couple of sparrow-like birds along the fence line across the highway, but they ducked back down before they could be identified. These were to be the only sparrows we saw in the Woods. Some Indigo Buntings were moving around and perching in some of the bare trees. We were to see many more during the day, especially on the north side of the woods adjacent to the weedy areas. There were White-winged Doves and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on the power lines.

      Woodpeckers were to be especially conspicuous during the day. One of the resident Red-bellied Woodpeckers was the first to be seen. Later in the morning, we determined that there were at least two of them, both apparently males – a generally unsatisfactory situation. A Northern Flicker could be heard in the distance, and we were to hear others and see one or two later in the day. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were active and noisy, especially a family party of three or four encountered several times. The local Downy Woodpeckers were certainly present, but apparently not much perturbed by the "new" competition. Unfortunately, there is a surfeit of dead trees on which they can look for food.

      Warblers are always the star attraction during migration periods, and when an American Redstart was glimpsed by some, and then flew out of sight, we did not divert to chase it. American Redstart had been consistently present in good numbers as the most abundant migrant in the Woods during the preceding two weeks, including the day before, and we felt certain we would easily see many more. As it turned out, while we did see a few later, most of them had apparently already left for points south. A Gray Catbird, the first of a modest number seen, perched is a visible location. As we moved towards the entrance to the woods proper, we heard the resident Carolina Chickadee, one of many noisy Brown Thrashers, and a Common Yellowthroat, while Tree Swallows were beginning to work overhead, and to the south over the Texas Point NWR. Later on we estimated about 100 swallows a minute were passing. The vast majority were Tree Swallows, but there were a few Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Also emanating from Texas Point refuge was the characteristic call of one of the large rail species, presumably a Clapper Rail, but, almost needless to say, we did not see it. A nicely marked Blue-headed Vireo perched cooperatively.

      By then, we had seen a couple of Eastern Wood-Pewees and an Eastern Phoebe. In the middle of October, arriving winter resident Eastern Pewees and southward migrating Eastern Wood-Pewees are both present in numbers allowing comparison. The two species are quite territorial in respect of others of the same species, but appear to accept the presence of the other species. When in the Sabine Woods, the Phoebes tend to perch right over the water in the ponds while the Pewees tend to perch higher sand more often inside the woods. We saw several of each during the day.

      Upon entering the Woods, we began to find more Neotropical and other migrants. A lightly streaked Magnolia Warbler was the first of a good number. Black-and-white Warblers were easy to find all day. A Red-eyed Vireo, not at all well marked on the head and face was close to the first of several White-eyed Vireos. Then two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and then two more, were seen. Before long, every other bird we looked at was either a kinglet or a gnatcatcher. A nicely plumaged male Black-throated Green Warbler was next, along with the first of several Northern Parulas on the day, mostly rather pale female plumaged examples. A House Wren was fussing.

      The characteristic call of White-fronted Geese led to a search of the sky and a "V" of about 50 was soon located. Over the next couple of hours we saw several more flocks, one containing a single White Goose, probably a Snow Goose. While on the edge of the Woods, we saw an American Kestrel, the only one seen on the day. (Where are all the Kestrels this fall?) A Sharp-shinned Hawk was also detected.

      As we moved back into the Woods, A Belted Kingfisher very noisily announced his arrival, and perched briefly over the pond. As we worked our way towards the western end of the pond, we came across another group of warblers including another Black-throated Green, a nice male Wilson's (the first of several)  and another Black-and-white Warbler. A Solitary Sandpiper landed on the far bank of the pond and stayed for a few minutes.

      The live oak tree at the western end of the pond has been known informally as "The Tennessee Tree" ever since it was always full of Tennessee Warblers one spring. Onthis occasion, it certainly lived up to its name, and most of the Tennessee Warblers seen during the day were in that tree.  It also sheltered two Black-throated Green Warblers and one Nashville Warbler when we first approached it. Nashville Warblers were in various places in the Woods, the total number befitting a date that is in the peak of the species fall migration window. A surprise was a male Anhinga that lifted of from the doughnut shaped pond in the north-west of the sanctuary. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk rose from the island in its center.

      We next moved to the open area in the west known as "Cottonmouth Meadow" (after the time several years ago when it was more overgrown than it currently is and well populated with that species of snake). We knew that a Groove-billed Ani had been resident in that general area for three of four weeks. While we induced it to call on about three occasions during the morning, it stubbornly refused to become visible. However, a Barn Owl did show. We were to see the owl several times during the day, and in fact concluded there were probably two of them, as they were harassed by Blue Jays and almost attacked by one of the Broad-winged Hawks that was still around. A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was also seen. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were becoming more active or increasing in number, working the oaks for the sap at the base of the acorns.

      As we moved back towards the more open area, finding some more warblers of species already mentioned, we saw another Red-shouldered Hawk, and a Cooper's Hawk. Two American White Pelicans soared overhead – we saw several much larger flocks later in the day.

      One of our members joined the group, reporting that he had just seen a Cape May Warbler in the small pond. Of course, we headed in that direction, finding three Baltimore Orioles on the way. All were in female-type plumage, but one was a shade of orange that we had not observed on a female before. After a short search, we found the Cape May Warbler, but it was less than cooperative.  It was apparently a young male, with a hint of the red face patch. It was seen briefly high in the oaks, working up the major limbs almost like a Black-and-white Warbler. After the initial sightings, it was not relocated, despite significant effort. Back over the center of the pond, we found a female Summer Tanager, with the three Baltimore Orioles nearby.

      We next proceeded to the eastern section, but did not find much out there. Back in the main woods we saw two of the resident Carolina Wrens, and a Least Flycatcher. Another flycatcher was likely the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher that we were able to study more closely later on. Back where we had seen the female tanager, we found a nice male Summer Tanager, and the first Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler that any of us had seen this fall.

      By now it was almost 1 p.m., so we broke for a leisurely lunch. During this period, we saw a Northern Harrier over the Texas Point marsh, and all the swallows streaming over the marsh feeding, but moving very purposefully east to west. A Merlin flashed past. We have noted in the past that southbound Neotropical migrants tend to take a couple of hour siesta in the middle of the day, so we did not rush.

      We worked our way back to the "Tennessee Tree" finding a number of warblers. Overhead birds included a Peregrine falcon high up, two large flocks of American White Pelicans, and another Northern Harrier. We found a Yellow-throated Vireo round the west side of the tree. Shortly after, a Sharp-shinned Hawk darted through the low trees and emerged with a bright yellow bird – we think it was probably the vireo – in its talons. Out attention was then drawn to the large kettle of Broad-winged Hawks mentioned earlier. As we worked back along the north edge of the pond to the east, we found a flycatcher perched in a small (dead) tree. After studying it for a while, we decided it was probably an Ash-throated Flycatcher. We were unable to study the tail markings, but it had an all-dark bill, very pale throat, and pale yellow belly. Three large falcons passing quickly overhead were almost certainly Peregrines, and four more followed.

      Back inside the woods, we found two Yellow-billed Cuckoos, two more female plumaged Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a male Dickcissel, all in and around the brush pile in the center where the large mulberry used to be. Another Merlin came over.

      After this, many of the remaining group called it a day. However, A Yellow-throated Warbler and an Orange-crowned Warbler were subsequently found east of Cottonmouth Meadow, in a feed flock of about eight warblers and a dozen other species. This brought the warbler species total to 13. With nine species of raptors (not counting vultures), and a good sprinkling of other species, this was a very successful trip!

      With the disclaimer at the beginning of the report above, here is the list:

Greater White-fronted Goose (240)

White Goose (1)

Duck Species (8)

American White Pelican (254)

Anhinga (1)

King/Clapper Rail (1)

Snowy Egret (1)

White Ibis (17)

Black Vulture (1)

Turkey Vulture (2)

Northern Harrier (2)

Sharp-shinned Hawk (2)

Cooper's Hawk (2)

Red-shouldered Hawk (2)

Broad-winged Hawk (536)

Red-tailed Hawk (1)

American Kestrel (1)

Merlin (2)

Peregrine Falcon (8)

Solitary Sandpiper (1)

Eurasian Collared-Dove (1)

White-winged Dove (5)

Mourning Dove (37)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (2)

Groove-billed Ani (1)

Barn Owl (2)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (50)

Belted Kingfisher (1)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (2)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (10)

Downy Woodpecker (4)

Northern Flicker (5)

Eastern Wood-Pewee (3)

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (1)

Least Flycatcher (2)

Empidonax species (1)

Eastern Phoebe (7)

Ash-throated Flycatcher (1)

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (1)

White-eyed Vireo (3)

Yellow-throated Vireo (1)

Blue-headed Vireo (4)

Red-eyed Vireo (1)

Blue Jay (4)

Tree Swallow (7500)

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (400)

Carolina Chickadee (2)

Carolina Wren (3)

House Wren (3)

Golden-crowned Kinglet (1)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (25)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (50)

Gray Catbird (5)

Northern Mockingbird (3)

Brown Thrasher (15)

European Starling (2)

Tennessee Warbler (3)

Orange-crowned Warbler (1)

Nashville Warbler (3)

Northern Parula (5)

Magnolia Warbler (5)

Cape May Warbler (1)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (2)

Black-throated Green Warbler (7)

Yellow-throated Warbler (1)

Black-and-white Warbler (5)

American Redstart (5)

Common Yellowthroat (2)

Wilson's Warbler (3)

Lincoln's Sparrow (2)

Summer Tanager (2)

Northern Cardinal (5)

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (3)

Blue Grosbeak (2)

Indigo Bunting (108)

Dickcissel (1)

Red-winged Blackbird (2)

Common Grackle (20)

Great-tailed Grackle (10)

Baltimore Oriole (3)


John A. Whittle


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