Previous Tours - Winter Birds of South Texas
Top 10 lists are voted upon by the participants at the completion of each tour.
SOUTH TEXAS & the LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY TOUR:
13-22 February 2015
1) WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER
2) Gray-crowned Yellowthroat
3) White-throated Thrush
4) Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
5) Common Pauraque
6) Greater Roadrunner
7) Clay-colored Thrush
8) Gray Hawk
9) Burrowing Owl
10) Green Jay
While watching flocks of Green Parakeets in the northern part of McAllen, we saw an intriguing sight. A PURE YELLOW Green Parakeet was flying with a flock of approximately 25 normally colored parakeets. We had never seen anything quite like it. A possible explanation can be found at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xanthochromism. There was a hybrid oriole coming to a feeder at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. One of its parents was almost certainly an Altamira Oriole. The other parent species has yet to be determined.
After great looks of two Greater Roadrunners, someone asked ‘Where is Wile E. Coyote?’ A Coyote appeared seconds later! Unusually uncommon on this tour, we saw just one Collared Peccary (Javelina) as we were driving. Alligator Lake at Estero Llano Grande State Park contained five American Alligators. We saw one snake on the entire tour, a Diamondback Water Snake at Bentsen State Park. Also at Bentsen was a Texas Gopher Tortoise, often known as Berlandier's Tortoise. We identified nearly 20 species of butterflies on this winter tour, including prolonged scope views of the spectacular Mexican Bluewing. Its range barely extends north into the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
13 - 22 February 2015
Participants: Kathy, Neal, Bev & Jim
Trip Report by Bob Schutsky, Tour Leader
Fri, 13 Feb Winter in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (The Valley) is known for its excellent birding opportunities and unique locations. After meeting in Harlingen, our first destination was Estero Llano Grande State Park. This state park is only about ten years old, but it has become one of the most productive birding spots in The Valley. We began by searching for the vagrant Gray-crowned Yellowthroat that had been present for weeks. We were late reaching its favorite location, as we were distracted by all of the other great birds along the way. We would have to try again at a later date for this Mexican rarity. Some of our distractions included the mixed roost of Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, the only ones of the entire tour. Nearby were five American Alligators, some of them sunning themselves. A Common Pauraque on a day roost was simply stunning, a very understated way of describing it. A White-tailed Kite and a Peregrine Falcon put on a fine show. Two decades ago, Clay-colored Thrush was a true rarity in The Valley. We saw FOUR in a single afternoon! Additional distractions included a Mexican Bluewing (butterfly) in the scope at close range, and ten Texas Spiny Softshells (unique turtles), sunning themselves on a log. Late in the afternoon we found Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Bronzed Cowbirds among large flocks of more common blackbirds at the Progreso Granary. Back in Harlingen were two Loggerhead Shrikes perched on guy wires in a very urban setting. By the end of the tour we would see this species every day but one, sometimes as many as 25 in a single day. We finished our first day at the Oyster Bar & Grille in Harlingen, the way we would end the tour.
Sat, 14 Feb This morning’s destination was San Miguelito Ranch, located 12 miles north of Raymondville. It is a 591-acre horse and cattle ranch, with a 5-mile driveway. A wonderful lady named Letty is the owner. While we waited for Letty to meet us at the main gate, we had close looks at two Greater Roadrunners, Jim’s most wanted bird of the tour. Just as someone asked where Wile E. Coyote was, he appeared and gave chase to one of the roadrunners. ‘Beep, Beep!’ Crested Caracaras were abundant throughout the day. We estimated at least 125! The long ride in the driveway in Letty’s super cab pick-up yielded lots of new birds for us, but the big prizes came when we reached the ranch house. Neal spotted the first two Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls of the season, within 50 feet of the back of the house! WOW!!! This is where they nest every spring. Next was a Great Horned Owl perched in the rafters of a shed, followed by a Barn Owl in a different shed. The Barn Owl flew, then landed in a tree, offering a perfect scope view. Three owl species in Letty’s yard--incredible! An American Bittern was hunting along the shoreline of the pond and a male Vermillion Flycatcher was picking off insects. A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds worked their way past us. Later in the day we saw a flock of about 100 Snow Geese, then spotted an immature Ferruginous Hawk perched in an open field, feeding upon some unknown prey. Meadowlarks were abundant, mostly Western and a few Eastern. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Sun, 15 Feb On our morning drive to Laguna Atascosa NWR, we came upon a very productive agricultural field. It contained 40 Sandhill Cranes and 12 Long-billed Curlews, plus a nice assortment of raptors: White- tailed Kite, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, and Peregrine Falcon. Laguna Atascosa yielded good looks at Olive Sparrow at the feeders, plus Altamira Oriole and Long-billed Thrasher near our picnic table. American Coots were abundant (3500) and there were a few Redheads. There always seemed to be an Osprey nearby, sometimes with a fish. Our next stop was the South Padre Island Convention Center. The nearby mudflat was a roosting spot for 250 Black Skimmers and a nice assortment of shorebirds that included our only Stilt Sandpiper and Marbled Godwit of the entire tour. An extensive boardwalk provides access to a wonderful wetland system, and at least SIX Soras! There were several Wilson’s Snipe, plus Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbills. The several Reddish Egrets included a dark morph, a white morph, and a dark morph with several white primaries and secondaries. We had a fine dinner at Marcello’s Italian Restaurant.
Mon, 16 Feb, Presidents’ Day Santa Ana NWR is known as the ‘Gem of the National Wildlife Refuge System’. We arrived early enough to join a small group of birders led by volunteers Laura and Steve. What a fine morning at the refuge! We heard and saw both Green and Ringed Kingfishers, two local specialties. The abundant raptors included at least 12 Harris’s Hawks, and 8 Red-shouldered Hawks, a few of which were showing courtship displays. We also saw White-tailed Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and a Peregrine Falcon. A covey of 25 Northern Bobwhite flushed ahead of us, then disappeared in the high grasses. There were two Common Pauraques on a day roost, and a Buff-bellied Hummingbird near the visitor center. We found our first Black Phoebe at Anzalduas County Park, and a Burrowing Owl on a nearby levee. We returned to McAllen late in the day to watch for Green Parakeets. We saw 260 or more, including a PURE YELLOW Green Parakeet, flying with a flock of normally plumaged parakeets. What a sight! The temperature crashed from an afternoon high of 87 F to the 50s in just a few hours. Winds were 20-40 mph. The temperature was 41 F the next morning, very cool for South Texas.
Tue, 17 Feb We began our chilly, windy morning at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. There were numerous Altamira Orioles at the feeding stations, attracted to orange halves. An immature male Indigo Bunting was feeding on seed at the Nature Center feeders. One of the park staff led us to a pair of Curve- billed Thrashers near the entrance to the park. An adult Gray Hawk was seen and heard well. At the nearby National Butterfly Center, we were just in time to watch the newly stocked feeding area. Stars of the show included Long-billed Thrasher, Altamira Oriole, Orange-crowned Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and two Hispid Cotton Rats (cute little critters). We returned to yesterday’s levee for another look at the Burrowing Owl. We were all ready for a nice dinner at the Palenque Restaurant in McAllen.
Wed, 18 Feb Today produced several rarities and many other interesting species. We arrived at Estero Llano Grande quite early, and made our way to the spot where the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat was most recently observed. The bird was in our scope, in excellent light, in less than 60 seconds! This is a Mexican warbler that only rarely strays north across the Rio Grande. Everyone was thrilled. Later in the day we observed a White- throated Thrush, equally as rare as the yellowthroat. It was feeding in a fig tree with 6 or more Clay-colored Thrushes, and another rare warbler, a Tropical Parula. Not far from there we found a Northern Beardless- Tyrannulet, 2 Black-and-white Warblers, a Common Yellowthroat, and several American Robins. A Screech-Owl was sunning itself in a gnarly old tree, the McCall’s race of the Eastern Screech-Owl. This race is found only as a gray morph, never reddish-brown or rufous. It inhabits south-central Texas and parts of northern Mexico. It may prove to be a separate species, as it is always gray and never gives the “whinny” call of the typical Eastern Screech-Owl. We would see another one tomorrow at Salineno, roosting in an owl box. Additional birds of interest at Estero included Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Cinnamon Teal, Sora, and an exceedingly pale Red-tailed Hawk. Quite a day!
Thu, 19 Feb Today we worked our way up the Rio Grande, visiting Chihuahua Woods, Salineno, and Chapeno, finally spending the night in Rio Grande City. Chihuahua Woods has nice trails through very interesting habitat, very similar to the habitat at Bentsen State Park. It has 100s of acres of woodland, with an understory composed almost entirely of cactus, mostly Prickly Pear. Birds for the most part were the common species of the area, but the walk was most pleasant. We found a Lincoln’s Sparrow perched on a chain link fence, and numerous Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers. Salineno is a small village that lies a short distance from the Rio Grande. We started at the boat launch, finding two adult Gray Hawks, numerous Ospreys, three with a fish, and a nice mix of waterfowl, a few shorebirds, and a Belted Kingfisher. Even in mid-afternoon, the well-kept feeding area was alive with birds. Judy, Larry, and their dog Jake maintain the feeders. There were two male Audubon’s Orioles, at least a dozen Altamira Orioles, and a female Hooded Oriole. Olive and Lincoln’s Sparrows were active, as were the Verdins and Black-crested Titmice. The Greater Kiskadees put on a nice show, swooping down for peanut butter/lard/oatmeal balls that were tossed for them. This is the site of the second McCall’s type Eastern Screech-Owl, sunning itself at the entrance to its nest box. While driving toward Chapeno we watched a Greater Roadrunner catch an insect, and a Red-tailed Hawk with a partially eaten Eastern Cottontail.
Fri, 20 Feb We returned to Salineno, this time early in the morning, when the birding is typically more active. Along the Rio Grande we spotted two different Red-billed Pigeons. Both were flying downriver along the US side. This was our eighth species of pigeon/dove (family Columbidae) on the tour, all that we could reasonably expect to see. A perched adult Gray Hawk provided excellent scope views in the early morning light. We found all three species of kingfishers (Ringed, Green, and Belted) in a relatively short time. After hearing an Audubon’s Oriole sing, we found a male and female perched on the Mexican side of the river. At the feeding station we saw most of the birds that we saw yesterday. The McCall’s-type Eastern Screech-Owl was not visible at first, but it hopped up into the entrance hole just before we departed. On our next trek, we skipped over two less reliable spots to look for White-collared Seedeater and made the drive to Laredo, where they had been seen earlier in the day. Bev found this helpful information on eBird. The most difficult part of the search was finding the exact location. After that, the actual birding was relatively easy. We found three White- collared Seedeaters by the time we departed. This mostly Mexican species was soon to be voted the number one bird of the tour! There was a large flock of Blue-winged Teal and a single Green-winged Teal on the river. On the return trip toward Rio Grande City we birded Falcon State Park. Best finds were our only Brewer’s Sparrow of the tour and three Northern Bobwhite at close range.
Sat, 21 Feb Saturday was sunny and breezy, with a high of 87 F. We spent the morning at Bentsen State Park, with a dedicated attempt at finding a Hook-billed Kite, but no luck. We were lucky enough to see a Coyote, a Diamondback Water Snake, and a Texas (Berlandier’s) Gopher Tortoise. Butterflies included American Snout and Giant Swallowtail. Kathy was very adept at identifying these and many other butterflies. A hybrid oriole was feeding on orange halves near the Nature Center. One parent was obviously an Altamira Oriole, the other had not yet been determined. We finished our tour at Santa Ana NWR, where we had a nice late afternoon walk. There was a sizeable flock of Black-necked Stilts and a Sora on Willow Pond, and a Common Pauraque roosting along a nearby trail. We drove to Harlingen for our final dinner at the Oyster Bar & Grille. Everyone’s flight home was scheduled for tomorrow. What a great tour! Our final tally was 173 species of birds, plus two that were heard only, and one hybrid oriole. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is always a wonderful destination - - given the chance, we would all return!
Custom South Texas--Rio Grande Valley Hawk Watch Tour:
15-22 March 2011
1) EASTERN SCREECH-OWL--great looks on a night walk at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
2) Black-necked Stilt--always a stunning shorebird, seen at various locations.
3) Long-billed Curlew--first bird that we saw as we drove away from the McAllen Airport. Seen many times subsequent to that.
4) Scaled Quail--a pair came in to feed at a campsite at Falcon State Park.
5) Green Parakeet--500+ coming to roost at 10th and Dove Streets in McAllen! What a racket!!!!
6) Common Pauraque--incredible scope views at a roosting individual at Estero Llano Grande State Park.
7) American White Pelican--seen daily, especially at the hawk watch sites. As many as 150 in a single flock.
8) Harris’s Hawk--stunning looks at solitary individuals.
9) White-tailed Kite--seen at numerous locations, but especially notable was a nesting pair near the Bentsen hawk watch platform.
10) Muscovy Duck--seven different birds flying up and down the Rio Grande at the village of Salineno.
In a single day at Bentsen State Park we saw a Bobcat early in the morning, then on a night walk we saw another Bobcat, plus three Striped Skunks and a Virginia Opossum. That is also when we had great looks at the gray Eastern Screech-Owl, the number one bird of the tour. It was a good evening! We saw Mexican Ground Squirrels at Bentsen during the day. Laguna Atascosa NWR was good for two American Alligators, a Texas Indigo Snake, and a 6-7 foot Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake, an exceedingly large individual. At Laguna we also saw several White Mullet (fish) in the air, held fast by Osprey in their talons. We had good looks at two Guadalupe Spiny Softshells (turtles).
SOUTH TEXAS--RIO GRANDE VALLEY:
21 February to 2 March 2011
1) FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL--great prolonged scope views of two calling individuals on the King Ranch.
2) White-collared Seedeater--a male and two females at San Ignacio.
3) Black-vented Oriole--several good looks at Bentsen State Park of this rare visitor from Mexico, coming to a feeding station.
4) Least Bittern--we watched one catch a minnow at the South Padre Convention Center boardwalk.
5) Blue Bunting--we saw a stunning male at Bentsen, another rare visitor from Mexico.
6) Mountain Plover--there was a nice flock of 50 feeding in agricultural fields near Sebastian.
7) Least Grebe--numerous sightings of this diminutive bird on several days.
8) Scaled Quail--a covey came in to feed at a campsite at Falcon State Park.
9) White-tailed Kite--we had numerous sightings of this elegant raptor.
10) Gray Flycatcher--we were lucky to see this one, the first record for the entire Rio Grande Valley.
Mammalian highlights included two Collared Peccaries, a Nutria sunning itself on a log, and a Nine-banded Armadillo. We saw American Alligators, two Texas Indigo Snakes, and a Coachwhip. One of the Indigo Snakes was being dive-bombed by a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Many nice butterflies included Queen, Monarch, Red Admiral, Zebra Longwing, and several brilliant Mexican Bluewings.
LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY OF TEXAS:
30 January - 8 February 2010
1) NORTHERN JACANA--an incredible adult bird at Choke Canyon State Park. Texas has relatively few previous records.
2) Green Jay--birds just don't get much prettier than this, plus they are widespread and common.
3) Great Kiskadee--these large flycatchers have stunning plumage, are easy to find, and are quite vocal.
4) Burrowing Owl--these two owls were an unexpected find on the King Ranch.
5) White-tailed Kite--a graceful, beautifully plumaged raptor of open habitat. We had several great scope views, a total of eight different birds.
6) Crimson-collared Grosbeak--this is a Mexican endemic, with just a handful of Texas records. We had fine looks at Quinta Mazatlan, part of the World Birding Center in McAllen.
7) Aplomado Falcon--after two brief unsatisfying looks at Laguna Atascosa, we finally found one perched on a utility pole at close range, on our way to Boca Chica.
8) Vermilion Flycatcher--this brilliant gem was seen almost daily.
9) Pyrrhuloxia--a bird that vaguely resembles a Northern Cardinal, but has its own singular beauty. We had nice looks at numerous individuals.
10) Long-billed Curlew--a large, long-billed shorebird. We saw and heard it well.
11) Buff-bellied Hummingbird--several of these Valley specialties were seen, mostly at feeders.
12) Tropical Parula--we saw not one but two of these rarities, both at close range.
Mammal sightings included a Bottle-nosed Dolphin, nursing its calf in Laguna Madre, Wild Pigs at Aransas, nice looks at ten Coyote, 50 or more Collared Peccaries (including young) at Bentsen, and a Black-tailed Jackrabbit at the Corpus Christi Airport. We saw just one American Alligator at Laguna Atascosa, perhaps because of the recent colder temperatures. We typically see many more.
WINTER BIRDS of SOUTH TEXAS:
2-11 February 2008
1) MASKED DUCK--FIVE on the King Ranch, feeding and preening in the open on a small pond, very close to the ranch road on which we were parked. WOW!
2) Whooping Crane--we saw approximately 25 of these stately birds that are slowly increasing their numbers, working their way back from the brink of extiction.
3) Green Jay--many wonderful looks at this colorful tropical corvid.
4) Greater Roadrunner--late afternoon sightings of four sunning themselves along the Laguna Atascosa entrance road.
5) Altamira Oriole--among our many good views, the best were probably at the Salineno feeding station.
6) Eastern Screech-Owl--a gray individual was sunning itself from a low tree cavity at Bentsen State Park.
7) Aplomado Falcon--first a pair in flight, then another pair at close range, perched on a short dead tree near the road.
8) Sora--we saw these rails at several locations, cooperating quite nicely as they fed and preened in the open.
9) Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet--one sighting of this diminutive flycatcher was a big hit at Anzalduas County Park.
10) Audubon's Oriole--numerous at the Salineno feeders, vying with the Altamiras for attention.
Mammalian highlights included Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphins riding next to our boat on Aransas Bay, several Coyotes hunting in agricultural areas, numerous Javelinas (Collared Peccaries), Armadillos feeding in an open grassy field, and a Virginia Opossum, looking for food as we left a restaurant after dinner. We saw a Wild Pig suckling several young on the King Ranch. American Alligators were common, ranging in size from two feet to twelve feet or larger. We had a nice assortment of butterflies that included Queen, Zebra Longwing, Cloudless Sulphur, and Phaon Crescent.
WINTER BIRDS of SOUTH TEXAS:
6-15 February 2005
1) Elegant Trogon
2) Whooping Crane
3) Least Grebe
4) Green Jay
5) Crimson-collared Grosbeak
6) Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
7) Great Kiskadee
8) Green Kingfisher
9) Altamira Oriole
10) Rose-throated Becard
CUSTOM SOUTH TEXAS TOUR:
4-13 February 2005
1) CRIMSON-COLLARED GROSBEAK--adult male at Frontera Audubon. A life bird for the entire group!
2) Aplomado Falcon--adult perched on weed stalks at Laguna Atascosa.
3) Whooping Crane--15-20 individuals on our boat ride. Great looks.
4) Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl--one with a House Sparrow in its talons at El Canelo.
5) Barn Owl--flushed one from a palm tree, also at El Canelo.
6) Rose-throated Becard--nice looks at a male and female at Sabal Palm.
7) Roseate Spoonbill--many good views throughout the tour.
8) Green Jay--dozens of fantastic views throughout the tour.
9) Mountain Plover--four distant birds in a field near Sinton. We worked for these birds.
10) Gray-crowned Yellowthroat--scope views of the singing bird at Sabal Palm.
Additional sightings of interest included several Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, a group of five Coyotes, numerous Nine-banded Armadillos and several Wild Pigs at Aransas NWR, and a pair of fast-moving Black-tailed Jackrabbits at Falcon Dam. We saw feral Nilghi (Indian antelope) and some sort of foreign introduced male sheep at El Canelo Ranch. There was a single American Alligator at Aransas and a family of two dozen young with their mother at Laguna Atascosa.
WINTER BIRDS of SOUTH TEXAS
4-15 February 2005
Trip Report by Bob Schutsky, Tour Leader
Our group of Pennsylvania birders gathered in Corpus Christi late in the afternoon. We had time for one stop, a large pond in Ingleside, with lots of snags and cattails. The four Fulvous Whistling-Ducks would be the only ones for the entire tour. We found our first Vermilion Flycatcher and Couch's Kingbird, and our first of many Least Grebes. We would see at least 40 of these diminutive water birds during the next ten days.
The next day we boarded the Wharf Cat for our boat ride into Aransas Bay in search of the endangered Whooping Crane. We saw at least 20, often in family groups of 2 adults and 1 young. There are now more than 200 individuals in the Aransas area, the highest number in many decades. The shallow bay waters are very productive, with Common Loons, Common Goldeneye, Roseate Spoonbills, our first White-tailed Hawks and Crested Caracaras, and our only Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Our afternoon visit to Aransas NWR produced an American Alligator, numerous Nine-banded Armadillos, and a nice variety of waterfowl.
The next day we had planned to bird the Rockport/Corpus Christi region, then slowly work our way to Brownsville on the Mexican border. But the forecast was for heavy rain, and there were some birds that we really wanted to see at the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary in Weslaco. We arrived late in the morning and, within an hour, we had found a male Crimson-collared Grosbeak (a Mexican endemic), a male Elegant Trogon, White-throated Robin, Summer Tanager, and many additional species. We were certainly glad that we had changed our itinerary. After a casual picnic and another walk around the refuge, we drove to Brownsville to watch the Super Bowl. Our Pennsylvania crew was rooting for the Eagles, but the Patriots emerged victorious. Regardless of the victor, the pizza, chicken wings, and Mexican beer were excellent.
Birding in the Brownsville area was quite productive. At Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary we had scope views of the singing Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, a rare vagrant from Mexico. Our group had seen two Rose-throated Becards, while John's group had nice looks at several Groove-billed Anis. We exchanged this information as we passed on the trail. They found the Becards, we missed the Anis. The feeders were quite active with Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, White-tipped Doves, and other typical South Texas species.
The convention center on South Padre Island has a native plant area that had attracted a Dusky Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Palm Warbler. From the boardwalk over the marsh we found Clapper Rails, Reddish Egret, our first of many Piping Plovers, and a good variety of shorebirds. During the day we also saw numerous White-tailed Kites and the Krider's subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. Most of the next day focused on Laguna Atascosa NWR. We found two very cooperative Clay-colored Robins along the Kiskadee Trail, and thrilled to the sighting of an adult Aplomado Falcon along the Bay Loop. Although it is not yet officially countable by ABA standards, this reintroduced raptor is making a strong comeback and is a sight to behold.
Our day at Santa Ana NWR seemed rather slow, but we saw lots of interesting birds. Our first Altamira Orioles were coming to the feeding station, a Zone-tailed Hawk was kettling with a flock of hundreds of Turkey Vultures, White-faced Ibis were common, and our Least Grebe total continued to grow. We had fine looks at two Wilson's Snipe. A friend from Pennsylvania showed us the nighthawk that had been roosting in the same area for weeks. There are strong arguments that it is a Lesser Nighthawk, and equally good reasons that it might be a Common Nighthawk. John and I both leaned toward Lesser, but we may never be absolutely certain.
On Thursday we headed upriver to Salineno, very close to Falcon Dam. Pat and Gayle DeWind maintain a fantastic feeding station that just continues to improve. Birders are always welcome. We often had Altamira, Hooded, and Audubon's Orioles in our binoculars at the same time. A Cactus Wren came in for a close study, Red-shouldered Hawks and Crested Caracaras flew overhead, and a gray Eastern Screech-Owl peered out of its roosting box. There are probably fewer than a dozen Brown Jays in the US, but a family of six gave us a good show at the feeders. They love raw chicken. Down at the boat launch on the Rio Grande we saw a Red-billed Pigeon, American Pipits, Ringed Kingfisher, and numerous waterfowl. On our way further upriver we found our only Gray Hawk of the tour, then had prolonged scope views of a White-collared Seedeater at the San Ygnacio Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary.
The star of the show at El Canelo Ranch is a resident pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. It took us nearly an hour, but we finally found one, clutching a House Sparrow in its talons. Sprague's Pipit has become another specialty at this ranch, and we had satisfying looks at this elusive bird. As we went north toward Corpus Christi for our flights home, our Mountain Plover search was not going so well. We had found a pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves, but the plovers were eluding us. Finally, when we were well aware that some of the folks were beginning to tire of searching bare, plowed fields and seeing very little but dirt, we found four of these beautiful birds, standing motionless far across the field. The looks weren't close, but we were all very happy. We needed a change of scenery, so it was off to Mustang Island. Driving the beach, which is perfectly acceptable, yielded lots of Piping Plovers, our only Red Knots, plus Willets, Sanderlings, and Royal Terns. Northern Gannets were numerous offshore, banking and diving for fish. The next day we found two Piping Plovers that were color-banded. Hopefully the Bird Banding Lab will be able to tell us the origin of these birds. We also found a Snowy Plover, our only one of the entire tour, and a fine ending for a wonderful 10 days in South Texas.
We will be conducting this tour again in 2006, probably in early February. The dates will be announced soon.
WINTER BIRDS of SOUTH TEXAS
Led by Mike Haldeman and John Puschock
6-15 February 2004
Trip Report by Mike Haldeman
After all of the flights straggled in from the frigid north, we began the birding with a few stops on the fringes of Corpus Christi, starting our list with Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mottled Ducks, Sandhill Cranes, Long-billed Curlews, and a Vermillion Flycatcher. The next morning we explored the Corpus Christi Botanical Gardens, then headed south. Raptors are numerous throughout this drive and we had excellent looks at many Harris's and White-tailed Hawks and Crested Caracara, as well as several roosting Great Horned Owls. A couple of parks in the Kingsville area initiated us to some of the easier south Texas specialties like Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Couch's Kingbird, and Green Jay, and we also added a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, "eastern" Curve-billed Thrasher, and a group of Pyrrhuloxias. A Tropical Kingbird cooperated nicely at Rancho Viejo and we reached Brownsville just in time to watch the flocks of Red-crowned Parrots gather before going off to roost.
At Sabal Palm Grove the next morning we continued logging the specialties with White-tipped Dove and Plain Chachalaca abundant at the feeding station and great looks at Ringed Kingfisher and Olive Sparrow in the sanctuary. The convention center boardwalk on South Padre Island is one of those places where you see different birds everywhere you look. Gulls and terns gather on the flats where numerous shorebirds ply the mud for food. Waders, including Reddish Egrets, stalk prey in the shallows as hundreds of Redheads and other ducks drift in the open bay. We watched a Clapper Rail forage in the open just below us and had the opportunity to study a pair of Pied-billed Grebes feeding their stripe-headed young on a small pond in the reeds. A Long-billed Curlew probed the ground with its improbable bill just thirty feet from the boardwalk and some scoping revealed Piping Plovers scurrying nearby on the beach.
The feeders at Laguna Atascosa NWR gave us our first good looks at Long-billed Thrasher and the short hike to Alligator Pond provided a pair of Least Grebes gathering nesting material alongside the enormous resident for which the pond is named. On the bayside loop we stopped in one spot and found ourselves surrounded by a group of five Groove-billed Anis. The birds flew around us for fifteen minutes, perching up regularly and giving excellent scope views of the grooves in the bill and the green scaling on the back. Anis are normally difficult to find in the Rio Grande Valley in winter, but we turned up three different groups at the refuge.
On our way to McAllen the following day we stopped at Santa Ana NWR. Here we managed great looks at Green Kingfisher and more Least Grebes and saw our first Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. A roosting Common Nighthawk was also a nice surprise for this time of year. Just before leaving the refuge John caught a glimpse of a Clay-colored Robin in the brush surrounding the parking lot. We all rushed to the scene, but nothing was happening. After patiently standing our ground for half an hour, the secretive bird came relatively into the open and we had decent looks at it. Then it was on to my favorite spot--Bentsen State Park. As soon as we were all out of the van John shouted "Hook-billed Kite" and we all watched this unique raptor as it circled above us, gaining altitude on its broad wings. We flushed a Pauraque near one of the feeding stations and several folks had nice views of the male's white wing patches and white tail feathers as it banked immediately in front of them. That night in the park we came upon an Eastern Screech-Owl, a group of twenty Collared Peccaries, and had a brief glimpse of a Bobcat as it crossed the road.
The feeding stations upriver at Salineno and Chapeno were active as always and both gave us excellent looks at Altamira, Hooded, and Audubon's Orioles. Chapeno delivered the flock of Brown Jays on schedule and at Salineno our second Clay-colored Robin popped into the open and let us study him on a feeder for a few minutes before retiring again into the underbrush. The Inn at El Canelo has become famous for the resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls and, despite the cold and rain, Monica (our hostess) was able to show us one within minutes of our arrival. Tucked under the fronds of a palm tree to escape the weather, the owl was totally unconcerned by our presence. Another bird that's becoming a specialty of this Texas ranch is Sprague's Pipit. Walking in the short grasses near the entrance road we flushed a few of these birds. Then it was a matter of watching for movement in the grass and scanning the area where they landed. A few minutes of perseverance at the scopes and everyone had great views of this difficult species.
On the last full day of the tour we boarded the Wharf Cat and set out to explore the marshy islands of Aransas Bay. We saw many species on this four-hour trip but, of course, the highlight is always the close approaches to one of the world's rarest birds. We studied several Whooping Crane families, the immaculately white parents with their rusty tinged juvenile, before heading back to port. Goose Island State Park was our next stop. After some general birding around the campground and the shoreline, several hardy souls traded dry shoes and socks for a few nice glimpses of three Ammodramus sparrows--Seaside, Nelson's Sharp-tailed, and Le Conte's--as we enjoyed our last Texas sunset.
On the way to the Corpus Christi airport the final morning, after a close call with some Texas mud, we stumbled onto a flock Mountain Plovers not far from the road. Over a hundred of the difficult-to-find birds were feeding among the vast barren fields west of Rockport--one final lifer for the group before heading back to the frigid north.
9th ANNUAL RIO GRANDE VALLEY BIRDING FESTIVAL, Harlingen, Texas:
4-11 Nov 2002 Bob's personal favorites
1) GREEN-BREASTED MANGO--Mexican hummingbird, very rare in the US.
2) Golden-crowned Warbler--less than 20 US records.
3) White-collared seedeater--small breeding population along the Rio Grande.
4) Altamira Oriole--beautiful looks in early morning light.
5) Hook-billed Kite--SIX in one flock!
6) Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl--eating a dragonfly at the Inn at El Canelo.
7) Red-crowned Parrot--a nice flock just before sunset in Harlingen.
8) Muscovy Duck--fly-by at Chapeno.
9) Green Jay--South Texas speciality.
10) Scissor-tailed Flycatcher--many spectacular views.
WINTER SOUTH TEXAS:
1-10 February 2002
1) TROPICAL PARULA
2) Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
3) Whooping Crane
4) Hook-billed Kite
5) American Bittern
6) Blue Bunting
7) Clay-colored Robin
8) Green-breasted Mango
9) Altimira Oriole
10) Green Jay
SOUTH TEXAS Trip Report
by Mike Haldeman
1-10 February 2002
Unusually cold weather greeted us in Corpus Christi for this South Texas winter tour, but luckily it did not seem to affect the birds. Both color phases of Reddish Egrets danced in the shallows and a flock of Roseate Spoonbills sifted through the water on Osa Bay. This legendary body of water adjacent to Corpus Christi also gave us a chance to study many other waders and hundreds of ducks and shorebirds, giving our trip list a quick start. After a day exploring the Corpus area we headed south to Brownsville. From here we accessed Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Because the famous Bay Loop Road at Laguna was closed we did not see the Aplomado Falcons that are now established there, but the feeders at both of these excellent spots gave us our first looks at many South Texas specialties. Plain Chachalacas, White-tipped Doves, Great Kiskadees, Couch's Kingbirds, Green Jays, Long-billed Thrashers, and Olive Sparrows were seen repeatedly by all. But it was at Rancho Viejo that we hit our first real rarity--a TROPICAL PARULA near the traditional Tropical Kingbird spot (which we also saw.)
The flock of Cave Swallows over the river at Sabal Palm Grove was a nice surprise. Our short walk on the boardwalk at the Convention Center on South Padre Island was also worthwhile putting us within ten feet of both an American Bittern and a Clapper Rail for amazing, extended views of each.
From Brownsville we moved upriver to McAllen. On the way we birded Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Here, among the "distractions" of four Harris's Hawks, a pair of Altamira Orioles, and a Green Kingfisher, we searched for a pair of CLAY-COLORED ROBINS. For over an hour we saw no sign of them until a few members of our group finally had a glimpse. Another half-hour and our tenaciousness paid off as everyone had satisfactory looks at this rare visitor to Texas and the US. At Bentsen State Park, my favorite destination in the Valley, we were immediately greeted by a large mixed flock that included both the diminutive Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and a Black-throated Gray Warbler. The trailer loop was productive as usual, with many winter Texans feeding the birds. At one feeder we watched as a shy female BLUE BUNTING, another Mexican vagrant, came out of hiding to join some Indigo Buntings. We all had excellent views of this rich brown bird before the local Collared Peccary interrupted the show.
With Audubon's Oriole and Ringed Kingfisher at Salineno and Brown Jays at Chapeno, our day near Falcon Dam was a hit, despite missing the White-collared Seedeater at San Ygnacio. The following day we set aside to find birds we missed and chase rarities. Starting the day at Bentsen, we scanned the skies for a Hook-billed Kite, having already seen a few Gray Hawks. Some folks had a quick glimpse of a raptor flying over the road, so we set off in search of it. Scanning through the thick brush was beginning to seem useless and as the rest of us headed back to the van, Dave shouted, "I have something!" It took the rest of us a while to find that something, but the Hook-billed Kite stayed perched long enough for everyone to have a quick scope view. That afternoon we put in our time at a feeder on Laurel Street in McAllen and eventually we all saw the GREEN-BREASTED MANGO (another Mexican stray!) briefly among the several Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. Then it was off to see the spectacle of 250 Green Parakeets coming in to roost on a Merlin-patrolled street corner in downtown McAllen.
We eventually had to return to the central Texas Coast, but we were not finished birding. At the Inn at El Canelo on a large Texas ranch we not only studied their resident pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, but also were able to put a Sprague's Pipit in the scope after flushing the bird from its grassy hiding place. In Rockport we boarded the pontoon boat Wharf Cat for a morning excursion to find the endangered Whooping Crane. We saw several pairs of these immaculately white birds. We had very close looks at one pair with a rusty juvenile calling for part of mom's blue crab breakfast. The next morning we had to had to make our way to the Corpus Christi Airport, but we managed to pick out a pair of Ross's Geese in a close group of Snow Geese for a final lifer for most of the group.
This was our first South Texas Tour in February and I am already looking forward to returning to this excellent birding destination during prime time for Mexican strays. Next year's tour is scheduled for 1-10 February 2003.
RIO GRANDE VALLEY BIRDING FESTIVAL, TEXAS:
8-12 November 2000
1) FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL: great looks at King Ranch and the Inn at El Canelo
2) Hook-billed Kite: soaring over the Rio Grande near Chapeno
3) Wood Stork: late migrant over El Canelo
4) Green Kingfisher: 2 on the Rio Grande near Salineno
5) Scissor-tailed Flycatcher: many still in the Valley
6) Sprague's Pipit: 2 at Anzalduas County Park
7) Roseate Spoonbill: near South Padre Island
8) Gray Hawk: along the Rio Grande near Salineno
9) Green Jay: a specialty of the area
10) Green-tailed Towhee: a nice surprise at El Canelo