Enjoy your complimentary pre-flight overnight hotel before your holiday begins. Full details from our office!
Sunday 2 April: Heathrow - Houston
We meet at Heathrow airport, and once checked in your guide, Pete Cosgrove, will accompany the group to our comfortable VIP airport lounge. After collecting our luggage at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), we head to our first hotel. If time permits we'll check a few bird areas near our hotel, which is located close to several productive areas of bottomland forest. We'll enjoy our welcome dinner and get a preview of our days ahead. Overnight at Best Western the Woodlands (D)
Monday 3 April - W. Goodrich Jones State Forest / Big Creek Scenic Area to Rockport
After an early breakfast, we'll depart for W. Goodrich Jones State Forest-about 50 minutes north of the airport. The forest hosts several colonies of endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as Red-headed and Pileated Woodpecker, Pine Warbler, and other species characteristic of the region's pine forests.
Driving east, we'll stop at the Big Creek Scenic Area. Occasionally Louisiana Waterthrush and Worm-eating Warbler can be found near the parking area, as well as Gray Petaltail, one of the Southeast's special dragonflies. This area can be productive for butterflies and a sunny morning may yield a variety of swallowtails. During the afternoon, we’ll drive south to Rockport. Overnight in Rockport (B,L,D)
Tuesday 4 April - Whooping Crane Boat Tour/ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
This morning’s highlight is a guided boat tour along the edges of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in search of Whooping Cranes—one of only two cranes inhabiting the New World. Aransas is best known for providing habitat for the core wintering population of these highly endangered and spectacular birds. We have a reasonable chance of seeing them before they return north to breeding grounds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. It is important to take this boat trip no later than the first week in April, because the birds usually migrate together in one large movement, and by mid-April there is little chance of seeing the cranes.
While on the boat, we also look for several species of herons, egrets, and the incomparable Roseate Spoonbill. Our Captain will guide us, aiming to get within close range of these remarkable creatures. With everyone alert on deck, we often find Long-billed Curlew, American Oystercatcher, Seaside Sparrow, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, both White-faced and White Ibis, plus a number of other waterfowl and shorebirds. Past trips have produced rarities including Short-eared Owl, Long-tailed Duck, and Greater Flamingo.
After lunch in Rockport, we drive the 16-mile Loop Road, birding through a variety of habitats including edges of open water, mudflats, freshwater and saltwater marshes, coastal prairie, oak motte, oak savanna, and grassy fields. Other creatures we may encounter include Texas Coral Snake, White-tailed Deer, Javelina, Nine-banded Armadillo, and Feral Hog. With luck we may see a Bobcat. Tonight we enjoy dinner at another great local restaurant. Overnight in Rockport (B,L,D)
Wednesday 5 April - Goose Island State Park/Drive to Lower Rio Grande Valley
After packing for our drive to Alamo in the lower Rio Grande Valley, we will visit Goose Island State Park. Here, we check the huge live oaks for early migrating passerines such as Black-and-white Warbler, Hooded and Prothonotary Warbler, and Yellow-throated Vireo. The edge of the bay will be checked for waterbirds. During recent visits we have seen Grasshopper Sparrow, Sedge Wren, and LeConte’s Sparrow may be found as well. Driving southward, we watch farmland along the highway for lingering flocks of geese (Snow, Ross’s, White-fronted, and Canada) and Sandhill Cranes, as well as raptors such as White-tailed Hawk, Northern Caracara, White-tailed Kite, and perhaps a late Ferruginous Hawk. Overnight at the Alamo Inn, (B,L,D)
Thursday 6 April - Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge/Edinburg Scenic Wetlands
A short drive south takes us to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which protects 2,000 acres in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Corridor. With well over 300 species of birds recorded, many birders regard this reserve as the highlight of a visit to southern Texas. Extensive trails allow exploration of pond, wetland, open field, thorn forest, and Tamaulipan scrub habitats. Listen for raucous calls of Couch’s Kingbird and Great Kiskadee, and with luck the repeated whistle of tiny Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Those who wish may ascend the newly constructed hawk-watching tower where we may, if lucky, get eye-level views of a Gray Hawk or Hook-billed Kite. During winter, Santa Ana is home to all three North American kingfishers, although their day-to-day presence depends on water levels.
While at the refuge we may travel the seven-mile Wildlife Drive via tram, getting off in key locations to walk and explore (tram availability varies from year to year). The flora is a dense tangle of brush that harbors subtropical bird species more typically found in northeastern Mexico. At red-flowering shrimp plants we check for Buff-bellied and other hummingbirds. Tropical Parula may be calling from the moss-draped limbs of large Texas ebony trees. Least Grebe may cruise the small ponds, and we keep our eyes open for a Sora or some wintering shorebirds. Several mammals more at home in Mexico extend their ranges just over the border here, including both Ocelot and Jaguarundi—both of which are extremely rare. The area also hosts a diverse array of butterfly and other insect species.
In the afternoon, we visit the World Birding Center site at Edinburg Scenic Wetlands where two major ponds draw in kingfishers and wading birds by the score. We may also visit one or two of the small but productive thickets of vegetation in Weslaco – the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary and/or the Valley Nature Center. Noisy and bold Golden-fronted Woodpecker are common here, as are Plain Chachalaca and Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and they may be joined by a number of wintering birds. Frontera has hosted many rarities, including Elegant Trogon, Golden-crowned Warbler, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, and White-throated Robin. If the Valley has not experienced cold weather, gardens at both sites may produce a variety of butterflies and blooms. In general this afternoon we stay flexible, and go where the birds are! Enjoy dinner tonight at a local restaurant. Overnight at the Alamo Inn, (B,L,D)
Friday 7 April - South Padre Island/Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
This morning we drive eastward to South Padre Island. At the Convention Center, a boardwalk trail provides access to wetlands along the bay. This area has been a productive location for various species of rails including King, Clapper, and Virginia, barely noticing the humans walking above. There are numerous large waders such as Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron, and other waterbirds including American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer, wintering American Avocet, both pelicans, and various gulls and terns. We also hope to find Piping Plover – one of the country’s most threatened shorebirds.
The Center’s butterfly garden often provides habitat for wintering songbirds. As time permits, we may check one or more protected woodlots on the Island. After lunch at a local restaurant, we cross back to the mainland.
Heading northward, we visit Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Lying on the western shore of the Laguna Madre, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge protects over 65,000 acres of coastal habitats. More than 410 species of birds have been recorded here, including Aplomado Falcon, an endangered species that the Peregrine Fund began to reintroduce to south Texas in 1985. At the visitor’s center and nearby paths, we check out the feeders for close-up views of Green Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, and perhaps a herd of Javelina. If the Refuge bus is running, we’ll have access to the 15-mile Bayside Drive loop, that provides us views of coastal prairie, brush land, tidal flats and the margin of the Laguna Madre. Along the route, we’ll look for wintering waterfowl, Sandhill Cranes, raptors (including Aplomado Falcon and White-tailed Hawk), shorebirds, gulls and terns. With luck, we may also encounter a Coyote, Bobcat, Nine-banded Armadillo, or even a Texas Tortoise. Overnight at the Alamo Inn (B,L,D)
Saturday 8 April - Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park/Anzalduas County Park
This morning we visit Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, one of the Valley’s World Birding Center sites. Bentsen protects an array of habitats that support most of the Valley’s special birds. Walking short trails we visit the river’s edge, ponds, marshes, thorn forest, and mesquite. A recently constructed hawk-watching platform gives us an expansive view of the surrounding area. We hope to see most of the south Texas specialties here including Altamira Oriole, White-tipped Dove, Green Jay, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and Great Kiskadee. We may even find a Clay-colored Thrush or something more unusual.
If there is interest, we could visit the gardens at the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) International Butterfly Park, only a few minutes from Bentsen. During its short existence, this site has already produced a huge number of butterfly species—including several first U.S. records.
For lunch we dine at a local café. We may visit Anzalduas County Park, whose Spanish moss-clad live oak trees often host resident Tropical Parula alongside a variety of wintering and migrant warblers. In fields near the entrance road, we can try for Sprague’s Pipit, a very local wintering bird. Anzalduas often hosts both Ringed and Green Kingfisher, as well as Gray and Zone-tailed Hawk. Overnight at the Alamo Inn (B,L,D)
Sunday 9 April - Alamo Inn and South Texas
Heading out early, we visit Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the newest and most productive venues in the State Park system. The lake at the park entrance hosts a variety of ducks, shorebirds and large waders. The surrounding mesquite woodlands are home to many of the Rio Grande Valley’s birds including Green Jay, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Common Pauraque (generally visible at daytime roosts), Harris’s Hawk, Great Kiskadee, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Couch’s Kingbird, and Least Grebe. Depending on water levels, all three breeding North American kingfishers may be present. In the adjacent “tropical zone”, rarities such as Rose-throated Becard and Dusky-capped Flycatcher have occurred and flocks may contain western rarities such as Black-throated Gray Warbler.
We return to pack up at the Alamo, and then head west, birding our way with a stop at Roma Bluffs to scan the river. We visit some highly productive feeders near Falcon Dam, and check area hotspots ahead of checking in to accommodations at Zapata. Listen for Cactus Wren and Verdin in the scrub.
Monday 10 April – Zapata
The country around Zapata gives us access to some arid vegetation reminiscent of the American Southwest. A speciality here is White-collared Seedeater, and we book a visit to Las Lajas Ranch to find this and other specialties.
Departing the Zapata area, we continue to the historic border town of Laredo and then turn northward toward the Texas Hill Country. Leaving the coastal plain, we cross the Balcones Escarpment and see the uplifted limestone of the Hill Country in the distance. Our lodging is in Concan, a quiet community with an exciting abundance of Texas speciality birds that occur along the lush Frio River, one of many crystal clear rivers that have spent thousands of years cutting a path through gleaming limestone. Roadside birds might include Swainson’s Hawk, Crested Caracara, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Built along the spring-fed Frio River, Neal’s Lodge will be our home this week. Settle in, unpack, and turn your focus to the Hill Country’s natural wonders. Neal’s grounds host birds from the Eastern and Western U.S., as well as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This area has been a 'bucket-list' destination for naturalists for decades. Neal’s maintains permanent feeding stations that draw some of Hill Country’s best species. Clay-colored Sparrow are often common at the “cattle guard feeder”and may be joined by Black-throated, Lark, White-crowned, and Chipping Sparrow. Three species of oriole are possible visitors, along with resident Olive Sparrow and Long-billed Thrasher. The pecan grove across the road from the office offers more feeder watching, and we may see Eastern Bluebird, Indigo Bunting, Carolina Chickadee, Black-crested Titmice and various migrants. Hummingbird feeders are present throughout the grounds. These attract numerous Black-chinned Hummingbird, a few Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and the nectar-loving Hooded Oriole. Overnight at Neal’s Lodge (B,L,D)
Tuesday 11 April - Park Chalk Bluff / Neal’s Lodge / Rio Frio Bat Cave
After breakfast, we’ll drive to Uvalde then northwest to Park Chalk Bluff on the Nueces River, where Tamaulipan Scrub vegetation cloaks hillsides along the Nueces River. Here we find Brown-crested Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Black-crested Titmice in a stand of live oaks. Along the River, we scan cottonwoods, pecans, and mulberries for Yellow-breasted Chat, Indigo and Painted Bunting, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Orchard Oriole, and Blue Grosbeak. We have another chance there to see the tiny Green Kingfisher, secretive Ringed Kingfisher, and a vulture-mimic, the Zone-tailed Hawk. The park’s pecan grove may draw in migrants including Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and several warblers.
We return to Neal’s for an early dinner, and then take a very short drive (optional) to the Rio Frio Bat Cave. Every night, 10 million or more Mexican Free-tailed Bats exit the cave to feed. If you haven’t experienced a bat cave emergence, you will be mesmerized as the smoke-like river of bats emerges against the setting sun. Local bat biologist Bain Walker joins us as we take in the sights and sounds of one of the largest gatherings of mammals in North America. Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawk are likely visitors (Merlin or Peregrine less so), as they feed on the frenzy of bats. Cave Swallow share the cave and we see them as they return to roost. Overnight at Neal’s Lodge (B,L,D)
Wednesday 12 April - Kerr Wildlife Management Area / Neal’s Grounds
Today we visit the Kerr Wildlife Management Area in the basin of the Guadalupe River. On the drive, we look for fields of Blue Bonnet and Mealy Sage, and the rather local Hill Country Penstemon. The park is home to a large population of Black-capped Vireo, an endangered speciality of Central Texas. Finding them is our focus, though abundant wildflowers can prove a distraction! Other species at Kerr WMA include Wild Turkey, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Common Ground-Dove, Summer Tanager, Field Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, and Painted Bunting. After a picnic lunch at Kerr, we’ll return to Neal’s to work the grounds and river edge. Overnight at Neal’s Lodge (B,L,D)
Thursday 13 April - Uvalde / Ft. Inge / Cook’s Slough / Fish Hatchery / Neal’s Grounds
Today, we head south to Uvalde. As we leave Concan, the habitat becomes noticeably more desert-like. Possible sightings on our drive include Harris’ Hawk, Bell’s Vireo, Bullock’s Oriole, and Crested Caracara. Arriving in Uvalde, we’ll visit the remains of frontier-era Fort Inge, now a 42-acre protected park along the Leona River. (NB: If the park is closed, we’ll proceed directly to Cook’s Slough). The park features a 140 ft. volcanic plug, whose dry slopes attract Cactus and Bewick’s Wren, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Pyrrhuloxia. Along the Leona River, we find migrant and resident songbirds, and perhaps a Mississippi Kite. A tour tradition is visiting Uvalde’s classic soda fountain for ice cream, shakes, and malts. Next, we go a short distance to Cook’s slough to check out the ponds at the entrance searching for migrant waterfowl and Green Kingfisher. After lunch at a café in Uvalde, we’ll visit the Uvalde National Fish Hatchery, where ponds attract a variety of shorebirds – surprising migrants can show up at this time of year. From a permanent blind, we spot Black Phoebe, species of waterfowl such as Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and Blue Winged Teal, and a host of dragonflies. Returning to Neal’s, we’ll visit the various feeding stations or walk along the Frio River. Overnight at Neal’s Lodge (B,L,D)
Friday 14 April - Neal’s Lodge to Houston Vicinity
This morning we can bird the grounds at Neal’s, visit Garner State Park just a few minutes away, or, if Golden-cheeked Warbler has eluded us, pop back into Lost Maples State Park for another look. Afterward, we have a travel day to return to areas near Houston, driving eastward for four to five hours. Our lodgings tonight are near Sugarland, which gives those staying on for the Extension easy access to birding Brazos Bend State Park the next morning. Tonight we tally our species list, celebrate a great Texas trip, and prepare for flights out the next day. Overnight near Houston (B,L,D)
Saturday 15 April - (Saturday) - Depart or to Extension
This morning, we transfer to George Bush Intercontinental Airport for our overnight flight to London (arriving on Sunday 16 April). Those staying on for the extension will make the short drive to Brazos Bend State Park for spotting birds and alligators. (B)
OPTIONAL EXTENSION - THE SPECTACLE OF MIGRATION!
Difficult-to-get specialities in hard to reach places not available on the main holiday above. Ideal for those who want the ultimate Texan list to make the most of your time in the Lone Star state.
Saturday 15 April
We take lunch near Brazos Bend State Park, and from here drive north through Houston and east to the logging town of Jasper. As we drive east we check the boat ramp at Martin Dies Jr. State Park for Prothonotary and Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo and other woodland species such as Eastern Wood Pewee and Great Crested Flycatcher. A short drive further east takes us to Jasper, our home for the next two nights. Overnight at the Best Western, Jasper (B,L,D)
Sunday 16 April – Jasper / East Texas Specialties
After breakfast, we'll investigate several sites in the area including the vicinity of Bouton Lake. Bachman's Sparrow have become very local in East Texas but this area supports several territories. Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wild Turkey, Indigo and Painted Bunting, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker may be seen along the roadsides. Lunch will be at a local café. During the afternoon, we'll work our way back to Jasper, perhaps by way of the fish hatchery outside town. Overnight at the Best Western, Jasper (B,L,D)
Monday 17 April- Big Thicket National Preserve / Winnie
Today, we bird our way from Jasper to the town of Winnie. En route, we visit several sites in the Big Thicket National Preserve where we'll look for Swainson's, Kentucky, Hooded, and Prairie Warbler, and more widespread species such as Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee. Butterflies in the area include Palamedes and Zebra Swallowtail, Southern and scarce Creole Pearly-eye, and several interesting skippers such as Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper and Hayhurst's Scallopwing. Dragonflies can be numerous. If we haven't yet encountered Fish Crow (decidedly local in East Texas), we look for it at Tyrrell Park and the adjacent Cattail Marsh as we pass through the town of Beaumont. We should arrive in Winnie with a little time to relax before dinner. Overnight at Winnie (B,L,D)
Tuesday 18 April - High Island / Boy Scout Woods / Smith Oaks / Rollover Pass
We don't have to travel far today to explore some excellent preserves managed by the Houston Audubon Society. These woodland oases or "coastal mottes" as they are called, provide refuge for thousands of Neotropical migrant songbirds. Having just crossed the Gulf of Mexico, a 600-mile non-stop journey, tired birds often pause in these woodlands for food and shelter.
Boardwalk trails allow for amazing and consistently close viewing without undue disturbance to the birds. Walking the trails, we search for warblers, tanagers, vireos, buntings and more. Warblers passing through the woodlands include Blue-winged, Blackburnian, Kentucky, Hooded, and rare Cerulean. The mix of vireos presents a greater challenge; it's a great time to practice warbler identification skills to locate White-eyed, Red-eyed, Warbling, Philadelphia, and Yellow-throated. Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Scarlet Tanager are attracted to fruiting mulberry trees.
After an afternoon break, we drive down the peninsula, checking several areas for terns, gulls and wading birds. From Rollover Pass we hope to see Laughing Gull, Gull-billed, Royal, Sandwich, Forster's, and possibly Least Tern, as well as the closely related Black Skimmer. This is also a great hangout for loafing American Avocet, often joined by Marbled Godwit. Or, if weather is right for migrants, we leave this for another day and continue to explore the wooded migrant hotspots. Overnight at Winnie (B,L,D)
Wednesday 19 April - Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
We leave early this morning for the 34,000-acre Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, located on the eastern end of Galveston Bay. En route we inspect groups of feeding shorebirds in the agricultural fields, looking for such species as American Golden Plover, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper, and perhaps an early Hudsonian Godwit. We circumnavigate Shoveler Pond on the auto route, stopping periodically to view the abundant waterfowl and wading birds.
Over the years, some 280 species have been recorded at Anahuac, attracted to prairies, patchy woodland habitat, and the marshes. Seaside Sparrow are fairly common in grasses near the bay edge. Roseate Spoonbill always attract a lot of attention; here they feed alongside White, and sometimes White-faced Ibis. Marsh Wren provide a background chorus, broken by the raucous calls of Boat-tailed Grackle. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and both Least and American Bittern often put on a good display; Least Bittern nest here and may be numerous.
American Alligators are particularly plentiful in the extensive ponds and wet prairies, while Northern Harrier hunt from above. While we are here, butterfly enthusiasts may find Salt Marsh Skipper. For those new to butterfly watching, the garden at refuge headquarters will make learning and comparing species much easier! Mammals may include Coyote, Raccoon, Mink, Muskrat and Swamp Rabbit. On short trails near headquarters we can stretch our legs and scan for songbirds. Afterward, we drive to High Island for lunch, or, if weather conditions dictate, perhaps to Sabine Pass for migrants. Dinner will be back in the town of Winnie. Overnight at Winnie (B,L,D)
Thursday 20 April - Bolivar Flats Shorebird Preserve / High Island - Smith Oaks
We devote part of one day to Bolivar Flats, one of the country's most important way-stations for migrant shorebirds. Recent hurricanes have reshaped the beaches of the Bolivar Peninsula and we will probably cross over to Galveston Island (via a short ferry ride) for a better look at the flats. The incoming tide directs the birds towards us and makes for better viewing, so we'll study the tide chart to plan our day. Habitats at Bolivar and around East Beach on Galveston Island include beach, mudflats, and salt marsh, all of which provide a nutrient-rich smorgasbord for shorebirds. This is one of the best places to slow down and really study these far-ranging migrants.
Using scopes, we'll carefully scan the flocks for Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, and both Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitcher. Here we're likely to be able to compare similar species such as Semipalmated, Piping (a wintering species), and Snowy Plover, often in groups with the larger Wilson's Plover. American Oystercatcher may be present here, feeding among the smaller shorebirds, and Brown Pelican often fly in long lines above. There will be hundreds of Laughing Gull; with patience we may find a rarity such as Lesser Black-backed, Franklin's, or California Gull. Osprey may be flying through, and we'll also watch overhead for Black and Turkey Vulture. If a Peregrine Falcon should come by, we'll get some spectacular flight displays!
After lunch at a restaurant on the Bolivar Peninsula, we'll return to High Island to visit the rookery at Clay-bottom Pond. A viewing platform there affords outstanding views of colonial wading birds. Here, we should see nesting Snowy and Cattle Egret as they squabble at their nests and come to roost, joined by Roseate Spoonbill, Great Egret, Neotropical Cormorant, and both Little Blue and Tricolored Heron. Overnight at Winnie (B,L,D)
Friday 21 April - High Island / Bolivar Flats / Bolivar Ferry to Galveston Island
Today we are ideally positioned to make the most of where birds are plentiful, and search for species we may have not yet encountered. If the action is high at Boy Scout Woods at High Island we stop there to check for warblers and other migrant songbirds. This and other Important Bird Areas all hold potential. In general we head down the coast, visiting ponds and shorelines and then making the short ferry crossing to Galveston Island. Here we visit several key birding spots such as Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve and San Luis Pass, before crossing back over to the mainland and heading toward Houston for our evening accommodation. Overnight near Houston TX (B,L,D)
Saturday 22 April - Departure
After breakfast we transfer to George Bush Intercontinental Airport for our return flight to London, arriving April 23 (Sun). (B)