A stunning Altamira Oriole peers out of the South Texas scrub. Photo: Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua
At a time when much of the country is still firmly embraced by cold, South Texas typically offers a delightfully mild climate along with an amazing abundance and diversity of both wintering and resident birds. The lower Rio Grande Valley’s remnants of mesquite and riparian woodland harbor an array of species much sought after by North American birdwatchers. On visits to such famed spots as the Brownsville area, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen - Rio Grande Valley State Park, and the riverside below Falcon Dam, we’ll look especially for birds whose ranges in the United States are restricted to South Texas. Winter is also a time when rare vagrants from Mexico appear, and the tour’s flexible schedule will allow us to pursue any that are present.
Most of the world’s wild Whooping Cranes winter along a small stretch of the Texas coast, and our post-tour extension is a chance to visit these magnificent birds by boat, and to enjoy the abundance of birds that use the rich central Texas coastline during the winter months.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6:00 pm in Harlingen. Night in Harlingen.
Days 2-3: We’ll spend our first two birding days exploring coastal sites at Brownsville, Boca Chica, and South Padre Island, and the central Valley’s wonderful array of reserves including Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen - Rio Grande Valley State Park, Weslaco’s increasingly famous Frontera Audubon Society grounds, and the newly developed Estero Llano Grande. We’ll be looking particularly for specialties such as Hook-billed Kite, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Couch’s Kingbird, Clay-colored Robin, Tropical Parula, and Altamira Oriole, but we’ll also scrutinize the ever-present winter passerine flocks, which may contain Blue-headed Vireo and warblers including Nashville, Black-throated Gray, and Yellow-throated. We may visit the Brownsville city landfill to look for Tamaulipas Crow, although it has not been present there in recent years. Our schedule will be flexible, and if rarities are present, we’ll search for them. We’ll spend at least one evening at Bentsen in the hopes of seeing Common Pauraque, Eastern Screech-Owl, and possibly Barn Owl. Nights in McAllen.
Birding tours are always about more than birding and Gavin, in additional to really knowing his birds, was a wonderful resource of information about the economy, the ways in which Texas supports and enhances its wildlife preserves, and the constraints placed on that development and maintenance by water restrictions and budget allocations. It was particularly interesting to learn of the public/private partnerships that created the Texas World Birding Centers. Gavin was always helpful and tolerant of varied levels of birding experience (mine is pretty entry level!), sensitive to special interests, fun to be around,…and he knows the good local restaurants.
Ilene Kunin, March 2014
Days 4-5: After a final morning in the Lower Valley, we’ll head inland and upriver to a more arid section of the Rio Grande Valley. Well-known riparian spots such as Chapeño, Salineño, and San Ignacio will occupy much of our time, as we’ll focus our efforts on species such as Green and Ringed Kingfishers and Audubon’s, Altamira, and Hooded Orioles. In some years a few Muscovy Ducks, Red-billed Pigeons, or one of the rarer raptors such as Common Black-Hawk, Hook-billed Kite, or Zone-tailed or even Roadside Hawk may also be present. We’ll make a special effort to locate the diminutive and often maddeningly hard-to-pin-down White-collared Seedeater. In the desert scrub of Falcon State Park we may see Scaled Quail, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Black-throated Sparrow, and Lark Bunting, among many other species. We’ll also explore Falcon Lake, where waterfowl can be abundant and Sprague’s Pipit sometimes hides in the grassy verges. Nights in Zapata.
Day 6: We’ll spend our morning up river seeking any desert species or river specialties that we may have missed and then make our way back to Harlingen, with stops along the way as current ornithological possibilities dictate. In the late afternoon we’ll head back to Brownsville for the incredible evening spectacle of parrots coming into roost. The Brownsville parrot flock is perhaps the largest in the valley, and is certainly the most diverse. Our visit will have the possibility of seeing up to six species of parrots (although only two are currently recognized as established). Night in Harlingen.
Day 7: On our last full day we’ll drive out to the coastal plain, where the flat grasslands support pairs of Aplomado Falcons, foraging Long-billed Curlew, singing Eastern Meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, and soaring White-tailed Hawks. The shallow Laguna Madre supports incredible numbers of wintering waterfowl, including the largest concentration of Redhead in the world, and the woodlots and marshes of South Padre Island play host to rails, innumerable waders and larids, and sometimes a surprise or two, like the Flammulated Owl we saw on our 2013 tour! After a bird-rich day along the coast and dinner at a beachside restaurant we’ll head back to Harlingen. Night in Harlingen.
Day 8: The main tour concludes this morning in Harlingen.
Whooping Crane Extension
Day 8: Those of us continuing on the Whooping Crane extension will depart Harlingen, passing through the vast King and Kenedy Ranches on the way to Corpus Christi. We’ll stop frequently to bird in oak woodland and mesquite grassland, where small ponds and farm fields harbor impressive numbers of waterfowl. Raptors should be common on the roadsides, and we’ll look especially for White-tailed, Harris’s, and Ferruginous Hawks and for Crested Caracara.Night in Corpus Christi.
Day 9: The bays and inlets around Corpus Christi and Aransas Pass support large numbers of wintering waterbirds. We’ll spend this morning on a boat exploring the back bays near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Whooping Crane is the main attraction here, and we usually see several family groups very well. We’ll also be keeping an eye out for Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, and American Oystercatcher along the way. In the afternoon we’ll visit Port Aransas and Mustang Island, where raptors are numerous and Sedge Wrens and Le Conte’s Sparrows lurk in the weeds. A peek at the Gulf of Mexico at Port Aransas may produce a Northern Gannet or an unusual gull. We’ll end the day at a wonderful little marsh in Corpus Christi, where thousands of gulls, shorebirds, and ducks gather for the night. Night in Corpus Christi.
Day 10: The extension concludes this morning in Corpus Christi.
Updated: 26 September 2013
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
Maximum group size seven with one leader.