As we've mentioned in our Great Locations synopsis of Texas, a great way to start a trip to this area is to visit a private ranch that caters to bird and wildlife photographers or to book a workshop that targets species that are on your bucket list. We did both on our late April trip this year, first visiting Santa Clara Ranch near McCook for some blind and perch photography then moving on to a workshop on Galveston Island targeting early spring migrants. For songbirds, we also “worked” the water features in forest habitat at several well known migrant traps on Galveston Island (Laffite's Cove Nature Preserve, Corp Woods Nature Sanctuary and Dos Vacas Muertos Bird Sanctuary), continued on to a series of bird hotspots along the Bolivar Peninsula (Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Audubon High Island Smith Oakes Bird Sanctuary, Rollover Pass, Frenchtown Road Conservation Area and Bob's Road), ending our trip by inching our way slowly inland (Brazos Bend State Park, The Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Quintana Neo-tropical Bird Sanctuary and Xeriscape Park) and finally the nearby shoreline (Bryans Beach and the Quintana Jetty). Our early research relied heavily on a book by Jim Stevenson, a prominent Galveston ornithologist, photographer and author of “Birdlife of Galveston.” Thereafter it was a simple matter of isolating locations that looked promising and trying to minimize our driving time. Fortunately, we had met several local photographers on past trips that were able to provide advice to help improve our productivity. Our target species this trip were migrants (such as the Painted Bunting and Scarlet Tanager) and shorebirds (such as the Reddish Egret and Roseate Spoonbill) that we'd only caught fleeting glimpses of in the past but are common fare for Texas photographers!
If there is such a thing as “birding paradise,” Galveston Island could easily lay claim to the title. This is due to its varied habitat, robust resident population and a spring and fall trans- and circum- Gulf migration that is arguably unrivaled anywhere in North America. In total, the area supports over 400 species annually and is best known for its prolific migrant traps. Notwithstanding, it's impossible to take it all in during one visit. Our focus on this trip was the early trans-Gulf migrants which, given favorable weather conditions, we hoped would be prevalent during the latter part of April and early May. We planned our location selection to coincide with what we consider to be optimum bird activity, shorebirds at low tide and songbirds during early morning and late afternoon, both with the sun, of course, at our backs. A long lens of 500mm or greater with a teleconverter (extender) is a must for this area. Success, as usual, is completely reliant on the weather. With luck, a prevailing cold front with high winds will push birds across the Gulf and create spectacular results. However, a preceding west wind will most likely shift landings elsewhere, leaving you wondering what the hubbub is all about. A prolonged rain will also tend to ground birds and lead to less than optimal photography opportunities. If all else fails and the migrants simply trickle in, you certainly won't be disappointed chasing the resident population. Besides the locations noted above, we concentrated on the beach and mudflat area surrounding San Luis Pass on the south western tip of the island, including each end of the toll bridge. Shorebirds and waders were prevalent roadside in the marsh along 8 Mile and Sportsman Roads in the late afternoon and early evening. There we encountered Cattle Egret, Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron. Galveston Island State Park can be good for Eastern Kingbird and White-Tailed Kite. However, the best shorebird photography we encountered on the island was the East Beach Lagoon, particularly for Royal Terns, Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls. Keep an eye out as you approach the beach entrance as you'll drive through East Lagoon Preserve and Big Reef Nature Park. For Sandwich Tern, Least Turn, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone, drive the beach south of the toll booth either morning or afternoon, using your vehicle as a blind.
Although the above brief sketch is meant as a quick overview, we certainly had some favorite locations. The Forty Acre Lake walking trail at Brazos Bend State Park leads through a Live Oak and Hackberry forest mottled with cascading Spanish Moss. Here the waterway hosts Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, Purple Gallinule, Little Blue Heron and Green Heron and is a good place to catch early migrants such as Prothonotary Warbler and Northern Parula. Watch for Alligators and Poison Ivy as the trail edge can be a dangerous place for the unaware. The auto route at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge is good for Common Yellowthroat roadside. Again, be aware that Chiggers and Cottonmouth Snakes can be a hazard. The Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary and adjacent Xeriscape Park are morning events and in our opinion have better open water features than those found on Galveston Island. There is also the opportunity to capture Purple Martin in flight at the Visitor's Center. The drips at Laffite's Cove Nature Preserve, for example, are dark, cluttered with habitat and not designed with photography in mind. There you are almost better placing a small perch baited with an orange at a convenient location and waiting for a hungry Scarlet Tanager. We certainly enjoyed driving the shoreline at Bryans Beach and the nearby jetty as we found Least and Sandwich Terns provided good flight image opportunities. The surf also coughed up several gulls, most notably the Lesser Black-Backed, California and Herring, contributing overall to a satisfying photography experience for this area.
The auto route along the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for Least Bittern. Watch for Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers along the entrance driveway. A must, of course, is the rookery at High Island. The Audubon Smith Oakes Bird Sanctuary is a late afternoon, early evening event where the main attraction are Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants. Don't let the crowding nests and constant squabbling amongst species deter you. Isolating birds requires patience but many opportunities will pop up and flight images can be good from both ends of the three viewing stands, especially with a moderate wind. The Bolivar Peninsula also has several good shorebird locations. These are located along State Highway #87 (also known as the Blue Water Highway) as you approach the Bolivar Ferry, most notably Rollover Pass, Bob Road and Frenchtown Road. The former is certainly the best as we encountered Black Skimmers feeding at high tide.
Lastly, we enjoyed some perch photography at our host's residence in Sugar Land near Houston. The home borders a protected natural area and we had great fun with Carolina Chickadee, Blue Jay and Red-Bellied Woodpecker. We're always amazed at what you can accomplish in your own backyard!
You can view the images from our trip in Galleries 87, 88 and 89. In total, we photographed thirty- nine bird species that we hadn't previously encountered, as well as a host of mammals and amphibians including the American Alligator, Mexican Ground Squirrel, Leopard Frog and Red-Eared Slider Terrapin.