Winter Rio Grande Valley Tour 2017

19 03 2017
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Great Kiskadee – Luke Tiller

Late this winter (2017) I was lucky enough to take a couple of friends on a private tour of Southern Texas. February is peak time for vagrant Mexican birds in the valley and so there were a number of nice birds out there to look for. My fiends had a great relaxed approach to the tour in that they just wanted to see the birding sites of the Rio Grande Valley and pick up what birds we could along the way. Having a small group kept us flexible allowing us to adjust plans on the fly.

Day 1:

Upon arrival at the first night’s hotel in San Antonio I ticked off a couple of year birds including my first Blue Jays of the year – a real treat for this westerner. After a night in San Antonio we got on the road towards Refugio hoping to run into a couple of rare warblers that had showed up in a little park there. On the drive down we picked up a few birds for our Bee County list including Vermilion Flycatcher and a number of Crested Caracaras. Also on our list was American Kestrel, which thanks to its abundance in Texas and proclivity for roadside telephone wires became a regular feature of our driveby county lists.

Our first stop was Lions/Shelly Park in Refugio where we were hoping for a couple of special warblers. Our first hour or so of birding turned up a Barred Owl, but the only rare (by date) bird we had stumbled upon among the mixed flocks was a wintering Louisiana Waterthrush. For a couple of first time Texas visitors, however, there were plenty of local specialties to enjoy including Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Black-crested Titmouse and Great Kiskadee.

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Tropical Parula – Luke Tiller

Just as I was starting to think about what time we needed to start getting on with the rest of our day, we ran into another mixed flock and there among the Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcathers and Yellow-rumped Warblers was a stunning male Tropical Parula! We enjoyed great views and captured a couple of nice shots of the bird as it flitted across the stream to alight in a tree just above us. With spirts lifted we started to hunt anew for our other target Golden-crowned Warbler. After a couple of brief sightings or hearings we eventually tracked the bird down with the help of some other birders – watching as it moved surreptitiously though the shadows of some streamside brush. First stop completed with two great ABA birds and a couple of Texas specialties under our belts too.

Swinging our way west now from Refugio we birded mainly from the car, picking off a bunch of roadside species for our Duval, Webb and Live Oak County lists and made a few opportune stops to pick off Carolina Chickadee, Redhead and White-tailed Hawk among others.  Highlight had however to be getting our first Green Jay of the trip – incredibly beautiful birds that it is simply impossible to tire of!

We ended our day all the way west in Laredo Texas. Arriving just in time to end our day along the Rio Grande at the Max Mandel Golf course. We started by taking a drive around the course in a golf cart (which as always was great fun) to pick up White-collared Seedeater (an obliging breeding plumaged male putting on a bit of a show) and enjoyed a few other species along the way. We then headed over to the club house to sit on the veranda and look for Red-billed Pigeon. As we were about to second guess that approach and head out onto the links to look for them two flew right past us on the US side of the river before heading across to the Mexican side. Here we sat watching them at our leisure as they perched up in some riverside trees allowing us prolonged scoped views. A simply fantastic end to a great first day.

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White-collared Seedeater – Luke Tiller

We rounded off our day with incredible Korean BBQ and a couple of cold beers at BBQ Park in Laredo. If you find yourself in town go check them out (link here). Over great Bulgogi I joked that maybe we should just quit while we were ahead and go home the next day!

Day 2:

Our next day we headed southeast to Falcon Dam State Park. With the drought that had hit this part of Texas the birding was noticeably harder than previous years, with sparrows and other regular winterers much harder to find. Still we enjoyed our time, especially enjoying the hospitality of a couple of RVers who were kind enough to let us enjoy their bountiful (and marshmallow festooned feeders). As well as the regular feeder birds, we also picked up a few nice species including a couple of accommodating Olive Sparrows and our only Gray Catbird of the trip. There were lots of nice “desert” passerines around to enjoy like Black-throated Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher and Pyrrhuloxia too.

We birded our way west back towards Laredo over the day eking out species as we went. Highlights included great looks and listens too Cactus Wren at a park that’s a little off that beaten track where we also ran into RGV birder extraordinaire Mary Gustafson, Purple Martins and Neotropic Cormorants.

We ended our day poking around a couple of off-the-beaten-track parks in Laredo, adding to their eBird species lists, before hitting up a small roost of Green Parakeets and Monk Parakeets. Not quite as action packed as the previous day, but with plenty of nice birds enjoyed through the day

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Red-billed Pigeon – Luke Tiller

Day 3:

We started our day heading south and east. First stop was Salineno where we picked up our first Plain Chachalacas and had another encounter with Red-billed Pigeon.  The (eight!) Red-billeds were perched upstream from us on an island a good mile away I would guess. They however did something I’ve never seen them do before when they took off heading right past us cutting across the boat launch directly behind us on the US side. Allowing me to fire off a handful of shots to document the moment, magical!

After spending a while along the river we decided to head over and check out the feeders. Between the near incessant forays of a couple of Cooper’s Hawks and the near constant din of many Red-winged Blackbirds we eventually picked off our target here: Audubon’s Oriole. While awaiting our quarry, we enjoyed other species and relished the wonderful photo ops the new setup here produced, including Altamira Orioles, Great Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and more.

After a quick stop in Roma we made our way over to Estero Llano State Park. Though ostensibly here to look for a reported becard, with the strong winds hampering land birding we eventually focused on picking up a few of the more regularly occurring species including Anhingha, Common Pauraque, Least Grebe, Mottled Duck and an impressively huge American Alligator. Our time patiently seeking out the becard not completely wasted as we picked up a nice consolation Ovenbird attending a sheltered drip.

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Common Pauraque – Luke Tiller

We ended our day heading to dinner just a stone’s throw from a huge blackbird roost. Here we ran into a group of young Canadian birders who helped us find a White-winged Parakeet among a good number of Green Parakeets and we returned the favor by finding them some Bronzed Cowbirds among the thousands of Common Grackles. The Grackle roosts are quite spectacular and to me an integral part of the birding experience here. A fun end to the day!

Day 4:

With limitations on access to the dikes as Anzalduas and Bentsen it feels like Hook-billed Kite has become a much tougher find in Southern Texas these last couple of years. With just the one random sounding report in 2017 prior to our visit it wasn’t high on my list of expected species for the trip. It was therefore thrilling to find ourselves watching one fly overhead during our early morning hike out to the Kingfisher Overlook at Bentsen. Unfortunately focusing on getting everyone on it meant I didn’t have time to unpack my camera for a shot – not that I’m complaining as this was a most welcome and unexpected addition!

Next stop was at Anzalduas Park. Though our main target here was Sprague’s Pipit we initially had our focus drawn by a nice mixed flock of passerines that when carefully scrutinized finally yielded both Myrtle and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler. We really enjoyed our time working through the flocks just picking off species as we went.

Eventually we settled into a designated hunt for Sprague’s Pipit. Though we were a small group we spread out across the pipit field as best we could in an attempt to flush up our quarry. Eventually we managed to locate a few (steadfastly ignoring Savannah Sparrows as we went) and eventually worked decent flight views of the birds as well as a few glimpses as they landed. The grass length was long enough however that they quickly disappeared upon touching down. That said the distinct “step up”  flight style was interesting to watch and pleased with views we left them to their day.

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Plain Chachalaca – Luke Tiller

Next stop on our day was the awesome National Butterfly Center. Here upon arrival we were informed that someone had just captured a photo of a male Varied Bunting near one of the feeding stations, so imagine my surprise when we pulled up, got out the car and it was literally the first bird I laid my eyes on. Though views were somewhat obscured we finally worked decent views of this incredibly beautiful bird. Crazily we were the last people to see it that day. Though it did appear later in the week it was unreliable at best making our sighting even more fortuitous. As well as the Varied Bunting we enjoyed some photography time at the NBC’s feeders (picking off Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee and accommodating White-tipped Doves) and also enjoyed chatting to the groups of arriving birders.

We ended our day at a parrot roost in McAllen where among a group of about 80 Red-crowned Parrots we also picked out a handful of Lilac-crowned Parrots and a couple of Red-lored Parrots. We were also hoping for roosting Turkey Vultures, and maybe a similar flying buteo, but only one large kettle of vultures materialized and seemed to rapidly disappear to roost somewhere else.

Day 5:

Our day started easily enough as we picked up a pair of Aplomado Falcons over at Old Port Isabel Rd, which was as dry as I have ever seen it. We drove out much further than I would have usually exploring a little but only came up with a handful of the regular species expected here and missed a few others. A flyby Peregrine was nice as was a Long-billed Curlew and a White-tailed Hawk hunkered down on a nest, a well spotted bonus.

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White-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

Santa Ana was our next stop and it was as I often find it, somewhat birdless. Not that there weren’t nice birds to have here including nice views of a Sora sat in the open, but we had to work hard for our birds. It was quite an effort to finally track down a singing Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, but once found it at least had the graciousness to show nicely for us. Weirdly one of the birds still missing from our trip was Green Kingfisher and I was shocked to only find one species of kingfisher in the whole park: Belted Kingfisher!

On the way to Santa Ana we had witnessed a sugar cane burn in progress, and upon leaving we found another burn that had been harvested already. Here we found huge numbers of circling Turkey Vultures and White-tailed Hawks but the heat haze made picking out species in the fields tough.

Our next stop was a return to hunt for the Rose-throated Becard. It had been on our itinerary for the day already but a lunchtime report meant that we wolfed down our lunch at Nana’s with a little more gusto than usual! We arrived at the park and within a few minutes I had located the beautiful young male perched in one of his favored trees. Incredible the difference a couple of days and about 20mph of wind makes when looking for passerines. We even managed to share it with a few other birders there on site and got a few decent photos too. Another mission accomplished. Seeing as we were there we decided we might as well use the opportunity to explore Estero a little more and we were blessed with some more great birds here including: Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis and White-faced Ibis.

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Clay-colored Thrush – Luke Tiller

We ended our day at Frontera looking for Turkey Vultures and Zone-tailed Hawks coming in to roost but had to suffice with our first Black-bellied Whistling Duck (multiple flybys heading to roost) and Clay-colored Thrush.

Day 6:

With Green Kingfisher still not under our belt, we started our morning at Edinburg Scenic Wetlands where we soon picked up their resident pair in a nearby canal. We also added to our trip list a few nice and less expected species including Common Ground-Dove and a “rare at this time” first winter Orchard Oriole (another one for the rare bird alert). We also enjoyed good views of both thrasher species and a spanking male Lesser Goldfinch of the Black-backed variety.

Next we headed back to the spot where we had seen the raptors at the sugar cane burn the previous day, however, though viewing conditions were better we still didn’t manage to add anything new to our trip list there. An exploratory drive through some potentially interesting habitat did though earn us our first White-tailed Kites of the tour of which at least one proved somewhat photogenic.

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Inca Dove – Luke Tiller

Our next official stop was Frontera, where of course we ran into another Green Kingfisher. We also enjoyed good looks at a couple of previously encountered species like Clay-colored Thrush and Inca Dove and added at least one new one in the form of a big Amazilia hummingbird: Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

McAllen Nature Center finally afforded us the sight (but more importantly the sound) of Tropical Kingbird. Here we also picked up another White-tailed Kite and two pretty smart looking Red-tailed Hawks including a nice rufous morph bird and one very pale individual. Our next brief stop was spent looking for kingfishers on a nearby canal but we were only rewarded with the odd sight of a young Cooper’s Hawk trying to attack ducks on the water – a seemingly fruitless task.

We ended our day back at the same parrot roost as the other night. Here we picked up a few nice species while we waited including a large group of kettling Anhingas, a couple of Lesser Goldfinch and another Yellow-throated Warbler. As the first parrots started coming in towards the roost (including at least one Yellow-headed Parrot) they were spooked by the attack run of a Peregrine Falcon that was roosting on a nearby radio tower. It took the parrots a while to recover from that shock and so it wasn’t until just after 6:00pm that they returned. We had already pretty much given up on the chance of seeing a Zone-tailed Hawk by that time, as it was almost dusk, when dramatically one suddenly appeared as the sun just began to set – amazing! We then enjoyed sharing the parrots with a group of Elderhostel birders that had appeared for the parrot show just in time to get all four species. A great end to our last full day.

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Green Jay – Luke Tiller

Day 7:

Our last day of birding together started on our way north through Edinburg when a group of Northern Bobwhite hustled across the road in front of the car. We were ostensibly exploring an area which has held Ferruginous Pygmy Owl in the past though our chances of finding one were slim. Still nothing ventured… Our next roadside stop produced a bunch of amorous Wild Turkeys, which was a treat and further poking around produced an uncommon Ash-throated Flycatcher and a couple of Lark Sparrows. It seemed however that the drought was having a similar effect here as it was in Zapata with mixed flocks hard to come by.

Winging our way north we stopped in Falfurrias as you do but turned up just a handful of the regular species. Continuing on our route we had a field with about 75 Sandhill Cranes feeding in it as well as the regular raptor show.

From there we made a handful of stops adding to our Jim Wells, Atascosa and Brexar County lists as we went. Lake Findley added a Cattle Egret or ten to our trip list but that was about it. Choke Canyon was however a little more profitable adding Common Gallinule and Forster’s Tern to our growing trip list> Highlight here was certainly a Great Horned Owl that was perhaps trying to draw our attention from a nearby nest which allowed for a couple of decent looks and a couple of in-flight photos too.

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Great Horned Owl – Luke Tiller

We finished our trip together at Braunig Lake where we picked up a handful of nice species including a few new ones including Song Sparrow and Greater Scaup. I then packed up my optics and we headed to San Antonio airport for the flight home while my friends headed to Rockport to take the boat ride out in the morning for Whooping Cranes before catching their flights home the following afternoon.

All in all, a wonderful trip in which we picked up pretty much everything you might hope to. We got lucky with a couple of great birds too like the Varied Bunting and Hook-billed Kite. You just never quite know what you might find in Southern Texas in February and that is surely part of the allure. You can see a few more photos from my trip on flickr page (here).