Texas - Lower Rio Grande Valley Feb 2003 (wintering rarities)

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)


vermillion flycatcher

With an overwintering Golden-crowned Warbler and Blue Mockingbird, the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas was a great place for northern birders to escape to this winter. Many birders made the pilgrimage south to McAllen and Peter Weber, with camera in hand, was also one of them. Below is his account and superb photo essay of his long weekend.

A Long Weekend in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Photo Essay and Trip Report by Peter S. Weber (February 26 – March 2, 2003) Peter's Wild Bird Photos Website

Guessing the first bird seen on every trip has become part of my game as my opportunity for finding life birds on any given trip is diminished. On every previous trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the first bird I’ve seen, after "wheels down" at the airport, was a Great-tailed Grackle.

I landed in McAllen, Texas on February 26, 2003 to meet my friends Steve Bailey, Pete Olson and Mary Kay Rubey. The first bird I saw on this trip was an American Kestrel. It was running around on a very wet field adjacent to the runway. I was surprised to see standing water everywhere. I was even more surprised when I stepped off the plane and was greeted with temperatures in the 30’s. I was expecting 70-degree weather and was underdressed for the occasion.
Undaunted by the unexpected cold and rain, our small group was out of the airport within minutes and on our way to Pharr to look for a Blue Mockingbird that had been visiting the home of Allen Williams. Upon arriving at Allen’s home, we were greeted by all the usual suspects, including Great Kiskadee, Curve-billed Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Plain Chachalaca, Lesser Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Inca and Common Ground-Doves, Yellow-throated and Yellow-rumped Warblers. We enjoyed the many birds active in the front yard for a few minutes before heading to the backyard to search for the Blue Mockingbird.

Within minutes, our search was complete! The Blue Mockingbird (right) flew into a feeding area with grapefruit, oranges and grapes. The bird was unexpectedly cooperative and we watched it for almost an hour while enjoying the many other species that shared the cornucopia of fresh fruit.

Blue Mockingbird at Pharr

A Northern Mockingbird frequently shared the dining area with its southern cousin. Before leaving Mr. Williams’ yard, we took a few minutes to watch an Eastern Screech-Owl warming himself by sticking his face outside of the hole in a nesting cavity in a creative nesting box – a length of wood from a dead palm tree.

Another Texas rarity awaited us a few miles away at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg. Thanks to the daily updates by DeWayne Hodges on the TXBIRDS listserve we had a list of sighting locations and had great directions to the visitor’s lot where we parked our van and walked to the area in which the bird was most frequently reported. We saw several people with binoculars looking at an oak tree and joined them in wonderful views of a Golden-crowned Warbler (below). The GCWA had been visiting campus for a few months and we were hoping it had stayed through the cold, rainy weather that preceded our birding trip. Having endured a long, gray winter with too much snow, I felt suddenly warmer when I saw the bright yellow underside of this beautiful little bird. We watched it catch and eat a butterfly and several insects as it actively moved through several area trees and shrubs.

Without visiting any of the area’s traditional birding hotspots we had, within an hour’s time, seen two rarities and several other beautiful birds. We drove to the McAllen Sewage Ponds where I spotted a Buff-bellied Hummingbird on our way in to see a small group of Least Grebes. We also saw several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, White-tailed Kites, Harris’s Hawk and a Krider’s Hawk at this location. Shorebirds and wading birds were easily spotted in the many flooded fields, drainage ditches and resacas in the vicinity.

Late in the afternoon, we drove to Brownsville to watch the Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots come to roost. We had marvelous looks at the Green Parakeets and a good flyover look at Red-crowned Parrots.

The morning of February 27th we started at Bentsen State Park.

Golden-crowned Warbler at Edinburg

We hoped to see the Clay-colored Robins that were showing up at various feeding stations and were not disappointed. We were overwhelmed with the number and variety of birds present in the park on another cold morning. In addition to four Clay-colored Robins(below), we saw our first Green Kingfisher of the trip, Altimira Oriole, White-tipped Dove, White-winged Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Inca Dove, Indigo Bunting, Green Jay, Great Kiskadee and several other species. We searched for Hook-billed Kite but failed to see them at Bentsen.

We spent a couple of hours at Anzalduas County Park. We were treated to an unusual visitor to Texas - Greater Pewee. We also observed all three Kingfishers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, several warbler species, several duck species, Northern Harrier and Sprague’s Pipit.

We drove to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge to bird the rest of the day. Our target species here were Tropical Parula and Groove-billed Ani. The temperature finally started to warm as we hiked throughout the park. The Tropical Parula was very cooperative. It sang almost constantly – as if it were competing for attention with the Blue-headed Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Long-billed Thrasher and Clay-colored Robins that inhabited the same area.

The two Clay-colored Robins at Santa Ana made for a total of six on the day. In previous trips, this was a very hard bird to locate in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. With several other sightings throughout south Texas, I wondered whether this species was going to become increasingly regular.

Our day ended with a long hike across the park to look for Groove-billed Ani. A group of six was very cooperative and allowed for splendid looks. Santa Ana was a beautiful place to spend the afternoon. It is one of my favorite birding locations in North America and has padded my ABA lifelist significantly.

Clay-colored Robin

It isn’t just the rarities that make Santa Ana special. The grounds are well maintained, the staff courteous and helpful, and the birds very comfortable with the presence of humans. One bird seemed to capture the beauty of this place for me. A bright flash of red against a green canopy of grasses announced the presence of a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher. As the sun dipped below the tree line and the day slipped away, this bird was like nature’s neon sign announcing that tomorrow will be another great day at Santa Ana.

We awoke very early on the last day of February for a long drive from McAllen to Falcon Dam and Falcon State Park. We birded below the dam and found Audubon’s Orioles cavorting with Altimira Orioles. We also saw several duck species, Great Horned Owls, Bewick’s and House Wrens, many Cedar Waxwings, and all three Kingfishers. It was another chilly morning, but there was more sun than we had experienced on the previous days. At Falcon State Park we added Black-throated Sparrow, Greater Roadrunner, Lark Sparrow, Verdin and several other species to our trip list. We saw an interesting raptor that whose identity was the subject of much debate. Some believed it might be a sub-adult Common Black Hawk. Most of us concluded it was a Red-shouldered Hawk.

We drove to Salineno to visit the DeWind’s feeders. Once again, the number and variety of birds was amazing. It was like looking in the eyepiece of a kaleidoscope as flashes of yellow, green, orange, red, blue, black, white and brown were constantly dotting our field of vision. Altimira and Audubon’s Orioles took our breath away. A cooperative Verdin fed at an orange only a few feet away from where we sat. Indigo Buntings, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Clay-colored and Chipping Sparrows, Green Jays and Cedar Waxwings filled the air with excitement. Mourning, White-tipped, White-winged, Common Ground and Inca Doves fed on the spilled seed. The DeWind’s were, as usual, very generous and courteous hosts. It seems they get more enjoyment out of meeting the birders than watching the birds. They’re almost worth the trip themselves.

Groove-billed Ani

We walked down the road from the DeWind’s trailer to the boat ramp and saw a Hook-billed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk and Red-billed Pigeon. There were also several species of ducks present in the water and a few American White Pelicans. We didn’t stay at the boat ramp long because we were headed to Chapeno to look for Brown Jays and to Zapata and San Ygnacio to search for White-collared Seedeaters.

The Brown Jays made a noisy, yet brief appearance for us in Chapeno. We tried to induce them to stick around by spilling some birdseed on the ground. The Boat-tailed Grackles availed themselves of the handout, but the Brown Jays moved through without paying much attention to the offering. Our search for the White-collared Seedeaters was in vain. We spent about three hours looking for the seedeaters but our good fortune in finding all of our target birds had finally run out. We drove back to Brownsville for the night.

On March 1 we awoke in a more leisurely fashion. After a nice breakfast, we drove to the NOAA Weather Station near the Brownsville Airport to look for Tamaulipas Crow. In the past few years, this has been the only place to regularly see this bird. It has dramatically declined in numbers in south Texas and only a few birds remain from a population that used to be measured in the hundreds. We located an old nest under the Doppler radar structure, but the only corvids to be seen were Chihuahuan Ravens. On a whim, we decided to visit the Brownsville Dump to look for the crow. The species hadn’t been visiting the dump in a few years, but it used to be THE place to see this Mexican species. Within fifteen minutes of arriving, our luck had turned for the good once again. We found a single Tamaulipas Crow feeding on garbage along an access road. We also spotted an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull feeding with the thousands of Chihuahuan Ravens, Ring-billed Gulls, Boat-tailed Grackles, European Starlings and other scavengers.

After indulging our success for about 45 minutes, we drove to Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary. We had great looks at Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Brown Thrasher, several warbler species, Green Kingfisher, Neotropic Cormorant, and the usual suspects.

We drove toward Laguna Atascosa. We were pleased to see several Aplomado Falcons on the park’s perimeter and drove along the gulf coast adding several more duck species, wading birds, shorebirds and plover to our trip list. An American Bittern distracted us for several minutes as we watched it "hiding" amongst the cattails. We heard a few Sora at Laguna Atascosa, but hadn’t seen any Virginia’s or Clapper Rails. We decided to drive to Padre Island to look for rails at the boardwalk.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Rails were certainly on the menu at the Padre Island boardwalk. Virginia’s, Sora and Clapper Rail all made their presence abundantly clear. Perhaps the only thing more obvious than rails in the cattails was the mosquitoes that were sucking every bit of blood out of our bodies. Insect repellant didn’t prove a deterrent to these famished vampires. In fact, I was wondering whether it might have been attracting them! We withstood the torture long enough to see each of the rails and debate the presence of a possible King Rail. We also had great looks at more wading birds, including the trips first Roseate Spoonbills. We remained on the boardwalk until dark and, after a quick burger, headed back to Brownsville for the night.

On our last day in Texas, we birded the El Canelo Ranch. Our obvious target bird was Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. El Canelo is a fantastic place to visit for many other species – avian, mammalian and reptilian. We saw approximately 70 species of birds in _ day’s birding at the ranch. Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebirds, Black-crested Titmouse, Verdin, Northern Bobwhite, Cave Swallow, Purple Martin, Pyrrhuloxia, Cassin’s Kingbird and other area specialties added to the success of seeing the owls. We also were treated to the sight of a large rattlesnake found in the courtyard.

Our group had accumulated a variety of species counts during our four days of birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I counted 189 species and the group had almost 200 species. There were a few missed species – most notably the White-collared Seedeater. However, we were very fortunate to see almost every bird on our target list. I added my 650th ABA lifer (Blue Mockingbird) and, by the time we left, the temperatures had finally returned to a seasonably warm 75 degrees.

Tamaulipas Crow

We certainly appreciated the assistance and generosity of Allen Williams, the Burdette family at El Canelo Ranch, the DeWinds in Salineno and my friends and fellow birders that supplied us with the latest sightings. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the most important birding areas in North America and one of the most enjoyable places to spend a long weekend.

See More of Peter's Photos from his trip at his website

An American Bittern distracted us for several minutes as we watched it "hiding" amongst the cattails...

A Northern Mockingbird frequently shared the dining area with its southern cousin...