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  • Writer's pictureKaren Hogan

Texas NWR Trip 2016

Updated: Oct 30, 2018

The National Wildlife Refuge Trip to Texas should have been delayed considering everything that happened before and during the trip but it is also the trip with some of my most favorite memories. We visited 9 National Wildlife Refuges along the coastal area of Texas and we added over 40 species of birds to our life list, could my expectations be too high?

Karen and Teresa, Santa Ana NWR, April 10, 2016

March of 2015

Sitting at a Common Redpoll Stakeout in Lexington Kentucky Teresa and I discussed a National Wildlife Refuge Trip to Texas. January or February would be winter waterfowl, March or April possible spring arrivals preparing for breeding and some possible late migratory birds. The homeowner residing at the Redpoll stakeout invited us into her house for a warmer view of her backyard feeders. Just coming back from a Texas Birding Trip she recommended late March or April. Our trip would be the gulf coast Refuges so we checked the bar charts on ebird for possible species during the spring. A visit to the Texas Gulf National Wildlife Refuges during the month of April could add 70 species of birds to our life list, we were both at 380. Excited we marked our calendars, April 2016, 2 weeks in Texas along the gulf coast, 9 refuges to visit and bird from Louisiana to the Mexico Border.


February-April 2016

Our trip to Texas, was almost canceled, our Mother’s health had been declining over the past 5 years but was exponentially declining since September 2015. My retirement after 25 years of working at UNC was scheduled for February 1, 2016, I planned to spend more time with my Children, Grandchildren, Husband, Mother and Teresa. Teresa and I planned to visit 25-50 refuges a year to reach our goal of 460 in the next 5-7 years. My first month of my retirement I would visit my Son in Connecticut and my Daughter in California. I would visit my Mom in Lexington for a few weeks during the month of March. I was celebrating my Son’s Birthday on February 12th in Connecticut when Teresa called to let me know the doctor recommended our Mother move to hospice care. I flew back to Chapel Hill and headed straight to Kentucky the next day. For the next 2 weeks Teresa and I were with our Mother 24/7, advocates for her care and helping with her transition. Teresa and I were exhausted and still reeling from our Mother’s death, may be postponing our Texas trip to another time would make more sense but then again birding in Texas might bring some relief from our grief.

We bought our plane tickets to Houston for April 9th, looked at the itinerary I had made months ago. We booked some hotel rooms for the first week of our time in Texas. I had made the reservations to participate in a Yellow Rail walk at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge with the Galveston Featherfest on Saturday April 16th.


Saturday April 9, 2016 Riverside Park in Wharton

Teresa flew from Lexington and I flew from Raleigh to the Houston Airport, both of us arrived at 10am. We picked up our rental car, deciding not to spend the extra money for a second driver, I would be the only driver for the next 2 weeks. As we headed to Harlingen a 5.5 hr drive from Houston, we immediately felt the need to bird, a quick look on ebird, a hotspot off highway 59 was identified, Riverside Park in Wharton, TX. After an hour of birding we headed to downtown Wharton to try some local food at Mexican Restaurant we had spotted earlier.

By the time we reached Harlingen it was dark, loud calls of the Great-tailed Grackles, a life bird for both of us, were audible even through our closed car windows. We stopped at the local Walmart for much needed supplies including, cute nightgowns, food for our lunches at the refuges and a cooler that would be left in our hotel room on our last night in Texas. We spent the night at the Hampton Inn in Harlingen, TX for our first night in Texas.


Sunday April 10, 2016 Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Our first Refuge visited in Texas was Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1943 with 2,088 acres, this Texas Refuge is patrolled by the US border patrol agents. The Refuge's border is the Rio Grande River that separates this US National Wildlife Refuge from Mexico. We pulled into the parking lot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge at 7 am where we met some folks beginning the last day of the Hawk Watch for the area. They invited us to join them but we knew it would prevent us from birding all the trails at the refuge so we reluctantly declined the invitation. We walked the Pintail Trail, Willow Lake Trail and visited the tower area.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Roseate Spoonbills flying overhead at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

We also rode the tram along wildlife drive with the refuge volunteers as our guide. The refuge staff recommended the La Sal del Rey tract for birding at the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. We had lunch with several Plain Chachalaca at the Visitor Center Picnic tables. Of course we never feed wildlife even in a picnic area.

Plain Chacahalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

We saw large flocks of Kites and Turkey Vultures circling over the refuge at dusk. As we toured by tram and hiked the 12 miles of trails at this refuge we met other birders that helped with IDs of the many hawks we saw overhead, including Harris, White-tailed and Gray Hawks.

Harris's Hawk at Santa National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is known as the ‘jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System’ because this refuge is positioned at the junction of two major migratory routes for many species of birds. The position of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is also the most northern point for migrating birds whose range extends into Central and South America. After 12 hours of birding at this Texas Refuge, Teresa and I had added 18 species to our bird life list.

Black-crested Titmouse, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Cattle Egret and Great-tailed Grackle at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Black-bellied Whistling Duck at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

White-winged Dove, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Yellow-crowned Night Heron at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Olive Sparrow at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Lizard at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Butterfly at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, April 10, 2016

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge was the perfect refuge for our first good look at the diversity of habitats found in Texas and our first look at the Rio Grande River separating the United States and Mexico.

As the sun went down we headed to our hotel in Harlingen glad to be staying at the same hotel for 3 more nights. For dinner we had our first burgers and lemon pies from Whataburger, yum!


Monday April 11, 2016 Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Birding Center

Monday morning we headed to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1946, this refuge manages 97,000 acres. We visited the Visitor Center where we got excellent recommendations for where to bird at this National Wildlife Refuge. The conditions were hazy with an overcast sky, we spent time birding at the Osprey overlook and walked to Gator Pond Trail where we got some great looks at Green Heron, shorebirds and a Northern Waterthrush.

Green Heron at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Northern Waterthrush at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

We hiked the trails around visitor center including spending time at the bird feeder areas for some great looks at Altamira Orioles and Olive Sparrows, 2 life birds for us. Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge has more recorded species of birds than any other refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System. This refuge is home to one of the largest populations of ocelot, listed as an endangered species.

Altamira Oriole at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Green Jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Golden-fronted Woodpecker at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Great-tailed Grackle at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Great Kissadee at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Olive Sparrow at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Ground Squirrel at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Bobcat at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, April 11, 2016

Loggerhead Shrike at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife April 11, 2016

Loggerhead Shrike at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife April 11, 2016

Teresa had been studying the birding hotspot map we had picked up at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. With so many birding hotspots in Texas it was tempting, we got distracted from our National Wildlife Refuge quest and decided to venture to a some of the hotspots especially those reporting rare birds on the ABA and ebird email post. We headed to South Padre Birding Center and the Laguna Madre Trail at the South Padre Convention Center. It was great to see so many folks including non-birders walking around the boardwalks and trails at these dedicated areas for birds.

Monday night we spent the night at the Hampton Inn in Harlingen but before we headed back to the hotel we stopped at El Pato Mexican Fast food restaurant. We bought enchiladas with chili con carne and for dessert some flan and Tres Leches. So good!


Tuesday April 12, 2016 Salineno Wildlife Preserve, Wildbird Center in Roma Bluffs and Tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge


Salineno Wildlife Preserve

As always Teresa was following the rare bird alerts and thought we should pursue the White Collared Seed Eater located in Salineno Wildlife Preserve. We were not sure exactly where to park or where to hike. We walked toward the Rio Grande River, where the road ended and it looked like there was a trail to the right and to the left there was a chained gated area with a refuge sign. From the rare bird alert directions posted online we headed to the right along a well worn trail but it didn’t feel right. Suddenly we saw a Kingfisher, probably a Green Kingfisher but without a photo or a better look we didn’t want to add this life bird to our list. Just as we saw a large number of swallows about ¼ mile away a gentleman passed us on the trail. Teresa took off after him, she thought he looked like he would know the location of the seedeater. I did not follow. I wondered how long she would be gone and with no cell phone service how I would find her if she did not come back in a timely manner. I walked back down the trail toward where our car was parked. I tried to look at the areas that might have the seedeater. I was mildly frustrated but as I waited for her return my frustration increased. We would need to agree to sticking together especially in an unmarked area. Teresa finally returned, as we headed back to the car, we saw some small sparrow like birds flying next to the river in some bushes, the seedeaters.

White-collared Seedeater at Salineno Wildlife Preserve, April 12, 2016

We got great looks as the birds moved from the grasses, bushes and the trees. The White Collared Seedeater is rare but found in the southern area of Texas but mainly spends it’s time in Mexico and Central America. We must have tripped a border patrol sensor while searching for the seedeater because a border patrol car drove down the trail to check on the hikers, me and Teresa, in the area. We also looked for the Red-billed Pigeon reported in this area, a native of Mexico and Central America, it also visits the most southern part of Texas. We decided to continue to look for the Red-billed Pigeon and thought we might find them in town and to our delight we saw a Cemetery: Cemeteries Catolico De Salineno a possible place for birds, especially pigeons. As we drove along the cemetery's gravel road we listened to unfamiliar bird calls. As it began to rain we saw a large bird on top of the tomb stone, maybe a thrush but after a couple more looks we realized it was a Cactus Wren a life bird for both of us.


Wildbird Center in Roma Bluffs

Our next stop would be the Wildbird Center in Roma Bluffs. We arrived around 11 am and checked out the view of the Rio Grande River and the Mexican border where we saw a large number of Cliff Swallows. As we watched the Cliff Swallows land in the mud on the Mexico side then fly over the Rio Grande River we questioned and then finally added the 38 birds we counted to our ebird checklist.

Roma Bluffs and Rio Grande River, April 12, 2016

We walked to the town square where we had lunch and observed 30 buteos suddenly appear, circling over the square possibly from the weather front moving in which caused the cloud ceiling to drop. After lunch we decided it was time to visit the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge La Puerta and Yturria BrushTracts.


Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, La Puerta and Yturria Brush Tracts

We saw a couple of tracts that were identified on ebird as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, including Rio Grande City-Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge La Puerta Tract and the Yturria Tract. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1979 and follows the Rio Grande along the last 275 river miles and is considered one of the most biodiverse National Wildlife Refuges. This refuge has 40,000 acres including the beaches and dune system of Boca Chica to the thorn scrub desert of Starr County. As we hiked the trails at Rio Grande City-Lower Rio Grande Valley-La Puerta and Yturria tracts we were delighted to see our first look of a Verdin, even had to check the field guide for the ID of this little yellow headed bird.


Verdin at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge Yturria Brush Tract, April 12, 2016

We had both seen roadrunners in Arizona but this would be the first time we would list our Greater Roadrunner sightings on ebird and another species for our Texas list.

Greater Roadrunner at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge Yturria Brush Tract, April 12, 2016

Hiking Trail at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge at Yturria Brush Tract, April 12, 2016

Hiking Trail at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge at Yturria Brush Tract, April 12, 2016

Karen and Teresa at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge at Yturria Brush Tract, April 12, 2016


Anzalduas Park

Another good birding hotspot listed on the birding map was Anzalduas Park and Teresa’s friend had recommended looking for burrowing owls in a rocky area next to a bridge just outside of the park. We left the park just as it closed at 5 pm and staked out the only rock area we could fine close to a bridge. Were we in the right location? No owl sightings but we did see several hawks.


Wednesday April 13, 2016 Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge Boca Chica

One more day in this area we decided not to bird at the suggested area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge designed as the La Sal del Rey tract recommended by the folks at the Visitor Center at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Hoping for shorebirds and waterfowl we loaded up our car with our belonging and headed to highway 4, the Boca Chica area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, it looked like we could bird the marshy area along highway 4 and at the beach where highway 4 ends at the Gulf of Mexico. As we drove down highway 4 we had to pass a border patrol check station, from the map it looked like parts of highway 4 are just a mile from the US and Mexico border. The misty rain continued but didn’t keep us from getting some great looks of a group of Yellowlegs feeding in the mudflat area along highway 4.


Yellowlegs at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, along highway 4, April 13, 2016

We drove to the beach at the end of highway 4, with only a few gulls and no shorebirds, we decided to head back inland. Once again looking at the Texas birding trail map it had designed a birding drive along a fishing access road right off of highway 4. The road was on either side of highway 4 going north and south and was labeled Kingston Rd. As we started south on Kingston Rd we realized the road might take us to the US and Mexico border. The bushes along the road had grown up so much the road was impassable, we turned around and headed back to highway 4. We crossed highway 4 and decided to drive north on this fishing access road. We were thrilled to be the only car birding, on a back road, with varied habitat, allowing good looks at many birds including 2 life birds, Cassin’s Sparrow and Curve-billed Thrasher.


Cassin's Sparrow at Boca Chica-Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge Arpil 13, 2016

We enjoyed the many hawks along the road including one sitting on top of a National Wildlife Refuge sign eating a meal of freshly caught mammal.

Hawk eating lunch on NWR sign at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, April 13, 2016

Crested Caracara at Boca Chica-Lower Rio Grand Valley National Wildlife Refuge, April 13, 2016

Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge-Boca Chica, April 13, 2016

After the quick stop to ID some shorebirds and ducks in a distance marshy area, I was surprised to discover touching the gas pedal resulted in a clunk sensation as the wheels swerved the car sideways. I touched the gas pedal lightly a couple more times but the wheels refused to move the car forward. I felt panicked, had I broken the axle, why were the wheels sliding and if felt like they were no longer turning. The dirt road, wet from the light rain had turned into a sticky mud with a consistency of wet cement or a thick pudding. This wet mud was sticking to our tires, filling the rear wheel wells so the tires could not turn and preventing the front tires from having adequate traction. As Teresa gave me directions on how to drive on the slick road we decided she should drive since she had more experience driving on adverse road conditions, we switched places. With her behind the wheel I got on the phone with my roadside service but after an hour of promises of help, the final verdict, my membership didn’t cover towing on a dirt road, I would have to call the state police or find a tow truck company that would drive on a damp Texas dirt road, known as “Texas quicksand”.

After talking to several tow truck drivers one finally agreed to come in 5-6 hours for a price of $500, it required a special truck to drive back on this road and tow a vehicle out without getting stuck himself, I doubted he would come. Concerned we might be spending the night in our car in the isolated area and determined we would not be a news story by calling the state police we focused our problem solving abilities to address this unexpected challenge.

The car refused to move forward in drive, with much frustration we managed to turn the SUV around, with the SUV in reverse my sister nursed the gas pedal, rocking the car forward and back until the wheels caught and moved the car about 15 ft toward the main highway but then she had to put the car in drive and move 7 ft away from the main highway, great we had 4 miles to go. The road was crowned preventing us from staying in flat middle part of the road, it was painful to feel the car move into deeply rutted edges filled with the sticky mud that acted as a trap to the SUV tires. When the car didn’t inch forward at all we would get out of the car to scrape off the thick caked mud sticking to the rear tires and scrape out the mud filled rear wheel wells. When the front tires had nothing to grip we put our pants under the tires for traction. Each time we got out of the car we had to scrape 5-6 inch cakes of mud from our shoes, then arms and hands, a labor intensive process. It was humid outside, we had the windows down which allowed the sticky mud balls that flew up from our tires to be slung into the car windows. There was large balls of mud in the luggage compartment and the backseat that after drying would eventually turn into hard cement balls.

Swerving down the road at Boco Chica-Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, April 13, 2016

Slipping on sticky mud Boca Chica-Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, April 13, 2016

I wanted the tow truck driver to show up because I was worried we would damage the rental car, something Teresa didn’t even seem to consider. I felt frustrated because the rental was in my name and we had not added her name because of the expense. Of course we would share the cost of the repair but the car was in my name, I felt incredibly responsible for the rental, I would not want to damage even a rental car.

As we worked together, I saw the determination on Teresa’s face, she was not going to give up. Such slow progress, we were exhausted and hungry, we did not stop to rest or eat, we no longer noticed the beautiful scenery or birds, opportunities we would later regret. I felt conflicted as I started to hoped the tow truck wouldn’t show up, as time passed and we inched in reverse toward highway 4, I knew the accomplishment of getting off the road without help meant everything to both of us. We each had our roles, she drove the car I jumped out of the car to move the pants and scrape mud. As we got about a mile from the main road, the road must have dried out some because we were able to turn the car around and drive the last mile very slowly but without the extreme effort we had done the last 3 miles. We did it, our 4.5 hour ordeal was over, we did it all by ourselves. I made the call to let the tow truck driver know we didn’t need his help. He was surprised, what happened, how did you get out? He seemed shocked we had be able to do it ourselves. But our problems were not over. The car vibrated and shook violently as we reached higher speeds. We stopped at border patrol as we exited highway 4. The 2 border patrol officers on duty appreciated our story about our 4.5 hrs adventure stuck in the mud. We asked had we made a mistake to drive down the fishing access road, they said it was common for folks to be on the road but usually on weekends when there would be folks available to tow you out for a 6 pack of beer. Of course most folks visiting the road would also try to leave before the rain turned the road into wet cement and even the best 4 wheel drive vehicles with off road tires could get stuck on this road in the right conditions. We appreciated the validating words spoken by the border patrol folks about using the fishing access road but now we had doubts about the rest of our trip. The car was still driving poorly at speed above 50 miles an hour. We stopped in Brownsville, exhausted we paid a couple of folks at the self service car wash to remove the first layer of mud from our car. This was only the first of number of car washes the car would undergo over the next week and a half. Concerned we had damaged the suspension and might need to take the car to a mechanic in Brownsville the next day we canceled our hotel in Rockport. A Brownsville Mechanic told me by phone the tires were probably full of mud. We stopped twice on the road and crawled under the car to scrape mud from inside the wheels, that seemed to do the trick but it was late and we decided to get a hotel nearby, we found one on South Padre Island. After making the reservation at the hotel online we had a few minutes of daylight and once again we couldn’t waste precious daylight, we stopped at a fishing area called Bahia Grande Brownsville Ship Channel Canal Area to check out the many birds wading in the large pond with the fishermen. We arrived at the hotel after dark, we tracked mud across the waxed floor but the folks at the front desk were so understanding, they allowed us to use the hose at the back of the hotel to rinse the mud from the car and our other belongings that had become mud caked.


Thursday April 14, 2016 Frontera Audubon Center and Estero Llano Grande State Park

Teresa had seen a couple more birding hotspots on the birding hotspot map and she had some rare bird alerts for the hotspots including a Blue Bunting at Frontera Audubon Center and a Common Pauraque at Estero Llano Grande State Park. It was decided instead of heading north to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge we would stay in this south eastern corner of Texas to look for some rare birds and visit some great birding hotspots located in this area. At Frontera Audubon Center we got great looks of the female Black-headed Grosbeak but after 5 hours no Blue Bunting. We drove to the Estero Llano Grande State Park to look for the Common Pauraque. The great location descriptions from fellow birders lead us to the exact location of the Common Pauraque. As we birded at this park Teresa did not seem to be herself. She was stopping to sleep on benches and missed seeing some of the hawks flying overhead. She also did not seem interested in the large numbers of shorebirds wading in the large ponds and marshy areas. We both enjoyed watching the 2 Black-necked Stilts nesting in the water about 50 feet from the deck at the visitor center. After leaving the park we had a long drive, 3.5 hrs, 223 miles to Victoria. We would spend the night Victoria still 60 miles from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 1.5 hr drive Friday morning.


Friday April 15, 2016 Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

It was a later than usual start, arriving at 11:30 am at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, we were both exhausted and Teresa was struggling, she was now battling a full blown upper respiratory infection. I knew Teresa was feeling sick because she kept falling asleep as we were driving the 16 mile Auto Tour Loop, it was noon, not the best time to see birds but it was a great look of the Texas Savannah habitat. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 and is comprised of over 114,657 acres. The main unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge sits on the Blackjack peninsula, surrounded by several bays and protected by the long chain of barrier islands called Matagorda Island. The Matagorda Island is a unit of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Habitats at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge include marshland, oak savannahs, low sandy prairies, and oak woodlands.

We spent most of our time at the Jones Lake Overlook where we saw many shorebirds including some that were just out of the range of our spotting scopes for identification.

Jones Lake Overlook at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, April 15, 2016

Yellowlegs at Jones Lake Overlook at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge April 15, 2016

Stilt Sandpiper at Jones Lake Overlook at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, April 15, 2016

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs at Jones Lake Overlookat Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, April 15, 2016

Blue-winged Teal and Black-Bellied Whistling Duck at Jones Lake Overlook at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, April 15, 2015

Blue-winged Teal at Jones Lake Overlook at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, April 15, 2016

We stopped at the observation tower where Whooping Cranes had been observed a few days before. We saw wading birds in the distance visible only with our spotting scopes.

Observation Tower at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Tower, April 15, 2016

View from Observation Tower at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, April 15, 2016

In 1941, Whooping Cranes were down to only 15 birds in the wild, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge became the focal point to rescue this species from extinction. We were so excited to be at the refuge that continues to serves an important role in the conservation and recovery of the Whooping Cranes. Many Whooping Cranes winter at the Matagorda Island Unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge from November through mid March. The Barrier Island of Matagorda Island stretches along 38 miles of the coast of Texas with 56,683 acres. We would return to this amazing refuge during the winter months and schedule a boat trip with the local tour groups for viewing the Whooping Cranes.

Our Yellow Rail walk was schedule for the next day. We had a long drive to Galveston 180 miles, 4 hrs. Arriving in Galveston after dark, we found online a hotel close to the Galveston ferry. A fast food meal from McDonald’s and Whataburger Lemon pies. We would be meeting at the Galveston Featherfest Center the next morning at 5:30 am.


Saturday April 16, 2016 Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Today we would visit Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, this 37,000 acres refuge was established in 1963. The meandering bayous of this refuge cut through ancient flood plains, creating vast expanses of coastal marsh and prairie bordering Galveston Bay in southeast Texas. Concerned, Teresa had coughed all night, it was going to to be a rough birding day. We headed to the Galveston Featherfest Headquarters on Broadway, just 10 minutes from our hotel and the ferry. We met with our group at 5:30 am. We would be participating in a Yellow Rail walk and birding at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge until 3:30 pm. Teresa was feeling terrible, we should have driven our own car to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, we could have left the group after the Yellow Rail walk. Teresa would have been much more comfortable coughing in the privacy of our car instead of the bus with 20 other occupants. Our fist stop at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge was at the Texas Chenier Plain Refuge Complex Visitor Center with gifts, information and maps about Texas Point, McFaddin and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuges. The refuge staff leading the Yellow Rail walk gave us an introduction to the refuge and the instruction for the rail walk. The walk was advertised so our group of 20 was joined by another 30 more participants. When we arrived at rail walk location, we lined up as instructed and held onto part of the long rope with the attached empty plastic 1 gallon milk jugs. The plan for a rail walk is the participants walk in line holding the rope close to the grass allowing that milk jugs to drag through the marsh grasses, hopefully flushing the rails. We flushed many Seaside Sparrows and got several looks at the Yellow Rails. Only five feet tall I should have watched from the road because I would have had a better chance of seeing the rail once it was flushed. I spent so much time looking down, the grass was difficult to walk through, the tall bulky clumps of marsh grass, in the ankle deep water, made walking quickly with the other much taller participants almost impossible. I tripped many times as my foot would step awkwardly on the large clumps, throwing me off balance, I used all my effort just to stay upright and abandoned my post along the milk jug laden rope. Wearing chest or hip waders was absolutely necessary to reduce the risk of getting soaking wet.

Yellow Rail walk at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, April 16, 2016

We also heard a Black Rail in the marsh grass along the road and the group spent some time trying to flush the bird, without success.

Our fantastic leader, David Sarkozi made sure each of us got a good look of the many species of birds and other wildlife at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Cattle Egret at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, April 16, 2016

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, April 16, 2016

Headed back to Galveston we made a quick stop at Rollover Pass along highway 87 for some good looks at Clapper Rails wandering in the marshy area. We also saw Plovers, Avocets and terns resting along the sandbar.

As always, Teresa and I can never get enough time birding, it was early evening as we left the Galveston Featherfest Headquarters, we checked ebird for hotspots, we decided to spend the last daylight hour birding in the Galveston area. It would be almost dark if we waited to bird after we crossed the ferry to Port Bolivar and there didn't seem to be a lot of food options until we reached the Winnie area. We would be staying in Winnie for the next couple of nights. Winnie was 52 miles away, it would be a 1.5 hr drive including the ferry ride. It would definitely be late and dark by the time we arrived at our hotel in Winnie. We decided to bird while there was still daylight at the Apffel Park/East beach in Galveston before crossing over the ferry to Port Bolivar. It was a great decision because we got some amazing looks at resting Black Skimmers, terns and gulls.

As it got dark we stopped for dinner at Wendy’s in the Galveston area before our ride on the ferry to Port Bolivar. By the time we arrived in Winnie, we were exhausted, stopping at the gas station for some cough medicine for Teresa before heading to our hotel. We would soon learn that Winnie is the prefect resting area for the many birders who frequent all the hotspots in this coastal area of Texas.


Sunday April 17, 2016 High Island, Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

When planning our trip to Texas we decided to spend time birding at High Island, a unique area that provides a perfect stop over point for migratory birds in the spring. Millions of birds winter in Central and South America, in the spring these birds fly over the Gulf of Mexico, 600 miles, back to North America to find breeding and nesting territories. High Island is named for the large salt dome that raises the area to 38 feet above the surrounding marshes and provides soil conditions favorable to shrubs and trees. Houston Audubon Society manages 4 sanctuaries at High Island including Boy Scout Woods, Smith Oaks, Eubanks Woods and S. E. Gast Red Bay Sanctuary.

Teresa and I discovered in the movie “The Big Year” that hundreds of birders descend on the area named High Island during the condition called “fallout” and sometimes see over 100 bird species in one day. Fallout occurs when strong, turbulent north winds and rain slow migrating birds moving across the Gulf of Mexico. When the birds are forced to slow down they use up their reserves so they are forced to seek shelter and food as soon as they reach the Texas coast instead of making it farther inland. Fallout usually happens the last week of April but could happen at anytime during migration. Migration last from March-May. Our trip to Texas was for the second and third week of April. With high expectations we arrived at High Island Boy Scout Woods at 9 am, a very late start for us. We saw several species of Warblers but there were probably more people than there were birds. We moved to the High Island Smith Oaks Sanctuary, where hundreds of Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Roseate Spoonbill and Neotropic Cormorants were nesting in the rookery. It was amazing to watch the many stages of breeding and nesting of these wading birds. The Sanctuaries set up was great with viewing platforms right across from the nesting birds.

We headed back to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, we drove the wildlife drives and visited the area where we had participated in the Yellow Rail walk. Folks had listed the Seaside Sparrow on the checklist yesterday during the Yellow Rail walk. The Sparrows were chipping and flying up from the marsh grass during our rail walk but Teresa and I never really got on the sparrows as we were too focused on the Yellow Rail and not falling down. We both wanted a good look before we listed this life bird on our ebird checklist. During this visit we were still unable to list Seaside Sparrow, unfamiliar with the call of this species and still needing a good look before we would post. We were happy to get some good looks of the Fulvous Whistling Duck, a new species we listed this Texas trip.

Always checking the weather when we are birding we couldn’t help but be concerned about the forecast for Monday, heavy rain that would result in flooding in this coastal area of Texas. We knew Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge had been flooded before, we decided we would make the decision the next morning. Before heading to the hotel Teresa made a quick stop at the Winnie gas station for some cough medicine and I ran into Whataburger for a burger and some yummy lemon pie. I had no idea Teresa had already downed several bottles of cough medicine during the past 2 days, there was a pile of empty bottles behind her seat, no wonder she seemed out of it and spent a great deal of time sleeping in the car.


Monday April 18, 2016 Rain and Rest

The forecast was correct, heavy rain in the area was causing flooding, especially in Houston. We headed down to the lobby first thing to see if any other birders were having breakfast at the hotel, and might have an opinion about the weather forecast. Many birders had gathered in the lobby for breakfast discussing the heavy rain/flooding forecast but there was no consensus about birding this day. Teresa and I decided a day of rest was in order for us. During this down day we studied our ebird list, realizing Kenn Kaufman had spent the day birding in the area even with the heavy rain/flooding. We ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut for dinner and had lunch at the local Barbecue Place.

We spent several hours in the Winnie self service car wash vacuuming and washing the car, scooping out large wet pudding like mud from every area under the car. We prevented the huge piles of mud falling off our car from going down the drain at the car wash and instead scooped it up and put it in the trash cans. We spent over a $100 on car cleaning supplies including the self service vacuum and spray hose wash time. We were excited that we were able to get our hotel room for one more night at this birder's hotel in Winnie. Teresa was feeling better, our day of rest helped we would be ready tomorrow to bird. We would definitely drive to Port Arthur tomorrow night so we could bird at Texas Point and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuges on Wednesday.


Tuesday April 19, 2016 High Island Boy Scouts Woods and Smith Oaks, Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

We wondered would the heavy rain on Monday result in fallout at High Island? Once again with high expectations we visited Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks. We were pleased to see 9 species of warblers at Boy Scout Woods and 5 species of warblers at Smith Oaks. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the fantastic views of the nesting Egrets and mating displays of the Roseate Spoonbills. We talked to several folks at High Island, recommending the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. Bolivar Flats is is composed of salt marsh, mud flats and beach. Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary has been given the designation as a “Globally Important Bird Area”. By late afternoon we drove down Rettilon Rd to the Bolivar Flats beach. Right as you drive onto the beach there are several ponds along the beach and I was lucky to see 50 Wilson’s Phalarope stop over for just a few minutes before taking off. I also got my first look at a Gull-billed Tern along Rettilon Rd. Concerned about getting stuck in the sand we did not drive down to the entrance of the restricted area of the Shorebird Sanctuary of Bolivar Flats.

We headed to Port Arthur to our hotel for the night so we would be ready for the 2 National Wildlife Refuge in the most northern gulf coastal area of Texas.


Wednesday April 20, 2016 Texas Point, McFaddin National Wildlife Refuges and Sabine Wood, Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge

We arrived at Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge at 8:30 am. Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1979 and protects 8,972 acres of coastal marsh habitat. We stopped at the Texas Point Refuge Headquarters-business center for Texas Point and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuges and talked to the staff about the best ways to visit these 2 refuges. We walked the ¼ mile trail and part of the 1 mile primitive trail at Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge.

Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge, April 20, 2016

Summer Tanager at Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge, April 20, 2016

We saw 27 species of birds including Grosbeaks, Tanagers, Orioles and hummingbirds.


McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge

It began to rain as we entered the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge. McFaddin NWR was established in 1980 and has 58,861 acres. This Refuges has the largest remaining freshwater marsh along the Texas coast and has thousands of acres of brackish marsh. We were very excited to get some great looks of a couple of Common Nighthawks resting on the fence rails even in the heavy rain.

Common Nighthawk at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, April 20, 2016

Crested Caracara at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, April 20, 2016

We saw over 27 species of birds including the Crested Caracara a new species for us this Texas Trip. The refuge has 5 miles of interior roads for birding and other outdoor activities. We were unable to drive the complete 5 miles because the road was flooded.

Water covered road at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

We stopped at the McFaddin beach, part of the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge. We identified 5 species of tern and saw 22 species of birds total. We headed to Sabine Woods.

Birds at McFaddin Beach at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, April 20, 2016

Western Tanager Stakeout in Mulberry Tree

Another birding hotspot that we had added to this National Wildlife Refuge trip was Sabine Woods, a Texas Ornithological Society bird sanctuary. Sabine Woods is located along a chenier ridge with ponds, large oaks, mulberry trees and thick undergrowth. We had just entered Sabine Woods as a light rain began to fall, the sky was very overcast and looked like we might be in for a thunderstorm. Several birders mentioned a Western Tanager was reported in some Mulberry trees along the fence row across from the entrance of McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge. We followed several cars down to that area. As we arrived at Mulberry trees it began to rain and lightning. Teresa and I are both afraid of lightning, I couldn’t believe Teresa was willing to stand out with these other birders looking for the rare visitor. I was very tired and stayed in the car, after a 30 minute nap Teresa came to the car window, why was I sleeping, she didn’t want me to miss out on this opportunity to see the Western Tanager.

Western Tanager, Road to McFaddin National Wildlife, April 20, 2016

I got out of the car, pleased because I got great looks at several species of birds, including Orchard Orioles, Baltimore Orioles, Summer Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the Western Tanager that were munching on the ripe Mulberries.


Sabine Woods

It was late afternoon as we headed back to Sabine Woods where many other birders were on the lookout for the many species of birds that visit this area, we saw common nighthawks and 9 species of warblers. It had been a great birding day but we needed to plan carefully our last 3 days in Texas as it felt like our trip to the National Wildlife Refuges of this coastal area of Texas was quickly coming to an end. We would head down to Lake Jackson, a town between the 2 refuges we would visit on Thursday, Brazoria and San Bernard National Wildlife Refuges. Lake Jackson was 160 miles away, a 3 hours drive, it was too bad we could not have visited these 2 refuges as we had driven up the coast just a week ago. When we arrived in Houston 12 days ago and we had driven to the southern most point of the Texas coast to begin our birding trip. As we moved up the coast birding at the coastal refuges we had to skip these 2 refuges in order to participate last Saturday in the Yellow Rail walk at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Back tracking was necessary if we wanted to get a visit in to these 2 refuges, we headed to Lake Jackson. This was noted for our future travel plans minimize driving for more daylight hours of birding and more night time hours for resting.


Thursday April 21, 2016 Brazoria and San Bernard National Wildlife Refuges

We arrived early in the morning at the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters and Discovery Center. The Center was closed but we were able to walk the 0.6 mile Big Slough Trail behind the center. The sky was overcast and rain was forecast for the day so we were happy to finish the walk before the rain began. Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1966 with 44,413 acres and is part of the Texas Mid-coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge habitats include salt marshes, freshwater marshes, sloughs, ponds, woody thickets and coastal prairies. Getting back in the car we drove down the Salt Lake Fishing Area for some looks at shorebirds and terns.

Sedge Wren at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

Rogers Pond at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

We started down the 7.5 mile Big Slough Auto Tour and stopped at the back section where Teresa fell asleep on the wooden deck. As Teresa slept the skies became dark with heavy black clouds, I woke her up just in time to jump in the car as rain dumped from the sky.

Teresa at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

Teresa and Karen at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

We finished the second half of the auto tour in heavy rain but with some good looks of several hawks.

Swainson's Hawk at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

White-tailed Hawk at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge

As we headed to San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge we decided to stop at the Complex Office. The Texas Mid-coast Complex Office is located along FM 2611 and provides information about San Bernard, Brazoria and Big Boggy National Wildlife Refuges.

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1969 and has 54,000 acres. The business of San Bernard Refuge is conducted at the field office located off of County Rd 306. At San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, we drove the 9.5 mile auto drive during a heavy rain shower.

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

Bobcat Woods Trail at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

When the rain stopped we walked part of the 1.5 mile Bobcat Woods Trail along the Cocklebur Slough. The San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge habitat includes bottomland forest, fresh water ponds, salt marshes and is a vital corridor for migrating and wintering birds.

Great-tailed Grackle at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

Hawk at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

Loggerhead Shrike at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, April 21, 2016

San Bernard, Brazoria, and Big Boggy National Wildlife Refuges are designated Internationally Significant Shorebird Sites by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

As it got dark we drove back to our hotel in Lake Jackson.


Friday April 22, 2016 Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge and Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

We headed to the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge field Office located five miles northeast of the intersection of FM 523 and FM 2004 on FM 2004 hoping to get our Blue Goose stamp but found the office closed. As we drove down the Peltier Rd (208) we saw the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge Mottled Duck Marsh, we stayed there for some good looks of several species of birds including Reddish Egrets and Hudsonian Godwits flying overhead.

Hudonsonian Godwit at Mottled Duck Marsh, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, 4-22-16

Crested Caracara at Mottled Duck Marsh, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, 4-22-16

We decided to head back to the Salt Lake area of Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge to look for shorebirds in the marshes along the road and at the Salt Lake. We were pleased to get some good looks and photo opportunities of some Hudsonian Godwits, Forster’s Terns and Whimbrels.


Forster's Tern at Salt Lake, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, 4-22-16

It was late morning as we discussed where we should bird our last day in Texas, we needed to spend the night in a Houston hotel Saturday night to be ready for our early Sunday morning flights home. We needed more time to bird the Texas Coastal area but with only one day left it made sense to head back to the birder friendly hotel in Winnie where we felt at home. We would spend the day Saturday at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, High Island and Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary hoping for "fallout" and opportunities to study shorebirds.

As always driving during the daylight hours is very painful as it is time missed birding. We checked ebird for a hotspot on Galveston Island and stopped at Galveston-Laffitte's Cover Nature Preserve for about an hour of birding. Teresa suggested we get some quick food in the gas station food mart. I decided on a chili hot dog. The chili was in a Crockpot like, heated metal can. I ladled the chili on my hotdog, it tasted yummy and it was good to be done with lunch, giving us more time at all the birding hotspots we planned to visit before dark. We are always careful about our trash disposal in the appropriate receptacles, and with no trash can available, I just left part of the bun and chili in the hotdog’s paper holder laying on the backseat floorboard to be disposed of when we got to the hotel.

We crossed from Galveston to Port Bolivar on the Ferry. We headed to a local gas station to purchase a beach pass for our car, we had decided to drive down the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. With our car parked in the hot sun on the beach, we spent our time outside of the car using our spotting scopes and photographing the Avocets, shorebirds, terns and gulls. As it was getting dark we started loading up the car, as I moved my stuff into the back seat I noticed a really rotten smell. I noticed the paper holder with chili and bun on the floor of the back seat. I dropped my head down to my chili dog trash and the nasty smell assaulted me. Oh my, the chili must have been bad, in just 4 hours it had gone rancid. My stomach turned, I felt sick and like I was going to throw up. I wondered how I would bird the next day and fly home the following day after a bout of food poisoning. I picked up the paper holder with the offending chili, brought it to my nose several times, I was even more convinced the chili was bad because I felt intestinal distress. I stepped away from the car and looked at the back left wheel of the car and noticed some rotted remains of a bird or sea creature in the grooves of the tire, oh no more time in the car wash. It took me some time to convince my stomach that I had not eaten contaminated food. Teresa and I couldn’t stop laughing. Always a concern, eating out all the time, there is always a risk of eating bad food but even worse birding while having intestinal distress can be very unpleasant as many places we bird have minimal bathroom facilities.

We spent our second to last night in Texas at our favorite birding hotel in Winnie.


Saturday April 23, 2016 High Island and Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

With our beach pass on the windshield we decided we should head back to the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary with the chance to study and identify shorebirds. As we past through the High Island Sanctuaries we decided to stop for a quick look at the rookery at Smith Oaks and Boy Scout Woods. We throughly enjoyed High Island sanctuaries especially the rookery at Smith Oaks and hope to come back to bird during a "fallout".

Our next stop was the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary but instead of driving down to the restricted area we just drove onto the beach and stopped next to the vendor renting beach equipment. We rented an umbrella and 2 chairs for the afternoon. We sat and slept in our chairs on the beach as we listened to the gentle calling of the many species of birds patrolling the beach and flying overhead. We thoroughly enjoyed a quiet afternoon on the beach along the gulf coast of Texas. We studied and photographed the shorebirds, avocets, gulls and terns foraging for food along sandy shore.

As it got dark we headed to a hotel in Houston for our last night in Texas. We would be up early the next morning, Teresa would fly back to Lexington and I would fly back to Chapel Hill.


Sunday April 24, 2016

Teresa flew home to Lexington and I went home to Chapel Hill.


During our 2 week trip to Texas we visited these National Wildlife Refuge

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, 4/10/16

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge 4/11/16

Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, 4/12/16, 4/13/16

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, 4/15/16

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge 4/16/16, 4/17/16

Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge 4/20/16

McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge 4/20/16

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge 4/21/16, 4/22/16

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge 4/21/16

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