Winter Rio Grande Valley: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Feb 08—14, 2014
Posted by David Wolf
Within the United States the Lower Rio Grande Valley is absolutely unique for birders, a wonderland of subtropical birds and plants on our side of the border. Unfortunately, most of this special region has been altered by development, making every remaining fragment of habitat important. We spent five days checking these special spots, from the largest remaining tracts of forest at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen State Park to tiny—but productive—areas like the Edinburg Wetlands and Estero Llano Grande State Park. In the process we found almost all of the expected Valley specialties plus a nice array of more widespread birds, although rarities were lacking and numbers of birds were low in general (likely due to the on-going drought as well as harsh winter). We also experienced a remarkable range of weather, from balmy days with temperatures to the low 80s to a bone-chilling damp “norther” that dropped temperatures almost to freezing, as the wind howled to 30 m.p.h. at times!
Our birding began with a visit to what has become the newest “hotspot” in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande State Park. Here, just minutes from our hotel, we found many of the Valley specialties right away on our first morning out, including Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, and Long-billed Thrasher, plus a good assortment of waterbirds. We returned to town for lunch, and as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot a Merlin flew up to a nearby wire and posed for a long time—a nice surprise. That afternoon we again covered the Estero, spotting an Eastern Screech-Owl poking its head out of a nest box, and an especially cooperative Green Kingfisher that proved to be the only one of the trip. This specialty is often hard to see well, but we had long scope looks. The real showstoppers here, however, were the amazingly cooperative Common Pauraques sleeping right beside the trails. Even though we were only a few feet away from them, their ability to camouflage themselves amidst the leaf litter was so perfect that they were remarkably hard to spot! This species is normally seen only in a spotlight at night, or heard as it calls at dusk, so to be able to see it like this was a very special treat. It’s not a surprise that once again it was voted “favorite bird of the trip.”
Our second day took us to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, where the birding was slow until midmorning when the raptors began getting up. Then we had a chance to see and study the field marks for Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Harris’s, Red-shouldered, and Red-tailed hawks, and Crested Caracara. The best of all was a wonderful adult Gray Hawk that circled out right in front of us for great views. Later a juvenile Gray flew past and perched in the heavy brush for another study of this scarce bird. A pleasant afternoon excursion to the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands produced a diversity of waterbirds in great light and passerines taking advantage of a warm afternoon before a cold front to hawk insects. Here we had great looks at a very close Black-and-white Warbler, Blue-headed and White-eyed vireos, and a skulking Gray Catbird, though we couldn’t find the Tropical Parula reported on the hotline.
Day three was a challenge, as a massive Arctic cold front moved into the region, bringing howling north winds, mist, and chilling temperatures. We opted to bird the South Padre Island area, since I knew that we could see at least some waterbirds from the van, and in the end we were not disappointed. Thanks to some great spotting from Debbie, we found our quest bird for the day, a gorgeous adult White-tailed Hawk perched on a tall yucca—an absolutely classic place for this indicator species of the coastal savannah. And, we noted an array of interesting coastal waterbirds and ducks. The next morning brought chilly 34 degree temperatures, but fortunately for the Valley agriculture it did not freeze, and the day soon warmed up to a pleasant 60 degrees as we birded Bentsen State Park. The feeding stations here may be the best place to get close looks and photos of many of the Valley specialties, and we thoroughly enjoyed the colorful Green Jays and Altamira Orioles, with chachalacas, White-tipped Doves, and Long-billed Thrashers amidst them. It was here that we caught up with the Clay-colored Thrush, a species formerly very rare, but now colonizing the Valley in numbers. A stop at Anzalduas after lunch produced a calling Tropical Kingbird, confirming that species on our list, and our first Ringed Kingfisher.
Our final full day afield found us in the much wilder upper Valley, where finally it “looked like Texas,” with great vistas of upland semi-desert brush on the low ridges and tall groves of riparian woodland along the Rio Grande (not to mention the lack of strip malls and traffic). As we arrived at “The Bluff,” we thrilled to a wild chorus from Coyotes, spotted two rare Red-billed Pigeons winging past, and soon found ourselves admiring lovely Audubon’s Orioles in the scopes (thanks to some great spotting by the group). Later we had close-ups of this and Altamira and Hooded orioles at the Salineno feeding station, where everyone finally caught up with the elusive Olive Sparrow.
All too soon our week in the Valley was over, but the memories of the many special birds seen here will remain with us.