Spring Migration Happiness

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.

Google Satellite view of Quintana Neotropical Sanctuary and Xeriscape Nature Reserve

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.

Adult male Hooded Warbler sprinting after bugs
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window, and a second time to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here.)

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.

Female Hooded Warbler showing her yellow eye mask
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Adult male Yellow Warbler (Northern) considering a bath
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Adult male Summer Tanager keeping his eye on me
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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).

Adult female Summer Tanager (I’m pretty sure)
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 6400
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Adult male Scarlet Tanager nestled in the weeds
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in mulberry bush
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Adult male Baltimore Oriole singing to me
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 3200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Feisty adult male Orchard Oriole protecting the drip
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Adult male Indigo Bunting balancing in the wind
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.


Fluffed up young adult male Indigo Bunting
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Immature male Indigo Bunting in calico phase
1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

8 thoughts on “Spring Migration Happiness”

    1. Thanks, Karen – this is turning out to be a banner year for the spring migration. I love their brilliant colors, too! But they are a LOT of work to photograph 🙂

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  1. Looks like you had perfect timing for a wonderful day! We managed to hit the fallout perfectly as well at Dauphin Island this week. Incredible birding as you witnessed on the other side of the gulf. Great shots!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh boy, I am so glad you got to experience a GOOD Spring Migration. Some years with southerly winds we are lucky to see a few stragglers, You got some great shots; the juvenile Indigo Buntings are lovely. It is HARD chasing those tiny guys thru the brambles and the bushes with limbs or branches always in the way. Hand-held is the way to go; tripods work OK at drips (or when you are so tired you have to sit a while). We should have a few more waves of migrants so we both may get a Painted Bunting yet!

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