While my buddies headed home to Miami, Panama City Beach or New Orleans, I spent my spring break doing something less traditional among college students: I headed to south Texas to bird (without visiting the infamous South Padre Island). I was accompanied by my girlfriend Alicia Gerrety (Gulf Breeze, FL) and Carlos Sanchez (Miami, FL). This would be the first trip to the Rio Grande Valley for all of us. Prior to this trip, I had made two trips to Costa Rica, and single trips to Panama, Peru, and most recently, Mexico. Alicia joined me for one trip to Costa Rica, and Carlos has birded Costa Rica and Ecuador. That being said, many of the typical south Texas targets were not life birds, but ABA birds.
By camping six out of seven nights, traveling in a very fuel efficient car, and eating cheaply, we managed to spend roughly $300 each. Our field guide of choice was the Sibley Guide to Birds (2000), and A Birders Guide to the Rio Grande Valley (Revised 2008) was put to good use. Because of its Google Map, GPS, and internet functions, my iPhone 3G proved to be invaluable in many situations. The phone allowed us to find our current location and guide us to our desired destination, as well as allowed us to consult the listservs and Texas RBA.
South Texas embraces ecotourism, appealing to birders and photographers from across the spectrum. At many of the spots, including Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, we saw that there were even tram services. We were not there to watch Green Jays upon Green Jays from the comforts of a vehicle, or retreat to a hotel by 10:00 am. We managed to sweep nearly all of our targets within reason, aside from those that had departed just prior to our arrival or those for which we were just too early. We were successful because we planned well, stayed flexible, and birded at full speed for every target. This entailed a lot of walking, a lot of driving, and little rest during the day and part of the night. And for the case of Alicia and me, caffeine.
March 12, 2011:
On March 11, 2011, Carlos Sanchez made the dull, ten hour trip from Miami to Pensacola, arriving after 11:00 pm. By 5:20 am we finally managed to squeeze into Carlos’s Mini Cooper after some intense trial-and-error, puzzle-like packing and shoved off from Pensacola for Goose Island State Park in Rockport, Texas. We only made brief stops for gas and a stop for Subway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where our form of English clashed with that of the two employees. Birds of note along the drive included Wood Duck in Mississippi, White-faced Ibis east of Houston, and a Crested Caracara before Rockport. By around 4:00 pm, we pulled up to the intersection of Lamar Beach Road and 8th Street in Rockport, Texas, where a family of Whooping Cranes were reported to be feeding. Within minutes, we were looking at about 350 Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, 3 WHOOPING CRANES and 2 Sandhill Cranes feeding west of the aforementioned intersection.
We backtracked to Goose Island State Park ($5 per person) several minutes later, where a Yellow-faced Grassquit was being seen nearly daily. We arrived in a sleep-deprived haze, barely registering some of the bird calls around us at this point, but picking up Inca Dove, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Black-crested Titmouse around the vicinity of where the grassquit was being seen. Several birders in the area had seen the grassquit earlier, and it was just a matter of time before the bird made its feeding circuit through the area again. A few minutes later, I heard the YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT singing softly from the adjacent woodlands before it flew across the road and made its way over to the campsite to feed and drink, providing great looks for all the birders and curious bystanders.
Finding ourselves ahead of schedule, we proceeded south, skirting the coast towards Corpus Christi. It was at this point that we realized how close we were to a Little Gull at Port Aransas, a bird not necessarily on our target list due to logistics and it not being a Texas specialty. We shot for it regardless as the late afternoon moved towards evening, picking up two Bald Eagles over Redfish Bay. Just minutes away from the bird, we found ourselves in a long line of cars waiting for the ferry necessary to cross the barrier island hosting the gull. With little daylight left, along with the unwillingness to compromise part of the next day to chasing the gull, we left for Corpus Christi. There were simply too many exciting Mexican strays in south Texas. After dinner in Corpus Christi, we booked it to McAllen, where we stayed in the accommodating Ramada Limited ($70 per night). A Barn Owl flew over the highway somewhere between Corpus Christi and McAllen.
March 13, 2011:
The next morning, March 13, we awoke far from rested and arrived at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park ($5 per person), picking up the common specialties very quickly. Around the visitor’s center, we picked up White-tailed Kite, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Green Jay, Buff-bellied Humingbird, Great Kiskadee, Black Phoebe, and Olive and Lincoln’s Sparrows. After entering the park, feeders on either side of the road hosted a large flock of Plain Chachalacas, and our first Clay-colored Thrush fed nearby. We made our way towards the Acacia Loop, where rarities such as Rufous-backed Robin, Tropical Parula, Blue Bunting and Black-vented Oriole had all been seen nearly daily (aside from the robin). We heard our first White-tipped Doves and Altamira Orioles en route, and finally saw White-tipped Doves and Long-billed Thrashers at the feeders at the intersection of the Kiskadee Trail and Acacia Loop. The oxbow lake (resaca) had Neotropic Cormorants and Least Grebes.
We searched for the target rarities, although by midday, none of them had been reported. We ran into John Kellam, a fellow South Floridian birder, who gave us several pointers as well as directed us to a fantastic RV park that welcomed primitive campers, the Americana RV Park ($20 per night per site) just north of Bentsen-Rio Grande on Bentsen Palm Drive in Mission. Everyone was very friendly and talkative (usually mentioning how glad they were to be in the “tropics” instead of their native Midwestern state) and the grounds had well-maintained facilities, a laundry room, and hot showers. We arrived at the RV park after 11:00 am, set up our tents, ate, and Alicia and I napped while Carlos spent the heat of the day searching for Mountain Plovers near the town of Sebastian. He missed the plovers, but picked up White-tailed and Harris’s Hawks, American Pipit, and Horned Lark, while Alicia picked up Gray Hawk at the RV Park while I caught up on sleep.
Carlos pulled up in the early afternoon after just speaking on the phone to Allen Williams in Pharr, who had a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak in his yard since January. In no time, we pulled up to his property, made a reasonable donation, and birded his well-maintained yard. Within minutes of arriving, the female CRIMSON-COLLARED GROSBEAK popped up like clockwork, feeding on oranges at the feeding station. His yard also hosted both Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrashers plus Lesser Goldfinches, as well as a species of Leaf-cutter Ants, insects that Carlos and I thought were limited to the tropics. To add to how special Allen’s yard is, it hosted the ABAs first and only (as of March 2011) Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush in 2004.
Our next stop was the McAllen Green Parakeet roost in the late afternoon at the intersection of North 10th Street and Dove Avenue. We watched upwards of 100 Green Parakeets fly in and stage in the area. Far from unfamiliar with Aratinga parakeets, we left for another familiar bird before the Green Parakeets numbers could peak: Red-crowned Parrots, which had been known to roost to the southeast of the parakeet staging area. Despite a cruise and stake out, we could not pick up any Red-crowned Parrots, as their roost may have moved. We found a deli on North 10th Street for dinner, and headed straight back to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park after nightfall, where we picked up over five Common Pauraques on the roads and nearly ten Eastern Screech-Owls. We could not pick up any Elf Owls, although we were a week or so early for them. We settled for looks at a Bobcat and Striped Skunk. We retreated for the Americana for the night, listening to flyover Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Common Pauraques throughout the night.
March 14, 2011:
Feeling better rested and refreshed, the three of us found ourselves at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park just after sunrise. Here we met a young and tatted up (having multiple tattoos) birder from New Hampshire, Lee. A professional mountain climber, his travels have led him around the country in search of adventure and birds. He joined us for the rest of the morning. We found all of the same birds as the previous day, as well as picking up Hooded Orioles at the visitor’s center ponds, many Altamira Orioles, and a singing Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (my 500th ABA bird) singing atop a tall tree along the Nopal Road nearest the Palxtle Circle. We would hear two more that morning. Gray Hawks called frequently in this area, but would not show themselves just yet. We believe they had a nest in this area. While searching for the rarities all morning, we heard a parula species sing in the immediate area that a female Tropical Parula had been seen recently. However, the song sounded suspiciously like a Northern Parula, which were migrating through the area by this point. A Diamondback Water Snake was found crossing the road in this area. With no reports of the rarities again that morning, we left for Estero Llano Grande State Park in Mercedes, where a White-throated Thrush had been reported. We picked up Couch’s Kingbird at the Americana RV Park.
At Estero Llano Grande, we checked into the visitor center, paid ($5 per person), and got directions for the thrush. We made a brief stop to watch Texas Spiny and Texas Rose-bellied Lizards and Texas Patchnose Snake near the visitor center, and the pond hosted all three teal species, Mottled Duck, Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck, and Least Grebes. We wandered the area where the White-throated Thrush had been reported and were somewhat confused as to which area was the correct location. After consulting the Texas RBA web site, we decided that we were not watching the correct feeders. The correct feeders belonged to the trailer denoted by the mailbox that read Ben Basham. His water feature and feeders were very well hidden, but once we found the right area, the WHITE-THROATED THRUSH appeared within several minutes. After satisfying looks, we took off to bird elsewhere in Estero Llano Grande for kingfishers.
Along the marsh vegetation, we spotted two Yellow-crowned Night Herons and a Sora, and we were directed to roosting Common Pauraques by park volunteers. A large American Alligator did not merit any attention from us Floridians. Kingfishers had apparently been absent in the area at the time, so we headed back to Bentsen once again.
Back at Bentsen, Alicia pointed out a Greater Roadrunner stalking Blue Spiny Lizards. A female Blue Bunting had been reported at the Acacia Loop, and we scoured the area for several hours, picking up Gray Hawk overhead and Black-headed Grosbeak at the feeders. Carlos decided that we should check the oxbow lake again for kingfishers, and we were rewarded with a handsome Ringed Kingfisher. A Bobcat casually walked across the road closer to the evening. We found a Chinese-Vietnamese place to eat in McAllen, which was playing a basketball game between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. The Heat would win that game by 30 points, I should add! We called it a night back at the Americana.
March 15, 2011:
The morning of March 15th, we found ourselves at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge ($5 per person) in Alamo. Lee would bird with us here before we finally parted ways. Our main target here was Hook-billed Kite. The ponds held Least Grebes, Black-necked Stilts, Solitary Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, and yet another Bobcat. Passerines included Carolina Wren and Golden-crowned Kinglets. We made our way up to the tallest platform before the thermals started forming and waited for raptors. While waiting for our targeted Hook-billed Kites to display, we watched a White-tailed Kite, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in migration, Bronzed Cowbird, and Altamira Orioles. We could see the Rio Grande and Mexico, as well. After some waiting, we were treated to three, possibly four HOOK-BILLED KITES from the platform. Eventually, they perched in the open, allowing views through the scope.
We could not turn up the Groove-billed Ani, but Carlos found a Green Kingfisher at the small, sheltered pond along the wildlife drive. After the overcast cleared, we found two endangered Indigo Snakes, one around six feet long. Santa Ana NWR is likely the best place in the country to see these snakes. Alicia spotted a White-tailed Hawk overhead just as we left.
Our plan was to pack up at the Americana and leave for Salineno for the afternoon, but after checking the Texas RBA, we decided to look for Groove-billed Ani, Tropical Parula, and Blue Buntings that had all been reported at Bentsen that morning! Yet again, we arrived at the state park to catch up with these targets. The Inca Doves didn’t think we would be able to, and reminded us again and again as they sang “no hope”. Alicia and I decided to stay in the Acacia Loop area for the parula and bunting while Carlos left for the anis at the Hawk Tower. After searching for about thirty minutes, I spoke to two local birders who nonchalantly mentioned they were watching not one but two female BLUE BUNTINGS at that moment. Alicia and I got on the birds almost immediately, and I called Carlos, who had just arrived at the Hawk Tower for the anis. We stayed on the birds, and Carlos arrived less than ten minutes later and got on the birds while sweating and catching his breath after running over a mile through the afternoon heat. Persistence paid off. We finally caught up with one of the Bentsen rarities. Rufous-backed Robin had not been reported in over a week, Black-vented Oriole in nearly a week, and Tropical Parula was not cooperative. A Swainson’s Hawk and two Greater Roadrunners were spotted on the way out for the last time.
As we drove west along U-83 towards Salineno and Falcon State Park, we noticed the drastic change in habitat. Two White-tailed Hawks were around La Homa over a Walmart, and Crested Caracaras sightings became more frequent in the mesquite-scrub habitat. We spotted the first of many Chihuahuan Ravens before reaching the Salineno feeding station. At this feeding station, we waited patiently for Audubon’s Oriole. The oriole never showed, but we were treated to a typical south Texas feeder watch that included Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Black-crested Titmice, Long-billed Thrashers, Olive Sparrows, and Hooded and Altamira Orioles.
From the feeders, we walked down to the Rio Grande in the late afternoon. Looking west from the boat launch, the island hosts a small number of Red-billed Pigeons that roost there consistently. I happened to be scanning the island when two RED-BILLED PIGEONS circled and landed, one being visible. We grabbed the scope and took the trail that leads to the island, but could not find the right angle to see the perched birds and left with the intention of returning the next day. We set up camp at Falcon State Park ($2 per person for entrance, $6 to camp) just before sundown. We cruised for reptiles and mammals, producing nothing, and ate Subway in Roma. Roma was a bit seedy, with Subway being the best dinner option over the fast food chains. Back at the state park, I found a large Texas Rat Snake at the restrooms, and a Common Pauraque called most of the night.
March 16, 2011:
At 7:25 on March 16th, we left the camp for San Ygnacio. Crested Caracaras, Greater Roadrunner, Ringed Kingfishers, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Cave Swallows were seen en route. At 8:10, we met Joel Ruiz in San Ygnacio, about 45 minutes from Falcon Dam State Park. We were here for White-collared Seedeaters, which frequent a small lot with a dry, grassy ditch. Joel told us we were just late for a female seedeater, which appeared briefly just as we were parking. We would dip on these seedeaters for another location, the library pond at Zapata, which hosts seedeaters as well. We could not turn up any seedeaters here, either. The most interesting sightings here were of two young Nutria. Having “wasted” our morning on one bird, we returned to Falcon State Park with a fairly long list of targets we had to see during the afternoon to stay on schedule. After some lunch in Zapata, we got to work. A Pyrrhuloxia was seen as we neared Falcon State Park.
Our first stop was a RV site at Falcon State Park, where up to ten Scaled Quails were feeding at a feeder set up by some resident snowbirds. A group had already been there since about 10:00 am, and it was nearing 12:30 when we pulled up. I spotted a Harris’s Hawk nearby, and we chased the bird down in hopes of better looks. When we doubled back to the RV site, the birders were waving us over. A pair of Scaled Quail were working their way in, but were fairly skittish. Satisfied with their looks, the other birders left, and we remained with the couple who were feeding the quails. The quails obviously didn’t like all of the attention, because within minutes, 8 Scaled Quails came in to feed. They were accompanied by two Black-throated Sparrows. A Cactus Wren sang in the distance as we left to our next spot within the park. Beside the visitor’s center was another trailer where an English woman had set up her RV for the season. She was volunteering for the park, and knew her resident birds well. We waited patiently for over 30 minutes as birds moved in. Here we saw the usual south Texas feeder birds, as well as Northern Bobwhite and more Pyrrhuloxia. Finally, our target birds appeared: two Audubon’s Orioles, a juvenile and an adult.
We departed to Falcon County Park, picking up more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Verdin, looks at Cactus Wren, Cassin’s (unanimously the least memorable of our target species), Lark and Vesper Sparrows, Lark Buntings, many more Pyrrhuloxias and Western Meadowlarks. Another highlight was a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, which I barely managed to save from traffic as it moved across the road.
Finding ourselves ahead of schedule yet again, we subjected ourselves to a long and hot wait at Salineno until the Red-billed Pigeons came to roost. We took time to eat and catch up with our notes at the feeders before finding a good vantage point along the Rio Grande near the island. It was interesting to see fishermen in boats, easily meandering back and forth between the Mexican and American borders in search of fish. At 5:55 pm, Carlos spotted a lone RED-BILLED PIGEON fly in from the east on the American side of the river and bank towards the island before landing somewhere on the landing. This time, looks were more satisfying. A Ringed Kingfisher flew along the Mexican side of the river.
Realizing that we still had daylight to work with, and feeling ambitious after our afternoon fortune, we drove back to San Ygnacio. Within five minutes, we got on a female WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER at the location where we failed to see them earlier that day. Joel Ruiz happened to pass by and congratulated us on our sighting. We ate at a fantastic, simple Mexican restaurant in Zapata, and retreated back to Falcon State Park in high spirits. We had cleaned up on our targets in this area. Back at camp, we found a small scorpion and tarantula around the restrooms, and a Coyote called mournfully throughout the night.
March 17, 2011:
We were up before dawn, packed up, and left after sunrise. Our objective was to make it to Lost Maples State Natural Area, west of San Antonio, by 3:00pm. Coopers, Harris’s and Red-tailed Hawks and Crested Caracaras were seen along the way. We were stopped at a Homeland Security check point and briefly questioned. By the town of Uvalde, we watched as the desert scrub and mesquite quickly gave way to more dramatic topography, junipers and oaks. We had a long lunch in Uvalde and arrived at Lost Maples SNA just before 3:00 pm. The drive in between was worth the trip, aside of the birds, simply because of the scenery and views. Wild Turkeys and the first of many Common Ravens were seen in the vicinity of the entrance.
At the visitor’s center, we heard our first GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLERS. We parked, snacked, and made our way up the West Trail. It wouldn’t be long until we tracked down the Golden-cheeked Warblers, as well as Hutton’s Vireo, Canyon Wren, and Black-and-white Warblers. Alicia spotted both a Short-lined Skink and a young Baird’s Rat Snake, a very uncommon snake species. Towards the highest point, over 2,000 feet in elevation, we saw more Common Ravens and the first of many Rufous-crowned Sparrows. A Western Scrub-Jay was seen in our descent, and the canyon below yielded another Canyon Wren and Spotted Towhees. Our last notable bird of the day was a Zone-tailed Hawk that Alicia spotted. They breed in the area, but this sighting was somewhat early. The only place within fifteen miles to eat is the Lost Maples Café in Utopia. The food was not extraordinary, but their pies were. We set up camp for the night within a canyon, allowing for a cool, comfortable night’s sleep.
March 18, 2011:
We left our campsite at 6:45 for Kerr Wildlife Management Area. Though not a considerable distance away, we noticed that the area is dense with White-tailed Deer the night before, and we wanted to drive fairly slowly. Between Lost Maples and Kerr, we watched a nightjar species take off from the roadside and into a pasture. Passing several deer along the way, we arrived at Kerr WMA (free) just as it opened at 8:00 am. We checked into the office and were told that Black-capped Vireos had been seen and heard in recent days. Up to the challenge, we parked and began our search. It was a windy, overcast day, and passerines were slow to begin foraging. Over five hours, we could not find any Black-capped Vireos. A park biologist directed us to an area where he had seen one the day before, but also explained that many were moving through and not on territory yet. We investigated every scold, mixed flock, and movement, but we would remain without our vireo. We knew that in a matter of a week or so, finding one would not be a problem. Birds we found in the area included Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Hutton’s and White-eyed Vireos, many Black-crested Titmice, Bewick’s Wrens, Nashville Warbler, a handful of Golden-cheeked Warblers, and singing Field and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. A very unexpected surprise came in the form of a likely BAIRD’S SPARROW, a vagrant to the Edward’s Plateau, in the grassy area just before the North Owl boundary. After flushing it several times from tall grass, it flew into an oak, and could not be relocated. I was the only one to get diagnostic looks, and we could not get pictures.
It was time to start the return back to Florida. We made a pass by the Alamo in San Antonio, but didn’t bother parking due to the large amounts of tourists. We had Mexican for lunch east of San Antonio, the fifth time or so during the trip. We headed to Galveston, where Carlos had worked over the summer surveying shorebirds, to bird the famous Bolivar Flats the next morning. We ate at an excellent Vietnamese restaurant that Carlos knew of called Pho 20. Finding a place to camp was another story, however. Every campground in the area was booked due to spring break, so we searched the town of Hitchcock, where my phone read RV parks abounded. It was late by the time we decided to settle for a shady little RV park ($25) that did not offer any facilities or showers, and barely enough grass to set up a tent. It was a far cry from the Americana in Mission. I showered using a faucet and antibacterial hand wipes, something I learned to do while camping in the neotropics. We all went to bed to a chorus of Green Tree Frogs singing in a marsh nearby, interrupted only by the yelling of others in the RV park and a train that must have traversed right through the middle of the park.
March 19, 2011:
After packing up our gear and fleeing Hitchcock, we wandered Galveston for food, finding most places inexplicably closed. Overpriced power bars would have to do. Taking the ferry from Galveston to the Bolivar Peninsula is fairly quick and free, and takes you to the fantastic Bolivar Flats. The flats were created by the implementation of the jetty. A longshore current, which runs parallel to the shore, naturally transports sediments. To allow the port into Galveston to remain deep enough for large ships, the jetty was implemented to prevent the sediments from naturally flowing southward, causing the sediment to accumulate on the north side of the jetty. Though usually causing shoreline erosion in many cases, it provides for excellent shorebirding at Bolivar Flats. Numbering in the thousands, the most abundant shorebird was American Avocet, followed by Willet, Marbled Godwit, Dunlin, and Western Sandpipers. Also present were American Oystercatchers, Black-bellied, Piping, and Semipalmated Plovers, a sharp looking Greater Yellowlegs in breeding plumage, Sanderling, and Short-billed Dowitchers. American White Pelicans, Reddish Egret, and Roseate Spoonbills were also out on the flats. We could not pull up any Long-billed Curlews at a nearby salt marsh, but added Eastern Meadowlark to our trip list.
It was time to head back to Florida. Carlos had to be back in Miami by the next afternoon, and I had two tests on the 21st. We were able to drive through High Island, where we did not have time to stop. An aggressive pickup truck driver in Louisiana must have taken the entire idea of Carlos’s car the wrong way. “Bubba” had a few words for us as he zoomed around us and struggled to keep along side of us, which was mildly entertaining until he exited the highway. Hopefully it was to trade his old pickup for a more practical vehicle, but that is debatable. Out of desperation, Alicia and I split a “po boy” sandwich in LaFayette, and my phone lead us to the Atcha Greek and Lebanese restaurant in Baton Rouge. The latter was by far the better and healthier choice. Our last bird of the trip was Canada Goose, when a small flock flew over I-10 in Alabama.
Canada Goose (Alabama)
Wood Duck (Mississippi)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Pileated Woodpecker (Louisiana)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Green Warbler
Boat-tailed Grackle (Alabama)
House Sparrow Aratinga Aratinga