Salineno: the place for three lifers for US birders

A male Audubon's Oriole at the feeding station at Salineno, within 500 meters of Mexico. You can only see this species in the ABA area in a very small region of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

On the third day of my birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley, I made the pilgrimage that eventually all North American birders who want a big ABA list must make: to the village of Salineno, Texas. This is a little desert town of about 300 people. The main street runs past the church and the village square and right down to the river, 100 feet from Mexico, and it is at this river landing that a generation or two of ABA birders have gotten Red-billed Pigeon. Every morning and evening, the pigeons fly up and down the river before spending their days out of sight in the canopies of trees. On two previous trips to Texas, I had stood at this river landing at Salineno and missed the pigeons. The last time, in 2009, after a two-hour morning vigil, I had wandered away from the group of birders to urinate only to hear that within minutes of my departure the pigeons had flown in and landed only to leave before I returned.

I wish that I had photographed this Red-billed Pigeon in Texas, but I missed my chances for an ABA photo. I photographed this Red-billed Pigeon from a hotel rooftop in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica.

A Red-billed Pigeon that I photgraphed from a hotel rooftop in San Jose. Costa Rica in 2013. Unfortunately, although I saw RBPI along the Rio Grande in 2016, I failed to get a photograph.

Not many years ago, birders also came in here in hopes of an even rarer river bird—Muscovy Duck. Like Mallards, muscovies have been domesticated and domestic muscovies are easy to see in the Rio Grande Valley. Until recently, however, domestic type muscovies didn’t count on an ABA list—only “wild” Muscovy Ducks counted. But the Florida records committee recently voted that Moscovy Duck was an established breeding species in Florida and was countable as a wild bird on the state list, which to my thinking and many other birder’s thinking means that it is countable as an ABA bird. So, there is much less excitement about finding Muscovy Ducks along the Rio Grande (which could be just introduced domestic stock just like Muscovies anywhere) and instead going to a golf course in Florida and ticking off Muscovy Duck (which I have done).

Besides Red-billed Pigeons, most birders get their life Audubon’s Oriole at Salineno, usually at the feeding station just a few feet dozen feet up from the river landing. Unlike Altimira’s Orioles which are limited to extreme south Texas but common at all of the refuges around the McAllen and Brownsville areas, Audubon’s Orioles were typically only found north of Rio Grande City, and hence required a trip to Selineno or Falcon State Park. And finally many birders get their life White-collared Seedeater in this vicinity, but usally at Zapata. This year, however, White-collared Seedeaters were being reported right at the landing.

We easily found White-collared Seedeater along the road leading north from the boat ramp at Slineno, TX on March 13, 2016.

One my morning at Salineno, March 13, 2016, it was foggy. Warm, calm, comfortable nice weather, so generally no complaints, but the fog was a nuisance. Red-billed pigeons were always spotted flying up and down the river or perched far away in distant trees. The fog made distant scans impossible and it made flying birds hard to spot at a distance. I met two other birders at the boat landing at dawn and we didn’t wait long. Just at what would have been sunrise if the fog hadn’t obscured the actual rise of the sun, two pigeons flew right over our head, 40 feet above us. I didn’t pict out the birds until they were nearly right overhead but I had my binoculars up in a flash and could see that they were dark, maroon-colored birds with square tails—Red-billed Pigeon. A positive ID and a life bird ABA bird (I had photographed the species in Costa Rica), but no ABA photo.

We waited around for a while and then decided to walk the jeep trail north toward the island where Red-billed Pigeons were reported to nest. We had only gone about 100 yards north when we spotted a White-collared Seedeater in a patch of cane along the river. White-collared Seedeaters are very rare birds in North America. They are only ever seen between Salenero and Laredo in cane patches along the Rio Grande. In most years, they are not observed at the boat landing in Salenero, but this was a great seedeater spring. They had been repeatedly reported from the boat landing and we had not trouble finding our two—both in female plumage.

We had a second Red-billed Pigeon flyover that was almost exactly like the first except the light was better. The birds were right over us before I saw them. I got identifiable looks but not photos. And that would be it for pigeons for the morning. The fog finally started to lift around 9am but by then it was too late to expect pigeons to be flying. I walked up to the feeding stations where I had great looks at and got some photos of birds, including Audabon’s Oriole.

I spent the rest of the day birding the Falcon Dam area and then driving the open agricultural fields around McCook looking for Mountain Plover. I missed every target bird. I got back to my room relatively early and rested up for my last day of birding in the Rio Grande Valley.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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