Winter Rio Grande Valley: A Relaxed and Easy Tour Feb 11—17, 2012
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 the ABA area if you wish to see the rarities that either just make it over the border, or do so only 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. Once again, this year's tour had great success finding a long list of specialties in addition to some real gems from the vagrant category.
The Valley has been changing quite a bit in recent years, with many new birding destinations opening and some of the old established sites becoming less accessible. One of the positive developments has been the opening of Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. This small park on the edge of town has quickly become one of the best birding destinations around, and it certainly didn't disappoint this year. The feeders produced our first of many Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, and White-tipped Doves, and the park was holding many hummingbirds including Ruby-throated, Rufous, Buff-bellied, and Broad-tailed. The ponds were loaded with waterfowl and Least Grebes were everywhere! Both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned night-herons were roosting in plain view, watching the alligators drift by, and a Ringed Kingfisher was patrolling around providing nice scope views. But the highlight of the park was probably the "world famous" Common Pauraques. Seeing a nightjar in the daytime is a rare treat, but seeing them sitting by the side of a trail, less than five feet away, is truly amazing. It was no wonder that Common Pauraque was voted favorite bird of the trip.
Our second day of birding took us out to the coast where we would add many species that we wouldn't see further inland. An early stop in San Benito turned up a huge flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks visiting someone's front yard feeder! Further on, we found White-tailed Hawks, White-tailed Kites, Harris's Hawks, and Crested Caracaras on the road to Laguna Atascosa. In fields near the refuge we had Eastern Meadowlarks and Long-billed Curlews, and just as I had finished saying we might see one, we saw our first of several Greater Roadrunners. Out at the Osprey Overlook, an Olive Sparrow perched out in plain view for us; then we were treated to a parade of Roseate Spoonbills that marched right in front of us. Out on South Padre Island we added many new waterbirds, including a white-morph Reddish Egret and a Clapper Rail that was literally at our feet.
Chasing rarities with a group is always tricky, as it can be very time-consuming and you are often forsaking other birds in your effort to focus on finding a single individual bird. It's great when you have a situation like the one we had with a Crimson-collared Grosbeak in Pharr. This individual (a female) was visiting a feeder and was basically performing on demand. It didn't hurt that she was sharing the feeding station with Clay-colored Thrushes! Our other great rarity this year was quite a different story. The Golden-crowned Warbler is a little skulking bird that does not visit feeders, and likes to stay low down in dense thickets. The Frontera Audubon Thicket was very much to its liking. Our first attempt at finding this bird was hampered by the heavy clouds and light rains we had on day one, making seeing into the depths of the thicket almost impossible. We could hear it, and I was able to get a few glimpses, but we were unable to get views for the group. Luckily the weather cleared, and a return visit proved much more fruitful, with the bird flying out into a relatively open patch and allowing everybody in the group to get on it before melting back into the shadows.
Our trip is divided into two sections, the lower valley and the upper valley. The lower valley is full of many exciting destinations (and restaurants) and allows you to see almost all of the South Texas specialty birds. The upper valley has a much shorter list of target species, and right at the top of that list is the tiny White-collared Seedeater. Numbers vary from year to year and it is often not present or very difficult to find within our range, but this year we were lucky. We had excellent close views of at least 6 birds feeding in tall grass and perching in bare trees, by far my best experience ever with this species in Texas. Another reason to visit the upper valley is the easy access to the Rio Grande itself. Right along the river you often find species not seen elsewhere, and the experience of birding two countries at once is not something you get to do every day! Our morning on the bluff at Santa Margarita Ranch was a real treat. We had a commanding view up and down the river, and many songbirds presented themselves at and below eye level in the trees growing right below us. Two flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese flying north, high above the river, were evidence that spring migration was already underway. Both Audubon's and Altamira orioles added color to the morning, while Clay-colored Thrush was more subtle in its approach. And though they weren't exactly close, the three Red-billed Pigeons we found perched in the tree tops were much appreciated, given the fact that nobody had been reporting them anywhere recently.
All in all, it was an excellent trip with many great memories and lots of good birds. In particular I want to mention that two of our party reached the magical number of 700 for their life lists! Congratulations to Carol and Merrill on this great accomplishment; it was a privilege to be a part of it. I can't wait for my next chance to return to South Texas and bird the Valley.