We are excited to introduce our new series of International Woodpecker Conservation Tours with a North American trip to the Pineywoods of eastern Texas. We have visited all corners of the Lone Star State, but our special fondness for the eastern “red” woodpeckers—the Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Red-cockaded—continually brings us back to this forested region. We will spend plenty of time with up to eight woodpecker species in the Texas pine forests, but all the tours in this conservation series are about much more than just the woodpeckers. As in our past tours to the this region, we combine a few days in the forest with the migration spectacle of High Island and the upper Texas Coast for a world-class birding vacation. Join us in Texas this spring, and you too will want to return.
-Your host and guide, Stephen Shunk
RED-HEADED WOODPECKER, Melanerpes erythrocephalus.
The handsome Red-headed Woodpecker is listed as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Red-headed could also “boast” at being listed at some level of concern in more states and provinces than any other woodpecker in North America. As a weak excavator and a fly-catching specialist, the Red-headed Woodpecker requires a very specific habitat prescription, with plenty of snags and an open canopy. The human behavior of removing snags from the landscape puts the Red-headed at a disadvantage for nesting substrates, and several factors have resulted in closed canopies throughout much of its range. Here in Texas, this species comes close to the southeastern limits of its range.
RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER, Picoides borealis.
Thanks to the U.S. Endangered Species Act, we probably know more about the Red-cockaded Woodpecker than we do any other woodpecker in the world. A few hundred years of logging in our southeastern pine forests originally put this species in peril, when we cleared millions of acres of very specialized habitat for this spunky little woodpecker. The USFWS first listed the bird as “Endangered” in 1970, and we have subsequently spent many millions of dollars studying this woodpecker’s lifestyle and habitat requirements. Recognizing its need for fire-maintained mature pine forests, intensive management and recovery efforts have led to stable populations throughout the southeastern U.S. Like the Red-headed Woodpecker, the Red-cockaded is listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN.
IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER, Campephilus principalis. Unfortunately, we will not get to see the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but we will stand in places where the species once thrived: among the riparian bottomlands of our southeastern forests. The seasonal flooding of the slow, winding rivers in eastern Texas created rich swampland that hosted modest numbers of this majestic bird. John James Audubon even reported the Ivory-bill as “very abundant” on Buffalo Bayou, which today snakes it way through downtown Houston. We will see plenty of other birds along the Neches and Trinity Rivers, but we will have to use our imaginations to picture the primeval forest that once stood where they flow today. The debate continues about whether or not the Ivory-bill persists anywhere in the southeastern U.S. Despite this ambiguity, the USFWS maintains the species as “Endangered,” and the IUCN lists the bird as “Critically Endangered” in the U.S. and Cuba.
Our basic tour route for 2016 begins and ends in the mega-metropolis of Houston. After our airport rendezvous, we quickly leave the city and enter rural eastern Texas. Our first afternoon will take us to Brazos Bend State Park, on the Brazos River, where a walk around the productive freshwater swamps should produce an abundance of singing Prothonotary Warblers and equal numbers of alligators! We will also look for our first woodpeckers, with locally nesting Red-bellied, Downy, and Pileated. Waterbirds at Brazos Bend may include Purple Gallinule, Anhinga, White Ibis, and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. We will spend our first night just across the river in Angleton, on the broad coastal plain. After breakfast on our first morning, we will head straight to the Gulf Coast. We will make various stops on our way up the coastline, including the Quintana and Dos Vacas Muertas Bird Sanctuaries, followed by lunch in the busy coastal town of Galveston. After lunch, we will take the ferry across Galveston Bay to the Bolivar Peninsula, birding our way north toward High Island.
Time allowing, the afternoon will include visits to one or more of the well-managed sanctuaries at High Island (which is not a true island, but an island of habitat atop a geologic salt dome!). We will spend our next two nights in the tiny town of Winnie, just north of High Island, and our days here will be spent exploring the High Island sanctuaries and nearby coastline. We will hope for a southbound cold front to optimize the viewing opportunities of migrant songbirds. When these exhausted trans-gulf migrants hit a cold front, they will “crash” onto the first piece of land they see.
More than 20 warbler species are possible, along with dozens of other songbirds, including vireos, orioles, tanagers, buntings, thrushes, and more. Migrating waterbirds also take advantage of the long gulf coastline and the surrounding flats, and we could see more than 20 species of shorebird.
After our migration experience at High Island, we will head north through the bottomlands of the Neches River—once the realm of the magnificent Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Our base for the next two nights will be the town of Jasper in the heart of the Texas Pineywoods. Here we will focus on seven species of resident woodpeckers, along with other specialty birds of the riparian and bottomland forests.
The spunky little Red-cockaded Woodpecker will be a top priority, with at least a couple chances to watch this charismatic bird. Each morning and evening, Red-cockaded family groups leave from and return to their “cluster” of cavity trees, never quietly and always exhibiting a broad array of entertaining antics. In addition to the Red-cockaded, we should see plenty of Pileated, Red-headed, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and the surrounding forests support a number of unique songbird populations, which will easily distract us from our woodpecker watching. Nesting warblers include Pine, Prairie, Prothonotary, Hooded, Kentucky, and Swainson’s Warblers. We will seek out Bachman’s Sparrow in the grassy forest understory and Brown-headed Nuthatch squeaking overhead.
The Neches River hosts nesting Swallow-tailed Kite, and we should see flocks of migrating Mississippi Kites, along with Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks. On our final day, we will make our way west and south toward Houston, with birding stops along the Trinity River and one more chance to watch Red-cockadeds and their cousins in the pine forests. After lunch on the outskirts of Houston, we will return to the airport by noon for 2 p.m. or later departures.
Throughout the trip, our daily itinerary will depend on the weather, tides, local bird reports, and our success at finding certain species. Each day will offer about 11 hours of daylight and will do our best to optimize the prime birding times and concentrate our time in the best quality habitats. Most of our East Texas birding is done on foot, with many short walks and a few longer walks, all on generally flat terrain. We typically follow well-established trails or walk on open beaches, with much of the birding in public parks and private preserves. Birding at High Island sanctuaries can be challenging at times, with small birds frequently skulking in the underbrush or flitting high in the trees, but many of the birds are easily viewed at eye-level. Water-birding is typically very easy, with flocks of sandpipers, terns, and wading birds spread across the mud flats. Most woodpeckers will be easily seen in the open woodlands.
As with any group outing, birders with more advanced skills will be able to find and identify more of the anticipated species, while those with less experience will delight in the abundance of “life-birds” throughout the tour. This tour may even be fine for some beginners, but they should be prepared for the abundance of birds and new information.
Your guide, Steve Shunk, is a patient, professional educator, and he will work diligently to help each participant learn bird sounds and visual identification, as well as general natural and cultural history of the region.
This tour is for moderately active people in good health. Our guides are certified first aid providers, although at times we may be a couple hours from the nearest urban medical facilities. Every day will involve considerable walking, and we may hike a total of two or three miles per day. We will do our best to cater each day’s activities to the ability level of the group. To take advantage of cooler temperatures and the height of bird activity, we will usually start birding early each morning, with breaks or meals in the heat of the day, often birding until sunset.
Depending on group size, we will either travel in a large passenger van or a minivan. In either case, we will leave ample room for each guest to have his or her own window in the vehicle. If we drive a large van, we will use a step stool for easy entry. This is a non-smoking tour. We will stay in non-smoking rooms and eat in non-smoking areas.
We will meet all participants at the Houston Hobby (or Houston Intercontinental, if requested) at approximately 2:00 pm, Saturday, April 2. Specific pickup time and location will depend on individual itineraries. We will return to Houston no later than noon on Friday, April 8, to allow plenty of time for 2 p.m. or later departures.
Your tour fee includes all meals, snacks, and non-alcoholic beverages; six nights lodging; transportation from Houston; fees, licenses, and permits; service-related gratuities; and the instruction and leadership of your guide(s). The fee does not include guides’ gratuities, which are never expected but always appreciated based on your satisfaction
with our service.
We are pleased to accept checks or credit cards (VISA or Mastercard). A non-refundable $95 deposit is required to hold your space, with the balance due 90 days prior to departure.
If you register after January 2, the entire tour fee is due with your registration materials. We always recommend that you purchase travel insurance.
PER PERSON: $2,003 single / $1,719 double
NOTE: Our tour fees are structured to allow the best possible client-to-guide ratio for an optimal birding experience, with a maximum of 7 participants on this tour.
REFUND POLICY: Your deposit is non-refundable. If you cancel your reservation more than 60 days prior to the tour, you will be refunded any payments above your deposit. If you cancel between 60 and 30 days prior to the tour, you will receive a 50% refund of fees paid over the deposit. If you cancel less than 30 days prior, you forfeit your entire tour fee, unless you can fill your space with another birder. If you cancel at any time, your deposit is transferrable to any Paradise Birding tour at any time in the future. If WE cancel the tour for any reason, you will be refunded all payments, including your deposit.
To pre-register for the tour, please complete the registration forms and return them with your non-refundable $95 deposit. If you are registering less than 60 days prior to the tour date, please submit the entire balance.
We look forward to seeing you in Texas this spring!