Winter Rio Grande Valley Feb 23—Mar 01, 2010
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
There are a few destinations in North America that are absolute "must-visits" for birders who want to build a long life list. Inevitably, you must visit the corners of a geographical area if you wish to see the rarities that either just make it over the border, or only do so on occasion. Outside of western Alaska, the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is probably the most productive (and certainly the most cost-effective!) corner for a birder to visit. With a long list of "specialty birds" and a propensity for producing vagrants from the south, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is hard to beat. This year's tour was a tremendous success, with great looks at almost every specialty species, including a few of the rarer ones, and a sprinkling of some wonderful vagrants as well.
From our first day we could see that we were going to have an outstanding trip. Not only were we having great experiences with the easier expected species, but we were also having some amazing luck with the more difficult or totally unexpected ones. Our morning started with a pair of bobcats that strolled by and tore our attention away from the busy feeders at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Then, after enjoying our first Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, White-tipped Doves, and Great Kiskadees, we took a leisurely stroll through the park and added birds like Couch's and Tropical kingbirds side by side, a pair of exquisite Green Kingfishers perching cooperatively in our scopes, and remarkably tame (confident?) Common Pauraques sitting on the ground just a few feet off the trail. After a short break we took another walk, and quickly we were on to our first rarity of the trip, a Rose-throated Becard. This bird had been wintering in the park, but was only being reported sporadically. Not bad for our first morning! Our afternoon was equally successful, as our luck held out for a staked out bird that had been tough to come by—a gorgeous male Tropical Parula. We ended the day with a tree full of Red-crowned Parrots. We watched as they playfully hung from branches, shrieked and squawked, and even engaged in some allopreening before flying off to their evening roost.
The morning of day two found us on the coast visiting Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. White-tailed Hawks and a field full of Wilson's Snipes slowed our progress, but we eventually made it to the refuge to find feeders absolutely teeming with birds. Gaudy Green Jays, comical Plain Chachalacas, furtive Olive Sparrows, and cheeky Golden-fronted Woodpeckers were putting on quite a show. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but there was business to attend to. A male Blue Bunting had been located on the refuge in prior days, and we knew we would have to commit some time and effort if we wanted to add this gorgeous and rare bird to our rapidly growing list. As luck would have it, there was another large group of birders there with the same idea, and it wasn't more than 10 minutes after our search began that somebody spotted the bird sitting quietly in a bush not 15 feet off the path. Amazingly the bird remained there for at least 10 minutes while about 40 birders jockeyed for position, with everybody getting stunning looks at this electric-blue gem of a bird.
In the higher and drier upper Valley we continued our remarkable success. At Salineno we experienced feeders absolutely loaded with birds. The real show stealers were the orioles. Altamira Orioles were everywhere, their glowing orange plumage repeatedly drawing gasps of delight and disbelief from the group. Hooded Orioles were just arriving back in the area, and we had nice comparison views of adult and immature males and females. The Audubon's Oriole is the scarcest oriole in the Valley, and Salineno is probably the best spot to get it. Well, it didn't make us work too hard, as we had multiple birds soon after arriving. Down at the river we were surprised and delighted to find a Muscovy Duck sitting on a log at the water's edge. There had been no reports in the Valley for some time, so this was cause for much excitement. Farther north in Zapata we met with stunning success, finding White-collared Seedeater in record time and enjoying close scope views of Red-billed Pigeons during a short birding effort before dinner.
Our last full day of birding was spent mostly in and around Falcon State Park. This was not only because a large number of species favor the more arid, desert-like habitats found there, but also because a Roadside Hawk had taken up residence this winter. We had an excellent day, enjoying flocks of Pyrrhuloxia mixed with Lark, Cassin's, Clay-colored, Chipping, Vesper, Black-throated, and Savannah sparrows. We got point-blank views of an inquisitive Groove-billed Ani and enjoyed the supremely charismatic Greater Roadrunner. But with all of this great birding we tasted our first bit of defeat—we couldn't find that darned Roadside Hawk! Well, we weren't done yet. We had a little bit of time available on our last morning before we had to head to the airport. It was a beautiful morning and birds just seemed to be throwing themselves at us. A mixed sparrow flock added Lark Bunting and White-crowned Sparrow to our list. Then a gorgeous Green-tailed Towhee sat up in a bush in the morning light for us, and I knew we had to give the hawk another try. So we returned to the park for a last-ditch effort, but again the bird was nowhere to be seen. In a last desperate play I announced that we could only spend ten more minutes on this silly bird, and it worked! From out of nowhere the Roadside Hawk flew in and perched on a utility pole right in front of us! We all enjoyed point-blank views, and then it was time to go. What a way to end an already amazing trip.