Towards the end of 2015, I received a package from my old Forest Service supervisor, Karen. Included within were a variety of teaching materials and a National Parks Pass. My job in Juneau a few summers back had no shortage of perks, one of them being free access to all National Parks, Forests, Wildlife Refuges, and other federal lands for one year. The paperwork necessary to provide the pass had finally gone through, and I was staring down the barrel of a year where I’d actually have some free time to make use of this gift from the government. I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go to waste, and I was happy to have an excuse to travel. While discussing my options with Dad over a few pints, I decided that the first priority would be South Texas. There are a handful of refuges in the area, and I had never visited the state’s Gulf Coast or the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I also learned that my former Project Puffin coworkers Col and Lauren were interested in visiting the area. With tons of motivation and no excuses to back out, I pulled the trigger. The trip was happening: Team Eastern Egg Rock was taking Texas.
I set about planning my adventure, gleaning advice from friends who had birded the region in the past. Ben, Brendan, and Graham offered tips and itineraries for making the most of my time in Texas, including information on must-see stops and hard-to-find species. Knowing that I only had a few days to spare for this vacation, I sketched out a rough but detailed plan of attack. It was going to be a tight trip, with lots of ground to cover and many goals to achieve. My “coaches” helped bring the dream to life, and I was ready for the excitement and self-imposed challenges that awaited me in the Lone Star State.
Having caught a flight out of LaGuardia after work, I landed in Houston just before midnight on February 12th. Lauren and Col picked me up and we began our drive towards Stop #1, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Our main targets here were birds that are most active at night and early morning, so we wanted to be on site as soon as possible. We caught a few hours of sleep crammed into Lauren’s car at a rest stop not far from the refuge before getting underway. As we drove, we caught up and speculated about what awaited us in the coming days. We wondered aloud about what the First Bird of the Trip would be, hoping for something more glamorous than a common species like Red-winged Blackbird or Mallard. A few miles from Anahuac’s gates, I spotted a ghostly form floating through the gloom along the roadside. Was that…?
I told the others what I thought I’d seen, but I wasn’t completely convinced myself. Mere minutes later, another specter lifted off from a fence post ahead of us and glided into the night. There was no doubt about the ID of the phantom this time. We turned the car around and our headlights met a pair of black eyes set in a full-moon face: a Barn Owl. Even by the secretive standards set by other owls, this species is notoriously difficult to locate in many parts of the country. On this stretch of road, we were fortunate enough to see multiple individuals hunting the fields in the pre-dawn darkness. Not too shabby for a First Bird of the Trip, and an auspicious start to our adventure.
Our drive into Anahuac featured a few more species, including large numbers of Killdeer flushing ahead of the car, a Crested Caracara perched atop a power pole, and an American Bittern slinking along a roadside ditch. There were many songbirds vocalizing from the brush on both sides, including a call I’d never before heard in nature. Just as the birders who’s gone before me promised, Anahuac was infested with Sedge Wrens, my first lifer of the trip.
We passed the park visitor center and entered wetter, marshier habitat. The grassy waterways around us were ringing with clicks, clacks, grunts, and screeches. Rails. Anahuac is famous for its diversity and abundance of these skulky wetland birds, and I was hoping to add the King Rail to my life list. Here’s the rub: King Rails look similar and sound almost identical to the more common Clapper Rail. It’s hard to get a glimpse of one since they usually hide away in dense grasses, but there are two rules for clinching the ID without a visual on the bird.
1) King Rails prefer freshwater habitats and Clappers typically inhabit saltmarshes. Conveniently, Anahuac has freshwater on the left side of the road and saltwater on the right. This is by no means iron law. Individuals are sometimes seen crossing the road, and hybridization between the two species is known to occur on the refuge.
2) Despite the similar sound quality of their calls, Kings are noticeably more deliberate and even-paced in all their vocalizations. A slow, rhythmic call indicates a King, and a quicker, accelerating series is given by the Clapper. So how did we fare on our quest for royalty at Anahuac?
Got ‘im. In fact, almost all of the calls we heard were classic King-types coming from the left-side freshwater, and there were a lot of birds calling. Quite a lucky break, and we also heard a definite Clapper and saw another scamper in front of our car down by the coastal saltmarshes. My first White-tailed Kite and White-tailed Hawk were seen on our drive through the refuge, along with countless geese, ducks, and wading birds. The sound of splashing alerted us to the presence of some River Otters, who were seen peering at us from the water and crossing the road ahead.
Planning ahead is important for any trip, and when wildlife is involved it vastly improves your odds of seeing and enjoying as much as possible when time is tight. I’d done my homework and researched Anahuac in the days leading up to vacation, so there were a few special spots I wanted to check. The first was Frozen Point, a fishing area towards the end of the wildlife drive. Across from the tiny parking lot, a concrete slab lay in an open field. Local birders had been reporting a rare visitor using this structure as a home base. Some photographers had their lenses trained on a small hole under the slab when we arrived, snapping pics of a resting Burrowing Owl. It’s always a hoot to enjoy the company of this tiny, terrestrial raptor.
Before we left the refuge, we turned down a boat launch road along a vegetation-lined channel. A pair of Groove-billed Anis had been sighted in the bushes here, and these unusual cuckoos don’t normally spend the winter in the area. The three of us scanned for activity, finding Neotropic Cormorants, Roseate Spoonbills, and a small American Alligator. We were able to coax the anis out of hiding, resulting in lots of squeaking, fluttering, and one individual sunning itself in the morning light. Despite, or perhaps because of, their ungainly nature, the birds are surprisingly endearing. We admired them for some time before leaving the refuge and heading south.
Lauren was responsible for all the driving that first day, since she drives a stick and neither Col nor I have learned that particular skill yet. Shout-out to her for going above and beyond the call of duty. We picked up a number of additional species as we made our way towards Rockport. Most were seen along the roadside, but we also made a stop at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. I spotted my first Snowy Plovers here, feeding among flocks of various other species on the beach’s mudflats. The Bolivar-Galveston Ferry featured some seabird action, and the rolling fields hosted cranes, hawks, and doves. We finally reached our motel just after night fell, our only advance reservation of the trip. We had an early start on a special tour first thing in the morning, and it was nice to sleep in an actual bed.
Year List Update, February 13 – 175 Species (+ Barn Owl, Killdeer, American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Black Vulture, Crested Caracara, Turkey Vulture, Sedge Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Great-tailed Grackle, White-faced Ibis, Snowy Egret, King Rail, Sora, White-tailed Kite, Mottled Duck, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Common Gallinule, White-crowned Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Neotropic Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Greater Yellowlegs, American Pipit, White-tailed Hawk, Willet, Clapper Rail, Royal Tern, Osprey, Burrowing Owl, Roseate Spoonbill, Little Blue Heron, Groove-billed Ani, Loggerhead Shrike, Boat-tailed Grackle, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Piping Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Snowy Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-winged Dover, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Red-shouldered Hawk, Cattle Egret, Sandhill Crane)