July 24, 2020
THE LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY: A KALEIDOSCOPE OF BIRDS
By Erik Bruhnke
The Lower Rio Grande Valley has a special charm that all birders must experience at least once. This region of South Texas is teeming with a vibrant array of year-round wildlife. The bird diversity is legendary. The locals who live and work in the towns and nature parks are friendly and welcoming. Between the sights and sounds, the sense of place found throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) is delightful.
VENT’s Texas: Rio Grande Valley tour is one of my favorite tours to lead each year. We focus our birding efforts in different habitats found throughout the various parks and refuges near the Rio Grande. Some of these locations encompass the northernmost reaches of the Tamaulipan thornscrub ecosystem that practically defines South Texas to naturalists, and which is home to an abundance of songbirds and raptors. Others are located along the lower Texas coast and on South Padre Island, catering to flocks of wading birds, shorebirds, skimmers and gulls, waterfowl, and others. Microhabitat and macrohabitat changes are frequent and often abrupt as we travel from one birding location to the next within the greater mosaic of agricultural, urban, suburban, and preserved wild lands that make up the LRGV.
Our tour starts in the central Lower Rio Grande Valley. When entering the natural areas, we are often greeted by Great Kiskadees, Curve-billed Thrashers, and Green Jays. Plain Chachalacas cackle their morning chorus atop the trees, while the beautiful songs of Northern Mockingbirds never cease. A walk down one of the paths reveals wintering Vermilion Flycatchers among the fields and several Common Pauraques along the wooded stretches. A White-tailed Hawk soars overhead, while American White Pelicans and Roseate Spoonbills drift among the thermals. Towards the end of our walk, an Altamira Oriole steals the show with its fabulous fire-orange plumage and scornful chatter. It’s a birder’s paradise, all within a few minutes of our hotel.
Throughout the tour we explore wetlands as well as the unique South Texas plains and coastal grasslands. A jaunt to see Aplomado Falcons proves successful, and along the coast Osprey, Brown Pelicans, and many wading birds thrill everyone. The highlights keep on coming as the days progress. Throughout the latter part of the tour, we’re ready to head up the Rio Grande Valley where new birds await us like Black-throated Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, and Morelet’s Seedeater (formerly known as White-collared Seedeater). The landscape becomes even more arid and shrub-dominated, welcoming us with flowering cenizo, blackbrush, guayacan, guajillo, honey mesquite, and a variety of cacti.
On the last morning of the tour, we wake up earlier to savor the morning views and early morning rush of bird activity at Santa Margarita Ranch. This private ranch is one of the visual highlights of this tour for me personally and for many tour participants over the years. Overlooking the Rio Grande, the forest lining the river becomes one with the horizon. Visiting the bluff requires a brief downhill-and-uphill trek, which is beautiful by itself. The underlying rock is mostly a limestone formation, topped with calcareous gravels of tan, golden-orange, and slate-gray. Colorful annual flowering plants and low-growing creosote bush and acacias line our path. When we get to the bluff, we pause. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. Part of this bluff’s raw beauty is that the view overlooks two countries, naturally wild as it should always be.
On the last morning of our 2019 tour, after only a few minutes of scanning, we heard mournful coos coming from upriver. I drew the group’s attention to the treetops. The cooing was coming from a flock of Red-billed Pigeons. This species is found as far south as Costa Rica, and ranges north through Mexico to include a very limited stretch of the “upper” Lower Rio Grande Valley on the Texas side of the river. They were feeding on the seeds in canopies, offering a little morning chatter in the process. Their plum-colored plumage against deep-gray wings was stunning. I got the birders on a scope-view of the flock, and we got ‘em—mission accomplished! After a few minutes of watching them, they came even closer to us. Oftentimes while looking for this species in this specific area, a birder might see one or two, or maybe half a dozen Red-billed Pigeons, if lucky. We saw twenty-four that morning. It was exceptional! The pigeons flew back and forth, up river and down river. The birding ambience around that spot is something else, and the pigeons were icing on the cake.
Altogether we spent several hours atop the bluff, taking in the sights and sounds. I emphasized birding Zen here to the group. For a minute or so, we closed our eyes and listened to the wondrous birdsong. It was intoxicating and beautiful. Distant Altamira Orioles challenged the songs of nearby lemon-yellow Audubon’s Orioles. Ringed Kingfishers rattled their loud calls below us, as Cactus Wrens wound up their guttural songs among the cacti. The Red-billed Pigeons continued to coo, while very close Verdin chattered in the bushes. A Zone-tailed Hawk took flight right overhead, as distant adult Gray Hawks patrolled their nesting area. What an experience.
As I write, I realize even more how beautiful the Lower Rio Grande Valley is. There’s no place like it! I’m already looking forward to next year’s Texas: Rio Grande Valley tour. I hope you can join me.
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours | 2525 Wallingwood Drive, Suite 1003 | Austin, TX 78746
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