Spring in South Texas Apr 03—12, 2014

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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Some trips have so many highlights that you simply don’t know where to start. Such was the case with our 2014 Spring in South Texas tour. We began our journey in Corpus Christi and within 24 hours had tallied an impressive 120 species of birds. Black-bellied and Fulvous whistling-ducks; stunningly improbable Roseate Spoonbills; comical Reddish Egrets; a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron so close we could almost touch it; White-tailed Hawk; Crested Caracara; Snowy, Piping, and Wilson’s plovers; Long-billed Curlew; brilliant pink Franklin’s Gulls side by side with Laughing Gulls; seven species of terns; a colony of 150+ Black Skimmers less than 40 feet away; Golden-fronted Woodpecker; countless Scissor-tailed Flycatchers; Couch’s Kingbird; and a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak were among the first day highlights.

The next morning we ventured out on a boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Our prime target was the Whooping Crane, and we had seven of these magnificent birds right next to the boat. This one had just caught a Blue Crab.

This Whooping Crane had just caught a Blue Crab.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

On our second day, we ventured out on a boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where we enjoyed fantastic, prolonged views of 7 Whooping Cranes at one time right next to our boat (we tallied 12 total for the morning). We spent over 45 minutes watching these rare and majestic birds, and just as we were about to leave, two took flight, completing the show! Nearby, a Seaside Sparrow vied for our attention. American Oystercatchers, Tricolored Herons, Whimbrel, American Avocets, White Ibis, and a host of other waterbirds joined the parade. After lunch we caught up with the southernmost population of Boat-tailed Grackle (a US endemic) before heading to Goose Island to look for migrants. Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black-crested Titmouse, several Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrasher, numerous Northern Parulas, a Black-throated Green Warbler, a stunning male Blue-winged Warbler, and a half-dozen Lincoln’s Sparrows topped the list. Nearby at the Big Tree, we watched over 2,000 Franklin’s Gulls pass overhead at once! More spoonbills put on a show at a nearby pond.

With decent winter rains, wildflowers were prevalent in some areas, such as these Bluebonnets at the Goose Island entrance.

Bluebonnets at the Goose Island entrance.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

The following day, we retraced some of our route from Day 1 and then worked further south to Kingsville and beyond. A salt marsh early in the morning yielded wonderful scope views of Seaside Sparrow, but the continued presence of north winds beckoned us to migrant traps along the coast. Things were hopping almost immediately upon arrival at Paradise Pond in Port Aransas. Three Northern Parulas overhead were followed quickly by a Red-eyed Vireo. A Tennessee joined the Parulas and then a Warbling Vireo. Next a Yellow-billed Cuckoo sat out on an open willow branch. Hooded Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Indigo Bunting, Acadian Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Lincoln’s Sparrow—the action was non-stop. The Port Aransas Birding Center produced Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Eastern Kingbird. The north winds had produced a great variety of migrants, as we had hoped! It was time to head south, however, and leave the Central Coast behind. In the late afternoon, the town of Sarita hosted an array of new species, including such gems as Buff-bellied Hummingbird, the incomparable Green Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, and Hooded Oriole.

Stunning Green Jays lit up the feeding station.

Stunning Green Jays lit up the feeding station.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

A day on the famed King Ranch followed, and it could be argued that it was the best day of all. Within ten minutes of arrival on the ranch we had located a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and it was quickly joined by its mate. We watched the pair almost side by side for over 15 minutes before finally walking away from them! Scope views of a male Tropical Parula, a migration of over 1,000 Broad-winged Hawks overhead, Upland Sandpiper, a lovely Barn Owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Great Kiskadee were among the many ranch treats! Late afternoon in McAllen, we witnessed 230 Green Parakeets coming in noisily to roost and had great views of a Clay-colored Thrush. What a day!

Perhaps the highlight of the trip for me was this unexpected, cooperative male Varied Bunting near Falcon Dam. Thanks Gavin!

Varied Bunting near Falcon Dam. — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Ensuing days in the Lower Rio Grande Valley produced the likes of Least Grebe, Least Bittern, Plain Chachalaca, prolonged studies of an Aplomado Falcon, Green Kingfisher, an Elf Owl at a nest hole, Common Pauraques on day roosts (including a mother with two adorable babies), the best views ever of Red-crowned Parrots at a nest, Tropical Kingbird, Altamira Oriole, and more. South Padre Island gave us more migrant land birds. A lawn full of Indigo Buntings with one Painted Bunting and one Blue Grosbeak mixed in was particularly memorable. Palm Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and a Wood Thrush added to our growing list.

The final area we visited was upriver around Falcon Dam, Zapata, and Laredo. Here we enjoyed the likes of Gray Hawk, Red-billed Pigeon, Audubon’s Oriole, and White-collared Seedeater. Desert areas yielded Greater Roadrunner, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin, Pyrrhuloxia, and Black-throated Sparrow. Perhaps the highlight of the tour for me was a brilliant male Varied Bunting near Falcon Dam that posed no more than 20 feet away. This species is uncommon and localized in this region and generally arrives later in April. This was only the second time it had been seen on this tour!

In all we tallied a record-setting 245 species, saw nearly all the South Texas specialty birds, enjoyed the spectacle of migration, and saw wonderful wildflower displays. Only in Texas!