Winter Rio Grande Valley Feb 24—Mar 02, 2007
Posted by Kim Eckert
Winter? Yes, I suppose both this tour’s name and the calendar agreed it was winter. But it sure didn’t seem like it much of the time, especially since it hit 91 degrees on two of the days we were there down along the Rio Grande. Many huisaches were in bloom, sporting their yellow blossoms, and just as many mesquites were beginning to leaf out. It also seemed as if a good number of the so-called Winter Texans I had seen earlier that month had already headed north back to the Midwest.
Even some of our most memorable avian encounters and highlights were more reminiscent of spring than winter. A kettle of a few dozen Anhingas rode the thermals above Bentsen State Park. Also at Bentsen, a pair of Gray Hawks put on quite a show for us, calling and circling overhead for several minutes. We nearly missed seeing Ringed Kingfisher, finding just one pair at Salineño?I had nearly forgotten how elusive this normally noisy and conspicuous specialty can be when it starts nesting.
With more natural food out in the brush with the warmer weather, Brown Jays were no longer relying on Gale and Pat DeWind’s feeders in Salineño, and it took us three visits before we saw them. Several hundred Chihuahuan Ravens flocked together in a field near San Ygnacio, where none had been earlier in February. Cave Swallows were starting to return north to their nesting culverts. A singing parula at Bentsen?which should have been a Tropical?turned out to be a wintering Northern Parula tricked into song by the weather. And on one of our mornings, we drove by nonstop territories of singing Cassin’s Sparrows, many of them launching into aerial courtship displays.
Not all of our significant sightings, though, had much to do with the weather. Nor did they involve turning up the unexpected. To the contrary, some were virtually predictable and curiously so, in that you have to wonder why some ordinary sites almost exclusively attract some birds. What is it about the resaca at Progreso Lakes that attracts several hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks every winter? Dozens of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons crowd into debris-littered mangroves of Bahia Grande annually. Why have Green Parakeets in San Benito flocked for years to the Wal-Mart? Similarly, that ordinary-looking 1000 block of Indiana Street in Weslaco again attracted roosting Red-crowned Parrots just like last year. Groove-billed Anis are almost entirely absent most winters?unless, of course, you check Sabal Palm Grove and Redhead Overlook at Laguna Atascosa. And there’s this very ordinary side road near Zapata, except that Black-tailed Gnatcatchers have been there for years.
Other birds were equally impressive for other reasons. On Day 6, we saw eight species of pigeons/doves, including the always-elusive Red-billed Pigeon?I hadn’t thought about this before, but I’ll bet there’s nowhere else in the U.S. where more than six are reasonably possible. Two of our group saw a very odd Green Jay which had been wintering at Laguna Atascosa; I wish I hadn’t missed it, since all of its green plumage was replaced by various shades of blue. For a time we thought we had missed a Brown Jay at the DeWind’s feeders at Salineño by 20 minutes, until we discovered another tour group had somehow misidentified a Clay-colored Robin as a jay! And it was both gratifying and disturbing to so easily locate a White-collared Seedeater at the pond by Zapata’s library while bulldozers were busy flattening former seedeater habitat just 100 yards away.
Winter? Maybe not so much along the Rio Grande at this time of year, but isn’t that a reason to be there? After all, winter was still very much in evidence back in Minnesota. It seems I had managed to miss no less than 38 inches of snowfall while in Texas that week, and it was still there waiting to be shoveled when I got home!