Winter Rio Grande Valley: A Relaxed and Easy Tour Feb 16—22, 2013
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
Every birding trip to South Texas is different. In that regard, our tour this year was exactly the same as in years prior. More than just about any other tour I lead, on this tour you just never know what to expect. We experienced an amazing range of weather, from the mid 50s to the low 90s, from nice sunny conditions to fog and rain, and from virtual calm to sustained winds in the high 20s. The theme of expecting the unexpected in South Texas holds true for the birding as well. This region is famous for producing rarities, not just because of its proximity to Mexico, but also because of the high density of birders that visit “The Valley” in the winter. Once again, this year we benefited from the efforts of others and were able to see a couple of great vagrants. A less pleasant surprise this year was the decided decrease in the number of wintering birds, especially sparrows. This is most likely due to the extreme drought conditions that Texas has been, and continues to be, experiencing. The one thing that is consistent from year to year here is that there is a long list of spectacular birds that you’re going to see that you won’t see anywhere else in the U.S. (or Canada!).
Our birding began with a visit to what has become the newest hotspot in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande State Park. Just minutes from our hotel, we were immediately seeing multiple species of “Valley Specialties” like Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, White-tipped Dove, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Kingfisher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Black-crested Titmouse, and Long-billed Thrasher. In addition, the wetlands there were filled with ducks and herons, and the woods held a nice variety of songbirds. The real show-stopper, and the bird that maybe has put this park on the map more than any other, is the Common Pauraque. Estero has become famous among birders for its amazingly predictable and cooperative Pauraques. This year we were once again treated to a spectacular show (spectacular for a bird that’s sleeping). Their ability to blend into the leaf litter where they sleep is truly stunning. Even though we were only a few feet away from them, it was not easy at all to see the birds as they snoozed just off the edge of the path. This is normally a species that you just hear or see in a spotlight at night, so getting to see them like this is a very special treat and it was not a surprise that they were once again voted favorite bird of the trip (tied actually).
Our second day of birding was a big one. Not only did we cover a ton of ground, looping all the way out to the coast and back, we also saw our two rarest birds of the trip. Both had been previously reported and fairly well “staked out,” but both also required quite a bit of patience and persistence. Luckily, we had just enough of both. We began with a visit to Sabal Palm Sanctuary, south of Brownsville, south of the border fence! Our target bird was a Crimson-collared Grosbeak that had recently been discovered visiting their feeders and water features. It had been keeping a fairly consistent schedule, making regular visits, but unfortunately we arrived immediately after it made such a visit. Lucky for us, many other species were visiting the feeders, and we had a great time watching many species including Olive Sparrows, Long-billed Thrashers, Green Jays, and White-tipped Doves until eventually (better late than never) it returned.
With that great vagrant in the bag, we headed for the coast. On our way to South Padre Island we made several stops for birds along the road. We had great looks at White-tailed Hawks, Harris’s Hawks, White-tailed Kite, and Long-billed Curlews. We found a large flock of birds along the shore of Laguna Madre and here is where we enjoyed our first display from a feeding Reddish Egret. It threw out its wings, it flung itself into the air, it dashed back and forth, and it appeared to be somewhat out of its mind. But it was just being a Reddish Egret, and that was enough to get it a share of the “favorite bird of the tour” vote. Arriving at the South Padre Island Convention Center, we began the hunt for the second of our two known wintering rarities. This one was Texas’s second winter record of Flammulated Owl. We knew fairly precisely where the bird liked to spend its day snoozing, but without the help of somebody there who happened to know the exact spot the bird favored, we never would have seen this incredibly well-hidden little guy buried in the thicket. Even knowing exactly where it was and being able to scope it from about 30 feet away, we were never able to see more than about one-quarter of the bird at any one time, and most of the time you couldn’t even see that much. Regardless of the views, it was very exciting just finding it and seeing the little bits that we did. It was such an unusual bird to see in a little patch of trees on a barrier island in Texas, when it should have been in pine forest, in the mountains, hundreds of miles away.
The remainder of the tour was without any great rarities, but we somehow managed to satisfy ourselves with birds like Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Plain Chachalaca, Scaled Quail, Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk (4!), Crested Caracara, Red-billed Pigeon, Greater Roadrunner (fantastic views!), Eastern Screech-Owl, Burrowing Owl, Ringed Kingfisher, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Clay-colored Thrush, Black-throated Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia (very scarce this year), Altamira Oriole, and Audubon’s Oriole. Like I said, even the expected birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas are well worth the trip. I can’t wait for next year’s tour to see them all again and maybe see something perhaps not so expected.