Spring in South Texas Apr 04—16, 2010

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 2010 Spring in South Texas tour had it all. Starting on the Central Texas Coast, our boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge yielded some of our best views ever of majestic Whooping Cranes from about 50 yards. We had already tallied 14 birds, though all somewhat distant, when a family group came flying right at our boat. They landed on the edge of the marsh providing unsurpassed, prolonged studies. A short while later we visited nearby rookery islands where stunning Roseate Spoonbills and comical Reddish Egrets (both dark and white morphs) were already nesting. A large group of American Avocets sailed by our boat and were quickly followed by over 100 White Ibis. Seaside Sparrows sat up obligingly for scope views, graceful Black Skimmers cruised by, and baby American Oystercatchers huddled next to Mom for protection.

Migrant traps near Port Aransas and Corpus Christi proved productive with Hooded, Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green, Northern Parula, Black-and-white, Tennessee, Orange-crowned, and a very rare Prairie Warbler all giving good views, along with other goodies such as Blue-headed Vireo and Orchard Oriole.

On Mustang Island we enjoyed wonderful studies of seven species of terns (including a flock of 27 Black Terns), while nearby estuaries and fields produced Long-billed Curlew; Wilson's, Snowy, and Piping plovers; American Golden-Plover; and Baird's and Stilt sandpipers (among our 30 species of shorebirds). A Least Bittern from about 15 feet at the Port Aransas boardwalk was truly a trip highlight. Other highlights in this area included Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, a dozen White-tailed Hawks (we had two nests), countless Crested Caracaras, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, an abundance of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Long-billed Thrasher, and Boat-tailed Grackle.

After two-and-a-half-days of scouring the Central Coast, we headed south to the famed King Ranch. Here we had walkaway views of our primary target, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, from about 20 feet. A pair of Tropical Parulas followed quickly, as did a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Incomparable Green Jays skulked through the oaks, brilliant Hooded Orioles sang from the tree tops, Couch's Kingbirds hawked insects, noisy Great Kiskadees sat up, and Olive Sparrows sang from the thickets. Overhead, a migrant group of roughly 1,000 Broad-winged Hawks sailed by and were joined by 40 or so Anhingas. An Audubon's Oriole gave quick views for some, but eluded others for the time being.

By the mid-afternoon, we continued southward to our destination for the next three days, the McAllen area. A late afternoon cruise for parakeets and parrots produced superb views of both Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots, and, as bonuses, a small nesting colony of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, a migrant flock of Clay-colored Sparrows, and a Clay-colored Thrush. 

The next morning we headed out to South Padre Island to take advantage of the north winds the previous day, which we hoped had brought down migrants. At a spot called Sheepshead, we watched tired migrants (some from 10–15 feet away), including the likes of Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, Summer Tanager, brilliant Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbirds, and Yellow-throated and White-eyed vireos. A nearby boardwalk produced a very close pair of Clapper Rails, several Soras, and three pink Franklin’s Gulls. An afternoon visit to Frontera Audubon Thicket added a raucous group of Plain Chachalacas and a White-tipped Dove. That evening we headed out on an owling expedition and had some of our most exciting moments of the trip. Two Pauraques flitted about like butterflies right in front of us, and soon after we had superb views of both the tiny Elf Owl and the "McCall's" race of Eastern Screech-Owl.

Over the next two days we hit various spots in the Rio Grande Valley, tallying Least Grebe, one tree with 75 Mississippi Kites in it, Ringed and Green kingfishers, more Red-crowned Parrots, and fluorescent Altamira Orioles among others.

We then headed northward to the Falcon Dam area where, despite some challenging weather, we had three Muscovy Ducks, fantastic studies of Red-billed Pigeon, numerous Greater Roadrunners, more Ringed and Green kingfishers, displaying male Vermilion Flycatcher, another Clay-colored Thrush, Cassin's and Black-throated sparrows, and scope studies of Audubon's Oriole.

Finally, we visited the scenic Texas Hill Country where on our first afternoon we witnessed the spectacle of over ten million Mexican free-tailed bats departing from their cave at dusk. A Merlin, a Swainson's Hawk, and a Red-tailed raced through the streams of bats for their evening dinner. It was a sight never to be forgotten—truly one of the great natural history spectacles anywhere! Both Canyon and Rock wrens serenaded us and gave great views from about 10 feet at the bat cave, as did a striking male Scott's Oriole.

The next morning we visited a private ranch where we had wonderful looks at the two Hill Country specialties, the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. Other highlights included Hutton's Vireo (a local rarity), Rufous-crowned Sparrow, side by side views of male Indigo and Lazuli (rare) buntings, and another Audubon's Oriole. 

In all we tallied 250 species of birds, and as fantastic as they were, they might have been outdone by the best wildflower display in at least 20 years! From the beginning of the trip until the end, we enjoyed field after field of mind-boggling displays—bluebonnets, paintbrush, Indian blanket, phlox, prickly poppies, mallows, and wine cups. The list went on and on. It was certainly a trip to remember!