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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley

2017 Narrative

In brief:

 Sunny south Texas thrilled us all during our week in this tropical paradise. Winter in this region is a great time to search for Mexican strays, the highlight of which was a confiding male Rose-throated Becard perched high in the morning mist. Hard to find valley specialties crossed our paths in several places such as Red-billed Pigeons at Salineño, White-collared Seedeater at Roma Bluffs, and Aplomado Falcons in the coastal flats. Feeders throughout the valley were chock full of beautiful resident birds including Altamira and Audubon’s Orioles, Pyrrhuloxia, and White-tipped doves. All three North American kingfishers; Green, Belted, and Ringed were encountered and seen well, always a treat to see! All these amazing birds, supplemented with delicious barbeque, fresh seafood, and ‘Tex-Mex’ cuisine delivered an unforgettable experience and was a wonderful way to escape the winter weather that most of America was suffering through.

 

In detail:

 Our first full day in the Valley familiarized ourselves with many of the specialties of this region. En route to our first destination a Peregrine Falcon was spotted sitting on a large international communications tower surveying both sides of the border from its lofty view. The feeders at the famous Sabal Palm Sanctuary gave us a collection of colors with red Northern Cardinals, bright Green Jays, and noisy Black-crested Titmouse. Near the visitor’s center one of the mighty palm trees harbored a motionless Great Horned Owl on its nest perfectly concealed amongst the dead palm fronds. The hummingbird feeders were quiet, but attractive enough to host a female Black-chinned Hummingbird for close study. The palm grove provided great views of foraging Yellow-throated Warbler and the normally skulky hard to see White-eyed Vireo. Given the dry conditions we decided Old Port Isabel road, normally wet and muddy, was worth a drive. Along this route the raptor show was impressive with many Harris’s Hawks sitting low out of the wind and close fly-bys of both adult and young White-tailed Hawks utilizing the breezy conditions for hunting. The best bird of the day was spotted zipping low over the grasslands and alighting on a power line as we enjoyed close scope views of one of the magnificent Aplomado Falcons residing in this area. On the verges of the Bahia Grande of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge habitat was replete with ‘shore’ birds. Both Forster’s and Caspian Terns searched for prey and several Ospreys were plunge diving successfully for fish. Close views of Little Blue Heron near Reddish Egret delighted and waders including Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied Plover, ‘Western’ Willet, and huge Long-billed Curlews picked through the tidal flats.

The next day we began by seeking some of the hoards of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Progreso Lakes. We were greeted by over 1,000 individuals littering the edges of the water and surprisingly found an albino individual amongst the duck mass. When leaving a female Green Kingfisher posed at one of the bridges allowing close inspection. At the nearby granary silos several thousand blackbirds, mostly Red-winged, were taking advantage of the spillage from the loading docks. The group enjoyed sifting through the masses to find both Brown-headed and Bronzed Cowbirds, and at least 60 Yellow-headed Blackbirds. All this while two Harris’s Hawks perched at attention watching the antics. Heading north we had our sights on Estero Llano Grande State Park and the suite of birds this place has to offer. This area boasts a bird list of over 325 species in only 9 years of existence! The several feeder arrays here added a nice mix of Lower Rio Grande Valley gems like Buff-bellied Hummingbird, stoic Clay-colored Thrush, and raucous Plain Chachalacas. This park is also a well-known roost site for Common Pauraque that we were eventually able to spot. Due to this species amazing camouflage it took us a while to find but ended up spotting 4 of these cryptic caprimulgiformes. The wonderful wetlands complex at Estero also provided our first rust-colored Cinnamon Teal, lanky Anhinga, and both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons. A curious Eastern Screech-owl peered out of a nest hole curious as to what we were up to. We observed American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt from the dike foraging with American White Pelicans and Roseate Spoonbills in close company. A perched White-tailed Kite was great to see at close range. This evening we searched for the town of Macallen for Green Parakeets coming to roost and found hundreds of these chattering beauties feeding in a single tree. The querulous mass all took flight at once over our heads as a Peregrine Falcon came in to perch nearby.

The next morning was blustery and cold. We were initially unprepared for the low temperatures, but the marsh birds didn’t seem to mind at all. Normally secretive Sora, Virginia Rail, and Wilson’s Snipe each took their turn walking into view mere meters from the excited group. The same area harbored a buffy Swamp Sparrow and black-faced Common Yellowthroat. Foraging shorebirds here were active as we watched both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs feeding side by side for comparative views. Large flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, and Black-necked stilts all huddled together for warmth. A couple foraging White Ibis almost blended in with the more numerous Great and Snowy Egrets. A flyover Red-shouldered Hawk eventually perched for us to enjoy. We searched intently along the willow-fringed ponds and eventually heard the high whistle of Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. It took us a while to track down this tiny tropical flycatcher but we persevered and were thrilled to see an individual perch in the wide open on top of a tree. I’ve never been able to get so many people such good scope views of this fleeting species as it sat motionless for 15 minutes! After a satiating Texas barbeque lunch we searched for some Burrowing Owls in a nearby town. Some intense looking yielded a pair of these statuesque raptors blending in perfectly with the surrounding rocks. Heading over to Anzalduas Park was necessary for us to begin our search for the habitat-specific Sprague’s Pipit. In typical grassland bird-searching fashion we got in a long line and slowly trekked across the meadow when Evan shrieked “Pipit!”. We were extremely fortunate that one of these targets sat motionless just 10 meters from the gathered group as we observed this beauty in the scope. Other species in this area were fleeting Western Meadowlarks, vocal Tropical Kingbird, and bobbing Black Phoebe. In the large trees near the maintenance shed we tracked down a calling male Black-throated Grey Warbler, an uncommon species in the Valley. A raft of ducks accumulated in the large body of water here and we added Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup to our waterfowl list. The group agreed today’s adventures were a wonderful way to spend Valentine’s Day!

The western edge of the Lower Rio Grande Valley slowly gives way to a drier habitat with smaller trees and more cacti as it blends into the Chihuahuan Desert. The boat ramp at Salineño provided some real excitement for our first day in this new area. Immediately upon exiting the vans 3 Red-billed Pigeons were seen reeling overhead. Given this luck we knew we were in for an exciting day of birding. Several times over the next hour up to 5 of these pigeons were seen well sitting on the tall trees on the upriver island. Much to our surprise not 1, nor 2, but 3 Zone-tailed Hawks slowly floated by upriver one after the other for numerous chances to observe this rare denizen. The pigeons weren’t the only sign of spring as we watched a returning flock of Barn Swallows cruise by in close proximity to numerous Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. The arrangement here at the famous Dewind’s Feeders never disappoints as numerous valley specialties stock up on food for leaner times, or perhaps just to be gluttons.  Seriously good views of Altamira Oriole, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, White-winged Dove, Orange-crowned Warblers and the ultimate pair of Audubon’s Orioles all graced our lenses at a stone’s throw. During our picnic lunch a leaky faucet and proximal brush pile harbored a pair of secretive Cactus Wrens, one of which sat in the (almost) open for a while allowing scopes, binoculars, and cameras to have their fill. Falcon State Park protects a large tract of precious desert and is filled with oases in the form of RV’s for birds to quench their needs in this arid landscape. In one such spot the generous tenants that get here early in the year to reserve their usual sanctuary greeted us. We were elated they did, because joyous Black-throated. White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows, tiny Inca and Common Ground-Doves, Pyrrhuloxias, and seldom seen Gray Catbird were all coming to the food and water. The next morning in the region we had our sights set on finding Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. In the scrub below falcon dam 2 of these animated tail flickers were seen foraging at eye level. Another visit to the river in a different location allowed us to walk right out into the middle of the water on some rocks allowing excellent views east and west. A machine gun rattle call alerted us to an enormous Ringed Kingfisher that passed overhead announcing its presence to everyone. Several Green Kingfishers were also right above the water perched and ready to pounce on unsuspecting fish. Once again a group of 5 Red-billed Pigeons was flying from Mexico to America allowing good views for the second consecutive day. On our way back east we decided to try one last time for White-collared Seedeater that had eluded us up to this point. Under the Roma International Bridge next to the Roma Bluffs World Birding Center a certain stand of phragmites was producing a call note that could only be from a seedeater. We eventually tracked down a diminutive male who was determined to sit still and hope we didn’t see it up in a tree. While motionless scopes were trained on this little guy and great views were happily taken.

Back to the coastal flats east of Harlingen for a proper exploration of the wetlands and grasslands spread over this vast landscape. A brief stop off route 100 produced a confiding Cassin’s Sparrow standing tall on a sticky prickly pear cactus. Nearby our second Aplomado Falcon of the trip was on a transmission tower observing for unwilling prey. The southern tip of Laguna Madre spreads north from here off into the horizon and has countless oyster beds and sandy flats under the right conditions. This year it harbored many species of shorebirds including Dunlin, Whimbrel, and Ruddy Turnstones. Gull-billed Terns joined other species flying by and a family of Harris’s Hawks took their time hunting together across the street. South Padre Island’s Convention Center was hosting ‘bike week’ but that didn’t seem to affect the birds much. The boardwalks here provided excellent looks at more reclusive marsh species like chatty March Wrens, red-kneed Common Gallinules and many Soras. Sanderlings entertained us as they ran back and forth on the beach catching flies while a pair of American Oystercatchers with their huge orange bills watched from the safety of a jetty. We spent some time birding Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife refuge in the afternoon where several coveys of Northern Bobwhite insisted on feeding along the grassy edges of the road. A pair of Greater Roadrunners was very obliging as they hunted in unique fashion just outside the van window running down any insects they could find. At the Headquarters building Evan’s keen eye spotted a Bobcat slowly coursing through the dense thicket and we all got to see this wildcat as it patiently awaited the evening hours. This evening we rushed back to Brownsville to Oliveira Park in hopes of seeing the magic that is the famed parrot roost. Soon after we pulled up Red-crowned Parrots started flying in staging on the surrounding power lines. Shortly thereafter other species started dropping from the sky and feeding on some food-producing plantings including Red-lored, Lilac-crowned, and White Fronted Parrots.

 

Extension:

Considering how many rare birds were yet to see at Estero Llano Grande State Park we decided to head straight there in the morning. As we were discussing what the plan of attack would be in the parking lot Evan received a text message that the male Rose-throated Becard was being seen at that very moment just over one hundred yards from where we were standing. Our group quickly began heading towards the spot and as soon as we got there the Becard was lofting for insects directly overhead in the morning fog! We caught wind that a male Rufous Hummingbird was currently being seen at Bentsen State Park so we quickly shot over there. Unfortunately he had apparently kept going north and remained unseen to us, so we all had to ‘settle’ for the female Painted Bunting coming into a water feature at the nearby National Butterfly Center. Setting our heading north we meandered through the highway system stopping only briefly for anything that presented itself. Along one particular stretch of road several hundred Sandhill Cranes were spotted loafing in the shade of some huge mesquite trees. The thermometer read 95 degrees so we couldn’t blame them. Lucky for us a farm pond just down the road had scads of white geese, comprised of both Snow and Ross’s Goose allowing close inspection of these closely related species.

Our boat trip left from Fulton early the next day and we hopped onto the Intracoastal Waterway heading towards Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is the wintering grounds for about 3/5 of the entire population of Whooping Cranes in the world! The boat shot by various water birds including fowl like Bufflehead, Eared Grebes, and rafts of Common Goldeneye. As soon as we hit the refuge it wasn’t long until we caught a glimpse of our first family group of Whooping Cranes. Typically these birds stay in small groups of 2 adults and 1 or 2 young as they constantly look for food including the blue crab, a staple food on its wintering grounds. Over the next couple hours we saw at least 15 of these endangered species, sometimes at very close range from our boat! Returning along a different route continued to produce new birds like the Bonaparte’s Gulls seen at close range and a very cooperative Common Loon fishing the safety of the harbor. After our fresh fish luncheon the group headed to a stake-out hummingbird feeder where a very rare Broad-billed Hummingbird was spending the winter. We all sat in awe of this gorgeous red billed beauty as he sat motionless for long periods of time. Off we went to Refugio’s Lions County Park in hopes of glimpsing some rare birds that had been seen there recently. Lots of warblers were utilizing the well-wooded riparian areas including a Pine Warbler seen well by some, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings insisted on hanging out on a tall oak tree. Green Kingfishers were hunting the shallow waters below a pair of very unassuming Barred Owls. These birds began to hoot in unison with the overcast skies and one of them even decided to come down to the stream to bathe! As the sun was setting we made our way to a delicious seafood restaurant in Corpus Christi and had fun reliving the amazing week we had all just experienced. I think we proved once again just why our tour to this section of the country is a must for anyone interested in the specialities of south Texas.

Jake Mohlmann 2017

Created: 09 March 2017