Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail
The trip began on the Big Thicket Loop, deep in the East Texas Pineywoods. It was two days after the autumnal equinox, a time when cold fronts start pushing through Texas on a regular basis.
This East Texas forest is the western edge of a forest that once covered much of the southeastern United States. Ted Eubanks, president of Fermata, Inc., and contracted designer of the trail with Texas Parks and Wildlife, gripped the steering wheel in one hand and his binoculars in the other as he turned to his passengers, coworker Bob Behrstock and Linda Campbell, birding trail project leader for TPW. "Even experienced birders largely overlook this part of East Texas," he said. "It's filled with warblers and other birds, too."
Like many of the GTCBT loops, the Big Thicket Loop takes the traveler inland, in this case to the shores of Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn reservoirs. The first stop of the morning was the south end of Sam Rayburn, where hundreds of wood ducks streamed over the lake. Near the spillway, Bob spotted three common loons in breeding plumage, early arrivals from the north.
Several good birding spots dot the lake's south shore. At one of them, Ebenezer Park, Ted and Bob imitated an eastern screech owl to call in dozens of pine warblers. As one might guess from its name, in Texas the pine warbler is confined to eastern coniferous forests. Illustrating for the first time on this trip—but definitely not the last—that the trail is more of a nature trail than strictly a birding trail, Bob captured two lilypad forktails, a species of damselfly known from only a few counties in eastern Texas. Ted photographed a number of common mestras, a butterfly more often found in the Rio Grande Valley.
On the way to the next stop, Ted and Bob discussed how fall birding in Texas differs from springtime birding. "The spring migration tends to be a much more brief and intense affair," said Ted. "Spring migration begins in late March and extends through early May and that's it. Fall migration begins with shorebirds arriving in the middle of July and extends almost until Christmas. So it's a very long, drawn-out and, in some ways, leisurely affair."
"Birds that are present in Texas for a couple of weeks in the spring might be present for a couple of months during the fall migration," added Bob, "because you've got adults moving south, you've got young birds moving south, often at different times. The birds just sort of piddle their way south. So it's a much longer phenomenon. A good day of spring birding will occur in a very narrow time window, whereas a good day of fall birding could occur anywhere over a couple of months' time, given the correct weather conditions."
The day was warming as Ted pulled into the longleaf pine forests of Boykin Springs, part of Angelina National Forest. Controlled burns here do the job that lightning strikes used to do naturally prior to European settlement—create an open savanna of pines by keeping understory plants in check. The scent of pines drifted through the air as the three searched the trees with binoculars. After a few seconds they spotted it: a bluebird-size woodpecker with a black-and-white barred back. It was the red-cockaded woodpecker, a bird once common throughout the South. Today it is an endangered species whose survival depends on habitat such as this. The forest holds more pine warblers and some brown-headed nuthatches, another species that, in Texas, can be seen only in the Pineywoods.
Interesting plants at Boykin Springs included sphagnum moss and pitcher plants, which "eat" insects and are shaped like water pitchers. Linda pointed out a stand of five-foot-high big bluestem, a grass characteristic of the tallgrass prairie.
Afternoon found Linda, Ted, and Bob at Martin Dies Jr. State Park, where pines and bald cypresses reflected in the waters of B. A. Steinhagen Reservoir. A wooden bridge connects the park and the nearby wildlife management area, and a platform on the bridge offers a good vantage point for seeing birds. In another couple of months the lake would be filled with waterfowl, but on this late September afternoon a purple gallinule and some common moorhens had the place pretty much to themselves.
As the sun set on day one, the travelers arrived at Village Creek State Park, where Bob quickly enticed two barred owls into a duet. Ted, imitating an eastern screech owl, lured one of the barred owls in close enough to feel the wind from its wings as it whooshed past him.
GORP thanks Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine for permission to use this article.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication