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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Winter

Including Whooping Cranes

2019 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 Crimson-collared Grosbeak that allowed picture taking for all. Hard to find valley specialties crossed our paths in several places such as Red-billed Pigeons at Salineño, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet at Anzalduas, and Aplomado Falcons in the coastal flats. Feeders throughout the valley were chock full of beautiful resident 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, always a treat to see! 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 450 individuals littering the edges of the water greeted us with their flashy silvery wings and high-pitched calls. At the nearby granary silos there were several thousand more Whistling Ducks, plus droves of blackbirds, mostly Red-winged, that were taking advantage of the spillage from the loading docks. The group enjoyed sifting through the masses to find both Brown-headed and red-eyed Bronzed Cowbirds, as well at least 10 bright Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Heading north we had our sights on Estero Llano Grande State Park and the suite of birds this place has to offer. This park boasts a bird list of over 325 species in only 13 years of existence! As soon as we got to the headquarters building a bouncing ball song alerted us to a handsome valley specialty, the Olive Sparrow. This confident male sat just a few feet overhead and chanted his song while 14 people got to see it in the scope, a first for me with this species. 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 swallowing an improbably sized fish, and both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons. Along the well-wooded areas both Orange-crowned and “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warblers were down right numerous. This spot is one of the best for seeing Common Ground-doves and as we were traversing the trails one of these tiny columbids pirouetted on the dirt actively foraging in the grit. Nearby as we were admiring a flaming red Vermilion Flycatcher two black birds with fat bills and long tails shot up out of the dense grass before our feet. We were able to watch a pair of Groove-billed Anis sit out in the sun to warm up after a couple days of wet cold weather. 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 preening before wheeling high overhead for relocation. At the appropriately named Grebe Pond three Least Grebes blended in with the submerged trees and a female Green Kingfisher, initially detected by its stone tapping like calls, perched nicely for extended scope views. On the way out we picked through flocks of passerines and added Blue-headed Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, and a particularly confiding male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tending to its wells. Nothing beats the fare at the local taquerias and we all enjoyed some local flavor for lunch, replete with dancers and mariachi band! After lunch we searched McAllen Nature Center for a recently reported, and happy to report continuing, Golden-crowned Warbler. Even though this species breeds about 125 miles away from the lower Rio Grande Valley near Monterey in Mexico, it’s a rare occurrence to see this bird in the United States. It certainly proved elusive as we followed it forage low through its preferred dense thorny forest habitat.

Our next day was filled with raptors. We spent a couple of hours scanning south towards Mexico from the levee and eventually, when the mist had finally disappeared, we were treated to a nice lift-off of birds. Several Harris’s Hawks were utilizing the thermals, as were nice adult Red-shouldered Hawks, and even a few Gray Hawks of varying ages. Both Turkey and Black Vultures took off from their roosts and headed inland to see if any recent plowing had produced carcasses. Bright White-tailed Kites floated by hovering over the grasslands, occasionally dropping to the ground to pounce on unsuspecting prey. One recently burned cane field near Granjeno was ripe with birds of prey. Scads of Red-tailed Hawks of numerous morphs were encountered, including the dark Harlan’s Hawk. This bird is so different than the other Red-tailed Hawks it’s lumped with that it very well may be split into its own species one of these years. An odd individual caught our eye so we stopped to investigate. A juvenile Swainson’s Hawk was noted in a very odd molt and for some reason chose an odd location for winter, because it should be thousands of miles south in Argentina right now. Perhaps even more odd was later in the day when a second Swainson’s Hawk, this one an adult, was seen cruising high overhead in the same area. To continue with the raptor theme we successfully found a Burrowing Owl sitting perfectly concealed amongst a similarly patterned rock wall.

 

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 for as long as we wanted. Other species in this area were fleeting Western Meadowlarks, vocal Tropical Kingbird, and striking red Vermilion Flycatchers. In the large trees near the maintenance shed we tracked down some House Finches, an uncommon species in the Valley. While observing these a pair of Eastern Bluebirds came in for a look and seemed as if they were already exploring empty cavities for nesting opportunities. While meandering through the oak grove a high, thin whistle revealed a nice quarry. The Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, the northernmost member of this tropical family, eventually showed nicely for our entire group to watch this small, but bold, flycatcher. A raft of over 100 Lesser Scaup accumulated in the large body of water here and we also enjoyed a lesson in separating a foraging Snowy Egret compared with a nearby juvenile Little Blue Heron, something that can be easily overlooked. 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. Perhaps it was the throngs of people with scopes pointed at the power lines, or maybe the over 10,000 Great-tailed Grackles that could have clued us in. It was unbelievable to see this many blackbirds in 1 place staging to roost. The sound was almost deafening, especially when the flock of 300 Green Parakeets took off in unison each vying for the last squawk before heading to roost.

Our first stop the following day was to Quinta Mazatlan, a World Birding Center nestled in the heart of McAllen. This property has a beautiful huge adobe mansion surrounded by lush Tamaulipas thornscrub gardens dotted with several feeding stations. Maybe its no surprise that scads of rare birds have found this location appealing over the years, and this time it proved once again why it’s a must for any visiting birder. Not only were valley specialties like Great Kiskadees and Green Jays all over and very willing to be photographed, but a recent Mexican arrival was well-deserved after our vigil. A female Crimson-collared Grosbeak seemingly appeared out of nowhere and enjoyed a late breakfast much to the group’s delight! We quickly headed over to the nearby Roselawn Cemetery to search for a very rare Plumbeous Vireo that took up winter residence in town. While meandering through the beautiful oak forest we had to pick through lots of birds, mainly Chipping Sparrow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, but also both Yellow-throated and Black-throated Green Warblers to find our lead-colored friend. Bold eye-rings connecting in spectacles and any lack of yellow confirmed we had found the Plumbeous Vireo. We decided to celebrate our good fortune by sampling some of the famed Texas Barbeque that we’d heard so much about. To our delight, we weren’t disappointed!

Heading off northwest up and out of the Lower 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. We pulled over to check out a ‘yellow-bellied’ kingbird species that turned out to be Couch’s Kingbird. Not our usual location for finding this bird, but as it turned out we would see several over the next couple days, a sure sign that spring is arriving early this year. Also in this area the tinkling calls of Black-throated Sparrow revealed this striking bird’s location, and rival Bewick’s Wrens took turns belting their songs each time louder than the last. The grasslands in the area tend to hold lots of sparrows, including the great looks we had at a confiding Cassin’s Sparrow that perched nicely 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. Almost as if they wait for our arrival a single Red-billed Pigeon was spotted heading south over the river, this being the first of its kind reported this far ‘downriver’ this year. Given this luck we knew we were in for an exciting day of birding. Several times over the next 2 hours presumably the same pigeon was seen passing by repeatedly. Much to our surprise not 1, but 2 Zone-tailed Hawks slowly floated by upriver in quick succession for good chances to observe this rare denizen. A beautiful whistling song caught our attention from the vegetated island in the river and it wasn’t hard to spot the male Audubon’s Oriole that was working on his solo performance, and amazing that we all got to watch it through the scope. 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 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. A surprise Ash-throated Flycatcher, one of the first back on their breeding grounds, came in for an extended look at us in the large mesquite trees here. Other interesting desert denizens seen in this region were a couple Cactus Wrens calling loudly from the treetops, bright pink Pyrrhuloxia males giving nice lessons in separating this species from the more common Northern Cardinal, and eventually amongst the droves of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher a fancy Black-tailed Gnatcatcher showed for all, and already was wearing the nice black-cap distinctive of this species. The Greater Roadrunner is an iconic bird of the desert so we were all pumped to find it. The next morning we spent time along a road that has been very good for this species in previous years. Much to our delight at least 6 roadrunners, the largest of the North American cuckoos, were seen repeatedly as they slowly worked the roadsides seeking out lizards to dine on.

This evening we rushed back to Brownsville in order to try our luck with a continuing Common Black Hawk that was taking up residence at the south-most college in the USA. It didn’t take long after we arrived to find the birders all trained on this tropical raptor, and we observed it sitting silently still halfway up a tree peering into the water for any unsuspecting fish it could drop down on. Good looks at Tropical Kingbird, Common Gallinule, and Black Phoebe were also had here, but we couldn’t stay long because the next part of our adventure awaited us just down the road. We rushed over to Oliveira Park in hopes of seeing the magic that is the famed parrot roost. Minutes 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. A Cooper’s Hawk with good, or perhaps bad, timing appeared out of nowhere and hundreds of parrots shot out in a stream directly to our awaiting group in response to the unwanted intruder.

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 Evan’s eagle eye’s spotted an Aplomado Falcon perched on a corral next to the road. While scoping this rare resident we found the second of the pair perched nearby, and all were thrilled to watch this once extirpated species reign over the land where it was once commonplace. 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, Marbled Godwits and Black-necked Stilts took a snooze in the safety of a lagoon. In the afternoon we walked along the wooden boardwalks searching for elusive marsh species. A well-spotted Wilson’s Snipe blended perfectly amongst the marsh edge and both Tri-colored Herons and Reddish Egrets were successful in stabbing a fish for dinner. Light morph and dark Reddish Egrets took the stage at one point, dancing around as only they can, corralling the surely confused schools of fish.

Extension:

This morning we had to say goodbye to 1 participant, but were joined by another keeping our numbers for the extension steady. Some recently reported Snow, Ross’s, and Greater White-fronted Geese were searched for first thing, and NOT found where we expected. Luckily for us they weren’t far from their roosting waters and along the Military Highway we snuck up on a flock of hundreds of Snow Geese feeding in the fallow agricultural fields, and even managed to pick out at least 2 Ross’s Geese providing nice comparison’s of these at times confusing species. 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 out before heading north towards our next leg of the journey. We had our last looks at Altamira Orioles blending in with bright oranges, Verdins managing loose nests, and dirty brown Clay-colored Thrushes. We added a single Solitary Sandpiper working the weedy edge of a pond and picked out a rare-for-winter Bank Swallow among the more common Tree and Cave swallows coming in for drinks. Our final goodbye to the LRGV came with excellent views of a family of Least Grebes trying their best to blend into the bulrushes at Willow Pond.

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 rainy and questionable, 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. 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 19 of these endangered species, sometimes at very close range from our boat! One of the highlights of the trip was witnessing the rare behavior of one adult Crane feeding crab to the other adult, something the captain said he’d seen once in 16 years. He also mentioned this was one of the top 10 experiences he’d ever had with a family of Whooping Cranes and was amazed they stayed so close to the boat for so long! The vegetated areas surrounding the ponds where the cranes were foraging also provided looks at Seaside 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 a very difficult species to observe well. Eventually, with much work, we all were able to see a Le Conte’s Sparrow very well as it slowly hopped onto a short grass patch for several minutes. An abundance of gulls gave nice studies of Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, and the migrant Bonaparte’s. Several tern species were hiding amongst the gulls highlighted by a beautiful Sandwich Tern with its yellow-tipped bill. As the sun set we headed to an amazing seafood restaurant where we chatted at length about the wonderful week we had just had!

Jake Mohlmann 2019

Created: 07 March 2019