When traveling to a new location it is always interesting to see what gull species is the local equivalent to our Ring-billed Gull. In the case of the Texas gulf coast, that is definitely the Laughing Gull. We found that a really great place to see hundreds at great distance is the ferry ride between the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston. Be sure to check the water as well as the skies if you take this 20 minute boat ride. Steve and I were able to spot a bottlenose dolphin or two during the crossing.
After hearing their vocalizations for quite a long period, we can say this species is quite aptly named!
In summer plumage, this is obviously one of the easier gulls to identify. Largest of the hooded gulls, with red bill, legs and feet, slate-colored back and black primaries.
Coastal bird photographers, particularly those who have access to areas highly trafficked by humans, have really got things easy. We were consistently surprised at how much luck we had getting close enough to our subjects – and this was with visiting these locations for the first time. I can’t imagine the fun to be had with some time, experience and practice.
The Black Skimmer just may be one of the perfect targets for the bird photographer. The species is colorful and contrasty, which is so nice for autofocus. This species is rather large. It prefers to spend time in groups that enable the photographer to capture interesting social behaviors. If you are lucky enough to be at the right time and place, the chicks are unbelievably cute. And, if that isn’t enough, they of course have their namesake feeding behavior that can be seen in the image at the top of this post.
Closely related to the gulls, auks and waders, the skimmers are in the small family – Rynchopidae (roughly translated to beak-faced).
If you inadvertently flush a group, don’t give up or chase. Skimmers have favorite resting places and will often settle to the same stretch from which they flushed.
This stunning and large buteo is often seen with the last Texas gulf coast bird featured, the White-tailed Kite. This was one of the birds that Steve and I got a big kick out of finding. Although common and abundant over much of its range in the Americas, the White-tailed Hawk can only be found along the Texas coast and the Rio Grande Valley within the United States. I was doubly fortunate to be able to find another perched in a tree in Fort Bend County when my New-Englander friend, Sam, and I came across it during a few precious hours birding following several hectic days on the job.
White-tailed Hawks are birds of the air. Pete Dunne (Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion) suggests that the species is most often spotted in the air. Steve and I first located a pair at San Bernard NWR on an island of trees within coastal prairie. I paid the price by taking a number of fire ant bites by wading through the prairie trying to get a bit closer. We watched as the pair eventual flushed and rose higher and higher on the coastal thermals, eventually rising to a height where they were almost invisible to the naked eye. Once spotted in the air, there is no mistaking this species with any other bird, with contrasting white body with black-edged wings and striped tail.
Of course, going to a new region for birding is great for finding those species that you have long-anticipated being able to see. In the Texas gulf coast region the Roseate Spoonbill, the Tri-colored Heron, the Crested Caracara and quite a few others can be fit into this category. I have done enough of this type of birding now to get just as excited by the surprises – finding the species I wasn’t expecting, or had not even heard of. The Bronzed Cowbird was one such species during our trip in May.
And the way we got to see this bird for the first time, by performing this hovering display for the ladies, was quite memorable. He kept this position – not moving his head from the chain-link section seen here for several seconds. Check out the bright red iris on these guys.
We also saw a few of the more common Brown-headed Cowbirds. It was nice seeing them in open habitat where they actually belonged and not reeking havoc in the fragmented forests back home.
I found two juvenile Zone-tailed Hawks on 10/08/16 at Brazos Bend State Park, just west of Houston, TX. I didn’t know until later how rare of a find that it was. Population estimates for the state of TX are around 50 breeding pairs. Also, this species is usually found further west in Texas – this was only the forth recorded observation at this location.
Steve and I are a couple of weeks back from a nice few days of birding the Texas Gulf Coast. We were able to visit a number of habitats and locations along the gulf and were mostly able to dodge the rains and flood waters.
Of course, we were able to pick up a good list of lifers as the number of specialists, such as this Boat-tailed Grackle, in this region was quite impressive.
Mostly a bird of the new world tropics, the Crested Caracara is considered to be common in Texas. We were able to find a few.
The Spoonbills were quite a treat. At the HAS Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary we were fortunate to visit at a time when the local rookery was in full swing. We observed active nests of not only the Spoonbills, but also of Great Egret, Snowy and Cattle Egret and Common Gallinule.
The Seaside Sparrow may have been my most exciting find of the trip. I have long wondered about this interesting sparrow that sticks to coastal habitats and sings its interesting song. There are currently nine recognized subspecies of the Seaside Sparrow – this one is likely Ammodramus maritimus fisheri. These birds are among the many that are threatened with destruction of habitat for human coastal development. The Houston metro area is a sprawling web of concrete and Steve and I couldn’t help but notice that natural areas were still being bulldozed and paved.
The Tri-colored Heron was yet another lifer for both Steve and me. This gorgeous bird was found with a lovely backdrop of wildflowers at San Bernard NWR, one of several locations that we could have gladly wasted a week in.
That is all that I have processed and am prepared to share for now. More to come. -OZB