Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Winter

Including Whooping Cranes

2022 Narrative

Our south Texas winter tour encountered a wide variety of weather from calm and nice to cold and windy, and sometimes some rain. We found most of the Rio Grande specialties, but missed several, notably Hook-billed Kite, Audubon’s Oriole, and Morelet’s Seedeater. We were able to see three of the outstanding rarities present this winter: a Social Flycatcher, a Golden-crowned Warbler and the first record for the U.S. of a Bat Falcon. A Crimson-collared Grosbeak, present at La Quinta Mazatlan into late January, had apparently moved on by the time we arrived. Despite the cold weather, our views and experience with the Whooping Cranes at Aransas NWR were the best I’ve ever had.

We chose to defer breakfast ton our first morning in order to arrive at first light at the University of Texas, Brownsville. On the grounds here, a Social Flycatcher has been present since mid-November. While present, it has been unpredictable, although of late it had been seen early and late in the trees in the southern parking lot. Sure enough, it appeared at about 0725 there and we had nice views (and photos) for about ten minutes. It was calling. It appeared like a miniature Great Kiskadee but lacked rufous on the wings and had a much smaller bill and gave a different call. The two species are in different genre, the Great Kiskadee in Pitangus consisting of two species, the Social (in Myiozetetes) consisting of four species. This might only be the 2nd fully legit record for the U.S., although it is common to the south in Mexico. Also present were Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbirds, Green Jays, and Black-crested Titmice. A single Blue-headed Vireo and Clay-colored Thrush were seen and a Cooper’s Hawk flew over as did two Red-crowned Parrots. Three wintering Yellow-throated Warblers were present up in the tall palms. From here we returned to the Holiday Inn Express in Harlingen for a proper breakfast and check-out. We continued west to Santa Ana NWR where we learned from those on a returning tram that the Bat Falcon was on a perch, some 2.2 miles from the refuge headquarters. The van was not returning so we walked. What followed was a series of frustrations and non-encounters. At Cattail Lake we did see a number of waterfowl, including Cinnamon Teal and a variety of shorebirds, including Stilt Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. Raptors that were seen included White-tailed Kite and Harris’s Hawks and over the fields to the north, several White-tailed Hawks. Inca Doves were at the feeders at the headquarters and several singing White-eyed Vireos of the small endemic subspecies micron with a different wing formula were noted. After dinner at a Mexican Restaurant (Los Asados) in McAllen we continued to our nearby hotel.

It rained overnight and this continued in a showery fashion through much of the morning. We spent much of the day at Estero Llano Grande State Park, a charming location with many habitats and it had many birds. Combined with a friendly staff and helpful volunteers one can easily spend a day here, and we did! Moreover, since there were no major rarities present, there were correspondingly many fewer birders. Water birds included several hundred Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks along with other waterfowl, including Mottled Ducks, Least Grebes, both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons. We had both Ruby-throated and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, White-tipped Doves, Common Pauraques at literally arm’s length roosting, both Curve-billed (curvirostre subspecies group) and Long-billed Thrashers, Clay-colored Thrushes, Olive Sparrows, a Great Horned Owl on a nest and an Eastern Screech-Owl in a box. The Eastern Screech is of the distinctive and near endemic mccallii which has different vocalizations from those subspecies found elsewhere in eastern North America. A Nutria, a large, introduced rodent, was also present. We had a delicious lunch at Nana’s Taqueria nearby, and then returned back to bird at Estero Llano Grande. Late in the day we watched Green Parakeets on wires in northern McAllen until a passing Merlin dispersed them, then went to the southern part of town where many Red-crowned and eight Lilac-crowned Parakeets were perched on wires. It is my belief that all of these parrots and parakeets originated from captivity. But they live long lives and once free they collect in flocks and start breeding, producing their own established populations. The Red-crowned Parrots and Green Parakeets occur natively in adjacent southern Tamaulipas, Mexico, but the Lilac-crowned Parrots are found on the Pacific slope of Mexico. That evening we had bar-be-que at a local restaurant. We were the only patrons, but the food was tasty.

We arose early to see if the Bat Falcon would cooperate and sit on its post at the entrance to Santa Ana NWR, but it did not. So we returned for breakfast and then headed down to Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. A Golden-crowned Warbler was wintering here and we easily located it and got nice views. Its fidgety nature made it hard to photograph but it called frequently revealing its location. Plain Chachalacas were numerous. After picking up a sandwich at Subway we returned to Santa Ana and hiked towards Cattail Lake. Along the way we spotted a couple of Red-shouldered Hawks of the nominate eastern subspecies. When we were about a mile away, I got a call that the Bat Falcon was at Cattail Lake and perched. We headed quickly there and fortunately it remained perched for very adequate scope views. Eventually it started hunting dragonflies, and at one point it passed at high speed near ground level in the narrow gap between two groups of observers. It must have been traveling in speeds in excess of 75 or 80 mph and sounded like a small jet when it passed close by! This is a first record for this Neotropical species in the U.S., but it does occur in northeast Mexico as close eastern Nuevo Leon and southern or central Tamaulipas. I believe the bird is an adult. An excellent reference is Raptors of Mexico and Central America by William S. Clark and N. John Schmitt (Princeton University Press). The illustrations by John Schmitt and the photos are superb. After hiking back we headed upriver to our evening destination in Zapata. We had a peaceful and quiet dinner at the Holiday Restaurant.

The next morning we headed back south to below Falcon Dam. About 3.5 miles north of Saline?o we had superb views of a perched adult White-tailed Hawk on a low bush on the side of the road. I have never seen this species so far away from the coast along the Rio Grande. At Sali?eno we had many birds coming to the feeders that Earl managed. These included numerous Altamira Orioles, Plain Chachalacas and Long-billed Thrashers. A Clay-colored Thrush was present too. Along the river were many Ospreys and a variety of waterfowl, including (briefly) a pair of Mexican Ducks. Single Green and Ringed Kingfishers were also seen. The few Bewick’s Wrens noted were singing. We were unable to locate the single Morelet’s Seedeater along the river, nor did we see Audubon’s Oriole. A Rose-throated Becard seen the day before was also missed. Late in the day at a public park just south of Zapata we had superb views of a Curve-billed Thrasher along with a pair of Cactus Wrens and a Black-throated Sparrow. Earlier, we had distant views of our only Chihuahuan Raven. We had a nice dinner at Mariscos el Jorocho in Zapata.

After breakfast we headed back south towards McAllen, stopping at Bentsen State Park where we had adult male Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds at the feeders at the headquarters along with an adult male Hooded Oriole. The Hooded was of the eastern group of subspecies, sennetti, one of the orange colored subspecies, the males with more extensive black on the face. A single Clay-colored Thrush and a few Wild Turkeys were also present. We spent a good deal of time at the hawk tower where a variety of raptors were present including both multiple Gray and Red-shouldered Hawks, but unfortunately no Hook-billed Kites. Marsh birds were heard too including multiple Soras and Least Bitterns and a single Virginia Rail. Later, after lunch we had excellent views of Ringed, Belted and Green Kingfishers. Here in and near the refuge we had Green Parakeets in a more natural setting. We looked for Sprague’s Pipits at the entrance to Anzul Dues County Park, but found only a small flock of American Pipits. From thee we continued east, returning to Harlingen. We had a delicious dinner at La Playa.

The next morning we headed east towards Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. We stopped along the way to admire Sandhill Cranes and noted distant Snow Geese. Several White-tailed Hawks were seen and we got to see, and more importantly hear several Couch’s Kingbirds, separable from the nearly identical Tropical Kingbird only safely be call. At the refuge we noted a small flock of warblers which had a hybrid Tropical x Northern Parula, a Nashville and a Wilson’s Warbler, along with a Blue-headed Vireo. On the playa nearby we noted both Ring-necked Ducks and Redheads and in the brush bordering the water, a pair of Verdins. From here we headed southeast and then west of Port Isabel to a place where we had good perched views of an Aplomado Falcon on its hack tower. This species was known historically from near the mouth of the Rio Grande in the coastal grasslands but were extirpated by about 1900. Some 20 years ago efforts were undertaken to re-establish the species and efforts appear to be succeeding. Several Eastern Meadowlarks of the endemic subspecies hoopesi were singing, but views were distant. On South Padre Island we noted a nice variety of wintering shorebirds, most at very close range, but were unable to locate any Piping Plovers.We finished the day down in Brownsville, looking first for passerines at the University of Texas. A Wilson’s Warbler was well seen as was a Black Phoebe. We then looked at a park where hundreds of parrots came in to roost at Olivera Park. While most of these birds were Red-crowned Parrots, at least 47 were White-fronted Parrots. This latter species is completely absent from eastern Mexico and this indicates how local escapes can bond, breed and thrive. Finding a place for a group dinner looked difficult and we decided in the end to order pizza, pick up beer (Corona) and eat back at the hotel.

The next morning brought ominous warnings of a cold front with much cooler temperatures and gale force winds arriving midday. We chose to start at San Benito Wetlands where in the scattered bushes present we located two Groove-billed Anis, known to be wintering here. This is a rare and local species in winter, but is more numerous and widespread in winter. An adult male Vermilion Flycatcher was also present along with two “Myrtle” and “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers. From here we headed south back to Brownsville and back to the University of Texas. We did find the feeding flock of passerines and amongst the scattering of warblers noted a Black-throated Green and a scarce Black-throated Gray along with Wilson’s and Yellow-throated. A Blue-headed Vireo was well seen as was a female Sumer Tanager. Four calling Red-shouldered Hawks circled overhead. On a pond across the highway amongst the hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were three Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, an adult Green Heron, and a female Green Kingfisher were present too, along with a White-striped Longtail, a skipper. After a delicious lunch at Jason’s Deli in Brownsville we headed north and soon encountered the cold front. By the time we reached the King Ranch and beyond the north winds were indeed gale force and it was cold by the time we got to Corpus Christi. We took the short walk over to Thai Spice where we had a delicious and relaxed dinner.

We arose early the next morning in the cold (30’s) and headed north having a take-out breakfast at McDonald’s in Rockport. The winds were diminished but it was cold for much of the day. Still, we had about a dozen Whooping Cranes, some of which we had superb views of them feeding and in flight. We watch one dismantle a blue crab, picking off the legs, one by one, then consuming the body. A few Sandhill Cranes were also seen. Other species noted included a pair of American Oystercatchers and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. A flock of over 100 Great Blue Herons was unusual. Here we saw a Raccoon too.  On our return to the Rockport Marina we saw our only Common Loon. After a nice lunch at the Tropical Smoothie Café in Rockport we headed to Aransas Pass and Mustang Island. At the Leonabella Turnbull Birding Center we saw many birds, mostly waterfowl and shorebirds, including 250 American Avocets, a few Stilt Sandpipers amongst the Long-billed Dowitchers, and a Pectoral Sandpiper, likely a very early spring migrant. The real stars were an enormous American Alligator and a male Least Bittern which David got good photos of. To the south at Packery Channel County Park, we noted that several Purple Martins had arrived and were perched on their nesting house. Our only Little Blue Herons were seen here, or nearby. On the causeway on our return to Corpus Christi we noted a perched Peregrine Falcon. That evening we walked to Landry’s on the bay for a final seafood dinner. The following morning most left for the airport well before dawn, but a few of us had a final breakfast in the coffee shop before heading our separate ways.

Updated: n/a