AN ANNOTATED LIST OF UPPER TEXAS COAST SPECIALTIES
By Michael Retter
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus
An eastern Texas and extreme
southwest Louisiana specialty. Smaller and longer-tailed than Double-crested
Cormorant, the Neotropic is a common late spring and summer resident along the
coast. Look for them at Anahuac NWR and Bolivar Flats. In May of 2007, 230 nests of this species were counted at the
must-see Smith Oaks rookery.
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
A fantastic aerialist, this tropical
seabird visits coastal High Island in summer through early fall. Look for them
soaring or pumping by on massive angular wings past Bolivar Flats and Rollover Pass. Eager hawk-counters
regularly see a few pass over the Tropical Birding Tower and the Smith Point
Hawkwatch in fall.
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens
One of North America’s most
range-restricted herons, the Reddish Egret breeds chiefly on the Gulf Coast.
This large egret is notorious for its strange ‘canopy’ and dancing-fluttering
feeding routines, which you may be fortunate enough to witness at Rollover Pass
or Bolivar Flats. As an added bonus, the Texas coast is home to relatively
large numbers of the scarce and strikingly beautiful white morph.
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja
A dazzling pink wader
bearing an extraordinarily odd spatula-shaped bill. Spoonbill numbers crashed
significantly in the early 20th century,
due to over-hunting for the millinery trade: only 179 individuals were found in Texas in 1920 (D.
Sarkozi). Spoonbills are now common in saltwater marshes of High Island,
Anahuac NWR, and Bolivar Flats. Spectacular views can be had of nesting birds
at the Rookery in Smith Oaks. Flyovers are a common sight from the top of the
Tropical Birding Tower.
Wood Stork Mycteria americana
In summer, High Island is
home to this massive black and white beast. In flight, Wood Storks may be
graceful as they soar on huge flat wings, but on land they are quite peculiar
and hardly polished. The stork’s balding, scaly
head leading down to a long, giant bill is unique amongst the typically-elegant
herons and egrets. In summer, look for feeding Wood Storks at Anahuac NWR, and groups of migrating
birds over the Tropical Birding Tower and Smith Point Hawkwatch.
Fulvous Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna bicolor
Ranging across the world’s
tropical regions, this colorful, odd waterfowl
reaches the northern limit of its range here, making
it a Gulf Coast specialty. A common
summer resident of High Island, flocks can be found foraging in rice fields and
in the rich marshes of Anahuac NWR, especially at Shoveler Pond. As their name
implies, whistling-ducks are particularly noisy, declaring their presence with short, high-pitched squeals and whistles.
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis
tropical species with a North American range almost strictly limited to eastern
Texas and central Florida. Whistling-ducks, having long legs and necks, are
shaped somewhere between a true duck and a goose. The Black-bellied is a
stunner, having a rich chestnut breast, well-defined black belly, large
prominent white wing patches, a bright red bill, and a large white eyering. Its
unique shape and plumage make for an exceptional specialty species that must
not be overlooked by the eager birder visiting High Island.
Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula
Currently listed on the
Audubon watch list, the Mottled Duck’s worldwide range extends only from extreme northeast Mexico to the
southeastern U.S. Threatened by habitat
loss and interbreeding with Mallards, this species’ population has decreased over the last century.
Still, it is the most common breeding duck on the Upper Texas Coast, being tied
closely to the marshes and wetlands that are still
plentiful on High Island. It is particularly abundant at Anahuac NWR.
Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides
With a little
luck or patience, this breathtakingly graceful raptor can be found sailing over
the treetops in the area. Swallow-tails
were once rare in Texas, but now they breed in increasing numbers just north of
High Island. Checking the Trinity River
corridor near Liberty or the area below the dam at Steinhagen Reservoir is
probably your best bet, but you could get lucky and catch one on migration from
the Tropical Birding Tower in High Island of the Smith Point Hawkwatch.
White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus
ghostly raptor that hovers gracefully over the coastal plain in search of small
rodents. This elegant, streamlined kite is told by immaculate white underparts,
soft gray upperparts, and a large black shoulder patched that earned this
species its former title of “Black-shouldered Kite”. Populations were decimated
from hunting in the early 1900s under the misconception that kites preyed on
farmers’ chickens. In the 1920s a small remnant population held on in an
isolated area of central California; today this species hunts freely and
commonly over open lands of High Island, Anahuac, and Bolivar Flats.
White-tailed Hawk Buteo albicaudatus
has this sporty buteo colonized the coastal plain of the Upper Texas Coast.
While still uncommon north of Rockport, look for this classy hawk soaring over
rich grasslands and prairie anywhere on the Bolivar Peninsula and at Anahuac.
Yellow Rail Coturnicops noveboracensis
An enigma of the birding
world, this sprite of a rail is high on many birders’ “most wanted” lists.
Extraordinarily secretive, it can be nearly impossible to even catch a glance
of this species unless you make a special effort to
seek them out. Found throughout the region most regularly in March and
April, this buffy-colored, sparrow-sized bird should be looked for in bunchy grasses like Spartina.
Anahuac’s “Yellow Rail Prairie” is one of the best places to
try for them. During
the day, flushed birds can be easily identified by their distinctive white wing
patches; after nightfall, listen for their repetitive
“tick-tick-tick-tick” vocalization, which
sounds like the tapping of two pebbles together.
Black Rail Laterallus jamaicensis
Arguably the most difficult breeding species to actually see in
the States, this sparrow-sized
marsh-dweller is far more mouse- than bird-like.
Extraordinarily secretive, scarce, and local, it spends the winter in sedge-
and Spartina-filled marshes
and wet meadows just outside High Island. In spring (especially April), your
best bet is to try the rich wetlands of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and
Galveston Island State Park, where an acute ear is needed to pick up their
distinctive call: a repetitive kik-kee-doo
or kik-kee-derrr. If you think
luck is on your side, you might try to flush one at Anahuac’s “Yellow Rail
Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinica
Unmistakably brilliant in
shimmering blue and purple, this incredibly long-toed
marsh bird uses its odd feet to walk upright
across lilypad-filled freshwater
wetlands. A common spring and summer resident, look for this stunner at Anahuac NWR and
the sewage ponds behind Boy Scout Woods.
Snowy Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
sand-colored back, partial black breast band, and dark ear patch adorn this
sporty little plover. It shares the sandflats and
beaches of Rollover Pass, Bolivar Flats, and Galveston Island with Piping and
Wilson’s Plover Charadrius wilsonia
A large, rambunctious
brown-backed plover with a heavy bill and thick black breastband, it’s resident on
tidal flats and sandy beaches in spring through late summer. Bolivar Flats is the
place to look, but make sure you look inland, away
from the surf, along the edge of the grasses.
American Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
A colossal shorebird with a thick, knife-like reddish-orange bill and contrasting blackish and
white plumage. Oystercatchers congregate in small flocks on the
mudflats, sandy beaches, and rocky shores of Bolivar Flats and Rollover Pass.
Hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800’s, this bizarre yet impressive
shorebird has made a comeback along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica
A highly sought-after globally rare shorebird that is fortunately for us uncommon in spring on the Upper Texas Coast.
“Hudwits” breed in High
Artic and boreal regions from Alaska to Hudson Bay, and winter in far southern South America. Come
springtime, the flooded grasslands, ricefields,
beaches, and mudflats near High Island provide exceptional rest-and-refuel
points for this spectacular long-distance migrant, which will fly 2,500 miles
nonstop during its journey over the Western
the praise and attention given to passerine migration, the mass movement and
diversity of shorebirds piling up on the Upper Texas Coast is truly
mind-numbing, and makes this area one of the continent’s premiere locations for
shorebirding. Thirty-five species of
shorebird, from the elegant American Avocet to the sprightly Least Sandpiper,
hoard the marshes, beaches, and mudflats of the Bolivar Peninsula in a
spectacle that will literally fill your spotting scope view. Upwards of 10,000
showy American Avocets amass to winter on the beaches and mudflats; packs of
Long-billed Curlews hunt the wet meadows; Buff-breasted Sandpipers ramble
through the rice fields; and elegant Black-necked Stilts march around flooded
prairie pools. Piping, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers scuffle for open beach
space, while turnstones, knots, and Sanderlings stroll the water’s edge, waiting
for the Gulf to wash ashore an appetizing morsel. In spring, the estuaries,
beach shorelines, fields, and mudflats are alive with these fascinating
long-distance migrants. Having spent the winter on Middle and South American
coastlines and grasslands, millions stage along the Bolivar Peninsula’s
estuaries, beaches, fields, and mudflats during their precarious journey to
breeding grounds. Bolivar Flats, Rollover Pass, Galveston Island State Park,
and the region’s flooded ricefields provide birders with an amazing variety and
excellent studies of shorebirds.
Gull-billed, Least, & Sandwich Terns Gelochelidon nilotica, Sternula
antillarum, Thalasseus sandvicensis
summer residents. The most sought-after of this trio is the Gull-billed Tern.
Rarely found far inland, this stout-billed and ghostly-pale tern can be found
hunting over the beaches of Bolivar Flats Bird Sanctuary and especially over
freshwater marshes and ricefields near Anahuac. In large roosting flocks of
terns, look for the Gull-billed’s distinctive black legs and stocky size. The
diminutive Least Tern lives up to its name: it is the smallest North American
tern. Common in spring and summer, the yellow-billed Least nests on sandy
beaches in the company of Wilson’s Plovers. Look for Least Terns hunting and
nesting at Bolivar Flats and Galveston Island State Park. The crested Sandwich
Tern is a year-round resident of the region, but is particularly abundant in
spring and summer. Look for this sleek, fork-tailed tern hunting over or resting
on the beaches of Bolivar Flats and Galveston Island State Park. Curiously, the
tip of its black bill appears to be dipped in bright yellow mustard.
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
A unique and common
year-round resident of the beaches and shorelines near High Island. Jet black
wings and cap, immaculate white underparts, and windswept pointed wings make
the skimmer appear tern-like until you notice its
exceptional bill: the upper mandible is distinctly smaller and shorter than the
lower. Black Skimmers feed, often in unison, by gracefully dipping their lower
mandibles to swiftly plow and channel
through the water. Look for skimmers at any coastal outlet, especially Bolivar
Flats and Rollover Pass.
Buff-bellied Hummingbird Amazilia yucatanensis
thought of as a South Texas specialty, this smart rufous, green, buff
hummingbird regularly ranges up the Gulf Coast in cooler months, being found
well into Louisiana in the winter.
Listen for its chattering around stands of red-flowering turk’s cap and
near the hummer feeders at Tropical Birding’s High Island Information Center.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker Picoides
specializes in only a couple species of pines which are themselves restricted
to southeastern forests, and even then, they specialize in trees old enough to
be infected by a fungus that causes heart rot. It’s easy to see, then, why
Red-cockaded Woodpecker is far up on the target lists of many birders. At dawn, these birds can be reliably seen
coming and going from their nesting colonies near Boykin Springs in Angelina
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus
Attractive and refined, the
incomparably long “scissor” tail of this sleek kingbird is easily noticed at
great distance. The salmon-pink belly, pinkish-red “wingpits”, pale face, and soft gray upperparts of this open-country
resident are distinctive and make it a birders’ favorite. During warm months, seek out this stylish flycatcher
on powerlines, fenceposts, and treetops in any open country habitat in the
Brown-headed Nuthatch Sitta
of the Pineywoods, this diminutive species shares its penchant for native pines
with the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but thankfully it is not nearly as
picky. The toy-like squeaks of
marauding, treetop-hopping parties can be heard in Angelina National Forest, as
well as further south in the Big Thicket area.
Sprague’s Pipit Anthus spragueii
A pale, washed-out, and
buff-tinged grassland pipit that breeds on the upper
Great Plains. Sprague’s is a sparse winter specialty along the Upper Texas Coast, differing from the more
common American Pipit by showing more heavily streaked upperparts, very fine
streaks on the breast, and a bold black eye on a bare face. It also has more of a proclivity for arid rather than wet
areas. This secretive species can be found
at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
Swainson’s Warbler Limnothlypis
enigmatic species is your target, you have double the chance to see it
here. Though the loud, beautiful
whistles of breeding Swainson’s Warblers echo across the swampy canebrakes just
to the north, you may get a better look if you catch one in migration on High
Island—thankfully not a rare occurrence!
Boy Scout Woods and Martin Dies State Park are two particularly good
High Island is absolutely
legendary for them! On fallout days, prepare
to be dazed by sheer numbers and dazzled by an endless palette of color. In
spring, upwards of thirty-five species of radiant warblers pack the oak-filled
woodlands of the celebrated Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. Including bountiful
orioles, grosbeaks, buntings, cuckoos, tanagers, and flycatchers, the annual
spring migration sensation of passerines at High Island creates an overwhelming
natural theater experience. From ground-creeping Swainson’s Warblers to canopy-hopping Blackburnian Warblers and swamp-loving Prothonotary Warblers, the Upper Texas Coast
is literally swarming with action.
Chestnut-sided and Magnolia Warblers guide you through the sanctuary trails,
flitting around at arm’s reach, while Black-and-white Warblers slither like
nuthatches along thick oak trunks and through tangles. American Redstarts
nervously flick and flash their wings and tails, showing off their brilliant
jet-black and orange suits. A blaze of bright yellow flashes from the shadows
of a cypress trunk as a masked Kentucky Warbler prowls for insect prey. When
conditions are right for a fallout, birders find themselves in a trance of
sheer commotion as hordes of warblers drop to the coastal woodlands in colossal
numbers. For thousands of neotropical migrants, this island of trees is an
essential spring staging point. For birders, it’s a luxury.
Painted Bunting Passerina amoena
Wrapped in an extravagant
coat of shimmering blue, green, and red, the Painted Bunting was dubbed “the
most gaudily-colored North American songbird” by Roger Tory Peterson. Look for
this seed-eater in spring, summer, and early
fall, in any dense hedgerow in the area, and especially
around High Island
, and Anahuac National
Bachman’s Sparrow Aimophila
pineywoods specialty, this accomplished songster in not uncommon in the areas
north of High Island. It prefers rich
brush-studded grassland under a canopy of native pines. Though at first glance not an eye-catcher,
given a chance the rich red tones of the westernmost supspecies, illinoensis, definitely outshine the
species’s other populations. Listen for
the hauntingly beautiful, melancholy whistles of Bachman’s Sparrow from April
through June near Boykin Springs in Angelina National Forest and in the “Big
Thicket”. With a little effort, it can
also be seen wintering in the same areas, but you’ll have to search with your
eyes instead of your ears.
Henslow’s Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii
You may not
associate this species with the Upper Texas Coast, but patient birder know this
species winters in the grass of the Pineywoods along with Bachman’s
Sparrow. Check for this green-headed,
purplish-backed sparrow from November to March in any suitable habitat in
Angelina National Forest and the “Big Thicket”.
Le Conte’s Sparrow Ammodramus leconteii
A small, secretive, and attractive sparrow of moist grasslands, wet
meadows, and marsh edges, this highly sought-after species winters on the Upper
Texas Coast. Le Conte’s is notoriously difficult to observe, as it prefers to
stealthily creep through thick and matted
vegetation rather than flush into view. Seek out this buff-colored, striped
sparrow in wet grassland filled with sedges, cordgrasses, and bluestem. Though the coastal tallgrass prairie biome it prefers is threatened by encroaching woody plants,
especially the introduced Chinese Tallow Tree, healthy habitat for wintering Le
Conte’s exists at Bolivar Flats and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge’s “Yellow
Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow Ammodramus nelsoni
frustratingly elusive, this species can be common where it winters on the Upper
Texas Coast. The birds you can find
here are of the snappy, crisply-streaked, orange subspecies nelsoni.
Look for them from November to May in short, grassy marshes at
Bolivar Flats and further up the Bolivar Peninsula along Bob’s Road and Yacht
Seaside Sparrow Ammodramus maritimus fisheri
Those sneaky Ammodramus sparrows are on everyone’s wanted list!
A year-round resident of the
Spartina-dominated grass marshes of Bolivar Flats and Anahuac, this
sizeable sparrow is dusky with a dirty, streaked chest, yellowish lores, and a
long, sharp bill. The subspecies found on the High Island coast is fisheri, often referred to as the
“Louisiana Seaside Sparrow”. It forages primarily on the ground, but will
tee-up within taller grasses to sing.
Listen for its distinctive Red-winged Blackbird-like song from April
through July at Bolivar Flats and especially Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.