Winter Rio Grande Valley Jan 09—15, 2016

Posted by David Wolf


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 the tiny—but productive—Estero Llano Grande State Park and Frontera Audubon Sanctuary. 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. were the Crimson-collared Grosbeak seen at Frontera and the very cooperative Northern Jacana studied at length at Santa Ana. Another nice surprise was the out-of-range Greater Pewee at Anazalduas, plus we enjoyed a number of more widespread rarities lingering at various sites, including Black-throated Gray Warbler, Bullock’s Oriole, and Dickcissel. We were lucky with the weather too, and though a bit on the chilly side at times, it was pleasant enough to be outdoors.

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. We had barely entered the park before we spotted our first Green Jays and chachalacas skulking through the brush, and then, as we rounded a bend in the trail, we found them attacking the feeders at close range, along with a brilliant Altamira Oriole. Welcome to the Valley! By the end of the morning we had become acquainted with many of the regional specialties, including Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Green Kingfisher (scope views of a wonderfully cooperative pair), Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, and Olive Sparrow, plus there was a nice assortment of waterbirds present. A real treat 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.

That afternoon found us chasing our first hot-line rarity, a female-plumaged Crimson-collared Grosbeak reported at the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary. Thick it is, but as we quietly strolled the trails through the dense brush, this strange bird suddenly popped up just ahead of us, for good, if brief, views. Very lucky and good spotting Neil! Endemic to northeastern Mexico, this species is not found in the U.S. every year. The Clay-colored Thrushes, a Valley specialty that was formerly quite rare but is now increasing in number, that came out on the trail as we were leaving weren’t too shabby either.

White-tailed Hawk

White-tailed Hawk— Photo: David Wolf


Our second day took us on a long ramble to South Padre Island and the adjacent Laguna Madre. We had barely exited the freeway before the biggest surprise of the day was spotted, a Ringed Kingfisher on a roadside wire over a resaca (oxbow lake). A bit farther along we found our quest bird for the morning, an adult White-tailed Hawk sitting calmly on a roadside pole, posing for photographs. This gorgeous raptor is typical of the coastal savannahs of Texas, but isn’t found elsewhere north of the border. More numerous along this stretch of road were beautiful Harris’s Hawks and Crested Caracaras, always a treat to see. From there it was on to the Laguna Madre and South Padre Island, where various stops produced a good assortment of typical Gulf Coast waterbirds, including Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Skimmer, and a host of shorebirds, including a dozen or so endangered Piping Plovers.

The morning of our third day found us at Santa Ana NWR, walking through the mesquite woodland to vegetation-choked Willow Lake in search of a Northern Jacana present here for some time. It took some patient waiting, but eventually the bird suddenly flew up from the marsh and landed in view, walking in and out of the clumps of reeds on long legs and huge feet. Resembling something between a gallinule and a shorebird, this is another very rare and irregular stray to the U.S. An added delight while watching the jacana was an Altamira Oriole singing its loud and rich song right overhead.

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee— Photo: David Wolf


Our last morning in the Lower Valley found us starting off at Anzalduas County Park. At first this open grove of large trees seemed quiet, but as the sun warmed things up, the small birds became active and we soon found ourselves stalking a large and very fast-moving mixed-flock of wintering insectivores. A soft “pip-pip-pip” close at hand announced the presence of the sought-after Greater Pewee, another hotline rarity, and we soon had looks at this rather drab flycatcher in a leafless tree. As the numerous kinglets, gnatcatchers, and warblers around it began moving rapidly through the trees, the pewee followed, so we did too, trying our best to keep up with this crazy mixed-flock. Eventually the birds slowed down, allowing us a closer approach, and as we systematically worked through the flock, we had repeated views of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, a very scarce and inconspicuous border specialty, and we picked out at least 5 Pine Warblers and a male Black-throated Gray Warbler, both rare locally, plus we got to enjoy the pewee several more times. From here we moved to nearby Bentsen State Park, enjoying great looks at many of the Valley specialties at the feeders, and having a great time with the numerous raptors as we compared perched Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, puzzled over the various plumages of juvenile Gray Hawks, and finally spotted a fine adult Gray perched on an emergent snag.

Green Jay

Green Jay— Photo: Tom Rust




An exciting last day afield found us in the much wilder Upper Valley in the Falcon Dam region, where it finally “looked like Texas,” with great vistas of thorn-scrub on the rolling hills and tall groves of riparian woodland along the clear Rio Grande (and no strip malls and traffic). The early part of the morning was spent at “The Bluff,” an especially scenic and peaceful spot on the private Santa Margarita Ranch where our best birds were the Ringed and Green kingfishers working this quiet stretch of the river. Leaving the area we stopped to enjoy a flock of Pyrrhuloxia on the roadside—and realized that there were Scaled Quail emerging from the brush, a species rarely seen in this region in recent years. Our next stop was the feeding station at the little village of Salineño, where amidst the Altamira Orioles swarming the feeders we had close-ups of Audubon’s and Hooded orioles, a variety of Valley specialties, a male Northern Bobwhite, and a very out-of-place Dickcissel. Exploration of the uplands and a picnic lunch at Falcon State Park produced classic southwestern species like Greater Roadrunner, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, and Black-throated Sparrow, while a late afternoon stop in Zapata on a whim was semi-successful, producing a male White-collared Seedeater that only some managed to see before the tiny bird disappeared, not to be found again.

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 Victor Emanuel Nature Tour.