EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Cold and snowy January turns into bleak and bitterly cold February. The days may be getting longer and the birds are slipping into spring song, but the cold weather persists. So Danny and I head south to warm, sprawling Texas to travel along the Gulf Coast birding in a new and different territory.
And different it is. Refineries with their complicated routes of right angles edge the marshes; the occasional oil well, looking like a scrawny dinosaur pecking at the earth, dots the prairie; enormous plowed fields stretch out as far as the eye can see interrupted by a house here and a tree there; herds of black angus and other variety of beef cattle wander across their fenced-in landscape.
Roads are flat and straight. Hopeless to bird the highways, though, where the 75 mph limit is taken to mean 85 mph. We stick to the back roads whenever possible.
Conservationists and environmentalists know this territory and much of this coastal area has been reserved for the preserving the diverse plant and animal life. Wildlife refuges, state and town parks as well as areas set aside by private landowners checkerboard a swath along the Gulf to create the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.
We stop for groceries in Kountze and head to our cabin in the Big Thicket, the piney woods near the Louisiana border. We are greeted by Carolina chickadees and old faves: tufted titmice, chipping sparrows, cardinals, bluejays and goldfinches.
The Big Thicket is a forest of southern, loblolly and slash pines interspersed with holly, magnolia and beech trees with a great variety of shrubs and wildflowers under the canopy. Lakes and rivers run through the area. We find white pelicans and great and little blue herons, great and snowy egrets, snow and white-fronted geese. The only new bird from the area is the graceful, snake-headed anhinga, a life bird.
We sit out on the dock in the evening and watch the vultures (40 or so) come to roost in the leafless trees across the pond. Black vultures weasel their way onto nearby branches, but the turkey vultures, either singly or in pairs, hop over and harass them a bit before they all settle down. These birds may look big and awkward, but they are quite agile as they move from limb to limb.
A quick foray across the border to Cameron Prairie gives up our first roseate spoonbills, beautiful parfait pink and white, weird-beaked birds. We watch as they sweep their beaks back and forth across the water in search of a tasty treat.
A few days later we leave the woods and lakes and head to Beaumont. At the expansive Cattail Marsh, an artificial wetland created by Beaumont’s wastewater treatment facility, we find hundreds of coot and moorhen, green- and blue-winged teal, squadrons of shovelers. Egrets and herons, and white and white-faced ibises pad through the reeds and rushes. The grass is alive with meadowlarks and sparrows, mostly seaside, song and savannah.
The allegedly aggressive alligators start making an appearance around 3 p.m.: Here a sleepy-eyed, four-footer, there a lazy, seven-footer lying motionless in the shallow water. I think to myself, "I’ll ignore you, if you ignore me!" We amble a little more quickly towards the exit, but not before finding a pair of mottled ducks, akin to our black duck.
Soon we are cruising along the coast. The most common wire birds are red-tailed hawks, kestrels, loggerhead shrike and the ubiquitous mockingbird. Neotropic cormorants are almost dainty compared to the double-crested. Great-tailed grackles are everywhere craning their necks into the air as they drag that silly train of a tail along the ground.
A trio of crested caracara, a hawk in a class by itself with those slicked-back, head feathers, red face, and black-and-white body, leapfrog about in a bush at the side of the road. Little did we know that when we first saw these majestic birds that the further south we drove the more common they would become.
At the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge, a volunteer tells us of various sightings and where to look for what species. He directs us to the butterfly garden behind the pavilion for the vermillion flycatcher. Lo and behold, we walk about 20 steps and watch this beautiful, brilliant, red-and-black bird fly up from a treetop, snag an unsuspecting insect and land back in the same place. So unlike our drab gray, greenish flycatchers.
Seaside Galveston is quite attractive with its lengthy strip of new, stilted houses painted pastel colors. These houses with wrap-around porches face the water and hopefully are better built that their forerunners that washed away in one of those powerful hurricanes that swept across this sand barrier. Long-billed curlew pick and peck on the lawns tame as robins.
As the fog lifts we drive south past a field with hundreds and hundreds of sandhill cranes amassing for migration. Soon we are seeing white-tailed hawks which we learn quite quickly to distinguish from the caracara. We cruise into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and on the 16-mile driving trail, a considerate birder hand-signals for us to stop. There in the mighty phragmites are three bobbing heads of a family of whooping cranes! So wonderful when the birds cooperate -- so far we have ticked off 18 life birds!
Stay tuned for Part II.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.