Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rio Grande Valley, Texas

I returned late last nite from a birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas--one of the country's meccas for winter and spring birding. My local birding buddy Pam went with me because she had never been to this area to bird. I went because I wanted to see the black-vented oriole that was first found before Christmas at Bentsen RGV State Park.

The bird fortunately found a better food source at the RV park next to Bentsen, and I was able to get the photo above (double click on it to enlarge). I say fortunately because it was much harder to find at Bentsen, but is easy to locate at the RV park. Airfare was too expensive and travel in general was too difficult to race down to the valley after Christmas, so instead I made the trip now. The oriole is a code 5 bird that has been found in Texas just 5 times since 1968, and is an ABA area life bird for me.

We arrived about mid day last Friday and first went to Estero Llano Grande SP to look for the also very rare (code 4) white-throated thrush. We were quite lucky to see it within 30 minutes of staking out a water feature in which it likes to take baths. Unfortunately the bath site is under a dense canopy and I was not able to get a photo of the thrush.

We also took some time to walk part of Estero, and I did get photos of a large group of mostly black-bellied whistling ducks plus a few fulvous whistling ducks (photo just above). The photo just below was of an very cooperative sora. While taking the photo we ran into a local birder that I had met in the fall on a west coast pelagic trip. He and his wife had also gone to Antarctica for 2+ weeks in November to see penguins, albatrosses, etc.

After seeing the black-vented oriole, we walked into Bentsen RGV and saw the most common oriole in the valley, the altamira oriole (photo just above).

On Saturday before sunrise we went again to Bentsen RGV in hopes of meeting up with Red and Louise Gambill. They are in their 80's and spend the winter in the valley, and the summer back in Ohio. I had met them last January when I was doing my big year, so I knew that they bird Bentsen every morning during the winter. We had a nice time catching up, and hearing all about the extensive flooding in the valley that occurred last summer, the effects of which were still very evident. The green jay (just above) is common throughout the valley in the right habitat and is certainly one of our most colorful birds.

After walking Bentsen we drove over to Laguna Atascosa NWR to look for the rufous-backed robin that has been there for awhile. This bird is also a Mexican vagrant which shows up regularly in Arizona but not in Texas. We did not end up seeing the robin because for some reason they decided to work on the water source at the refuge that it preferred to visit. This really was a stupid move since rare birds bring in needed revenue to a refuge, but if people hear the bird is no longer being seen, then of course they don't make an effort to visit.

From there we went down to Sabal Palm near Brownsville. This refuge was managed by the National Audubon Society for years, but with the hard times of the past 2 years it had been closed to the public. It just reopened last week, but is now being managed by a local non-profit. With the resaca still being refilled, plus it being late in the day, we saw very few birds, but we did have an encounter with an armadillo.

After leaving Sabal Palm, we stopped at Fort Brown in Brownsville to see if we could find any green parakeets that normally roost there. We did have 2 pairs of red-lored parrots flying around, but no parakeets. So on Sunday morning before sunrise we went up to the corner of 10th and Dove streets in McAllen where green parakeets gather on the wires with lots of grackles. It was windy as the light came up, and there were no parakeets about at first. Then we saw a very large group flying off to the west, and finally a single bird flew into the wires.

After a quick breakfast, we then headed over to Santa Ana NWR to see what might be there. We walked out to the hawk tower to look for hook-billed kites. This was one of my most difficult birds to find last year. When we arrived at the tower we found 2 other birders, one of whom--Dennis Vollmar--I had seen at least twice last year including in Arizona when I saw the baikal teal. They had spent several hours during their trip to the valley looking for the kite because it was a life bird for both of them. After about 15 minutes we had the good fortune to have a female hook-billed rise up out of the trees to our west, and fly with good views for maybe 15 seconds before it dropped back down into the trees. This prompted high fives all around.

Since there were still many valley birds for Pam to see, on Monday we drove 70 miles west before sunrise to the small town of Salineno to look for muscovy ducks. It was foggy when we arrived, but there was a good amount of bird life flying about, and up and down the river. The photo just above is of a ringed kingfisher--a valley specialty. We had not been long at the river when a van pulled up with several birders down from Ohio. The group was led by Larry Richardson, a very good birder from Ohio that I met for the first time 2 years ago during a visit to Magee Marsh during spring migration.

We did not see a muscovy duck after 2 hours of closely watching the river for one to fly by, so we walked to a bird feeding station located at an abandoned RV park just up from the river. There we were able to pick up 2 more orioles for our trip. The photo above is of an Audubon's oriole--another valley specialty. We also got a bonus oriole--a nicely marked male hooded oriole (photo just below).

Our next stop was Falcon SP to see if we could find the groove-billed ani's that have been reported there this winter. We checked with the local park hosts who told us where the ani's were being seen, but we had no luck that day. We did see lots of greater roadrunners, and was even able to get the photo above of this usually shy bird.

While at Falcon we were called by American Airlines telling us that our flight that afternoon had been canceled because of the snow/ice storm in the southeast. We got rebooked for Tuesday, and so we were able to continue birding the rest of the day. By late afternoon we were back at Salineno to try again for the muscovy duck.

We ran into 2 birders there from outside of Philadelphia who we had seen the day before at Estero when we were all looking for and found a tropical parula. One was a professional guide that I had met last fall in California on a Debi Shearwater pelagic trip, and then saw again at Yosemite looking for great gray owls. They had come to south Texas to see the tufted flycatcher at Big Bend NP, but could not find it. They had more success with the black-vented oriole and white-throated thrush. We saw both gray and zone-tailed hawks while we looked for the muscovy duck. They finally left to drive back to El Paso to fly from there over to California next to look for the brown shrike.

At dark thirty we drove east to McAllen to stay one more nite there. We were up before dawn to visit Bentsen again in search of a green kingfisher, a groove-billed ani, and a blue bunting. Unfortunately the beautiful, sunny 80+ degree day we had on Monday turned into a windy, overcast 46 degree day on Tuesday. After walking around with Red and Louise for 3 hours, we were chilled to the bone and did not see any of our target birds, or many birds at all because of the weather.

We packed it in and headed to the airport in hopes of getting on an earlier flight. We did for the leg to Dallas, but everything else was overbooked to Raleigh, so we ended up waiting for 6 hours at DFW to catch our scheduled flight home. We saw 140 species in 4 full days of birding, and Pam added 26 life birds. All and all, a very nice few days of birding.

1 comment:

  1. The BOMB guys. I'm Red and Louise's grandson, and just got back from staying with them. Me and my friend Sam just got the Black-Vented Oriole for a new life Bird. I'm around 520ish. Congrats on the Blog, keep birding alive.
    CEO Gambill