Winter Rio Grande Valley: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Feb 12—18, 2011
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
There are many reasons for birders to visit South Texas in winter, and most of those reasons are birds! Of course, the weather can be quite nice compared to the rest of the country, and this year we lucked out in this department as well. Just the week prior to our visit, the Rio Grande Valley experienced a very powerful cold front that plunged temperatures to below freezing. Earlier in the winter, major flooding closed many of the best birding areas. But by the time we started birding, the temperatures were back into the 80s and almost all of the valley was dry and open for birding.
The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is full of birds that just barely cross the border into the United States. Seeking out these "valley specialties" is reason enough for birders to make the trek to South Texas, but what really gets us excited is the possibility of a rarity, an accidental, a MEGA—some bird so rarely seen north of Mexico that (some) people jump on planes at the drop of a hat to go see it. And again, we were certainly lucky this year. We saw not one, but 4 species that qualify as rarities. I'd like to say that skill was the key ingredient in seeing these great birds, but getting to see staked-out rarities on tour really does require a fair amount of luck. On our very first day we basically walked right up to a White-throated Thrush and got great views for several minutes from about 20 feet away. This is a bird that people were spending hours looking for and in many cases never seeing!
A couple of days later we were we looking for a Black-vented Oriole that had been reported for about a month, but that morning it failed to show up at the appointed time. Had our luck already run out? No. We just started walking down the road and pretty soon somebody came riding up to us and told us we better hurry, it had just been seen up ahead. Sure enough, we found it in just a few minutes. More recently a Blue Bunting had been reported in the park, but it was not being seen with any regularity. Could we really get so lucky again? You bet. After a relaxing picnic lunch, we strolled back into the park and within minutes of our arrival at its last known location, we hit pay dirt again. A gorgeous male Blue Bunting creeping around in the shadows, but still offering glimpses of its wonderful iridescent plumage.
Rarity #4 (our 3rd of the day!) was almost too easy. All we had to do was show up at Allen Williams' house and he did all the work. After putting out a few orange sections and whistling for a bit, there she was, a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak. We sat and watched her for at least 15 minutes as she chewed on leaves back in the bushes before finally coming out into the open for a bit of citrus.
The danger of chasing rarities is that it can often leave you scrambling to find the common birds. Well, I don't think we could really complain too much about how things turned out. In addition to our rarities we saw about 30 of the "valley specialties" (depending on your definition) and a total of about 170 species. We saw bunches of gaudy Green Jays (voted favorite bird of the trip), oodles of orioles (5 species!), wonderful aggregations of waterfowl, comical flocks of chachalacas, and 15 species of raptors. It was a fantastic trip, with many great memories, and I can't wait for my next visit to the Rio Grande Valley.