Winter Texas Tour 2018

8 04 2018
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Altamira Oriole – Luke Tiller

Day 1

We started our tour rendezvousing at a hotel in San Antonio. As a Californian transplant I had already missed out on a couple of highlight species that the group had picked up in the parking lot: Blue Jay and Common Grackle. We were quickly on route, winging it eastwards to Warbler Woods in Guadalupe County. Not having been there before, and with no clues on eBird or the listserve, it wasn’t clear that this site needed some pre-arranged clearance to access the site. We therefore arrived at a frustratingly locked gate, not the ideal start to any tour. Luckily a couple of texts and a phone call later to Texan friends meant we were soon through the gate and enjoying some birds. Phew!

There were a couple of reasons for the stop here but mostly I had hoped that we might pick up a rare Golden-crowned Sparrow here though I was almost as excited to try see a more expected Harris’s Sparrow there too. As we walked out to the feeder set up there were other birds to enjoy along the way including a life birds for most involved: Black-crested Titmouse. It was a little quiet at the feeders, but we were soon eking out birds including nice looks at Inca and White-winged Doves. The feeders held a nice mix of sparrows with Lincoln’s, White-crowned, Field and after some wait a beautiful Harris’s appeared in the mix. We also added a couple of nice “western” birds in the shape of a Spotted Towhee and a Red-naped Sapsucker – I’ll await the email from the ebird reviewer about that one in 2019.

After picking up some Northern Bobwhite and with the day rolling on we eventually cut our losses on the Golden-crowned Sparrow and worked our way south ready for the next day. We ended our night in Three Rivers, TX which boasted some decent Mexican food and a rather average Rodeway Inn.

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Red-billed Pigeon – Luke Tiller

Day 2

We had positioned ourselves in Three Rivers to place ourselves centrally, either to strike out eastwards to look for a returning Golden-crowned Warbler or westwards in the hunt for seedeaters and pigeons in Laredo. With a sighting of the intermittently witnessed Golden-crowned Warbler the day before we decided to give it a shot. The park in Refugio had been pretty banged up by Hurricane Harvey and lots of the site was even less accessible than last year. Though we had lots of nice birds at the park including Great Kiskadee and Golden-fronted Woodpecker it was a pair of beautiful Green Kingfishers that were vocalizing and chasing each other up and down the creek that really stole the show. In the end we left the park without another Golden-crowned bird species, a little disappointing, but not through lack of trying.

As we cruised across country there were lots of birds to enjoy and drive by stops included nice southern raptors like Crested Caracaras and a Harris’s Hawks. We found ourselves back in Three Rivers where a stop at Choke Canyon State Park helped us pick up a few new nice Texan species including our first stunning Green Jays. Though the jays are always scene stealers, there were lots of other enjoyable birds including some mixed passerine flocks that contained Black-and-White Warbler, White-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos. There were a couple of other nice Texan specialties too including great looks at often skulky Olive Sparrows and Long-billed Thrashers.

After putting a few more miles on the clock and a stop at the world’s slowest Subway we ended our day at the Max Mandel Golf Course. We worked hard for White-collared Seedeaters without joy, but as the day ended we were treated to the sights and sounds of a pair of Ringed Kingfishers roaming up and down river. Just as I was starting to wonder if we were going to end the day empty handed I spotted a group of a dozen Red-billed Pigeons across on the Mexican side of the river. The pigeons then flew across the river to the US side allowing us great binocular views and even a couple of photos. Red-billed Pigeon must rate as one of the hardest regularly occurring species in Southern Texas so any sighting is good, but one where the birds come to join you on the US side of the river is pretty special! A magical end to a long day right down on the Mexican border was rounded out when a Barn Owl flew slowly by the car as we drove back into Laredo.

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White-collared Seedeater – Luke Tiller

Day 3

With Red-billed Pigeon under our belt, our next target along the river was White-collared Seedeater another potentially tricky specialist species. Where the last couple of days we had worked hard for our birds this morning everything was running smoothly again. A short hike along the river at Salineno soon garnered us several neat birds including a female Vermilion Flycatcher (which made for a nice ID challenge) and a couple of pretty Clay-colored Sparrows. Most excitingly in among the sparrow flocks we soon located a couple of spiffy little White-collared Seedeaters, first a young male gave good looks before a female put on quite the show as she perched in a nearby tree. We even managed to direct a group from the local state park onto the birds.

As we walked back to the feeder setup that Salineno is famous for I was mentioning the need to keep our eye open for Zone-tailed Hawks when I looked across the river to see a Zone-tailed Hawk soaring over the river. Ask and ye shall receive – or something like that. Another nice and potentially tricky bird on the list.

Settling in at the feeders at Salineno is always a pleasure. With lots of great birds to be enjoyed including potentially difficult to find ones like Audubon’s Oriole, and others that can just be tough to see in many places like Plain Chachalaca, Olive Sparrow and Clay-colored Thrush. Amazing to think that it was just a few years ago that the thrush was a mega rarity and now it is an expected, if not always easy to see, South Texas specialty. Just spending time at the feeders at Salineno and reveling in the common birds there is one of the great joys of the Rio Grande Valley, sad to think that it could end up on the wrong side of a border wall.

As we high-tailed it out of town, the birding gods were again on our side as a covey of Scaled Quail noisily moved through the cactus and desert brush as we slowed down to check out a small passerine that had zipped across the road. Scaled Quail are tough at any time in this part of Texas, so the appearance of these charming cottontops was a real treat.

Starr County Park wasn’t particularly productive, though a pale soaring Red-tailed Hawk was of the pretty and range-limited Fuertes’s subspecies and a Lark Sparrow was a treat. On the other hand Zapata Library Park was quite birdy and we turned up a nice little flock of passerines including both subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray and Black-and-White Warblers. A cooperatively photographable Green Kingfisher also added to the fun.

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Green Kingfisher – Luke Tiller

After lunch we stopped in at Zapata’s Public Boat Launch. This is a spot that I’ve always liked for dry habitat species. It certainly didn’t disappoint, with Pyrrhuloxia, Black-throated Sparrow and Verdin all putting in an appearance. I also love this spot for the boisterous Cactus Wrens, who use the bandstand structure here to amplify their already ample voices. Highlight though had to be flushing a small, short-tailed nightjar from the ground a couple of times. Though views were brief, it was easy to rule out Pauraque and identify this as a rare and exciting, for the area, Common Poorwill. A nice and unexpected addition at a spot I feel I have at least played a small part in championing.

Next stop was another spot that I had eyed up initially on google maps and wanted to explore. At a little pond in Rio Grande City we eked out a handful of great birds including a beautiful Ringed Kingfisher, but more excitingly a stunning Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. A great spot of a much desired, but often tough to find, species during winter. Even with all the great sightings, this bird was our official bird of the day!

An incredible run of good birds was rounded out with us enjoying a rare White-winged Parakeet among the usual McAllen Green Parakeet flock.  Weirdly though, the expected grackles were something of a no-show. We ended our day at a great local restaurant where they were serving perhaps two of my favorite beers of all time: Avery Maharajah IPA and Founders Breakfast Stout. A fitting end to a great day.

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Burrowing Owl – Luke Tiller

Day 4

You can’t really go to the Rio Grande Valley without visiting Bentsen, though I often wish I had. Not only was it resoundingly quiet during our visit, it also meant that we just missed a Blue Bunting sighting at Quinta Mazatlan by a few minutes on our arrival there. After we had stuck around for a couple of hours searching fruitlessly we decided to cut our losses and head for pastures new: a change is as good as a rest.

A quick look for Burrowing Owl wasn’t productive, so we moved on to Anzalduas to look for Sprague’s Pipits trying to get something in the bag. With us only being a small group, it was something of a relief to find a couple of stray birders from another tour group that were looking for the Sprague’s Pipits that they’d missed on their Texas tour. We quickly put them to use forming a manhunt style dragnet to sweep the field at Anzalduas and thankfully we soon tracked down three or four of our quarry. We first got nice looks at their distinctive flight style before eventually getting decent scoped views of a bird on the ground.

With our birding luck seemingly changing we headed back to Quinta Mazatlan and we were relieved just a few minutes after arrival when the Blue Bunting put in another visit to the bushes behind the feeder. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so relieved to see a bird! With that success under our belt we headed back out to Granjeno where the Burrowing Owl obliged us with an amazingly point-blank appearance. A day of tough birding and persistence finally rewarded by several excellent birds.

We ended our day a little early heading for a fun evening at a neat barbecue joint that I love.

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Common Pauraque – Luke Tiller

Day 5

We started our day at a Rio Grande Valley gem: Estero Lllano Grande State Park. To my mind this park is the premier large park in the valley with a range of great habitat and great birds. The place certainly didn’t disappoint with lots of great species quickly racked up: Least Grebe, Roseate Spoonbill, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, White-tailed Kite and more. Highlight there had to be the opportunity to get up close and personal encounters with roosting Common Pauraque and our encounter this year did not disappoint. There was also a huge number of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons at a communal roost and some Black-crowneds and a Anhingha thrown in for good measure.

Next stop was at Progresso Lakes a little community that had been hosting both Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and occasionally a Fulvous Whistling Duck too. We arrived at the spot and pulled up on the side of the road to scan through what looked to be a good few hundred whistling-ducks. As we were setting up our scopes the owner of the house came out, and to my surprise asked us if we would like to head out to the back edge of their yard to get a better look at the assembled birds! As we rounded the corner of the house we were amazed to discover that the couple of hundred whistling-ducks we could see had multiplied into a couple of thousand! We sifted through this mind-blowing collection of ducks, eventually picking out four Fulvous Whistling-ducks which we would never had seen from the public road! Amazing!

Our continued morning run through Progresso allowed us to pick up a couple of other exciting new birds including some Cattle Egrets in a nearby cow field (surprise, surprise) and down at some local grain silos an incredible collection of blackbirds that included stunning Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The grain silo experience was a remarkable one, with thousands of birds swirling around the property and among the mainly Red-winged Blackbirds a few assorted other goodies like Bronzed Cowbird. An opportune stop at a recently burned sugar cane field yielded a couple of White-tailed Hawks, our first completely satisfying looks at this species.

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Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

After a great lunch at my favorite lunch spot in the valley, Nana’s, we moved on to Santa Ana. With the wind picking up, the birding conditions had become pretty tough. We didn’t give up though and were eventually rewarded with killer views of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet eating bugs and generally putting on a show. Always nice to get such great views of a relatively tough to find bird.

A quick stop at the Alamo Inn allowed us to finally find a couple of Tropical Kingbirds that were kind enough to vocalize and while searching we had a fun flyover in the shape of a Long-billed Curlew. This was the first for the trip and definitely not a species I’d have expected to pick up there.

After a quick stop in at the hotel to drop bags, our last stop of our day was at Oliviera Park in Brownsville. Here we sought out the spectacular roosts of feral parrots that call the valley home. Like clockwork the parrots started to arrive at dusk and we ended up tallying five species of Amazona Parrot: Red-crowned, Red-lored, White-fronted, Yellow-headed and Lilac-crowned. Though only one species is countable it was great fun dashing around the park, trying to pin all five species down while trying to communicate though the cacophony of roosting parrot hordes. An fun end to the day was capped when we picked up a Barn Owl flyby as we headed home to our hotel.

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Cassin’s Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Day 6

Our penultimate morning started at Old Port Isabel Road. Here we were greeted by the wonderful experience of hearing both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks calling. Most exciting though was a Cassin’s Sparrow popping up alongside the car and singing vociferously all of its own accord. Missing among the Long-billed Curlews, White-tailed Hawks and Peregrine Falcon however were the hoped for Aplomado Falcon’s.  I quickly rethought our strategy for this species and a few miles drive later we were looking at a beautiful gracefully gray Aplomado Falcon, a pretty, elegant falcon that exists in the US almost solely in this little corner of Texas. Another highly desired prize for our growing species list.

Next stop was at a windy Chachalaca Bend where howling winds conspired against us finding a regularly reported Rose-throated Becard. In fact, it was hard to see much of anything at all with the winds whipping through the trees though we each had glimpses of movement that could have been the bird.

After putting in some hard work we decided to head for pastures new and stopped at South Padre Island. Here we enjoyed “all the herons”, or at least most of them, and a bunch of other new bird species. Driving onto the beach we managed a little shorebird workshop and picked up a couple of beautiful pink flushed Franklin’s Gulls from a collection of Laughing Gulls. Another highlight here were the large groups of Black Skimmers lounging on the beach with their inimitable bill resting loafing style. As much as it was fun to add a bunch of new birds it was good to just do some birding rather than focus on twitching something rare. We ended our mornings birding with a trip to a favored burger joint before getting on the road to head north out of the valley.

After eating up some miles in order to be ready for our final day adventure, we ended our day at a comically windswept birding site in Corpus Christi before heading for our hotel in Port Aransas.

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Whooping Cranes (adult and juv.) – Luke Tiller

Day 7

Our last real birding day started with a fun ferry ride from Port Aransas in order to connect with out boat trip out to Aransas Bay to look for one of North America’s rarest birds: Whooping Crane. These magnificent birds stand five feet tall and have an incredible seven-and-a-half-foot wingspan. In 1941 their population had plummeted precipitously to just 20 or so birds and though currently doing much better it is estimated that there are perhaps only as many as 700 in existence between both wild and captive populations. The birds that winter at Aransas are part of the only remaining migratory population, with these birds spending colder months in Texas before heading on a one-way migration that spans almost 3000 miles to Alberta.

Though you can see them from land, I always think part of the magic of seeing this species is to take a boat out into Aransas Bay to see the birds. Here from miles away one can see these large and surprisingly elegant birds. It’s always a huge pleasure to see them, and this year there was an added relief to see them doing so well after Hurricane Harvey. We ended up having about as good a view as I’ve ever had of these magnificent birds and were also treated to a nice mix of shorebirds and waterfowl along the way including Common Loons. American Avocets and Hooded Mergansers along the way.

A couple of quick stops on the way out of town also garnered us a few nice species. These detours included an American Oystercatcher and an accommodating Reddish Egret at Goose Island State Park as well as a small collection of Boat-tailed Grackles on State Highway 35 just north of Rockport.

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Reddish Egret – Luke Tiller

With our time in Texas running out we decided to roll the dice once again and head to look for the Golden-crowned Warbler en route to San Antonio. The weather now was starting to conspire against us, however, so we had to sit out a few showers eating lunch before we could bird. Again, we ended up leaving town without the bird, though there was at least more general activity this time around at the park.

With light fading we made one quick last stop near san Antonio at Braunig Lake to see if we could scrape up one more life bird for almost everyone involved. Though the light was starting to go we picked up a large flock of hoped for Cave Swallows, eventually getting just about satisfactory looks at this lifer bird for many. We also managed to pick up our first Song Sparrows of the trip (one of those common US birds that is oddly missing birds from the Rio Grande Valley) and a group of dainty Bonaparte’s Gulls flying buoyantly out over the lake.

We ended our day with a fun meal, a few beverages and probably about three whole days’ worth of calories just in cheesecake alone. A really enjoyable end to a fun week in Texas.

In the end we tallied an impressive number of species (Texas Tour Checklist February 2018) including many of the harder to find local and winter specialties and one beautiful vagrant: Blue Bunting. Southern Texas must rate as one of the premier destinations for birdwatchers across the USA and deservedly so. I just hope that all the places that we visited along the way stay accessible to the public in future years, rather than finding themselves on the wrong side of an ill-conceived border wall. Thanks to Andrea, Linda, Janet and Nancy for a fun week.

Oh, and I even got my rather scruffy Blue Jay at the Gas Station fill up on the way to the rental drop off!


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