Well, this one certainly qualified as a designated TISLGS (this is stupid, let’s get started!) adventure! My parents and I took a four day birding trip to the Texas side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in early April. We had only two full days for birding, though the five hour drive from Austin to McAllen also afforded some decent windshield birding. The first real stop was in Premont:
Priorities are plainly in order. Sated, we moved on to a rest stop just south of Falfurrias where we immediately started finding the sorts of things we’d come to Texas to see. Highlights here were Hooded Oriole (the only one we’d see on the trip!), Black-crested Titmouse, Green Jay, Summer Tanager, Great Kiskadee, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. It was also nice to see Chipping Sparrows, one of our regular summer species at home whose migration hadn’t yet reached Vermont. On the roadsides we also began to see several other especially charismatic species, including Crested Caracara and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
The next morning we joined an organized walk at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, which turned out to be a great decision. Having local expertise in birdfinding and identification was a great help, and Estero quickly became a highlight of the trip. Upon stepping out of the car we immediately found the omnipresent Great-tailed Grackles, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Curve-billed Thrasher, and a tree full of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Our walk began at the Visitor’s Center, where a deck overlooks a small pond filled with Stilt Sandpipers, a variety of ducks, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Black-necked Stilts.
Leaving the pond amidst a cacophony of Chacalacas (more on that later) we immediately found two Buff-bellied Hummingbirds visiting a feeder.
Within a few hours, we’d had a great tour of the diverse habitats of Estero, including meadows, scrub, an exposed levee, and a variety of ponds and wetlands. Highlights here were many: we counted 63 total species in the park, nearly half of which were new to us. We had excellent views of area specialties, including Black-bellied Whistling-duck, Mottled Duck, White-tipped Dove, Great Kiskadee, and Couch’s Kingbird. We also saw a retreating White-tailed Kite, the only one of the trip. Perhaps the most satisfying for me, oddly, was American Avocet, which up until now have always managed to be where I’m not. Here’s a pair who have just realized that I have spotted them and have decided that they’re still able to deny me the satisfaction of a good photo:
We had a very nice long look at Green Kingfisher, a species I was really hoping to see but wasn’t terribly confident that we would.
One of the many benefits of traveling with the locals was that they had located two Common Pauraque, a relative of our familiar (if hard to come by these days) Whip-poor-will. Finding these birds in the leaf litter is tough even when someone has pointed them out to you, so having this sort of look was amazing. We’d considered making a special foray to seek them at night when they are active, but Estero saved us the trouble.
Before we left Estero we visited the ‘Tropical Zone’, a former mobile home park that features a large variety of left-behind non-native plants. Here we saw a very tatty Bronzed Cowbird but missed out on Clay-colored Thrush. We did, however, get to observe a nesting Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, a tiny flycatcher that is otherwise very difficult to find.
Nearby we got our first good looks at Plain Chachalaca, a bizarre relative of guans and cassowaries that reminded me of a turkey-large, awkward, noisy, and especially absurd when seen in a tree.
After lunch we headed to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a generous protected swath abutting the Rio Grande.
It may have been the time of day, but the birds were much quieter at Santa Ana than they had been at Estero. We did see 33 species here, including Harris’s Hawk, Least Grebe, Inca Dove, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Green Jay. We managed to spot an Olive Sparrow (which we’d heard repeatedly at Estero but not seen) and got decent looks at Ringed Kingfisher and Altamira Oriole. We didn’t see much at the observation towers, but they were fun nonetheless.
Just before we left, our endurance of the heat and bugs was rewarded with a short but still satisfying look at Brown-crested Flycatcher. The Pintail Lakes Trail produced most of these species we saw at Santa Ana, including this Great Kiskadee:
The next morning we were out relatively early to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. As it turns out, had we been to Bentsen a week earlier we would likely have had a different experience, but they stopped filling the many feeders in the park on April 1st. We still managed to have a very nice visit, seeing 35 species for the morning and encountering several of them in a more intimate way than we had on either of the previous two days. Hawk migration was clearly evident from Bentsen, with countless Turkey Vultures, Swainson’s Hawks, and Broad-winged Hawks passing overhead. Cave swallows darted over the canal at a levee near the entrance. Chachalacas were again abundant outside a Nature Center just inside the park’s entrance, where the steward told us they would eat peanut butter off a spoon held out to them.
Bentsen has a number of blinds near feeders and seeps that provide great opportunities for close encounters. I found this thirsty Sharp-shinned Hawk at Kingfisher Overlook:
Though we were primarily oriented to the birds, I couldn’t resist some of the local lepidoptera and odonata as well, including this Mexican Scarlet-tail and Queen butterfly, also both at Kingfisher Overlook:
Another blind along the Kiskadee Trail overlooks a feeder that still had some food in it when we arrived. We decided to take advantage of the benches and the shade though we didn’t immediately see any birds, and were soon rewarded with White-tipped Doves, Green Jays, and even a Black-throated Green Warbler.
In the afternoon we attempted to visit Quinta Mazatlan, an historic adobe mansion in McAllen with extensive gardens and what we hoped would be some varied bird life and perhaps even some shade. By this time the temperature was flirting with 100F, and our walk along the road on the way out of Bentsen was the first time we all felt overheated. Unfortunately it turns out that Quinta Mazatlan is closed on Mondays, but we did find a Black-chinned Hummingbird in the parking lot, another life bird for all of us.
From Quinta Mazatlan (or its parking lot, anyway) we headed to Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, which was ultimately kismet. We hadn’t expected to make it here, and though we were flagging by this point we were glad we made the effort. White-eyed vireos were abundant, and we had our best looks at Neotropic Cormorant. A Green Heron came by, seemingly as unfazed by us as it was by the Diamondback Watersnakes swimming in the lake behind it.
Near the canal on west side of the park were a likely (but ultimately unidentifiable) Hooded Oriole, Great Egrets, more White-Eyed Vireos, and a yet another confiding Great Kiskadee.
The dusty trail along the canal served as a bathtub for a Chachalaca, which looked like it was smoking in the late afternoon light.
Edinburg Scenic Wetlands also produced both local thrashers. This was our only Long-billed Thrasher of the trip, and it was much more reclusive than the Kiskadees.
After leaving Edinburg and acquiring some tamales we tried and failed to find Red-crowned Parrots at a known roost, but we did locate a flock of Green Parakeets on a wire above a HEB grocery store very close to where we were staying. We left for Austin early the following morning, and after the sun finally came up we added one final new species, a White-Tailed Hawk that rose up from the roadside near Ben Bolt.
The trip, though more than a little ridiculous, was a grand success. We saw 95 species in just over two days, many of which provided us with close, extended looks, the likes of which are difficult to achieve with most species in Vermont. 37 of those species were life birds for me and
41 43 of them were lifers for my father. Both of us passed major milestones on our life lists (major for us, anyway), and I think we all felt that we did the Lower Rio Grande as much justice as we could have with such little time.