Spring in South Texas Apr 03—12, 2011

Posted by Barry Zimmer


Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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We arrived at the King Ranch shortly after 7 a.m., and fifteen minutes later we were making a quick restroom break before our birding started in earnest. While waiting for others to finish up, I casually started whistling a pygmy-owl imitation. I didn't expect a reply (this was not one of the standard areas where we search for this highly prized target), but much to my surprise a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl did respond, and quite close. We quickly rounded up everyone and started walking in the direction of the calling bird. Mellow flute-like whistles to our right stopped us in our tracks. The always elusive Audubon's Oriole was now calling in a large oak across the road. This species can be devilishly hard to find, so we delayed our owl search momentarily. A quick scan of the trees revealed one of the orioles right up on top. It was soon joined by a second bird and we all had wonderful views. An Olive Sparrow began to sing behind us, but we ignored that to pursue our original target, the owl. Fifty yards into the oak thicket, a chunky rust-colored bird darted low across the trail. Within moments someone in the group had spotted the pygmy-owl perched fairly low in an oak to our left. Just as I got it in the scope it moved, but luck was with us, as it landed in a better, more readily viewable spot. We watched this fabulous owl for over fifteen minutes, enjoying spectacular scope views from about 20 feet away, before it finally flew off. This was ultimately voted the favorite bird of the tour by the group.

As we returned toward the van, the Olive Sparrow was still singing, so we coaxed it into view in an open brush pile. The Audubon's Orioles reappeared even closer than before and provided more great views. Quickly we hopped into the van and headed to what was supposed to be our first birding stop, Tate Mill. We were no sooner out of the van than our next big target, the Tropical Parula, started singing right next to the road. In a matter of seconds we had the male right down next to the road, singing in a small mesquite tree. A pair of Hooded Orioles swooped in and were quickly joined by a brilliant male Summer Tanager. A Harris's Hawk perched up across the road and a Crested Caracara sailed past. We started chasing after a calling Brown-crested Flycatcher, when suddenly we heard the mournful call of our last target, the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. After a little effort we tracked him down, and then realized that a pair of Tropical Parulas was in the same bush with him—both about 10 feet away! A pair of Common Ground-Doves waddled across the dirt path, and a small troop of striking Green Jays skulked by in the thickets. It was 8:40 a.m. and this day was already a smashing success!

Of course this was but part of one morning of our wildly successful Spring in South Texas tour. Starting in the Central Coast around Corpus Christi and Rockport, we enjoyed such highlights as a flight of over 300 American White Pelicans sailing by our boat at eye level, Reddish Egrets on the rookery islands, wonderful Roseate Spoonbills, Least Bittern, White-tailed Hawk, Whooping Crane (nearly missed this year, as only two appeared to be left on the wintering grounds), 28 species of shorebirds (including the likes of Piping, Wilson's, and Snowy plovers, Long-billed Curlew, American Avocets by the dozens, Marbled Godwit, American Oystercatcher, and Stilt Sandpiper among others), 8 species of terns, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a fabulously close Sedge Wren, a pair of Long-billed Thrashers, Seaside Sparrow, and a sprinkling of migrants in coastal traps, such as Northern Parula, Tennessee Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore Oriole.

In addition to the aforementioned birds seen on the King Ranch, we also marveled at a roosting Barn Owl, an Upland Sandpiper in the road right in front of us, a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher, and numerous Wild Turkeys, including displaying toms.

Farther south in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, we spent the final four days of our trip with highlights almost too numerous to mention. An astounding 60 Least Grebes in one day, Black-bellied and Fulvous whistling-ducks side by side, Cinnamon Teal, a distant male Muscovy Duck, 50 Mississippi Kites in one kettle overhead, a Clapper Rail no more than 8 feet away, a very close Eastern Screech-Owl (McCall's race), Pauraque—both on our night walk and one sitting on a nest at about 10 feet, a group of 3 Groove-billed Anis (rarely seen on this tour), Ringed and Green (oddly, only one) kingfishers, Red-billed Pigeon, Red -crowned Parrots and Green Parakeets coming in to roost, Great Kiskadees, Clay-colored Thrush in the scope from 20 feet for over five minutes, a female White-collared Seedeater gathering nesting material, followed shortly by a singing male, and fluorescent Altamira Orioles. In all we tallied 228 species (many found nowhere else in the United States) before heading on to the equally successful Hill Country extension.