DAY 1 – I met the group consisting of 8 mostly familiar faces in the arrivals hall of the Houston Airport this afternoon and we emerged from the air conditioning into the lovely warm and sunny weather. The rest of the afternoon was spent in the van en route from Houston to our first hotel in Rosenberg. Traffic was rather busy, mostly the cause of road construction. Along the way we saw a few birds, including common species such as European Starling, Mourning Dove, Feral (Rock) Pigeon and Great-tailed Grackle, as well as a few more interesting ones including Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrel and an Anhinga, which was a bit of a surprise. We enjoyed our first feast together as a group at Chili’s, a local establishment not far from our hotel, before disappearing into our rooms for some much needed sleep.
DAY 2 – We emerged from our hotel just after 7 AM and found ourselves somewhat shrouded in mist, however that burned off fairly quickly. Before we had even left the grounds of our hotel in Rosenberg we added a few birds to our list; Orange-crowned Warbler, Northern Mockingbird, Cattle Egret and Mourning Dove. We joined the morning rush and made it to Brazos Bend State Park by just after 8 AM. Along the way we stopped to view a field where 42 Sandhill Cranes were counted. Some of the majestic cranes engaged in a playful courtship dance briefly as well, to our delight. As luck would have it, these were the only Sandhill Cranes we encountered on the trip.
At Brazos Bend State Park we embarked on the the 1.2 mile long 40 Acre Lake Trail and enjoyed a variety of habitats included oak trees draped in Spanish Moss, and a lovely lake with surrounding wetlands. Over 40 species of birds were noted on our walk, and the highlight for most of us were the incredible views of American Bitterns only a few feet away. Other herons and wading birds noted here included White Ibis, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron and Great Egret. American Anhingas also put on a nice show, posing for photos. Common Gallinules and American Coots wailed from the wetland areas, while Pied-billed Grebes popped up in plain sight not far from us. In the trees we enjoyed a plethora of species, several of which were east Texas birds such as Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Others included Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers, Boat-tailed Grackles and noisy Carolina Wrens. We encountered several American Alligators, some of which were quite impressive as they lay next to the path waiting for a meal to wander into their mouths. Luckily they didn’t have a taste for birders today. Butterflies enjoyed the gorgeous weather and we identified Giant Swallowtail, Goatweed Leafwing and Cloudless Sulphur. A spectacular
bright green dragonfly was identified as an Eastern Pondhawk. As for mammals here we tallied Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Fox Squirrel and White-tailed Deer. We left Brazos Bend quite content with our time here.
We drove for a while and then stopped to pick up lunch in the city of El Campo before heading to Shelley/Lions Park in Refugio. It didn’t take us long to find several birders, decked out in camouflage hiding in the trees here and we knew they were looking at the bird which we had come here to see, a Golden-crowned Warbler. This species only ventures north of the Mexican border as a casual stray so we were quite happy to tick it off on our lists, and it was a lifer for myself as well as all
present. The warbler was hanging out with a loose flock of birds that included Black-and-white Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Hermit Thrush and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. We had a fantastic view of a male Green Kingfisher here, though it was rather brief, but this turned out to be the only one we saw on the tour. A noisy Great Kiskadee showed well in a distant tree as we viewed through the scope. Flocks of wintering sparrows included Chipping and Lincoln’s and we saw a good number of Northern Cardinals here. One of the birds of the day, a Barred Owl called once or twice, revealing its roosting location to us in a large oak tree. All in all it was a very productive stop after which we made our way to Rockport where we spent the night. Dinner was delicious at a local establishment right on the shoreline called the Oyster House.
DAY 3 – We watched the sun come up over the Gulf of Mexico this morning from the harbour in Fulton / Rockport. At 7:30 AM we boarded the Skimmer and made our way towards the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 20 minute crossing over a nice calm bay.
Once at the refuge we explored the protected waters, hoping to find one of the world’s rarest birds, Whooping Cranes. We were not disappointed. Captain Jay said his goal was to make us ‘sick of seeing Whooping Cranes by the end of the morning.’ I’m not sure he succeeded in making us sick of them, but we certainly did see a number of cranes, most of which were in family groups, with estimates of around 20 birds. One particular bird nicknamed ‘Uno’ strutted right in front of the boat as cameras clicked away. Close to 70 species were noted this morning on our boat trip, beginning with the sighting of an immature Cooper’s Hawk right at the harbor. As we crossed the open water we saw several Common Loons as well as waterfowl included Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers. Herons and egrets were plentiful and we had lovely views of Reddish Egrets as well as Tricolored Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, an American Bittern and a flock of flyover White-faced Ibis. A few shorebirds showed themselves with highlights including a Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. Raptors such as Osprey, Crested Caracara and a Northern Harrier were noted, and gulls such as Ring-billed, Lesser Black-backed and the ever present Laughing Gull were in attendance. A lucky spotting involved a Clapper Rail in the marsh as it called away loudly. Once back on dry land we headed back to our hotel and picked up our bags before visiting the grocery store to pick up provisions for our lunch.
We took lunch with us to Sunset Lake Park near Corpus Christi where we ate and then strolled down the path looking for shorebirds. We were not disappointed and we added a nice list of species to our trip total including Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Snowy Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, American Oystercatcher and more. Out on the open ocean a flock of mixed American Wigeon and Northern Pintail bobbed about in the waves and terns noted here included Forster’s, Caspian and Royal. Our next stop was in an
industrial area of Corpus Christi along the Nueces River at Tule Lake. We stood beneath the shelter in the much appreciated shade and tallied more waders. A large flock of Long-billed Dowitchers whirled about, with a few Lesser Yellowlegs mixed in for good measure. Least Sandpipers probed about in the mud right in front of us allowing us to easily see their olive/yellow coloured legs. A pair of Barn Swallows were investigating the shelter, perhaps thinking of nesting, and they were unhappy about our presence. Since we still had a long drive down to the Rio Grande, we departed and followed Hwy 77 south to Harlingen where we spent the night. Dinner at the Texas Roadehouse was delicious and enjoyed by all.
DAY 4 – Our first morning in the Rio Grande began with us taking a number of detours in the area to the east of Harlingen to avoid road construction as we attempted to get to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Our detour wasn’t a complete waste of time
since we did see a few birds including Western Meadowlarks and a group of Lark Sparrows on some grassy lawns near Rio Hondo. Finally, we made it to Laguna Atascosa and enjoyed some nice birding in the open grassland habitat along the entrance road into the park. Eastern Meadowlarks sang from fence posts. Loggerhead Shrikes were seen at various locations and we had good views of a stunning White-tailed Kite. A pair of Long-billed Curlews strolled through the long grass and a few Savannah Sparrows popped up from their grassy hiding places. The best of all however was a Greater Roadrunner that was trotting along in the verge next to the road. We parked, turned the engine off, opened the doors and the roadrunner came right past us.
At the reserve we made our way to the visitor’s center and explored the feeders and trail system that runs through the area. Birds were plentiful, especially Great-tailed Grackles which numbered in the hundreds. Our first views of gaudy Green Jays were just as
incredible as we hoped they would be. Several Plain Chachalacas fed on orange halves, while Black-crested Titmice called from the mesquite trees. Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers showed themselves and we enjoyed lengthy scope views of a White-eyed Vireo as it sang. A couple of tiny Verdins also appeared, as did mixed flocks of ‘Myrtle’ Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers. Overhead Turkey Vultures teetered on tilted wings, and we saw several Ospreys throughout the day. Sue spotted an Olive Sparrow as it hopped about quietly on the ground, and after some patience we were treated to amazing looks at a pair of brilliantly colored Altamira Orioles as they came in to feed. We made our way to Osprey Lookout and had lunch here, though we didn’t see too much, perhaps due to a howling wind. After lunch we returned to the visitor’s center and had some of the best birding of
the trip. A park volunteer offered to show us a roosting Common Pauraque, an excellent score since this nocturnal species is not always seen during the day. Feeling as though we were on a high, we strolled back towards the center when another fellow motioned for us to come forward as he had found a male Tropical Parula. We had great looks at this rare warbler as it foraged amongst the mesquite trees.
On our way back towards Harlingen our luck continued. A telephone wire had eight or so kingbirds lined up along it, and the majority turned out to be Couch’s Kingbirds, which we determined by their calls. One was the nearly identical Tropical Kingbird, again which gave up its identity by calling. Raptors were abundant as we made our way home and Allan began counting them, coming
up with a total of 12 species for the day. A Merlin, several American Kestrels, White-tailed Hawks, Harris’s Hawks, Ospreys, Crested Caracaras and the best of all an Aplomado Falcon were noted late this afternoon. We went out for Mexican food tonight at a Harlingen establishment called Los Asados.
DAY 5 – The forecast threatened with thundershowers today, but for the most part we were pretty lucky, enjoying warm temperatures throughout and only a few little spatterings of showers. As we assembled outside our hotel at dawn a group of noisy parrots flew overhead, though we couldn’t tell which kind they were. Most likely Red-crowned Parrots. We followed the freeway from Harlingen south to Brownsville and made our way to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, situated right on the Mexican border. We
paused along the way to view our first Chihuahuan Raven of the tour. Once at the refuge we headed into the very impressive old plantation house that is now the visitor’s center and the gentleman behind the desk offered to take us to see a nesting Great Horned Owl. We saw the owl sitting on her nest hidden away in a palm tree, and we thanked the friendly fellow for sharing. We strolled through the lovely stand of jungle like habitat that consists of native Sabal Palms, sifting through a few mixed groups of birds that included Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Wren and more. Great Kiskadees were easily located by their loud and boisterous calls. From a hide we scanned the resaca where our first Least Grebes of the tour were seen. Also noted on the water were Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Mottled Duck, American Coots and Common Gallinule. In a tree on the far side of the pond an immature Gray Hawk was rather briefly seen before being replaced by an immature Cooper’s Hawk. We carried on to a boardwalk through the wetland, spotting a Common
Yellowthroat or two skulking in the understory. A waterthrush, either Louisiana or Northern, called and was seen by Peter hiding in the vegetation. Birds were singing, with White-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wrens and the like, but they were rather hard to see in the windy and somewhat stormy conditions. We did see a gorgeous butterfly that we identified as a Red-bordered Pixie. We returned to the feeders and were happy to find that 10 or so White-tipped Doves had decided to show themselves, alongside Green Jays, Altamira Oriole, Black-crested Titmouse and a rather shy male Buff-bellied Hummingbird. A female type Hooded Oriole appeared a couple of times at the orange halves. We had one more look at hummingbird feeders near the visitor’s center and were rewarded with views of a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
We bid Sabal Palms adieu and had some lunch before heading east to South Padre Island. We paused along the way at a shallow tidal bay where we saw our first Black Skimmers of the tour, along with a variety of other gulls and terns including a winter plumage Gull-billed Tern. A few shorebirds were picked up here too with Long-billed Dowitchers, ‘Western’ Willets, American Oystercatchers, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Black-necked Stilt in attendance.
Once at South Padre Island we visited the birding center and headed off on the boardwalk through the mangrove wetlands where the birding was very good. We had point blank looks at most species here and the real highlights included a nice Sora poking along the shore as well as our first Green Herons, and good
looks at Redhead and a flock of Roseate Spoonbills. A few American Alligators were basking in the sun as groups of photographers snapped pictures. To finish off on South Padre we headed for an area of sandy beach to see if any birds were present, but being a sunny, hot Sunday, the beach was crowded with people. We saw a nice group of rather tame Sanderlings here and loads of Laughing Gulls however. This evening we had dinner once again at the Texas Roadhouse, where the steaks were delicious.
DAY 6 – We left Harlingen ‘in the dust’ and headed west towards Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Before we even left the parking lot we scanned through a group of mixed species including Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-crested Titmouse and the like. A Tropical
Parula had been seen just prior to our arrival but had moved on. A Peregrine Falcon perched on a distant water tower was pointed out to us. Feeders outside the center were bustling with Red-winged Blackbirds, Plain Chachalacas, Green Jays and an Eastern Fox Squirrel. We did the Pintail Lakes Trail which took us through the thorn-scrub habitat to an area of wetlands. Dominant species included noisy Great Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Orange-crowned Warblers and more. At the wetlands there were a few ducks about, such as Blue-winged and Green-winged teals, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Mottled Duck and two female Ruddy Ducks. Savannah Sparrow was seen quite nicely along the edge of the pond. A Sora was seen very well as it slinked through the weeds, while a Marsh Wren remained mostly hidden away. Our first Common Ground-Dove of the tour
was seen all too briefly as it disappeared before all members of the group could have a good look. An introduced Nutria, a large South American rodent, was seen in the wetland, new for our list of animals seen on the tour. We finally caught a glimpse of the Rio Grande this morning and the woodlands of northern Mexico on the other side. As we followed a trail along the north side of the river we had good views of our first Northern Beardless Tyrannulet of the trip. A few other small mixed flocks were encountered with Carolina Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and our first Lesser Goldfinch of the trip. We returned to the visitor’s center where we had a picnic lunch.
After lunch we scoped a nice adult Gray Hawk from the parking lot and saw several Inca Doves in the trees as well. We hit the trails again, though we walked rather slowly after eating lunch and by now the sun had come out and the temperatures had soared to the mid thirty degrees Celsius. At Willow Lakes we scoped the wetland hoping for the big kingfisher, the Ringed, but we could only find a male Belted Kingfisher as a consolation prize. Several Least Grebes were noted here however, and a dazzling male Altamira Oriole put on a nice show here. Skulking in the underbrush was a House Wren that we eventually had satisfactory looks at. On our way back towards the visitor’s center we had brief views of Clay-colored Thrush, an uncommon Central American species that just barely enters the United States along the Rio Grande.
To finish off the day we slowly cruised down a dirt road through an agricultural area and our efforts were eventually rewarded with the sighting of a Burrowing Owl sitting on top of a levee. Also in the area was a flock of Western Meadowlarks. Finishing on a high note we made our way to McAllen and checked into our hotel to enjoy some much needed air-conditioning before venturing out for dinner at the Olive Garden.
DAY 7 – Our first port of call this morning was at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Before we even left the parking area we had seen a Curve-billed Thrasher, a new species for our trip list. As we neared the visitor’s center birds were numerous at the feeders with Plain Chachalacas, Northern Cardinals, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and more. Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were seen, but rather briefly as they zipped by. From the viewing deck, overlooking a wetland area we saw Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Mottled Duck, Least Grebe, Pied-billed
Grebe, and an assortment of herons, egrets and ibis. We took a walk through the ‘Tropical Zone’ and found a couple of Clay-colored Thrushes. As we were enjoying good views of the thrush, our target species appeared and showed off nicely, a male Rose-throated Becard. This species rarely strays north of the Mexican border. Very content, we hit the trails to look for more birds. It was hot and sunny, but there was a strong wind that cooled things off for us. Ray spotted our first Vermilion Flycatcher of the tour, a gorgeous male. On the various ponds and pools we had a nice selection of waterfowl including quite a few Cinnamon Teal and one or two female Ruddy Ducks. Our first Sharp-shinned Hawk of the tour, a tiny adult male, flapped his way by and we saw our first Purple Martins at their condominium nest box. At Llano Grande Lake, though the wind made it
difficult to view through the scope as we stood up on the exposed dyke, we saw Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper and more.
We picked up lunch and took it with us to Anzalduas Park, a small somewhat manicured park that is snuggled right up against the Rio Grande. As we chomped away at our sandwiches, the first House Finches of the tour appeared rather briefly, while Ospreys called from overhead. Down along the river near a day we picked up our first Black Phoebes of the tour, as well as several Northern Rough-winged and Cave swallows. Out on the river, and quite possibly in Mexico, we saw a group of Lesser Scaup with a single immature Snow Goose and a single female Canvasback accompanying them. Unfortunately, no sign of the Ringed Kingfisher here. An Eastern Bluebird paused briefly, long enough for us to add her to the list, and several Killdeer paraded by on the grass. Before we left the park we fanned out across a grassy field in search of Sprague’s Pipits. We flushed several, and heard them call as they flew up into the sky. This was not the best
view of the pipits, but it was a view typical of what one sees of this species. As we searched for pipits a pair of Gray Hawks sailed overhead as well.
After an afternoon siesta, we headed out once again in the late afternoon hoping to see some parrots and parakeets. We succeeded in finding a massive roost of Green Parakeets in McAllen, with hundreds of birds present, as well as possibly into the hundreds of thousands of Great-tailed Grackles. The Red-crowned Parrots, on the other hand, did not cooperate, though in the process of searching for them we did see Cedar Waxwings, Black-crested Titmouse, Clay-colored Thrush, Great Kiskadee and Tropical Kingbird.
After dinner at Chili’s we made our way down to Bentsen State Park where we heard two Eastern Screech-Owls calling, a male and a female. Also heard were several Common Pauraques. Paul and Mark found a Giant Toad, hopping about as well.
DAY 8 – Our first destination this morning was not far from our hotel, the McAllen Nature Center. We hoped to find an Audubon’s Oriole here, a species that doesn’t often venture this far east in the Rio Grande Valley, but has been frequenting this location for several
weeks. Luck was on our side and as we watched feeders, a young lady came to inform us the oriole had been found near the park entrance. We had lovely looks at the male Audubon’s Oriole, a species only found in North America in a very limited range along the Rio Grande. Others species noted here included a flock of Cedar Waxwings, several Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Purple Martins overhead, and our first Cactus Wrens.
We then drove west towards Rio Grande City and we noticed the gradual change in habitat to a more arid region. This part of the valley is less inhabited than the Harlingen & McAllen areas as well. We paused to pick up sandwiches, which took a little longer than usual, due to very slow paced working fellow in the shop, and took our lunch with us to our next destination, Salineno. We first scanned up and down the Rio Grande with hopes of spotted a Ringed Kingfisher. No luck there, but there were birds about including Osprey, Gray Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Harris’s Hawk, and a rather brief
fly-by sighting of a Red-billed Pigeon. Up at the old Dewind’s property we watched feeders that were quite busy with patrons such as Green Jay, Altamira and Audubon’s orioles, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Northern Cardinal, Olive Sparrow, Inca Dove, Great Kiskadee, Black-crested Titmouse and the usual flock of resident Red-winged Blackbirds. We returned to the river and had a picnic there before making our way to Chapeno and the El Rio RV Park. I stopped the van at the entrance, honked the horn, and an old chap came out to collect our money. We drove down to the Rio Grande once again and scanned for kingfishers without the desired result. Birds we did see here included Black Phoebe, Spotted Sandpiper, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Verdin and Purple Martins. On our way back to Rio Grande City we stopped in the town of Roma and enjoyed a nice refreshing ice cream. Dinner tonight, at Chili’s, was very good, after which we returned to our hotel for the evening.
DAY 9 – This morning we got a slightly earlier start from our base in Rio Grande City and we made our way back to the Rio Grande at Salineno with high hopes of picking up one or two target species. We were not disappointed as two hefty Ringed Kingfishers showed themselves this morning. In addition to the kingfishers we had satisfactory looks at several Red-billed Pigeons as they hurdled past at treetop level along the banks of the river.
We popped back up to the old Dewind property to view the feeders one last time before leaving the area and again, it was well worthwhile. Feeder attendants included Altamira Oriole, Black-crested Titmouse, Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Long-billed Thrasher and Olive Sparrow, a nice list of Rio Grande specialties.
Our next stop was at Falcon State Park where we walked about on the trails through the
comparatively arid habitat and found several new bird species including Pyrrhuloxia, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Black-throated Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird and Bewick’s Wren.
After picking up lunch in Zapata we made our way down to the little city park where we had a picnic and then proceeded to search for the area specialty, White-collared Seedeater. We searched around a little pond surrounded by weeds and bulrushes and found species such as Blue-winged Teal, Vermilion Flycatcher and finally a lovely little male White-collared Seedeater appeared.
From Zapata we began the drive back to Rockport, taking about 3.5 hours, with a pit stop in
Alice. Raptors were numerous along the way and included American Kestrel, White-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Osprey and Turkey Vultures. We had our final dinner together as a group back at the Oyster House, a fitting place for a meal tonight since it was the opening evening of ‘Oysterfest’ in Rockport.
DAY 10 – Our last morning in Texas and the weather changed significantly over night. This morning it was cool and overcast. We made our way from Rockport to Goose Island State Park, where we tallied a long list of birds. New to our trip list were Greater Scaup, Eared Grebe and a Gray Catbird, and in addition to the new species we saw many others. In the wetlands we enjoyed lovely views of Roseate Spoonbills, along with Reddish Egret, Tricolored Herons, Blue-winged Teal, Clapper Rail, and more. Waders included Killdeer, Black-bellied Plover, Least Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs. Out on the open ocean there were Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Horned Grebe, Brown Pelican and others. Brushy areas along the shore harboured Swamp and Savannah sparrows, Common Yellowthroat, Brown-headed Cowbird and Red-winged Blackbirds.
We then began the drive back towards Houston, with raptors again being quite numerous along the way; Red-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Turkey and Black vultures and Northern Harrier. We paused for lunch at Denny’s in Wharton and while we ate we witnessed a car accident outside. Free entertainment! Nobody was injured, which was a good thing. We headed for the south end of Houston and the Sims Bayou Nature Center. A very friendly lady came out and greeted us and took us back to the feeders where we quickly saw our target species; Monk Parakeets. The lady told us there was an Eastern Screech-Owl roosting in a box in the back of the property so we excitedly followed her down to the bayou. Only a couple of us saw the ‘red’ phase owl before it disappeared back into its box. We waited quite a while just in case the owl reappeared, but unfortunately it did not.
Monk Parakeets. Houston, TX. Mar 2017. Chris Charlesworth.
Our final stop of the tour was at Jesse Jones Nature Park where we spent a little over an hour exploring the pine forests. Several new species were added to our list including White-throated Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Fish Crow, Pine Warbler and American Goldfinch. Our trip list had reached 198 species, and we headed to the Houston airport where I said goodbye to the group. It had been a fantastic tour, with great birds and excellent company.