Note: Apologies for the long pause between posts. My first semester in college has had a strong grip on all of my available time. I hope to get the rest of the Texas posts and a summary of the birding I was able to do over the fall up here soon.
Day 1 (April 15) – Dave and I arrived at separate airports, so after grabbing the rental car, Dave headed up to IAH to pick me up. Soon after, we were on the road and headed east on I-10. En route to our hotel, we started picking up birds like Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Great-tailed Grackle. After checking in, we spent the rest of the afternoon birding the fabulous Skillern/East Bayou Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Before even arriving at the refuge, we picked up many trip birds on the nearby roads, including Cattle Egret, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Kingbird, Cliff Swallow, Eastern Meadowlark, and Baltimore Oriole.
Our intentions for Skillern were to get in some quick birding before moving out for an early dinner. But the place was incredibly birdy, and even when dusk set in, large numbers of birds streaming overhead made it impossible to peel ourselves away. Skillern set the tone for the rest of the trip, and produced some awesome birds in the process. The highlights were many and varied and included both whistling-ducks, Mottled Duck, both bitterns (and ten Ardeids overall), Sora, both gallinules, Upland Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Nighthawk, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Marsh Wren, Brown Thrasher, Black-and-white, Tennessee, and Blackburnian Warblers, Painted Bunting, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Boat-tailed Grackle, and Orchard Oriole.
Eventually, it got too dark for us to see anything, although night-herons and ibis continued moving by. Night in Winnie.
Day 2 (April 16) – We awoke early for one of the most anticipated events of the trip: the ‘Yellow Rail Walk‘ at Anahuac. Arriving at dawn, we picked up some new trip birds while waiting for the group to assemble, including Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants, Glossy Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-necked Stilt, Caspian and Forster’s Terns, Loggerhead Shrike, and Bronzed Cowbird. Several calling King Rails (a life bird for me) taunted us from nearby cover.
After a briefing from the refuge staffer, we were on the road, heading south among a caravan of cars to the aptly-named ‘Yellow Rail Prairie.’ Disembarking, half of the group gathered along a line of rope at the edge of the field, while the other half (those not interested in the physical labor of trudging through thick, wet grass) waited on the road.
Because the rails would rather run than fly, our plan to induce them into flight was to fill milk jugs scattered along our rope with rocks, line up elbow to elbow along the rope, and walk at a fairly brisk pace, clapping all the while. With this impenetrable line bearing down upon them, the rail would have no choice but to flush. Or so we hoped.
As we started walking into the field, we flushed a Yellow Rail almost immediately. The bird flew just above the grass for about ten yards, put on the landing gear (flashing those distinctive white secondaries), and once again disappeared into the mass. It was one of four Yellow Rails we would flush during the walk, of which we were able to obtain satisfying flight views of every individual.
Other rails soon followed including two Virginias and seven Sora. A couple dozen Seaside Sparrows were also around.
Having picked up our target species, we left the field in order to limit the amount of disturbance we made to the habitat. As we disengaged, we picked up great looks at a few nearby Sedge Wrens (some of which were singing) as well as a flyover Black Tern molting into alternate plumage.
But Black Rail (our primary target in this region) was on the back of our minds for the entirety of the walk. We had planned to spend all of Day 2, as well as Days 3 and 4, looking for this species at Anahuac and nearby San Bernard and Brazoria NWRs.
We had gotten a tip from some other birders that calling Black Rails were present across the road from the Yellow Rail Prairie the day before. Sure enough, as we walked onto the road from the field, we were told that there was a calling Black Rail in that exact spot. Straining our ears, we soon picked up the distinctive kikikerr of a Black Rail. Awesome! Soon after, another bird started calling nearby.
The rails were close, calling from some thick, high grasses between the edge of the road and a fence line perhaps ten feet in. Dave and I, sensing this was the closest we could get to seeing this bird, rallied the staffer to make a go. A group of four people lined up alongside the rail, in hopes of swinging around it and corralling the bird into view for the 50+ others to see. That attempt ended up being a disaster. In (understandably) tense anticipation, the birders on the road refused to take a few steps back to allow the rail some space, and those walking in the grasses were also unable to move the bird in the right direction. It soon called again from further down the fence line.
Desperate to try again, Dave and I urgently tried to get a word in with the refuge staffer to try to make another attempt. While waiting our turn, nearby birders hit us with comments like, “Well you know, you can get them on the Colorado River,” or “Lots of people have them in San Francisco Bay.” To this, I couldn’t have been more frustrated: “I’m here, I have a calling Black Rail six feet away, and you’re telling me to go to $%^##$# California?!” I thought. It was one of many moments we experienced during the time leading up to and during this quest when the the shroud of secrecy and denial in the birding community around this bird came to bear.
We finally mustered up a group to make another attempt. The thick grasses ended a few yards to our right, with a gate and a short road leading out into another field. We decided to move the bird that way. We walked and then began to run. People on our line of six or so started catching brief glimpses. We were certain we had it, and began to make a tightening circle around where we thought the bird would be. Eventually, with only a square foot for the bird to move around in, we got down on our hands and knees in a circle and started moving back the grass. Nothing. The frickin rail had gotten away.
After all that, Dave had caught a brief glimpse and I had still not seen the bird. Birders began leaving in droves. Soon, only seven of us stood there, staring at the grasses, contemplating our chances of seeing this ghost of the marshes.
Our small, stalwart group adamantly decided that we would not leave until everyone had seen the bird. In the back of my head, I prayed that if we still didn’t have the bird in thirty minutes, that the others would hold to that promise. Some of us started making tunnels to coax the bird to walk through, while others stood on the road strategizing. Eventually, we came up with the plan that would seal the deal.
Our situation was this: in front and to our left were long green grasses, with a fence a couple of yards in (beyond that was a clipped field). To our right the fence gave out in a few yards, to a gravel patch with a gate. The grasses continued up to the gate, but along the fence were replaced with a few bushes, which created small openings to look through.
We mustered up for our third attempt and managed to corral the bird under the bushes. Each of us then lined up on our hands and knees on either side, each person peeking into a different crevice. Eventually people started seeing it, and with calls of “moving to the left,” I knew the bird was bearing down on me. Soon it appeared, and I squinted at disbelief at how small it was. Suddenly it was there, in a small bare patch under the bush, simply walking and bobbing its body, paying no attention to the pair of eyes just a foot away. Its most striking feature was its eye, which gleamed crimson. I noticed the spotting on the upper parts and chestnut nape, but was surprised, as they appeared subdued and dull (perhaps a female?).
Over the next twenty minutes or so, I caught two more glimpses exactly like this one, and eventually everyone in the group had similar views. When Gary, the last of us who hadn’t seen it, connected with the bird, we all jumped up onto the road and started hugging and high-fiving. We were jubilant: we had seen what is arguably the hardest bird to glimpse in all of North America, and despite multiple failures, we had persevered and eventually got great looks at the bird. As we were chatting excitedly, the rail finally did what we were hoping for all morning: we caught it skittering away on some of our flattened grasses, directly out in the open for a few seconds, in full running retreat. Soon after, as if nothing happened, the rail resumed calling in earnest.
I didn’t bring my camera on the rail walk, nor did I bring it when looking for the Black Rail. It would have been extremely difficult to obtain photos of the Yellow Rail in flight and my lens simply was too long to have been able to focus on the Black Rail. Furthermore, with birds as elusive and difficult to see as these, I wanted my life looks to be as complete as possible, not marred by possible camera issues. Next time I attempt to look for these species, I will definitely try to photograph them, and will have to remember to bring along a 50mm lens for the Black Rail!
Leaving the rail behind, Dave and I realized that our next two days had been completely freed up, a bonus that changed the outcome of the trip in numerous ways, one of which was that we avoided the devastating rain and flooding that occurred in the Houston area, an extremely lucky break only possible thanks to the dedication of our small group.
We spent the next few hours birding the refuge, picking up species like Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Harrier, both gallinules, American Coot, Crested Caracara, Peregrine Falcon, and a gorgeous male Golden-winged Warbler. We also made a strong attempt to see one of the calling King Rails, but came away empty handed. I find it slightly comical that I have now seen Black and Yellow Rails before King.
In the early afternoon, we traded Anahuac for High Island, our first stop being the famous Boy Scout Woods Sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon. High Island was pretty slow that afternoon, but we were content with our FOY Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, Worm-eating Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
We then moved over to the Smith Oaks Sanctuary, notching a female Hooded Warbler as well as a gorgeous male Summer Tanager, obviously exhausted as it sat still for most of the time in low vegetation.
We ended our day with a two-hour drive from High Island to Lake Jackson, from which we would launch the next phase of our trip.