Winter Rio Grande Valley Feb 10—16, 2017
Posted by Erik Bruhnke
VENT’S Lower Rio Grande Valley tour treats participants to a one-of-a-kind birding experience found nowhere else in the United States. The days are topped with subtropical habitat consisting of an array of woodlands, grasslands, arid brushland, resacas, coastal expanses, and more. The sights and sounds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley bird life are uniquely special.
We began our tour with an adult Harris’s Hawk and an adult White-tailed Hawk perched not far from the road in the early morning. Scope views of both birds started our day off with smiles, fresh air, and fantastic memories. Upon arriving at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, we were treated to Nashville Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. After taking a short tram ride through a portion of the park, an elegant array of colorful Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, and Altamira Orioles flew near us. White-tipped Doves and Javelinas (Collared Peccary) scurried the ground, as the magic of colorful wings flapped every which way. Close study provided us with amazing views of the iridescent teal of the Green Jay’s tail, the lemon-yellow along the Great Kiskadee’s underside, and the blaze-orange that covers most of the Altamira Oriole’s body. While scanning along a resaca we came across a Ringed Kingfisher, the largest kingfisher species in the United States and a South Texas specialist. High-pitched whistles alerted us to a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet just down the path. Lime-green mesquites blew in the wind against the neon-blue skies. It was a picture-perfect day to be out birding.
Our afternoon was spent at Estero Llano Grande State Park where we savored a different array of habitats. Both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned night-herons were seen roosting together, not far from several American Alligators, an Anhinga, and a perfectly camouflaged Common Pauraque, another South Texas specialist. The golds, browns, hints of rufous, and black make this bird one of the most finely-detailed birds around when seen up close. From a distance this species becomes one with the masses of fallen leaves carpeting the forest floor.
The second morning of birding started off with thousands of Great-tailed Grackles filling the skies. Red-crowned Parrots, a Lower Rio Grande Valley specialist, made a grand appearance as they flew from live oak to live oak in search of acorns. Their guttural squawks and cackling calls filled the fog-laden air. After long and satisfying views of the parrots, we had up-close and personal views of Tropical Kingbirds, Curve-billed Thrashers, and high overhead Purple Martins. Loggerhead Shrikes and White-tailed Kites patrolled the fields. Estero Llano Grande State Park called us back for more birds, as we searched among the tropical zone for both rarities and the deep-woods dwelling specialists. Clay-colored Thrushes put on an impressive show, feeding high up in the fruiting trees. Tropical Leafwings and Mexican Bluewings (both vibrant, southern butterfly species) were spotted well. We were surrounded by South Texas specialties, and was it great! Following lunch we birded south of town where hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks fed together. A Spotted Sandpiper fed along the shores as two Black-tailed Jackrabbits pounced throughout a nearby tilled field. We ended the day at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge where we birded atop the renowned hawkwatching tower. The views overlooking Spanish Moss-laced trees were incredible.
Day three began with a bang as we adored the beauty of several nesting Red-crowned Parrots at a different location. The scope views of them were limitless, and everyone was left with morning sun-lit memories. As we headed towards the coast, we birded Old Port Isabel Road. Eastern Meadowlarks sang gracefully as a Peregrine Falcon, White-tailed Hawk, and Crested Caracara hunted nearby. After a little meandering, we were treated to not one but a PAIR of Aplomado Falcons, found nowhere else in the country but the southern edge of Texas! Their black belly band and rufous undertail coverts complemented their black and white mask, as well as their long black extremities. The nearby grasses welcomed stunning views of Long-billed Curlew. The afternoon was spent birding along South Padre Island. Unexpectedly close views of a Marsh Wren rivaled the exceptionally close Sora. Reddish Egrets galloped after schools of bait fish, as Little Blue Herons fished more methodically with slow and focused movements. Snowy Egrets shimmied their feet into the sand, while Great Blue Herons waited patiently for that perfect fish to swim nearby. The wading bird life along South Padre Island is spectacular. Black Skimmers skimmed the water’s surface in search of a meal as Royal Terns bathed in the shallows. Several Caspian Terns (largest tern in the world) were seen flying past the nearby feeding commotion.
The following day of birding started out with one more visit to Estero Llano Grande before heading upriver to an ecologically different part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Our drive up the Valley provided numerous raptor sightings not far from the road. A wild feeding frenzy of South Texas birds was enjoyed at the Salineño feeding station. Olive Sparrows cleaned up spilled seed with White-tipped Doves as Audubon’s Orioles joined the Altamira Orioles’ craving for oranges. A homemade picnic was soon to follow the mass congregation of birds. Green Jays, Northern Cardinals, and Black-crested Titmice filled the air with their beautiful songs while we sat down for a hearty meal. The afternoon was spent birding at Falcon Dam State Park. Black-throated Sparrow was one of the five sparrow species seen that afternoon. One of the participant’s most hoped for birds, a Greater Roadrunner, walked slowly along one of the hiking trails. Everyone got fantastic views of this lovely bird. Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin, and Northern Bobwhite provided equally high quality views as our afternoon progressed.
The last day began shortly before sunrise as we headed to a private ranch overlooking the Rio Grande. Below us was a vegetated cliff leading down into the river. Vast woodlands of northern Mexico showed themselves beautifully across the river. Red-billed Pigeons, a southern woodland pigeon species, are unique to select areas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. While hoping for one or two individuals flying by, we had a group of eight Red-billed Pigeons fly through, followed by nine more. Upon leaving the bluff, we had witnessed a total of TWENTY FOUR Red-billed Pigeons! A midday adult Gray Hawk was seen skimming the Mexican tree tops. We ended the day at the Zapata Library where we found House Finches, an uncommon resident of the Lower Rio Grande. Female and adult male Vermilion Flycatchers put on quite a show for us while Lesser Goldfinches sang overhead, as our last full day of birding came to a close.
We wrapped up our last morning of birding together at Quinta Mazatlan where Plain Chachalacas greeted us from all angles. Inca Doves cooed as the Olive Sparrows sang their “dropped ping pong ball” song. South Texas is a truly remarkable place to bird, whether it is your first time, or if you’re returning from a previous visit. The daily charm of the Valley’s wildlife was certainly present on this birding adventure!