Birding The Rio Grande Valley

The Green Jay is one of about 20 breeding birds that are easy to find in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas but impossible anywhere else in the U.S. Along with such local breeding birds, vagrants regularly wander north from Mexico. I photographed this bird at Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville.

Last spring break I spent the whole week in Auburn working on manuscripts and projects and just going out for some morning birding. I ended up wishing that I had made bigger plans and gone somewhere to get away from my routine for a while. This year, I decided drive either to south Florida or south Texas for birding for part of spring break. I ended up birding the Miami area between Christmas and New Year 2015 (see previous blogs) and a lot of rare birds were being seen in South Texas in Jan and Feb 2016, so Texas was the obvious choice. By mid-February, Blue Bunting, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, White-throated Thrush, Northern Jacana, and White-collared Seedeater were all being reliably found. As the days and weeks ticked by toward my March 11 departure I held my breadth that these special birds would not depart their stakeouts. The White-throated Thrush or thrushes (there were at least two birds at two different locations) did leave, but everything else was still being reported when I headed south right after lab meeting on Friday, March 11.

I’m now actively keeping both an ABA life list and an ABA photo life list. I didn’t start my ABA photo life list until I had more than 650 species on my ABA life list, so when I go on trips I typically have a list of potential photo lifers that is three or more times bigger than the list of potential life bird. On this trip, the birds that were being regularly reported that would be life birds for me were Blue Bunting, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Aplomado Falcon, and Red-billed Pigeon. I had a list of about 15 possible photo lifers.

Plain Chachalaca were belting out their noisy chorus as I walked into Frontera Audubon looking for Blue Bunting.

After a very long day of driving in the rain from Auburn AL past Houston on Friday, March 11, I was poised (more or less) to be at the Frontera Audubon when it opened at 7am. Of course, this meant getting up at 3:30 am to complete the last 3 hours of driving after arriving at the hotel after midnight, but I didn’t sleep well in the hotel anyway. The day was perfect—windless and crystal clear. The sky was a deep cobalt blue and made a wonderful backdrop for the Plain Chachalacas that were perched on high branches all over the park belting out their unmelodious ruckus. I hadn’t been in the Rio Grande Valley since 2009, so it was fun for me to be flushing White-tipped Doves, seeing Buff-bellied Hummingbirds at the feeders, and watching Long-billed Thrashers building a nest. Frontera Audubon is an urban refuge of just a few tens of acres, but it has most of the unique riparian birds that makes south Texas so special for birders. There were about six other birders also looking for the Blue Bunting that had been present since December. The bird was in a small area of a small park and we mostly walked around slowly looking and listening. By 930, I was getting bored and decided to give up on Blue Bunting for the day and head over to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge where a Crimson-Collared Grosbeak was being seen every day. Giving up on the bunting turned out to be a good decision—almost nobody saw it on that Saturday and some people devoted more than 6 hours to the vigil. On the way out of Frontera Audubon I heard parrots and was delighted when I walked up on two Green Parakeets on the electric wires along the busy street in front of the park. Green Parakeet is one of the two parrots in the Rio Grande Valley that is considered to be an established breeder and is countable. It wasn’t a life bird but it was a life photo that I really wanted to get. These ended up being the only Green Parakeets that I saw on the trip. With my first life photo in hand, it was off to Laguna Atascosa.

Green Parakeet on a wire in front of Frontera Audubon is Weslaco, TX.

Laguna Atascosa is about an hours drive from Frontera Audubon, up and out of the Rio Grande Valley and into the dry, sunbaked flats adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. The transition from Houston to Brownsville (Laguna Atascosa is right on the edge of Brownsville at the very southern tip of Texas.) is dramatic. Houston lies in wet eastern forest getting humidity and rain from the flow of air off the Gulf of Mexico. Laguna Atascosa is hot and dry with only a tenth of the rain of Houston because its weather blows off of the dry deserts of northern Mexico. So, as I drove into Laguna Atascosa NWR I was looking at Harris’ Hawks and Crested Caracara on the telephone poles and Couch’s Kingbirds on the power lines. The feeders adjacent to the parking lot greeted me with Great Kiskadees, Altamira’s Oriole, and Green Jays.

After checking in at the visitor center, I walked the couple of hundred feet down the paved trail toward the headquarters building to the patch of Potato Trees where the Crimson Collared Grosbeak had set up shop since January. There were a couple of other birders around and we proceeded to wait and wait and wait. It got hotter and hotter (well over 90F) and the grosbeak was not showing itself. I had no doubt that the bird was probably in the think vegetation right in front of us, but no birds were moving in that heat. After about an hour and fifteen minutes, I gave up for the day on life bird number 2 and headed for an active Aplomado Falcon nest along Highway 100 on the south edge of the park. This time, leaving turned out to be a mistake because a birder called me to say that the grosbeak popped out 30 minutes after I left.

By the time I heard about the grosbeak I was already near the falcon nest so I decided to retry for both the bunting and grosbeak in the morning and spend the rest of the day getting some easy birds on my list. Not only Aplomado Falcon but also Chihuahuan Raven turned out to be very easy. I pulled up to the gate at the cell tower on HWY100 which gives views of the Aplomado Falcon nest platform and there was a Chihuahuan Raven perched on a fence post about 20 feet away. I had to photograph it through the windshield, but it was so close, the photo is still ok. It flew when I got out of the car but it circled the spot several times before landing high on the cell tower next to another raven, presumably its mate. Looking out at the open grassland in front of me, I could see an Aplomado Falcon on the nesting platform—a life bird for me. Unfortunately, it was a very unsatisfying look at a life bird. Only to top 40% of the bird was visible and it had its back to me. I could see enough of its facial pattern for a positive ID but I was disappointed not to see it better. Hoping that its mate might be around somewhere, I scanned the nearby fence-line and there was the mate—much closer, with the whole bird in view in good light. I took a bunch of photos but I must say I’m disappointed in all of them. The focus is not sharp. For these photos I was using my 1.5x multiplier, and I’ve thought before that my photos never come out as sharp with that attachment. I quit using it for the rest of the trip.

Aplomado Falcon perched near an occupied nesting platform at Laguna Atascosa NWR.

I spent the late afternoon at Sabal Palm Preserve on the south edge of Brownsville and behind “the wall” that separates the US from Mexico in the Brownsville area. The Sabal Palm Preserve was a great place to get looks at the common south Texas specialties, including Least Grebe, and at the entrance to the visitors center a very palm Great Horned Owl incubating on a nest in a Sable Palm.

I ended my first birding day in Texas at Joe & Tony Oliveira Park, a small bit of green space in the center of Brownsville. This is not a wildlife park. It is a city park comprised mostly of ball fields and playgrounds and it was crowded on this beautiful Saturday night. The reason I was here is that for more than a decade it has hosted a huge flock of parrots every evening at sunset. As many as 150 parrots are reported some nights and every night the majority of parrots are Red-crowned, one of my target species for the trip.

Red-crowned and Red-lored Parrots flying into Joe & Tony Oliveira Park in Brownsville, TX.

A Red-crowned Parrot perched in the sun in Joe & Tony Oliveira Park.

The parrots in Joe & Tony Oliveira Park were used to people and let me walk right under them.

I found a spot on the southeast edge of the park with the sun to my back and started waiting about 530 pm (this was the evening before spring time change so this would have been 630 the next day). I arrived about an hour and ten minutes before sunset so I knew I was early. Everyone told me the parrots arrive right at sunset, but I wanted photos of birds in sunlight if possible. My strategy turned out to be excellent. About six minutes before 6, with the sun still bright, the first group of four parrots flew in from the east. This first flock consisted for three Red-crowned Parrots (ABA countable) and one Red-lored Parrot (not ABA countable). I was able to get nice, flying shots for my life Red-crowned Parrot photo. Five minutes later another small flock flew past. And then right about 600 pm, a flock of six Red-crowned Parrots flew in and landed in front of some houses at the edge of the park. I hurried over and was able to walk right under the parrots to get get photos of them in the sun. It was exactly what I was hoping for.

Over the next hour, several dozen parrots flew in, including at least one Yellow-headed Parrot (not ABA countable). As light started to fade, I estimated there were about 41 parrots in the trees in the park, with 35 Red-crowned, 4 Red-lored, and 1 Yellow-headed. This was barely a third of what had been reported in January, but it was now nesting season and very likely many of the pair were staying near nests scattered around the area. Most of the birds that were present we courting and interacting in pairs.

Despite missing Blue Bunting and Crimson-collared Grosbeak early in the day, it was a great start to the trip. I got one life bird, Aplomado Falcon, and four life photos: Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Chihuahuan Raven, and Aplomado Falcon. I was out of the office and totally focused on birding and bird photography. And I had three more days to go after Blue Bunting and Crimson-collared Grosbeak.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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