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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
A striking 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 forficatus
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
A glorious 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
Only recently 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 Prairie”.

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
A light, 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 Plovers. 

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 Hemisphere.

SHOREBIRDS
Often lacking 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
Common coastal 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
Though usually 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 borealis
This species 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 National Forest.

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 region.

Brown-headed Nuthatch                   Sitta pusilla
Another denizen 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 swainsonii
If this 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 spots. 

WARBLERS
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 Wildlife Refuge.

Bachman’s Sparrow                    Aimophila aestivalis illinoensis
Another 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 Rail Prairie”.

Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow            Ammodramus nelsoni
Often 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 Basin Road.

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.