Winter Rio Grande Valley Feb 07—13, 2015

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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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 tract of native forest at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge to tiny—but productive—Estero Llano Grande State Park and Quinta Mazatlan.  In the process we found almost all of the expected Valley specialties, plus a broad array of more widespread birds.  Truly rare in the U.S. was the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat seen by most of the group at Estero Llano Grande, while the Red-billed Pigeons and Zone-tailed Hawk studied at length at Rancho Santa Margarita were wonderful unexpected surprises.  We were lucky with the weather too, and almost the entire week was pleasantly warm and dry.

Common Pauraque

Common Pauraque— Photo: David Wolf

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 we got off to a great start when a pair of brilliant Altamira Orioles sitting up in full view in a tree by the parking lot greeted us, their colors aglow in the early morning light.  Then, within minutes, our first chachalacas and Green Jays were spotted. Welcome to the Valley!  By the end of the day we had become acquainted with many of the specialties, including Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Green Kingfisher, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, and Clay-colored Thrush, plus there was a good assortment of waterbirds present. The real showstopper here was an amazingly cooperative Common Pauraque sleeping right beside the trail.  Even though we were only a few feet away, the bird’s ability to camouflage itself amidst the leaf litter was so perfect that it was remarkably hard to spot!  This species is normally only seen in a spotlight at night, or heard as they call at dusk, so to be able to see one like this was a very special treat.

Our second day took us on a long ramble to South Padre Island and the adjacent Laguna Madre.  Though the hoped-for Aplomado Falcon failed to show on the Old Port Isabel Road, we were treated to White-tailed Kites hovering over the grasslands, an incredibly well-concealed Long-billed Curlew not far from the vans, and a gorgeous male Vermilion Flycatcher.  A stop on the Laguna Madre evolved into a shorebird seminar as we studied the various species present, while a white morph Reddish Egret danced around on the flats, and two fighting Clapper Rails burst out of the marsh, one of them remaining out in the open in full view. Two adult Peregrine Falcons fighting over space on the water tower were amazing. By the end of our stay here we had seen a diverse assortment of waterbirds, many of them not seen elsewhere on the trip.  Finally, after leaving the island and starting back to McAllen, we spotted an adult White-tailed Hawk on a roadside telephone pole.  This beautiful raptor is especially characteristic of the Texas coastal savannahs.

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee— Photo: David Wolf

The morning of our third day found us at Santa Ana NWR, where the early-morning fog and low clouds kept the birding slow initially, except for the numerous Harris’s Hawks all around us.  As the sun broke through, the small birds finally became active, and as we studied a procession of common wintering insectivores we found a tiny and very drab flycatcher actively feeding amidst them, a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.  This species is scarce, inconspicuous, and never to be counted upon.  From the tower here we studied our first Gray Hawk, a juvenile, and heard a Couch’s Kingbird singing to confirm its identification.  Then, as we birded our way out, a Green Kingfisher appeared and sat for long scope views, and we found our first Long-billed Thrasher, singing from a vine-tangled mesquite tree.  That afternoon we prowled Erik’s home base at Quinta Mazatlan, where right away he spotted a Brown Thrasher, very rare this far south, amidst a group of 4 Clay-colored Thrushes sneaking through the dense understory.  A “parrot watch” nearby seemed destined to fail until suddenly, at 6:15 p.m., a flock of 4 Red-crowned Parrots came winging in rapidly and landed in a bare tree, later to be joined by another dozen or so.  Yippee!  A single Yellow-headed Parrot amidst them was not “countable” by ABA standards, but provided a rare look at a bird that is very endangered in its native range and not often seen anywhere.

Audubon's Oriole

Audubon’s Oriole— Photo: Erik Bruhnke

On our final morning in the Lower Valley we opted to return to Estero Llano Grande for another try for the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat that had been present for several weeks. Erik’s great ears and eyes located the bird within minutes of reaching the area where it had been seen most often, but unfortunately it did not stay out for long and a few of us missed seeing it in the scope.  Patient waiting did not pay off and the bird was not seen again, but a careful watch of the feeders finally produced a beautiful Buff-bellied Hummingbird for all to see. 

An exhilarating last day afield found us in the much wilder Upper Valley, where finally it “looked like Texas,” with great vistas of upland thorn-scrub on the low ridges and tall groves of riparian woodland along the clear Rio Grande (not to mention the lack of strip malls and traffic).  Much of the morning was spent at “The Bluff,” an especially scenic and peaceful spot on the private Santa Margarita Ranch.  Our first great bird of the day was a Ringed Kingfisher that flew downriver right past us and then landed in view. Not long thereafter we spotted several large dark birds sitting up in the tall willows to our right, and when we put the scopes on them we had our Red-billed Pigeons.  This species has declined greatly in the U.S., and almost all of them withdraw southward for the winter, so this was a very unexpected bonus.  After studying them for a long time we were distracted by a lovely pair of Audubon’s Orioles sitting up in the bare trees across the river, our first views of yet another scarce and declining specialty.  Somewhere in the midst of this excitement a pair of adult Gray Hawks circled the brush upriver, and then, as we started back to the vehicles, an adult Zone-tailed Hawk came right overhead and proceeded to work the area for over 15 minutes before it drifted out of sight!  This Turkey Vulture mimic is a rare winter straggler here and it isn’t often that it is seen this well anywhere.

Pyrrhuloxia

Pyrrhuloxia— Photo: Erik Bruhnke

Our next stop was the feeding station at the little village of Salineno, where amidst the Altamira Orioles swarming the feeders we had close-ups of Audubon’s and Hooded orioles, and everyone finally caught up with the elusive Olive Sparrow.  Our picnic lunch at Falcon State Park was a bit chilly, as a cool front blew through, but well worth it when we found an amazing feeding station in the campground.  Lovingly attended by the “snowbird” campers, it was literally swarming with birds, all of them at close range—Verdin, Bewick’s Wren, several dozen Orange-crowned Warblers, Black-throated Sparrows, gorgeous Pyrrhuloxias, Green Jays and more.  Then, as we left the park, a covey of Northern Bobwhite came out onto the roadside for us to admire.  This exciting day wasn’t quite over though; as we sped back to Zapata, we had to do a quick “U-turn” on the highway for a fabulous Great Horned Owl sitting on a low fence post in broad daylight!

All too soon our week in the Valley was over, but the memories of the many special birds seen here will remain with us for a long time.  You were a wonderfully enthusiastic and compatible group to travel with, and we hope to see you again on another VENT tour.