Winter Rio Grande Valley Feb 25—Mar 03, 2006
Posted by Kim Eckert
There were so many eye-opening vagrants around during that unique and unprecedented South Texas winter of 2005 (e.g., Roadside Hawk, Elegant Trogon, White-throated Robin, Golden-crowned Warbler, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, and others), that it was pretty hectic last February trying to find time to see them all.
This year’s tour was much more relaxing; we had more time to pause and appreciate the color and spectacle of those whistling-ducks, chachalacas, parakeets, parrots, kingfishers, kiskadees, kingbirds, jays, and orioles. With such flashy birds comprising the standard daily fare along the Rio Grande River, who needs rarities?
No matter how the birding on this year’s tour was going to turn out, I was just happy to be there. After all, on the day that I flew south out of Minnesota, no less than a foot of snow fell there. Certainly, I was willing to trade that weather for a climate that averages temperatures in the 70s, regardless of what the birds would be like. I do admit, though, that the warmth overdid things a bit on two of our days when it reached the mid-90s. And South Texas, like most of the state, has been enduring a pretty serious drought?perhaps a foot of snow there wouldn’t be so bad!
The prevailing drought and generally warmer-than-normal winter probably had some impact on the birding. The flocks of wintering warblers and sparrows were noticeably smaller than usual. Sightings of Hook-billed Kites all winter had been nearly nonexistent, presumably due to a drought-induced lack of tree snails. Other highly sought South Texas specialties (like Muscovy Duck, Red-billed Pigeon, Groove-billed Ani, and Tropical Parula) were also scarce to practically absent all season, possibly due to the weather.
To be sure, however, our list of 184+ species did include a healthy array of special birds. The concentration of probably a few thousand Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Progreso Lakes was quite amazing. Impressive as well were the numbers of Redheads at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, especially when a Peregrine decided to stir things up. A Zone-tailed Hawk circled low overhead for several minutes at Anzalduas County Park, providing just about the best view I’ve ever had of this raptor. A Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl calling away for a half-hour at mid-morning at Bentsen State Park was pretty surprising, although all those catclaws and other thorns between us and him precluded an actual sighting.
Among the passerines, the often-elusive Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet was surprisingly easy to find at both Anzalduas and Bentsen. That black-and-blue “Yucatan” Jay, which turned up at San Ygnacio a couple of weeks earlier, showed up right on schedule for us, although there is still much debate about both its identity (some think it’s a San Blas Jay) and origin (most think it’s an escapee). The reliability of a site for Black-tailed Gnatcatchers just off the highway near Zapata never ceases to amaze me?the desert there looks just like everywhere else. That often-uncooperative Gray-crowned Yellowthroat at Sabal Palm Grove was surprisingly easy for us to see and hear (though proving it’s not a hybrid could be a challenge). And we finally had wonderfully close views of a White-collared Seedeater, which, when motionless, proved practically invisible in the patch of grass it fed on.