Rarely do dates scheduled months in advance end up being the perfect date for spring weather and bird migration. We were fortunate on this trip for such coincidence to make for a great birding trip. We tallied 18 species of shorebird, 13 species of gulls and terns, Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, more than 50 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, three species of thrush, 200+ Gray Catbird, 12 species of warblers, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, 100+ Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo and Painted Buntings by the score, 100+ Baltimore Orioles and loads of Orchard Orioles as well. We ended the day with a party trip list of 117 species, almost all on the Quintana Island.
When large numbers of birds congregate during migration something novel is always observed. I have experienced these spring groundings since the 1960s and on this day I experienced some things new to me. The first was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo displaying on a rock above the water feature where birds were gathering to bathe. I could never see what was the purpose or direction of the display. The cuckoo, a rather shy species, that is usually cryptic among the leaves of shade trees, stood on a flat stone in full sunlight and displayed as I have never seen. It raised and fanned its tail and dropped its wings in a half open fashion displaying the beautiful rufous primaries. It persisted in this behavior for several minutes and several of our participants photographed the action. Unfortunately, no one thought of a video.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo displaying. Photo by BeaAnn Kelly. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds provided lots of photo ops. Photo by Bill Franklin.
Thrushes were low in number and required patience to see. They primarily stayed hidden on the ground and low limbs of the salt cedar out of sight. One member of our group managed to catch a Swainson’s Thrush in full sunlight when it ventured into the path. The buffy eye-ring and spectacles shows up even in the stark sunlight. The Gray-cheeked Thrush was in the one area that you can see under the salt cedars and it kept returning to this observable spot all afternoon. One photographer was lucky enough to capture its gray eye-ring, lores, and cheek.
Swainson’s Thrush in full sunlight. Photo by Flo King. Gray-cheeked Thrush in shadows. Photo by BeaAnn Kelly.
Catbirds were everywhere just as I remember them being so obvious many years ago. In fact they were all but a nuisance while looking for less common birds. They were in trees, under them, in brushy thickets and in open fields among the dewberries. How many you see tells you the magnitude of the grounding. I recall a few days in my life with likely 1000+ catbirds. It was good to see them everywhere I looked.
Catbird gives its distinctive meow note. Photo by BeaAnn Kelly. Summer Tanager with a wasp in its grasp. Photo by Sarah Kuzio.
The tanagers were also showing off their vivid colors and interesting behavior. Although both species were often found at Mulberry and dewberry plants they have interesting taste. They love bees and wasps. This quick photographer caught a tanager that had caught a wasp. Tanagers are one of the few avian predators of wasps. Notice how it has the business end of the wasp well subdued.
Flycatchers are less colorful but often pose well. They were in low numbers as they are late migrants, not appearing in good number or variety until May. An early Empidonax is the Acadian Flycatcher. This species breeds in Southeast Texas and is an April migrant as is the Eastern Wood-pewee that breeds as far south as East Texas. It too shows up in April.
Acadian Flycatcher. Photo by Bill Franklin. Eastern Wood pewee. Photo by Flo King.
The birds which seem to be the obsession of the more dedicated bird watcher are the warblers. Sometimes referred to as the butterflies of the bird world, these colorful small and active birds are the quarry many seek. This day provided some good opportunities to observe several species up close. While we never seem satisfied with whatever our number of warbler species observed is; we relish each encounter as though it was our first. This day allowed for some very up close and personal experiences with warblers. I even managed a presentable photo of one with my I-phone.
Black-throated Green Warbler. I-Phone photo by Fred Collins. Male Hooded Warbler. Photo by BeaAnn Kelly.
Magnolia Warbler. Photo by Kris Mikel. An atypical warbler, the Ovenbird. Photo by Jim Kelly.
A Black-and-white Warbler creeps down a tree. Photo by BeaAnn Kelly. A Warbling Vireo, not a warbler. Photo by Kris Mikel.
Vireos are slower moving warbler-like birds that are somberly colored. On this day Warbling Vireo was most common but White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos were also present. These birds often feed high in the trees so having them in the low salt cedars almost at eye level was a real treat.
Buntings were common and the gaudy male Painted Buntings stole the bunting show. A close second was the Indigo Bunting. Sometimes the buntings were so plentiful one thought they were seeing double.
Two Painted Buntings, both males. Photo by Kris Mikel. Male Indigo Bunting. Photo by Bill Franklin.
There were Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in all the fields and many of the trees, perhaps several hundred instead of one hundred. One bird was a rare mutant. This bird was lacking the gene that allows it to develop the red color leaving what should be red feathers a pale yellow. This bird is probably one in 10,000, a 100,000 or maybe only one in a 1,000,000, a very unusual bird for sure.
Two male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Photo by BeaAnn Kelly. A rare “Yellow-breasted” Grosbeak. Photo by Kris Mikel
The blackbird family was most prominent, but not just with black birds This family also includes orioles, black and orange birds that were very common all over the island. The females are shades of yellow and all active and fun to watch whatever they choose to do. In addition to these orioles there were Red-wing Blackbirds, Great-tailed Grackles and both Bronzed and Brown-headed Cowbirds. In adjacent fields were Eastern Meadowlarks. Including the Baltimore and Orchard Orioles there were seven members of the blackbird family at the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary.
Altogether you might say that both the birders and the birds cleaned up that day!
Orchard Oriole feeding on nectar and Baltimore Orioles and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak cleaning up. Photos by BeaAnn Kelly.
The Quintana jetty and Bryan beach lagoon provided additional variety to the grounded migrants, The senior group spent enough time at these spots to pad the list for the day. They found some colorful members of this otherwise somber group. The two rosy breasted birds among the gulls and terns are Franklin’s Gulls. These birds are migrating from Central and South America into the northern states and Canadian prairies where they nest. The Wilson’s Phalarope is unusual in the bird world where males are normally the colorful and brilliant plumaged member of the pair. In the case of phalaropes, it’s the female that sports the pretty plumage. These “hens-libbers” also let the males incubate the eggs and care for the young.
Flock of gulls and terns with two Franklin’s Gulls present. Photo by Sarah Kuzio. Female Wilson’s Phalarope. Photo by Kris Mikel.
A Pectoral Sandpiper along the roadside. Photo by BeaAnn Kelly. A group of American Acocet in a spoil lagoon. Photo by Jim Kelly.
By Fred Collins