Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country Apr 24—May 04, 2017
Posted by Barry Zimmer
Our 2017 Big Bend National Park & the Texas Hill Country tour was arguably our most successful ever, and the addition of a day in Del Rio contributed mightily to that success. In recent years, a very small population of White-collared Seedeaters had been discovered at a few localized spots in the Del Rio area. Our past tours have gone through Del Rio at midday en route to Big Bend National Park, but never had time for birding. With this year’s added overnight in Del Rio (which also broke up the lengthy drive to Big Bend), we headed down along Rio Grande the next morning to scour areas of past seedeater sightings. Bird activity was high upon our arrival. Noisy Great Kiskadees and Couch’s Kingbirds called from the wires overhead, while a flashy pair of Hooded Orioles foraged in a nearby palm. A raucous chatter alerted us to the presence of a Ringed Kingfisher (at the very western limit of its range), and we enjoyed wonderful scope views of this impressive bird. Olive Sparrows and Long-billed Thrashers sang from the thickets, while Yellow-breasted Chats fluttered about in display flights. Suddenly, a Groove-billed Ani was spotted in the cane along the river. This species was barely even on our radar as a possibility, as it is not only at the limit of its known range, but also on the early side of spring arrival. With some coaxing, we had two anis in full view. The morning was already a great success, despite the lack of seedeaters.
With our time dwindling down before lunch, we headed to a different location for one more attempt. Our arrival at the second site was greeted by a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher doing his butterfly display flight—seemingly a good omen! After strolling around for about fifteen minutes, we suddenly became aware of the distant bunting-like song of a White-collared Seedeater. As we quickly marched toward the seedeater, a Barred Owl, quite improbably, began hooting from the dense trees along the creek bed. The owl is quite rare in this area, but the seedeater was our main target, so we pressed onward. Within minutes we had spotted the male White-collared Seedeater perched uncharacteristically high up in a large salt cedar and enjoyed nice scope studies. Meanwhile the hooting of the owl was becoming more persistent, so we headed back to try and track it down. Moments later, the owl emerged from the forest, flew right over our heads, and landed in a very open mesquite in full view! What an incredible morning of birding in Del Rio. It was successful beyond our wildest imaginations!
Of course, this was just one tiny part of a tour that was successful on every front. We began in the Hill Country where we tallied wonderful views of both Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo—the prime Hill Country specialty birds. In addition, we added the likes of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Crested Caracara, Harris’s Hawk, Chuck-will’s-widow, Green Kingfisher, abundant Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Green Jay, the localized Gray Vireo, Cave Swallow, wonderfully common Painted Buntings, and a rare Audubon’s Oriole among many others. Watching the exodus of over ten million Mexican Free-tailed Bats from a cave at dusk one evening trumped every avian highlight of the trip!