Friday, January 4, 2013

Rocking the birds at Rockport

Roseate Spoonbills are not challenging to identify, but they certainly brighten up a day of birding. Spoonbills can be found at all seasons in the region of Rockport/Fulton on the central Texas coast.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  In early March, much of North America still will be struggling to shake off winter, weary of the cold and impatient for spring.  But on the central Texas coast, things will be hopping, as the abundant wintering birds mix with the first spring migrants.  And we will be there also.  We will be reviving a tradition that aims to increase the enjoyment of birding.
Marbled Godwits, photographed in winter at Rockport, Texas. A wide variety of shorebirds can be found  here  through the winter, with more joining them during migration.  For learning to identify shorebirds with confidence, it's especially helpful to see them in mixed flocks, where direct comparisons are possible. 
In the early 1990s, Victor Emanuel and I started a series of birding workshops at Rockport, Texas.  The first edition of my Field Guide to Advanced Birding had just been published, and we used the principles in that book to plan our activities in the field.  These workshops turned out to be tremendously inspiring and fun: in a radical departure from the usual tour experience, we moved slowly in the field, studying birds in new ways, trying new approaches that would apply to the field identification of all birds.  And although we weren't trying to run up big lists of species, we wound up seeing a lot of birds, simply because that area of the Texas coast is so rich in bird habitat. 

These workshops were popular for several years, but eventually I had so many demands on my time that I couldn't continue doing them, so we let them lapse for a while.  But after the brand-new edition of my Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding was published in April 2011, Victor and I decided to bring them back.  Victor Emanuel Nature Tours is holding another Rockport Birding Workshop in March 2013, and I couldn't be more pleased and excited.  

An adult Sandwich Tern. Many of the terns are easy to identify when they're in breeding plumage and sitting still in front of us, but they can be more challenging when they're flying at a distance.  We'll break down the challenges and take the mystery out of tern identification.

The Rockport Birding Workshop is scheduled for March 7 - 11, 2013, and more information can be found at this link.  Kimberly and I will join Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon in teaching the workshop.  Our days in the field will have a relaxed pace but an intense focus; we will divide into small groups and rotate regularly, so that everyone has a chance to go birding with each leader. The daytime sessions in the field will be supplemented by evening programs focusing on specific groups of birds.  If you join us, I guarantee that you will improve your skills at identifying birds.  

Sparrows can be tough to ID at times, but they become easier to understand if we start by looking at their behavior and habitat and shape, breaking them down into groups, before we start looking at specific markings.  It's often possible to identify Savannah Sparrows like this one before we've seen a single actual field mark.
The beaches near Rockport host several kinds of small shorebirds.  Their markings may not be very helpful in identifying them, but their shapes and facial expressions are worth noticing.  Looking at the face on this Piping Plover, we hesitate to say that it looks "cute," but that's actually a good ID clue. 
Just a plain brown duck?  No, it's actually a Mottled Duck, a specialty of the Gulf Coast.  During the Rockport Workshop, we'll talk about approaches for identifying ducks up close and at a distance.  
The theme of the workshop is the same as the subtitle of the latest edition of Advanced Birding: "Understanding what you see and hear."  By the way, don't be put off by that word "advanced."  Our focus is on the basics, on principles that would be helpful even to beginners. 

I've always felt that birding should be, first and foremost, enjoyable.  It's more enjoyable when we can recognize more of the birds we're seeing - and when we understand why we can't recognize some of the others.  Understanding is the key.  We say that the workshop is focused on field identification, but "bird appreciation" might be an even better description.
White-tailed Kites are uncommon but regular year-round residents of the coastal prairies near Rockport.
White Ibises (immature on left, adult on right) are among the many species of wading birds found in this region. 
Even though we won't be trying to run up a big species total, we will undoubtedly see a good variety of birds, including the Whooping Cranes that winter in this area.  In early March their migration will be just beginning, so most of the wintering flock should still be present. 
The main wild flock of Whooping Cranes, nesting in north-central Canada, spends the winter in the area of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge just north of Rockport.  We will take a half-day boat trip through the protected waters of the refuge to see the cranes (and many other birds) up close.
In closing, I can't resist going back to the theme of "bird appreciation."  Victor Emanuel and I have been friends for many years, and that's partly because we both appreciate birds in the same way.  Since Victor runs one of the world's most successful nature tour companies, he has made many trips to every continent and has seen many of the rarest birds on the planet, but he still takes genuine delight in seeing everyday, backyard birds.  If you've read our blog in the past, you know that Kimberly and I feel the same way about the most common birds - we love them all!  And Barry Lyon, whom I've known since he was a teenager, is similarly committed to appreciating all of birds and nature.  And we all love people, too!  There are still some spaces open for our Rockport Birding Workshop, and we hope you'll consider joining us!  Once again, more information can be found at this link.  

Not all birds in the Rockport area are as easy to identify as the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. But whether they are easy or challenging, common or rare, we will study them closely as part of our approach to field ID.


  1. Love the last pic, Kenn! I so need to visit Texas in spring...

  2. I am a fairly new 'birder' but a long-time bird watcher. I visited Port Aransas last year during the Whooping Crane Festival and truly enjoyed that area. I took a workshop on nature photography that has helped me tremendously. I know that you and your students are going to have a wonderful time.

    Marcheta *jealous