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The Upper Texas Coast has long been recognized as one of the best places to be during spring migration. Each year, 25+ species of warblers pass through the area's coastal woodlands, as well as many species of vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, and other passerines. Although the presence of songbirds is strongly weather-related, other birds are numerous and more predictable. Up to 36 species of shorebirds include plovers, terns, most of the country's herons and egrets, pelicans, Black Skimmers, and several species of gulls.

During the first part of the tour, we investigate the Big Thicket, northeast of Houston. There we see southeastern specialties like Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman's Sparrow, Fish Crow, and Brown-headed Nuthatch.

Several nesting warblers may be on territory, including Prothonotary, Hooded, Kentucky, Pine, Prairie, and Swainson's. The Big Thicket area is also known for its diversity of dragonflies and damselflies (about 100 species) and butterflies (up to seven species of swallowtails in a single spot!), and we won't ignore these as they appear. For the balance of the time, we alternate between the coastal woodlands at High Island, other nearby migrant hotspots, and the surrounding rice fields, beaches, and wetlands around Galveston Bay.

Our schedule is somewhat weather-dependent: North winds, rain, or cold fronts put down migrating birds and we search for them in woodlands behind the Gulf's shores. If rice fields are flooded, we stand a good chance of seeing shorebirds like American Golden-Plovers, Stilt, Semipalmated and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Hudsonian Godwit, as well as Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and both White-faced and Glossy Ibises. Along the coast, we look for Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, American Oystercatcher, and the endangered Piping Plover. In the process, we have a chance to study a variety of rails, shorebirds, terns, and other waterbirds.

Tour Highlights

  • Enjoy the pulse of migration at preserves created by the Houston Audubon Society; your visit supports protected habitat for thousands of migrants
  • Listen to the cacophony of hundreds of breeding herons at Smith Oaks Rookery
  • Study a smorgasbord of migrant shorebirds with an expert at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Preserve
  • Marvel at or photograph stunning species like Roseate Spoonbill and Scarlet Tanager
  • Watch as many as 25 species of warblers in bright, breeding plumage
  • Discover secretive rails, bitterns, and myriad other species at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
  • Bird pine country for southeastern specialties like Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow

Trip Itinerary

Day 1: Arrivals in Houston

Welcome to Texas! After gathering at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) by 2:00 PM, we head to our lodging. We enjoy a welcome dinner, getting to know each other and going over a preview of our days ahead with your guide. As time permits we check a few bird areas near our hotel, which is located close to W. Goodrich Jones State Forest north of the airport.
Accommodations in The Woodlands (D)

Day 2: W. Goodrich Jones State Forest | Big Creek Scenic Area

After an early breakfast, we depart for W. Goodrich Jones State Forest, about 50 minutes north of the airport. The forest hosts several clusters of endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Pine Warblers, and other species characteristic of the region's pine forests.

Driving east, we stop at the Big Creek Scenic Area. Occasionally, Louisiana Waterthrush can be found near the parking area, as well as Gray Petaltail — one of the Southeast's special dragonflies. This area can be productive for butterflies and a sunny morning may yield a variety of swallowtails.

Continuing eastward, we check the boat ramp at Martin Dies, Jr., State Park for Prothonotary and Yellow-throated Warblers, Yellow-throated Vireos, and other woodland species such as Eastern Wood Pewee and Great Crested Flycatcher. A short drive farther east takes us to Jasper, our home for the next two nights.
Accommodations in Jasper (B,L,D)

Day 3: Piney Woods | Angelina National Forest

After breakfast, we head back to Martin Dies State Park. The one-mile Slough Trail supports nearly every breeding warbler species of the region, including: Pine, Prairie, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Yellow-throated, Black-and-white, Swainson’s, Northern Parula, and Common Yellowthroat. Flycatchers should also be abundant along the trail, and we could see any number of migrating warblers, vireos, and tanagers. Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and Northern Cardinal are common in these woods.

After lunch, we head for Angelina National Forest, in the heart of the Texas Pineywoods. Our primary goal here is to watch Red-cockaded Woodpecker returning to their nest and roost sites around sunset, but we are plenty busy in the meantime. Bachman's Sparrow have become very local in East Texas but this area supports several territories. Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wild Turkey, and Indigo and Painted Buntings may be seen along the roadsides.
Accommodations in Jasper (B,L,D)

Day 4: Big Thicket National Preserve | Winnie

Today, we bird our way from Jasper to the town of Winnie. En route, we visit several sites in the Big Thicket National Preserve where we look for more Swainson's, Kentucky, Hooded, Yellow-throated, and Prairie Warblers, as well as Pileated and Red-headed Woodpeckers. We might find Wood Duck on the streams and sloughs, and we are surrounded by flycatchers, tanagers, and vireos.
Butterflies in the area include Palamedes and Zebra Swallowtail, Southern and the scarce Creole pearly-eye, and several interesting skippers such as Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper and Hayhurst's Scallopwing. Dragonflies can be numerous.
If we haven't yet encountered Fish Crow (decidedly local in East Texas), we make a special trip toward Beaumont. As we head toward Winnie, we criss-cross the Trinity River bottomlands in search of nesting Swallow-tailed Kite and Painted Bunting. We should arrive in Winnie with a little time to relax before dinner.
Accommodations in Winnie (B,L,D)

Day 5: High Island | Boy Scout Woods | Smith Oaks | Rollover Pass

We don't have to travel far today to explore some excellent preserves managed by the Houston Audubon Society. These woodland oases or "coastal mottes" as they are called, provide refuge to thousands of Neotropical migrant songbirds. Having just crossed the Gulf of Mexico, a 600-mile non-stop journey, tired birds often pause in these woodlands for food and shelter.

Boardwalk trails allow for amazing and consistently close viewing without undue disturbance to the birds. Walking the trails, we search for warblers, tanagers, thrushes, vireos, buntings, and more. Warblers passing through the woodlands include Blue-winged, Blackburnian, Kentucky, Hooded, and the rare Cerulean. The mix of vireos presents a greater challenge; it's a great time to practice identification skills to locate White-eyed, Red-eyed, Warbling, Philadelphia, and Yellow-throated. Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Scarlet Tanager gorge among the fruiting mulberry trees.

After an afternoon break, we drive down the Bolivar Peninsula, checking several areas for terns, gulls, and wading birds. From Rollover Pass we hope to see Laughing Gull; Gull-billed, Royal, Sandwich, Forster's, Least, and possibly Black Terns; as well as the closely related Black Skimmer. This is also a great hangout for loafing American Avocet, often joined by Marbled Godwit. Or, if weather is right for migrants, we leave this for another day and continue to explore the wooded migrant hotspots.
Accommodations in Winnie (B,L,D)

Day 6: Bolivar Flats Shorebird Preserve | High Island — Smith Oaks

We devote part of one day to Bolivar Flats, one of the country's most important way-stations for migrant shorebirds. Recent hurricanes have reshaped the beaches of the Bolivar Peninsula and we probably cross over to Galveston Island (via a short ferry ride) for a better look at the flats. The incoming tide directs the birds towards us and makes for better viewing, so we study the tide chart to plan our day. Habitats at Bolivar and around East Beach on Galveston Island include beach, mudflats, and salt marsh, all of which provide a nutrient-rich smorgasbord for shorebirds. This is one of the best places to slow down and really study these far-ranging migrants.

Using high-powered spotting scopes, we carefully scan the flocks for Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, and both Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers. Here we're likely to be able to compare similar species such as Semipalmated, Piping (a wintering species), and Snowy Plovers, often in groups with the larger Wilson's Plover. American Oystercatcher may be present here, feeding among the smaller shorebirds, and Brown Pelican often fly in long lines above. There are hundreds of Laughing Gull; with patience we may find Herring Gull or a rarity such as Lesser Black-backed, Franklin's, or California Gull. Osprey may fly through, and we also watch overhead for Black and Turkey Vultures. If a Peregrine Falcon should come by, we get some spectacular flight displays!

In the afternoon, we return to our lodgings for a little siesta before heading out to the rookery portion of Smith Oaks. A viewing platform there affords outstanding views of colonial wading birds. At sunset, enjoy the spectacle of Snowy and Cattle Egrets coming to roost, joined by Roseate Spoonbill, Great Egret, Neotropical Cormorant, and Little Blue and Tricolored Herons.
Accommodations in Winnie (B,L,D)

Day 7: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

We leave early this morning for the 34,000-acre Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, located on the eastern end of Galveston Bay. En route we inspect groups of feeding shorebirds in the agricultural fields, looking for American Golden-Plover, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Stilt Sandpiper. We circumnavigate Shoveler Pond on the auto route, stopping many times to get out with the scopes and view the abundant wading birds.

Some 280 species have been recorded here, attracted to prairies, patchy woodland habitat, and the marshes. Seaside Sparrow is fairly common in grasses near the bay edge. Roseate Spoonbill always attract a lot of attention; here they feed alongside White, and sometimes White-faced, Ibises. Marsh Wren provide a background chorus, broken by the raucous calls of Boat-tailed Grackle. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and both Least and American Bitterns often put on a good display; Least Bitterns nest here and may be numerous.

American Alligator are particularly plentiful in the extensive ponds and wet prairies, while Northern Harrier hunt from above. While we are here, butterfly enthusiasts want to look for Salt Marsh Skipper. For those new to butterfly watching, the garden at refuge headquarters makes learning and comparing species much easier! Mammals we may encounter include Coyote, Raccoon, Mink, Muskrat, and Swamp Rabbit. On short trails near headquarters we can stretch our legs and scan for songbirds before our drive back to High Island. Enjoy a free evening tonight with a choice of restaurants. Birding die-hards may want to check out what has turned up at nearby Boy Scout Woods.
Accommodations in Winnie (B,L,D)

Day 8: High Island | Bolivar Flats | Bolivar Ferry to Galveston Island

Today we are ideally positioned to make the most of where birds are plentiful, and to search for species we may have not yet encountered. If the action is high at Boy Scout Woods at High Island we stop there to check for warblers and other migrant songbirds. This and other Important Bird Areas all hold potential. In general we head down the coast, visiting ponds and shorelines and then crossing by ferry to Galveston. Here we visit several key birding spots before crossing back over to the mainland to position ourselves near Brazos Bend State Park for tomorrow’s grand finale.
Accommodations in Alvin (B,L,D)

Day 9: Brazos Bend State Park | Final Birding & Departures from Houston

This morning we visit one of the best kept secrets of Texas Coast birding, Brazos Bend State Park. Here we often add several key species, in forests and wetlands, including Pileated Woodpecker and common Prothonotary Warblers. We might have to zig-zag across the trails to avoid American Alligator! We plan to arrive at the airport by 12:30 PM, for flights out after 2:00 PM, so please plan your return travel accordingly. We do want the morning for birding, so please honor these flight times. (B)

  • American Avocet, Texas, Texas Coast, Big Thicket, Texas Birding Tour, Spring Migration Tour, Texas Migration Tour, Texas Nature Tour, Naturalist Journeys
  • Tropical Mockingbird, Texas, Texas Coast, Big Thicket, Texas Birding Tour, Spring Migration Tour, Texas Migration Tour, Texas Nature Tour, Naturalist Journeys
  • Egret Rookery, Texas, Texas Coast, Big Thicket, Texas Birding Tour, Spring Migration Tour, Texas Migration Tour, Texas Nature Tour, Naturalist Journeys
  • Texas, Texas Coast, Big Thicket, Texas Birding Tour, Spring Migration Tour, Texas Migration Tour, Texas Nature Tour, Naturalist Journeys
  • Texas, Texas Coast, Big Thicket, Texas Birding Tour, Spring Migration Tour, Texas Migration Tour, Texas Nature Tour, Naturalist Journeys
  • Prothonotary Warbler, Texas, Texas Coast, Big Thicket, Texas Birding Tour, Spring Migration Tour, Texas Migration Tour, Texas Nature Tour, Naturalist Journeys
  • Red-headed Woodpecker, Texas, Texas Coast, Big Thicket, Texas Birding Tour, Spring Migration Tour, Texas Migration Tour, Texas Nature Tour, Naturalist Journeys

Cost of the Journey

Cost of the journey is $TBD from Houston, Texas. Cost includes: all accommodations; all meals as stated in the itinerary; group airport transfers; ground transportation; professional guide services; park, preserve, and other activity fees; and miscellaneous program expenses.

Tour price does not include: roundtrip airfare to and from Houston or items of a personal nature such as laundry, porterage, telephone charges, or alcoholic beverages. Gratuities for maids or porters, and gratuity for your guides are not included—these are at your discretion, but highly appreciated and recommended. With fewer than 6 participants, a small-group surcharge (typically $100 - $300 per participant) may apply, or we may request that you pick up the cost of a few additional dinners in lieu of this surcharge.

Items of Note

Pair this tour with our Texas Big Bend tour and we’ll reimburse your connecting flight up to $100. Talk to us for details.

Browse below for trip reports and species lists from past versions of this and other tours from this destination.


Big Bend & Davis Mountains

Big Bend Monsoon Madness

South Texas

Texas Coast

Texas Hill Country

  • Mason Flint

    Mason is a New Mexico native who started birding at age 11 when his family moved within walking distance of the Richardson Bay Audubon Sanctuary in Tiburon, California. Here, he became an Audubon Junior Naturalist. His love of birding and travel grew through as he moved with his family to Alaska, Ohio, and Vermont, college on the east coast, and a few years trying to eke out a living as a birder/ski bum in Montana and back in New Mexico.

    In desperate need of gainful employment, Mason settled in Seattle where he spent most of his career at Microsoft. Mason was able to feed his habit by adding on a day or two of birding to business trips across the US, Europe, and Asia and travel with his family. His wife Suzy, who loves travel but isn’t a birder, is a good sport and jokes that being married to a birder has given her the opportunity to visit sewage treatment ponds around the world.

    Mason retired a bit early in 2015 to help fledge his two sons, squeezing in travel and birding between soccer games and band performances. He was thrilled to finally combine his passions and profession when he joined Naturalist Journeys as a consultant in early 2020. Mason has led field trips in Texas, Southeastern Arizona, Minnesota, Peru, and Iceland.

    Other trips with Mason Flint

  • Greg Butcher

    Greg recently retired as the Migratory Species Coordinator for U.S. Forest Service International Programs, working throughout the Western Hemisphere. He is Vice President for Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, serving on the Conservation and Citizen Science committees. For his Ph.D. in Zoology at University of Washington, he studied the coloration and behavior of Bullock’s Orioles. Greg studied ecology in Costa Rica with the Organization for Tropical Studies and has worked internationally for the past 19 years. Greg has previously worked for the National Audubon Society, American Birding Association, Birder’s World magazine (now Birdwatching), Partners in Flight, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society (AOS). He has been a birder since he was 11 and has birded in all 50 states and 46 countries.

    Other trips with Greg Butcher

Map for Texas Coast & Big Thicket

Photo credits: Banners: Blackburnian Warbler by Tom Dove; Great Egret Rookery, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Roseate Spoonbills by Carlos Sanchez; Birding Pine Forest, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Yellow-throated Warbler by Carlos Sanchez; Indian Paintbrush, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Forest Birding by Tony Beck; Indigo Bunting by Doug Greenberg; Snowy Egret and White Ibis by Betty Andres; Green Heron by Betty Andres; American Alligator by Rob Colyer; Prothonotary Warbler by Doug Pratt; Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Tom Dove; Red-headed Woodpecker, Terry Peterson; Brown Pelican, Delsa Anderl; Creole Pearly-eye, BA; Blackburnian Warbler, TD; Male Roseate Skimmer, BB; Magnolia Warbler, Doug Greenberg; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Mahlon Hale; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Mahlon Hale; Black Skimmer, Carlos Sanchez; American Oystercatcher, Carlos Sanchez; Sanderlings, Carlos Sanchez; Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, NJStock; Greater Yellowlegs, NJStock; American Alligator, Rob Colyer; Birding High Island, NJStock; Roseate Spoonbill, NJStock; Softshell Turtle, NJStock; American Avocets, Delsa Anderl; Tropical Mockingbird, Betty Andres; Egret Rookery, NJStock; Group x2, NJStock; Prothonotary Warbler, Carol Knabe; Red-headed Woodpecker, Doug Greenberg.


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