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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Texas: The Rio Grande Valley in Winter

Including Whooping Cranes

2024 Narrative

South Texas thrilled us all during our week in this birding paradise. We managed to encounter an impressive 213 species of birds in just over 1 week. Winter in this region is a great time to search for rare strays from Mexico. This year provided so many of these rarities it was hard to keep track of them all. Highlights included but weren’t limited to eye-level looks of Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, scope views of Gray-collared Becard, and a nighttime adventure to see Mottled Owl. We were able to explore a new area this year below Falcon Dam in the lush riparian woodland on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The Santa Margarita Ranch was a highlight not only for rarities but for a demanding view from high up on the bluffs of a large portion of the valley, a unique perspective of this largely flat landscape. We had a ball in Corpus Christi catching up with a first for USA Cattle Tyrant foraging in the parking lot of our favorite restaurant. This all topped off with an amazing experience with a couple of dozen Whooping Cranes rounded out one of the best trips to this area I’ve ever experienced.

We were at our first destination even before the sun came up. Resaca de La Palma State Park is a World Birding Center that protects about 1,200 acres of Tamaulipan thorn scrub habitat. Just in the parking lot we immediately got amazing views of one of our target birds the Rose-throated Becard. This female-plumaged bird stuck mainly to the treetops looking for insects with which to consume. The ‘no-hope’ songs of Inca Doves surrounded us as they flew around with rattling wings. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker called from a nearby tree and inched its way up to the top to see the day’s happenings. We started tracking a flock of warblers that had an extremely nice composition of species. Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos fed at different levels of the forest and diminutive Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitted about quickly using their long tails as rudders. A major score here were several Tropical Parulas. At least one was a bright male, who repeatedly sang its rising song allowing us to keep close tabs on its whereabouts. Also in the mix here was a scarce winter Dusky-capped Flycatcher that worked at eye level snatching insects off branches after long bouts of sitting still. The beautiful song of Long-billed Thrasher rang through the forest. Eventually, it hopped up high into a tree above our heads and allowed scope views as it belted out its melody. A short stroll through the dense scrub down the Ebony Trail led us to a dry ‘resaca’ and directly to a rare Roadside Hawk perched on its edge. We observed the bird repeatedly come to the ground to hunt insects and fly back and forth across the opening in the forest. The feeders here were also memorable, with a colorful pallet that’s hard to beat. Showy Green Jays squawked their arrivals and materialized out of the green surrounds. They joined bright orange Altamira Orioles and crimson Northern Cardinals. We were excited to see an Olive Sparrow picking through some food on the top of a log mere feet away, a normally reclusive species that sticks to the leaf litter in the densest parts of the undergrowth. A nice addition to the mix was a brief visit from a male Western Tanager, a bright yellow bird with dark wings and light wing bars, and a bright red face coming in nicely. Although common at times, this is a rare winter species for the valley. Then we headed even further south, just north of the bustling border crossing where thousands of people waited to go back and forth across the international boundary. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus had another treat in store for us. We crept through the dense vegetation surrounding a resaca and sat on the ground at a well-worn spot in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Fan-tailed Warbler that had been reported. Our luck continued as the warbler all of a sudden appeared with its bright yellow belly and white spots standing out on the otherwise dark gray tail and face. It swayed its tail around as it foraged across the ground, as close as 10 feet away at one point. Other birds along the well-vegetated ponds included great views of tiny Least Grebes hanging with stunning male Blue-winged Teal. These super cute fluff balls with their beady yellow eyes were very memorable. Huge groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks sat on the shoreline. Gigantic American White Pelicans were resting atop the retaining walls. Comparative views of both Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants were utilized, spending time to look at all the features that differentiate the two. Anhingas sat like ornaments atop dead branches over the water, stoic with wings spread drying out from their morning’s foraging. To see if our luck would continue, we traveled north to Hugh Ramsey Park in Harlingen. It was hot and windy, but a flock of Plain Chachalacas utilizing the water feature was a nice prize upon our arrival. It didn’t take long for us to hear the distinctive call notes of the Golden-crowned Warbler. If only it had been as easy to see as hear! We kept track of this shy individual as it slowly foraged through only the densest parts of the scrub. Our patience was tested but eventually, everyone got at least some sort of view.

The next morning, we headed to the Donna area and checked the huge body of water at the reservoir. Large rafts of Lesser Scaup were huddled together, as were a couple of groups of Northern Shoveler. A close-to-shore Pied-billed Grebe showed its bi-colored bill in detail and some stripe-faced Ruddy Ducks dove in the nearshore. An Osprey was spotted in an odd place. It was no surprise to see one of these pescatarians consuming a fish, but the fact it was on the ground in a recently plowed field instead of one of the many perches nearby seemed odd to us. Northern Harriers coursed over the nearby turf farm, occasionally flushing a large flock of Long-billed Curlews, our largest shorebird. A Western Meadowlark was nice to see perched at eye level right next to the van and was even more appreciated after being able to see many Eastern Meadowlarks immediately after for a good lesson in separating the closely related cousins. A white raptor was spotted on top of a mesquite tree that turned out to be a gorgeous White-tailed Kite. It turned out there were 2 of these elegant raptors perched close together. We noticed a large stick nest nearby in a different tree and suspected it might be their nest awaiting the next phase of development. We then headed over to Frontera Audubon thicket, a 15-acre nature preserve protecting a small, but productive, patch of thorn-scrub habitat right in the middle of the city of Weslaco. Our intention here was to locate a reported Crimson-collared Grosbeak that had been seen almost daily for several weeks prior. Despite our best efforts we were unable to locate the individual, this time, but had a blast seeing what other species Frontera had to admire. Golden-fronted Woodpeckers adorned the old palm trees here and several Black-crested Titmice foraged in small groups. In with a calling Wilson’s Warbler, we spotted another treat in the form of yet another Golden-crowned Warbler. This one was much easier to see because, despite sticking to the dense scrub, this particular habitat was not as widespread as yesterday enabling us to get a more unobstructed view through the undergrowth. White-tipped Doves were constantly walking around through the leaf litter, often cooing their memorably hoo-hoo song. There was whitewash all over several of the trails which caught our attention. This was undoubtedly from the plethora of Turkey Vultures that arrive here to roost in November and stay through March. After our delicious lunch at a local taqueria, we relocated into Estero Llano Grande State Park. This park boasts a bird list of over 356 species in only 17 years of existence. We took time to differentiate what made the swallows flying overhead either Tree, or the newly arrived Purple Martins coming in to scout for nesting locations. At Alligator Pond we watched adult Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons roosting on the water’s edge. We also took time to talk about the finer details of telling the juvenile versions of these two species apart. This area is also a well-known roost site for Common Pauraque that we were eventually able to spot. Due to this species’ amazing camouflage, it took us a while to find this cryptic caprimulgiforme perfectly hidden in the leaf litter. There was an Eastern Screech-Owl peering through squinted eyes from a tree hollow. This owl may be split one day into a separate species named McCall’s Screech Owl. This distinct population only has a gray morph and lacks the typical whinny call of the eastern species. Along the well-wooded areas, both Orange-crowned Warblers and “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warblers were downright numerous. Overhead we were treated to a fly-by buteo that turned out to be a young White-tailed Hawk making repeated passes. We noticed one of its feet dangling. There was no prey evident, so we thought maybe it had a bum foot. Viewed from up on the dike, a sleeping flock of Black-necked Stilts with American Avocets was fun to see comparing both species with their black-and-white plumages of the season. A group of hefty American White Pelicans was hard to miss, and a few Roseate Spoonbills were foraging in the fashion they are well known for, sweeping their bills back and forth through the shallow waters. A sizeable group of Long-billed Dowitchers allowed a good study, as did the similarly plumaged 10 Stilt Sandpipers feeding amongst them. In the evening we experienced a spectacle as we searched 10th Ave for Green Parakeets staging to roost. It was obvious we were in a proper staging area when we started to notice some of the over 25,000 Great-tailed Grackles that were getting together for one last social event of the day. It was unbelievable to see this many blackbirds in 1 place with their ridiculous sounds almost deafening, especially when the flock of 199 Green Parakeets took off in unison each vying for the last squawk before heading to roost. It quickly became obvious why the birds were scattering when we saw a group of 3 Harris’s Hawks who decided to also make this their roosting area for the night as well. Not only were the grackles impressive, but the congregation of groups of hundreds of Bronzed Cowbirds was also a sight to behold.

The next day we started out right after breakfast heading south towards the Mexican border. A few birds flew across in front of our van and pearched on top of a leafless tree. These were Red-Crowned Parrots much to our delight and an unexpected bird in this habitat, surrounded by agricultural fields. Soon we were at the gates to the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. This piece of land protects over 2,000 acres of woodland and sits right in the middle of a major east/west and north/south migration corridor. Just after leaving the visitor’s center the familiar chip note of a Black-throated Gray Warbler was heard. The calls led us to a male version actively foraging in the acacia branches gleaning insects with skill from the tips of the twigs. The impoundments here were full of water, something that wasn’t the case for many of the places we visited during the week. As a result waterfowl numbers and diversity were high. Eared, Least, and Pied-billed Grebes swam in close proximity. As they dove and reappeared in different areas, we practiced our ID skills as they popped up like balloons. Gadwall were loafing on the shore of some islands, as were diminutive Green-winged Teal. Ruddy Ducks were both active and asleep, both activities showing their stiff, cocked tails the group is known for. A small cluster of Bufflehead seemed out of place in the shallow ponds, normally preferring deeper water to dive in for prey. Vermilion Flycatchers were posted up on several trees, appearing like a flame on the ends of the branches. A perched raptor was scoped and revealed itself to be a Merlin, infrequently seen on this winter tour. Over a 30-minute period, we watched both the Merlin and American Kestrel show their hunting skills, each attempting to snatch up different animals. As we were pursuing a Common Yellowthroat through the dense vegetation a surprise Sedge Wren popped up right in front of us. We didn’t have long to study this bird before it dropped back into the veg out of view never to be seen by us again. At one of the smaller ponds, a white flash low over the water disappeared into the low-hanging branches on the perimeter. We were elated to finally meet up with a Green Kingfisher, much smaller than we’d thought it would be. Later on, we tallied its slightly larger cousin the Belted Kingfisher as it flew up and over the trees looking for a quiet place to hunt. Lots of swallows were coursing over the water. They were mostly comprised of Tree, but we were able to pick out a single Cave Swallow and follow it as it came in for a brief drink then disappeared into the increasing rain squall. Due to the weather, we didn’t have much raptor viewing from the Hawk Tower, however, we were able to spot a nesting Great Horned Owl glaring at us from our unusual location staring down at it from above. After tallying our 68th species here, we were famished and headed to some of the famed Texas barbeques we’d been hearing about. After our culinary adventure, we started to head northwest and inland to try for some previously reported Mountain Plovers near the town of McCook. The plowed fields in this area were endless and it would have normally been futile to just head out here and somehow find the dirt-clod mimicking Plovers, but a small group were loyal to one particular field. We enjoyed scope views of a few of them, despite the heat shimmer of the hot afternoon. As we tried to get closer a local farmer came to check on what we were doing. It turned out to be the owner of the land and, after a short chat, we were welcomed to continue our pursuit for a better view. He did warn us to stay clear of the ‘potatoes’ who recently moved into the area from Houston. We are still wondering exactly what he meant, but noted his warning and kept to the main road. We then checked the northern end of “sparrow road”, a popular local spot with varied habitats particularly good for sparrow viewing in winter. It did not disappoint as flocks of both Lark Buntings and Vesper Sparrows kept flushing roadside, some allowing extremely close approach much to the delight of the photographers in the group. We had to end our day and begin the 1.5-hour drive to our next base for the next couple of nights, Zapata.

The following day was one for the record books and may never be duplicated ever again on this tour. For months I had been planning for our group to get access to the Santa Margarita Ranch, which had been reporting some ridiculously rare and amazing birds over the last few weeks. We had our fingers crossed the birds would still be there for our chance to see some of these highly sought-after creatures. We left Zapata in the dark and met our guide for the day at the border wall, recently constructed on this private ranch abutting the Rio Grande River. One thing that makes this ranch special is its bluffs. These high hills are hard to come by in this part of Texas. They allowed a stunning view up and downriver, as well as far into Mexico and the mountains to the south. Immediately birds started streaming by including gulls like Ring-billed and Herring, Caspian Terns, and numerous Osprey actively hunting at our eye level. The machine-gun-like rattle of a Ringed Kingfisher was heard and soon after it appeared downriver, hovering like a helicopter over the gently flowing river eyeing anything that could be considered food. The bluffs here sit atop some sizeable wash banks, one of which hosts a breeding pair of these magnificent birds, the USA’s largest kingfisher. We noticed flocks of ducks flushing from upriver. Eventually, we saw an illegal fishing boat slowly floating down the Mexico side of the river close to the bank. As we observed it come around the close bend a large wader flushed from the reeds along the shore. It turned out to be the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. This bird is only the 3rd USA record so needless to say we were super excited to see this individual. We managed some scope views of it obscured up in the trees, but eventually it came back down to the water’s edge and perched up courteously on a downed log. Just across the river we spotted an adult Gray Hawk camouflaged nicely amongst the gray bark of the towering trees. It sat still for an hour peering down into the stuffed vegetation below waiting for something to reveal itself. After a few hours of viewing from the bluffs, we headed down to the riparian vegetation we’d been overlooking in hopes of finding some of the other rarities that had been reported here. After we passed through two locked gates we parked and began walking along the 2-track. Immediately the calls of a Rock Wren were heard. We watched as this uncommon bird here hopped around on the side of one of the washes. Another bird we heard calling was the Inca Dove with a song described by some as a repeated phrase “whirl pool, whirl pool”. About 20 minutes later as we approached the feeding area a loud shriek came out from the forest. Instantly a Brown Jay materialized out of nowhere and was soon joined by a couple more. This huge jay used to be much easier to see in the USA, but this ranch is now the only reliable publicly accessible place to run into them on this side of the border. Our local guides expertly placed loads of citrus, peanut butter, marshmallows, and other sundry things out on the branches in hopes that the birds would find some interest. It didn’t take long for a pair of bright yellow and black Audubon’s Orioles to come in to investigate the buffet, joined by a kaleidoscope of colors in the form of Altamira Orioles, Green Jays, and Northern Cardinals. After our delicious picnic lunch, we decided to stroll along the shores of the river. As luck would have it, we re-spotted the Bare-throated Tiger Heron hunkered down in the giant reed grass across the river, sitting perfectly still trying to blend in with the tall vegetation. This was a much better view than what we’d had on the bluffs and allowed close inspection of the beautiful vermiculated pattern of the plumage and name-sake bare yellow throat. We looked up and down the river from an island and flushed a group of 20 Least Sandpipers picking through the mud, as well as added an American Pipit slowly strolling along the water’s edge. Also adding to the growing waterfowl list were a couple of Canvasback, normally more at home in much deeper water. On our way out from the ranch, our guide stopped and did his best Scaled Quail call to see if they’d respond. After the memorable performance, and tossing handfuls of seed out into the scrub, a few of these cotton-topped quail came strolling out. Although more common further upriver, this was the first time this species was recorded on this winter tour and an unexpected bonus to the ranch visit. We had an early dinner and headed back to Santa Margarita Ranch in hopes of witnessing one of the other super rare birds being recorded here at nighttime. After the last rays of light set over the horizon, we began trekking back down towards the river. Common Pauraques ‘reeer’ calls were scattered over the landscape, and several McCall’s Screech-Owl’s trills rang loud as we walked under the star-lit sky. Out of the darkness came some low hoots and instantly we knew this was the Mottled Owl we were keeping our fingers crossed for. We slowly worked our way towards the owl as its call echoed through the riparian forest. Our guide’s night vision monocular eventually revealed the location of this amazing owl, and quickly it was lit up in the soft glow of the spotlight for us to snap some pics and take in this amazing beast. Amazingly this was yet another third USA record and the first Mottled Owl that was actually chaseable, giving us a thrill we’ll never forget.

The next morning we worked our way back down to the bountiful forests below Falcon Dam. En route, there were several Western Meadowlark herds working the grassy roadside edges. A small flock of Lark Sparrows were teed up on the barbed wire boundary fence showing clown-like facial patterns nicely. Soon we arrived at the boat launch at Salineno, giving great visibility up and downstream at water level. We strolled up a 2-track and stood on the bank near a stand of giant reeds. After about 20 minutes a tiny brown bird came flying in from the island nearby. We waited patiently for the bird to pop back up, and when it did we noted the cute shape and white wingbars of a female Morelet’s Seedeater. After numerous high fives for scoring another South Texas specialty, we slowly walked back towards the boat launch. At this point, a sparrow darted into a bush and caught our eye. A quick pish and a silent Cassin’s Sparrow popped right back up. Numbers of this species winter in the desert southwest including the Rio Grande Valley, but are largely undetected due to their habits of acting mouselike this time of year. We saw this great individual sitting still at length for us to see even in binoculars. It really is a sparrow that’s more appreciated with a good look at the intricate pattern of its otherwise subtle tones. Back at the boat launch, I scanned the shoreline and treetops for anything interesting. A few minutes later I spotted a large dark shape sitting still at the tippy top of a giant tree. Could it be!? The scope revealed another big target bird for this area, the Red-billed Pigeon. This bird sat long enough that even those who were away using the bathroom were still able to get to the scope in time to note all its features, including its mostly white and slightly red bill. The arrangement here at the famous Dewind’s feeders never disappoints as numerous specialties stock up on food for leaner times, or perhaps just to be gluttons. Seriously good views of Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Black-crested Titmouse, and the streaky Long-billed Thrasher all graced our lenses mere meters away. We reluctantly left this bird-rich area and made our way back down the valley in hopes our luck would continue as we searched yet again for the Crimson-collared Grosbeak we’d struck out on earlier. This time at Frontera was very different than our first. Within 10 minutes of our arrival, the rarity was spotted hunkered deep within a vine tangle. It started giving its diagnostic call solidifying any doubt that’s what we were seeing, and eventually jumped into the open briefly before nearly taking Adam’s head off as it flew off between group members. Since we had such great luck, we decided to check one more place before checking into our hotel for the evening. We cruised through Progreso where flocks of thousands of blackbirds were littering the fields and skies. At the dusty granary silos the droves of blackbirds were taking advantage of the spillage from the loading docks. The group sifted through the masses of entirely male Red-winged Blackbirds to find both Brown-headed and red-eyed Bronzed Cowbirds, as well at least 20 bright Yellow-headed Blackbirds. At one point we were surrounded on all sides of the van by tens of thousands of blackbirds, so loud we could barely hear each other talk even with the windows up. After an early check-in, we went back out in search of the magic that is the lower valley’s famed parrot roosts. In Weslaco we sat and watched droves of Turkey Vultures coming in to roost as they slowly floated overhead with wabbly flight and featherless heads. As the sun was setting a huge flock of Red-crowned Parrots started flying in staging on the surrounding trees. Birds met up in couples as if exchanging information on where the best foods were for tomorrow’s forage. Shortly thereafter we raced to an area where the parrots were feeding close to the road. Close inspection of the raucous flock revealed other species as well including bright Yellow-headed, Lilac-crowned and a single Red-lored Parrot. We had fun sharing stories at dinner about the amazing day we’d had, adding even more unreal birding experiences for the week.

We got an early start the next morning and headed straight back to Resaca de la Palma State Park to try again for the remaining uber rarity we had yet to see in the valley. The place hadn’t changed much since we were there last. It was still ripe with birds including additional looks at both Tropical Parula and Rose-throated Becard. We used the crowd to our advantage and spread out, making sure to pass the word along if anyone saw anything interesting. It took some time, but eventually, we heard that the Gray-collared Becard had been seen behind the feeding station. We rushed over and missed it by only a minute. It was some time before it showed up again, but eventually, it slowed down enough to find a favored perch to sit on and preen. We were able to get it in the scope and everyone got lengthy views of this normally restless flycatcher, sitting in the open for 15 minutes. Not to sound like a broken record, but this was yet another 3rd USA record, the only other occasions being from the reputable Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. After pinching ourselves, we headed east towards the coast. The areas on and around South Padre Island, with its vast sweeping mudflats and mangrove wetlands, produced a bunch of new species for our trip. We slow-rolled along some dusty roads hoping to find a few species for the day away from the masses along the highway. A small group of Nilgia feeding at Laguna Atascosa NWR, a non-native Asian antelope with a good population in this part of south Texas. Long-billed Curlews lurked through the salt grass flats and Turkey Vultures seemed to be perched on every single fencepost. A male Northern Bobwhite darted across the road for some to see, and the beautiful song of Eastern Meadowlarks filled the airwaves. We putted along as slowly as we could along route 100 searching for the Aplomado Falcons that frequented this area, but could not turn any up. We did however spot a different type of falcon perched on a power pole near Laguna Vista. It turned out to be a huge Peregrine Falcon that was ripping apart and enjoying a lifeless bird that it had undoubtedly plucked from the sky at a high rate of speed. In the afternoon we searched the mudflats on South Padre Island sifting through loads of shorebirds and terns looking for anything we may not have seen up to this point. Dunlin numbered in the hundreds, closely followed by impressive numbers of Sanderling. A group of Short-billed Dowitchers huddled together with some feeding bouts for a good lesson in dowitcher ID. Interspersed with the plentiful Willets were Black-bellied Plovers, similar in size but completely different foraging behavior and bill shape. We were all delighted when a single Piping Plover decided to fly in and land close by blending in perfectly with the tan-colored sand it was standing on. Slowly we began to see there were many more of these tiny balls of cuteness, and eventually counted 34 of these darling birds! It was nice to see them interspersed with the similarly-sized Semipalmated Plovers, the latter with bold chest bands and brown plumage.  The Piping Plovers is severely threatened at the very least over much of its breeding range so any sightings of these elusive wanderers are always cherished. A sizeable flock of American Skimmers was nice to practically walk right up to allowing inspections of the odd-shaped bill this bird utilizes for hunting just above the water. Other birds having a snooze with the skimmers were droves of Royal, Caspian, and Forster’s Terns. Some larger shorebirds that allowed close approach were the rusty plumaged Marbled Godwits with slightly upturned bills, and Black-necked Stilts standing tall perched atop their long red legs. Fortunately, we also had a good study of both plumages of Reddish Egret, both varieties given away by their frantic feeding method. We then walked around the boardwalks over the marsh at the Convention Center to slowly saunter through the emergent vegetation. A group of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were resting amongst the reeds, and several pairs of Mottled Ducks were studied replete with a black dot at the base of the bill. At the end of the walkway, a close inspection of Little Blue in Tricolored Herons was savored, as well as a bathing Reddish Egret giving its best impression of a Muppet while drying off. After leaving the island we tried one more time for the Aplomado Falcons and all of a sudden, there they were. A pair were perched close together on top of one of the platforms put out on the refuge for them to use to nest on. This odd stanchion looked like a square jail, only not to keep something in, but to keep predators out. Just before getting back to the hotel, we stopped in San Benito and successfully found one of the several Limpkin that had recently colonnaded Texas a few months earlier. We watched as one of these birds expertly extracted the meaty innards of giant clams. We also realized that the piles of shells we were standing amongst were likely the result of this expert hunter who had been in this area for quite some time. When the fishing is good, why leave? As the light was waning, a roadside Burrowing Owl was the perfect cherry on top of our sunny day.

The next day we needed to make a big shift and head a couple hours north to Corpus Christi. En route, we made a detour to La Sal del Rey, a portion of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge system. This ancient saline lake has no inlet or outlet. As water from precipitation evaporates it leaves a white salt crust behind creating a beautiful unique landscape. This substrate is perfect for hiding the pale tiny Snowy Plover. This species breeds here, and this time of year can be found in good numbers around the lake’s edges. We lucked into 11 of these entertaining birds chasing each other around and bathing in the overflow from a freshwater spring. Nearby a Say’s Phoebe whistled its presence and maintained hot pursuit of the flies surrounding the wetland. A Pine Warbler stood out glowing yellow among the leafless mesquite tree it was foraging in. Also here, a family of Cactus Wrens were popping in and out of, what else, prickly pear cactus. Their unique “ch ch CH CH ch ch” calls were dually noted, sounding like a car trying to start but never turning over. Just as we were leaving, a few Common Ground Doves flushed from the road and sat still trying to hide in a mesquite, allowing us an extended view of these tiny columbids. Along the dirt road exit, we jumped out to enjoy superb views of an adult White-tailed Hawk perched on a power pole, noting its long wing tips that extended down beyond the tail. At the nearby beef farm, we sorted through a huge flock of blackbirds and added male and female Brewer’s Blackbird to our list. Also here a large white flock contained both Snow and Ross’s Geese. These birds can be tough to ID at a distance, but we were so close it wasn’t hard to differentiate the 2 species with ease. Halfway to Corpus, we stopped at one of the best rest stops in South Texas. Falfurrias has had many rarities over the years and this year was no different. Soon after arriving, Adam spotted a dapper Plumbeous Vireo foraging in a flock over a picnic table. At the other end of the rest stop we added our only Lesser Goldfinches of the trip, singing their high-pitched mimicking songs to no end. We couldn’t stay long here, as we had an exciting bird we were destined to find in the Corpus Christi area. Although we had a target in mind, we had to stop to view some close roadside Sandhill Cranes feeding in a meadow, hopefully, 1 of 2 species of crane we’d see this week. We drove directly into downtown Corpus to the parking lot of my favorite restaurant, only 2 blocks from the hotel we’d be staying in. We watched birders running and followed them to the Cattle Tyrant. This bird hadn’t been recorded north of Panama before, but for some reason had been calling Corpus home since November when it first showed up. After more celebrating, we were off to the coast of Nueces Bay to search for more ocean-related birds. A distant but distinguished Brown Booby flew by a couple of times, displaying its long wings and distinctive flapping style nicely. Down the road by the fishing piers, we were able to track down an adult Iceland Gull that had been hanging around for a while as well. What better place than a bait shop and fishing pier? Smart bird. We ended the day searching around the town of Portland for a reported Bar-tailed Godwit that never showed, but we did get ridiculously good views of shorebirds like Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Western Sandpipers, and even more Marbled Godwits.

The following morning we headed to Rockport to catch our boat for the day trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the wintering grounds for about 3/5 of the entire population of Whooping Cranes in the world. The weather finally turned on us and brought with it lots of rain and some wind. Lucky for us water birds don’t care about either. As we motored across Aransas Bay rafts of ducks were either diving or flushing in front of the boat. Groups of Eared Grebes were swimming in unison, small bunches of Red-breasted Mergansers were lifting off well in advance, and Common Loons allowed close approach. At one point there was a group of at least a dozen loons socializing together as we sped by. Pushing through the inclement weather were a couple of Barn Swallows, early arrivals making their way north to their breeding grounds. As we hit the tip of the refuge we noticed dozens of stick nests perfectly placed in the stunted trees. We proceeded to count over 100 Great Blue Herons who were getting ready to utilize these to begin the nesting process in the coming weeks. We hopped onto the Intracoastal Waterway which follows the coastline from the southern tip of Texas up to Massachusetts. The boat slowly crept by various oyster beds and sandy islands filled with coastal birds like resting American Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstones, and several “Western” Willets. Flocks of Northern Pintail rested on the island’s shores and droves of Redhead and Lesser Scaup dove in the depths of the channel. There were also several groups of cormorants with both Neotropic and Double-crested sitting side by side giving us great comparative looks. Soon after hitting the waterway, it wasn’t long until we caught a glimpse of our first family group of Whooping Cranes foraging in the tides. Typically these birds stay in small groups of 2 adults and 1 or 2 young as they constantly look for food including the blue crab, a staple food on its wintering grounds. Over the next couple hours, we saw at least 25 of these endangered species, sometimes at very close range from our boat. When pulled up close to the shore we heard the distinctive song of a Seaside Sparrow ringing out from the low growth, just beginning to establish its breeding territory for the coming spring. Brown Pelicans were a constant presence during the boat trip diving from high up on unsuspecting fish, with lesser numbers of American White Pelicans feeding in small groups in the shallow pools of the refuge. It was nice to see the differences in feeding styles of these 2 species that look similar, but feed completely differently. At one of the shallow ponds on the refuge we spotted an adult dark-backed Lesser Black-backed Gull that stood out like a sore thumb all by itself. These gulls used to be pretty rare not that long ago, but have increased their numbers in recent years quite a bit. After we had our fill of Whooping Cranes we returned back across Aransas Bay to Fulton where we had a delicious seafood lunch. The weather was starting to get worse, but we pushed on to find another species we hadn’t seen yet. One of the small parks in Fulton had a nice boardwalk out over a vegetated marsh we explore, and soon we heard the distinctive call of a Couch’s Kingbird. There were several here, and we only knew that when they all came out to distract a Sharp-shinned Hawk that, as a result of the pressure, perched only briefly in view. We took time to note the differences between Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds, the latter of which we’d seen many times over the last week. We waited in a heavy downpour for the ferry to Port Aransas over to Mustang Island. Luckily because of the bad weather, there was no line. At the northern tip of the Island, we checked the gull flock at the jetty. A couple of tiny uniquely plumaged gulls were hanging out with the larger Herring and Ring-billed Gulls that revealed themselves to be Bonaparte’s Gulls. On the other side of the island, we walked around the elevated walkways at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. This location provides a resting spot for tons of birds and a unique perspective from above with which to view them. A plethora of Long-billed Dowitchers huddled together for warmth in the drizzly conditions, as did a group of Black-necked Stilts. Droves of Green-winged Teal sought refuge on the shores, as did flocks of Northern Shovelers. Common Gallinules walked around the water’s edge, and both Swamp Sparrow and Marsh Wren foraged in the open for good views. One of the Soras here emerged from the marsh and walked out below our feet, a unique perspective of this marsh bird. As a finale we watched a family group of Whooping Cranes feed together in the salt marsh, slowly picking at their feet for any morsels they could find.  After our amazing day, we enjoyed our final Thai dinner and chatted about the trip we’d just experienced. This was truly the most unbelievable week of birding in South Texas I’ve ever been a part of. With so many rarities to distract us, it could have been hard to catch up with the long list of other Lower Rio Grande Valley specialties we also wanted to see. This wasn’t the case at all, as we nailed almost everything we were looking for. This fairytale-like scenario had us pinching ourselves every day, constantly reminding ourselves how much luck we were having. This year will be hard to beat, but I can’t wait to try again next year in this very unique part of the world.


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