Texas Rio Grande Valley Trip – Feb 24 – March 4

Rainbow in Laredo, TXOn February 24 I flew to Laredo, Texas for eight days photographing in the Rio Grande Valley. The trip produced nine (numbered in parentheses) new North American species for birdspix.com.

From the airport, the first stop was North Central Park in Laredo, but daylight was fading and although there were a lot of vocal Great Kiskadees and a few Green Jays despite the intermittent drizzle, the best view of the evening actually was that of a spectacular rainbow.

The following morning I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by White-collared SeedeaterRaul Delgado of Laredo’s Monte Mucho Audubon Society.  It was still drizzling, but the very high winds that had lashed the upper Rio Grande Valley for the previous few days had finally abated. Our target of course was the White-collared Seedeater (1), a small Mexican passerine seen in the U.S. only in a few locales along the Rio Grande, Laredo being one such location. We started at North Central Park and first checked around the beaver pond with no success, however with patience we finally got glimpses in the canes at the rear of the park of five individuals, two of which perched up long enough for quick photos.

Ringed KingfisherWe then drove to the river and parked on a bluff overlooking Zacate Creek which runs directly into the Rio Grande, where we were immediately greeted by a conspicuous female Ringed Kingfisher (2) repeatedly flying back and forth from one end of the creek to the other and intermittently perching on either side. Next we walked along the Las Palmas trail where the side trail that meanders through the tall carrizo canes was productive of four more White-collared Seedeaters.  Many thanks to Raul for his warm welcome and for generously offering his time and sharing his local knowledge.

The next main destination was Salineño the following morning of 2/25,  but on the way I stopped at the reserve in San Ygnacio, another known spot for Seedeaters.  However, it was late in the day and the area was quiet.  The closest place to Salineño to stay overnight was Rio Grande City, which required a short backtrack early in the morning to the feeders up a slight hill from the Rio Grande in Salineño. The private yard with the feeders opens at 8 AM, but it is worth arriving a bit early to scan the river for the occasional Red-billed Pigeon Audubon's Oriole or wild Muscovy, neither of which unfortunately made an appearance this day, although there was another Ringed Kingfisher.

The feeders at Salineño are well known for many local specialties such as Green Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, White-tipped, Inca, and Common Ground Doves, Pyrruloxia, Black-crested Titmouse, Orange-crowned Warbler, Altimira Oriole, Hooded Oriole, and the spot is arguably the single most reliable place in the valley for Audubon’s Oriole. This Brown Jayyear the site has also been host to a Brown Jay (3)  – actually there were two in December but only one now – the first time this species has been seen in Texas in several years. Some two dozen eager observers had gathered and had waited over two hours when the Brown Jay finally made its first appearance of the day at 10:25 AM, which resulted in a round Eastern Screech-Owlof high fives, lots of clicking cameras, and the departure of everyone there immediately following the departure of the Jay itself. Several of us also enjoyed the sleepy Eastern Screech Owl in his cozy box at the rear of the property.

That night was spent in Weslaco, in order to look for the Golden-crowned Warbler there first thing in the morning on 2/26. This is a Mexican species, only rarely seen north of the border, and like all members of its genus, is notoriously reclusive and skulking, generally staying low to the ground in dense brush.  It does however give away its location with a characteristic chip note, which is the key to locating it in the dense Frontera Audubon Center thicket.  As it turned out, the bird did give one brief momentary Crimson-collared Grosbeak - femalegood view but despite having finally located the bird I managed to get boxed out by another photographer who snatched the only shot. As all birders will attest to, that happens not uncommonly. Unfortunately, not for want of searching, the bird was not relocated again on this particular day.

The first stop on 2/27 was Allen William’s yard in Pharr, host onceClay-colored Thrush again this year to a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak (4), quite likely the same bird that was present here last year. This was  also the first of several locations good for Curve-billed Thrasher and Clay-colored Thrush (5).

Next was a quick jump over to Quinta Mazatlan in nearby McAllen to look for the Tropical Parula reported there, but no Least Grebeluck on that one. The afternoon was back in Weslaco at Estero Llano Grande State Park,  one of the best spots in the valley for its sheer number of species, including most of the valley residents as well as many wintering waterfowl. Of special interest were Least Grebe, two adult Harris’s Hawks teaching a pair of fledglings how to fly, a pair of Tropical Kingbirds, and yet another Ringed Kingfisher. I was disappointed in not finding a Green Kingfisher, but there were a pair ofCommon Pauraque extraordinarily camouflaged Common Pauraques in precisely the same spot where I photographed one three years ago. Plain Chachalacas abound, as they do in most locales in the Valley.

White-tailed Hawk in flightThe morning of 2/28 was back at Frontera, but again no luck with the Golden-crowned Warbler. I gave up there for the time being and moved on to the Palo Alto Battlefield in Brownsville, where the very first bird I spotted overhead was an adult White-tailed Hawk (6) – one of the main target species for the trip since I had managed to miss it in 2009. The Battlefield site is also a good spot for Cassin’s Sparrow. Cassin's SparrowNext was the Old Port Isabel Road, just two miles up Highway 511, where, along with Laguna Atascosa NWR, I hoped to focus on finding an Aplomado Falcon. I did manage to photograph two mating Crested Caracaras, admittedly not Crested Caracarasexactly something you see every day, but no falcons other than American Kestrels. Then for that night I pushed on to South Padre Island, where I had been told a white morph Reddish Egret could be easily seen. King Rail - femaleThe sanctuary at South Padre Island is a must-visit spot, very visitor friendly with extensive boardwalks and an elaborate visitor center.  On this leap year day, February 29, I somehow managed not to find the “easily” seen white morph Reddish Egret, although there was a very cooperative and photogenic dark morph, and good photo-ops for White-tailed Kite, Redhead Ducks, Northern Pintails, and American Wigeon. The best bird for me however turned out to be a life King Rail (7).

White Reddish Egret danceAlthough disappointed in not finding the
white Reddish Egret, one fellow birder told me a good place to look was out on the Boca Chica Road east of Brownsville.  I actually first found one in a lagoon off route 48 on the way to Brownsville, but it was somewhat distant and not a good photo op, but Boca Chica Road indeed turned out to be the jackpot for this species, Rattlesnakewhere one individual was doing the typical prancing and dancing so near to the road I was able to observe it quite closely out the window without even having to get out of the car. Boca Chica Road was additionally good for White-tailed Hawk, and a best ever photo op for Gull-billed Tern. There was also one rather large rattlesnake coiled up in the middle of the highway.

CoyoteLater in the afternoon I made a run up to Laguna Atascosa NWR in Cameron County, another known spot for Aplomado Falcon. A drive along the 15-mile loop road found Harris’s Hawks, Peregrine Falcon, Caspian Terns, Long-billed Curlews, Redheads, Red-breasted Mergansers, lots of Loggerhead Shrikes and Eastern Meadowlarks, two coyotes, Greater Roadrunnerand a Greater Roadrunner, but no Aplomado falcon. Since Laguna Atascosa is quite isolated and there is no nearby place to spend the night, the choice was Harlingen or back to Port Isabel, so I chose Harlingen and returned to Laguna Atascosa the following morning, March 1.

I drove the 15-mile loop road again, and spent several hours patrolling the access road both north and south of Route 106, but although there were good views of perched White-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawks, and Crested Caracaras, as well as Northern Harriers and American Kestrels, sadly no Aplomado.

Olive Sparrow 4857Home base shifted back to Weslaco and on March 2 another morning at Frontera in a vain search for the Golden-crowned Warbler, although a Gray Hawk showed up and a pair of Olive Sparrows and a bathing female Black-throated Green Warbler provided the best photos. Around noon I visited the Edinburg World Birding Center whose advertised talisman is the Green Kingfisher that I was still looking for, but although this spot had the largest number of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks I had ever seen in one White-faced Ibis - nonbreeding with Black-necked Stiltplace, and a cooperative Curve-billed Thrasher, the Kingfisher was a no-show. After a stop back at Quinta Mazatlan, where there were a pair of Clay-colored Thrushes but again no Tropical Parula, it was on to Santa Ana NWR in Alamo, still in search of the Green Kingfisher. A long, hot, hike out to Pintail Lake yielded both of the other kingfishers, but no Green, and there were lots of waterfowl and a nicely sun-lit White-faced Ibis keeping company with the Black-necked Stilts.

Golden-crowned WarblerSheer persistence finally paid off at Frontera the next-to-last morning, when the Golden-crowned Warbler (8) decided to call immediately adjacent to the trail where I happened to be and,  almost providentially, appeared in the open at eye level for a mere few seconds, just long enough for a single burst of photos, before Northern Beardless-Tyrannuletdisappearing again deep into the thicket, after which I never saw it again. This allowed the rest of the morning for a pair of Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets and at long last a female Green Kingfisher (9) which I found in, of all places, a creek at the other side of Frontera, a mere hundred yards from the warbler’s location, although in a vastly differing habitat. At midday Green Kingfisher - femalea third visit to Quinta Mazatlan produced a number of Inca Doves and Orange-crowned Warblers, and lots of Plain Chachalacas, but for the final time no Tropical Parula, and the day ended relaxing by the bird bath pool at Frontera with visits by a Clay-colored Thrush, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Wilson’s Warbler, and a nice study of the black-backed Texas race of Lesser Goldfinch.Lesser Goldfinch - Texas black-backed race

Before heading to the Harlingen Airport on March 4,  the remaining time was spent along the Old Port Isabel Road back in Brownsville, where, along with a traveling Audubon Group from Austin, the search continued long and hard one last time for an Aplomado Falcon. We actually did see a pair take off from their distant hacking tower, but the view was so distant, and through the refractive heat waves, that the sighting was circumstantial at best.

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