We just arrived home after an amazing nine days of birding in SouthTexas. We drove a big triangle from San Antonio to the LRGV to Rockport and back to San Antonio. We ended up with a whopping 134 species/phases (132 if you don't count phases or morphs separately), with 50 of them being lifers for my husband and I. For most of the trip we traveled with a couple from Cleveland. The pluses of birding in tandem: more eyes to see with, more knowledge to draw from. The minuses: different birding paces, different birding philosophies, and its hard to get out as early as you would like.
For interested parties (since people are always asking), I've also tried to include brief information regarding each place we stayed along the way. This is neither a recommendation nor a review, just a basic picture of options we chose.
With the exception of our last two days (Rockport, Choke Canyon, San Antonio, no birding done in the city), the weather was gorgeous! Seventies and Eighties with one cooler day early on. Even on the bad weather days, the rain held off until we were done birding or in the car going elsewhere! However, South Texas is in the middle of an ongoing drought. This meant that many of the resacas/wetlands were bone dry, something that limited birding in many of the more popular places.
In the following report, I only mention newly seen species at each location. Keep in mind that many of the birds were seen more than once at different locations. Birds in capital letters are lifers for Avie (my husband) and me.
Day 1: Thursday, Feb. 15th. 2001
Rendezvoused with our friends at the San Antonio airport, picked up the rental car (a 4-wheel drive Isuzu Rodeo) and headed out. Along the way we passed a few raptors and stopped to (literally) see a few flowers. We were too busy catching up on news to do any serious birding. However, Avie and I still got our first two lifers of the trip further down on Rte. 35. We saw a GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE and a CRESTED CARACARA, the latter being one of my target birds! Of course, the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures also had a constant presence.
We finally arrived at our accommodations for two nights, the Best Western in Zapata (on the highway, includes continental breakfast, had empty birdfeeders outside the breakfast room windows). At dinner in a Zapata restaurant, we ran into a group on a WINGS tour (we were attracted to them by the Sibley guide prominently placed on the table). I went over to ask what was what, but the only person who spoke with me was the guide. He was helpful and drew us a small map of the area hotspots, which we used the following day.
While having breakfast around 7 am, we watched the birds hanging around the feeders. Even though they were empty, the birds still insisted on attending to whatever was left on and under the feeders. It was a nice relaxing way to begin the day. We took a few bananas and pastries with us, and were off.
Our first stop was Zapata Park to check out the Seedeaters. Alas, it was too windy and none could be seen, even though we heard reports on subsequent days that they were there. However, we managed to catch a Great Kiskadee among the other birds that were hanging around on the trees and cattails. EASTERN MEADOWLARKS were busy on the ground together with Brown-Headed Cowbirds.
We moved onto Falcon Dam - specifically the spillway to the left of the road to the border crossing. On the way in, we were "permitted" to watch an Osprey work on a large red fish at the top of one of the poles. Using both our binoculars and Kowa 60mm scope (our anniversary gift to ourselves this year) we were able to see several birds both at the spillway and in the marshy area to its left. We then began the trek down the trail in that area and were met with silence along the way. We decided not to pursue it and headed back to the car. After all, there were many other places that might prove more productive!
At Falcon State Park we drove around and down the back roads to the boat launch area, following the water. We watched several Ospreys fishing. While driving through the tall grasses (LOTS of mosquitoes!), we saw several VESPER SPARROWS hopping around.
Our next stop was Chapeno. It was on this drive that we began to realize how useful the 4-wheel drive was going to be. Many of the roads in Texas are not paved, and we would be going down many of them during our time there. First we drove over to the water at the end of the road. We were met with a good number of waterfowl. On the way back to the highway, we stopped over at the RV camp that had the Brown Jays, but they informed us that we were better off coming back at 7:30 in the morning. While turning around we peeked into a large hole in the dirt wall at the park (behind the main house) and saw a Great Horned Owl in there that we had been told about. On the way back out to the main road, we saw the GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER working the top of a dead tree. No matter how good the drawings are in a field guide, they never capture the true beauty of the color many birds have!
Our last stop of the day was Salineno. We were hoping to stop over at the Dewind's place. However, when we arrived we discovered that they close the gate at 4 pm. We went down to the water and met up with another birding tour. Their leader was Sam Fried (Flights of Fancy Adventures). This group was much more lively and urged us to look in their scopes at the RED-BILLED PIGEONS flying around on both sides of the border. Their colors were muted by the lateness of the day, but we got a few decent views of them, along with a Ringed Kingfisher, and several Neotropic Cormorants. One of the women kindly explained the difference between that and the Double-Crested. She said, "Look at the wing placement. If it's about 50-50, it's a Neotropic. The Double-Cresteds are front heavy." This was the rule of thumb we used for the rest of the trip.
While we were down there, Pat Dewind came out to check up on everything. We had a lovely conversation with him. It turns out that the land they camp on during the winter months used to be theirs. However, they've donated it to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Land Trust to insure that it remains forever wild. They are allowed to use it as long as they want, but it can never be sold or developed.
New species seen:
Great Blue Heron
AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN
Great Horned Owl
Day 3, Saturday, Feb. 17th. 2001
After breakfast, we checked out of our room, loaded up the car, and headed directly off to the Dewinds. Whatever you hear about his place doesn't do it justice! If you only have a single day to get the Lower Rio Grande Valley specialties, you need do no more than stop here. You'll have front row seats to paradise! The birds began coming immediately after we sat down and Gail began ticking off their names. In the middle of everything, a Red-Winged Blackbird began poking around the edges of the area. Gail explained that you need to shoo them off the property so that their "gang" doesn't take over the feeders and bully all the more desirable birds away from the area. Avie helped to keep the single Blackbird at bay and it eventually left. We spent about an hour there, enjoying the area birds and watching some of their behavior. The OLIVE SPARROW would come out along the ground only after it felt safe. The same with the BEWICK'S WREN. Although the Dewinds don't charge for admission to their area, we gave them a donation toward the cost of the food they put out.
An aside for everyone who asks about suet recipes, they very successfully use suet mixed with peanut butter and cornmeal!
We got back in the car and decided to take a pass on the Brown Jays at the RV Park. I think this was a philosophical choice. After seeing what the Dewinds offer for free, we decided not to pay. As we later found out, we could have seen the Brown Jays for free. Apparently, there's a couple who set up camp just around the corner from the RV Park and have put out feeders. Although people are not invited in, you can see the Jays they get from outside their fence.
We headed out to Santa Ana with high hopes for the rest of the day. The feeders there were our first disappointment. They were right by the restrooms. This meant there was a constant stream of traffic, something which was enough to discourage some of the shyer birds from feeding there. The area was also overrun with Grackles and Blackbirds. We walked down the A Trail to the only open water with wildlife (resacas were dried up). There was a fair variety of wildlife there. Among the familiar waterfowl were a few LEAST GREBES, although we would see them in much higher concentrations at other locations.
The most rewarding moment at Sta. Ana was when Avie and I walked down the trail to the old manager's residence (there's a plaque there along with a large quantity of flowering Shrimp Plants). We were in pursuit of the BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD. We didn't see it at first, but we heard the distinctive sound of an IBM Selectric typewriter! Having heard similar sounds from other hummers, we decided to take a seat on the nearby bench and wait. Sure enough, after 20 minutes, he came out and began feeding at the flowers. We got a wonderful view as the sunlight hit the feathers. This was a rewarding life bird for us!
Since we still had enough daylight left, we decided to do a bit more birding before checking in at our accommodations for the next four nights. We checked the ABA Lane Guide and decided to head to Weslaco and bird the Methodist Camp and the Llano Grande. The map in the guide is WRONG! Going north on Tx-1015 was not the straight shot the map showed it to be. There's a confusing detour and I'm going to clear it all up right now. Just below the Llano Grande the road ceases to be two ways and there's a detour off to the right. Take it, then turn left. This takes you back to 1015 a bit farther up, but still before the Llano.
We pulled into the Methodist Camp and requested permission to proceed at the main house. The first thing we saw and heard were the PLAIN CHACHALACAS - many of them - and what a raucous welcome we got! Many of the birds around the camp were ones we had already seen (The Dewinds make it difficult to find new birds).
We then headed back down south a bit to the Llano Grande. It took us a while to find a way up on the left (there were no birds on the west side). But when we did. . . waterfowl galore! This made up for the paucity at Santa Ana! There were American Avocets, American White Pelicans, and many different species of ducks, egrets, and shorebirds. The perfect last stop for the day!
We drove to the Tropical Bed & Breakfast in Weslaco just north of Mi. 11 Rd. on FM 88 (Couple lives in a separate house, so you pretty much have the place to yourselves. Constant supply of freshly squeezed oj from their own orchard, along with sweet grapefruits. Full breakfast made to order daily. LOVED the fact that we could sit in a real living room in the evening rather than a motel room.)
New species seen:
BLACK CRESTED TITMOUSE
COMMON GROUND DOVE
Day 4, Sunday, Feb. 18th. 2001
We decided to split this day up, spending the morning at Bentsen SP, having lunch across the border in Mexico, and then returning to Bentsen in the evening. After arriving at the park, we immediately proceeded to the campground and Site 18 to find out about the Blue Bunting. We were told she usually comes around 9:30, so we decided to hang around and wait, especially since the feeder was busy with activity from other birds, including Indigo Buntings. All the seats were taken, so we stood with others who had scopes and binoculars at the ready. To while away the time, I asked about other birding areas, both on and off our itinerary. We were disappointed to find out we'd missed the Zone Tailed Hawks that fly by the entrance to the Rio Grande Trail every morning between 7 and 7:45 am. But that's what you get when you decide to wake up at 6 instead of 5! After all, this WAS a vacation! 9:30 came and went, but we decided to hold out a bit longer. Meanwhile, Avie had moved onto the feeders a couple of trailers down. At Site 18 we were engrossed in birding conversations and I decided to glance over at the feeder preferred by Ms. Bunting. Good thing too, there she was! We all got excellent views of the female BLUE BUNTING and then she was gone. Reportedly, she returns each day around 3:30, but we had seen heand it was time to move on.
The other "host" site was #40, so we proceeded there. The light was perfect for the place, so we took our seats and watched. I felt badly for a little dog that was locked inside the trailer and kept barking at us. But it didn't appear to disturb the birds. I missed the drama that ensued a brief while later (restroom stop), but Avie filled me in. Apparently the feeders were full when, all of a sudden, all the birds stopped, cocked their heads, and disappeared. Down swooped a Cooper's Hawk, hoping for an easy meal. He left empty handed, but Avie and our friends had another bird for their lists. (I subsequently saw a Cooper's later in the trip, so I don't feel guilty putting it here.) We also spent a little time over by the water and had a perfect view of a Black-Crowned Night Heron in a sleeping position - just as Sibley drew it.
We dropped one of our friends at the B&B so he could get a bit of work done and three of us went down to the border at Nuevo Progresso to cross over and have lunch, as well as getting a bit of gift shopping done. There were a ton of blackbirds in the parking lot at the border area, which, I believe, was next to a granary. But we didn't have our binoculars and, besides, we were on a different mission, so we didn't check them out.
All four of us returned to Bentsen around 5:30 pm for some late day birding and to drive around looking for PAURAQUES. We were talking with some folks at the trailer loop when someone reported that there were ROSEATE SPOONBILLS by the water. We grabbed our binoculars and dashed over. They had temporarily disappeared behind some tall grass, but agreed to come out again so we could get a good look at them. Someone also spotted a WHITE-TAILED KITE perched on one of the trees by the water.
After dark, we began our drive around the loop. Just before we reached the Rio Grande Trailhead, we saw two bright red spots moving to the right into the thicket. They reminded me of large fireflies, but didn't blink on and off. We assumed these were the Pauraques. I wanted to listen for owls, so we stopped at the trailhead and got out of the car for about 20 minutes. I didn't hear owls, but I DID hear a very distinctive call, which was easily imitated. I had a brief "conversation" with one of the birds. We later listened to our Rio Grande Bird CD (in the car player). It was a Pauraque.
New species seen:
BLUE BUNTING (female)
Black-Crowned Night Heron
Day 5, Monday, Feb. 19th. 2001
We headed east to Sabal Palm NWR. This is a beautiful area with a very different feel from any of the other parks we had been at. The best birding was at the water where we saw our first MOTTLED DUCKS as well as a RING-NECKED DUCK. This was the hotspot for the Least Grebes. There were at least a dozen in the water and we got excellent views of their fluffy behinds. There were several small birds in the thickets on either side of us during our walk, but we never got a good look at any of them, so they all remain mysteries.
The trail behind the water was hot and dry, with no birds to see nor hear. However, my husband mentioned his desire to see a Vermilion Flycatcher during our time in Texas, and a birder on this trail directed us to stop at Choke Canyon's Calliham Unit on our drive back to San Antonio. We filed this away for reference.
We also took a walk through Sabal Palm's trail showing native plants. This trail is still largely undeveloped. It might be worth something once everything grows a bit, but if you're birding, stick to the lusher areas of the park. We followed this all the way to the water, which was devoid of any waterfowl or shorebirds.
We had our sandwiches by the feeders at the picnic tables, and enjoyed watching the show of birds there. There were no Buff-Bellied's though, and we were told they hadn't been there all winter.
We followed lunch, quite appropriately, with a stop at the Brownsville Sanitary Landfill. Don't EVER call it a "dump". They don't like it! We loved the signs directing birders to the appropriate site. There were tons of gulls, terns, and vultures. True to recent reports, we saw no Tamaulipan Crows there. However, considering the swirling activity of the thousands of birds, I won't swear that they weren't there! We just didn't have adequate access to better views. (You have to wait for the bulldozers to pass by certain areas and they're often behind ridges, making much of the birding out of sight range.)
Since we didn't feel fulfilled, we decided to return to Llano Grande in Weslaco for another look. We followed the dike to the end and found our first CINNAMON TEAL of the trip on the water along with our first WHITE-FACED IBIS.
New species seen:
click here for part two of April's Texan birding trip