BIRDS AND BEYOND

A trip to the Texas coast

By Claire Curry | Published Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In mid-March, we went to the Texas coast to see what kind of birds we could find at a famous national wildlife refuge – Anahuac NWR. Anahuac is located south of Winnie, about an hour east of Houston. It’s right on the coast, with the refuge abutting the eastern part of Galveston Bay.

Our first stop was near the visitor center. There was a mowed trail around a pond leading to a boardwalk. We saw several Boat-tailed Grackles almost immediately.

These are similar to our common Great-tailed Grackles, but they only occur along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts in marshy habitat, while Great-tailed Grackles occur inland north to Kansas.

On the Gulf coast, they can be separated by the Boat-tailed Grackle’s dark eyes (Great-taileds have yellow eyes). Confusingly, Atlantic coast Boat-tailed Grackles have yellow eyes, but Great-taileds are unlikely in that part of their range.

Their song is also different from our grackles, but the males still puff up to impress the females just like our grackles do. We ended up seeing quite a few of these along the marshy ditches.

Since a lot of the refuge is marshes and ponds, we also saw many other water birds. Red-winged Blackbirds are related to grackles, and also like marshy habitats; they were everywhere. We walked back toward the visitor center along a levee and saw several groups of ducks on the water. Some flew and others were landing.

Most of the ducks were Gadwalls and Northern Shovelers, two species that are common here in Wise County as well. A few were dark-bodied and pale-headed. We didn’t get a good look, but suspected them to be Mottled Ducks.

Both the male and female of this species look very similar to female Mallards. Mottled Ducks live mainly on the Gulf Coast and in Florida, although according to the Texas Ornithological Society’s Handbook of Texas Birds, they now occur uncommonly in northeastern Texas up into Oklahoma and Kansas.

We also started to see a lot of wading birds. Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets and even a few bright pink Roseate Spoonbills flew over. As we drove to another area by the boat ramp, we saw more egrets, some Barn Swallows flying and a Loggerhead Shrike perched on a power line.

Around lunch time we drove to Frozen Point. Along the way many cormorants were sitting on branches in the water. There were more ducks, including now some Blue-winged Teal and much better views of the Mottled Ducks.

A Reddish Egret was foraging farther out in the marsh. This is another coastal specialty. It is known for its active feeding behavior that looks almost like dancing, and sure enough, that’s what our egret was doing.

As we progressed along the roads we found more and more mosquitoes, but fortunately not many were biting. At one stop, with clouds of mosquitoes floating around us, we found several shorebirds.

The most striking were the Black-necked Stilts. These are stylish, leggy sandpipers that have an extremely thin, pointed beak, black-and-white patterned plumage and long, thin legs that are bright pink.

Near the stilts we saw several yellowlegs. A few were Greater Yellowlegs, which have long yellow (surprise.) legs, a long gray beak and streaky gray-brown plumage. The others were Lesser Yellowlegs, which as their name suggests are smaller than the Greaters. Their beaks are also proportionally shorter; you can identify them that way when no Greater Yellowlegs are cooperating for a size comparison.

At Frozen Point we were along the bay. Where we continued to see egrets, ducks and shorebirds (including the ever-present Killdeer), but started to find a few different species.

Willets are a chunky, large sandpiper. Several were on the ground near the edge of the bay, but a few others were hanging out on wooden fence posts. They stared at us watchfully, and some took off crying “will-will-et.” (their name comes from this loud call). They also had contrasting wing patterns of pale and dark.

A few Laughing Gulls were also lounging on the fence posts; others flew overhead calling. They, too, are named their call, which is indeed a loud laughing sound.

We finished off the day at the Skillern Tract of Anahuac. Lots of ducks, including Green-winged Teal and more Mottled Ducks, and more wading birds populated the flooded fields here.

Both White Ibis and dark ibis (either Glossy or White-faced, but they are very hard to identify, especially from a distance) were foraging in the fields.

At one point we stopped for another new duck: a whole flock of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. They are a tawny brown color with matte-black beaks and long necks.

At the end of the road we walked a short trail out into the marsh. Out over the marsh we saw a bunch of Roseate Spoonbills roosting in dead trees and flying out to the marsh to forage.

Several Tree Swallows, migrating north, flew over. In the clumps of cattails we started to count Black-crowned Night-Herons and ended up finding at least 40.

From the parking lot, we prepared to head home. We heard a strange, hollow laughing call and walked back down the trail to find it. What on earth could this mysterious sound be? We scanned the cattail clumps. There was a coot; over that way a Pied-billed Grebe. Neither seemed a good candidate from our field guides.

There were a few Common Moorhens, which are related to coots and quite similar but for their red-and-yellow beaks and yellow legs, puttering around in the cattails too. Eventually we heard the call right from where a moorhen had just landed and that sealed the deal.

Our mystery call identified, it was time to find dinner and head home.

Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled wherever you find yourself this spring. You never know what marvelous surprises you will find.

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The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be May 2 and June 6. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service, (940) 627-5475.

Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. If you would like to contact them, email them at larksparrow@eeclaire.com.

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