April 20 and 22, 2021 – I visited Quintana Neotropical Sanctuary and Xeriscape Nature Reserve at the end of a “fall-out”, a combination of cold temperatures and winds out of the north that force migrating birds to the ground at familiar resting spots. The cold front had reached the Houston area by Friday; birders braved the chill rains to see the height of the fall-out on Saturday and Sunday. But due to other demands, I didn’t get out there until warmth and sunshine prevailed on Tuesday and Thursday.
The Sanctuary and Reserve are two areas in a space not more than one city block wide and three city blocks long, located on the sandy spit of land at the mouth of the Brazos River, bordering the Gulf of Mexico in the little community of Quintana, TX. Its tiny footprint is a vivid contrast to the huge National Wildlife Refuges (San Bernard, Brazoria, Anahuac, McFaddin, and Texas Point) covering hundreds of miles of coastal marsh and prairie between Houston and the Louisiana border. Salt cedars, wild berry vines and native fruit trees provide food and low dense shelter away from the wind and predators, and sandstone drips have been set up strategically throughout the space. Migrant birds flock to the sanctuary to rest and recoup after flying north across the Gulf of Mexico.
I feared that I had missed all the fun… but the birds kept me hopping, and I’m wondering how I would have coped with the wealth of sighting opportunities other visitors described days earlier during the peak of the fall-out.
I had hardly gotten out of the car before I spotted this little Hooded Warbler on the path. He was one of the fastest little guys I’d ever seen, dashing, flying up a foot off the ground and spinning in mid-air, then landing and reversing direction… bugs have no chance against this little fireball.
And here was Mrs. Hooded Warbler, hunting in the shade, before flashing back out into the sunlight, where her slightly olive head and back contrasted with her sunshine yellow eye-mask, chest and belly.
A Yellow Warbler, showing his “finger-painting” chestnut streaks flew up from the deep shade down at the drip, and paused for a split second for me on a well-lit branch. Many birds took a turn in the tiny fresh pool – I imagine it felt good after the salt air above the ocean.
Note: These birds are little, and fast, and cautious, and on a mission (i.e., bulking up to resume their journey North to start their families). So, my photos are full of occluding sticks, leaves, grass, and weird shadows, but I wanted to share my excitement and happiness at being so close to such a variety of migratory birds, here for only a few brief days each spring. So, I’ve included photos based on surprise and joy, rather than technique.
An insistent knocking sounded right over my head. Looking up, I found this Summer Tanager busily cleaning the wings, legs and stinger off a fat honey bee by beating and swiping his bill against the branch before swallowing it down. In this shot you can see the blurry remnants of bee legs still balanced on the limb. He is so close, the pesky depth of field was not sufficient to get his whole body, and I have a raft of photos showing the hapless bee where the tanager’s head is fuzzy, or his tail is clipped by the frame. From those other photos, I can attest this bird is scarlet all over. I’d been mistaken for years, thinking this was the “Scarlet Tanager” (see below).
And I think this is Mrs. Summer Tanager, looking demure in the dappled light. The female Scarlet Tanager is yellow, like the female Summer Tanager, but has darker wings, so this bird’s yellowish wings are the basis of my identification.
The titular Scarlet Tanager has black wings and tail, and though you can only see a hint of it here, he has gold smudges under his wings. This is his breeding plumage – non-breeding adult males are mottled olive-yellow or yellow and orange.
A pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks harvested the immature mulberries overhead in the low canopy. I tried hard and failed to get an unobstructed view, but at least I got eye contact, and a glimpse of his berry-crusted bill.
I recognized this Baltimore Oriole from sightings up north during my childhood. He was especially interested in the half-oranges speared on sticks by the Audubon team.
This chestnut and black bird is an Orchard Oriole; you can see how similar the wing patterns of the Baltimore and the Orchard are. It chased the Baltimore Orioles off the oranges, and here in the Xeriscape section of the Sanctuary, paused above a drip before chasing away the Indigo Buntings.
The Indigo Buntings apparently prefer a more open landscape. I didn’t see many in the Neotropical Sanctuary, but they were plentiful in small groups out in the Xeriscape Reserve. They would hide in groups of four or five in the dead undergrowth of the salt cedar, and fly up from underfoot as we walked the narrow mowed paths.
All About Birds notes that, like all other blue-colored birds, these buntings lack blue pigment. Instead, their color comes from light reflecting and refracting off the particular microscopic structure of their feathers, similar to the optical effect that makes the sky appear blue.
This little puffball was one of a group at the base of some salt cedars waiting their turn at a drip in the Xeriscape area. When we first walked up to the drip, they all flew away, but after waiting about 5 minutes, they returned. His molt to adult breeding plumage is not quite complete.
I believe this is a young male Indigo Bunting, molting into his vivid blue adult feathers. The females and young males are super-camouflaged in chestnut and brown, and the young males show this endearing calico pattern in mid-molt.
This animated map helped me better appreciate the miracle of avian migration. All About Birds (a website from Cornell Labs) and eBird (a website for citizen tracking of birds) collaborated to create an animated dot map illustrating the annual bird migration from South America to North America and back. The caption of that animation links a second map that tags each species represented.
Whew! I didn’t mean to make this an enduro-post, I just got carried away. Sharing two afternoons with these incredibly colorful and musical migrant birds was a very special and refreshing adventure.