Winter Rio Grande Valley: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Feb 15—21, 2016

Posted by Erik Bruhnke

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Erik Bruhnke

Erik Bruhnke has had a love for birds since he was a child. He graduated from Northland College in Wisconsin with a Natural Resources degree in 2008 and taught field ornith...

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The Winter Rio Grande Valley Relaxed & Easy tour hosts an amazing array of bird diversity intermingled throughout mild winter days. The habitat of the Lower Rio Grande Valley creates a home-sweet-home for many year-round resident species like Clay-colored Thrush, Plain Chachalaca, and Green Jay. While being contiguous to the migration route of many ABA species, as well as birds found in northeastern Mexico, the Lower Rio Grande Valley really shines as one of the premier birding spots in the country. Winter is a phenomenal time to soak up the many year-round specialties found here, as well as some potential overwintering birds more typically associated with the northern states.

An impressive array of natural areas can be found scattering the vast landscape from the lower Texas coast up the Rio Grande. Wintering raptors like American Kestrel and Northern Harrier hover and scan over patchy fields. Waterways attract up to three species of kingfishers, in addition to a lively assortment of shorebirds and waterfowl. Various types of forests attract Red-crowned Parrot and Green Parakeet, and also cater to the likes of White-tipped Dove, Olive Sparrow, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird to mention a few species. The bird life along the Lower Rio Grande Valley is colorful and charismatic. In addition to the many birds observed, we enjoyed pristine days of great weather with sunny skies and mildly cool nights. These conditions made for great raptor-watching experiences.

Our first morning of birding took place at Bentsen State Park where the group was immersed in Tamaulipan thorn scrub habitat, an ecologically unique biome found within far south Texas. After finding a Black-throated Gray Warbler near the entrance (last seen on the park’s Christmas Bird Count), we headed into the trails of mixed woods and intermittent openings. Spectacular views of soaring Gray Hawks and eye level Altamira Orioles left us in awe. On top of the many colorful sightings were a midday barbecue and an afternoon with a Burrowing Owl among the Rio Grande Valley specialties.

In the days to come we were treated to dozens upon dozens of cooing White-tipped Doves, a south Texas specialty among the United States. Our second day began with fleeting glimpses of a male Blue Bunting, which left us wanting more. One afternoon was spent at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge where towering old growth trees were naturally ordained in Spanish Moss. That afternoon was spent sharing scope views of a Northern Jacana, in addition to great experiences with Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, and Wilson’s Snipes abounding through the waterlogged grasses.

Although quite populated, the central Lower Rio Grande Valley is an ecological gem when it comes to varied habitats and spectacular birding experiences. A morning with Red-crowned Parrots and a Yellow-headed Parrot, in addition to ponds filled with waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and more, makes for a truly memorable experience. Green Jays and a Common Pauraque topped off the midday hours. White-tailed Kites hovered effortlessly over fallow fields in search of a meal.

In the middle of the tour we made a jaunt for the lower Texas coast and met up with my friend Bill Clark, where we had an up-close and personal experience with not only a raptor expert, but a handsome banded male American Kestrel in the hand. Our raptor fix was completed with great views of a fly-over Aplomado Falcon. A brewery visit provided good food and midday refreshments, topped off with wading birds galore in the afternoon hours. We ended our time at South Padre Island admiring the beauty of a Roseate Spoonbill flock, as well as an actively feeding white morph Reddish Egret. A grand highlight of the tour took place the following morning when a handsome White-throated Thrush showed itself just as we were leaving the central Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Falcon Dam State Park offered many views of Verdin, Pyrrhuloxia, and a covey of Northern Bobwhite. One of the best-dressed birds, the Black-throated Sparrow, took our breaths away as we soaked up his beauty and song through great binocular views. While within the upriver region of south Texas, we made sure to visit Salineño, where a happy explosion of color seems to be taking place at all moments. Audubon’s Orioles fed among the dozens of Northern Cardinals and Altamira Orioles. Olive Sparrows darted among the feeder bases, cleaning up spilled seed left by the flocking Red-winged Blackbirds. The next morning we scanned the Rio Grande with both the US and Mexico in view and witnessed small flocks of Red-billed Pigeons meandering along the river. Simply breathtaking!

Our last afternoon was spent birding in Zapata near the library, where the high energy Green Kingfisher swiftly flew from branch to branch. Common Yellowthroats called, marking their territories along the pond edges. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were feeding ferociously among the branch-bound gnats. Our last bird species of the day was a flock of Cedar Waxwings calling peacefully as they flew overhead.

Departing from Zapata early on our last morning together, we headed to Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen. At this location participants got to hold in the hand several birds that were seen earlier in the tour. From Inca Doves, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Orange-crowned Warbler to a Plain Chachalaca and Curve-billed Thrasher, ending the tour with a morning of bird banding made for a special wrap-up day of birding.