The first morning birding a new area is accompanied by an air of anticipation and excitement. The habitat and its inhabitants are unknown to the visitor, full of surprises, and waiting to be explored. Col and I departed our motel in McAllen early in the morning, gathering our gear and fueling up with snacks and drinks. A flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks passed over us as we waited at a stoplight, as if to remind us we were out of familiar territory. The short drive to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park was largely uneventful, but as soon as we reached the parking lot a dazzling array of new sights and sounds greeted us. So far from home, many niches in the avian community were filled by species that act as counterparts to the cast of characters I know best. Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers filled in for the Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers I’d find in New York. Lark and Lincoln’s Sparrows normally appear on Long Island as lost individuals, but here they formed flocks of their own. Inca and White-tipped Doves outnumbered their Mourning cousins. The jays were green instead of blue, every titmouse had a black crest, and the grackles all had great tails. A few faces are similarly abundant in both Texas and New York, including cardinals, mockingbirds, and Red-wings. The overall effect, however, was that of a whole new world.
As we waited for the visitor center to open, Col and I birded the gardens and waterfront outside. A Hooded Oriole briefly popped in to visit the feeders, followed by a larger, more cooperative Altamira Oriole. Long-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrows picked the brush below, while Orange-crowned Warblers foraged in the treetops. Our first look at a Ringed Kingfisher came when the heavy-headed bird noisily rocketed downstream, pausing only briefly to survey the water from a perch above the dike. We watched from this location for the Hook-billed Kites that had been seen the week before, to no avail. When the rangers opened shop we paid our entrance fee and headed into the park, where more feeders and observation zones awaited.
Once we crossed the dike and entered the park’s gates, we found a waiting area with an array of feeding stations on the edge of the woods. Platforms, boxes, and logs had recently been stuffed with food, and a frenzy of birds had descended on the buffet. Blackbirds, jays, and kiskadees jockeyed for position at each feeder, noisily squabbling as they scrambled to stuff their faces.
Dinosaurian silhouettes began to move in on the scene, stalking through the bushes and running along branches before leaping into the fray like little Velociraptors. Plain Chachalacas are one of the more abundant and unusual Rio Grande specialties at the park feeders, and they are quite unlike anything most United States birders are familiar with. Similar in size to a chicken but behaving more like a semi-arboreal turkey, this species is the northernmost representative of a gamebird tribe found throughout the Neotropics. Although their dull plumage is rightfully called “plain,” their comical appearance and animated behavior are anything but. Large, loud, and endlessly entertaining, these birds were among my favorites encountered on the trip. I could fill a whole post with photos and stories of their antics.
Peeling ourselves away from the madness at the feeders, Col and I headed deeper into the park. Bentsen has number of trails leading to bird blinds or observation decks, and we wanted to see all that we could. We made our way towards the hawkwatch platform at the far end of the park, finding a number of species en route including my life Verdin. I saw Northern Bobwhite along the trail and below the platform, marking the first time I’ve encountered these quail in far-too-many years. Raptors were abundant this morning, though most of them were seen away from the hawkwatch itself. White-tailed Kite, Crested Caracara, and White-tailed Hawk all made appearances along the trails. A family group of Harris’s Hawks, the only raptor species that hunts in cooperative packs, put on a show for us, and a late-lingering Broad-winged Hawk soared overhead. The calls of Red-shouldered Hawks and my first Gray Hawks were heard ringing through the trees, and I later spotted the Grays in flight. Vultures, unsurprisingly, never seemed far away.
It took us a little while to find the Kiskadee Blind, a location I’d been reading about prior to the trip. Birders here had spotted a White-throated Thrush drinking at the water feature for the past few days. This rare visitor from Mexico would be the first vagrant bird we chased in the Valley. A misinterpretation of the map led to us puzzling over a dry pond and empty feeders down the trail from the actual spot for a few precious minutes. When we realized our mistake and headed to the real blind, we arrived to find a huge crowd of excited birders. We quickly and quietly walked up to the observation area, just in time to see pointing fingers and hear whisper-shouts of “There it goes!” I glimpsed the back of a dark brown bird flying away from the pool on everyone’s line of sight, the right size, shape, and color for the thrush. It looked different from the similar Clay-colored Thrush, a former unusual visitor that has become common in South Texas recently. I’d seen my target, however fleetingly, but Col had missed it and I was less than satisfied. We made ourselves comfortable and settled in to wait, hoping that the bird would soon return.
The Kiskadee Blind proved a very pleasant place to sit around and wait. Dozens of birds flitted to and fro, gorging at the feeders and washing it down in the water feature below. Orioles, jays, and doves gave great views while we sat with the assembled birders, many of whom were happy for the distraction from the thrush’s absence. Rarities are nice, but there’s a lot to be said for close encounters with the local color. What’s more, the birds weren’t the only wildlife present at this watering hole. Several Fox Squirrels joined their feathered friends at the feeders, and a solitary Javelina trundled out of the woods to get a drink. This creature, also called the Collared Peccary, is a distant relative of familiar barnyard hogs and a species I’d never encountered before. We were also treated to views of a Indigo Snake, who briefly startled the birds when it slithered in for some refreshment. After drinking its fill, it quickly darted back into the brush and disappeared.
The White-throated Thrush, unfortunately, failed to show itself again for the hour we waited. The biologist in me was left wanting more, but the birder in me had seen just barely enough to count the species on my list. Hopefully next time brings a better view. Col’s friend Bryan contacted us to say he was already at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, our planned second stop. Scanning a nearby field on our way out, we returned to the car and headed off, riding high on the excitement we’d experienced at Bentsen.
Col introduced me to Bryan when we arrived at the refuge, and we set out on the trails in search of more birds. Our primary goal here was finding the Northern Jacana, another Mexican rarity. This shorebird has extraordinarily long toes which allow it to walk across floating plants, leading to the colloquial names “lily trotter” and “Jesus bird.” Remarkably, there were 3 jacanas visiting Santa Ana this winter. A young individual had spent the better part of the season on the refuge, showing since December and gradually molting into adult plumage. This was my most-wanted target species, and I’d been hoping for weeks that it wouldn’t disappear before my trip. Imagine my surprise when another pair of young birds was spotted at the refuge a few days days before my flight. We first set our sights on the Pintail Lakes trail where the juveniles were seen, hoping that more birds meant better odds of seeing them.
Santa Ana was, in a word, stunning. The number of birds and the amount of activity were seriously impressive, due in part to the range of habitat represented within the refuge. Waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds were all present in abundance. Col got her very first Greater Roadrunner after too many years of searching in vain, and she also connected with Cinnamon Teal. A group of diminutive Least Grebes delighted us as they floated across the pond while Soras and stilts stalked the shoreline. Two Ringed Kingfishers put in an appearance, dwarfing the pair of Green Kingfishers also fishing the ponds. There was tons of action to enjoy, but most of the birds were too distant or appeared too fleetingly for quality photographs. It was enough to enjoy the sights and sounds all around us as we hiked the shoreline, but there was no sign of either jacana. We trekked back to the visitor center, picked up Col’s scope, and headed out to the Willow Lakes in search of the third bird. After some tense search time, Bryan sighted our quarry on the far shore. As he called out to us, it took off and flew directly towards us. I briefly saw a flash of its intense yellow flight feathers as it dropped behind the plants on the bank, disappearing from view. Shifting our vantage point slightly, we found the bird foraging among the reeds. These views were far more satisfying than the thrush, and we were able to thoroughly enjoy the jacana’s company as it strode dramatically through vegetation.
With our remaining hours of daylight, we drove back to Weslaco and spent some time searching a local hotspot called Frontera Audubon for some other reported rarities. We enjoyed some nice encounters with local birds, including our life Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, but didn’t see anything too out of the ordinary. Taking Bryan in search of parrots and the similarly-established Green Parakeets, we found only the former as the sun sank below the horizon. A delicious dinner and some margaritas helped us draft our plans for the next day before we temporarily parted ways. Bryan drove east to Laguna Atascosa, and Col and I settled in for a well-deserved sleep. It was an action-packed first day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: looking back it strains credulity that so much happened between sunrise and sunset. The rest of our trip would follow suit with similar intensity and impressiveness, but above all we were having a great time.
Year List Update, February 15 – 228 Species (+ Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Chipping Sparrow, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Inca Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Hooded Oriole, Olive Sparrow, Altamira Oriole, Long-billed Thrasher, Ringed Kingfisher, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Plain Chachalaca, Clay-colored Thrush, Verdin, Northern Bobwhite, Broad-winged Hawk, White-eyed Vireo, Bewick’s Wren, White-tipped Dove, White-throated Thrush, Gray Hawk, Eastern Bluebird, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Roadrunner, Eared Grebe, Least Grebe, Lesser Yellowlegs, Green Kingfisher, Cinnamon Teal, Green Heron, Northern Jacana, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, Ovenbird, Wilson’s Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch)