Tag Archive | Postcards from Texas

Postcards from Texas: Smith Oaks

Posted by Matthew Sim

As soon as we arrived at Smith Oaks I knew the birding was going to be good; before we had even entered the gates a Red-eyed Vireo jumped into the bushes in front of us. Then, in the first tree we passed, there was a male Golden-winged Warbler, a male Black-and-White Warbler and a male Blackburnian Warbler.

Black-and-White warbler

Black-and-White warbler

Just like that migrants were in every tree and bush. Blue-headed Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Magnolia Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler. How about another Yellow-throated Vireo? More Black-and-white Warblers over here! Had enough Scarlet Tanagers yet? With each bird the woods seemed to become a immeasurable buffet with numerous gorgeous migrants on which to feast the eye.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

I looked up and spotted an Anhinga, a sign that we were approaching the famous rookery and its rowdy inhabitants.


As we walked further and further the birding only got better and better. There were literally migrants in every bush and tree. Bay-breasted, Yellow, Blue-winged, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black-and White and Tennessee Warblers were adorning every branch as were Northern Parulas, Common Yellowthroats, Philadelphia Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewees, American Redstarts and Scarlet Tanagers. Even a beautiful Cerulean Warbler made a very brief appearance!

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Birding didn’t get any slower at the rookery as egrets, spoonbills and herons went about raising their families.



Young Spoonbill

The excitement didn’t even stop there as we got distant looks at a pair of beautiful Purple Gallinule. And one final highlight came as we were heading back to our car; a pair of Armadillo! It certainly was a great trip!

Nine-banded Armadillo

Nine-banded Armadillo


Postcards from Texas: Boy Scout Woods

Posted by Matthew Sim

Spring migration is starting to wind down here in Texas and I had still not been to the coast, thanks to a very busy schedule. This was made very painful a little over 2 weeks ago, when on Thursday, April 26th, a cold front grounded migrants and created a massive fallout of birds at coastal hotspots; what many locals were calling the best birding to be had in over 15 years. And I was stuck at school. Friday, there were still migrants everywhere. People were being told to try to avoid stepping on tired migrants that collapsed exhausted by the dozens on paths and lawns. And I was still stuck in school. Well surely I could get out on the weekend? Nope, weekend was already chock full of chores and commitments.

Finally though, on the Sunday I had the day off and I convinced my mom to chauffeur me down to High Island. She agreed (after a little while!) and we set off; though the weather forecast wasn’t going to create a fallout, I was still hoping for some good birds.

We arrived at Boy Scout Woods, a sanctuary run by the Houston Audubon at around 10:30 in the morning. The day got off to a great start when a very tame male Kentucky Warbler put on a show at one of the many small ponds and drips.

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Things were looking good and as I walked through the woods I soon found my first Scarlet Tanagers and Black-and-white Warblers of the day.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

I carried on through the woods, seeing more thrushes, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, orioles and warblers, including a Worm-eating Warbler which scurried about in the undergrowth, giving me only fleeting glimpses. Things started to quiet down apart from dozens of catbirds and a very vocal Eastern Kingbird.

Eastern Kingbird

Yellow throated Vireos were common throughout the woods.

Yellow throated Vireos were common throughout the woods.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

After an hour and a half, with fewer and fewer birds showing up, we decided to head over to another Houston Audubon run sanctuary, Smith Oaks, famous for its heron rookery. Before we left though, we stopped by at a house across from Boy Scout Woods whose front yard was covered in bottle brush and attracted many birds including Baltimore and Orchard Orioles; Tennessee, Chestnut-sided and Canada Warblers and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Female Orchard Oriole

Female Orchard Oriole

As we left this property, we spotted a Common Nighthawk perched on the street, content to just sit quietly. From there it was on to Smith Oaks! The trip to Smith Oaks will be posted tomorrow, stay tuned.

Postcards from Texas: Yardbirds

Posted by Matthew Sim

As I’m sure many of you know, there can be some very busy points in our lives; right now I’m preparing for semester finals at school, keeping up with sports, preparing for a return to Calgary over Christmas and trying to keep up with the birding. While I can’t always get out, there is always time to notice the birds in my backyard. Here are some of the regulars.

Yellow-rumped Warbler; showing off that characteristic yellow rump!

Yellow-rumped Warbler; showing off that characteristic yellow rump!

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler; is it just me or can anybody else see a faint orange streak just above his eye?

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

By the time you see this I will be back in Calgary for 2 weeks; I’m looking forward to some good northern birding again!

Postcards from Texas: Hawks and hummingbirds

Posted by Matthew Sim

Here I am, back in Houston, Texas once again for the school year and enjoying the southern birding. Last weekend I was able to make a trip from Houston down to the Gulf coast to several world-reknown birding spots, Smith Point and High Island.

We started out at Smith Point, where a hawk watch is held every year from September through November at the Candy Abashier Wildlife Management Area, counting migrating raptors on their journeys south. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were treated to good looks at several American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks passing by upon their migration. Also, several groups of American White Pelicans greeted us. We got onto the 30 foot observation tower next, stopping to watch dozens of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feed at the hummingbird feeders set up for them on the platform. While watching the hummingbirds, we noticed one leucisitic female. Leucism is when reduced pigmentation in an animal causes it to be partially white. In this case, the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s forehead was white, instead of being the normal green.

After watching the hummingbirds for several minutes we scanned the sky looking for migrating raptors though by this time it was late morning and most of the hawks had already soared upward on the thermals (columns of warm, rising air) and were mere specks in the sky. We did see several small groups of Broad-winged Hawks, a Peregrine Falcon, a Northern harrier and many Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, the latter two which thankfully stayed fairly low, making some nice passes right by the tower. We also spotted several distant Magnificent Frigatebirds.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

We stayed for a while longer, realizing, that the earlier we get out the better birding there will be, though it was a couple hours drive just to get to Smith Point. Eventually, we left the hawk watch and went to another spot on the point, James H. Robbins Park where we saw quite a few shorebirds, including Least Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, American Oystercatchers and Semipalmated Plovers.

Semipalmated Plover

By now, the temperature was starting to climb so we decided to make just one last stop before heading home, world famous High Island which is well known for its amazing spring migrations, though it can be good in the fall as well. We attempted to get to Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary though we soon discovered that the sanctuary was filled with mosquitoes, who spared no mercy on our exposed arms, legs and necks. After 3 minutes we were done. Dismayed we tried the Boy Scout Woods sanctuary, also in High Island though it was filled with mosquitos as well and a 5 minute stay was all we could manage. The one positive of High Island was I did get to see 2 Inca Doves, a new bird for me at Boy Scout Woods, though the ferocious mosquitoes made sure I did not get to fully enjoy these lifers.

It was a great trip and I did learn some new things about Texas birdwatching:

  • try to get to Smith Point before the hawks soar into the stratosphere!
  • High Island+ fall= lots of mosquitoes!

Postcards from Texas: Migration highlights

Posted by Matthew Sim

Last time I wrote a ‘Postcards from Texas’, I bemoaned the weather and fate for whisking away any migratory birds from my binoculars and my camera. This time, however, weather and fate were both on my side for a full 3 days, bringing warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, orioles, buntings, catbirds and cuckoos to my very neighborhood.

Saturday morning, something told me to go out birding. Trusting instinct, I went out to the neighborhood patches that occasionally turn up good birds. When I got to the pond, I heard a distinctive ‘chirp’ coming from the trees and shrubs lining the pond. Then came another ‘chirp’. And another. I soon was in a very excited mode, dashing this way in that, my camera turned up at the trees. A storm the night before had slowed migration, forcing migratory birds to land at the first green patch they saw, and for this reason, there were now dozens of migrants here at my local pond.

Male Chestnut-sided Warbler

Female Magnolia Warbler

Male Magnolia Warbler

Female American Redstart

As I gazed upwards into the bushes and trees, I managed to see Wilson’s, Canada, Kentucky, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Yellow, Tennessee and Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart and Common Yellowthroat. Soon, I was seeing Gray Catbirds and even a male Baltimore Oriole.

Baltimore Oriole

As I admired the oriole, an even bigger surprise came up in the form of my first ever Indigo Bunting, They are quite stunning birds!

Male Indigo Bunting

After that, I found a Olive-sided Flycatcher, identified by the  two white spots on its back.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

And then some of the regulars too…

At one point, upon seeing a large bird in one tree, I investigated, expecting to find some rather unusual bird. Instead, I found a rather common Green Heron- but in a tree?!

Green Heron-in a tree!

So maybe migration wasn’t so bad after all!

Postcards from Texas: The highs and lows of birding

Posted by Matthew Sim

Sometimes, birding can exceed your wildest hopes. For me, this happened last year when I stumbled upon a Northern Hawk Owl on a midday walk in Fish Creek. Sometimes though, birding can let you down. For me, this happened just last week on a birding trip with the Houston Audubon down to the Texas coast.

Spring migration in Texas is world-famous among birders. Millions of  neotropical birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico heading north to their breeding grounds land at various spots along the Texas coast, exhausted from their non-stop trip across the gulf. When the weather is right, a fall-out can occur, in which many different species of migrants all drop into the trees of the first bit of land they see after the trans-gulf flight. This trip with the Houston Audubon down to the coast was supposed to witness one of these fall-outs. Except the birds never came.

When we arrived at the tiny but well-known Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, the treetops (which should have been swarming with warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers and tanagers) were silent. Completely silent. We soon discovered that the strong south wind was blowing the migrants right on by. You see, with a powerful wind at their backs, these birds can conserve energy and travel faster; so why stop? Realizing that we weren’t going to see much we started to leave, seeing both Brown-headed Cowbirds and Bronzed Cowbirds (neither is a migrant) on the way out.

Brown-headed Cowbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Just as we were exiting, things started to pick up a little and we saw an Eastern Kingbird, 2 female Orchard Orioles and a very brief glimpse of a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, meaning that things weren’t too bad.

Female Orchard Oriole, saving the day for songbird migration!

From there, we headed down to the beach and jetty, where we were happy to see all 8 species of terns commonly seen on the upper Texas coast. As our group toured the surrounding beach, we observed many different species of shorebirds including pretty Black-necked Stilt, many Sanderlings, striking Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumage and intriguing Dunlin. We also were given an opportunity to view Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plover and tried our hand at the tricky identification of Western And White-rumped Sandpipers. All of these were just out of camera range but were beautiful up-close in our spotting scopes.

After gobbling down a quick lunch, our Houston Audubon group decided to explore the nearby Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge to see what else we could see. Brazoria, a refuge of grasslands and salt marshes quickly yielded up a lifer for me, a Least Bittern, which flushed from some reeds. We also saw Snowy Egret, White Ibis, Black-necked Stilt and good views of Sora (though the same cannot be said for the photos!)

Snowy Egret

A very poor shot of the Sora

As our group drove the auto-tour loop, we saw some more great birds such as Dickcissel. One car had 3 handsome male Bobolinks singing. We even managed to spot a female Magnificent Frigatebird, which is always a highlight.

Female Magnificent Frigatebird

We finished our trip with about 80 species and though the songbird migration was definitely a low, the shorebirds and the activity at Brazoria were definitely highs and the trip was well worth it.

Postcards from Texas: Adventures in Big Bend (Part 2)

Posted by Matthew Sim

There are several factors that make Big Bend such a holy grail for birders. Factor number 1? The fact that the park offers the easternmost limit for many western species and the westernmost limit for many eastern species of birds. Factor number 2? The park is located on a major migratory flyway and is an important stop-off for many bird species. And factor number 3? Located close to Mexico, the park has many southern specialty birds that can’t otherwise be seen in the U.S. (such as Lucifer Hummingbird and Colima Warbler). The facts didn’t change anything for us though; we were having a blast and seeing many great birds in the process!

Dawn of our second day saw me up bright and early, as the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm (actually, it should be more like: ‘the early birdwatcher gets to watch the bird getting the worm’). Anyway, no matter how the saying goes, I was awake before the sun peered over the hills. I headed down to the feeders, spotting a Bewick’s Wren on my way down. Down at the feeders, I saw no new species but all the same, it was very exciting.

A Curve-billed Thrasher trying to figure out just how to get down on the bird feeder.

I did also manage to spot a Ladder-backed Woodpecker slightly closer than before and managed to get a half-decent shot in the dim light.

We didn’t spend too long at the feeders though as we had decided that today was the day to challenge ourselves. I mean really challenge ourselves. We had decided to hike the Emory peak, the tallest mountain in the park at 7,825 feet high. It is a strenuous hike and the roundtrip is… 10.5 tough miles. We started our climb at about 11am, with the temperature slowly starting to rise. Starting our climb, we were treated to the sounds of several Bewick’s Wrens singing as well as a Crissal Thrasher. While we climbed higher and higher, we started to hear the noise of several Mexican Jays and soon came across a flock of 8.

We were sweating now, hardly even half way up, yet we carried on. As we neared the top of the peak, our effort was payed off. The view was breathtaking.

As we reached the summit we watched nearly 100 White-throated Swifts swirling and diving through the air. Occasionally, as they passed closely by us, we could hear the wind rushing through their wings.

After enjoying the breath-taking scenery for a little longer, we began the long hike back down. Through our exhaustion, we even managed to find two Black-crested Titmice calling from the steep slopes.y the time we reached the bottom of the mountain, thoroughly worn out and incredibly sore, we decided unanimously to call it a day. When we reached our campground, we saw a Common Poorwill (a relative of the nighthawk), perched on the road and darting up into the air every couple of seconds to catch insects. The best part of the day though? Seeing countless stars in the night sky back at the camp. My photo does not even come close to doing the stars justice.

The next morning, due to our serious state of exhaustion, we woke up very late. Upon coming to the decision that it had been fun, but that it was now time to slowly head for home (we were very tired!) we did just that. Heading home slowly meant frequent stops to admire scenery, nature and whatever else we might see. By the time the sun was setting, we had reached Kerrville (about halfway home) and decided to stop for the night. As we reviewed all the excitement of the last several days, we realised the star of the show was still missing. The one bird you always expect to see out west. The bird that is famous worldwide. We hadn’t yet seen a Roadrunner!!!

Upon doing some quick research, we found a state park in Kerrville that might just yield us a Greater Roadrunner. To make a long story short, we spent the following morning looking for a Roadrunner without success. Just as we were beginning to despair, my dad suggested taking one last 5 minute spin around the road. No sooner had we started that 5 minute spin when… There it was! Greater Roadrunner!

Not quite where you would expect to see a roadrunner- in the woods!

We were happy- we had seen our Roadrunner. It was no time to head home.

Big Bend is a great park to visit, especially if you like birds!  I would highly recommend visiting it- just be warned, summer temperatures can get up to 49 degrees celsius. Though we barely scratched the surface of this great area, I’m already looking forward to going back-whenever that might be!

Postcards from Texas: Adventures in Big Bend (Part 1)

Posted by Matthew Sim

Great scenery, pristine skies, rugged wilderness, abundant wildlife, all of this found in Texas- add these all up and what do you get??? The answer- Big Bend National Park in west Texas.

Spanning a huge 801,163 acres, Big Bend is the 14th largest national park in the U.S. and covers 3 different environments; mountain, desert and river. This huge area  attracts about 350,000 visitors each year and is immensely popular, with spring break being the most popular time to visit the park. This year, my family and I went to find out why the park is as popular as it is.

We left Houston early in the morning in preparation for the 11 hour drive that lay ahead of us. For  a good 5 hours of the trip, we drove through heavy rain and saw no break in the clouds. Once we arrived at our campground however, about 20 miles out of the park, we stepped out of the car beneath cloudless skies and almost immediately saw several bird feeders. Right after we found the bird feeders, we found the birds. Suddenly, we were surrounded by at least a dozen birds; Cactus Wren! Curve-billed Thrasher! Black-throated Sparrow! Pyrrhuloxia! Ladder-backed Woodpecker! House Finch! White-winged Dove! The birds were everywhere!

Black-throated Sparrow; a common yet beautiful sparrow of the southwestern U.S.

A conspicuous looking (and sounding) wren of southwestern deserts, the Cactus Wren is also the largest species of wren

Pyrrhuloxia; a distinctive songbird related to the cardinal

We soon had to leave the feeders though to pitch our tent as darkness was settling fast over the desert. As we set up our tent underneath the setting sun, I couldn’t help but feel excited for what I might see in the morning.

The sun rises over the hills around our campground.

After spending a somewhat chilly night in our tent, beneath countless stars, we awoke to the beautiful sound of a singing Pyrrhuloxia, which bears a striking resemblance (both in looks and sound) to a Cardinal. We headed to the nearby bird feeders to see what was about, and nearly immediately ran into a huge surprise- a covey of 35 Scaled Quail, dashing here and there.

We continued birding around the feeders and a small water dish, finding a Sage Thrasher, a single Lark Bunting, a Rock Wren and a pair of Canyon Towhees.

Canyon Towhee; a small drab sparrow-like bird with a very bright cinnamon rump (just visible in this shot)

By late morning, we decided to head to the Chisos Basin, a small valley surrounded by mountains, to do a little hiking. While hiking down into a valley on the Window trail, we were happy to see White-throated Swift, Pygmy Nuthatch, Spotted Towhee and Mexican Jay. This national park was really starting to amaze us by the sheer beauty of it all, nature and scenery standing out above the rest. Upon finishing the hot hike, we made a quick decision to check out the Rio Grande Village after getting a tip that a Common Black-Hawk, a rare bird in the U.S. but one that has nested here for several years, might be hanging around.

Unfortunately, no hawk for us. We were treated to fantastic views of several species though; Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Bluebird, Brewer’s Sparrow and Marsh Wren, all while being merely 50 feet away from the border with Mexico (which, by the way, several Common Ravens flew across without any security checks!).

The absolutely gorgeous Vermilion Flycatcher.

After birding the Rio Grande Village, we brought an end to our fun-filled (and bird-filled) day and headed back to the campground beneath a beautiful setting sun. We were already looking forward to Day 2!

Part 2 of our Adventures in Big Bend coming up tomorrow!

Postcards from Texas: Galveston and Bolivar Flats

Posted by Matthew Sim

This past weekend, I took a trip out to Galveston, Texas, about an hour south of Houston on the gulf of Mexico. Galveston has many world-reknowned birding spots in and around it and is a great spot to observe birds year-round. This weekend was rainy and cool, but that didn’t stop the birds! On a short ferry ride to Bolivar peninsula, home of the famous Bolivar Flats shorebird sanctuary, we saw many birds, including both species of pelicans and Common Loons and Red-breasted Mergansers, the latter two which winter down here.

Brown Pelican

Upon arriving on Bolivar, we stopped at a small pond and got great looks at many birds, including an American Avocet in winter plumage (a little different than what I am used to seeing up at Frank Lake in Alberta in the summer!) and a Texas specialty; the very bright Roseate Spoonbill.

Roseate Spoonbill

From a distance, the spoonbill is gorgeous, and even from close up its amazing plumage is simply stunning, yet I found that its head was somewhat unnerving. Its face looks almost extraterrestrial, I find!

From the pond, we went to the Bolivar Flats shorebird Sanctuary where we saw some Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones and… All I could say to myself was, “What the heck are those little shorebirds?” Why did I ask myself this? Because these little guys ran and ran and ran. They did not quit running! I soon got closer and identified them as Sanderlings, which I had seen before, yet never acting quite as comical. Never had I seen a bird run so much!

Running Sanderling

Ruddy Turnstone

We birded Bolivar for a while longer before returning to the ferry and heading back to Galveston. On the ferry back, we were treated to views of 4 species of Gulls (Herring, Laughing, Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s) and 3 species of tern (Forster’s, Common and Royal).

Bonaparte's Gull

Royal Tern

Birds weren’t the only wildlife seen from the ferry however, as a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins made an appearance towards the end.

It was an exciting trip with close to 70 species seen; this excursion really got me excited for spring migration here, which is absolutely fantastic, from what I’ve heard!

Postcards from Texas: Vultures

When large metropolis’ coincide with wildlife and nature, there is invariably accidents. These accidents usually end up with nature coming out on the losing end. Nature sometimes benefits as well though. Sometimes, nature can adapt to the hustle and bustle of human living and actually benefit and thrive from this. Such is the way with vultures.

The other day, I was walking along a bayou here in Houston when I spotted a black clump in the grass not too far ahead.

This clump was a group of black vultures, 6 in total, with 9 more hanging around in the surrounding area. This meant that they must have found a dead animal and that they were feasting on it. This animal was roadkill, an unfortunate victim of our hustling and bustling. As mentioned before though, some creatures, such as vultures, benefit from this. The black vultures didn’t stick around very long and as soon as they saw me they flew away.

The black vulture does not have as good scent as the Turkey Vulture and tends, therefore, to follow Turkey vultures to carcasses where they proceed to drive the Turkey Vultures away from the meal. As soon as the Black Vultures saw me and flew away, the Turkey Vultures came in for their share.

When they came in, I started to creep closer and closer, not only for a better look, but also out of curiosity of what roadkill they were eating. While I moved somewhat stealthily closer, one vulture unfurled it’s wings and gave me good looks at it’s impressive 1.8 meter wingspan.

That wingspan is roughly 5 feet, 11 inches, which is well over half a foot taller than I am! I continued to crawl in closer until I was incredibly close.

I then found out what it was the vultures were eating…

And it was…

An opossum, as you might be able to tell by the foot in this photo. I feel bad for the poor guy… Some interesting bird behavior to see though, especially the hierarchy of vultures, where Black Vultures are not as skilled but are instead big bullies, chasing away Turkey Vultures from the food that the latter found.  I also took a photo in which I really saw why Turkey Vultures are called what they are

Doesn’t he just look like a turkey!?!


Posted by Matthew Sim