For the following trip we used the ABA/Lane "Bird finding Guide to the Rio Grande Valley." Please refer to this guide for precise instructions for many of the localities listed below.
Cin Ty Lee, Dave Lange and myself had spent a few months planning a trip to Texas in the spring to catch some of the Rio Grande specialties as well as Black capped Vireo and Golden cheeked Warbler. We elected for the last week in March, as that fitted in to Cin Ty and Dave's spring break and also the temperatures would be less brutal. It would be a little early for a number of migrants and we would be on the cusp of the migration of Black capped Vireo but it would be good timing for a number of over-wintering vagrants.
We arrived at San Antonio airport just after lunch on Saturday, March 25th. We rented our car and headed south to Rockport. Along the route we saw a couple of Caracaras flying over the road. We stopped, didn't see the Caracaras again but Dave found a Golden fronted Woodpecker in a tree by the road. As we got closer to the coast a pair of Roseate Spoonbills flew high over the road.
Rockport, itself, was teeming with birds and the lagoon yielded many Tricolored Herons, Reddish Egrets, Black bellied Whistling Ducks and enough Laughing Gulls to last you a lifetime as they filled the air with a cacophony of sound. We retired to the nearby Holiday Inn and did some calling around to secure us a Whooping Crane tour the next morning. The Rio Grande Rare Bird Hotline alerted us to a possible Gray crowned Yellowthroat at Santa Ana that morning. Santa Ana was still a couple of days away so there wasn't much we could do about it for the time being.
First thing next morning, March 26th, we headed out to Goose Island, where we saw much of the same as the previous evening but in addition had a pair of Fulvous Whistling Ducks, some 20 Cave Swallows collecting mud beside the road and a migrant Black-and-white Warbler heading across the saltmarsh. The humorous Ray Little was our guide for the Whooping Crane tour. As we steamed away from Rockport, a Neotropical Cormorant sat on a breakwater alongside some Double-cresteds giving us a nice comparison. A flock of Royal Terns soon followed the wake of the boat, occasionally plunging into the water. As we got closer to the reserve, Mottled Ducks started to appear and in the distance we could see three crane-like white blobs. We steamed closer and got great views of three Whooping Cranes (2 adults and an immature) as they fed in the saltmarsh grass oblivious to our presence or that of Ray's voice as he narrated the informative biography of their lives over the loud speakers. These were to be the first of thirty or so cranes we would see this morning. Other birds along the way included a flock of White Ibis, White tailed Hawk, Wilson's Plover, Black Vulture and even an Alligator cruising the waterway.
By mid afternoon, we were back in the car and on our way south to the Rio Grande Valley. A stop off at Corpus Christi yielded impressive numbers of shorebirds but no closer views of any Wilson's Plovers. We found another Holiday Inn Express at McAllen where we stayed the night. Holiday Inn Express was to become our motel of choice with a full continental breakfast starting early at 6am.
March 27th, saw us at Santa Ana at 7am. There had been no further news on the Yellowthroat so we decided to go for the Tropical Parula first. A pair of Couch's Kingbirds greeted us at the parking lot. Prehistoric-looking Plain Chachalacas clambered overhanging branches over our heads and an Olive Sparrow chipped softly in the undergrowth. A pair of Great Kiskadees provided some noise and color to our walk. It wasn't long before we heard the distinctive buzzy song of the Tropical Parula and after some waiting, we tracked the bird down in a tree by the path. Green Jay, Curve billed Thrasher and Altamira Oriole were also welcome additions to the trip list. Buoyed by our early success we headed on to the Clay-colored Robin site but were stopped by a breathless birder. "Gray crowned Yellowthroat singing in reeds by Pintail Lake and the Clay colored Robin is singing just around the corner!" In one of those "what should I try to see next?" moments we elected to go straight to Pintail Lake where we were soon staring point blank at a lovely male Gray crowned Yellowthroat singing its heart out. Having had our Yellowthroat fill, we tried for the Robin but by now the heat was up and the Robin had decided to lie low. Instead, a Louisiana Waterthrush moved cautiously along the side of the pond. We decided we would try for the Robin again tomorrow morning and, instead, spend the heat of the day looking for the Blue Mockingbird at Weslaco Cemetery.
The mockingbird hadn't been seen for some time but had been reported singing recently. We had no luck with it but did see a singing male White eyed Vireo, White tipped Dove and an unexpected Whip Poor Will resting on the limb of a tree.
We spent the latter part of the afternoon at Bentsen S.P., where a walk to the river yielded nothing more than a bus load of illegals skipping the usual Green Card process. It was starting to get late, so we headed back to the RV Park at Bentsen for the staked-out Elf Owl and Eastern Screech Owl. Quite a crowd had developed and after some waiting both birds popped their heads out of their respective holes (which were no more than 100 feet apart). After the owls, we drove a back road with our headlights on high beam to catch the red eye glints of several Common Pauraques on the road.
March 28th saw us back at Santa Ana in an effort to clean up some of the holes on our trip list. The Clay colored Robin obligingly sang from the tops of the trees around the pond and a Green Kingfisher gave its rattle call as it flew up river. We also had nice "seconds" of the Yellowthroat and added migrant Clay colored Sparrow and Black throated Green Warbler to the trip list.
That afternoon, saw us heading to Brownsville and Sabal Palm. At the Brownsville Fish Hatchery, we managed to find one Least Grebe on the last pond. A lot of effort in vain as they were plentiful and obliging at Sabal Palm as were a pair of Buff bellied Hummingbirds at the feeders. Other goodies at the feeders here included Ovenbird and Hooded Orioles. It was getting late and we needed to get back to Brownsville in time for the parrot show. A large group of Green Parakeets showed well at Fort Brown and about 20 Red crowned Parrots hammed it up on the wires at Honeydale Road. It was getting close to 7pm and we still weren't finished. Next stop, was the State Farm Insurance Building for Ringed Kingfisher. It was a long shot and we were losing light but just as we were about to give up and head back to the car, a Ringed Kingfisher shot over the busy main road and over our heads before perching on a tree over the resaca.
The next morning on the 29th was very uneventful at Laguna Atascosa. We didn't see any Aplomado Falcons and we were too early for any Anis. The best bird was a White tailed Hawk and more looks at Wilson's Plovers. We also drew a blank at Boca Chica so we decided to cut our losses and head back north to Anzalduas Park where last night's bird hotline reported the Rose-throated Becard as still being present. It was quite late by the time we got there but we did manage a Gray Hawk and Cin Ty located the Tropical Parula.
Next morning, Anzalduas was superb. The singing Northern Beardless Tyrranulet was on form closely followed by the male Rose throated Becard - meanwhile the Tropical Parula sang on in the background. Flush with this success we pushed our itinerary up and headed north west to Salineno where we quickly connected with a male Audubon's Oriole. By 10am we were at El Rio RV Park where one of the Brown Jays didn't give itself up easily. On the way out a Cassin's Sparrow sang on a roadside fence post.
By noon, we were at Zapata where I thought the easiest bird of the trip turned out to be the hardest. A male White collared Seedeater showed briefly and eluded our best efforts to get good views. Often its call was the only clue to its presence. The heat was severe so we went for a break and a Subway sandwich. We decided to try for some other seedeaters 15 miles further to the north at San Ygnacio. Here, we had views ranging from brief to good of a pair of seedeaters. Green Kingfisher was also on the river here. It was a great day and it didn't even matter that we drew a blank on Red billed Pigeon at San Ygnacio or Muscovy Duck.
Friday the 30th was our travel day back to the Edward's Plateau for two of our target birds; Golden cheeked Warbler and Black capped Vireo. On the way to San Antonio we made arrangements with the El Canelo Ranch (north of Raymondville) to see their Ferruginous Pygmy Owls. For an entrance fee, we were shown an exceptionally confiding male and female pair of Ferruginous Pygmy Owls in the Ranch's back garden. Also here, were nesting Cave Swallow, a Merlin and a Vermillion Flycatcher.
Saturday April 1st was our last day. After a night in San Antonio, it dawned gray and wet as we drove into Lost Maples. We took the long loop hike and saw about 5 Golden cheeked Warblers plus Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren and Yellow throated Vireo. No Black capped Vireos had been reported at this site yet this year and we were unable to find any.
Our next best bet for the vireo, although early, was Kerr. We arrived in the late afternoon and after a couple of hours we came across a mixed flock of birds. As I was sifting through this flock, a Black capped Vireo came into my field of view. "Black capped Vireo!" I yelled at which the flock scattered in all directions much to the chagrin of my companions. This led to a frustrating two hours, during which time we relocated the bird several times as it gave us views ranging from poor to good.
We headed back to San Antonio that night for early morning flights back home satisfied that we had managed to see many of the Rio Grande specialties with one or two bonus rarities thrown in.