April 10 – I arrived in Houston the evening before and met up with my group, also from BC. We were ready to go in the morning at 7 AM, just as it got light enough outside to see some birds. The usual urban species were about including European Starlings, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Great-tailed Grackle and House Sparrow. It’s good to get all the really exciting birds like that out of the way nice and early. We fought our way through Houston traffic, popping out on the southwest side of town. We basically drove to the Rio Grande, making a few pit stops on the way. As we drove along we counted Red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks from the fence posts and telephone poles. We stopped in Odem to pick up lunch, and saw our first Purple Martins of the trip sailing overhead. We also paused at a gas station where we had our first views of the spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. For much of the drive today it rained steadily, but luckily our two birding stops were dry!
First real stop was at the rest stop on Hwy 77, south of Sarita. Here, we sifted through Great-tailed Grackles and found a few Bronzed Cowbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds. Amongst the usual Mourning and Eurasian Collared-Doves were several White-winged Doves. A Northern Parula could be heard singing in the trees across the hwy, but it did not show itself. We had great views of a pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers however, and up to three stunning Green Jays put on a nice show. At some red honeysuckle we watched a brilliant Buff-bellied Hummingbird as it briefly fed before disappearing. Hooded Orioles chattered about in the trees and I spotted a female building her nest under the palm fronds. Several Crested Caracaras flew low over the rest stop as well.
Next stop was a good one, at the El Canelo Ranch. We puttered along their 5 mile long driveway spotting a nice array of birds including Long-billed Thrashers, Harris’s Hawks, several Pyrrhuloxias, Northern Cardinal and the ubiquitous Northern Mockingbird. Once at the ranch we were greeted by Monica who led us into her backyard where it didn’t take too long to find the specialty bird of the region, a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl! The owl sat in a tree near the ranch house and quietly ate its avian prey as we watched through the scope. Just as I asked Monica, the property owner, if the other bird of the pair was perhaps in the nearby nestbox, I spotted it sitting close by in a tree. What a fantastic view.
Next, Monica instructed us to go and check out a palm tree towards the back of the property as there might be a Barn Owl in there. We went and checked and just as we got close to the tree, a Barn Owl jumped out and flew right towards giving us a startle. Three owls in one yard was not too bad we all agreed. Other interesting birds here included a White-tipped Dove, as well as a male Eastern Bluebird. We carried on exploring the property eventually having distant views of a White-tailed Hawk as it sailed overhead. An Olive Sparrow sang low down in a mesquite as we watched and Black-crested Titmice seemed to be everywhere!
Also rather common were Lark Sparrows. We heard and briefly saw a Greater Roadrunner as it jumped down from the top of a tree, and we all agreed we could do with a better view of that species. Two new reptiles for our trip list included a six foot long Texas Indigo Snake and a Texas Horned Lizard! Feeling as though we had certainly had our money’s worth at El Canelo we carried on into Harlingen where we spent the night.
April 11 – From Harlingen we made our way to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge about 45 minutes away. The drive took us almost three hours since there were soooo many birds along the way. We stopped at a roadside pond crowded with birds including Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup, Redhead, Gadwall and Pied-billed and Eared grebes. As we toddled along the road Josh yelled out ‘Roadrunner!’ and sure enough there was a Greater Roadrunner with a large cricket in its bill. This was the first of about 15 roadrunners we saw today.
Other exciting roadside birds included noisy Plain Chachalacas, Couch’s Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, White-tailed Hawk, Horned Lark and large numbers of assorted swallows. In one muddy field we counted an astonishing 85 Swainson’s Hawk that were sitting, looking wet and bedraggled after overnight rains. What a sight! We paused as we passed over a bridge and scanned through masses of other wading birds like Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron and both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned night-herons. Lin called out ‘tiny bittern like bird’ and there it was, a Least Bittern. Several dozen Cave Swallows were nesting under the bridge upon which we stood, giving us excellent views. Anhinga, White Ibis, White-faced Ibis, Common Gallinule and a King Rail were also tallied. Once we finally reached the refuge headquarters we took a walk along the Kiskadee Trail, having great looks at the namesake Great Kiskadees, along with numerous other birds including a fiery orange Altamira Oriole. We had our first views of Northern Parulas here, along with a White-eyed Vireo. A small pond produced 3 cute little baby American Alligators that were snoozing on logs.
As I came around a corner I startled a roosting Eastern Screech-Owl, but unfortunately it flew off before anyone could get a good look. Green Jays, Brown-crested Flycatchers and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers were not happy with the owls’ presence. High overhead our first Osprey of the trip sailed by, while on the feeders were numerous Green Jays, Northern Cardinals, Olive Sparrow, White-tipped Dove and Bronzed Cowbirds.
By the time we left Laguna Atascosa we had already amassed about 100 species of birds, and a few other critters such as Swamp Rabbits and Brown Anole. We made our way through Brownsville, picking up a nice White-tailed Kite along the way. We arrived at Sabal Palm Sanctuary and were greeted by a welcome party of three cute baby Great Horned Owls in their nest in a palm tree next to the visitor’s center.
At feeders at the visitor’s center we watched several Buff-bellied Hummingbirds feed and chase one another about. Overhead an adult Peregrine Falcon was a welcome sighting. Along the trails we encountered far too many mosquitoes, but we were rewarded with excellent views of a pair of Least Grebes. We also saw very well, a pair of Carolina Wrens amongst the palms. A small flock of migrants included some Tennessee and Black-and-white warblers, along with a Nashville Warbler seen by only me. We had fair looks at a Northern Waterthrush as it skulked along the edge of a pond.
To finish off the day we drove through residential Brownsville and found a few Green Parakeets hanging on the telephone wires. Also nice to get were two Tropical Kingbirds. It had been an exceptional day so we headed back to Harlingen for dinner and some rest.