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Germans Bird South Texas
by Keith Hackland (alamoinn@aol.com) photo credit: Keith Hackland
published April 2016

It may have occurred before today, but if it did, I don't know about it ... a birding tour of South Texas by a tour group from Germany. We have the privilege of hosting this tour for a remarkable group of birders who all speak German. How many of us can do that while we bird South Texas. The tour has its own co-ordinator, an excellent birder and a teacher with a PhD in Biology. He also translates for the group from the English spoken by our guide, Michael, or myself as assistant guide.

We met the group at Houston airport, arriving on two different airlines. Very friendly folks, even after their 13 to 15 hour flights from Germany, travel across eight time zones that tests the mettle of the toughest travellers.

Texas has 640 species of birds recognized for listing purposes. The tour is here for 13 days. How many species will they see, considering that they are here in late March, after wintering species have departed and before most of the spring migrants arrive. The number of species seen depends on how good the birders and guide are at identification and at locating good birding spots, and how many hours are spent in the field each day. A good count for this trip would be 160 species.

After escaping the magnetic force of George Bush International Airport and navigating thick Houston traffic, we stopped for the night in the Woodlands, aptly named for the woods we planned to visit on our first day. That night the group was excited at the prospect of birding a new area in a new country, and started their list with seeing Great-tailed Grackles. Up at 6 am and on the road before 8 am, our first morning was spent exploring local woodland, where we found plenty of species, including the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker made its appearance and we all listened to and craned our necks to see a Brownheaded Nuthatch, as it effortlessly moved up a Loblolly Pine, mostly behind the tree from us. Cedar Waxwings and Pine Siskins entertained us all. Leaving the woods with over twenty species, we tracked down a U.S. specialty, Burger King, and introduced our new friends to American fast food.

In the afternoon we drove through Houston, but not the easy way. My Garmin navigation device tricked us into driving onto the toll way. We had to go through four toll gates, something that took us way too long. We had to drive through the "Cash - change made" lanes, and that day it took 15 to 20 minutes each time. Just before 5 pm we made it to our destination, Brazos Bend State Park, where we birded until sunset. The park was full of spring break families, and also some great birds. We saw possibly two hundred Little Blue Herons, an attractive bird that is usually seen alone.

This American Bittern was hard to miss. Usually a really shy, camouflaged bird with the habit of hiding in the cattails, this sighting satisfied everyone. One of our group used his very impressive professional camera equipment to photograph each new bird. He would not count it as properly seen until he had a good photo of the species. He is a serious photo-lister, a challenging way to count species.

As the sun set we managed to pull folks away from this great park, and hit the road. As assistant guide I drove the cargo van, filled with travel bags and suitcases. At dusk as we navigated the county roads, Michael, driving the passenger van behind me, flashed his lights a few times, and then u-turned and headed back. Dutifully following, until they pulled over and stopped, I looked for a bird they must have found, but could not see it. Later I found out that it was a Great Horned Owl, resting in a tree close to the road. Imagine spotting that from a van you are driving at 60 miles per hour. It takes a great eye to accomplish that. Michael has a great eye. Our stop at a local eatery for supper was appreciated by all, and at 11:30 pm we reached Refugio and our hotel.

Back up at 6 am we hit the road and stopped to bird along a creek, where we were rewarded with Carolina Chickadees, and a Great Peewee, a rare visitor from Mexico. There were also Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. The habitat here in Refugio is of great interest. Here deep South Texas tropical trees like Cedar Elm and Anacua mix with East Texas oaks. This is about as far East as the tropical trees occur. By mid-morning we had to hit the road again and head for the coast.

Stay with us in next month's issue for this birding trip and follow the Germans on tour.

This Tiger Swallowtail and Leopard Frog were extra bonus sightings during our excursion.