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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Spring

2024 Narrative

This year’s Rio Grande Valley Spring Tour coincided with the total solar eclipse, so we added a pre-tour extension to Kerrville in the Texas hill country to witness this spectacle. We had the opportunity to revel in the incredible experience all the while being serenaded by Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers.

Afterward, we continued with the regular tour itinerary starting in Corpus Christi where we quickly picked up the long-staying vagrant Cattle Tyrant, which has been hanging out in the downtown area for several months now. The next morning enjoyed a tour of King Ranch and, with that, great views of several key targets there: Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Tropical Parula, and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.

Further south, we spent several days birding along the Rio Grande where we had an excellent selection of South Texas specialties such as Green and Brown Jays, Plain Chachalacas, Olive Sparrows, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Red-billed Pigeon, Morelet’s Seedeater, and Muscovy Duck. Luck was on our side as two vagrants appeared during our stay, a Southern Lapwing and Mexican Violetear. Both cooperated for the group.

Migration was below average this year, but between several visits to South Padre Island and the migrant traps around Port Aransas, we still accumulated a great list of migrant warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows, and more.


We began the pre-tour extension with a visit to Warbler Woods Bird Sanctuary, a private sanctuary east of San Antonio. Here we had our first taste of Texas birding with the likes of Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Crested Caracara, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Long-billed Thrasher, and two migrant warblers: Orange-crowned and Nashville. This property was excellent for sparrows and provided no fewer than nine species including Grasshopper and a Green-tailed Towhee among the plentiful Spotted Towhees. From here, we headed to a nearby park, stopping along the way at a productive field that had flocks of sparrows feeding including Lark, Vesper and Savannahs, while the park itself provided over a dozen lingering American Pipits.

The latter half of the day was spent at Lake Mitchell Audubon Center where we had a large picnic lunch followed by very productive birding around the various units of water. Ten species of ducks were had including Cinnamon Teal, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and a single Canvasback. Other birds included Least and Eared Grebes, White-faced Ibis, Bell’s Vireo, Black-crested Titmouse, and Cassin’s Sparrow. However, the real highlight was the impressive diversity of shorebirds… sixteen species to be exact! Long-billed Dowitchers were common while smaller numbers of Wilson’s Phalarope, Stilt, Baird’s and Western Sandpipers, and a couple of American Golden-Plovers were also had.

We departed San Antonio towards Kerrville the following morning to stake out our eclipse viewing spot. We made a brief visit to Flat Rock Lake for a reported Brown Booby, which did not show, but a flock of Cedar Waxwings and a couple of Yellow-throated Warblers were nice additions.

The rest of the morning and afternoon was spent relaxing at Kerrville Wildlife Management Area, which was far from the eclipse crowds. Only a few other, mainly birders, around! The two specialties to the Texas Hill Country, Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler were both seen very well right along with Ladder-backked Woodpecker, Black-throated and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Black-and-white Warbler. Just after 2 pm, the eclipse began and, despite the clouds, we were able to get excellent views of the partial and eventually total eclipse. Totality occurred, most birds went very quiet, and once totality ended, we experienced a second dawn chorus including a Northern Bobwhite singing away. With the darkness, migrant raptors were forced down and we had Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, Crested Caracara, and plenty of Turkey Vultures all flying very low. A trio of Pine Siskins was a nice addition.


The group met in our hotel lobby at 6pm and we set off for dinner. Along the way, we made an obligatory stop at a particular dumpster in the heart of Corpus Christi, where a vagrant Cattle Tyrant had been hanging around for a couple of months. An excellent first bird of the trip before retiring to our delicious dinner at a seaside seafood restaurant.

An early departure the next morning found us at the gate of King Ranch just after dawn. Along with a ranch guide, we spent the morning traversing this vast property, which is about the size of Rhode Island. Our main focus this morning was tracking down Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Tropical Parula; we were very successful on both fronts! Other highlights around the ranch included Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Vermilion Flycatcher, a flyover Upland Sandpiper, and a pair of Wood Ducks, which are quite rare for here.

We then continued south into the Rio Grande Valley but detoured onto South Padre Island for a reported Mexican Violetear. This proved to be a good idea as we were able to get great views of this vagrant hummingbird. There were also a few migrants around such as Tennessee and Black-throated Green Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Western Kingbirds.

As if the day was not jam-packed enough already, we ventured out after dinner to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park to watch the resident Elf Owl depart its nesting site after dusk. While waiting we had Couch’s Kingbird, a flyover Cave Swallow, and multiple Common Pauraque calling. Eventually, the Elf Owl poked its head out for a bit and then flew off. We lingered around a little longer and had a second individual calling in the tree right beside us and eventually flying into the hole.

The next morning, we went to my favorite park in the valley, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Here most of the valley species can be found, very few people around, and also plenty of water and mudflats to provide an excellent diversity of species. We had already tallied 90 species by 11am! On our walk in we had great views of raucous Plain Chachalacas, some White-tipped Doves on the trails, and Brown-crested Flycatchers welcoming us. We spent some time on the observation tower where we scanned for raptors finding both vultures, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned, Gray, a Swainson’s Hawks, and a couple dozen migrating Broad-winged. Other birds included Hooded and Altamira Orioles, Ringed Kingfisher, Clay-colored Thrush, Great Kiskadee, Loggerhead Shrike, and a cryptic Great Horned Owl roosting in a large distant tree. We then walked around the various lakes and mudflats tallying ten species of waterfowl, a dozen species of shorebirds, and various waterfowl including Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Sora, Stilt Sandpiper, Caspian Tern, Neotropic Cormorant, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and four Roseate Spoonbills.

After lunch, we began working our way upriver towards Zapata stopping at Falcon State Park. Here we had the usual more arid species such as Greater Roadrunner, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bewick’s Wren, Bullock’s Oriole, and Pyrrhuloxia. Our first attempt at Morelet’s Seedeater in Zapata left us empty-handed, but we still had a couple more days to try for this localized species within the U.S.

The next morning was spent in the infamous Santa Margarita Ranch, which has been hosting a lot of vagrants in the last few months. While most of these had moved on, we still had a productive morning birding this vast property on our own. It should be mentioned that this ranch is closed to the public and can be only visited with a few guides who have access, which I do. Starting from the bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande, we enjoyed the early morning seeing what birds utilized the important riparian zone. One highlight was a pair of wild Muscovy Ducks, which showed no signs of having a domestic parent. Mexican Duck, Red-billed Pigeon, Green Kingfisher, Chihuahuan Raven, and Clay-colored Thrush were some of the other highlights. Elsewhere around the ranch we added Black Phoebe, migrant Blue-headed Vireos, and two of the long-staying Brown Jays. These jays are the only known Brown Jays in the entire U.S. as the rest of their population occurs further south in Mexico and Central America.

We tried our second attempt at Morelet’s Seedeater turning up empty-handed yet again, so we moved on to a road outside of Zapata where we added Scaled Quail, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Cactus Wren, and a Texas Horned Lizard.

Before heading back east along the river the following morning, we made our last attempt at Morelet’s Seedeater and heard one singing right off the bat. After some searching, we had excellent views of this valley specialty. Also present was a late female Ring-necked Duck in one of the ponds.

Salineño Wildlife Preserve was productive where we had both Mottled and Mexican Ducks for comparison, a couple of Groove-billed Anis, good views of a Marsh Wren, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Rio Grande Cooter. We eventually made it back to the lower valley where our final stop of the day was the National Butterfly Center where an Audubon’s Oriole visited the feeder. It didn’t show this time around, but we did enjoy close views of a lot of the Valley specialties including Buff-bellied Hummingbird along with our first Eastern Kingbird and a locally rare Bell’s Vireo.

That evening we had an earlier dinner so that we could hit a couple of spots around McAllen at dusk for parrots. We easily found nearly 30 Green Parakeets and about 10 Red-crowned Parrots along with a bonus Peregrine Falcon.

News came in the previous night about a Southern Lapwing, a very rare vagrant to the U.S., that had appeared at a local golf course. Of course, this was our first stop the next morning where we were successful seeing this Central and South American shorebird. We then popped over to the nearby Estero Llano Grande State Park. Although most of the ponds were dried up thanks to drought and a broken water pump, we still had an enjoyable walk adding Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a roosting Common Pauraque, and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, while the feeders hosted Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds for close comparison views.

Lunch was enjoyed at a local taqueria where a nesting pair of Curve-billed Thrashers kept us entertained. Nearby Frontera Audubon Center had a Crimson-collared Grosbeak hanging out that was unreliable and notoriously difficult to see, often taking people multiple trips just to even hear it. After a dedicated search, we only came up with a single call, but did see a couple of Javelinas.

By now the winds had increased so we pointed our focus towards driving around agricultural fields for shorebirds. The first couple of fields provided twenty or so Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers, Horned Lark, and 25 Hudsonian Godwits on a reservoir. Eventually, we stuck gold with a very productive field that hosted no fewer than 105 Buff-breasted Sandpipers! What an incredible sight. We also had 8 Long-billed Curlews and a very lost Wilson’s Plover, which is normally restricted to coastal beaches, not a sod farm.

The following morning, we ventured down to Brownsville, the southernmost point in Texas, and birded around the University of the Rio Grande Valley Brownsville campus. A large natural area encircles a resaca is found right in the middle of campus and hosts the occasional rarity. Despite turning nothing rare up today, we did pick up our first Painted Bunting among the usual suspects. Next, we visited Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park where we quickly found the recently arrived Botteri’s Sparrow, before heading towards the coast via picking up an Aplomado Falcon en route.

On South Padre Island, or SPI, we found some lingering Redheads in a resort pond before heading to the Valley Land Fun Lot. This partial of land among houses was not developed and is now one of the key migrant stopover sites. Migration was light but we did have a Magnolia Warbler, which is uncommon in this part of the U.S. Further up the road we spent some time sifting through large flocks of roosting shorebirds, gulls, and terns around a large expansive mudflat. Highlights include Piping Plovers, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderling, Least Terns, and over 260 Black Skimmers.

We found ourselves returning to SPI the next morning stopping again for more views of the Aplomado Falcon, which we did, along with our first Whimbrel and White-tailed Kite. The SPI Birding and Nature Center was quite productive with American Oystercatcher, Reddish Egret, superb views of a Clapper Rail, and several warblers namely Wilson’s, Blackpoll, and Northern Waterthrush. After a tasty lunch, we headed back to the Valley Land Fun Lot where we added Lesser Nighthawk, Warbling Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, and Baltimore Oriole along with a couple of excellent looks of male Painted Buntings.

Heading back inland, we went to a retention pond next to a sugar cane factory which was hosting no fewer than 1,000 ducks and 2,500 shorebirds. Hudsonian Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, and Gull-billed Tern were some of the new additions along with the usual suspects. After dinner, we popped into Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen to try our luck at some night birds. Owls were quiet but we did have several Lesser Nighthawks and at least a dozen Common Pauraques seen and heard…not to mention an Armadillo.

On our final day of birding, we left the Rio Grande Valley behind and headed back north to Corpus Christi. Upon arrival, we made a quick stop at Blucher Park to see if any migrants came in with the previous night’s favorable winds. A short walk yielded seven Chuck-will’s-widows, an Acadian Flycatcher, several warblers including our first Hooded and Northern Parula, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Port Aransas offered far more migrants and we spent a great deal of time sitting on the lawn at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center enjoying a constant stream of warblers and other migrants coming into the water drips under the line of small trees. Highlights include Orchard Oriole, seven species of warblers, several stunning male Painted Buntings up close, and a female Black-capped Vireo quite far from its usual range of the Texas Hill Country. We then walked the boardwalk into the marshes where we had a nice selection of the usual shorebirds, ducks, and waterfowl including both Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits, a cooperative Least Bittern, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and a singing Sedge Wren.

Nearby Holt Paradise was slow but did give us our only Worm-eating Warbler of the trip. A small migrant trap called “The Willows” had a reported Black-whiskered Vireo, which didn’t make an appearance despite a thorough search. We did have a small selection of migrants and a flyover Magnificent Frigatebird. Just before leaving the barrier islands to head back inland, we made one last stop adding Bufflehead and a single Horned Grebe mixed in a group of Eared Grebes as our final new bird of the tour. It was a great trip!


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