Trip Report for Venture to
Rio Grande Valley, TX
October 29 – November 6, 2013
After an uncertain beginning, our Venture to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas successfully got underway. Our first morning took us to Olmos Park in San Antonio for a quick stop before heading south, and served as a good introduction to Texas birding. Inca Dove, Loggerhead Shrike, Couch's Kingbird, Black-crested Titmouse and Golden-fronted Woodpecker were all present as well as a few Carolina Chickadees, a species we were very unlikely to see farther south in the Valley. The highlight of the morning was a prolonged view of a Barred Owl - the group watched as it preened and fluffed its feathers from an exposed branch over a creek bed. En route to Zapata we stopped by the sanctuary at San Ygnacio, known in the past for attracting White-collared Seedeaters. We found the sanctuary closed and gated, and struck out on the seedeaters, but a quick stroll through the streets of this small town yielded the first of many Green Jay and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. After an uneventful drive, we made it safely to Zapata. Before checking into the hotel we stopped at the Zapata County Park and Library, another good spot to look for seedeaters. We again struck out, but the stop proved a fruitful one as we picked up several more new birds for the trip such as Black Phoebe, Bronzed Cowbird, a brilliant male Vermilion Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler.
The next morning dawned amidst rain showers, but they didn't last long. We began the day on the north end of Falcon Reservoir, birding from a boat ramp mere seconds away from our hotel. We had an excellent selection of waterbirds and waders from Mottled Duck and American White Pelican to Green Heron, as well as a nice mixed flock of Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants, which enabled comparative views of the structural and size differences between the 2 species. The power lines and telephone poles here held a decent selection of perched raptors as we found Peregrine Falcon, American Kestrel, Crested Caracara, and Osprey. We continued south to Falcon State Park on the southern end of the reservoir, stopping at several places along the main road to bird the dry, scrubby, mesquite-dominated landscape. We were rewarded with the first sparrows of the trip, with brief looks at Lincoln's and much better views of a Cassin's as it sat up on a fence post. Curve-billed Thrashers teased us with their vocalizations from deep within the vegetation, never revealing themselves. Scanning a small pond from the roadside with our scope we found a good selection of ducks, including Ring-necked, Ruddy, American Wigeon, Gadwall and Blue-winged Teal. At the butterfly gardens, we found Pyrrhuloxia and Greater Roadrunner, as well as hundreds of butterflies of several species – Tropical Leafwing, Queen, and Giant Swallowtail among many others. A few minutes on one of the trails yielded other species common in this habitat, including Verdin, Harris' Hawk, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. After a delicious picnic lunch we headed back on our way southeast along the valley, making stops at the El Rio RV Park at Chapeno and also at Salineno. At Chapeno we were able to find our first Ringed Kingfisher and a pair of soaring Gray Hawks. At Salineno we had our first Plain Chachalacas of the trip, and the group got fleeting glimpses as they flew across the path. We did get excellent looks of a nice flock of Olive Sparrows and a single Altamira Oriole.
Mission was our base for the next few days and we were able to check out some of the more popular birding areas in the Valley. We decided to head to Frontera Audubon in Weslaco first thing next morning to look for the previously-reported Golden-crowned Warbler. Though we missed seeing the bird by about a minute on two separate occasions, Frontera proved to be chocked full of an excellent variety of neotropical migrants as well as species we had yet to see on the trip. Orange-crowned, Black-throated Green, Black-and-White, Wilson's and Nashville Warblers moved through in good-sized flocks with Black-crested Titmouse. A few minutes at several of the feeding stations produced great looks at Plain Chachalacas, Green Jays, White-tipped Doves, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. From a blind overlooking a pond, we found White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill and a few Great Kiskadees. After lunch we headed for Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, stopping en route at a roadside pond where we found a nice flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, a single Greater White-fronted Goose as well as a Little Blue Heron. Once at the state park, we found the woods to be fairly quiet. From the hawk tower we watched some distant Turkey Vultures and Cooper's Hawks as Common Ground-Doves and Lincoln's Sparrows vocalized from the base. On the walk back to the gate we had hundreds of Barn Swallows flying overhead, and we eventually found some Cave Swallows flying into the culverts near the park entrance to roost for the evening. As night fell, we located a few Clay-colored Thrushes near the visitor center on our way back to the van.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge was our first stop this Saturday morning and after just a few minutes out from the visitor center we got great looks at a Green Kingfisher perched on a branch over the man-made creek. The government shutdown a few weeks previous had affected the management of the refuge and we found most of the ponds and lakes still relatively dry. We did find one with enough water to attract a nice selection of ducks including: Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. The woods here were quiet as well, so we went back to Frontera again for the Golden-crowned Warbler. It wasn't our lucky day, but our second stop at this urban oasis managed to yield incredible looks at a bathing Clay-colored Thrush and a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet hunting insects from an exposed branch above our heads. Estero Llano Grande State Park was up next, and on the way we found a private flooded field loaded with shorebirds including Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson's Phalarope and American Avocet. At Estero, we found Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Least and Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots and Common Gallinules along with the usual waterfowl selection. A single Wood Stork flew overhead (the only one of the trip!) followed by a flock of American White Pelicans. Walking the path around the shallow lakes we scanned the reeds and grasses for any sign of rails and some of the group got quick glimpses of one (or several) Sora. This was confirmed when we heard the characteristic vocalization moments later. Driving back toward Mission, we located one of the Green Parakeet roosts in McAllen. As we neared the intersection of 10th and Dove we caught sight of a flock flying over Lowes Home Improvement (of all places) and we followed them until they lit on the power lines at the intersection. There were about 150 parakeets in the flock, and not all of them were green! A couple were yellow, no doubt escapees that had joined up with the flock.
We had planned to visit Edinburg Scenic Wetlands the next morning, but as it was Sunday the wetlands were closed (oops!). We opted to check the adjacent pond in the municipal park and we were rewarded with quick views of a male Surf Scoter, a very rare bird in these parts. A group of Black-necked Stilts foraging right along the edge of the pond was also a lovely sight and our group enjoyed watching them striding gracefully just a few feet away from us. We continued on to the campus of the University of Texas-Pan Am to look for the Painted Restart that was being consistently seen the past few weeks. After a time of searching through warbler flocks we eventually found the bird, and it turned out to be incredibly obliging and we were able to snap quite a few pictures. We also found Tropical Parula, Orange-crowned, Black-throated Gray, Black-and-White and Yellow-throated Warblers, capping a great morning of birding. Continuing with the theme of birding college campuses, we headed to UT-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College. Within seconds of stepping out of the van, we heard and then located several Tropical Kingbirds hunting insects from the tops of trees. Scanning the lake we found both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and quite a few domesticated (unfortunately) Muscovy Ducks. Orange-crowned Warblers were everywhere and we found a few Wilson's, Yellow and Yellow-throated Warblers tagging along. Back in the van, we got a report of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher that had been found that morning in a different part of Cameron County, so off we went! En route, we found numerous raptors perched along the power lines and poles, including our first of the trip White-tailed Hawk. We finally made it to the spot where the Fork-tail had been originally spotted, and we were greeted by another group of birders who had last seen the bird an hour before. We joined the searching party only to find hordes of Northern Mockingbirds, as well as a stunning Altamira Oriole and our first (and only) Groove-billed Ani of the trip. As night crept upon us, we decided to search different areas heading east along Boca Chica Blvd toward the coast. Our first sight of mudflats and shoreline produced a wonderful variety of birds – Long-billed Curlew, Least Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plover, American Avocet, Caspian and Forster's Terns and Laughing and Ring-billed Gull. On the way back to the hotel the group delighted in identifying perched raptors by silhouette in the fading light. Osprey, Harris' and Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels were quite common along this stretch of road.
We had an early start the next morning and headed to the Red-crowned Parrot roost in Oliveira Park in Brownsville. We had no difficulty finding the birds, but we arrived a little later than we intended and missed seeing them in greater numbers. We still had close to 75 birds along with a few Green Parakeets and Red-lored Parrots (probably escapes). We then headed to the well-known Sabal Palm Sanctuary. Walking the trails along the creek produced Solitary Sandpiper and a Northern Waterthrush as well as several Green Kingfishers. A White-tailed Kite soared by overhead and the group got a fleeting glimpse of a Barn Owl that was flushed from the dense Sabal Palm foliage. Farther along we encountered a group of about a dozen Northern Bobwhite scurrying along the trail in front of us and keeping their distance. Back at the feeding station by the visitor center we watched as several Green Jays harassed a perched Cooper's Hawk awaiting an easy meal. Driving along Old Port Isabel Road we left Brownsville for the Gulf Coast and South Padre Island. The grasslands and scrub along this dirt road make up some excellent raptor habitat and we were pleased to watch two Crested Caracaras chase a young Peregrine Falcon as a beautiful White-tailed Hawk circled up in the background. We had our eyes peeled for Aplomado Falcons, and we eventually found a young, banded individual perched in a bush. The falcon jerked its head sharply upwards and we followed its line of sight to find 3 Sandhill Cranes flying very high overhead. Following the road to its end, we then explored the World Birding Center at South Padre Island. The boardwalks here lead out into lovely coastal mudflat and marsh and we had a wonderful selection of waders and shorebirds: Roseate Spoonbill, Tricolored, Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, Reddish, Cattle and Great Egrets, Least Bittern, Least and Semipalmated Sandpiper, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Plover. Looking out in the Gulf of Mexico we had a small group of Redhead and flyover Royal and Gull-billed Terns, and walking back through the marsh we heard and then briefly saw a Marsh Wren.
Our Whooping Crane trip started first thing the next morning and we boarded Capt. Tommy's Skimmer full of excitement. Leaving the dock we passed thousands of jellyfish and were delighted to watch two dolphins swimming and jumping in the wake of the boat as we headed through Aransas Bay to Aransas Wildlife Refuge. Birds were numerous on the sandy islands scattered throughout the bay and we had mostly the same selection of gulls and terns, waders, cormorants, pelicans and shorebirds, but with a few new birds including American Oystercatcher, Snowy Plover, Sandwich Tern, Franklin's, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Once at the refuge, it didn't take long for us to locate the Whooping Cranes, which were obvious even from a distance. As we edged closer we got incredible looks at a family unit foraging together, and in an unforgettable moment we saw one of the adults catch a crustacean and gently give it to their juvenile. In total we saw approximately 15 cranes, and it's always a highlight to see these critically-endangered birds. The ride back to the dock was uneventful and we spent the rest of the day driving the roads from Rockport to Bayside, picking up a few new trip birds along the way, including a Western Sandpiper associating with some Least Sandpipers. We had our last dinner at an upscale seafood restaurant in downtown Rockport and enjoyed discussing our favorite birds of the trip knowing that the next morning we would probably only have time for one stop on our way back to the airport.
The next morning we boarded the van and left the Valley far behind as we made our way towards San Antonio. The forecast called for scattered storms and showers, but luckily we missed most of them. We decided to stop at Braunig Lake on the outskirts of San Antonio to see if we could see any species we had so far missed. Birding here was a bit slow, although we did manage to rustle up a Bewick's Wren before the sky grew dark with storm clouds and the wind picked up, essentially ending the day and forcing us to be on our way.
We finished this year's Rio Grande Valley trip with a respectable 177 species, and though we missed the Golden-crowned Warbler and Fork-tailed Flycatcher, we still massively enjoyed birding one of the best areas in the United States and meeting and spending time with our hilarious (and almost unruly) tour group.