To paraphrase my birder-friend Stan Olson and one of the characters in the movie “Zoolander”: The Lower Rio Grande Valley, it’s just so hot right now!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Annual conference of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) has never failed to provide me with great birding opportunities in various parts of the United States, but this year’s conference in Austin, Texas (13-18 June) was to be exceptional. I’d easily persuaded my longtime ATLA birding buddy, Eric Friede (from Connecticut) to join me (I’m from Calgary, Alberta) for a week’s birding (19-25 June) in the lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) after the conference. Two other Canadian birders, Stan Olson (a librarian with whom I’d birded in California) and his non-librarian friend Lynn Miller (both from Langley—near Vancouver—B.C.) accepted our invitation to join us for the LRGVportion of the trip.
Lynn and Stan arrived in Austin on the night of the 18th, and since their luggage had been delayed we decided to repeat the outing that local birder Roy Reinarz had taken Eric and me on on the morning of the 15th (and which I’ve described in a separate trip report). We departed the hotel at 5:30 a.m. and made for the Shin Oak observation platform, the first of three stops in the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. We arrived about an hour later, fortunately without incident, after encountering a number of deer feeding alongside the road.
Just before we pulled into the parking lot we had a fleeting glimpse of a Crested Caracara overhead. The rest of the birds were neither as active nor as vocal as they’d been on Wednesday morning, but we got very good looks at perched Painted Buntings and Yellow-breasted Chats quite early on. (Listening at length to the song of the Buntings convinced me that I’d mistaken their song for that of the House Finch during our first visit). We also had distant unsatisfactory views of what we suspected were Canyon Towhees. Then a sparrow perched on the railing of the boardwalk caught our attention. I took it first for a Field Sparrow, but when it sang there was none of the bouncing-ball melody of that species. It turned out to be a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, which, along with the Bunting, was a lifer for at least two of us. We waited ages for any sign of a Black-capped Vireo. Finally, around 8:00, one flushed and perch for about two seconds on top of a bush, allowing everyone but Lynn to get a good view of it.
Shortly thereafter we decided to move on, since we had two other sites to visit, along with a stop to make at the airport, before the five-and-a-half hour drive to McAllen. On leaving Shin Oak we turned left on FM1869 (“FM”, Eric informed us, stand for “farm-to-market”) and then left on FM1174. At the bottom of the first hill we parked and examined the flocks of swallows overhead to give Lynn and Stan a chance to pick out the Cave Swallows among the Cliff Swallows that were swirling overhead. We also caught brief glimpses of a Lesser Goldfinch and heard a Red-eyed Vireo. After a couple of minutes it was on to Doeskin Ranch, which produced only Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and a wren we took to be a Bewick’s.
Continuing west on FM1174 we turned left where it joined FM1431 and drove the winding hill-country road for 10-15 minutes before reaching the turnoff for Warbler Vista just above the town of Lago Vista. We climbed the gravel road and parked at the first parking lot we encountered (it has a biffy and a sign with a map of the Warbler Vista trail). The trail leads down the hillside through a mixture of cypress and deciduous trees—ideal Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat. At about marker 10 (each marker is a flat rock with a painted stencil of the warbler on it) we encountered Carolina Chickadees, and at about marker 12 we began to hear the buzzy interrogative song of the warbler. The birds were much more elusive than they had been on Wednesday, but each of us managed to get at least a fleeting look that was enough to convince us that we’d actually seen the bird. A small flock of Black-crested Titmice that accompanied one group of warblers proved a life-bird bonus for both Stan and Lynn. As we descended the gravel road back to FM1431 we noticed a couple of birds on a power line. The first was a Western Scrub-jay, the second a hummingbird that we decided to call a Ruby-throated.
The last leg of the trip down Highway 281 from Three Rivers to McAllen passed through country that reminded me of the savannah of the state of Veracruz, Mexico—a little less lush, a lttle more arid, but the same kind of flat tree-studded plain presided over by the watchful eyes of ever-present flocks of Black and Turkey Vultures. About 50 km. (30 mi.) south of Falfurrias the number of raptors began to increase, and Lynn pulled over whenever we spotted birds that didn’t look like vultures. One stretch produced three Caracaras on power poles within a couple of hundred meters of each other, and we must’ve seen at least a dozen between Falfurrias and McAllen in the course of our trip. The next raptor was a circling hawk that looked like a robust Swainson’s except for the white tail with black terminal band—WHITE-TAILED HAWK, the first of two for the trip and my first lifer of the day. The four of us checked into our room at the Expressway Motel 6 in McAllen at about 6:30 p.m. on the 19th.
Our itinerary, which we’d vetted with others who’d birded the area, called for a day at Santa Ana and Bentsen for the central valley specialties; a day at Brownsville and environs and the coast (we decided on a combination of the Brownsville Ship Channel Boat Ramp, see ABA Guide p. 38, and the boardwalk at the convention center on South Padre Island); a day at San Ygnacio, Chapeño, and points west for desert and western specialties; and two days to chase what we’d missed and any rarities that might’ve been reported.
20 June 2005. We arrived at Santa Ana shortly before 6:00 a.m. and were the only birders there; in fact, we only encountered two other birders all morning. “Breet!” the sound was coming from a yellow-breasted Kingbird perched on an overhead wire. Stan, who’d been listening to his cd of LRGV bird songs during his daily commute, immediately identified it as a COUCH’S KINGBIRD, and we were off. Following the trail out of the visitor’s center, we stood by an irrigation canal and watched and listened as the life birds (I’m giving in upper case only the birds that were lifers or ABA firsts for me) came thick and fast: a GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER, gave a churring call and then flew into a tree, where it was joined by a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. On the levee a large-headed red-eyed cowbird was displaying by ruffling its neck feathers and raising its wings—BRONZED COWBIRD, a bird Stan and I and a friend had searched for in vain all over Brawley, CA a few years back. From the treetops GREAT KISKADEES shrieked eponymously. The distinctive bouncing-ball trill of an OLIVE SPPARROW sounded above the other songs, followed by an appearance by the bird itself. Then a BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD fanned its cinnamon tail feathers and perched briefly on a bush right in front of us. White-winged, Inca, and Common Ground-Doves made brief appearances in the air and on the gravel, and we began to hear the deep melancholy hooting of well-hidden WHITE-TIPPED DOVES. A small wren that we couldn’t identify flitted around the base of a palm tree. “RINGED KINGFISHER!” called Lynn. I was the only one who missed it. Moments later, he and I both failed to catch sight of the CLAY-COLORED ROBIN that Stan and Eric saw fly into the trees by the visitors’ center.
Stan spotted a larger bird foraging on the ground among the doves and Olive Sparrows—LONG-BILLED THRASHER! We headed west down the trail to the old manager’s residence, encountering GREEN JAYS—“I’ll bet my wife would become a birder if she saw one of those,” I exclaimed; and both seeing and hearing (how can you not here them?) PLAIN CHACHALACAS. “I’m hearing a TROPICAL PARULA,” I said as we made our way further down the trail. Stan agreed, though his local informants had told him that the bird wouldn’t be singing at this time of year. A few minutes of patiently scanning the treetops produced great views, and we noticed that this bird had no discernible eye-arcs. On the ground nearby (the old manager’s residence?) we spotted an American Robin, a bird that’s not even supposed to be around at this time of year.
That first hour or so was an Edenic experience. It was pure unselfconscious absorption: were four Adams naming the avifauna as if we were the first ones ever to see them—that raucous, goofy, turkey-like bird: how could you not call it a Plain Chachalaca?
After recovering our breath we made our way to Willow Lake, which had an abundance of cattails but little water. From the open observation deck we heard a Common Yellowthroat sing and saw Red-winged Blackbirds. Then a GREEN KINGFISHER made its first of three low passes over the reeds. Lynn, the only one of us to bring along a spotting scope for this particular sortie, found a distant raptor on a snag, which we soon identified as a HARRIS’S HAWK. After pausing to identify a Brown-crested Flycatcher, we made our way toward Pintail Lake. On the way we flushed a Yellow-billed Cuckoo just as we approached a clearing on the other side of which was a pendulous nest from which an oriole emerged. Hooded or Altamira? After the bird had made several trips to the nest we managed to make out a couple of diagnostic field marks: the orange wing patch and the limited amount of black on the face, which didn’t extend to the cheek, made it an ALTAMIRA.
As the lake came into view in the distance Lynn, who’d been keeping a close eye what appeared to be Great-tailed Grackles, pointed out a nearby GROOVE-BILLED ANI. As we approached the lake (it was now about 10:00 a.m.) we saw a number of herons and egrets fly over, some of which had the distinctive blue breast and white belly of the TRICOLORED HERON. The lake itself was very productive: COMMON MOORHENS hugged the reed beds, and a pair of MOTTLED DUCKS was discernible just beyond a log that arched over the far end of the lake. Pied-billed Grebes were feeding at several locations, and we kept scanning them in the hope of seeing a Least. Meanwhile, the waders were coming and going: Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron—it was like a heron and egret hall of fame—Cattle Egret and, most stunning of all, White Ibis. After about half an hour we moved on to the second lake, which lay about 100 meters to the east. It was full of Tricolored Herons, Black-necked Stilts, and White-faced Ibises. After a brief chat with a young park naturalist, who told us to look for Hook-billed Kites perched on power lines along the local highways, we made our way back toward the visitors’ center, picking up a singing Yellow-breasted Chat along the way. Surprisingly, the walk back yielded no life birds. After cooling off and tallying our list of life birds (which for some of us was approaching thirty) in the visitors’ center we decided to give Bentsen a try.
The inconspicuous sign at the visitors’ center and the locked gate to the park itself confused us somewhat, but eventually we registered, paid the $5.00 entry fee, and caught the first tram, stopping off at the Kingfisher overlook. The first bird we saw on the broad resaca (a much more romantic term than “oxbow lake”, don’t you think?) was a LEAST GREBE that was feeding almost at our feet. On the far shore a dark long-necked bird was perched in the willows. Yes! It wasn’t a cormorant but an ANHINGA, one of the birds I was most looking forward to seeing. Moments later a RINGED KINGFISHER treated us to an impressive flypast. “Hey, I’ve got a Green Heron, a Neotropic Cormorant, and an Anhinga all perched in one tree!” called Lynn. After finally getting a good look at a White-tipped Dove (much easier to do here than at Santa Ana because of the feeders) we hopped the tram for a trip to the Hawk Tower. This most impressive elevated boardwalk overlooks a resaca that was full of Least and Pied-billed Grebes, Common Moorhens, and American Coots. We also saw a Painted Bunting in the trees to the left of the tower and, yes, a hawk, a small grayish hawk that we were at pains to identify, some of us suggesting Hook-billed Kite, others Gray Hawk.
After shopping at Walmart (the parking lot had more cars with Mexican license plates than with Texan) for food and a spotlight we returned to Bentsen for a shot at owls and Common Pauraque. On our way in we encountered a cyclist who pointed out a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl roost. We made our way instead to a dead tree near the trailer loop that had recently hosted an Elf Owl, according to a couple of postings on Texbirds. We waited at the roost until almost 8:30 before giving up and moving to the Pygmy-Owl roost. Another no-show, which was a pity because either species would’ve been not only a lifer but my 500th ABA-area bird. As darkness fell we began to hear pauraques calling. We’d heard that the dyke road at the entrance to the park was a good place to see them. We walked along for about twenty minutes, listening and shining, but all the sounds seemed to be coming from the far side of the dyke and all the red glints were coming from pop cans. We fnally came to a bridge, crossed over, and almost immediately caught a red reflection that disappeared briefly as the calling bird moved its head. We enjoyed good scope looks at the COMMON PAURAQUE until the spotlight gave out.
Such great fun, and without any of those pesky migrants to distract us (just kidding).
21 June. Brownsville area and South Padre Island (refer to map on p. 28 of the ABA guide). After another early start we headed down Hwy 511 intending to stop first at the cactus patch, but a circling raptor caught our attention, and we pulled over. After a short distraction by a family of Northern Bobwhites, we relocated the bird. Perched on a dead tree, the White-tailed Kite offered us great looks before it flew off. An Eastern Meadowlark rounded off our sightings for that little hiatus. We reached the cactus patch a few minutes later. The dugout on the west side of the road produced Greater Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilt, and an assortment of herons. After several minutes of searching for desert species, the difficulty of which was compounded by traffic noise, we crossed over to the east side where we heard a vireo vocalize, spent several minutes in a futile attempt to get a good view of it, and then concluded that it must’ve been a White-eyed. Stan, meanwhile, had begun to hear sing-song sparrow vocalizations coming from a grassy field bordering the clumps of brush and prickly pear. The birds were performing a lark-like display flight, and we eventually got good looks at them: CASSIN’S SPARROW.
Off to a location on the outskirts of Brownsville where TAMAULIPAS CROWS had been seen nesting in some palm trees. A long shot, but we decided to try it. Nothing in the palms, but then, from behind us came a frog-like croak. We wheeled around to see the crow perched on a wire, its entire body contorting with each call. A real thrill, and a good omen, we thought.
We then backtracked a bit to visit the charming Brownsville dump with its hordes of Chihuahuan Ravens, Laughing Gulls, and vultures. We also saw a Crested Caracara and, on the drive out, a pair of Horned Larks.
Then it was off to the Botteri’s Sparrow habitat, where we struck out because it was already quite late in the morning. We then took Hwy 48, our first stop being the Brownsville Ship Channel Boat Ramp, which proved to be a bonanza. First, there was a flyby by a flock AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHERS, a species I’d been especially longing to see. On the mudflats terns and shorebirds were roosting. Stan and I were particularly delighted to see ROYAL TERN, a species that we’d overlooked in a trip to San Diego a few years back. These birds were in non-breeding plumage, their black eyes standing out below their now-white crowns. A lone Caspian Tern seemed to have shown up for the purposes of comparison. Gull-billed and Leasts rounded out the tern population. Then we discovered a REDDISH EGRET on the far shore. Several WILSON’S PLOVERS were poking about on the flats, which also yielded Willets, Dowitchers, Semipalmated Plovers, and a Long-billed Curlew turned up by Eric. A small flock of Black Skimmers was huddled on one corner of a sandspit. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see them fish.
After crossing the causeway to South Padre Island (from which we saw a flock of Brown Pelicans) we made our way to the justifiably renowned boardwalk at the convention center. Lynn was the first to see the ROSEATE SPOONBILL, a goofily beautiful bird if ever there was one. “CLAPPER RAIL!” I called out, as one scuttled in and out of the vegetation. Most of the heron and egret species were fishing or resting along the shore. Lynn kept picking out SANDWICH TERNS flying by, but I could never find them in time to id. them. While I slinked off to try to do just that the others saw a Least Bittern, a bird I’d only heard before. After we’d waited around for what seemed like another half hour the bittern flushed again, showing off its gaudy tiger-striping against the green of the reeds. During the wait, I was fascinated by watching small fish in the shallows jump clear of the water, sometimes in schools, to escape predators. From time to time the rail would re-emerge, sometimes accompanied by its black chick. Forster’s Tern, Barn Swallow, Purple Martin, Common Nighthawk and Common Moorhen also put in an appearance at or near the boardwalk.
Once we left the boardwalk, I made a beeline for the patio of the convention center and got good scope views of several perched Sandwich Terns, their shaggy crests and long pointed bills distinguishing them from the Gull-billeds, although it was only with the help of Lynn’s superior optics that I was able to see the yellow tips of their bills. It was now supper time and decision time: Should we scour the beaches for Snowy Plovers or head into Brownsville in search of parakeets, parrots, and whatever else might come our way. We decided on the latter, and after an execrable meal of fast and greasy Tex-Mex tacos, headed to Honeydale Road, where we caught a fleeting glimpse of a Green Parakeet, while also picking up, a Curve-billed Thrasher, which was foraging on the ground in a small dusty park. The light was failing, so we headed for our final stop, the bank at Elizabeth St. between 6th and 7th avenues. Here we saw about a dozen GREEN PARAKEETS as they shrieked their way to their roosts in the palm trees above the bank. About 10 minutes later a pair of parrots flew by. They emitted a shorter and lower-pitched call as they flew by, and I got a look at their squarish tails. Lynn managed to see the red crowns of these RED-Crowned PARROTS.
Our hoped-for early bedtime didn’t materialize because we wound up taking Hwy 77 north from Harlingen instead of 83 west to McAllen. We had almost reached Raymondville before Eric noticed our mistake (trust a cataloguer to detect what the rest of us could not!)
22 June. Today we decided to allow ourselves the unspeakable luxury of a 7:30 wake-up time. we planned to take it easy and search close to home for some of the species we’d missed. For this we’d need some expert advice, so we headed to Bentsen to consult with park naturalist Jim Booker, with whom Stan had already been in e-mail contact. Driving through Mission on our way to the park we (the Canadians at least) were cheered by the sight of a Canadian flag flying in the Sasktex trailer park, home to snowbirds from Saskatchewan, a province in which Stan and I had spent good portions of our lives.
Jim greeted us warmly and led us out into the courtyard of the park’s administrative complex. “Hooded Oriole!” he called out, and the bird, a male, perched obligingly on the roof of the building directly across from us, allowing us to see its broad black facial patch. Jim then led us out to the field bordering the sanctuary, drawing our attention to the Diskcissel that was calling from the tall sunflowers. Soon the bird itself emerged, and then a Blue Grosbeak. After pointing out a Giant Swallowtail for the butterfly fanciers among us, Jim took us to the tram and accompanied us to the Kingfisher Overlook, all the while fielding our questions about target species. When we got off the tram, he directed our gaze upwards to three soaring Anhingas. I’d always wanted to see an Anhinga soar. With his help we searched in vain for a CLAY-COLORED ROBIN. He advised us to leave one of the taps running in the nearby picnic area, and sure enough, about 20 minutes after he left the bird dropped from the trees and began hopping around near the tap. We also got good looks at a couple of herds of JAVELINAS—a life mammal for all of us.
After the first of several fruitless searches (wrong time of day) for Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet in the brush adjacent to the trailer loop we hopped the tram and took it to the start of the Rio Grande Trail in the hope of finding some desert birds. A series of short sweet vocalizations near the trailhead announced the presence of a Verdin, which gave us several good looks. The trail itself was a disappointment, not surprising in the heat of the day, but we did manage to hear a Cactus Wren—or was it one of the many Northern Mockingbirds in the area that were mimicking not only our target bird but Chuck-Will’s-Widows and anything else that came to mind? Tired, frustrated, and overheated we made our way back to the tram stop. A gray hawk that turned out to be a Gray Hawk (the extent of the tail banding alone was enough to disclose its identity) circled overhead. The park staff had told us that there was a nest nearby, and this look at the bird also solved the riddle as to which species we’d seen here on Monday.
After leaving the park we headed back to Mission to bird the Seven Oaks Country Club for TROPICAL KINGBIRD. Jim mentioned that a pair had been seen in the vicinity of the thirteenth hole. We couldn’t find the hole, but we did see Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a Green Heron, and a pair of Swainson’s Hawks. Just as we were starting to give up hope, Stan saw a kingbird on a wire. It flew off as we approached it, emitting a call that matched what we’d heard on the LRGV cd.
On to Llano Grande Lake, south of Weslaco (pronounced WES-luhk-o). This narrow and shallow lake was full of water birds, including many of the heron and egret species and a small flock of White-faced Ibises. Farther on up the dike road and over a bridge we saw the only Black-crowned Night-Heron of the trip and three American Avocets (rare at this time of year according to the LRGV checklist). Over a small rise Lynn found our chief quarry: FULVOUS WHISTLING-DUCK. Not nearly as confiding as their Black-bellied cousins, the birds (all 70 or so) took to the air before we could get the scopes on them, emitting their high, plaintive, unducklike peeps as they did so.
That evening we returned to Bentsen in the hope of seeing the Blue Grosbeak and more. A couple of Nighthawks were flying low over the nearby fields, and something told me to pay attention to their vocalizations, which turned out to be those of the Lesser Nighthawk, a lifer for most of us. Then one of the birds alit at the edge of the field. Confident of its camouflage, it allowed us to approach it quite close and to get visual confirmation (e.g. wings and tail were about the same length) of what we’d heard.
Then it was back to the trailer loop again for another bout of self-torture with the uncooperative Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet, and then a brief and futile vigil at the owl roost, before heading home for an early bed in light of our anticipated 4:00 a.m. start the next day.
23 June. We left at around 4:30 a.m., in order to get to the San Ygnacio Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary around sunrise. We hoped to have a shot at the White-collared Seedeaters, whose presence or absence Joel Ruiz, curator of the sanctuary, had been reporting almost daily to Texbirds. We also knew we had a decent chance of seeing Red-billed Pigeon and Muscovy Duck there. In one of his postings Joel had indicated that it would take a little over two hours to reach the sanctuary from McAllen, hence the early start. We soon found out why the drive would take so long: US-83 peters out into a four-lane country highway somewhere west of Mission, and so travelers have to contend with traffic lights and speed zone changes for about half the trip.
We arrived just after sunrise, followed Washington St. to the end, parked, and headed down the trail through the high cane and brush to a clearing that had a crude but sturdy observation platform on it. Was this the place? A hand lettered sign directed us south along a trail to more of the sanctuary. We came to a clearing that led down to the river, where there was a water intake pump. Maybe this was the sanctuary’s campground. Another sign “sanctuary 300 yds” directed us further into the narrow cane-lined trail. A couple of us followed it, but it merely led further into dense cane into which niches had been cut. These were floored with discarded clothing. Not eager to encounter contrabandistas or illegal aliens we gave up and headed back to the first clearing, where the others had mounted the observation platform and were watching Olive Sparrows, Great-tailed Grackles, and various species of dove forage around the edges of the clearing. A hummingbird, evidently a Black-chinned, fed from a feeder to the south of the platform. Couch’s Kingbirds, Kiskadees, and a vireo that we couldn’t identify (perhaps another White-eyed) flitted about in the treetops.
I heard a song that I thought resembled someone learning to whistle. “Sounds like an Audubon’s Oriole” I shouted, and dashed off to find it. I should’ve realized that the song was more complex and thrush-like than that of an oriole. I finally located the bird as it sang from a treetop perch above the water pump. It was a Clay-colored Robin. After watching a Yellow-breasted Chat and several other skulking visitors to a water trough at the edge of the thick brush we decided to pack it in and try to make it to the El Rio RV Park near Chapeño for the 11:00 daily feeding that Jim Booker had told us about. But first we wandered around town a little bit looking for RED-BILLED PIGEONS, which we managed to hear but not see. Another birder, who’d driven all the way from South Padre Island to try to see the Seedeaters was arriving as we left. (I should add that at one point I saw the dark tail of a snake disappear into the grass at the Washington Ave. end of the trail. Perhaps it was the indigo snake Joel has been mentioning in his messages).
Just west of the turnoff from US-83 to FM-2098 we noticed some raptor activity. We pulled over and got our best views yet of Harris’s Hawk—three or four of them were perched on a dead tree about 150 meters away. I then asked Lynn to train his scope on a bird perched on a power line on the opposite side of the road, thinking it might be a Pyrrhuloxia, which it was. The next thing we knew, Lynn had a Cactus Wren in the scope, and then Stan found a singing Black-throated Sparrow. The quick trip down 2098 produced a number of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a possible Vermilion Flycatcher seen by Eric.
At the somewhat run-down trailer park we paid the nominal $3.00 entry fee to the friendly and hospitable proprietor. “It’s for bird feed,” she assured us almost apologetically, before rattling off the names of all the species that birders had seen yesterday from her property. The list included Brown Jay, which had shown up at this morning’s 7:30 a.m. feeding. We had great views up and down the river, especially from a shelf of limestone that extended well out into the river. From one of the observation towers Stan and Eric got distant looks at Red-billed Pigeons. I was enjoying the clarity and sharpness of the pair of Zeiss binoculars Lynn had generously lent me for a couple of days, although they lacked the field of view and ease of focus of my old Bausch and Lombs (I’m still trying to figure out if the improvement is worth laying out $1,500.00-$2,000.00 for).
A half-hour later the proprietor arrived with a mixture of bird seed, hard dog food, and orange halves. She assured us that within about five minutes the Brown Jays would appear out of nowhere, making an awful racket, and scare off the Great-tailed Grackles. It was good for once to sit passively under the cane-roofed palapa and just wait for birds to show up. After about 20 minutes the birder we’d met at San Ygnacio joined us. He, too, had struck out on the Seedeaters; and he, too, was about to strike out on the Brown Jay. We did, however, enjoy a gloriously radiant AUDUBON’S ORIOLE that had a predilection for oranges. Other birds that visited the feeders were Green Jay (one was feeding a Cowbird), both species of Cowbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Long-billed Thrasher, Great Kiskadee, and various species of dove. A Green Kingfisher perched for awhile on a twig overlooking the river just to the south of our observation post.
We began to spend more and more time at the river in hopes of a flyby by a Muscovy Duck, or a better view of Red-billed Pigeon. Instead we saw Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, both vultures, Ringed Kingfisher, Osprey, and Bullock’s Oriole. I added the latter two to my Mexican list, as well as the following species: Green Kingfisher, Altamira Oriole, Purple Martin, Green Jay, and Plain Chachalaca.
I also watched a huge large-scaled fish (reminiscent of the big fish in the movie “Big Fish”) roll in the pool just upstream from where we were standing, had a rudimentary conversation with one of the two elderly Hispanic men who were fishing nearby, and got directions from our birder acquaintance to the Green-breasted Mango that had been reported in San Benito (“home of [country singer] Freddy Fender” according to the town’s water tower) and to the Brown Noddy that had been reported off Boca Chica beach.
We departed in the early afternoon, and on our way back on 2098 managed to flush a Greater Roadrunner and an American Kestrel. Then it was back to McAllen for a good meal and an early bedtime, for we’d have to get up early if we expected to see Botteri’s Sparrow.
24 June. Another 5:00 a.m. departure, for we had to drive to the Botteri’s Sparrow habitat east of Brownsville (see map on p. 28 of the ABA guide). We arrived at the field of zacahuiste (bunchgrass) just before daylight. No sparrows were yet vocalizing, but we did see three White-tailed Kites fly over, one after another. That is, until we realized that they were in fact Laughing Gulls (which may make you want to doubt every sighting on our trip list). Soon after, Crested Caracaras began to fly over singly and in two’s and three’s. We counted eight altogether. Then the singing began: Eastern Meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhites, Lark Sparrows. We also began to hear the series of whistled notes and short terminal bouncing-ball trill of the BOTTERI’S SPARROW. Then a sparrow appeared on the fence just in front of us. The eye-stripe and dark crown stood out as did the buffy unstreaked breast. I hadn’t expected to see the Botteri’s up close. Over the next half-hour we got a number of good distant scope views of singing males. I’d seen more than enough by then. “Time to push on,” I thought, screwing the lens cap onto my scope and folding up the legs of my tripod. Lynn was still preoccupied with a bird that had alighted on the hard ground right across the road from us. I reluctantly began to watch it as well, and we ended up being able to see clearly all the markings of a Botteri’s—a view worth waiting for.
The latter incident goes to show the advantages of birding in a group (or at least in this group). Not only do you have four pairs of eyes instead of one and specialized skills that complement one another, but in my case I also had the group to challenge (not overtly, but by example) my native impatience and to discipline me (again by example) to spend more time in observation than I naturally would have.
What now? Lying on the beach waiting for a Magificent Frigatebird to fly over sounded good (it had worked for me a couple of years back in Acapulco) and, who knows, maybe the Brown Noddy might show up as well. But Stan’s plan made better sense: visit nearby Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary for Yellow-Green Vireo and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat (the birder we’d met yesterday had seen both) and then perhaps go for the Green-breasted Mango or even try the mudflats at Sal Del Rey for Snowy Plover.
The palm groves gave Sabal Palm a jungle-like feel, and we enjoyed watching the Plain Chachalacas and White-tipped Doves that visited the feeders and water drips outside the headquarters. Yellow-Green Vireos had been reported near the beginning of the boardwalk, and we could here them singing their somewhat-sweeter-than-a-Red-eyed song (that we’d been listening to on the cd on the way over) long before we arrived at the spot. Two males were singing, but finding them in the dense foliage would be a challenge. One bird dragged us about 200 meters over the course of an hour before I finally spotted him on a bare branch that provided us about five minutes of excellent scope viewing. We were able to see the more extensive yellow on the neck and cheeks and the lack of a distinct border between crown and supercilium. YELLOW-GREEN VIREO hadn’t ever been on my list of target species!
We spent the next couple of hours searching for the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, but turned up only Common Yellowthroats. Hot and tired, we had difficulty deciding what to do next. Eric had his cell phone with him, so we decided to call Jim Brooker. Jim exhorted us to keep trying for the Yellowthroat and to bear in mind that the bird had been associating with Commons for so long that it was beginning to sound like one. He also mentioned that the Green-breasted Mango hadn’t been seen in a couple of days and that a Muscovy Duck had been discovered at Bentsen. Well a Muscovy in the open is worth two Grey-crowneds in the impenetrable bush any day, so we decided to make the ninety-minute-plus trip Bentsen. I slept in the back seat sitting up most of the way there.
Jim was surprised to see us, but he gave us the necessary directions, we paid our five bucks for the third time, and off we went. We scoured the reed beds systematically (visually that is, and from a discreet distance) until, by some fluke, the MUSCOVY DUCK and her brood of about twelve ducklings flushed and then wove in and out of the shoreline vegetation until the mother found a better hiding place. Not wanting to disturb the bird, we left almost at once. Besides, Jim had asked us to inform him if we saw it, and he was happy to learn that the Muscovy we’d seen was an all-black bird (hence not likely a hybrid) and that it had behaved like a wild duck.
We then decided to head to the hawk tower because Jim had mentioned that we might see an Ash-throated Flycatcher or a Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet in the vicinity of the head of the Rio Grande Trail. We found a Verdin, but that was all. Lynn decided to stay put while the rest of us checked out the hawk tower. “There’s a bird over here with white on its shield!” called Stan. “It’s probably a Coot,” I called back. I rushed over anyway and was rewarded, along with Stan and Eric, with a great view of a PURPLE GALLINULE. We called Lynn, who told us he’d take the next tram, (he finally saw the bird) so we decided once again to (you guessed it) go on a wild Bearless-Tyrranulet chase.
Then it was back to the motel to pack before going out for a celebratory meal at La Casa del Taco (highly recommended). Over dinner we tried to some up with the bird of the trip. Purple Gallinule, Green Jay, Painted Bunting, Least Bittern, Tropical Parula, even Tamaulipas Crow received honorable mention, but we couldn’t agree on a winner. We also compared lists: for the entire trip, Austin included, Lynn had 83 lifers, while I was low man with 48 additions to my ABA list, 38 lifers, and 46 of 60 target birds (I’d/we’d missed Magnificent Frigatebird; Hook-billed Kite; Scaled Quail; King Rail; Snowy Plover; Barn, Ferruginous-Pygmy, and Barn Owls ( real pity we didn’t get at least one of them); Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet, of course; Brown Jay; Gray-Crowned Yellowthroat; White-collared Seedeater; and Seaside Sparrow—some of which were real longshots). As Stan mentioned in his recent posting to Texbirds, all three of us Canadians went over the 500 mark in our ABA lists during the trip. Great fun, despite the heat fatigue, and periodic frustrations—and a resounding success (notwithstanding the possibility that better birders than we might’ve made more of the opportunities we had).
Well, by this point you’re probably wondering how four men (three of them in their 50’s or 60’s) managed to cram themselves into two beds and one motel room, how poor Lynn managed to cope with the eccentricities of three librarians (as if our all being birders didn’t make us weird enough!), and how we managed to pull the trip off at all. Well I’m not sure I can answer any of these questions satisfactorily, so I’ll leave you with a few stats and what might pass for tips.
1. Costs. Apart from food, airfare, and incidentals about U.S. $330.00 for the motel, and the same for the car rental—both split four ways—and about $25.00 each for gas, so the trip was affordable even for low-rent birders like us. I should add that we also followed the advice of a Texan friend who told me that it’s customary to add a dollar a day per person tip for the cleaning staff of the motel.
2. Base of operations. We chose McAllen because it lies midway between the coast and Falcon Dam and because of its proximity to both Bentsen State Park and Santa Ana NWR.
3. Car rental insurance. I decided to forego the insurance policy that the car rental companies try to sell you because I found that my personal car insurance included a rider covering rentals.
4. Food. We found that with the heat (usually around 37 C or 100 F for a high, with 35-60% humidity) we needed to eat less and drink more, and so a bowl of granola (I brought my own) and milk for breakfast (supplemented by a couple of excursions to IHOP), a couple of pieces of fruit for lunch, topped off with a supper binge at one of the excellent local buffets (we recommend the Golden Corral and Luby”s) was more than adequate.
5. Living together. We found that grace and charity reigned and life lists increased if we only spent late evenings and early mornings in the room. Besides, it’s surprising the amount of introverting time you can make for yourself out on the field, even while birding in a group.
5a. Snoring roommates. I made a loud clucking sound with tongue and palate whenever the snoring woke me—this trick (road-tested for several years on my wife) somehow miraculously induces the snorer to turn onto his side, thus halting the constriction on the nasal passages.
6. Bugs. We spent Monday evening dutifully spraying down pants, sox, hats, and shirts with Permanone, and mornings slathering ourselves with DEET, but we could probably count on the fingers of two hands the number of mosquitoes we encountered (strong breezes probably helped keep them at bay).
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron