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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Winter

Including Whooping Cranes

2020 Narrative

In Brief:

South Texas thrilled us all during our week in this birding paradise. Winter in this region is a great time to search for rare local breeders, the highlight of which was a confiding male Morelet’s Seedeater that allowed scope views for all. Charismatic local denizens were a treat including raucous Plain Chachalacas at Bentsen State Park, regal White-tailed Hawks around Anzalduas, and Aplomado Falcons in the coastal flats. Feeders throughout the valley were full of beautiful birds including Altamira and Audubon’s Orioles, Olive Sparrows and White-tipped doves. All three North American kingfishers; Green, Belted, and Ringed were encountered along the way. It was hard to pick out the land through the fog on our epic boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where we witnessed 12 of the large group of endangered Whooping Cranes that spend the winter there. One such couple didn’t mind that we pulled the boat right up to the shore and watched these giant creatures pace through the marsh slowly seeking blue crabs. All these amazing birds, supplemented with delicious barbeque 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 we familiarized ourselves with many of the specialties of this region. Just after sunrise we began by seeking some of the hoards of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Progreso Lakes. Over 150 individuals littering the edges of the water greeted us with their flashy silvery wings and high-pitched calls. Some nice views of Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants perched on emergent logs was a great way to compare these two similar species that we were undoubtedly going to see frequently over the next week. The farm fields around here had American Kestrels hunting the grassy edges, Loggerhead Shrikes perched on anything that would allow it, and our first of many Tropical Kingbirds for the trip. An extended wave of Red-winged Blackbirds darkened our view. We sat in the van as the black swarm quickly consumed our Ford Transit. The mass was coming out of their roost marsh and heading to the nearest available food. So, perhaps it was no surprise at the nearby granary silos there were droves of blackbirds that were taking advantage of the spillage from the loading docks. The group sifted through the masses to find both Brown-headed and the red-eyed Bronzed Cowbirds, as well at least 6 bright Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Heading north we had our sights on Estero Llano Grande State Park and the suite of birds this place always has to offer. This park boasts a bird list of over 346 species in only 14 years of existence! As soon as we got to the headquarter’s overlook many hospitable birds greeted us. At least 12 Wilson’s Snipe were foraging together, all in the same binocular view, a record number for many of us. Splendid male Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal swam in flocks, many Mottled Ducks were seen well, and a small gathering of Northern Shoveler slowly floated by. This area 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 this cryptic caprimulgiforme perfectly hidden in the leaf litter.

The wonderful wetlands complex at Estero also provided our first rust-colored Cinnamon Teal, lanky Anhinga sitting with wings open wide, and both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons. Along the well-wooded areas both Orange-crowned Warblers and Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were down right numerous. After we spent time admiring a ruby red Vermilion Flycatcher we walked up a trail and out of the corner of my eye I caught an image of an owl. There was an Eastern Screech-Owl peering through squinted eyes directly at us blending in well with the wooden structure it was using for cover. This owl may be split one day into a separate species named McCall’s Screech Owl. This distinct population only has a gray morph and lacks the typical whinny call of the eastern species.

While scanning from the raised dike it didn’t take long to spot a pair of stark White-tailed Kites cruising the shrubby edges, as well as Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Long-billed Dowitchers, and a group of hefty American White Pelicans participating in a cooperative feeding event. Shoulder to shoulder with Great and Snowy Egrets, White Ibis and a single Little Blue Heron the pelicans corralled small fish with their lasso-like foraging arrangement that dozens of opportunistic birds benefited from. It was hard to pull ourselves away from this fertile sot, but nothing beats the fare at the nearby taquerias. We all enjoyed some local flavor for lunch in the form of a local dish called lonchas.

After filling up we searched the southern border for Burrowing Owl, some participants favorite bird of the trip. Searching through some boulder fields eventually revealed a rock with feathers and beady yellow eyes that were keeping close tabs on our whereabouts. 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 until someone spotted a mouse-like bird creeping through the grass. We were extremely fortunate that one of these targets sat motionless just 10 meters from the gathered group as we observed this beauty for as long as we wanted. The grass was especially low this year so the entire bird was actually in the open the whole time. Other species in this area were fleeting Eastern and Western Meadowlarks and an orange-bellied Say’s Phoebe. In the large trees near the center of the park we tracked down some House Finches, an uncommon species this far down the Valley. A raft of over 150 Lesser Scaup accumulated in the large body of water and failed to hide the single female Ring-necked Duck that was hiding amongst the group.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most famous birding area in the valley so we thought it a must to check it to catch up with more of the valley specialities. Our timing was perfect as we watched the staff put out the first round of oranges and suet for the awaiting mass. Instantly there were half a dozen bright Altamira Orioles blending in with their food, White-tipped Doves scurrying along the ground for seed bits, and a single chocolate Clay-colored Thrush joined the throng of multicolored Green Jays all feasting at first light. The two swallows we saw were Tree and a rare-for-winter Bank Swallow. A small feeding flock near Pintail Lakes was working one of the flowering acacia trees and was headed up by a stately Ash-throated Flycatcher. Other foragers included White-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos, yellow faced Verdin, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Our final stop here came with excellent views of a family of Least Grebes trying their best to blend into the bulrushes at Willow Pond. We decided to celebrate our good fortune by sampling some of the famed Texas Barbecue that we’d heard so much about. To our delight, we weren’t disappointed!

This evening was slated to search for 1 of the 2 countable Psittaciforms possible on our trip. As we headed up 10th Avenue in McAllen it didn’t take long to realize where the Green Parakeets were going to be found. Well over 5,000 Great-tailed Grackles were indicating the area and also getting together for one last social event of the day. It was unbelievable to see this many blackbirds in 1 place staging to roost. The sound was almost deafening, especially when the flock of 350 Green Parakeets took off in unison each vying for the last squawk before heading to roost.

The following morning we explored the famed Bentsen State Park in the rain. Not the type of rain that would prevent us birding and stop the bird activity, but the type of rain that was just tolerable for our goal of finding new birds. The main resaca was checked twice, and each time a Green Kingfisher was perched low over the water’s edge peering through the clear water for any oblivious fish. Plain Chachalacas were huddled together on branches beside a group of Inca Doves also doing their best to stay dry. Though we explored this extensive stand of Tamaulipan Thornscrub most of the bird activity was centered around the manicured Visitor’s Center. The range-restricted Buff-bellied Hummingbird we saw initially gave away its location by its incessant chirping, but eventually came in to perch showing off its black-tipped red bill wonderfully. We also saw a female Black-chinned Humminbird that gave  a nice lesson in bill and head shape and an additional bright male Ruby-throated Hummingbird that decided to winter in south Texas rather than making the tumultuous journey across the Gulf of Mexico for the winter.

Heading off northwest up and out of the lower parts of the Rio Grande Valley is always exciting as the habitat slowly gives way to a drier domain, with smaller trees and more cacti as the scene blends into the Chihuahuan Desert. Some back roads in this new habitat held several notable species. In one area the tinkling calls of Black-throated Sparrow revealed this striking bird’s location, and it was hard to drive away from the gaudy male Pyrrhuloxia that nibbled in the grit right next to the road. The grasslands in the area tend to hold lots of sparrows, but because of the rainy weather numbers were down. This didn’t prevent us from crossing paths with several exciting species such as the great looks we had at a confiding Cassin’s Sparrow that perched on the barbed wire fence.

The boat ramp at Salineño provided some real excitement for our first full day in this new area. Immediately upon exiting the vans birds started shooting by overhead. A beautiful whistling song caught our attention from atop the nearby vegetation. It wasn’t hard to spot the male Audubon’s Oriole that was working on his solo performance. Later we were treated to extensive views of this half yellow half black oriole at some homemade suet. The arrangement here at the famous Dewind’s feeders never disappoints as numerous specialties stock up on food for leaner times, or perhaps just to be gluttons.  Seriously good views of Olive Sparrow, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, White-winged Dove, and the streaky Long-billed Thrasher all graced our lenses at a stone’s throw. Other interesting desert denizens seen in this region were a couple Cactus Wrens calling loudly from the treetops, a Barn Owl peering out of its hole in a wash bank, and eventually amongst the dozens of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers a fancy Black-tailed Gnatcatcher showed for all, already wearing the nice black-cap distinctive of this species in the breeding season.

The Greater Roadrunner is an iconic bird of the desert so we were all pumped to find it at Falcon State Park. One of these large predators was slowly working some of the campsites occasionally picking up something unnoticeable to our eye and gulping it down. Also here a very welcoming RV camper had some feeders set up and we took their invitation to sit and enjoy some of their birds. A Nashville Warbler came in and surprised us all to its food choice of…marshmallows! Curve-billed Thrashers joined the mix, as did several Common Ground Doves scratching under the grill. At one of the few large trees in the park a Great Horned Owl pair were trying their luck at raising young, but unfortunately picked a spot right over the road. As a result they kept flushing every time a car drove by. It will be interesting to learn if this pair ended up being successfull because usually that’s not a good sign for nest survival.

Our last morning in this western-most region of the tour we spent 2 hours sitting on the banks of the Rio Grande once again keeping eyes to the sky for anything new and exciting. As soon as we walked up to the water at Chapeno a curious American pipit bounced its tail while allowing us to get within 20 feet of this hydrophilic species. A noble male Ringed Kingfisher hover hunted almost continuously while we sat on some rocks in the middle of the river. Several groups of Caspian turns flew by every 15 minutes heading towards Falcon Dam. A complete surprise stunning male Hooded Oriole lit on top of a nearby tree, and gave nice comparisons between it and the much more numerous Altamiras. Side-by-side views of Mexican and Mottled Ducks were useful, and a flock of flyby Bufflehead or a surprise to us all. A nice Yellow-bellied Sapsucker landed by our van. It with Ladder-backed were two of three species of woodpecker detected here. After our second failed attempt at finding Morelet’s Seedeater there was one more spot I had in my pocket to search for this at times elusive species. Within 1 minute of pulling up to a spot with perfect habitat a pair of this recently split species sat up nicely, and allowed the scope to be trained on the male while he was busy picking away at grass seeds.

This evening we headed back to Brownsville in order to try our luck with Oliveira Park in hopes of seeing the magic that is its famed parrot roost. Minutes after we pulled up White-fronted Parrots started flying in staging on the surrounding power lines. Birds met up in couples as if exchanging information on where the best foods were for tomorrow’s forage. Shortly thereafter other species started dropping from the sky and feeding on some food-producing plantings including Red-crowned and a single Lilac-crowned Parrot. A Red-tailed Hawk with good, or perhaps bad, timing appeared out of nowhere and hundreds of parrots shot out in a stream at or below eye level directly to our awaiting group in response to the unwanted intruder. A wheeling flock of parrots of that size is a deafening experience when they fly by within feet of your head.

The areas on and around South Padre Island, with its vast sweeping mudflats and mangrove wetlands, produced a bunch of new species new for our trip. On the way out we spotted an Aplomado Falcon perched on a pole next to the road. It turned out to be a pair of Aplomados that were sitting comfortably atop their designated nesting structure. This is, until a male Northern Harrier got a little too close for comfort. The defensive falcons decided to attack the small mammal hunter and escort it out of the area with repeated jabs from pointy talons. In the tidal basins Royal, Caspian, Forster’s, and even a couple Gull-billed Terns all huddled together on sandy spits while hundreds of shorebirds including Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstones, and Marbled Godwits took a snooze in the safety of a lagoon. Over 80% of the world’s population of Redhead winter on Laguna Madre but it was still quite a surprise when at least 5,000 of these birds took flight all at once leaving us all wondering what could have scared such a huge flock of birds. In the afternoon we walked along the wooden boardwalks searching for elusive marsh species. A well-spotted Sora sat and bathed amongst the marsh edge and Tricolored Herons were successful in stabbing fish for dinner. Light morph and dark Reddish Egrets took the stage at various points, dancing around as only they can, corralling the surely confused schools of fish.

The following morning we visited the University of Texas Brownsville campus which boasts a very natural, and productive, resaca habitat very close to the international border. Common Gallinules squeaked along as they inched by, and stunning views of Green Kingfisher were thoroughly enjoyed while perched for a long time around the edge. Black Phoebes lofted to pick insects out of the air and at one point a young Red-shouldered Hawk hopped to a tree a foot off the water and eventually took a bath. Yellow Warblers, both male and female, were added here as well as a striking Yellow-throated Warbler posing in the willows. We then stopped by Resaca de la Palma State Park and although we didn’t add any new birds, a few amazing butterflies were added at the gardens here including the stunning Blue Metalmark, a south Texas specialty.

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. Although the weather started out as foggy as pea soup, by the end it couldn’t have been a more beautiful experience. The boat slowly crept by various oyster beds and sandy islands filled with coastal birds like resting American Oystercatchers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and several “Western” Willets. As soon as we hit the refuge it wasn’t long until we caught a glimpse of our first family group of Whooping Cranes foraging in the mist. 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 12 of these endangered species, sometimes at very close range from our boat.

One of the highlights of the trip was witnessing these birds at an extremely close range. In fact this was the closest the captain had been to the cranes the entire winter season. The vegetated areas surrounding the ponds where the cranes were foraging also provided looks at Swamp Sparrows that were just beginning to sing for spring. We spent the rest of this day poking around Mustang Island and getting close encounters with other coastal species. An abundance of gulls gave nice studies of Laughing, Ring-billed, Lesser Black-backed, and a wayward Mew Gull, a new one for the trip list. Another rarity was a Pectoral Sandpiper sleeping amongst Long-billed Dowitchers. It was curious this species would be here, considering most of these birds should be in South America right now. As the sun set we headed to a delicious seafood restaurant where we chatted at length about the wonderful week we had just had.

- Jake Mohlmann, 2020

Created: 02 March 2020