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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley

2018 Narrative

In Brief:

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 Blue Bunting that allowed extended views for all! Hard to find valley specialties crossed our paths in several places such as Red-billed Pigeons at Chapeño, White-collared Seedeaters at Salineño, and Aplomado Falcons in the coastal flats. Feeders throughout the valley were chock full of beautiful resident birds including Altamira and Audubon’s Orioles, Pyrrhuloxia, and White-tipped doves. Six species of hummingbird were enjoyed including a wayward Broad-tailed Hummingbird spending the winter at Estero Llano Grande State Park. 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 struggling with.

In Detail:

Our first full day in the Valley familiarized ourselves with many of the specialties of this region. The feeders at the famous Sabal Palm Sanctuary gave us a collection of colors with red Northern Cardinals, bright Green Jays, and eye-popping orange Altamira Orioles. A male Hooded oriole was nice to see giving great comparisons of these 2 orange beauties perched right next to each other. Some large dark aerial insectivores were feeding over the small Resaca here and we were happy to spot multiple Purple Martins coming in for a quick drink giving us all a sign that spring is finally beginning as these birds arrive from their wintering grounds further south. Lunch today was a real treat. We got a tip from a local that one of the restaurants in town still utilized a cooking method that most restaurants have long since abandoned. They still cook their meat in a pit in the ground overnight slowly being steamed, which ensures the food is cooked to perfection and simply melts in your mouth. This wouldn’t be the only Texas Barbeque we would enjoy this week, but certainly was the most delicious! Given the colder than normal temperatures this evening we tried our luck with a parrot roost in Mcallen in case the weather got any worse later in the week. It was a good idea as we successfully found 2 Red-crowned Parrots that were obliging enough to sit for extended scope views.

The next day we began by seeking some of the hoards of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Progreso Lakes. Over 500 individuals littering the edges of the water greeted us. As we were scanning through the hordes a sprite Merlin shot by overhead searching for its morning breakfast. At the nearby granary silos several thousand blackbirds, mostly Red-winged, 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. All this while two Harris’s Hawks perched at attention watching the antics. 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 12 years of existence! The several feeder arrays here added a nice mix of Lower Rio Grande Valley gems like Buff-bellied Hummingbird, “chucking” Clay-colored Thrushes, and raucous Plain Chachalacas. 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. The wonderful wetlands complex at Estero also provided our first rust-colored Cinnamon Teal, lanky Anhinga, 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, while the additions of Wilson’s and Black-throated Green Warblers added some lesser encountered wintering species to the growing list. This spot is one of the best for seeing Common Ground-doves and as we were leaving a pair of these tiny columbids pirouetted on the dirt actively foraging at our feet.

The following day we began at sunrise searching for any Green Parakeets we could find considering we missed them last night at our usual roosting spot. As luck would have it a swirling screaming mass of green alerted us to hundreds of these long-tailed fruit eaters. We watched them huddle together along the power lines for warmth on the unusually wet and chilly morning. With another target in the bag we headed over to Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center for some of the rare species that were frequenting this beautiful oasis of habitat right in the middle of Mcallen. A pair of Western Tanagers, one adorned with a bright red face, were spotted foraging in a fruiting tree. As we were enjoying these gems a machine-gun like rattle alerted us to a nearby Ringed Kingfisher. We rushed to the only real habitat that could hold such a large piscivore and eventually found it perched above a watering hole. We were successful in finding our main target here. A rare winter stray was regularly utilizing one of the feeder assemblies here and thankfully it was still around for us to enjoy. The male Blue Bunting gave us quite a show as we sat in awe admiring its electric blue forehead and cheeks. We also added our only Black-throated Gray Warbler encountered on the tour here along the lush walkways surrounded the historic building.

The next 2 days we searched the eastern limits of the Chihuahuan Desert around the scenic Falcon Lake for several desert species. Falcon State Park was packed with RVs that had a bunch of feeders set up providing lots of food in an otherwise arid environment including the yellow-faced Verdin and obliging Northern Bobwhite. Along the river we successfully located a small flock of White-collared Seedeaters feeding in a trash dump and were suggestive of the literal term ‘trash birds’. The feeders at Salineño are some of the best in the country for viewing specialties in abundance. Olive and Lincoln’s Sparrows scratched for food on the ground during which time at least a dozen Altamira Orioles enjoyed the oranges spread throughout the property. Despite this amazing spectacle our highlight here was watching a male Audubon’s Oriole fumble through its song while it was perched in a tall mesquite tree, never actually coming into the feeders where we were so patiently waiting for it! While driving through the surrounding scrubby grasslands we successfully found a Cassin’s Sparrow that flew in and perched on the fence right next to the van allowing close inspection of this normally furtive bird. Also along these back roads flocks of other sparrow species were encountered including Vesper, Clay-colored, and clown-faced Lark. In the cactus scrub a single Black-tailed Gnatcatcher was found by detecting its scratchy call note. Other desert denizens sang loudly including the stylish Cactus Wren and underrated Black-throated Sparrow. One morning we settled into our post on the rocks in the middle of the Rio Grande River at Chapeño in hopes of spotting the lower river valley’s first Red-billed of the year. A pair of these visitors did fly in after a short vigil but landed deep into some large distant trees completely out of view. Even more frustrating was the fact they emerged soon after and headed away, upriver and out of sight without anyone getting even a decent view. Imagine our surprise when leaving Chapeño one of the participants shouted “what’s that raptor” over there. It turned out to be 2 perched Red-billed Pigeons completely in the open only about 50 feet from the van, undoubtedly the same birds we had just seen frustratingly far away 30 minutes before. This evening we rushed back towards Brownsville to Oliveira Park in hopes of seeing the magic that is the famed parrot roost. Soon 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 the addition of Red-lored and White Fronted Parrots.

Our last day of the main tour was spent wandering the coastal areas in search of ducks, shorebirds, and the highly sought after Aplomado Falcon. This majestic bird was extirpated from south Texas entirely, but a successful breeding and release program has once again given them a place amongst the yucca-studded grasslands of this beautiful region. We eventually found a lone falcon and very much enjoyed watching this symbol of successful conservation management! South Padre Island, with its vast sweeping mudflats and mangrove wetlands, produced a bunch of new species for our trip. Royal, Caspian, and Forster’s Terns huddled together on a sandy spit while hundreds of shorebirds including Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlin and Black-bellied Plovers ran around catching fleeting insects. A highlight here, other than the tasty seafood lunch we encountered, was seeing a ghostly Piping Plover running across the sandy beach.

Extension:

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! The boat slowly crept by various oyster beds and sandy islands filled with coastal birds like American Oystercatchers on rocky shores, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Marbled Godwits with their bicolored upturned bills! 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 50of these endangered species, sometimes at very close range! We spent the afternoon looking for other species that call this region home and enjoyed seeing a multitude of raptors along the roadsides including Harris’s, White-tailed, and Red-tailed Hawks.

One of the last 2 birds of the tour was a stoic Barred Owl swaying in sync with the huge oak branches it was utilizing for refuge. Lastly a Great Horned Owl flew in the waning light through our headlights and perched regally at the end of the airport runway on an isolated pole anxious to see what the night had in store. I never would have guessed the last couple species we would find would be 2 owls, my personal favorite! 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 2018

Created: 04 April 2018