Spring in South Texas Apr 05—16, 2009

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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The bluff at Santa Margarita Ranch is simply my favorite place in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Perched about 30 feet above water level, one can scan up and down river for a mile or so and view the nearby treetops from more or less eye level. Our group spent an entire morning at this spot with never a dull moment.

From the second we arrived noisy Great Kiskadees squawked at us from a nearby hackberry. As it turned out, they were actively building a nest there, and we were able to watch the process. Couch's Kingbirds hawked insects over the river. A troop of stunning Green Jays skulked through the dense thicket below us. A Clay-colored Thrush (amazingly, one of eleven we would see on the trip!) began singing and was quickly coaxed into view. Fluorescent Altamira Orioles landed in a bush less than 15 feet away, singing their sweet, melodic song, while the shyer Audubon's Orioles also provided superb views a little farther out. Three Red-billed Pigeons were spotted teed up in a distant willow, and we had scope views; shortly, they flew right by us and were followed by a noisy Ringed Kingfisher. Quiet ticking notes just below the bluff revealed the presence of a tiny Green Kingfisher foraging along the river's edge. A Gray Hawk began calling to our right and ultimately landed in full view. Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Long-billed Thrasher, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a stunning male Blue Grosbeak, and Bullock's and Orchard orioles all vied for our attention. All this activity within the first 45 minutes at the bluff!

But the best was yet to come. As the thermals began to rise, we noticed three raptors rise up from the thickets across the river in Mexico. With the morning sun at our back, we could see that they were Hook-billed Kites, two males and a female. Ultimately they flew past the bluff going north and crossed the river into U.S. territory. Unbelievable luck! Other raptors put in appearances, including Swainson's and Red-shouldered hawks and Crested Caracaras. Just before we left, three Muscovy Ducks were spotted swimming along the riverbank, completing a clean sweep of all our hoped for targets and more. In all, we tallied 77 species just standing in one spot for a few hours, with most of the Valley specialties and several rarities.

Of course, this was but one morning of our 11-day trip through South Texas that started in Corpus Christi and ended in San Antonio. In the Rockport area, we had marvelous views of nine Whooping Cranes, including one pair that flew right across the bow of the boat. Nearly 30 species of shorebirds were seen in the coastal lagoons including Snowy and Piping plovers, Long-billed Curlew, and Baird's and Stilt sandpipers. A Clapper Rail came to within 15 feet of our group and noisily protested our presence. A Sedge Wren gave exceptional views, as did Reddish Egrets (many on the rookery island) and Roseate Spoonbills. A Broad-tailed Hummingbird at Goose Island was a superb rarity. Paradise Pond gave us a nice fallout one morning with about 13 species of warblers, Indigo and Painted buntings, and Baltimore and Orchard orioles to name a few.

Farther south we scoured the King Ranch where, after some effort, we had walkaway scope views of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl from 30 feet. Tropical Parula, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Audubon's Oriole came with less effort, as did roosting Barn Owls and baby Great Horneds on a nest.

The Valley was hosting many rarities this year and we had good success chasing several of them. We had two Masked Ducks at Laguna Atascosa from about 50 feet, a female Blue Bunting for most at Frontera, and Rose-throated Becard and Black-throated Magpie-Jay (escapee) at Llano Grande. Other Valley highlights included superb views of Elf Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl, a roosting Pauraque at 15 feet, Red-crowned Parrots, Green Parakeets, Least Grebes, White-collared Seedeater, seven Muscovy Ducks, and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks.

We ended in the scenic Hill Country where we tallied nine Golden-cheeked Warblers and had nice views of several Black-capped Vireos. Ten million bats pouring out of a cave with Merlin and Swainson's and Red-tailed hawks chasing after them was a breathtaking natural history sight.

We finished with over 260 species of birds (including all of the regional specialties), enjoyed the spectacle of migration along the coast, and had very nice weather. In all, a wild success!