Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Spring

2022 Narrative

In brief: The 2022 South Texas tour provided an excellent diversity of birds, habitats, and food. The coastal beaches and marshes accommodated remarkable numbers of shorebirds, waterfowl, and waterbirds, while small coastal woodlots acted as traps for migratory warblers, orioles, and buntings. Inland we covered a variety of habitats from thorn-scrub forests, sod farms, and resacas to the lush Rio Grande River, which provided a host of South Texas specialties including Morelet’s Seedeater, Red-billed Pigeon, Green Jay, Audubon’s and Altamira Orioles, Ring and Green Kingfishers, Plain Chachalacas, Long-billed Thrasher, and Black-crested Titmouse to name a few. We also explored with our tastebuds having everything from authentic tamale lunches to mouthwatering Texas BBQs. The 2023 South Texas tour can’t come soon enough!

Day 1: The tour began late afternoon. We decided to postpone our introduction meeting until after dinner so that we could venture over to nearby Blucher Park; we had an hour before sunset to see what we could conjure. It was quiet but we did manage to see a few things including Great Kiskadee, Long-billed Thrasher, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Northern Waterthrush.

Day 2: After an early breakfast, we departed Corpus Christi for the famed King Ranch. Covering nearly 1,300 square miles, King Ranch is roughly the size of Rhode Island and protects the largest swath of land in South Texas. It’s no wonder why King Ranch holds the United State’s largest population of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, which was the main target of the day. Upon arrival, we were greeted by our ranch guide and a host of birds including Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Couch’s Kingbird, Hooded Oriole along with Green Jays, and Black-crested Titmouse at the feeders.

Soon we were off for a full day of birding en route to various locales around the ranch that host the owl. Along the way, we picked up Greater Roadrunner, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Pyrrhuloxia, and a decent number of White-tailed Hawks. A recently naturally burned area hosted American Golden-Plovers and Upland Sandpipers. The winds were strong today, but our search for the owl continued. We took a short break from the search to find Tropical Parula and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, both rare breeders in South Texas. After returning to our owl search, and hearing one, we eventually laid eyes on a second individual, which sat right out in the open offering excellent views. Afterward, we tried a few spots for Audubon’s Oriole and had very brief sightings of a couple of individuals. This was made up by stumbling upon an additional pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls.

Working our way out of the ranch, we made a couple of stops at some lakes where we added a few shorebirds, including Baird’s Sandpiper, as well as American Pipit and Lark Sparrow. After a successful trip around the ranch, we made our way south toward McAllen. Opting for an early dinner, we visited an evening roost of Green Parakeets.

Day 3: We set off early for Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and opted to walk to the hawk watch tower and take the shuttle back later in the afternoon. The park had stopped feeding the birds for the season, but there were still Plain Chachalacas, Inca Doves, and White-tipped Doves hanging out around the feeders. Further along we stumbled upon a singing Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, a nice bonus to the day. Just as we were arriving at the hawk tower, a large group of Broad-winged Hawks passed overhead. Despite the winds, today was looking great for some raptor movement. While hoping for Hook-billed Kite, we had some time to study the various raptors moving over from both vultures, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Crested Caracara, Cooper’s, Harris’s, Gray, Broad-winged, and Swainson’s Hawks along with Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Cave Swallows, and a calling Sora. On our way back out we picked up an Altamira Oriole.

After lunch at a locally popular tamale joint, we worked our way upriver towards Zapata, making a couple of stops along the way. Much of the afternoon was spent at Falcon State Park. Here we stumbled upon a few desert species including Ash-throated Flycatcher and Black-throated Sparrow. We also picked up Clay-colored Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Savannah Sparrow. We then drove along the water’s edge finding Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpiper, and three Snowy Plovers. 

Day 4: After several days of excessive temperatures and heavy winds, we woke up to more favorable weather, which was a good foreshadowing of an excellent day. At dawn, we birded a stretch of rural road that traversed excellent Tamaulipan thorn-scrub. We immediately picked up a couple of Lesser Nighthawks hawking for their last insects before sunrise. Bewick’s Wrens, Northern Cardinals, and Pyrrhuloxia were already in full song. Further up the road we picked up Northern Bobwhite and Scaled Quail, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Cactus Wren attending a nest, and Bullock’s Orioles among others.

We returned to the main road and continued upriver to the small town of San Ygnacio, a 19th-century Mexican pueblo, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places owing to its charming Mexican ranch-style architecture. Here we spent some time on the observation tower looking across the Rio Grande River at Mexico. It didn’t take long before we had excellent views of our main target in the Zapata region, a male Morelet’s Seedeater. It made at least three separate appearances. Other highlights include Mexican Duck, Yellow-breasted Chat, Audubon’s Oriole, and after an extended wait, a Red-billed Pigeon. It flew right over our heads and landed atop a dead tree nearby where we were able to enjoy it for a while before it moved on.

Lunch was had at a local hidden gem where we schemed our plans for the rest of the day. After such a successful morning, we were running out of new birds to search for! We went out to enjoy obtaining better views of everything and added White-crowned Sparrow, Gull-billed Tern, and a few ducks to the trip list.

Day 5: Following an early breakfast, we made the couple-hour drive back east where we headed straight to Estero Llano Grande State Park. We birded the wetland side of the park, picking out a Fulvous Whistling-Duck among the large numbers of Black-bellied along with several other ducks, including a male Cinnamon Teal. Shorebirds were also well represented with the likes of Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Stilt Sandpipers, and Long-billed Dowitchers being the most common. Also present were Pied-billed and Least Grebes, and a whole host of waterbirds such as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, Least Bittern, and American White Pelican.

After lunch at a popular taqueria nearby, we went back to Estero and searched an area that normally hosts a Common Pauraque and eventually found it roosting. The forested side of the park was relatively quiet, but we did find Hooded and Altamira Orioles and Black-and-white, Orange-crowned, and Nashville Warblers among others.

Afterward, we headed to a sod farm to scan for shorebirds where we had a single Upland Sandpiper. However, we managed to pick up a lingering Sprague’s Pipit as well! Other birds around include Peregrine Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, and many Eastern Meadowlarks in full song.

We opted for an early dinner before heading to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park to watch the Elf Owl hole in a utility pole. Just as it was getting dark, one poked its head out for a little while before a second individual arrived; they both flew off and started calling nearby. They returned a couple of times, offering a great show. We also had no fewer than five Chuck-wills-widows calling all around us. A nice way to finish the day!

Day 6: We gave Hook-billed Kite another shot but from the Santa Ana National Wildlife Area hawk tower instead. Although one never did make an appearance, we still enjoyed some pleasant birding. Raptor numbers were not quite as high as they were at Bentsen, but we did have a Merlin, Common Nighthawk, and two seasonally rare Wood Storks. A brief visit to a nearby sod farm didn’t produce much besides three American Golden-Plovers and a Pectoral Sandpiper.

After lunch, we hopped across to South Padre Island to see if there were any migrants around. The winds were pretty strong; focusing on patches of habitat out of the wind was key. We first visited the convention center where a patch of trees held Warbling Vireo, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Tennessee, Orange-crowned and Nashville Warblers, Indigo Bunting, and three Lesser Nighthawks actively flying around feeding. Otherwise, it was fairly quiet. Unexpectedly, we spotted a seasonally rare Magnificent Frigatebird flying overhead. Since migration was light, we changed our focus to marsh and beach birding and had a plethora of coastal species including large numbers of Black Skimmers and our first of many Reddish Egrets.

We then paid a visit next door at the Bird and Nature Center where we spent an hour walking their extensive boardwalk. Along the way, we had vocal Clapper Rails, an American Oystercatcher, and heard a “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler singing its distinctive song from deep within the mangroves. After a full day of birding, we worked our way back to Harlingen for the night.

Day 7: This morning found us at the Old Port Isabela Road for sunrise. Despite the road deteriorating beyond three miles, which limited the area we could bird, we still managed to have an enjoyable morning of birding. Cassin’s Sparrows were in full song along the road as were Eastern Meadowlarks. The song of Sedge Wrens resonated from the grasslands while Marsh Wrens and a Virginia Rail could be heard from the wetland edges.

Afterward, we drove along the Boca Chica Road past SpaceX to where it ends into the Gulf of Mexico. Our main focus was shorebirds, and we were able to scope out a few new species including Wilson’s, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwit.

Following lunch, we made our first visit to the Sheepshead lot on South Padre Island to see if any migrants were present. Unfortunately, it was still quiet; a Lesser Nighthawk, Tennessee Warbler, and Northern Parula were some of the only migrants around. We decided to head back inland, stopping for a pair of Aplamado Falcons along the way, which proceeded to court. A small group of Franklin’s Gulls migrated overhead as well.

Our final stop of the day was Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen. A visit to a bird feeder blind provided an excellent opportunity to photograph Green Jays, Hooded Oriole, both Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and Indigo Buntings among others. Exploring a looping trail, we added Common Ground-Dove to our trip list.

Day 8: Our morning began with a leisurely walk around the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus in Brownsville where a natural area surrounding a resaca provides excellent birding. We picked up Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Green and Wilson’s Warblers, Red-crowned Parrots, a resident Black Phoebe, and a host of other species we had seen previously.

We then made a stop at Palo Alto Battlefield to see if any Botteri’s Sparrows had returned yet. It didn’t take long before we found two singing individuals and had excellent views of one teed up right in front of us.

Once again, we ventured back to South Padre Island to check on the migration situation first stopping at Sheepshead. Here we picked up Wood Thrush, Yellow-breasted Chat, Hooded Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler. Previously, we had only heard the “mangrove” subspecies of the latter. Next, we headed north to the convention center, which proved to be more active with migrants. There were nearly two dozen individual warblers in the small patch of trees including our first Worm-eating, Prothonotary, Blackpoll, Yellow-throated, and a vagrant Cape May. We enjoyed hanging back and watching the birds slowly work their way through the vegetation and they all ended up visiting a water feature by the end.

Day 9: Sadly our final day, we departed early and made the two-hour drive north in order to have a full day of birding around Corpus Christi. Our first stop was Pollywog, which is typically an excellent birding stop, but today it was quiet. We worked our way to Mustang Island and a couple stops later arrived in Port Aransas.

The wetland park was packed with ducks and shorebirds, which allowed for up-close views and identification discussions, namely differentiating the different peeps – Least, Semipalmated, and Western. We also had several Forester’s Terns and a Chestnut-sided Warbler. The nearby Leonabelle Turnbull Nature Center had a lot of the same species with the addition of several Redhead and Green-winged Teal, but also provided excellent photographic opportunities.

Leaving Port Aransas, we headed back towards Corpus Christi in order to have time to check out a couple of sites before checking into the hotel. First, we visited the migrant trap of Blucher Park where we had a stunning male Painted Bunting and obtained much better views of other species including a Northern Waterthrush feeding out on the open lawn! Our final stop was the Rose Hill Cemetery where we added Monk Parakeets and a Blue-headed Vireo.

Our final dinner was at a local seafood joint where we reminisced on the successful tour and the great birds we had along the way.

Day 10: Flights home.


Updated: n/a