Winter Rio Grande Valley Feb 23—29, 2008

Posted by Kim Eckert

Kim-eckert

Kim Eckert

Kim Eckert, with over 40 years of birding experience throughout the U.S. and Canada, has now been guiding birders or teaching bird identification classes for more than 25 o...

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What can you say about a tour which began with almost everyone having travel delays as they tried to get to Harlingen in the first place, and with perhaps half the group going home at the end with colds (both leaders included)? Well, I'd have to say it was a very successful one, at least the birding part of it in between, once you set aside our arrival and health problems! It seems that no fewer than 14 of the 16 of us—and much of the luggage—were hours late getting into town, even those of us who came in a day early, mostly due to weather problems.

But once the birding got underway on our first afternoon at Laguna Atascosa, thoughts of the weather we left behind back home were quickly forgotten. All it takes is a bunch of Green Jays at Laguna's bird feeders almost within reach to divert one's thoughts far away from wintry weather: no wonder this quintessential South Texas specialty was again voted as the favorite bird of the tour.

Even the South Texas weather helped us forget about winter—and the name of this tour, for that matter. On Day 3, the temperatures reached 93 in Harlingen and 97 in McAllen: both of these record highs for the date and some 20 degrees above normal. Indeed, with migrants like Sandwich Tern, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and several swallows returning for the season, it seemed a bit more like spring at times. And it was even less like winter with such things as Broad-winged Hawk, Least Flycatcher, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak around: all overwintering birds not normally present at this time of year.

Of course, this tour is mostly about those peripheral Mexican birds that reach South Texas and nowhere else in the U.S., with the potential of some genuine rarity always on our minds. But this had been a relatively quiet year for strays, and such rare-regular species like Hook-billed Kite, Brown Jay, and Tropical Parula simply weren't being reported by anyone while we were there. Still, however, in addition to such fancy expected birds as "Plain" Chachalaca, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Parakeet and Red-crowned Parrot, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Tropical and Couch's kingbirds, and Altamira and Audubon's orioles, we came up with an impressive assortment of hard-to-find specialties.

About the only true rarity around was the Dusky-capped Flycatcher that had been wintering at Sabal Palm Grove. There had been only a handful of previous records of this species in the Lower Valley—all of these individuals of the northeastern Mexico lawrencei race, possibly a different species from the Dusky-cappeds seen in Arizona.

Almost as unusual would be the Muscovy Ducks and Red-billed Pigeons we saw at Salineño. The Muscovies were easier to find this year than they had been previously, and one of those always-elusive Red-billeds was calling continually for several minutes (a call I had not heard for several years!). Clay-colored Robins also proved to be more numerous than normal, especially at Quinta Mazatlan. On the other hand, White-collared Seedeaters can never be taken for granted, but on our last afternoon it was surprisingly easy to find two of them in Zapata where many birders had been coming up empty.

Other tour highlights included a spectacular show put on by a few thousand Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Llano Grande in perfect morning light, with a lone Fulvous in their midst. A sleeping-by-day Common Pauraque at Quinta Mazatlan was memorable enough to be voted as the second-favorite bird of the tour. And tied for third-favorite were a Clapper Rail immodestly bathing below the boardwalk at South Padre Island and a Groove-billed Ani quietly minding its own business at Frontera Audubon's sanctuary.

It turned out there was so much to see and the participants were so eager, we admittedly had a hard time adhering to this tour's "Relaxed and Easy" guidelines. And I can find no better way to sum things up than with verse—the following a runaway winning entry by participant Jane Dessecker in our annual City of Pharr Pun Contest:

On a trip "Pharr" away,
With a bird guide named Kim,
Who liked to hunt for Pauraques
In light that was dim.

He convinced us that "orange shine"
Was really their eyes,
And the little screech owl
Did not really cry.

Our trusty co-guide
Who every need he met
Even "pished" in
A Beardless Tyrannulet.

Red-crowned Parrots,
All so very new!
Clay-colored Robins,
Green Kingfishers, too!

A Ferruginous Pygmy Owl,
And Tropical Parula,
Continued to elude us
Alas, we never saw.

Over 40 life birds
And who can forget,
That foraging dance
Of the Reddish Egret!

I long to return
To a place "Pharr" away,
For a relaxed and easy tour,
Well, maybe some day.