“Children are born naturalists. They explore the world with all of their senses, experiment in the environment, and communicate their discoveries to those around them.” ~ The Audubon Nature Preschool
Directly in the path of the Mississippi flyway, the spring migration of neotropic migrants is now fully underway in Texas. We returned to the wooded outcroppings near the coast Easter weekend, the goal to see as many birds as possible. Mostly, we hoped to add new species to our growing Big Year list, particularly those migrants who fly through only once or twice per year on their way to or from breeding grounds to the north.
To get ready for our weekend, John and I went to the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary in Houston during the week to secure our 2014 Birding Patches from Houston Audubon Society, allowing us into a variety of locations throughout the year without admission. On a stroll through the woods there, we added only the Ash-throated Flycatcher to our list. We had just missed a flurry of migrants dropped there by a storm a few days prior — “fallout” as it’s called. All the beautiful little wood warblers had already packed their bags and moved on.
Several snakes, turtles, and bull frogs made up for the lack of birds, always a joy for John, the Reptilian Lover, who spotted them all. I nearly stepped on this guy, my eyes to the skies. Yikes. I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me either; by the cloud of his eyes, he was clearly molting.
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Weeks before, the kids had been busily studying up on warblers and sandpipers, on top of all the math, reading, and social studies they get at school. Ever since a man and his daughter tipped us off to LaFitte’s Cove, we knew we had to go. We could always keep the more bustling High Island in our hip pocket, just in case. Just to be sure, we planned both for the same day.
And this long-awaited day had finally arrived, on the most beautiful weekend of the year, no less.
Warblers. Field guides and lenses packed in advance, we listened to iBird Pro app for bird songs we expected to hear while we drove from Houston to the coast, like cramming for a test. April would be the only month for us to bag the migratory non-residents. Just as running and training months before a marathon, we had to be ready for anything and everything we might see during a short time there.
LaFitte’s Cove in Galveston, Texas, is only well-known within the birding community and locals, and not much is found about it on the Internet. It’s really Galveston’s best kept secret. A nature preserve kept and cared for — not with tax dollars like the Wildlife Refuge — by caring citizens and nature lovers, an intimate spot for regular folks like you and me to enjoy. Thirty acres of oak canopy and salt marshes, kept in natural harmony with human surroundings, it’s a unique haven for birds in particular, smack dab in the middle of an affluent beach house subdivision.
That lush, green grove of trees near the top of the aerial is just the right spot for hungry, tired, thirsty little travelers. Before we even stopped to park, we spied several new species through our windows, flitting about: Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Western Tanager, and Purple Martin. Regular flashes of red and yellow raced back and forth in front of us, tempting us. This was going to be a great day; the kids could barely contain themselves.
On the way in, there were several Short-billed Dowitchers and other waterbirds doing their thing in the shallows. Phalaropes, sandpipers, stilts and ducks were everywhere, but that’s not what we came for. To the woods we go.
The first stop was a fruit-filled station in the open, perfect for tanagers. As I wowed over the red-and-black Scarlet Tanager feeding on grapefruit in the bright sun, here come the all-red Summer Tanagers. A complete trifecta for our area! But what’s this stunning little yellow bird with them? That’s the “drab” female, another birder told me. Oh boy.
As we arrived at the first quiet zone, the kids did great. A small group of photographers with their big lenses on tripods, all standing with their hands in their pockets at the “watering hole.” I whispered, What are we looking at? There had just been a flurry of activity, they replied, and we just missed it. Rats. Late again to the party.
Further up the path, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo taunted the kids. I briefly looked up and there he was! A Blackburnian Warbler promptly and correctly ID’d by two of three; they had done their homework and passed their first test. I was right there and lucky to get a shot from directly underneath him. They are flitty little guys.
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak pair sung to us from the canopy. He seemed as curious about me as I was interested in taking his picture. I quietly cursed myself for not having better than a 180mm zoom.
Then another…a Yellow Warbler and, would you believe it? A Chestnut-sided Warbler. I think an audible expletive (about the lacking lens) may have erupted from my lips.
Then a Hooded Warbler showed up! We could not believe our luck. It was apparent that all the studded stars were back by the whirring and clicking of camera drive functions behind us. Indeed, the flurry had returned. We scuttled back over to the puddle.
Every bird-of-a-feather flocked in for a drink or a bath, and I do mean everyone. Ooo’s and Aahh’s erupted from behind cameras and field lenses. Species after species was called out in quiet tones behind eye-pieces, my head reeling with delight as I moved my binoculars from one bird to the next. One photographer proudly showed a shot on his camera where at least 10 species of beautifully feathered migrants were visible, all splashing and drinking in one frame. This is the shot of the day, he told me. Angie exhaustively tried to keep up in her journal. Writing — as well as photographing — was futile. We all dropped our lenses, books, pencils, and cameras and just savored the glorious moment. We might not see anything like this again this year.
And, oh, what a moment it was. Throw in the 4-5 other varieties (we had already logged), and voila, an all-you-can-eat warbler buffet. Belly up and chow down, folks! This indeed was a great day for birding.
- Painted Bunting Wow!!
- Gray Catbird
- Baltimore Oriole
- Swainson’s Thrush
- Wood Thrush
- Red-eyed Vireo
- Black-throated Green Warbler
- Canada Warbler
- Hooded Warbler
- Worm-eating Warbler
Once the flurry had passed, Angie and Ginny compared notes with fellow birders. Did we get everything? What did we miss? It was a blur, after all, a veritable rainbow stew. Aside from our back porch and “regular” birds, we had never seen so many brightly colored species in one place.
Meanwhile, Scottie went off looking for a rather large skink (6 inches or so) that scurried across the path in front of him. Now fixated on reptilians and amphibians, our walking bird encyclopedia — “sBird Pro,” we like to call him — was officially off the clock and on to bigger and better things.
Time to break for lunch. Using our State Parks pass, we stopped at Galveston State Park to grab a picnic table and review the bonanza and plan for the next excursion across the channel.
We would have to run the 15-mile gauntlet through a people-infested seawall boulevard on a holiday weekend, then wait in line at least 20 minutes to board the ferry, ride the ferry across the channel, and finally another 20-mile journey to High Island. At least the view didn’t suck. Like anything else in life, we make the best of it; it sure beats driving the other way — up through concrete Houston, across the channel, and back down to the coast over several hours.
The trip back to High Island would ultimately be worth it. We added an Ovenbird, Herring Gull, and Ring-billed Gull to our list. We frolicked in the sand, explored a recently deceased Purple Gallinule and its beautiful iridescent feathers, got a nap, watched terns and pelicans dive and soar, collected more beautiful shells, and just enjoyed every little minute of the day together.
Boy Scout Woods in High Island wowed the kids of course, but not for the birds as you may think. Dusk brings out armadillos and rabbits. The place was also overrun with Catbirds, Thrushes, and Grosbeaks, but after the morning we’d had at LaFitte’s Cove, this Audubon spot — for which we paid top dollar — seemed rather ho hum. All-in-all, we would add 25 new species to our list.
It will be difficult topping the day, but we eagerly look forward to reaching our goal of 200, even if it means the slow and easy way — one beautiful little bird at a time.