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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

Texas: Houston, Galveston & Gulf Coast

28 January to 11 February 2017

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction
I was last in the USA (and Texas) in November 2007, on the back of a business trip to Houston and had a highly memorable few days in the Rio Grande Valley. When a further business opportunity arose almost ten years later, naturally I was keen to make the most of it birdwise again! This time I was able to spend some time during the weekend prior to my work commitment and then just over a week afterwards.

On the last visit I had decided there was no time to take in the Whooping Cranes around Rockport, but this seemed the ideal opportunity to try for them! From some research beforehand, it seemed that there were also some worthwhile sites scattered around the Houston area. Galveston looked like a reasonable base for a few days, especially as my wife decided she would like to join me for the second week.

Having visited the USA about 6 times over the last 30+ years, my USA list is now higher than my UK one! Hence the number of possible lifers for me on this trip was limited, with Whooping Crane being the main one. I was also keen to find a large flock of Snow Geese, as the only ones I have seen in the UK have been odd stragglers often viewed at a great distance. Finding some smaller Ross' Geese in amongst them was also a key target. Having missed Red-cockaded Woodpecker on a visit to Florida several years ago, this one another target in my sights. Having seen the controversial but splendid Hooded Merganser at Radipole Lake a couple of years ago, finding a definitely tickable one would be good as well!  

General
Flights
I flew BA direct from Heathrow to Houston and return. The flight takes 9+ hours but didn't seem excessively long. Both flights departed a little late but arrived on time or early. On arrival at Houston I had a long and tedious wait to get through immigration -mainly because I was unluckily assigned to an extraordinarily slow moving queue. My wife, arriving a week later, fared better and was out within about 40mins of touchdown, whereas it had taken me a good one and a half hours!

Car hire
For my car hire, I had a slightly awkward arrangement in that the first week was a business hire through Avis, which I immediately followed with a private hire for the second week, again booked with Avis for convenience, I thought. When I first collected my car it was clear I needed to return it, for the booking to be swapped over or changed. Also the car I had for the first week was fine for me alone, but for the second week I decided something a little larger would be better to accommodate all our luggage!

So on the middle Saturday, I had to return to Houston airport, well before my wife was due to arrive on the later BA flight, and change the car over. This turned out to be a far from straightforward process (possibly because of a shortage of cars caused by the Superbowl that was taking place the following day in Houston!). Dropping off the old car wasn't an issue, but getting a suitable new one was...

I first had a considerable wait for a car that was supposed to be ready in "10 minutes" but never turned up. So they upgraded me FOC to a splendid, brand new luxury model which seemed great but as I drove off, the rear view mirror seemed a bit dicey. After doing a short bit of birding at the W G Jones State Forest (more of which below), I set out to return back to the airport to collect the wife, whereupon the rear view mirror promptly fell off, and was left dangling by two wires! So I had to return this brand new, luxury (but defective model) to Avis, and had some further issues over a replacement before eventually they found a suitable one for me. This left me just enough time to drive to the short stay car parking for terminal D and grab a bite eat before my wife appeared! So all was well in the end, but not something I'd like to repeat in a hurry!

By the way, Terminal D (the main international terminal at Houston airport) appears notable for its almost complete lack of anywhere to eat outside security. There was nothing at all in departures and only a small Costa Coffee or similar downstairs in the pokey arrivals hall. On our return journey we found that even through security its facilities were hardly extensive.

Driving in the USA
Compared with England, there are a few things that are different and useful to know about driving in the USA, including:

  • Drive on the right!
  • You can turn right at red lights if there is no traffic coming
  • Beware 4-way junctions where nobody has priority. A kind of generally polite free for all seems to prevail, with those arriving first generally given priority.
  • Traffic lights are generally on the far side of the junction and often up in the air
  • Speed limits can be almost anything between about 30 and 75 mph, and often change frequently over a short distance (30, 40, 50, 60 etc).
  • Roads are generally wide and quieter than England, except of course in and around big cities such as Houston.

Maps
As in 2007, maps for Texas were a bit problematic. I had a 1:1,000,000 scales Texas State Map (Mapsco) from my previous trip but that was too small a scale to be much use. Stanfords didn't appear to offer any larger scale regional maps, so as with most previous recent trips, I relied almost entirely on my SatNav - using lat, long (GPS) coordinates I had stored in advance. In some cases these were supplemented by Google Map printouts of key areas. In 2007, before the SatNav era, I seem to remember navigation was a bit more of an issue.

Birding information
Well in advance, I eventually ended up buying 3 site guides, all fortunately either second hand or at discounted rates. The first was "Birding Texas" by Wauer and Elwonger. This was quite a tome, and appeared very dated. I then found there were two books about the "Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail". The better of these was "finding birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail" by Eubanks et al. but this only covered areas near to Houston and Galveston and did not extend as far along the coast as Rockport. A thicker book by Foster called "Birding Trails Texas Gulf Coast" covered all sites, but was extraordinarily error strewn. In particular none of its GPS coordinates that I checked were accurate or useful!

Shortly before I departed I found that there is a great website that covers all the hundreds of sites on what are now termed the "Great Texas Wildlife Trials" - that extend all along the full length of the Texas coast and inland in places. The info on this site seemed better and more up to date than any of the above books!

However, the huge number of sites described in the above can be quite confusing as many are probably not particularly notable and so picking out the ones to target, in winter, in a short space of time can be difficult.

Weather
The weather was literally very mixed and highly variable. The first half of my trip, including the business part, was mostly favoured with blue skies and warm, sunny conditions (up to mid 20's C). But immediately I started birding after the business part, the weather changed and the middle weekend around Houston was dull, dreary and cool - very much like a typical mild English winter's day in fact! Thereafter it warmed up and the sun returned for at least some of the time. The highest temperature was well over 30C - near record highs for the time of year, apparently. On the coast, early morning fog which only cleared slowly was also a problem some days, even in these better conditions. By great good fortune, there was no sign of any fog on our early morning boat trip from Rockport for the Whooping Cranes - apparently this was the first morning in a few weeks that it had been clear!

Photos
All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D Mk II with either a new EF500mm/f4 II (with a x1.4TC) or a EF100-400f5.6 II. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Sites in the Houston area
I targeted various sites in the Houston area immediately after I arrived in Houston (Saturday late afternoon & Sunday), and again before collecting my wife from the airport on the middle Saturday.

W G Jones State Forest (GPS 30.234773, -95.483877)
According to my information, this site was a good place to find the localised Red-cockaded Woodpecker (or RCW). There is a good map of this site on the Texas A & M Forest Website which shows numerous trails.

I visited this site three times and connected with this desirable woodpecker every time! My first visit was somewhat speculative and immediately after arriving in Houston and getting the first of my hire cars. It was less than half an hour's drive north from the airport, and the obvious place to start appeared to be the small car park on the north side of the FM1488 adjacent to the (closed) Park Headquarters. Arriving around 5pm local time (around 11 pm UK time!), from the car park I took the path north and followed signs for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker trail. This seemed to be aptly named as at the far point of this little loop, where the path turns north, I heard various bird calls and quickly saw up to 3 adults in an agitated state displaying to one another! They were quite high up in the conifers but reasonably easy to spot when they moved, called and flew between trees. Also as they fed, bits of bark would be dislodged and float downwards. Knowing their calls definitely helped locate them initially. There were also calls from Brown-headed Nuthatch here, but they appeared to be right up in the canopy and I couldn't spot one.

Hence RCW was literally the first species on my trip list and was bagged within about 30mins of arriving at this otherwise quiet site! On my return along the north boundary trail I also had rather distant views of a splendid Pileated Woodpecker. That made two good birds (one a lifer) in my first hour or so of US birding - an excellent start to this trip!

My second visit was early-ish the following morning, in superb sunny conditions, having stayed overnight in nearby Conroe. At this time of day there was much more bird activity, and just around the car park there were several Eastern Bluebirds, an Eastern Phoebe, a Brown-Headed Nuthatch for once nice and low down (my second lifer!), American Goldfinch and a Chipping Sparrow. Further on, I again found the RCWs in more or less the same spot. Brown-headed Nuthatch calls were very obvious throughout the forest but spotting them high up in the canopy was quite challenging - something I only managed once, I think. For the morning visit I lugged the 500f4 in, and secured some shots of the RCW and the Bluebird with it:

Eastern Bluebird Red cockaded Woodpecker
Eastern Bluebird in the car park Red-cockaded Woodpecker
(note the tiny red cockade on the side of the head!)

My final visit to this site was just before I collected the wife from the airport a week later when I was really just killing some time after collecting the (defective) hire car. Again it was late afternoon and I just walked round the same loop as before. Again I found an RCW almost without trying, by the tapping sound it was making as it fed. This time it was along the northern boundary trail. They appear to be quite common in this nicely accessible and compact corner of this forest. Other species seen at this site included a Northern Cardinal and Carolina Chickadee.

The forest map I downloaded shows many other trails throughout the forest, also with other RCW clusters, so they might well be worth trying, but the RCW trail proved pretty reliable for me.

Sam Houston National Forest (GPS 30.488850, -95.137887)
The Sam Houston forest covers an immense area north of Conroe and was also said to contain various sites for Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Prior to my trip, one of them sounded like it might be a better bet than the W G Jones State Forest. So despite having seen them well at W G Jones, I made the mistake of thinking they might be even easier to find at this site, which was described as a lay-by with a display plaque, said to be "a very popular site and gets many visitors".

It was however about 45 miles from W G Jones so the drive there (in a north easterly direction across country on relatively small but quiet roads) took me the better part of an hour. Arriving at exactly the right spot, courtesy of the Sat Nav, the site did not appear as described. Any display plaque was long gone (but evidence of its mount remained), and the undergrowth was smouldering from a recent fire (possibly a controlled burn?). It also proved impenetrable, so I could only view from the road. In my short visit the only bird activity was distant Brown-headed Nuthatch calls from invisible birds high in the canopy. There was no evidence of any recent visitors nor any RCWs. So pretty much a fruitless journey! Clearly my info for this site was badly out of date, and I can't recommend a visit - any birders looking for Red-cockaded Woodpecker would be much better trying the W G Jones Forest, as described above, which is also convenient for the airport.

Sheldon Lake (GPS 29.883093, -95.185956 )
Needing to end up in Galveston that evening for my business commitment, my aim, after the fruitless diversion to the Sam Houston Forest, was to track down the eastern side of Houston, taking in a couple of sites en-route. The first of these was Sheldon Lake, which is mentioned as a birding site in some of the info I had studied in advance. This lake covers a large area and access wasn't obvious. Looking at Google Earth, there appeared to be a small area at the northern end that might afford some access just off the road, so that is where I started (GPS coords above). This turned out to be a fishermans hangout but there were a few birds present, although nothing very notable. These included a very confiding Great Egret. Also Anhinga, American Coot and Pied-billed Grebe. Overhead there were some hirundines that were probably Northern Rough winged Swallows, despite it being mid winter!

Great Egret
Great Egret (click to enlarge)

A possible further access point down the western shore, which looked from Google Earth to be a boardwalk out into the lake turned out to be a dead loss - clearly something wooden had been there once, but was now long gone!

San Jancinto Battleground Park (GPS 29.741303, -95.076177 )
This site is mentioned in several places as a winter site for Hooded Merganser which was another target species for me. So I visited here three times in a fruitless attempt to find one!  The causeway (GPS coords above) seemed the obvious place to try for them (and was mentioned in one place). However, arriving at the causeway, I found on the eastern side the water level was very low with a lot of exposed mud. This was good for both Green-winged Teal & Shoveler, and also a few Blue-winged Teal but was clearly totally unsuitable for Hooded Merganser. Perhaps in the past the water levels have been much higher here? On the western side, there was deeper water but this held very little - only the odd Great Blue Heron, a small flock of Gadwall and several Black Vultures hanging around a pylon.

This was however a varied and quite interesting site overall. The mud had a few distant waders - mostly Least Sandpipers, as well as Roseate Spoonbills, Snowy Egret etc, while the open wooded areas had flocks of Cedar Waxwing, American Goldfinch and the first trip sighting of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Subsequently I saw and heard (they have a distinctive call) these practically everywhere - very soon I was hoping they were something different, but they seldom were!

On a later early evening visit, the Black Vultures descended onto the causeway and gave extraordinarily close views from the car - which was an excellent hide for photography as I had expected it to be on this trip. Also seen from the causeway was a nice Belted Kingfisher on a wire over the water, but again there was no sign of any Hooded Mergansers, as was the case on my final visit the following morning. Still I had a couple of other possible sites for these, so I hoped one or other of these would produce the goods. They didn't but I didn't know that at the time!

There were plenty of sparrows around as well, but I think all were just Savannah Sparrows - another incredibly numerous species seen and heard thereafter almost everywhere. Unfortunately, I failed to locate any of the rarer sparrows that I hoped to find on this trip, despite keeping my eye out for them.

Great Blue Heron Yellow rumped Warbler
Great Blue Heron (click to enlarge) Yellow rumped Warbler
Cedar Waxwing Black Vulture
Cedar Waxwing Black Vulture (click to enlarge)
Black Vulture Black Vulture
More Black Vultures (click left to enlarge)

Katy Prairie
Katy Prairie covers a large area to the west of Houston and contains some relict areas of old prairie habitat. There were several sites on the "Katy Prairie Loop" of the Texas Birding Trails that sounded worth a visit.  After I had first visited San Jancinto (see above) first thing in a final unsuccessful attempt to find Hooded Merganser, I then headed over to the Katy Prairie, going straight across Houston in what I hoped was reasonably quiet mid morning traffic. I had no problems and was at my first Katy site about an hour later.

Paul D. Rushing Park (GPS 29.903910, -95.815131 side entrance: GPS 29.900654, -95.819865)
I visited this park a couple of times but it was definitely better on my first mid-morning Friday visit when it was much quieter than for than my second short visit on mid afternoon Saturday. A good map of the park can be downloaded from here.

Arriving first at the side entrance, I had a surprisingly productive walk around this park that contains a series of artificial lakes. The short grass between the car parking and the first lake had a reasonably tame Long-billed Curlew, and the first of many wary Killdeers. On the water was, to my surprise, a great lifer in the form of several Canvasback. This duck had led me a merry occasional dance over a period exceeding 30 years. It is always satisfying to finally catch up with something that has been missed previously! There were also several Wilsons Snipe around the muddy margins. Other birds on the more distant pools included American White Pelicans and American Wigeon. The short grass also had large flocks of various blackbird and grackle species, including Brewers Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird.

Having walked all round the pools without the lens, I returned to the car to retrieve it for the Long-billed Curlew. I then drove round to the main car park which is closer to most of the lakes, to carry the lens in for record shots of the Canvasback that were not obliging at all - the closest they came was the middle of the lake, when others walked round the far side.

Long Billed Curlew Canvasback
Reasonably close Long-billed Curlew (click to enlarge) Distant Canvasback

Sharp and other adjacent roads (GPS 29.920976, -95.840436  )
After visiting the Paul Harding Park, I tried driving slowly along some of the local roads that are part of the Katy Loop Birding Trail. These sounded quite good with a fair potential for some of the rarer sparrows etc. However I wasn't particularly successful. Best birds were Crested Caracara, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker and a few waders on the wetter areas, including plenty of Killdeer. But everything seemed very wary (is there a lot of shooting around here?) and there was little or no access away from the road, nor any sign of Sparrows other than the omnipresent Savannah. This coupled with the miserable grey, cold conditions that day (and the next) meant I won't be in a hurry to go back here any time soon!

Killdeer Red tailed Hawk
Killdeer Red tailed Hawk

Warren Lake (GPS 29.978565, -95.847252 )
The descriptions I read online and in the site guides of Warren Lake, with its flocks of Snow Goose (with a few Ross' Geese for good measure) coming into roost and wildfowl on the water, were the main reason for my visit to the Katy Prairie area, with some pre-booked accommodation not too far away. So towards dusk, I made my way to this quite isolated site with its small, deserted car park and impressive viewing ramp. A word of caution about this car park - it has an electrically operated remote controlled gate, with a notice which says no exit after 18:00. It means it! Having moved my car out of it just in case, on the dot of 18:00 the gate abruptly closed - not a good place to be stuck for the night on a very cool, windy evening!

When I had arrived about an hour earlier, I was somewhat dismayed to find an almost complete absence of any duck on the water, or anything else for that matter. But thinking the geese would arrive around dusk, I hung around by or in the car (for warmth!) until then. During this time there was little to see apart from a pair of displaying Red-tailed Hawks in the trees behind. At about 17:45, after moving the car out of the car park, I walked the short distance down to the viewing ramp which is quite close to the water's edge and waited. There was some reward in the form of a brief fly-past from a Bald Eagle. The photo below with the 500f4 is pretty impressive considering the birds distance, the strong wind and the absence of light (it was nearly dark)! But of the geese, there was no sign whatsoever. When it was almost completely dark, I gave up, distinctly unimpressed, and headed away from Houston for about 30mins to my secluded overnight stay - that was sufficiently far away from the city not to command "Superbowl" rates!

Bald Eagle
Distant fly by Bald Eagle at dusk

Route 559 (Crump Ferry Road) (GPS 29.9172805,-96.032644)
The following morning, I first tried another of the roads mentioned for the Katy Bird Trail loop with similar results to yesterday, so I thought I would head back to Rushing Park which had been reasonable the previous day. En route, I suddenly noticed a distant sea of white, which I thought could be only one thing  - although it was cold, snow was not on the cards! Despite being apparently in the middle of Saturday morning cycling event, I managed to pull off the road to confirm that this was indeed a distant flock of Snow Geese! Excellent!

I then noticed another part of the flock much closer to the road, so I turned round and again managed to park off the road on a slightly raised bank, giving an excellent view over a most impressive flock of these delightful geese. I spent some time here taking large numbers of rather too distant photos of them on the ground, and in the flight. Looking carefully through the flock (only with bins) I found a few smaller geese that were definitely another of my key trip targets - Ross' Goose.

This time with these geese was definitely one of the main highlights of this trip, and made up for the disappointment at Warren Lake the day before.

Ross Goose Snow Geese
Ross' Goose Snow Geese
Snow Geese Snow Geese
Mixed flock of mostly Snow & a few Ross' Geese (click to enlarge)

Almost exactly a week later, I returned to this area with my wife on our way back to Houston airport, and again found the goose flock in much better conditions (warm and reasonably sunny!) in the same general area. We first spotted them from the original site but they were on the southern side of the 559 in a flooded field and could be approached quite closely by driving down a farm track. The flock then flew off to the east, but by heading along the 559 in that direction we relocated them down another side road at about GPS 29.9112331,-95.9853028. They were more distant here and rather into the sun, but there were some photo opportunities as small groups of birds kept dropping into the forward edge of the ever advancing edge of the flock.

Ross' Goose dropping into the flock (click to enlarge) Snow Geese (and a few Ross' Geese) in a flooded field (click to enlarge)

Galveston area
We spent three nights in Galveston, and combined a bit of tourism with some birding.

Galveston Harbour
The harbour was within easy walking distance of our hotel and was the place where huge cruise liners depart. However, immediately to the east is a tourist area with bay-side restaurants and behind is a small harbour for fishing boats. I visited here twice but only on the second time did I take a camera, having seen the potential on the first visit! The pelicans of both species were most confiding here, and were clearly used to free takeaways from the boats, as we saw the first morning. Returning in the late afternoon with a camera, there were no fishing boats just in, but the low sun produced some nice light when it was shining.

American White Pelican American White Pelican
American White Pelican (click left to enlarge)
Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican (click to enlarge)

8 mile and Sportsman road (GPS 29.265507, -94.899401 )
This site is only a few miles from central Galveston. We had a pleasant late afternoon visit here at the end of our first day in Galveston - these two roads were pretty good for birding and photography from the car. Generally birds seemed more approachable in the Galveston and Rockport areas than they had been at Katy Prairie for example. I have no idea why!

8 mile road heads across the island from the coast side to the bay area and passes various shallow ponds that had a few duck, including wary Blue-winged Teal, some distant Sandhill Cranes, and this closer singing Eastern Meadowlark. There was also a White-tailed (or Black-Shouldered in my aged book) Kite on wires along this stretch - which turned out to be an unexpected lifer for me, as it's not the same species as the European Black-shouldered Kite!

Eastern Meadowlark White Ibis
Eastern Meadowlark (click to enlarge) White Ibis (click to enlarge)

Sportsman Road, reached at the end of 8 mile Road, was better for photography with its marshy area pretty well all along its southern edge. First off was this stunning Osprey eating a fish on top of a post by the road. I can't imagine getting this close to one in the UK, even using the car as a hide!

Further on, there was some open water with Little Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Tri-coloured Heron, as well as White Ibis. The Little Blue was particularly tame even when we were out of the car - I had to walk away to get the whole bird in the field of view! Over the marshes were some distant terns - one of which was a definite Caspian. Near the end of the road, behind some houses, we also came across a somewhat distant pier with a load of roosting waders (it was high tide) that included Ruddy Turnstone, Willets, American Oystercatcher and several Short-billed Dowitchers (thanks to Ian Lewington for the ID!). In the water was a Red-breasted Merganser and a Common Loon. So a pleasant spot in the late afternoon sun.

Osprey Tri Coloured Heron
Osprey (click to enlarge) Tri Coloured Heron
Little Blue Heron Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron (click to enlarge)

Settegast Road (GPS 29.224804, -94.934257)
This site is a few miles further west than 8 mile Road, and we visited it on the second morning of our stay in Galveston which was again warm and sometimes sunny. En-route to the end of this road, we came across a strange place that seemed to be a mini nature reserve, with various display boards at 29.223689,-94.928529. Here, right by the road, was an extraordinarily obliging group of Sandhill Cranes, that even tolerated me getting out of the car on the opposite side to them - so I could take these pics. We then went for a short walk along a path that went through an area with small ponds (only birds were more Meadowlarks) and out onto the tidal bay foreshore. This appeared promising for the rarer sparrows but all we could find was yet more Savannahs. More interesting was a distant Northern Harrier.

Returning towards the car we came across the only photographable dragonfly of the trip - see the end of this page - before finding a pair of White-tailed Kites, one of which came quite close. Unfortunately the closest shot was directly into the sun, but thereafter it wheeled around to give better lighting.

Sandhill Crane Sandhill Crane
Sandhill Cranes (click to enlarge)
White-tailed Kite White-tailed Kite
White-tailed Kite (click right to enlarge)

At the end of this road, there was a row of large houses with a private road. It was for here that I'd seen a record of Harris' Sparrow in a web report, but of course there was no sign of anything like that when we were there. We could only find a Belted Kingfisher and some Pied-billed Grebes in the bay (there is a boardwalk here that gives good views).

Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

Galveston Island State Park (GPS 29.195833, -94.955862 )
This site is a few miles further west than Settegast Road and has a number of trails on the bay side. We went for a fair walk that went out towards the bay but didn't see a great deal new for our efforts. Offshore there was a flock of duck that turned out to be mostly Redhead, and there were a couple of Forster's Terns fishing. There was also a Northern Harrier that kept its distance. That was about it apart from a pool by the road that briefly had a large concentration of Roseate Spoonbills, Ibises, Herons and Egrets before they all flew off.

Great Egret Roseate Spoonbill
Great Egret  Roseate Spoonbill

Surfside (GPS 28.949497, -95.299470)
The next day we departed Galveston and headed south and west towards Rockport that was to be our base for the next 4 nights. As this was some 200 miles away, we aimed to take in a couple of sites en-route. The first was the levees immediately north of Surfside, which had produced a web report of a group of Hooded Mergansers ("where they normally are") from a few years back. But of these, there was no sign at all at the location we tried. Perhaps we were in the wrong place or they have since moved on - we will probably never know! However, immediately prior to reaching the bay, there was an amazing spot with herons, egrets etc close by on both sides of the road, with this Yellow-crowned Night Heron probably the pick of the bunch. There was also a very close Red-winged Blackbird, showing the value of the car as a hide again.

White Ibis Yellow Crowned Night Heron
White Ibis (click to enlarge) Yellow Crowned Night Heron (click to enlarge)
Snowy Egret Red winged Blackbird
Snowy Egret Red winged Blackbird

San Bernard NWR (GPS 28.91503,-95.57906 )
This National Wildlife Refuge was our next stop en-route to Rockport as the proprietor of the Hempstead Inn, where I had stayed for my Katy Prairie visit, had recommended it for Snow Geese and other species. On arrival, we drove down the straight road to the Cedar Lake Creek seeing little apart from a Solitary Vireo in the hedge, in addition to the ever present Yellow-rumped Warblers. The road east to the Moccasin Pond was more productive with quite close Snow Geese in the overgrown pond (with masses more in the distance to the right). There were also plenty of the usual water birds in the pond, but clear shots were difficult due to all the vegetation. Glossy Ibis were also present in good numbers. Overhead at some point were our only White-tailed Hawks of the trip.

We then went on a walk along the Cow Trap Trail that led into the marshes. This was notable for several quite large alligators in the pools right by the path, Forster's Terns, and very distant Snow Geese flocks.

We left this site via the Rail Pond which didn't produce any rails but did have plenty of the now familiar water birds, as well as Black-necked Stilts, Black-crowned Night Heron, White-fronted Geese and Sandhill Cranes.

Forsters Tern Snow Goose
Forster's Tern (click to enlarge) Snow Goose

Rockport area
We spent four nights in the Rockport area, with the main aim of finding Whooping Crane which presented no problems at all.

Big Tree and Goose Island State Park (GPS 28.151765, -96.976757 )
This site was only about 15mins from our hotel and we visited it several times. Big Tree is a well known site for Whooping Cranes, and attracts plenty of people driving around the area. On our first visit, we headed for the Big Tree itself (GPS coords above), which is an apt description of a tourist attraction just off the road. On the other side, is a large fenced field with a pool in the middle that generally had a family party of Whooping Cranes in it. We spotted them within about 30 seconds of our arrival! The field is however large, and getting good photos is unlikely - although waiting patiently in the north east corner might well pay dividends for flight shots as they come and go. It is possible to drive round three sides of this field but the birds generally appeared to prefer the centre - well away from any of the fences. Also in this field were Black-bellied Whistling Duck (on the pond) and Sandhill Cranes. A little further south at about 28.144117,-96.979019 we once came across a family party of Whooping Cranes somewhat closer to the road at a feeding station which also attracted Sandhill Cranes (dancing occasionally).

Whooping Cranes are unusual in that they are territorial in winter and hence do not gather in flocks. Family parties of small numbers of birds (typically 2-3) are the norm, with the odd single birds here and there.

Whooping Crane Whooping Cranes
Whooping Crane Whooping Cranes
Whooping Cranes for free at Big Tree (click top right & bottom left to enlarge)!

Offshore, there were close in Redhead and close to the crane feeding station was a roadside pool full of Black-crowned Night Herons.

Black crowned Night Heron Redhead
Black-crowned Night Heron Redhead (click to enlarge)

Goose Island State Park (GPS 28.133438,-96.984428 )
Big Tree is an outlying part of this state park site for which an entry fee of $5 per person is payable. We visited here briefly a couple of times but longer visits could have turned up more. It was very crowded and full of RVs but nevertheless held some reasonable birds, including a good flock of Black Skimmers resting on the mud at the western end (28.128115, -96.989593). Having found them on our first visit, we also tried again en-route to Houston on our last day but this was spoilt by a family with small children that flushed them all! Other birds here were Lesser Yellowlegs and Willet. The other end of the park had a fisherman's causeway that headed out some distance into the shallow bay with Ruddy Turnstone and pelicans with good views of the sun setting. On our second visit, I also came across a 'real' American birder looking for the rarer sparrows. I didn't find any (and neither had he when I spoke to him) although this is known site for them.

Black Skimmer Willet
Black Skimmer Willet (click to enlarge)

Rockport Aransas NWR boat trip (GPS 28.063608, -97.034214  )
A boat trip to the famous Aransas NWR was the main objective of this trip, and it turned out well. Several companies offer tours departing from Rockport to visit the Aransas NWR for the wintering Whooping Cranes, but it seems the morning "Skimmer" boat with Captain Tommy is one of the best. They offer a 3 hour tour that departs at 07:30 from Fulton that was very handy for our hotel. Very fortunately the morning of our tour dawned sunny and clear, whereas previously (even the day before) they had been plagued by early morning fog.

There were quite a few others on our trip, but most weren't serious photographers so the upper deck, which provides a good platform for tripods, wasn't too congested. The boat takes about 30min to reach the NWR, and Captain Tommy uses a sound system to point out any birds of interest en-route and after arrival in the shallow waters immediately off the NWR. There doesn't appear to be any exclusion zone around the shore or any cranes that happen to be present. Shortly after arriving off the NWR, we saw various species new for the trip list, including Royal Tern and Bufflehead. However to my disappointment there was no sign of any Hooded Merganser (that are frequently seen on this trip).

Initially we only had distant views of a few Whooping Cranes, but shortly we came to one feeding in a pool very close to the waters edge. It seemed unperturbed by our presence and the boat got remarkably close - so much so that at times the bird more than filled the field of view with the x1.4 on the 500f4! The light was superb with the sun behind us, and so I took loads of shots. Those showing the bird with a Blue Crab (its favourite food) were probably the pick of the bunch.

Whooping Crane Whooping Crane
Whooping Crane Whooping Crane
Whooping Crane from the boat (click to enlarge)!

After spending plenty of time here, the boat headed off to see what else could be found. Notables were American Avocet and a distant American Bittern (little did I know at the time) that we would come across a much, much closer one later that day!

So all in all this boat trip worked very well for Whooping Crane pics, although nothing else came within useful photo range. Definitely recommended and one of main trip highlights.

Aransas NWR (GPS 28.310933, -96.801266  )
This NWR is famous for its wintering Whooping Cranes that we had already seen extremely well on the boat trip and at Big Tree. However the NWR itself sounded worth a (land) visit for other birds as well. However the entrance is some distance from Rockport and our visit on a very hot afternoon (over 90F!) wasn't very productive. After calling in at the visitor centre, we decided to walk along the Heron flats trail but saw very little apart from a few distant waders, a Belted Kingfisher and a Solitary Vireo in dense cover. When we had got around 2/3 way round we found that the warning signs at the start of the trail were accurate - it really was closed, so we had to retrace our steps!

Getting back in the car we drove further on and soon reached the shore where there were flocks of duck offshore. Scanning these produced a couple of additions to the trip list - Lesser Scaup and Eared Grebe but everything was far too distant for any photography. At the end of the road is the amazing structure that is the observation tower - no ladder, nor even steps are needed - just a ramp, presumably for disabled access. At the top there are good but very distant views south over the reserve. Well below and quite close were large number of the now familiar herons, egrets etc, but the light was awful - looking straight into the sun. From the higher platform we missed a family party of 3 Whooping Cranes, but then noticed them at the second, lower one. They were extremely distant (maybe a mile?) and considerably to the left of the birds in the foreground.

After this, we drove round the auto loop tour and saw practically nothing apart from the odd American Kestrel. Perhaps a longer visit, earlier or later in the day would have been more productive but this reserve didn't appear promising at all for photography, unlike so many other places.

Rockport Beach Park (GPS 28.026947, -97.046365  )
I don't think this site features in any of the guides, but we came across it by chance and had a brief but pleasant visit in not brilliant weather. There were a couple of butterflies, including an impressive Swallowtail (see below) and a Marbled Godwit on the beach at one point. In the bay, seen from the coastal road was a flock of Redhead and one Canvasback (the only one I saw apart from at Rushing Park, near Houston).

Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit (click to enlarge)

Port Aransas area
We visited Port Aransas on the afternoon of the day we went on the early morning Whooping Crane boat trip, so it turned out to be quite a long but successful day. Surprisingly a ferry is needed to reach here. On the outward leg, we only had a brief 10-15min delay, but on the return in the rush hour there was quite a queue and a wait of around 45mins, despite the apparently efficient operation of multiple boats.

Paradise Pond (GPS 27.834166, -97.071982 )
This was another possible Hooded Merganser site that didn't produce, but there were some other nice birds to be seen with good photo opportunities as well. The entrance to this compact site is rather hidden behind the San Juan restaurant but there is a convenient parking spot right by the entrance track. There is then a short walk to the pool with a boardwalk allowing close views of anything on the water. The water level was depressingly low due to the chronic drought conditions this area has apparently been experiencing recently, but nevertheless the pool held some remarkably tame Blue-winged Teal and Green-winged Teal, which are normally very wary.

This got me thinking about the Weymouth Hooded Merganser which is generally regarded as an escape due to its tameness and liking for bread etc! However the photo I had seen on the web from this site was of an extremely confiding female Hooded Merganser. It seems that all the species here are completely used to people on the boardwalk and don't bother at all about them - this was also the case for the next site below. I can't see the Weymouth Hooded Merganser was behaving any differently from these, clearly wild, birds. So maybe it is a wild bird after all and not an escapee?!

Blue Winged Teal Green winged Teal
Blue Winged Teal (click to enlarge) Green winged Teal (click to enlarge)

We visited this site twice, the first time was in the middle of the day and it was quite quiet (apart from the duck). Our second visit was at the end of the afternoon and was more productive with some RGV species appearing - Inca Dove (briefly), Great Kiskadee and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. There was also a Loggerhead Shrike around.

Ladder backed Woodpecker Great Kiskadee
Ladder backed Woodpecker Great Kiskadee (click to enlarge)

Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center (GPS 27.827053, -97.078046 )
This site was very close to Paradise Pond and was extraordinarily popular with a constant stream of people coming and going. The main attraction appeared to be two alligators close to the boardwalk which was longer than that at Paradise Pond. The boardwalk gave very close views of a reedbed and a lake with healthy water levels. Again many birds were remarkably tame and paid no attention to the constant human traffic. The most amazing of these was this American Bittern that showed within a metre or two of the boardwalk. It was impossible to get anything more than the head and bill in the field of view of the 500f4, and the 100-400 could only accommodate the whole bird on the lowest zoom (i.e. 100mm)!! A pair of Pied-billed Grebes were also close, but not that close! Other birds here included Tri-coloured Heron and various other wildfowl.

American Bittern American Bittern
American Bittern with 500f4 American Bittern with 100-400 @100! (click to enlarge)
Pied Billed Grebe
Pied Billed Grebe (click to enlarge)

Just after we arrived there was also an amazing close fly-by of a Northern Harrier, but it was very much into the sun. Thereafter it showed in the opposite direction but at more typical (i.e. distant) harrier ranges.

Northern Harrier Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier - very close but into the sun Northern Harrier - with much better lighting but more distant

Not birds!
This was primarily a birding trip but if anything else presented itself, I was happy to take its photo! Even in mid-winter at these sub-tropical latitudes there were a few dragonflies around and the odd butterfly.

Variagated Meadowhawk Queen Butterfly
Variagated Meadowhawk at the reserve on Settegast Road near Galveston Queen Butterfly at San Bernard NWR
Pipe Vine Swallowtail Rockport Prob Whirlabout
Pipe Vine Swallowtail at Rockport Beach Park Remarkably lucky flight shot of a probable Whirlabout Skimmer, Rockport Beach Park
Alligator San Bernard NWR
Alligator at San Bernard NWR!

 

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
La Quinta, Conroe Quite acceptable hotel at Conroe where I spent one night after arriving at Houston Airport - convenient for the W G Jones State Forest with its Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Handy Mexican restaurant very close. Room spacious and comfortable. Breakfast unmemorable but included I think.
Best Western Deer Park Inn and Suites Chosen as it was convenient for San Jancinto Memorial Park and wasn't too expensive on the Thursday before the Superbowl in Houston. A motel with parking just outside the room. Room OK but inclusive breakfast no great shakes. Dinner in a family Italian restaurant recommended by the helpful receptionist about 3mins drive away (not memorable!).
Hempstead Country Inn & Suites Peaceful place in countryside well to the north-west of Houston which didn't charge a Superbowl premium on the Friday night. Reasonably handy for Katy Prairie. Enthusiastic owner was delighted to find I was a birder and was most helpful over places to eat (both breakfast and dinner). The rooms were all on ground level with outside access. Recommended.
The Tremont House, Galveston We spent three nights at this highly rated (on TripAdvisor) upmarket hotel in Galveston's historic (i.e. older) district. I didn't understand this hotel's high ratings. Parking was inconvenient - you either had to pay a considerable sum for valet parking or find a metered spot on the adjacent roads. This is what we did after the first night when we arrived late from the airport and roadside parking wasn't obvious. If you arrive late enough and depart in good time in the morning, roadside parking is free. We had an internal room overlooking the bar which was hardly ideal but at least the noise subsided after about 10pm, otherwise we would have complained and asked for a different room. The breakfast was very expensive - we only had it once! About its only plus point was its convenience for the harbour.
Lighthouse Inn, Rockport The best hotel we stayed in, but quite expensive. We had four nights here in a lovely spacious room with a balcony directly overlooking the bay with potential for scenic sun rises and the odd interesting bird offshore (Common Loon, early one morning). Breakfast was included and had a good choice - including make your own waffles, hot buffet etc. Dinner was less memorable, so we walked to various other places that were close by for the other nights. One negative was the paper thin walls - which were very noticeable one morning!

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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