Friday, March 9, 2012

The Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a place that quickens the pulse of birders because of the number of birds found in the U.S. only there. Although we have been there four times previously, and there were no life birds possible, I felt great anticipation heading down to the valley.

On Friday, March 2, we drove from Kingsville, with our first stop being the Sarita Rest Stop. It was a clear day and warm, but windy as it has been every day since we arrived in Texas. We walked the area for about a half hour, looking unuccessfully for Tropical Parula here...we've never had it here, but usually it is at the smaller pullout about a mile south (not there today either). But the first South Texas specialties were found, including Golden-fronted Woodpecker and several very vocal Black-crested Titmice.

Black-crested Titmouse

A more common species there was Brewer's Blackbird. Surprisingly, these were the first we'd seen on the trip.

Brewer's Blackbird

It was also nice to see some flowers, including the Spiderwort species below.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp).

The next stop was Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. We drove the loop road, but there was not much water in the lake beds, so few shorebirds. There were plenty of mosquitos, though nowhere near as many as farther up the coast. The photo blind was fun, as always, and we saw Green Jays quite well here, in addition to White-tipped Doves, and a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at the feeders.

Green Jay

We navigated our way onto South Padre Island through Port Isabel but the traffic was so congested that we gave up trying to bird there and headed to Harlingen for the night.

On Saturday, March 3, we headed to a new area in the Valley that we'd never been to before, Llano Estero Grande State Park. This is probably one of the nicest places we visited in the Valley as it was easy to walk around, there were feeders at several places, a nice deck overlooking a pond, and trails and dikes throughout. One target bird here was a female Rose-throated Becard that had been seen most days for quite some time; a potential new species for my Texas list. But it never showed. Instead, we got good looks at a Broad-tailed Hummingbird that had been coming in to a feeder for a couple months, as well as a couple Black-chinned and a male Rufous. Two Clay-colored Thrushes were interesting, as was a male Hooded Oriole. The latter was up in a tree above the Clay-colored Thrushes, not giving me the views I needed to confirm the ID, until a larger nearly identical oriole came and chased it Altamira Oriole. Most of the photos from this locale were of cooperative waterfowl, including a local rarity, a Cinnamon Teal that didn't stop swimming for a decent photo, so all I have is this record shot.

Cinnamon Teal

I'm not sure what is going on between these two Green-winged Teal.

Green-winged Teal

Another Valley specialty, the Least Grebe, eventually put in an appearance close enough for photos; there were several on this small pond.

Least Grebe

Perhaps the bird most associated with the Rio Grande Valley is the Great Kiskadee, and they were easy to photograph at the feeders here.

Great Kiskadee

Next it was on to Weslaco and the Frontera Audubon thicket, where one special bird had been seen daily for at least two months, a Golden-crowned Warbler. This is a Mexican species that occasionally wanders north of the border, but was a new ABA species for us although we'd seen quite a few in Central America. After about an hour and a half, the bird was found for us by John Schwarz, who obtained outstanding photos minutes before we came along (check them out here), but alas the bird remained a skulker for us, though eventually brief but good views were had as it moved around below eye level only a few feet away. Before finding this mega-rarity, we wandered the short trails in search of other species. A Spotted Towhee made a brief appearance, and a Green Kingfisher was well hidden at the back of a small lagoon.

Green Kingfisher

A Buff-bellied Hummingbird perched in the open for quite a few minutes, very uncharacteristic for a hummingbird, right near the spot where the Golden-crowned Warbler had appeared.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

The sun was warming things up, so the butterflies and dragonflies were becoming active. I managed a photo of this Great Pondhawk, one of the commonest species on the trip in the Valley.

Great Pondhawk

Our final destination for the day was Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The birding was slow, but the butterflies and dragonflies were pretty good. Also, the first identifiable lizard of the trip was alongside one of the trails, an Eastern Fence Lizard.

Eastern Fence Lizard

One of the commonest butterflies in the Valley was the Phaon Cresent, and I had a number of opportunities to photograph them, both at Santa Ana NWR and subsequently.

Phaon Crescent

Another fairly common species, though not seen everywhere, was the Checkered Skipper.

Checkered Skipper on Lantana

We ran into friends from Michigan, Mark and Joanie Hubinger, who live in the Upper Peninsula from spring through fall, and volunteer at the refuge during the winter. We talked about a few things related to birds, bugs, and other critters in the valley. But the birding was fairly slow this afternoon, with the main highlight being a Ringed Kingfisher along the Willow Lake trail, so we headed back to Harlingen for the night.

On Sunday, March 3, we got up extra early to head for Bentsen State Park, so that we could at least hear, and hopefully see some Common Pauraques along the roads near there. We were quite successful with these and then headed into the park just at surise for a morning of birding. At the first set of feeders, the Plain Chachalacas were already scarfing down the seed when we arrived.

Plain Chachalacas

It was quite a birdy morning, and with some work I eventually located a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, new for my Texas list. The photo blind was reasonably good, but mainly with just two species in attendance, Green Jays and White-tipped Doves.

White-tipped Dove

As the morning warmed up, the butterflies became active, including this Gulf Fritillary.

Gulf Fritillary

We decided it was time to head over to the nearby International Butterfly Center. This site was still under development, and not open to the public, when we were here in July 2006, so it was nice to check it out especially since we've been members of the Center's sponsor, the North American Butterfly Association, for several years. There were several species present, but they were difficult to photograph partly because it was windy (yet again), and partly because many individuals were quite worn. Many of my butterfly photos from this site are of skippers that I'll have to work out the identifications from the photos after we get home. But one of the sought after species we did see included the Mexican Blue Wave.

Mexican Blue Wave

Another was the Bordered Patch.

Bordered Patch

From here, we went to Anzalduas County Park, but were disappointed becuase the road up over the dam was closed, so the main birding area was not accessible. We went north to McAllen for the night.

On Monday, March 5 we headed west, to Salineno, where we went down to the river first to check for Ringed and Green Kingfishers and Muscovy Ducks...negative on all these this time, unlike in July 2006 when we had them all here. But the trailer park area where birders were maintaining feeders was quite active and productive. I hesitate to post yet another photo of a very abundant Texan species, the Great-tailed Grackle, but this one was sitting adjacent to Red-winged Blackbirds giving a very good size comparison.

Great-tailed Grackle with Red-winged Blackbirds

Other common Valley species were easy to photograph here too, including Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

Green Jay

Great Kiskadee

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

And the Altamira Orioles put on quite a show too, with a couple adults and at least three second-year (first spring) individuals, a plumage not illustrated in many field guides.

Adult Altamira Oriole

Second-year Altamira Oriole

I had hopes of photographing Audubon's Oriole here too, but although one was singing across the road (and another across the Rio Grance in Mexico), they didn't turn up at the feeder while we were there. At one point, my ears picked up a familiar vocalization, the squealing "sklee" of a Pine Siskin. Very soon, two of them were on the feeders in front of us. Perhaps a rarity in the Rio Grande Valley? But the rarity we'd come to see, as had many others since it first appeared in the fall, was the Brown Jay. We had seen several Brown Jays at Rancho Santa Margarita in the 1980s (and many in Central America too), but in recent years they've become quite rare north of the U.S. border...until this one turned up. He came in fairly early, maybe around 8:30 after we'd only waited a half hour.

Brown Jay

Although he is well over twice their size, he was dive-bombed by a single Great Kiskadee and he didn't stay more than a few minutes; also the scores of Red-winged Blackbirds tended to overwhelm the other birds too. We called it a successful day and departed, but not before a pair of Northern Bobwhites ran across the road in front of us, heading for the feeders no doubt.

Our searches for White-collared Seedeaters at Zapata and San Ygnacio were not successful this time, perhaps because of the wind or perhaps just poor luck. We continued north through Laredo to Uvalde where we stayed the night. We made a trip north to the Frio Bat Cave entry road where we waited outside the gate to see if we could see the bats emerge. But apparently they hadn't arrived in numbers yet, as we only saw a dozen or so flying randomly around long after sunset when it was nearly dark. The skies were very clear, and the wind had let up some, which allowed us to have great scope views of four planets, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, plus a nearly full moon.

The next posting will cover West Texas.


Jerry said...

Excellent post! Wish I were there...

Haddock said...

Some lovely pictures here.

hoalawman said...

Allen, I do appreciate these posts. Keep them coming. Rich Vial, Portland, Oregon.