2012 Tour Narrative
In Brief: This year’s Spring trip to South Texas was filled with a wonderful mix of south Texas specialties, migrant passerines in coastal woodlots, cooperative flocks of shorebirds and terns, and excellent studies of several difficult to separate species pairs. All told, the group tallied an impressive 218 species of birds in a week. We traveled the length of the lower Rio Grande Valley from the sandy shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico on South Padre Island to the small border town of San Ygnacio a few miles above Falcon Dam. Along the way, we encountered all of the birds largely limited in the United States to the lower Rio Grande Valley. The generally easy to see birds such as Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Black-crested Titmouse, Altamira Oriole, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, White-tailed, Harris’s and Gray Hawks, Great Kiskadee, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Long-billed Thrasher, Green and Ringed Kingfishers, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird were all thoroughly enjoyed. In addition to these fine species, some of the rarer valley birds were encountered over the course of the week. Our views of a male White-collared Seedeater at the Zapata Library that was singing and foraging in short grass were hard to improve upon. We enjoyed two sightings of the very scarce Hook-billed Kite, with a pair above the Bensten Hawkwatch Tower and a single bird over Anzalduas County Park. Upriver we had an amazing experience with Muscovy Duck, as a pair slowly swan past us and then took flight circling us several times before heading into Mexico. Our extended views of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl were simply superlative this year. We even encountered a rare visitor from Mexico in the form of an overwintering young male Crimson-collared Grosbeak that was almost too easy to see in a small private yard in Pharr.
The participants voted for almost a dozen different species as the “bird of the trip” and few could argue that birds such as Audubon’s Oriole, Green Jay, or Hook-billed Kite don’t deserve top billing on any trip. For the leader though, no best bird could really be picked, instead I’ll simply look forward to the next years trip, along with the sights and birds that are to come.
In Detail: We commenced this year’s spring south Texas trip in Corpus Christi in order to enjoy the wealth of birds around Aransas Bay before heading down the lower valley. Before our first dinner we made a quick stop at a nearby wetland for our first introduction to the birds of the Texas coast. In no time at all we enjoyed scope views of luminescent Roseate Spoonbills, were entranced by the antics of a foraging Reddish Egret, and worked through a diverse flock of cooperative shorebirds, separating out Least, Semipalmated, Western and Stilt Sandpipers from the horde. Our first full day started with several stops along the shoreline of North Padre Island and the Osa Bay. Throngs of American Avocets, flocks of Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderling and Long-billed Dowitchers were seemingly everywhere. With some patient searching we also found a few Long-billed Curlew, American Oystercatcher and dapper Tricolored Herons. Also of interest were a nice array of terns, including Sandwich and Gull-billed Terns performing courtship rituals within a few yards of our group. Migrant passerines were not in evidence due to the excellent weather, but a check of some coastal migrant traps did produce our first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a few swallows and Chimney Swifts and a single male Orchard Oriole. Without much effort we crossed the 100 species mark well before lunchtime! On the way south to McAllen we lucked into a pair of soaring White-tailed Hawks, a colony of Cave Swallows breeding under a highway overpass, and a wonderful Texas Highway Rest Stop with Hooded Oriole, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Carolina Wren and our first (of many) Great Kiskadees. All in all it was an incredible introduction to a very bird-rich area!
We started the second day off at the famous Bensten State Park. This large tract of protected forestland along the Rio Grande has been quite dry for much of the last decade, but the flooding in 2010 brought a lot of water into the park, and the vegetation has reacted by becoming lusher than in years past. We walked into the park with stops for our first true lower valley specialties. Portly White-tipped Doves, raucous Plain Chachalacas and decadent Green Jays vied for our attentions as we waited for the Tram to take us into the back of the park. Our main focus for the morning was to spend a few hours atop the Bensten Hawkwatch Tower. Over the course of a two-hour vigil we witnessed a steady stream of Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures kettling above the Rio Grande and then streaming to the north. Among the flocks of the more common species we managed to pick out several dozen migrating Swainson’s Hawks, and a few each of Mississippi Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk and White-tailed Kite. The Resaca below the tower held some water, and we had nice studies of Pectoral and Solitary Sandpipers, as well as a singing Olive Sparrow and some truly stunning Red-winged Blackbirds. Just as we were preparing to depart we were thrilled to see a pair of Hook-billed Kites rise up from the surrounding forest and circle for several minutes. These rare raptors have become quite scarce in the valley, and sightings can never be guaranteed. On the walk out of the park we enjoyed excellent views of a nesting pair of Altamira Orioles that were busy putting the finishing touches on their large pendulous nest while fending off three pairs of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers that were investigating a nearby nest cavity. Reptiles were in evidence as well, with several large Blue Spiny Lizards and a small Texas Tortoise. In the afternoon we moved up valley to the town of Zapata, with some light birding in desert scrub while enroute. At the Zapata library a male White-collared Seedeater showed well, which wrapped up quite an excellent day in the field.
Our full day upriver was sunny and unseasonably warm, but the heat did not slow the birding down one bit. Unlike most years where we spend the majority of the morning tracking down White-collared Seedeater we enjoyed a relaxed morning birding around the towns of Zapata and San Ygnacio. We concentrated mainly upon the birds of the surrounding desert brush. Several singing Black-throated Sparrows were teed up in excellent early morning light. While driving along a quiet back road we found our first Cactus Wrens, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Chihuahuan Ravens in quick succession. I think the group’s favorites though were either our excellent views of Pyrrhuloxias fairly glowing in the sun or a beautiful perched Harris’ Hawk along the main highway. A quick stop back at the Zapata Library turned up Green Herons, a cooperative male Common Yellowthroat and a large flock of Cedar Waxwings. Shortly thereafter we had lunch and then elected to wait out the heat of the day by taking a nice siesta. In the late afternoon we drove downstream for a brief visit to Falcon Lake State Park, where we were thrilled to have extended views of Northern Bobwhite, Greater Roadrunner and a surprise Green-tailed Towhee. We then visited Salineno, a boat ramp on the Rio Grande just a few miles downstream from Falcon Dam. Here we spent an enjoyable two-hour vigil along the riverbank. During our watch we had repeated views of Red-billed Pigeon, scope views of Green and Ringed Kingfishers, large flights of blackbirds and egrets heading to roost, and a cooperative pair of Gray Hawks. Of particular note were our fantastic views of fishing Ospreys, a brief battle between two male Ladder-backed Woodpeckers jostling over a nearby female. Just as dusk fell we enjoyed close studies of foraging Lesser Nighthawks patrolling the riverbanks, and heard several Common Pauraques on the roadside on the way back to the hotel.
A brilliant dawn greeted us on day four as we made a quick trip to the Rio Grande River near Salineno. Upon our arrival we found a pair of Muscovy Ducks swimming slowly upstream along the far bank of the river. Over the course of twenty minutes they came almost directly across from us and then swam over to our bank before taking flight and showing off all of their pertinent fieldmarks. I could not have scripted their performance any better! As if on cue, a beautiful Audubon’s Oriole appeared, glowing, in the near-perfect early morning sun. After the river we spent some time catching up on a few more desert birds, with fantastic views of a very territorial pair of Cassin’s Sparrows, a single Clay-colored Sparrow, a singing Western Meadowlark and, back at Falcon State Park, two (!) Green-tailed Towhees. We then drove back down valley to McAllen, and after a delicious Texas BBQ lunch and a refreshing siesta we set out to explore two of the nearby World Birding Center sites. At Quinta Mazatlan we were nearly assaulted by the hordes of Plain Chachalacas, enjoyed our first White-eyed Vireos and multiple Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, and found two furtive Clay-colored Thrushes. At the nearby Edinburg Scenic Wetlands a small group of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks were the undoubted highlight, but the lengthy studies and examination of the female waterfowl and several species of shorebirds came a close second. Also of interest were the wealth of butterflies in the extensive butterfly garden and a nice selection of dragonflies around the dragonfly pond on the wetland grounds.
We spent the next day investigating several of the justifiably famous birding locations in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The lush backyard of Allen Williams was our first stop, and we were thrilled to see a young male Crimson-collared Grosbeak within minutes of our arrival. Although the bird had been present throughout the winter it was not being seen every day and we felt very fortunate to connect with it so easily. This very rare visitor from Mexico is found in the country only a few times a decade! Also in Allan’s yard we enjoyed scope views of a Red-crowned Parrot near its nest in a broken palm and a smattering of migrant passerines including our first Tennessee, Nashville and Black-and-White Warblers. Also of note were several more Clay-colored Thrushes, with at least one pair actively nest-building. We then headed to Anzalduas County Park where we greeted by a pair of lingering Eastern Bluebirds, and, with some effort, managed to locate a cooperative Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and a very uncooperative Yellow-throated Vireo. While driving around the backside of the park I was surprised to see a male Hook-billed Kite soaring low over the park grounds! We quickly jumped out of the van and had excellent views of the bird as it slowly drifted over the road and eventually out of our field of view. I don’t believe I’ve ever had multiple Hook-billed Kite sightings on a single tour of the valley before, and given that the species is currently at a very low population density we were truly lucky! Just after lunch we stopped to scan the sod fields near Progresso where our string of luck continued. Not only were there nearly 40 Upland Sandpipers to study, but we also found several small flocks of American Golden-Plovers, our first Baird’s Sandpipers and a group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers! All of these species are regular in April across the lower valley in short grassy areas, but not can be counted on to show on demand, so to see the set on the first try was great. We spent the remainder of the day wandering around the forested trails of the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. Although we found the area to be a bit slow we were happy to view our first Northern Parula and two Black-throated-Green Warblers, quick views of a Yellow-breasted Chat, several nesting Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and an amazing density of the vocal and quirky Plain Chachalacas.
Although the woodlots and boardwalks of South Padre Island were not awash with migrants due to the string ridge of high pressure surrounding the valley all week, there were enough birds to keep our interest, and our forays off the island were superlative. We started the day with a successful visit to the Red-crowned Parrot and Green Parakeet roosts in Brownsville. After playing tag with the parakeets for much of the week it was fantastic to have extended scope views of several close birds perched in palm trees near Texas Southmost College. Next on our itinerary was the Brownsville Dump, where we were surrounded by thousands of gulls and a nice array of raptors. A beautiful immature White-tailed Hawk was perched on one of the dump mounds, which allowed us to study this distinctive plumage on the ground and later in the air. The sky was full of Laughing Gulls, but with some patient searching we located several Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, a few blushing Franklin’s Gulls and a second year Glaucous Gull! Out on South Padre Island a smattering of migrants were detected in the small woodlot preserves. Some of the new birds we found for the week were Eastern Kingbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireo and Orchard Orioles. The convention center boardwalk was busy near dusk, with over a half dozen Sora and several Clapper Rails walking around in the open, a host of more widespread waterbirds at close range (including Roseate Spoonbill, American Avocet and a stunning Tricolored Heron) and a somewhat surprising Swamp Sparrow. The nearby coastal flats held a great diversity of shorebirds including our first Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers, groups of Short-billed Dowitchers, and a wide array of terns. Royal, Least and Sandwich Terns were all busy with courtship displays, which are always entertaining to witness. Off island we located a pair of Aplomado Falcons at an active nest, and were thrilled to watch the male swoop across the savannah on his long and slender wings before alighting on a distant snag to allow us to enjoy the finer details of his plumage in our scope. All too soon the day drew to a close with another great dining experience at a local restaurant that specialized in fresh shrimp.
For our last full day in the valley we generally use the time to catch up on any species missed or to head out to the coast again if weather conditions look good for producing migrants. This year we elected to stay in the central valley, spending the morning at the World Birding Center of Weslaco, otherwise called Estero Llano Grande. This excellent site keeps getting better and better, and in many ways has become the best single location in the valley for diversity. In the main pond near the visitor center deck we found our first Least Grebes (strangely scarce this year), an adult White-faced Ibis and a pair of Cinnamon Teal. Also here was a simply stunning breeding plumaged Roseate Spoonbill, close enough to admire the apricot tail and inky black head markings and providing an excellent subject for photography. On our walk around the grounds we enjoyed several American Alligators in the smaller ponds, and a cooperative Eastern Screech-Owl that stared down at us from its perch with an amazingly aristocratic air. We spent the afternoon enjoying now old acquaintances at several sites around Weslaco before heading back to Llano Grande for a nocturnal visit with a Common Pauraque.
The next morning we began our journey back north to Corpus Christi with a successful stop at a private ranch north of Raymondville to observe a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls that appear to be breeding in a provided nest box next to the main ranch house. Upon our arrival we were being briefed about the owls’ daily activity patterns when one of the participants said “isn’t that one just over there?” To our surprise, and joy one of the birds was sitting quietly less than 12 feet away from our location! We watched him for about half an hour as he preened, shuffled feathers around and then had a brief nap and were able to study him in amazing detail. We then headed further north to investigate some of the migrant traps on Mustang Island, where local conditions had produced a nice array of birds over the course of the week. Unfortunately the day we arrived was fairly slow, but we did view a small artificial water source with bathing Tennessee, Yellow-throated and Nashville Warblers, and Baltimore and Orchard Orioles. With some diligent searching we also turned up a nice Acadian Flycatcher and at a small urban park in Corpus Christi a pair of Northern Waterthrush and our last official addition to this year’s triplist, an active Hooded Warbler foraging in a large live oak tree.
- Gavin Bieber
Updated: March 2013