Spring in South Texas Apr 04—13, 2013

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 2013 Spring in South Texas tour was arguably our best ever. From South Texas specialties to rarities to migrant land birds, this trip had it all. We began in Corpus Christi, a day after a cold front had passed through. Rather stout north winds the afternoon of our arrival seemed promising for bringing down migrants. We had an hour to bird before dinner that day and headed to nearby Tule Lake. A quick stop at a roadside pond en route yielded a locally rare Least Grebe (our first South Texas specialty) followed in short order by a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a perched Crested Caracara, a late Bufflehead, six Scissor-tailed Flycatchers lined up on one fence, and a flyover Swainson’s Hawk. We had been birding all of ten minutes! Upon reaching Tule Lake, the new birds came in rapid order: Wilson’s Plover, Gull-billed Tern, Roseate Spoonbill, a dozen breeding plumaged American Avocets, and a comical Reddish Egret. No one knew where to look first. In one hour of birding we tallied 53 species before heading off to a delicious seafood dinner.

The next day we scoured migrant traps and coastal estuaries in and around Corpus Christi and Mustang Island. The hoped for fallout of land bird migrants panned out, as we had 16 species of warblers for the day. Paradise Pond (a small oasis in Port Aransas) alone harbored eight Hooded Warblers, a stunning male Prothonotary Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, a male American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, White-eyed and Warbling vireos, Wood Thrush, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, two Gray Catbirds, seven Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and more! The nearby Port Aransas Birding Center hosted a male Blue-winged Warbler, several Orchard Orioles, a Yellow Warbler, and a slew of waterbirds including Sora, Tricolored Heron (just feet away), and Cinnamon Teal. Throughout the day the list continued to grow with the likes of Snowy and Piping plovers, Upland Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, White-tailed Hawk, Long-billed Thrasher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, and an estimated 750 Franklin’s Gulls leading the highlights. By day’s end we had tallied an amazing 130 species of birds!

The trip only got better from there. A boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge netted 19 Whooping Cranes (two pairs very close to the boat), as well as Seaside Sparrow, a rare Lesser Black-backed Gull, 20 Roseate Spoonbills feeding in one area, and rookeries of herons and egrets. A visit one day to the famed King Ranch produced the likes of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, two male Tropical Parulas, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, a pair of Audubon’s Orioles, nesting White-tailed Hawks, displaying Vermilion Flycatcher, displaying Wild Turkeys, Olive Sparrow, Greater Roadrunner, and a rare migrant Swallow-tailed Kite.

Heading southward to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, we visited many parks and refuges between McAllen and Brownsville. A very rare vagrant Crimson-collared Grosbeak at Sabal Palm put on a great show (only the third ever for both Kevin and me). Dazzling Green Jays, a cooperative Clay-colored Thrush, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, Plain Chachalacas, an Altamira Oriole, and numerous White-tipped Doves vied for our attention. Estero Llano Grande was equally birdy with mating Green Kingfishers, three Common Pauraques on day roosts, another Clay-colored Thrush, numerous Least Grebes, and White-tailed Kite. Residential Weslaco yielded fantastic views of Red-crowned Parrot (at a nest) and Green Parakeets, while an evening of night birding produced the tiny Elf Owl and the McCall’s race of Eastern Screech-Owl.

On our last morning in the Valley we headed out to South Padre, as luckily another front had passed through. En route a pair of Aplomado Falcons was spotted roadside, and we had scope views of this seldom seen bird. Migrant traps on the island were very active with Indigo and Painted buntings; Blue Grosbeak; Baltimore, Bullock’s, and Orchard orioles; Lark, Clay-colored, Lincoln’s, and Chipping sparrows; a very early Blackpoll Warbler; Summer Tanager; and a roosting Lesser Nighthawk. A couple hundred more Franklin’s Gulls put down on a small roadside pond. Our luck just kept getting better.

Finally, we moved upriver to the Zapata area. Here, from a nearby bluff overlooking the Rio Grande, we had arguably our best morning yet. Perched Red-billed Pigeons, Green and Ringed kingfishers, a fly-by male Muscovy Duck, a very early Groove-billed Ani, Altamira and Audubon’s orioles, Clay-colored Thrush, Gray Hawk, and a striking male Scarlet Tanager were among the many highlights. We finished our trip in Laredo where we enjoyed close views of several White-collared Seedeaters.

In all we saw 265 species for the tour. We tallied virtually every South Texas specialty bird, had a host of rarities, and marveled at the spectacle of spring migration. Who could ask for more?