Birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley

 

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The Rio Grande

My first impression of this valley came from flying into the small airport in Harlingen, a short hop from Houston’s larger hub. This is not a land of classic beauty, but rather a flat, hot, coastal plain with countless windmills, low level vegetation, and practically no tall trees.  It’s a working class area of large farms and ranches, crisscrossed by straight highways, lined by strip malls and fast food oases.  But it’s also an area steeped in history and fought for over the centuries by native Coahuiltecans, Spanish Conquistadors, Mexican, Texan, and United State’s armies.

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The Rio Grande is the central geographic and historical feature bringing precious water 1900 miles from its source in Colorado, through New Mexico, and delineating the border between Mexico and Texas.  But even that famous river underwhelms with first impressions when one sees a rather narrow and shallow stream winding its way through the fertile alluvial plain and wetlands, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near the barrier islands of South Padre.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus (click on photos to zoom)

Even if my initial impressions were lukewarm, the birds and other fauna clearly love and thrive in this subtropical paradise with 520 avian species recorded. The meandering river and oxbow lakes create a lush, humid, riparian environment surrounded by the contrasting arid landscape.  Its a land of yuccas, mesquite, Spanish moss, bromeliads and Sabal palms.  Its also the home of one of the premier birding festivals in the country and the reason for my trip south this fall.

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus

I felt a little smug seeing my first life bird at the gate area of the Houston airport, not realizing that there would be hundreds, no thousands, of Great-tailed Grackles in the parking lot of my motel all week.  The night clerk gave me perhaps the best advice of the week–don’t head out into the wilds without a ample supply of fly dope and use it early and often.

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee, Pitangus sulphuratus

The annual Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival combines all the elements which make for a memorable week of birding.  Visit their site at:  www.rgvbf.org . One only has time to scratch the surface of the festival’s myriad of offerings including numerous guided tours of birding hotspots (all within 75 miles of the headquarters in Harlingen), lectures and demonstrations, and a chance to browse the latest books and salivate over that ultimate spotting scope.  Throw in superb organization, excellent guides, a big Texas welcome and southern hospitality, and you have a great festival.  Your only issue is choosing your trips–you can’t take them all.

Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole, Icterus gularis

My strategy was to reluctantly pass on the pelagic trip and the huge Laguna Atascosa NWR wetlands, thinking those would yield many of the same seabirds, shorebirds and waders already familiar to me from Florida and the Chesapeake Bay region.  My first trip was to the mammoth and famous King Ranch, a 90 minute bus ride north of Harlingen.  This is a working ranch, the size of Rhode Island, not usually open to the public, but available for guided tours.  The main target bird here was the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, an endangered species found only in south Texas and Arizona in the US.  Our guide showed wonderful patience moving the busload of birders to potential sights before he finally heard the answering call in the deep underbrush.  My photo reflects that, as the owl had no intention of showing off to the hoards of birders.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Glaucidium brasilianum

My next half day trip was another bus ride to the “Upper” Rio Grande in Starr County.  There was some sudden excitement while the group birded along the river bank.  You know you are seeing a “good” or unusual bird when the guides start shouting and pointing to a flyover.  We were privileged to get a great look and even a decent picture of a Zone-tailed Hawk.  The soaring raptors are always a special treat.

Zone-tailed Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk, Buteo albonotatus

We then visited the home of a generous and interesting couple in Salineno that have converted their small backyard along the river into an avian fast food fly-thru with multiple feeders, bird baths, and even a theater of seats for weary birders, gladly adding their names to a huge guestbook.  This gave us great looks at the White-winged and White-tipped Doves, the Altamira Oriole, Black-crested Titmouse, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, the ubiquitous and colorful Green Jay, and Orange-crowned Warbler and Long-billed Thrasher.

Black-tufted Titmouse

Black-crested Titmouse, Baeolophus atricristatus

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove, Zenaida asiatica

Green Jays

Green Jays, Cyano yncas

Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons

Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons

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Long-billed Thrasher, Toxostoma longirostre

My last guided trip was to the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP where I got some chuckles on the bus as I revealed I was yet to see a Plain Chachalaca.  Just the name of the bird was fascinating, fitting its comical behavior and call. It indeed was present and common at Bentsen.  The park is also noted for its tall platform above the treetops and hawk watch program.

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Plain Chachalaca, Ortalis vetula

In addition to the morning guided tours I used two free afternoons to visit Santa Ana NWR and Estero Llano SP alone.  On the bus trips I had great opportunities to compare notes and equipment with birders from all around the country, but solitary walks along the quiet river, without the pressure to hurry and climb on and off the bus were a welcome break.  That’s where I saw that Vermilion Flycatcher, and the huge Ringed Kingfisher.

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Ringed Kingfisher, Megaceryle torquatus

Just at dusk while leaving Estero Llano, I saw a group of birders with guidebooks, smart phones, binoculars, and cameras ready, all standing near a large shrub next to the parking lot.  There was a report of a Blue-throated Hummingbird here earlier that day–it’s a bird not usually seen this far East.  The excitement grew when several hummers flew in, and there was a spirited debate whether they were Buff-bellied, Black-chinned, or Ruby-throated.  The only consensus reached was they were not the coveted Blue-throated, but any posing hummer is a treat for me.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird, (I think), Amazilia yucatanensis

Hummingbird Sp.

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Hummingbird Sp.

Five days along the Rio Grande is simply not enough time to absorb all this region has to offer. I added 29 birds to a modest life list, but in addition to the flora and fauna I discovered a need to know more about the region and its people and history.  So on the flight home I plugged into Amazon, buying Giant, the 1952 novel about several generation of Texan ranchers by Pulitzer author Edna Ferber, Lone Star, A History of Texas and Texans, by T.R. Fehrenbach, and of course the Texas-sized historical novel Texas, by James Michener.  This is more than enough reading to keep me busy until my next trip to the Rio Grande.

The Great Texas Parrot Chase

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Picture a 90 degree, humid, late afternoon day in southeast Texas as sweaty birders cram into 4 vans with all their binoculars, cameras, scopes and tripods.  The vans scattered throughout Harlingen, Texas’s residential and commercial neighborhoods, each with a driver/guide, spotter and anxious birders hoping to find the target flocks of Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots.

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Red-crowned Parrot, Amazona viridigenalis

These colorful, loud birds are widely scattered in the daytime, but as evening approaches this time of year they tend to flock to one or two varying locations around town creating a memorable spectacle of noise and color.  Throw in the barking dogs, excited birders, and gaping neighbors and children, and you have a unusual birding treat.

Green Parakeet

Green Parakeet (click on any picture to zoom)

This event was part of the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  It, along with countless other guided trips through numerous habitats in the valley, key note speakers, vendors, etc.  make it one of the top birder destinations. www.rgvbf.org  And don’t forget the birds.  Texas as a whole and in particular the Rio Grande Valley has an impressive bird list of possible sightings with over 540 species seen in South Texas.

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The Green Parakeet is a long-tailed, large-billed, non-migratory bird native to Mexico and northern Central America.  The Red-crowned Parrot is a stocky, large-headed and short-tailed bird, native to a shrinking area of northeast Mexico, and considered endangered.  There is some controversy whether these two birds of the Rio Grande Valley are feral or native in an enlarging range, but these birds found elsewhere in California and Florida are clearly escapees.

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The chase did not yield immediate fruit.  Our aggressive driver carreened around corners and zig-zagged through the neighborhoods with one eye on the road and the other on the treetops, using the cell phone (hands-free) to coordinate with the other vans–all initially also coming up dry.  I gathered there was a badge of honor given to the first van to find the target birds.  Several curious elders on their front porch waved as our van passed down their street for the 4th or 5th time.  As dusk approached I was beginning to worry, but then we heard them before seeing them.  25 or 30 Green Parakeets were devouring berries on a small tree on a side street.  We called in our location and all the vans and happy birders converged for pictures.

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As if on cue the parakeets took off and the birders tumbled back  into the vans, now to find the parrots in the waning light.  Lucky again, we heard and found a large flock of 50 or 60 in the trees and wires.  These green and red birds, seemingly in Christmas attire made an impressive sight.  I saw one of my fellow birders set up his scope for some local children who were wondering about this invasion of birds and birders into their neighborhood.  Their squeals of delight at seeing these birds, up close, with great optics made me think we probably just created some new birders in south Texas. With the light now too low for photography, we left the birds and neighbors alone, content with our success in this unique Great Parrot Chase.

“Free As a Bird” or “Laying an Egg”

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

One warm summer evening while enjoying the gentle breeze on the screened porch, my wife and were chatting about birding.  I’m a birder and she is not, but the conversation evolved into something she does enjoy; words, and their meanings.  Maybe more that any other animal, bird phrases and idioms have entered into our daily discourse to convey meanings in ways that may be quite difficult for those for whom English is not their native language.  Literature, from Greek and Roman times to the present have used birds to explain human behavior and traits.  Over the next hour or so, encouraged with a glass of wine or two, we came up with many examples.  See what you think and feel free to add more.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (click on any photo to zoom)

Some of these are meant to be derogatory, such as a birdbrain, quack, cuckoo, silly goose, stool pigeon, chicken-livered, turkey, hen-pecked, or an albatross around your neck.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

Others are quite complimentary; wise as an owl or proud as a peacock.  Some are symbols of strength or nobility; the Bald Eagle, the Falcon or the Screaming Eagles, the insignia of the 101st Airborne division.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

While others imply weakness and vulnerability; an Ostrich with his head in the sand, a sitting duck, being naked as a jay-bird, getting goosed, squealing like a canary, delivering your swan song, getting your feathers ruffled, or having the need to eat crow.  Then there are the religious symbols such as the dove of peace and the Holy Spirit, or Easter eggs connoting a new beginning, vs. the evil Raven or Vulture.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

What about the motherly trait of nesting while preparing for childbirth and the expected delivery of the stork.  Later those same parents experiences the empty nest syndrome.  There are also humorous examples, such as he’s a hoot but really laid an egg with this posting.

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There are the signs of contentment such as happy as a lark, the bluebird of happiness, lovebirds, or singing like a nightingale, and being free as a bird.  And don’t forget the signs of success such as feathering your nest, the early bird getting the worm, or getting your ducks in a row.  There are many that describe action:  flying the coop after being cooped up, taking a swan dive, jay-walking,  pigeon-holing, getting a bird’s-eye view, or parroting someone else.

Juvenile Gull

Juvenile Gull

And lastly don’t forget the age old conundrum, what came first, the chicken or the egg?  At least this immature gull seems to have gotten a charge out of all of this.