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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Winter

Including Whooping Cranes

2023 Narrative

In Brief: South Texas thrilled us all during our week in this birding paradise as we tallied 182 species of birds. Charismatic local denizens were a treat including raucous Plain Chachalacas at Bentsen State Park, regal White-tailed Hawks around Port Isabel, and Aplomado Falcon 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. Parrots and Parakeets were fun to see, as was the spectacle of witnessing over 25,000 Great-tailed Grackles come to roost. It was hard to beat our epic boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where we witnessed 25 of the large group of endangered Whooping Cranes that spend the winter there. One such family 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 cuisine, delivered an unforgettable experience and was a wonderful way to escape the winter weather that most of America was suffering through.

In Detail:  Perhaps we should have known that having our lifer Green Parakeets roosting in the parking lot of the hotel would be a sign that we were going to have a great day. Even before getting to our first location, we pulled over to the shoulder of the road to soak in a flock of Red-crowned Parrots on overhead powerlines. This was a well-deserved 500th ABA bird for one, and a stunning lifer for the rest. Sabal Palm Sanctuary protects a large tract of native palm forest along the banks of the Rio Grande River. The ebony and mesquite groves began to reveal their denizens almost immediately upon arriving. A rising and falling ‘breeeer’ call distracted us down the nature trail as we hunted down a pair of Couch’s Kingbirds. While chasing them around for scope views an adorable Black-crested Titmouse was joined by a teeny yellow-faced Verdin foraging for the tiniest of prey. Along the river, a particularly good viewing formula had us eye level with a White-eyed Vireo showing all field marks well. A song with paired phrases revealed a Long-billed Thrasher foraging on some red berries and proved once again that this species is as skulky as ever. The repeated ‘teakettle’ song of Carolina Wren was belted out by a bold individual that overlooked our close proximity to emit its love for an awaiting female. Scurrying here and there through the leaves were a bunch of White-tipped Doves, normally very hard to get a good look at, but seen with ease at this fine location. Some high thin calling led us down to a pair of Olive Sparrows, one of which eventually shot up to 10 feet high peering out from the shrubs. We watched as it grabbed a large caterpillar opportunistically to enjoy, maybe beginning the evolution of a not so hard to see version of this cryptic tropical sparrow. Old Port Isabel Road was in good shape and hosted some nice saline inland prairie habitat for us to explore. Several wader species were utilizing the tidal flats here and included a pair of Roseate Spoonbills, Great and Little Blue Herons, and white Great and Snowy Egrets. A crop duster buzzed the ground low and put up over 50 Long-billed Curlews in flight right over our heads as they shot around confused as to what the giant disturbance was. A few Black Skimmers sat on the shoreline, shouldering up with the nearby Laughing and Ring-billed Gull, as well as a stately Caspian Tern. At a random pond stop to check out some American Coots we were treated to the presence of the cutest member of the waterfowl family. Two pairs of the tiny Least Grebe were floating like leaves on each edge of the wetland sporting their bright yellow eyes and slight pointy bills nicely. Several Common Yellowthroats ‘chucked’ their calls and one dapper male eventually popped up on a grass clump for excellent views of his black zorro mask. At a small pond just down the road, the conditions were perfect for shorebirds. A nice comparison of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs ensued with both feeding right next to each other, and a good lesson in the details confirming the peep Least Sandpiper and dowitcher of the Long-billed variety were practiced. Several male Vermilion Flycatchers sat as flames on top of small bushes, and a group of at least 5 Tropical Kingbirds were both flycatching and verbalizing with their distinctive trilled calls. We loved watching an adult White-tailed Hawk soaring high overhead searching for unsuspecting prey at that altitude, but loved even more when a pair of them were perched on top of a telephone pole for extended scope views. The road is bordered by an endless barb-wired fence where we noticed a few dead animals placed skewered on the top row. This was the work of one of the ferocious Loggerhead Shrikes we likely saw, which have a habit of saving tasty morsels for leaner times when they don’t need them at the moment of capture.

The next morning we cruised through Progreso where flocks of thousands of blackbirds were littering the fields and skies. At the nearby granary silos the droves of blackbirds were taking advantage of the spillage from the loading docks. The group sifted through the masses of entirely male Red-winged Blackbirds to find both Brown-headed and the red-eyed Bronzed Cowbirds, as well at least 75 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 356 species in only 17 years of existence! The overlook at the Visitor’s Center provided great looks at both male and female Green and Blue-winged Teal utilizing the shallow waters for dabbling purposes. Soon after strolling down the path a flock of White Ibis came in overhead, yet another white bird with black wingtips to add to the list! We took time to differentiate what made the swallows flying overhead Tree and nothing else, while also enjoying the unique head shape of the several Gadwall loafing in the pond nearby. As soon as we crossed the canal a female Green Kingfisher was spotted in the distant pond. All of a sudden it decided not to fly in the opposite direction but instead, much to our delight, fly towards the group and right under the bridge we were standing on to perch within a couple of meters of our admiring party. A frenzy of photos ensued, as well as high 5s for this amazing life bird. At Alligator Pond we watched adult Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons roosting on the water’s edge. We also took time to talk about the finer details of telling the juvenile versions of these two species apart. 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 caprimulgiformes perfectly hidden in the leaf litter. 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. Along the well-wooded areas, both Orange-crowned Warblers and Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were downright numerous. Viewed from up on the dike, a sleeping flock of Black-necked Stilts with American Avocets was fun to see comparing both species with their black-and-white plumages of the season. A group of hefty American White Pelicans was hard to miss, and a few Roseate Spoonbills were foraging in the fashion they are well known for, sweeping their bills back and forth through the shallow waters. At some of the feeding stations in the Tropical Zone new birds were added including a male Golden-fronted Woodpecker angry at the adult Cooper’s Hawk that decided to perch right over its source of food. A juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird eventually came in to one of the blinds, as did a curious Carolina Wren and even more regional Black-crested Titmouses. Some feeders provided by the generous volunteers at this location had a bright orange Hooded Oriole feeding from a tasty treat. We noted the dainty decurved bill and white median coverts just as a larger Altamira popped in chasing the smaller Hooded away, this species with straight culmen and orange shoulders instead. An Inca Dove was picking up scraps dropped by voracious Green Jays and a Curve-billed Thrasher kept playing peekaboo with us running back and forth from the safety of the nearby RV. It was hard to pull ourselves away from this fertile spot, 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 town of Hidalgo successfully for the nesting Monk Parakeets long established in the area. Much to the dismay of the local power companies, these birds insist on building their nests on the transformers in power poles for warmth, oftentimes leading to unwanted issues for the crews. At the nearby historic pumphouse, a patch of bright red flowers attracted a showy Buff-bellied Hummingbird that refused to leave this valuable food source, and sat for us to admire its shiny green gorget and name-sake belly with a scope. In the evening we experienced a spectacle as we searched 10th Ave for Green Parakeets staging to roost. It was obvious we were in a proper staging area when we started to notice some of the over 25,000 Great-tailed Grackles that were getting together for one last social event of the day. It was unbelievable to see this many blackbirds in 1 place with their ridiculous sounds almost deafening, especially when the flock of over 200 Green Parakeets took off in unison each vying for the last squawk before heading to roost. As we were getting in the van and the headlights went on, some well-lit Bronzed Cowbirds looked startled as they perched on a shopping cart directly in front of the van.   

The following morning we explored the famed Bentsen State Park which lies on the banks of the Rio Grande river that has been protecting a large swath of native habitat for nearly 80 years. As we pulled into the parking lots a herd of a dozen Javelina shot into the undergrowth and we watched in amusement as a few Plain Chachalacas ran as fast as they could across a clearing, looking very much like the cartoon roadrunner escaping the wily coyote. At least 50 chachalacas were destroying the recently added feed at La Familia nature center. For some, a female hummingbird here revealed its identification as Black-chinned adding our third hummer species to the list. After a short walk we came up to an open area with even more feeders and a color display rivaled in few places in the world. Blue-headed Green Jays were sparring with yellow Great Kiskadees screaming like banshees as they flew in for a peanut butter treat. Glowing Altamira Orioles joined the show, as did crimson male Northern Cardinals adding yet another color to the ridiculous seen. A flock of Wild Turkeys strutted like fashion models, each of them shining every color of their beautiful reflective coats professionally in the first light of the day. We spent the next few hours exploring the myriad roads through the thornscrub searching for previously reported Rose-throated Becard and a couple of Hook-billed Kites. Despite our best efforts, we could not turn them up. While searching the skies for kites on the 2-story hawk tower, an adult Gray Hawk hunted nearby along the shores of the diminishing resaca. After our classic Texas lunch of various tacos we headed up valley. Along the way, we looked for sparrows and managed to get great looks at Vesper, a timely addition to the growing list.

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 pair of Ringed Kingfishers blasted by chasing each other low over the water, while across the river another Green Kingfisher sat in wait quietly observing the evolving scene. This was possibly the most ducks I have seen at this location so we picked through the mass for anything new. On the nearshore a few striking Blue-winged Teal slowly floated away and American Wigeon were downright numerous. Canvasback and Bufflehead were nice to see close, normally foraging far out and diving in deep water. A comparison of Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup was utilized to review differences in Aythya ID. A pair of Mexican Ducks loafed along the edge of the river for a study in ‘mallard’ dna. A beautiful whistling song caught our attention from atop the nearby vegetation. It wasn’t hard to spot the pair of Audubon’s Orioles perched on the adjacent mesquite tree with their jet-black heads and bright yellow bodies. 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 Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Black-crested Titmouse, and the streaky Long-billed Thrasher all graced our lenses mere meters away. The dusty tracks around town were slowly searched and everything making a sound was scrutinized. Some tinkly bell-like notes alerted us to a pair of Black-throated Sparrows in one yard, and a mixed species flock of Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinals in another. Our path led us to a County Park full of wintering ‘snowbirds’ from all over the continent. We thought this may hamper our bird luck, but the opposite turned out to be true. A flock of Cedar Waxwings plucked purple berries from the mistletoe bushes while surrounded by noisy RVs and barking dogs. A Cactus Wren spent its time foraging in the wheel wells of a tan minivan undoubtedly looking for any bugs smooshed against the front. Several Lark Sparrows teed up on the barbed wire boundary fence showing clown-like facial patterns nicely. We were easily distracted by gaudy male Vermilion Flycatchers, several of which made welcomed repeated appearances. While Western Meadowlark herds worked the grassy verges of the area, a nice-sized flock of sparrows flushed away from the road. We stopped and scoped multiple Clay-colored Sparrows, not an easy bird to find, and had extended looks at the more numerous Vesper and Savannah Sparrows jockeying for position on the fence line. Down the road we had a scenic picnic lunch overlooking the vast Falcon Lake. We easily drove by the entirely exposed boat launch that hasn’t been used in years due to the continuing drought in the desert south. The few gulls and terns were huddled together near some fisherman undoubtedly waiting for food morsels to be shared. The Ring-billed Gulls ranged in every age and the Forster’s Terns were still sporting their black face masks of non-breeding plumage. We searched for a Mountain Bluebird that had been hanging around for weeks in the primitive camping area of Falcon State Park. While searching for the bluebird some campers nearby alerted us to a small covey of Northern Bobwhite feeding at the edge of the manicured campground. As we were about to get back into the van the Mountain Bluebird showed up, sitting quietly on a charcoal grill, the perfect perch for this species’ hunting technique.

We checked a nearby park the next morning, in hopes of possibly finding the rumored Morelet’s Seedeaters recently reported there. The seedeater eluded us, but a sprite Hermit Thrush insisted on coming in very close with repeated ‘chucking’ calls. We hit the road back southeast but it wasn’t long before I saw some feathers falling from a transmission pole on the opposite side of the road. We quickly pulled over and put the scope on a sizeable Peregrine Falcon ripping apart its breakfast of Dove de Eurasian-collared. Soon after this, we noticed some recent rains had filled up an ephemeral water hole that sometimes holds some goodies. This year over a dozen Anhingas held their wings out to dry on top of water-logged stumps, shoulder to shoulder with scads of Neotropic Cormorants doing the same. Large groups of Great and Snowy Egrets sat like ornaments in the surrounds, and Northern Shovelers and a single Ruddy Duck swam through the floating obstacles. We drove down Chapeno Road and just before the river a dark mass on top of a roadside tree revealed itself to be one of our main targets, the Red-billed Pigeon! Although the bird quickly dropped into a thicket once we exited the vehicle, it did hop back up and allow extended views. Along the banks of the Rio Grande here a small walkway of smooth rocks jutted out into the flowing water allowing an excellent view up and down the waterway. A very confident Spotted Sandpiper joined us to count the Gadwall that littered the water, and watch both Pied-billed and Least Grebe diving into the wetlands. Osprey were numerous and repeatedly flew by with fish of all sizes, situated face first of course. A multi-colored wader landed upriver just as we were leaving that revealed itself to be a Tricolored Heron, a bit odd this far upriver away from the coast, but a lifer for at least one participant nonetheless! In a snag by the river, a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker chased an adult of the same species up to the top of the tree eventually forcing it to take off to Mexico. To add to the show a Ladder-backed Woodpecker landed in the same tree, no match for the larger sapsucker reigning supreme. Some pishing near the entrance of the park made a dark brown bird perch up briefly piquing all of our interest. This is a good color of bird for a rarity in this region so we were eager to get another look. After another pish, a female Blue Grosbeak was finally revealed as the culprit and although not rare in the Rio Grande Valley in the breeding season, there are only a few records of this occurring in winter. In some of the native Chihuahuan scrub we were able to track down a stunning male Black-capped Gnatcatcher replete with a dark cap and black undertail. Lucky for us, a male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher came in close proximity and allowed a wonderful study at these two similar species. As we made our way back down valley a quick stop to check for Cassin’s Sparrow produced one. Numbers of this species winter in the desert southwest including the Rio Grande Valley, but are largely undetected due to their habits of acting mouselike this time of year. We saw a great individual sitting still at-length for us to see even in binoculars well. It really is a sparrow that’s more appreciated with a good look at the intricate pattern of its otherwise subtle tones. At one of the international bridges we searched the reed grass underneath for more seedeaters, but alas none here either. At Anzalduas Park the wind we were warned about reared itself, but we were able to stay upright long enough to see a single American Pipit well, a major reward for our efforts walking in formation across the open wind-swept fields. Not far from here, we saw exactly ½ of a Burrowing Owl head as it peered at us suspiciously from the cement water feature it was calling home for the winter. This afternoon 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 Red-crowned 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 came to roost in a well-lit oak tree, including Lilac-crowned and a single Red-lored Parrot.

The areas on and around South Padre Island, with its vast sweeping mudflats and mangrove wetlands, produced a bunch of new species for our trip. We slow-rolled along some dusty roads hoping to find a major target species for the day away from the masses along the highway. Long-billed Curlews lurked through the salt grass flats and Turkey Vultures seemed to be perched on every single fencepost. As we were leaving we noticed our target Aplomado Falcon placed on a post to the north, facing into the wind trying to stay upright. The bird spent the next 15 minutes hunting the side of the highway, dropping down from exposed perched into the deep weeds looking for who knows what. It’s great to see this species thriving in its native habitat, after at one point being completely extirpated from Texas. In the tidal basins around Bahia Grande orange-billed Royal, red-billed Caspian, and black-billed Forster’s 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 lagoons. We were fortunate to have both light and dark morph Reddish Egrets foraging in close proximity, allowing lengthy looks at the antics that make either color of this species recognizable. Flocks of White Ibis fed along the oyster beds right alongside the American Oystercatchers in appropriate habitat. At a boat launch a bunch of Black-necked Stilts were huddled close and sleeping, unable to obscure the American Avocet nestled into the dozing dozens of long-legged waders. Ravens and crows are normally common in most of the United States, but suspiciously absent from most of the tour’s trail. Needless to say, we were happy to see the only group of Chihuahuan Ravens of the trip perched on a roadside powerline checking out the highway for any opportune roadkill.

In the afternoon we searched the mudflats on South Padre Island sifting through loads of shorebirds and terns looking for anything we may not have seen up to this point. Dunlin numbered in the hundreds, closely followed by impressive numbers of Sanderling. A group of Short-billed Dowitchers huddled together with some feeding bouts for a good lesson in dowitcher ID. Interspersed with the plentiful Willets were Black-bellied Plovers, similar in size but completely different foraging behavior and bill shape. We were all delighted when a single Piping Plover decided to fly in and land close by, blending in perfectly with the tan-colored sand it was standing on. This species is severely threatened at the very least over much of its breeding range so any sightings of these elusive wanderers are always cherished. A sizeable flock of American Skimmers was nice to practically walk right up to allow inspections of the odd-shaped bill this bird utilizes for hunting just above the water. The black-backed group revealed a much paler individual quietly resting amongst them though when we noticed a single Gull-billed Tern sporting its own unique bill at the other end of the bill-length spectrum. We then walked around the boardwalks over the marsh at the Convention Center to slowly saunter through the emergent vegetation. A group of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks slowly floated by amongst the more numerous Blue-winged Teal, and a pair of Mottled Ducks was studied well replete with a black dot at the base of the bill. In the afternoon we checked out Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. We slowly walked the trails here to get one last look at some valley specialties like Green Jay and Long-billed Thrasher before heading north tomorrow and leaving the range of a bunch of these birds.

The following morning we left Harlingen early and headed north about an hour to the King Ranch. This ranch is the largest in the United States and has four distinct divisions. We set out with our local guide to explore the Norias division, an area that sees only about 10% of all visitors to the ranch, and the best overall for birding. It didn’t take long to find our main quarry of the morning perched amongst the towering oak tree forest this land protects. Some consistent tooting alerted us to a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that we eventually spotted sitting perfectly still in the middle of a dead tree. This is perhaps the best place to see this owl in the United States where hundreds of them have been found to nest. Finding this bird so fast allowed us time to drive through a lot of other roads and habitats of the ranch. We seemed to constantly be pushing Rio Grande Wild Turkeys off the road to the sides and Western Meadowlarks were downright numerous. Other species new for the trip found here were a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds near the entrance, and a Blue-headed Vireo amongst a mixed species flock near a water tank. We had to leave a little earlier than anticipated from the ranch in order to make it up to Rockport where we were supposed to catch our boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. After our delicious lunch provided by the talented chefs at the ranch, we traveled the 2 hours north just in time for a quick cup of coffee before onboarding for our next adventure. Our boat trip left from Fulton and crossed Aransas Bay where we hopped onto the Intracoastal Waterway heading towards the wildlife refuge. This area is the wintering grounds for about 3/5 of the entire population of Whooping Cranes in the world. The boat slowly crept by various oyster beds and sandy islands filled with coastal birds like resting American Oystercatchers, Greater Yellowlegs, and several “Western” Willets. Flocks of Northern Pintail rested on the island’s shores and droves of Redhead and Lesser Scaup dove in the depths of the channel. 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 tides. 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 25 of these endangered species, sometimes at very close range from our boat. One of the highlights of the trip was witnessing a family group foraging together at a stone’s throw away! After tearing ourselves away from the crane show we made our way back towards mainland TX as the sun was setting, but our captain had one last surprise in store for us. He took us right up to a Great White Heron, a unique morph of the Great Blue Heron that tends to be found in southern Florida and the Caribbean. It was great to get such a good look at this rarity foraging and in flight as it searched for a place to sleep for the night. Some of the best Thai food we’ve ever had was experienced to celebrate the amazing day we had just had.

The following day we were able to confirm the high winds that were expected were definitely present in full force as we made our way out into the elements to search for some new birds we hadn’t seen yet. We found a spot where we could drive slowly along the shoreline that was out of the wind along Corpus Bay, allowing very close access to lots of shorebirds and ducks sheltering from the brutal wind. At least 50 Semipalmated Plovers were tallied and dozens of Least Sandpipers were picked through the washed-up seaweed piles. One flock of fowl yielded three Greater Scaup that stood out from their cousins. A huge raft of diving ducks close to shore turned out to be male and female Red-breasted Mergansers searching for schools of fish together, a large number to be seen all at once this time of year. On the oceanside of Mustang Island, we were able to pick out a couple Bonaparte’s Gulls trying to hide amongst the droves of gulls and terns. The high winds were probably the reason we had a fly-by Brown Booby soon followed by an unknown species of jaeger along the same trajectory. Neither of these birds had been seen on the trip before and were exciting to see despite the harsh winds that brought them there. Almost as odd was a group of four Fulvous Whistling-Ducks that flew by heading south, then quickly turned to head back north and were gone in no time at all. At the north end of the Island, we slowly walked around the walkways at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. This location provides a resting spot for tons of birds, and a unique perspective from above with which to view them. A sea of American White Pelicans couldn’t hide the bright pink Roseate Spoonbills using them for a wind-break. Droves of Green-winged Teal seek refuge on the shores, as did lots of Northern Shovelers. Common Gallinules constantly walked around the water’s edge, and both Swamp Sparrow and Marsh Wren gave made us work for good views. A flock of Long-billed Dowitchers was a good study, and extremely close looks at Wilson’s Snipe were cherished. One of the Soras here emerged from the marsh and walked out onto a deceased pelican and began picking bugs out of its eye sockets, a sight none of us will soon forget! After our amazing day we enjoyed our final seafood dinner and chatted about the trip we’d just experienced. Many of us knew each other coming into this week, but others became friends because of it. It will be hard to beat the amazing group of people on this year’s expedition through the southern tip of Texas.

Jake Mohlmann 2023



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