Fallout. A birding Nirvana.

Steve Hannington birder

This guest post is written by my husband, Steve Hannington.

As a young birder growing up in Toronto, Ontario I fondly remember many spring migrations when the woods, the fields and the shoreline would come alive with song and colour as spring migrating birds heralded their arrival with song and beautiful breeding plumages.  One Victoria Day weekend in 1968 my father took my two brothers and me to the birder’s mecca of Point Pelee National Park to witness the wonders of spring migration.  

It had been raining all night and we suffered all night in a leaky tent.  The next morning the sun broke through and everywhere we looked were hundreds of bedraggled songbirds clinging to the small trees and vines at the tip of Point Pelee.  It was a spring migration fallout—a rare situation where night migrating song birds encounter a cold front and are stopped in their nocturnal flight.  In the morning light, every tree and bush seemed to be dripping with thrushes, tanagers, vireos, buntings, orioles, sparrows, and of course, warblers—dozens and dozens of warblers: Prothonatory, Black-and-white, Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Black-throated blue, Black-throated green, Blackburnian, Magnolia, Canada, Mourning, and so many others.  My brothers and I saw 28 species of warblers during that fallout, many of which were lifers for me. of course, since I was only eight. Fifty years since that epic event I have experienced a number of bird spring migration fallouts, but nothing compares to the one that occurred at Point Pelee National Park in May 1968.

My wife, Lisa, and I recently moved to Austin, Texas and one of our favourite birding haunts is High Island on the Gulf Coast of Texas—an area renowned for spring migration bird fallouts. I was at High Island in mid April this year and Thursday, April 12, was a productive day where I observed 15 species of warblers as well as many vireos, tanagers, orioles and buntings in a section called Boy Scout Woods and other woodlots, such as Hook Woods and Smith Oak Woods. There was a steady south wind blowing ashorea south wind that would be carrying tens of thousands of songbirds as they made the 14-18-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico from their launching point somewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula. Bearing down on the Texas Gulf Coast was a cold front from the mid-West bringing with it turbulent weather and thunderstorms. Such favorable meteorological conditions were sure to produce a fallout

That evening I eagerly watched the local weather channel for news on the steadily approaching cold front.  Massive storms were occurring in Houston to the west as the cold front pushed its way south.  Tomorrow was going to be a birdy day, I thought.

I awoke early Friday morning in eager anticipation. It had been stormy that night and surely migrating birds would be swarming over High Island. By the time I arrived at High Island at first light it became clear that the strong north winds would not be producing a fallout. What few birds were found were hunkered down, taking shelter from the bad weather. Indeed, there were very few spring migrants to be seen anywhere. My much anticipated and hoped for fallout had become a washout

Such is birding.  There is always next spring.

Notwithstanding my disappointment in witnessing a fallout, I did get marvelous opportunities of seeing and photographing a steady stream of spring migrants at High Island and the nearby Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Tanagers are a great subject for photography.  Unlike frenetic warblers that are always flitting to and fro and extremely difficult to photograph, tanagers take their time. This, in turn, allows a photographer to take his or her time to get a decent photo.  Scarlet Tanagers, like the one below, seem to almost pose for their photograph.  They obviously know of your presence, yet nevertheless seem unperturbed.  This particular Scarlet Tanager had been feasting on mulberries that ripen in mid-April —the peak migration season for many songbirds.  The mulberries provide a vital high-energy food source for spring migrants who must replenish their fat reserves after a long flight over the Gulf of Mexico.

Scarlet Tanager (male) High Island Texas

Scarlet Tanager (male)

This next photo is a female Prothonotary Warbler, feasting on some ripening mulberries.  Similar to the male, but with white flanks and a less pronounced yellow hood ,this female is enroute to its swampy breeding grounds that could be anywhere from Texas to Ontario.

Prothonotary Warbler (female) High Island Texas

Prothonotary Warbler (female)

Below is a Tennessee Warbler. (I am not sure  if it is a male or female.)  Like many warbler species, the Tennessee Warbler breeds in the boreal forests of northern Canada and only passes through Tennessee during spring and fall migration.

Tennessee Warbler High Island Texas

Tennessee Warbler

I am particularly of fond the composition of this next photograph of a male Orchard Oriole, which is feeding on the nectar of a bottlebrush flower.  Orchard Orioles are common in much of the eastern half of Texas, which is a nice treat for me, because in Ontario where I grew up they are rare in number and found in only certain local spots.

Orchard Oriole male High Island texas

Orchard Oriole (male)

This Gray Catbird (below has recently arrived at High Island, Texas after an arduous 650-mile flight from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.  The migrating song birds leave the prior evening and arrive along the coast of Texas and Louisiana early in the afternoon some 14 to 18 hours later.  They are exhausted, de-hydrated and famished after such a grueling flight.  The drip pool at Boy Scout Woods on High Island offers a perfect opportunity to drink some fresh water and wash off the sea salt spray on their plumage.

Gray Catbird High Island Texas

Gray Catbird

This male Hooded Warbler was also found bathing at the drip pool.

Hooded Warbler (male) High Island Texas

Hooded Warbler (male)

The Wood Thrush was gathering nesting material for its nearby nest.  I love the sweet flute-like song of the Wood Thrush and remember listening to its evening serenades every spring when it nested in my back yard in Toronto.

Wood Thrush High Island Texas

Wood Thrush

Indigo Buntings are joyful birds.  They winter in Central America and northern South America and migrate to their nesting grounds in central U.S.A. and southern Canada.  Bird migration has always fascinated me and I am in awe as to how these little songsters can travel such great distances.

Indigo Bunting (male) High Island Texas

Indigo Bunting (male)

This next shot is not a great photo of a swamp sparrow, nevertheless, I like the composition of the bird with the duck weed. This bird was a lifer for many in our Travis Audubon bird group who visited Anahuac NWR on April 15.

Swamp Sparrow Anahuac NWR

Swamp Sparrow

This last shot is one of my favorite photographs. It’s a male King Rail that I found skulking in the roadside ditch at Anahuac NWR and I took this photo from my car. King Rails are elusive birds and fairly difficult to see. Being able to see this bird out in the open is a rare treat.

King Rail (male) Anahuac NWR Texas

King Rail (male)

So yes, this wasn’t a bird fall out, but you don’t need a fall out to see some pretty impressive birds, and remember, there is always next year.