Gulf Coast Day 1: Spectacle and color
DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Sunrise on the marsh. Soras whinny. Egrets and pelicans start their day. In a rare patch of trees, Magnolia Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers catch early rays of sun.
There’s something truly awesome about the Gulf Coast of Texas, something that takes hold of your heart and becomes a part of you. Maybe it’s the spectacle; maybe it’s the color. Maybe it’s the drama, or the songs, or the surprises. I think it’s all of these, and something more.
I started Sunday morning at Texas Ornithological Society‘s Sabine Woods. It quickly became apparent that I’d missed the really great grounding of migrants by just a couple of days. Despite glowing reports from the previous week, I could find only a handful of neotropicals. As I expected, there was no trace of Erik Breden’s one-day wonder mango species.
Nevertheless, two years is too long to go without seeing gems like Prothonotary Warbler and American Redstart, so I was happy to see those and a few other southern breeders again. I did do well with thrushes, finding several Veeries, a Swainson’s Thrush, and a Wood Thrush.
Mosquitoes were an ever-present nuisance. A long-sleeved shirt would have helped considerably, but I’d forgotten to bring one.
Sea Rim State Park lies on Texas 87 a few miles east of Sabine Woods. Though much of the park is still closed due to damage by Hurricane Rita in 2005, the boardwalk area just east of the headquarters (known to birders as “the Willows”) is accessible from the highway.
This female Black-throated Green Warbler (Dendroica virens) joined a female Hooded Warbler and a few other birds in the willows at Sea Rim. Here too, birds were scarce.
Shortly after 10 a.m., I left Sea Rim to meet Fjord at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge isn’t terribly far from Sea Rim, but Texas 87, the most direct route, has been closed between Sea Rim and High Island for nearly 20 years because it’s washed away by the sea.
Anahuac’s spectacular Shoveler Pond did not disappoint. Marsh Wrens sounded almost as thick as grasshoppers in the reeds, and one bird stayed up long enough to scope. White-faced Ibises, Purple Gallinules, herons, egrets, and ducks fed in the water, and Least Bitterns made brief flights between patches of reeds.
Finding not a single warbler in the willows at Anahuac, Fjord and I packed our things into one car and headed south to High Island. Boy Scout Woods was relatively empty of birders — and of birds. With a little work, we picked up Yellow Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Bay-breasted Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, three Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, two Purple Gallinules, and jillions of Gray Catbirds.
At Boy Scout Woods, we came upon a group of birders who’d discovered this orange-variant Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) high in a tree. Confused by its fiery orange plumage, some at first attempted to make it into an exotic oriole or something. (I’ve learned that when birding around crowds, it’s beneficial to look where others are pointing their binoculars but not necessarily to listen to what they are saying.) It was my first time to see this interesting plumage variation.
I always count on seeing Inca Doves (Columbina inca) feeding in the parking lot near Boy Scout Woods. They are quite used to people, it seems. Eurasian Collared-Doves are present in the residential area across the street.
We crossed town to Smith Oaks and headed straight for Heron Island; I wanted to get there before we ran out of daylight. Surely, this is one of the most fantastic sights in Texas: Scores and scores of waders and cormorants crowd into the trees to raise their families. The din — grunts and squawks and groans — is incredible.
Here, you can see several Great Egret nests with chicks. The cormorants and spoonbills all had chicks as well. Baby Neotropic Cormorants are so homely they’re almost cute. Unlike parrots or doves, they do not improve with age.