Trying out Texas birding trail

Roseate Spoonbills

Roseate Spoonbills cluster in a dead tree at Brazos Bend State Park outside Houston, Texas in late March. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Trying out Texas birding trail rewards Wyoming birders.”

By Barb Gorges

The Texas Gulf Coast during spring migration is legendary among birders, especially if weather conditions cause a “fallout” of tired migrants that have just crossed the Gulf of Mexico.

We didn’t find birds dripping from branches on our first trip to Texas, since it bridged March and April, a bit ahead of the peak. We missed the 37 species of warblers, but some will arrive in Cheyenne next month.

However, my husband Mark and I did add several life-list birds.

When our younger son Jeffrey, and his fiancé, Madeleine, moved to Houston last fall, we started researching the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, part of the Great Texas Wildlife Trails.

The idea of a birding trail was born on the Texas Gulf Coast, where 450 species of birds might be seen. First established in 1994, the concept has since been applied to many other places. On the Gulf Coast, it is made up of many loop routes connecting 308 public places to see birds.

“Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail” (Eubanks, Behrstock and Davidson, c. 2008) is however, not the best guidebook, though it does work well in tandem with “A Birder’s Guide to the Texas Coast” (Cooksey and Weeks, c. 2006, published by the American Birding Association). This book has a bar chart listing all the bird species that shows what section of the coast and what months to find them, and other tips.

Mark went online and used to find more recent information. Under “Explore Data” are two new and very useful functions, “Explore a Location” and “Explore Hotspots.”

Our son’s neighborhood in Houston, the Heights, is full of old bungalows and trees and the pleasant but unrelenting sound of mockingbirds and white-winged doves.

At the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, we found forest birds: cardinals, tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees. However, the 155 acres are flanked by Interstate 610, making it impossible to hear any birds on the west edge.

The next day, all four of us headed for Brazos Bend State Park, 5,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, river, ponds and grasslands only an hour southwest of downtown.

As soon as we parked, we discovered an amazing sight, a dead tree full of roseate spoonbills, large pink wading birds. This was also where both Mark and I added “Black-bellied Whistling Duck” to our life lists.

This duck is primitive—it’s found at the beginning of the evolution-based taxonomic order of the North American birds. When it flies, its long legs stick out behind, reminding one of a cormorant. And yes, its voice is whistle-like.

It acts like a wading bird, chumming around with the white ibises, snowy egrets and spoonbills in shallow water, looking for aquatic plants to eat, but on the other hand, it nests in cavities in trees or in nest boxes, like a wood duck. It’s bright orange bill and pink legs add snap to its rich brown-colored body marked by large white wing patches—and a black belly.

A red-shouldered hawk at the park was another life bird for us and a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker was a first also. Altogether, we saw 27 bird species at the park—and several alligators.

The next two days, while the kids had to go to work and school, Mark and I headed for the coast. Luckily, Matagorda Island was not in our plans and we left cleanup of the recent oil spill to the experts.

Near Freeport are several notable stops, including the tiny Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, apparently a good place after a fallout. But it was while driving a farm-to-market road between industrial chemical facilities that Mark found another lifer for us, a scissor-tailed flycatcher perched way up on a high-tension power line. With a body the same size as the 8-inch kingbirds that perch on Wyoming fences, its extreme tail makes it twice as long.

At Baytown Nature Center, our life bird was the Neotropic cormorant. It was worth Mark lugging the spotting scope everywhere to have it on hand to see the diagnostic little white feathers on the sides of its head.

The nature center is the result of common sense. Back in the 1980s it was a high-class neighborhood—doctors, lawyers and oil company executives. But damage from subsidence from extensive oil drilling, severe storm surge flooding and hurricanes led to its abandonment. Local and national officials decided to return it to nature. And after sighting 38 bird species there, I’m glad they did.

Like so many other birders, we hope to return—300 Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail sites left to visit, 380 more species to find.

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