Spring in South Texas Mar 29—Apr 09, 2008

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Our morning on the King Ranch is always one of my favorites on our Spring in South Texas tour. Birds abound, we have the place to ourselves, and there are some very special species to look for. On the down side, there is real pressure, from a leader's standpoint, in finding the "big four" King Ranch species—Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Tropical Parula, and Audubon's Oriole. With the possible exception of the oriole, you are unlikely to find these species elsewhere on the trip, so it can be hard to enjoy the morning until you have seen these birds.

We entered the ranch shortly after 7 a.m. this year and headed directly for the Tate Mill area. As I was stepping out of the van, I almost immediately heard the buzzy song of the Tropical Parula across the road. Within minutes we had superb views of a male in the Spanish moss-draped oaks next to the windmill. As we were enjoying scope views of the warbler, Kevin directed our attention to a singing Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. After some effort, we had nice views of this species as well. Hooded Orioles seemed to be everywhere around us. A Summer Tanager teed up nearby and a group of Green Jays darted through the thicket. A Black-throated Green Warbler joined the Tropical Parula in the same tree, as did a Brown-crested Flycatcher. A Louisiana Waterthrush and a Lark Sparrow foraged along the edge of the small water pool next to the windmill. A Buff-bellied Hummingbird zipped by and several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers passed overhead. Birds were everywhere, but our pursuit of the owl and oriole led us to another spot just a half-mile away. I whistled an imitation of the owl and received an immediate reply. A few nerve-racking minutes of searching in an oak right overhead finally revealed the tiny owl. We had incredible, prolonged scope-filled views of this highly sought species.

As we were soaking up the owl, our ranch guide pointed out a pair of Audubon's Orioles up the path to our right. Normally quite furtive, this pair sat up for great scope studies. I looked at my watch and it read 9:08 am! We had enjoyed spectacular looks at all the ranch specialties in less than two hours. Everything else would be gravy. Throughout the rest of the morning we tallied displaying male Vermilion Flycatchers, a roosting Barn Owl at 25 feet, Olive Sparrow, Long-billed Thrasher, displaying Wild Turkeys, a White-tailed Hawk nest with babies, raucous Great Kiskadees and Couch's Kingbirds, and much more. It was certainly a morning to remember!

Of course, this was but one morning of an incredible ten-day tour of the coast, valley, and Hill Country of Texas. From the King Ranch (on the afternoon of the same day) we headed south to McAllen, stopping at a private residence in the nearby town of Pharr. A White-throated Robin, accidental in the United States, had been seen here for the previous two weeks, and we were hoping that it had stayed around. Incredibly, in the heat of the afternoon, we tallied the robin in a fruiting mulberry within 15 minutes of our arrival. A nearby Clay-colored Robin also put in a showing, as did Plain Chachalacas, several warblers (Hooded, Wilson's, Black-throated Green, and Black-and-white), a few Clay-colored Sparrows, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Late that evening we concluded with a wild show of Green Parakeets and another Clay-colored Robin in residential McAllen. Other Valley highlights included Least Grebe, an amazing nine Muscovy Ducks, 500 Broad-winged Hawks in one morning, Clapper Rail at ten feet, many Red-billed Pigeons, Elf Owl at a nest hole, several Pauraques, nesting Red-crowned Parrots, scope views of Green and Ringed kingfishers, four more Clay-colored Robins, a pair of White-collared Seedeaters, and fluorescent Altamira Orioles.

We started our trip on the central coast where we had spectacular views of 14 Whooping Cranes (some as close as 30 yards!), unimaginably pink Roseate Spoonbills by the dozens, nearly 30 species of shorebirds (including Snowy, Wilson’s and Piping plovers, American Oystercatcher, Long-billed-Curlew, and Stilt Sandpiper), and a rare Black-headed Grosbeak, among others.

We ended in the scenic and cool Hill Country. Here we enjoyed superb views of Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler, the two premier birds of this region. Other highlights included 283 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in one day; thousands of Cave Swallows; Yellow-throated and Bell's vireos; Yellow-throated Warbler; Rufous-crowned, Black-throated, and Field sparrows; a male Scott's Oriole at 20 feet, and 10 to 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from a cave at dusk (with Swainson's and Cooper's hawks and a Merlin all feasting on the bats!).

In all we tallied 258 species of birds and a lifetime of memories in our journey through the Lone Star State.