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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Spring

2016 Tour Narrative

In Brief: The 2016 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 and identify species. All told, the group tallied an impressive and record setting 255 species of birds.  Our itinerary traveled the length of the lower Rio Grande Valley from the sandy shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico on South Padre Island to the border town of Laredo.  Along our route, we encountered all the birds largely limited in the United States and to the lower Rio Grande Valley.  The 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, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Long-billed Thrasher, Green and Ringed Kingfishers, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird were 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 along the Rio Grande River in Salineno were keen as was a flock of eleven Muscovy Ducks along the river and the Sooty Tern that appeared near Boca Chica that was completely unexpected.  Our morning with six species of plovers could hardly be topped, as was the consistently good stops at migrant hotspots along the coast, netting us an amazing twenty-six species of warblers.  We were even surprised by a vagrant bird from the west, a Greater Pewee found at the tiny city park in Refugio.  In short, I doubt I could have scripted a better tour, and I’m definitely looking forward to returning to this bird-rich state in the spring of 2018.

In Detail: We commenced our south Texas spring trip in Corpus Christi in order to enjoy the wealth of birds around Aransas Bay before heading down the lower valley. In the afternoon of our first day a small frontal system hit the coast, with heavy winds and overcast skies.  Hoping the weather might have grounded some migrant birds we elected to visit a nearby wooded park.  When we arrived a few other birders were about, reporting that indeed the woods held migrants.  Although it was approaching dark we wandered around the small park, finding a cooperative Northern Waterthrush along a scenic creek, a flashy male Hooded Warbler, a couple of Great Crested Flycatchers and no fewer than three Worm-eating Warblers.  A nice way to spend an hour before diving in to our dinner at a local seafood restaurant!

The next morning we awoke to continuing windy conditions, so we decided to spend the bulk of the day circumnavigating Corpus Christi Bay and investigating various spots for shorebirds and migrant passerines.  At our first stop we enjoyed scope views of a mixed flock of American White and Brown Pelicans, and worked through a diverse flock of cooperative shorebirds, separating out Least and Western Sandpipers as well as Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers from the horde. While nearby groups of breeding plumaged American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts fed unconcerned. The tern show was excellent, with scope views of Gull-billed and Forster’s, and flyby Caspian and Least all putting in appearances.  Several elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, dressed in a lovely combination of gray, silver, black and salmon-pink, were perching on the roadside fence nearby, and as we pulled away from the pond a little flock of White Ibis rose out of the marsh to give us a nice sendoff.  A few miles to the north the shorebird show continued at Indian Point, with excellent views of side-by-side Least and Western Sandpipers, our first Sanderling, Dunlin and Stilt Sandpipers and some very close Short-billed Dowitchers in full breeding plumage.  Several dancing Reddish Egret, including a beautiful White morph bird were hopping around in the shallows trying to scare up their breakfasts.  As it was a life bird for nearly the entire group we then decided to follow up on some recent reports of a Greater Pewee that was lingering in a small city park in the tiny town of Refugio.  On the way we paused at a promising looking grass field along the highway and were thrilled to find over a dozen handsome American Golden Plovers, a small group of Upland Sandpipers and a handful of the subtly colored Buff-breasted Sandpipers. The Uplands are an oddly proportioned shorebird and are always fun to watch, with their tiny heads, long necks and odd yellow peg-like bills.  We spent a good bit of time watching the three species wandering around in the field and then continued north to Refugio.  Once at the little park, an oft-neglected parcel of land along Mission River that in 2015/16 hosted Golden-crowned Warbler and Flame-colored Tanager, we found a Greater Pewee perched on a tall snag in the parking lot.  A bird more familiar to birders in SE Arizona than in Texas, this species is a true vagrant to the area and was well appreciated by our group!  This park is further inland than we typically go on the tour, and as such we found a selection of birds such as Carolina Chickadee, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Chipping Sparrow and American Goldfinch that we generally (or in the case of the Chickadee never) see in the valley.  A couple of large Red-eared Slider Turtles were lounging in the riverbed, and we tracked down a vigorously calling Northern Parula that was singing from a row of dense willows lining the creek.  Happy with the unexpectedly birdy park we headed back to our regular itinerary, arriving at the coast in Aransas Pass.

After the short ferry ride to Mustang Island and Port Aransas it was nearing lunchtime so we stopped at a local café where our affable Texan waitress was a bigger hit than our excellent seafood meal!  After lunch we stopped in at the small reserve dubbed Paradise Pond, where a boardwalk winds around a wooded clearing.  This tiny patch of habitat acts as an oasis for tired migrant passerines arriving from their cross-gulf journey.  We found, to my surprise, that the park was mostly submerged this year, with the normally dry basin full nearly to the boardwalks lower deck.  In the grove of Brazilian Peppers and Willows around the pond we found a nice number of Orchard Orioles, including several striking chestnut and black males, a perched Eastern Wood-Pewee, a few Yellow-throated Warblers, and a snappy male Hooded Warbler. On the way out of the park a Louisiana Waterthrush was bathing along the pathway, and we were able to watch it for some time, picking out the features that separate this species from its more common congener.  Birding along the Texas coast in spring is always a dynamic experience, and this year we really lucked out with the weather.  After a quick bite at a nearby restaurant we made a brief stop in at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center where a longer boardwalk extends out into a freshwater (almost) marsh and open pond.  Here ducks such as Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal joined American Coots, Common Gallinule and herons including two in-flight Least Bitterns. The short hedgerow along the reedbed was full of visiting birders, and a remarkable assortment of migrants.  The star of the show was a beautiful male Cerulean Warbler that had been lingering in the area all morning and that showed extremely well for us.  Even more tame were the Blue-winged and Hooded Warblers that came down to the ground at our feet!  Tennessee, Yellow-rumped, Parula, Black-and-White and Black-throated Green all were on display as well, making for an astonishing variety in such an unassuming place.  We spent a good half hour soaking in the warbler diversity, with a few other birds popping in like the Sora that swam unconcernedly just a few feet in front of us, a Swainson’s Thrush that lingered for a minute or two and the bathing Lincoln’s Sparrow.  Eventually though we had to point the van south for the Rio Grande Valley.  We paused a few times on the drive, to admire birds like our first Crested Caracaras and circling Swainson’s Hawks.  As we pulled into McAllen we stopped in at a long-time roost site for Green Parakeets and within no time were admiring about two-dozen. These birds may be descendents of cage birds, but as they are native to nearby Northeast Mexico and early reports by naturalists in the region reported “green parrots” they may be authentic native birds. At a local Mexican restaurant, over tart margaritas, we tallied up the day list and were surprised that we had seen an amazing 120 species during the course of the day!

We spent the full morning of the following day birding around the Frontera Audubon Thicket, in the nearby town of Weslaco.  This densely vegetated 15-acre lot has attracted a ridiculous list of vagrant birds since it opened to the public in the late 1990’s.  Generally speaking the Mexican strays arrive in the winter and have departed by April, but this year a male Blue Bunting and a female-type Crimson-collared Grosbeak had been reported just before the tour dates.  Since nearly the full complement of local specialty birds also occur in this patch of woods it seemed an excellent place to visit for our first morning in the Valley.  Although we were not successful in our quest for either of the Mexican species (despite hearing the Grosbeak calling twice) we had a very bird-rich morning loaded with new birds.  From the fountains and feeders near the orchard we watched as Buff-bellied and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds vied for their places on the feeder, while Inca Doves and Lesser Goldfinches bathed in the pool.  On the many trails that wound through the property we reveled in each discovery as we found our first portly White-tipped Doves, raucous Plain Chachalacas, skulking but incredibly vocal Long-billed Thrashers, perky little Black-crested Titmice, and tropical looking Green Jays.  The small lakes hosted a hunting Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and a very striking Green Kingfisher, and we even watched an Olive Sparrow bathing in a small birdbath.  During our meandering walks we detected some nice migrants as well, with our first Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers, Great Crested Flycatcher and Yellow-breasted Chat.  At one of the feeding stations we were happy to come across a wintering female Black-headed Grosbeak (a vagrant in the valley) that remained in view for over 5 minutes as it scarfed down millet seeds, scattering many onto the ground for the sumo-sized Fox Squirrels to devour.  We also were successful at finding a single Groove-billed Ani that was lurking in the dense thickets near the back of the property.  We felt lucky to see it, as it had been seen irregularly during the last month or so.  Generally one has to visit the Valley in the heat of the summer to have a good chance at this species, and we had recorded it only once before on an April tour.  Of the 45 species that we found over the course of the morning I think well over half were new for the tour, and for most of the participants were lifers!  After a delicious lunch at a nearby barbeque restaurant, and a quick return visit to Frontera for one last try at the Bunting (we settled for Blue-headed Vireo as a consolation) we moved up valley to the town of Zapata, stopping along the Rio Grande River near the town of Salineno. Here, the dirt road ends at the banks of the river, and offers excellent access to the riparian forest and to an overview of the larger trees along the river.  The Corps had recently opened the floodgates of Falcon Dam and we were surprised at how high and fast the river was.  We found a likely overlook and spent time watching the skies above the banks.  A few Red-billed Pigeons flew by during our vigil, with one distantly perched on an island in the river. We found a cooperative Western Kingbird among the larger number of Couch’s and tracked down a singing White-collared Seedeater that remained teed up in the riverside cane for several minutes before dashing off across the river into Mexico.  Often these diminutive birds are very hard to track, necessitating a trip all the way up to their stronghold around Laredo.  This year however they proved remarkably common for us.  Above the river we picked out a few Bank Swallows amongst the more common Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows that were feeding on insects hatched on the water.  Nearby, local fishermen were using a cast net in a small side channel and were being quite resourceful, catching a few large carp for their dinner while we watched on.  As we completed the days’ drive to Zapata we paused to look at a family group of Harris’ Hawks perched along the roadside, and a pair of Lesser Nighthawks flying over a large pasture.  The Great Horned Owl that crossed the highway in front of us, just a few miles shy of our hotel capped a great day of birding!

Our next full day upriver was a sunny and wonderful spring day, with the morning haze typical of South Texas that helped to keep much of the day comfortably cool. As we were under no pressure to locate White-collared Seedeaters due to our luck the previous day we were able to spend the entire morning near Zapata looking at more common desert birds.  We started on a nearby road just west of Zapata that crosses through a lush patch of desert vegetation.  Among the mesquites, acacias and groves of large prickly pear cactus and creosote bushes we found a completely new avifauna.  Pyrrhuloxias and Northern Cardinals called from exposed perches, and Black-throated Sparrows provided a constant background chorus. Along the roadside verge we spent some time viewing Vesper and Lark Sparrows as they fed on the road or perched on the nearby deer fence.  On several occasions we paused to watch Greater Roadrunners perched in nearby trees or scampering around the patches of large prickly pears.  A calling Scaled Quail gave us a bit of a runaround as it perched in a hard to locate bush, but with perseverance we tracked it down for an extended study.  As is often the case, once we had succeeded in locating the first one we soon saw a large covey of them scuttling off into the underbrush.  Cactus and Bewick’s Wrens were quite vocal, with multiple individuals seen during the morning.  Near the end of the road we found Curve-billed Thrashers, the spotted Texas species, to be common, and in the fruiting trees around some small houses we paused to admire a large flock of Cedar Waxwings and striking Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles.  On the drive back we pinned down a couple of Ash-throated Flycatchers, which lingered long enough for us to have a more in-depth discussion on Myiarchus flycatcher identification.  We then drove a tad further west, to the town of San Ygnacio, where we stopped a break and cold drinks.  It turned out to be the right petrol station for us, as behind the building in a grassy field we located a flock of Clay-colored Sparrows and a single, remarkably cooperative Grasshopper Sparrow.   At nearby San Ygnacio Wildlife Sanctuary we opened the van doors to discover a beautiful male Summer Tanager singing just overhead!  In the canebrakes along the river we found more singing Seedeaters (it’s a shame they aren’t always so easy), a bright pair of Altamira Orioles, several displaying Yellow-breasted Chats and our first House Finches of the trip.  Our last stop of the morning was back in Zapata, at the tiny library pond.  Here we found about a dozen Gadwall swimming around the cattail-laden lake that is full of introduced Tilapia.  A very nice Audubon’s Oriole, clad in bright black and yellow also put in a welcome appearance, making it a 5 Oriole morning!

After an afternoon break  for a siesta at the hotel we ventured back south to the desert grasslands around Falcon Dam.  We stopped just outside Falcon State Park and were able to coax one of the many calling Cassin’s Sparrows into view.  While we were watching as it sang from a small bush out in the grassland we were happy to spot a male Blue Grosbeak perched on the overhead wires.  At the park itself we found hundreds of Lark Sparrows, with a few Clay-colored Sparrows in each flock that we picked through.  In the dense creosote/cactus desert in the back reaches of the park grounds we tracked down a flighty Verdin that was traveling in the company of some Nashville Warblers and a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  Several more Roadrunners put in appearances as we drove around the park loop road, but I think most will remember the pair of Vermilion Flycatchers, the male clad in his namesake brilliant cloak of red the best.  We found Falcon State Park to be fairly quiet, though the flyover Peregrine Falcon was a nice treat, and we spent quality time looking at Bronzed and Brown-headed Cowbirds, plus at a selection of butterfly species in the rapidly maturing butterfly garden.  A brief stop at the Rio Grande River near Chapeno revealed a pair of nest building Altamira Orioles, a selection of swallows and a perched Gray Hawk (alas for some, over on the Mexican side of the river).  As we made our way back to Zapata we were sidetracked by a mixed flock of blackbirds that contained one male Yellow-headed (showing off its vent to full effect), and stopped to admire a few perched Harris’s Hawks.

The following morning dawned gray and heavily overcast, with forecasts showing rain on the coast and throughout most of the valley.  As we had virtually swept the possible birds of the upper valley we elected to make the long drive to the coast and the migrant traps of South Padre Island, hoping that the wet conditions would produce a good number of grounded passerines.  Before leaving the upper reaches of the valley though we stopped along the riverbank at Salineno for a bit of a morning vigil.  The undoubted highlight was of a flock of 11 Muscovy Ducks that zipped upriver.  These all-dark ducks, fast flying and wary bear little resemblance to the patchy white plumaged and grotesque red faced domestic birds that are “countable” now in Florida. A male Audubon’s Oriole that perched right in front of the group was noteworthy as well.  We then took the back road to Chapeno, a narrow dirt road that continues through some enjoyable desert areas.  Here we were surprised to find three White-crowned Sparrows (scarce here in April) scratching for seeds on the road, along with more Scaled Quail and Cactus Wrens.  Back at Falcon State County Park we flushed a Say’s Phoebe near the bathrooms (the real reason for our visit), said hello to a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers, and were mildly surprised to find a Red-billed Pigeon perched on an isolated Texas Ebony Tree.  After two riverside vigils without a clear view of this attractive plum-colored Pigeon it was with a bit of relief that we found this one in a bit more atypical habitat.  Soon the Pigeon flew away and it began to rain, so we pointed the car south for the 2.5 hour drive to the coast.  Just before arriving at the coast we stopped at a known site for Aplomado Falcon and were thrilled to find both the male and female perched near the road.  These striking black, white and cream falcons have been the subject of a long running reintroduction program, and their numbers are recovering well on the south Texas coastal plain.  Several singing Eastern Meadowlarks were seen, and just down the road we stopped to watch a beautiful (though damp) White-tailed Hawk as it preened atop a large agave.  With both species of specialty raptors giving us a great show we arrived with some “pep in our step” and just in time for lunch in Port Isabel, which we ate watching the steady drizzle outside turn to actual rain. With great anticipation we arrived at the soggy convention center parking lot just as the rain began to taper off.  Dodging the worst of the weather we found the small woodlot with heavy plantings of native fruit bearing trees, feeders and a large fountain to be full of birds, and of birders.  We spent about an hour and a half slowly walking around the site (all .25 acres of it), happily finding an excellent array of migrants.  Male Indigo and Painted Buntings flitted in and out of the grassy swales, Black-throated Green, Tennessee, Black-and-White, Yellow-rumped, Nashville, and Kentucky Warblers lurked in the thicket, and Dickcissel and Summer Tanager plied the periphery.  Every loop around the grove of trees produced a new bird, and with all of the species at or very close to eye-level it was just an amazing treat.  At the small but increasingly lush Valley Land Fund lot on Sheepshead Rd. the fun continued.  Northern Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush were around the small pools, and with some diligent searching we picked out a 1st year male Blackburnian amongst the larger numbers of warblers feeding in the nearby grove of acacias.  In all we tallied 15 species of warblers in just 3 hours, with excellent and repeated views of them all.  At the close of the day we returned to the Convention Center, finding new species had come in while we were away, including a dazzling male Canada Warbler, a striking and generally cooperative Wood Thrush and a less confiding Warbling Vireo.  Out on the boardwalk that leads through a large brackish water marsh we located a single Fulvous Whistling-Duck among the more common Black-bellied, and found very confident Clapper Rail and Sora walking out in the open between reed beds.  A stunning high-breeding plumaged Least Bittern flew in and remained in the open just long enough for a few photos, but sadly not long enough for the entire group to see.  The tide was high, and several large flocks of waders and gulls were waiting out the rather damp but brightening weather by loafing around the base of the convention center.  Easily we picked out several bright pink Franklin’s Gulls, a distant pair of American Oystercatchers, several dozen Sanderling and Sandwich, Least, Royal and Caspian Terns and a few Herring Gulls from the flocks of Laughing Gulls and Black Skimmers.  As we drove back towards McAllen passengers on the left side of the van were able to watch as a White-tailed Kite repeatedly dove down on a passing White-tailed Hawk just along the highway!  Though we certainly did a lot of driving, the birds on the island were fantastic, and we saw well over 100 species during the course of what was perhaps the most fun and exciting day of the trip.

Our travels the next day were a bit more relaxed, with a stop just south of McAllen for Monk Parakeets.  These introduced but established parrots are relatively new arrivals in the valley, but in the neighborhood around the old Hidalgo Pumphouse have built several large communal nests that they tend year round.  It took all of five minutes before we were watching several birds as they made various structural adjustments to their extremely large stick nest.  As the birds have a tendency to build around electrical transformer boxes they are typically not very popular with the local electrical utility company, but the locals around Hidalgo at least seem to enjoy having them around.  In addition to the fine views of the parrots we were happy to spot a vocal pair of Tropical Kingbirds on some overhead wires.  Unlike the winter months where the two species are roughly equal in number during the summer months Tropical Kingbirds are scarce in comparison to the nearly abundant Couch’s Kingbirds.  We noted the birds longer and thinner bill, and were happy to hear it sing several times confirming the identification. 

After the Monk Parakeets, our focus for the morning was to spend a few hours atop the Bensten Hawkwatch Tower.  Over the course of an hour and a half we witnessed small groups of Broad-winged Hawks along with Turkey and Black Vultures kettling above the Rio Grande and then streaming to the north.  Among the flocks of the more common species we found several dozen migrating Swainson’s Hawks, and a few each of Cooper’s hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Harris’s Hawks.  Also near the tower was a beautiful adult Gray Hawk, a pair of nest-building Altamira Orioles, excellent comparison views of Brown-crested Flycatcher and Couch’s Kingbird and a truly wonderful eye-level view of a Green Jay.  While waiting for the tram to pick us up for the return journey to the visitor’s center a calling Northern Beardless Tyrannulet caught our attention.  These scarce and somewhat hard to pin down flycatchers are found only in South Texas and SE Arizona, and we were quite happy to have (somewhat occluded) views of this bird as it sat up near a large clump of fruiting mistletoe.  Back near the park entrance we stopped the tram to watch four Northern Bobwhites as they fed along the roadside verge.  We also took a bit of time off for “herping”, with excellent views of the scarce Blue Spiny Lizard, several Six-lined Racerunners and a half-grown Texas Tortoise that lumbered off at a surprising speed upon our approach.  Around the parks visitor’s center we paused to investigate the small resaca and were rewarded with a pair of Black Phoebes that were hunting damselflies over the pond.  Nearby a beautiful Buff-bellied Hummingbird came in to greet us, a pair of Altamira Orioles had begun to construct a pendular nest, and a Clay-colored Thrush was hopping along the walkway investigating insects that had come in to the lights the night before.  The park naturalist helped us locate a roosting Eastern Screech-Owl that was well tucked in to a dense palm tree.  These gray Screech-Owls are vocally and visually distinctive from the more widespread eastern subspecies, and with the current in-vogue movement of taxonomic splitting might someday be known as McCall’s or Mexican Screech-Owl.  In the afternoon we slowly made our way east to our hotel for the next three nights in Harlingen.  We drove the back roads, allowing us to stop at several wetlands along the way, finding new birds including a young Wood Stork, several toy-like Least Grebes, an odd transitional plumaged Black-crowned Night-Heron, and endlessly twirling Wilson’s Phalarope.  At the first sod farm we were elated to find a half-dozen Sprague’s Pipits walking around in the short grassy field.  Several birds were quite close to the car, allowing us to really appreciate just how different these dry-country pipits are to the more familiar American Pipit.  Also around these fields we found our first Horned Lark, and several nice groups of American Golden-Plover and Upland Sandpiper.  A second sod farm was not as productive, likely due to the presence of a large Peregrine Falcon that buzzed the fields just as we approached.  Nonetheless we managed to pick out a few Pectoral Sandpipers lurking in the taller wet grass sections.  Acting on a tip from a local contact we also stopped at a newly created nature center in the tiny agricultural town of La Feria.  Here we failed to find any of the hoped for King Rails, but our views of a hunting White-tailed Kite and dozens of Cave Swallows were excellent.  Also noteworthy were the many Mexican Ground Squirrels running about the fields and hordes of turtles in the pond, including several Diamondback Terrapins that were swimming towards us hoping for a handout.  Our last stop for the day was to the Harlingen Soccer Fields, where hopefully we would see a lingering Canada Goose (a rarity in the valley). But unfortunately it had already departed.  We had to make do with very close views of yet more American Golden-Plover, and a horde of eye-level Cave Swallows.

With great anticipation we began our next day investigating several of the justifiably famous birding locations in the lower Rio Grande Valley. We began at Estero Llano Grande, a large park that serves as the world birding center site for the city of Weslaco.  Developed only a few years ago, this mix of freshwater ponds, open grassland and closed canopy forest has become one of the premier birding destinations in the valley.  The new and very nice visitor center overlooks a shallow pond, where we found our first Long-billed Dowitchers, Cinnamon Teal, and a cooperative pair of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks.  We wandered back towards the Alligator Pond, stopping to watch in amazement as several Sora were out and about in the overcast morning, seemingly unconcerned with our presence.  Our only Tree Swallow of the trip was spotted flying over one of the ponds, and we were able to approach to within just a few feet of foraging American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt and Long-billed Dowitcher.  At the southern end of the park we elected to climb up the retention berm and scan the agricultural fields and river to the south.  Here were dozens of Swainson’s Hawks sitting on the ground, doubtless waiting for the thermals to heat up so that they could continue their lengthy migration north.  The river held many Avocets and Blue-winged Teal, but little to captivate our interest for very long.  In the back of the park we located a roosting Common Pauraque sitting a few meters off the trail.  This cryptic species is truly spectacular when seen at close range, with a beautifully intricate feather pattern.  Just beyond the Pauraque we stopped at an overlook to admire a large American Alligator that was sunning itself on the bank of a small lake.  While watching the gator we noticed the first Swainson’s Hawks overhead, and over the course of the next hour spent some time working on the identification of this variable species.  As we walked back to the larger ponds we stopped to watch several Yellow-crowned Night-Herons foraging for crayfish in a shallow pool.  We arrived at the aptly named Curlew Pond to find a really great cross-section of wader species for us to study at length.   Point blank views of foraging Least Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs and many Stilt Sandpipers (several starting to come into their outstanding breeding plumage) were instructive.  At the next pond we watched a Least Grebe catch and then subdue a large tadpole by repeatedly thwacking it onto the water.  Back at the visitors center we spent a bit of time watching the hummingbird feeders and their attendant Buff-bellied and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and then elected to walk around the old RV Park.  Here we found several cooperative Clay-colored Thrushes, a species that has colonized the valley over the past decade and is now a regular sight at most of the better vegetated birding sites in the lower valley.  After lunch at a charming local Mexican cantina we returned to the Frontera Audubon Thicket for another attempt at locating the lingering Crimson-collared Grosbeak and Blue Bunting.  As we checked in at the visitor center we learned that both birds had been seen recently and it was with high hopes that we charged into the thicket.  We emerged a few hours later with more audio encounters with the Grosbeak and not a whiff of an appearance from the Bunting.  All was not lost, as the park was very birdy, and we enjoyed excellent views of a wide range of birds that were lifers for the group just a few days prior.  Maniacal Plain Chachalacas, fashionable Green Jays, portly White-tipped Doves, understated Olive Sparrows, brash Great Kiskadees, vocal Clay-colored Thrushes and dazzling Green Kingfishers all put in appearances.  A nice mixed migrant flock including a very approachable Worm-eating Warbler, a singing Blue-throated Vireo, Nashville, Tennessee, Black-and-White and Blue-winged Warblers was certainly a treat as well.  We found an active Carolina Wren nest and were able to watch as the adults carried food in to their noisy little trio of nestlings.  Perhaps the best find was a roosting Chuck-will’s Widow out in the orchard!  With our growing list we departed the refuge in the late afternoon and drove the back roads to Brownsville, with a stop at one of the sod farms where we located more Pectoral, Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers and a large group of American Golden-Plover. We arrived in Brownsville in plenty of time for a dusk vigil at a small city park, where we were treated to a fantastic showing of five species of parrots coming in to roost for the evening.  Although the bulk of the flock did not come in until close to dark we estimated at least 70 Red-crowned Parrots were joined by dozens of Red-lored Parrots, a small group of White-fronted Parrots, about six Green Parakeets and a single dapper Yellow-headed Parrot. The noise and activity of this mass was an amazing experience that we were able to enjoy at an extremely close range as the birds landed in a small grove of trees near an unused ballfield in the park.  Although only the Red-crowned Parrots are considered established it was an amazingly diverse, noisy and accessible show, and a great end to the day.

On our next to last day of the tour we first stopped along Boca Chica Rd., a quiet road that snakes out into the coastal plain eventually leading to the Gulf of Mexico a few miles north of the mouth of the Rio Grande. The road passes through the newly minted Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, a large area that encompasses miles and miles of the southern Laguna Madre, slightly higher elevation pockets of grassland scrub with mesquites and yuccas, salt pans, open water, and bunch grasslands.  The region is full of raptors, and we stopped regularly to look at birds like Harris’ Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier and Crested Caracara. As we neared the coast with expansive salt flats and inland lagoons some excitement was provided by a Sooty Tern that cruised up to the highway and then angled out towards one of the larger lakes.  Although we only saw the bird in flight we were able to keep up with it as it flew down the road, providing quite good views from inside the van.  Sooty Terns likely breed just a bit offshore, but are very rarely seen from the mainland (generally during significant storm events).  Elated with our find we then continued on and spent some time looking through the masses of shorebirds that lined the road.  Of chief interest was the wide array of plovers on display.  We picked out about a half-dozen pale Snowy Plovers, a single Piping Plover and a few pairs of Wilson’s Plovers and were able to compare them at close range.  With Killdeer, Black-bellied Plover and a flyby American Golden-Plover also in the area, it made for an amazing six plover morning!  Some instructive comparison views of the often tricky pairs of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs were also appreciated.  At the end of the road we found the surf up, and apart from the hordes of Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Willets that were plying the beach we saw very little.  We then headed inland for a visit to the famous (among birders at least) Brownsville Dump.  Although the Tamaulipas Crows have been absent from the municipal dump for many years the area still is worth visiting as it supports a large number of gulls and waders. As we neared the dump we stopped to admire a perched White-tailed Kite along the entrance road.  Once at the actual dump the sky was full of Laughing Gulls, and with some patient searching we located several Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls, a good number of blushing Franklin’s Gulls, and an immature Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Avocets and Stilts abounded in the retention ponds that encircle the dump hill, and there was quite the parade of Crested Caracaras that were strolling around looking for easy picking morsels. 

In the afternoon we visited South Padre Island, where it quickly became apparent that the unsettled weather had not helped bring down any appreciable number of migrants.  As was the case on our earlier visit though there was a nice diversity of species in the little woodlots around the island.  Many Baltimore Orioles (our sixth oriole species of the trip), a stunning male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a beautiful male Yellow Warbler, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and two Eastern Wood-Pewees all put in appearances.  Summer Tanagers were bopping about the denser groves and eating oranges provided by local volunteers, and we found one field that held over a dozen dazzling blue Indigo Buntings.  We walked out on the newly constructed World Birding Center marsh boardwalk and were rewarded with an astonishing encounter with a hunting Least Bittern.  We watched as the bird slowly crept along just feet away from the group and out in full sun for about 10 minutes.  Although some in the group had seen one or two previous Least Bitterns during the tour the other sightings were mainly in flight and at some distance.  This individual seemed completely intent on eating Sailfin Mollies, and our views were the highlight of the tour for several participants.  Personally, I have never seen a Least Bittern so close before!  A final check of the lot on Sheephead Road revealed more birders than birds, so we returned to Harlingen for dinner at a local restaurant, surprised to find that over the course of the day we had added an impressive 15 species to what was already a very good trip-list.

The next morning we began our journey back north to Corpus Christi with our main objectives being to find a couple of species that we had missed along the route.  On the road out to Port Mansfield we stopped at a small wetland that was crawling with birds.  Of particular note were the two Baird’s Sandpipers that we found foraging along the back shore, but the comparison views of Black and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, flock of swimming Neotropic Cormorants, and dozens of Gull-billed Terns were excellent as well.  A little further down the road we found a likely looking patch of habitat, and with a bit of patience were able to locate a singing Botteri’s Sparrow.  These enigmatic sparrows barely cross over the border into the US, occurring in isolated patches on the extreme South Texas coastal plain, and in native grasslands in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.  When not vocalizing they spend their days down in deep grasses, and relatively little is known of their overall biology.  The bird that we located remained teed up in a small bare tree, showing off its buffy flanks and rust toned wings, tail and crown.  Also here were a number of White-tailed and Red-tailed Hawks and our only Common Nighthawk of the trip.  We next headed inland to the ponds around the tiny town of Hargill.  For the past two falls the main lake has played host to a Collared Plover, which was unfortunately absent during our visit (the bird was first found in July), but the lakes held good numbers of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks and more Snowy Plovers.  Further north we found a large mixed flock of blackbirds and cowbirds that included a few dozen Brewer’s Blackbirds. After lunch, which we had underneath a truly amazing huge flock of wheeling American White Pelicans we drove further north to investigate some of the migrant traps on Mustang Island.  Thankfully the forecasted rain was not occurring and we found a nice selection of birds, including our first Eastern Kingbird, Acadian Flycatcher, and American Redstart.  The boardwalk viewing platform was surrounded by vast flocks of shorebirds including many brightly plumaged American Avocets and Stilt Sandpipers.  I think most of the participants were feeling confident about their shorebird ID skills as there was a near constant calling out of species names as we scanned the flocks.  At a nearby beach access point we spotted an Eared Grebe bobbing about in the surf, and watched a Spotted Ground Squirrel scurry across the increasingly sandy road.  While talking to some of the other birders in the area we became aware that the cemetery back in Corpus Christie had been quite productive earlier that morning, so we elected to make that our final stop for the tour.  Amidst the large oak and Anaqua trees we repeatedly flushed a young Red-shouldered Hawk, and after some searching were able to pin down a flock of migrant warblers that were feeding in a particularly large grove of trees.  Here we added our last two species for the trip, with fantastic views of a perched Ovenbird, and a beautiful male Golden-winged Warbler that danced around in the treetop.  It was a fitting end to what was the most diverse South Texas trip yet, with an amazing 255 species of birds in eight days of birding.  The group was as noteworthy as the birds, as it gelled extremely well, and the van was full of good spirits and laughter for much of the trip.  At our final dinner 26 species were mentioned as being in the running for bird of the trip, with Green Jay narrowly edging out Least Bittern for the top honor.  I unquestionably look forward to returning to this part of the country again in 2018!

- Gavin Bieber

 

 

Updated: April 2016