Winter Rio Grande Valley Feb 23—Mar 01, 2009
Posted by Kim Eckert
The phrase "Too much of a good thing," it is said, dates back to a Shakespeare play. How appropriate, considering that I was an English major back in college, someone who never took a biology course of any sort after 10th grade. I somehow ended up in a career leading birding tours, though, where I certainly learned how apt the saying could be.
You'd think a tour like this one to a place hosting a high number of rarities would be a good thing, but this winter in Deep South Texas there were almost too many unusual birds around and just not enough time to find them all—you know, too much of a good thing. Still, we did end up seeing all but a couple of them, resulting in an impressive bird list.
Consider as well that even a tour along the lower Rio Grande Valley without a single vagrant on its list would still be a good thing. You pretty much can't help but be impressed by the expected "routine" species here, many of which are mostly absent elsewhere in the United States: hundreds of whistling-ducks, strutting chachalacas, tiny Least Grebes, handsome Harris's and White-tailed hawks, gangs of parakeets and parrots roaming suburban neighborhoods, dozing pauraques camouflaged as leaf litter, iridescent Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, huge Ringed and diminutive Green kingfishers, flashes of yellow from Great Kiskadees and Tropical and Couch's kingbirds, gaudy Green Jays, Long-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrows lurking in the understory, Altamira and Audubon's orioles competing for the same feeders…the list goes on.
Again, birds such as those should be all you really need on a list, but several localized and elusive South Texas specialties were also well-represented on this tour—all just barely regular each winter, and all easy to miss: a vocal pair of territorial Gray Hawks circling low overhead; Red-billed Pigeons rounding out a single-day list of eight pigeon/dove species (try doing that anywhere else in the U.S.!); a solitary, self-effacing ani reluctantly emerging from a thicket; a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl out in the open in broad daylight; an especially responsive tyrannulet; a shy but eventually visible Clay-colored Thrush rewarding our patience; a wintering Sprague's Pipit posing at our feet, literally at our tour's final birding stop; and a colorful singing male Tropical Parula.
Too much of a good thing, right? No, not quite yet—the good birds get even better. An entirely lost Purple Sandpiper wintering on a South Padre Island jetty was still there waiting for us among the turnstones. A decidedly rare but cooperative male Rose-throated Becard and an escaped "non-countable" (but still spectacular!) Black-throated Magpie-Jay were both at Estero Llano Grande State Park. And a notoriously furtive female Blue Bunting at least grudgingly gave brief but very close views to a few in the group at the Frontera Audubon Thicket.
As remarkable as all the birds were, the weather was perhaps equally interesting. Though this tour includes the word "winter" in its name, consider that temperatures on two of the days hit the mid-80s, Day 4's high reached 93, and the next day it even made it all the way up to 101! A bit too much winter warmth, I'd have to say, when the temperature approaches 30 degrees higher than it should be. But even more disconcerting was the wind. With sustained winds over 20 mph on parts of each day and gusts around 30 on all but one, you have to admit we were fortunate to see as much as we did.
One final aspect of our tour's Shakespearean theme of excess involved the birding sites: there were simply too many of them. Indeed, the best places to go this winter didn't even exist for birding purposes until just the last few years. Accordingly, we spent much of our time at relatively unfamiliar places such as San Miguelito Ranch (now the best pygmy-owl site), Edinburg Wetlands (our only ani and Spotted Towhee), Frontera Audubon Thicket (Clay-colored Thrush and Blue Bunting—plus a no-show Crimson-collared Grosbeak), and Estero Llano Grande (the becard, that magpie-jay, both Tropical and Northern parulas…plus spoonbills, parrots, Barn Owls and Eastern Screech-Owls, pauraques, and Tropical Kingbirds).
With so many places to go, and I'm almost ashamed to admit this, we never found time at all to bird Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge—the most famous of all the Rio Grande Valley sites. It was indeed a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions!