Good morning birders, twitchers, twitchy birders, bitchy twirlers, and anyone seeking respite from our bird-brained politics. I want to share highlights from a spontaneous New Year’s road trip to Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley.
After a cancelled ski trip left me with spare time and an urge to travel, I hopped in the car and drove 8 hours to the far southern tip of Texas, where the Rio Grande River meets the Gulf of Mexico. This is one of the top birding sites in the Continental U.S. – but I had never made it there during my 19 years in Fort Worth. Amazingly, there was one room available at the famous Alamo Inn B&B (I suppose ski trips aren’t the only cancelled trips in this era).
The birding hotspots are concentrated along the easternmost 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, from Mission to South Padre Island. The hotspots are a series of protected local, state, and federal lands within the connected metropolitan areas of Brownsville and McAllen-Edinburg – often referred to as “RGV” or “the Valley.” The region — a safe, friendly, and culturally vibrant home to 1.3 million people — was ground zero for Trump’s politicization of the border. In fact, several of the top birding sites were in danger of being cut off by his wall, a still-lingering threat that mobilized birders and local leaders to help save the area’s $500 million (low estimate) ecotourism economy.
Located less than 3 degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer, the area is the northernmost tip of the range of many Mexican and Central American birds. It also attracts a constant stream of rare vagrants that stray north of their ranges, providing continual opportunities for resident birders and repeat visitors. The fertile land north of the Rio Grande has mostly been converted into farmland or development – but a chain of state parks (SP) and national wildlife refuges (NWR) protects critical patches of thorn-scrub, subtropical woodlands, sabal palms, and tidal wetlands. Among the many world-famous birding sites are Santa Ana NWR, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP, Estero Llano Grande SP, the National Butterfly Center, Resaca De La Palma SP, Laguna Atascosa NWR, and the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
One of the area’s most iconic birds is the green jay, whose range stretches from Honduras to South Texas. Don’t worry, they’re extremely conspicuous. “Ah man, I spent a week in the Valley and managed to miss the green jays” is something no birder has ever said.
The great kiskadee – a tyrant flycatcher common throughout most of Central and South America – is another impossible-to-miss showoff:
Other South Texas specialties include the adorable plain chachalaca:
I included that horrible pic to emphasize the cooperative nature of birding. Sure, you can do it by yourself — in fact, it’s theoretically a great hobby for loners and misanthropes. However, most birders are friendly, and we enjoy the feeling of sharing a common purpose with the strangers we encounter in the field. On my first day, I was standing on the Santa Ana observation tower as several expert birders called out everything they saw for the benefit of anyone in earshot. I didn’t get nearly a good enough look at, or photo of, this white-tailed hawk. But the experts were confident in the ID, so I tallied another lifer.
On my third morning, I discovered that volunteers lead free bird walks six days a week at Santa Ana. That day’s guides were a retired couple from the Midwest who work on federal lands in exchange for a place to park their RV. They were delightful company, and they found 62 species in just a couple of hours. My big targets that day were the other two kingfishers of North America. They were confident we would see a green kingfisher, and we did:
I also wanted a ringed kingfisher, but they hadn’t been seen much this season. I guess I brought good luck, though, because a pair noisily flew over our heads near a lake:
Another bird they helped me find was a common pauraque. This one is perhaps off limits to the aforementioned loners and misanthropes, as its camouflage makes it extremely difficult to spot without shared local knowledge. In this case, the guides knew that this one likes to sleep less than 10 feet from a busy sidewalk:
More South Texas specialties:
And long-billed thrasher:
Many serious birders travel to the Valley just to chase rarities. I spent an unsuccessful morning looking for the crimson-collared grosbeak (another for my “heard only” life list – sigh), but I didn’t even attempt the social flycatcher or golden-crowned warbler. On a first trip, my priority was to see the regulars.
However, I did prioritize one amazing bird. First, you should know the story of 35-year-old Valley resident Tiffany Kersten, who catapulted to stardom last month by breaking the single-year record for bird sightings in the lower 48 states. It’s a remarkable and inspiring story, and this article hits the highlights well. In short, being newly unemployed and still trying to come to terms with having been sexually assaulted, she decided to do a “big year” to help raise awareness for women’s safety. Driving from coast to coast and sleeping on birders’ couches, she wasn’t aiming for any records – but after a tremendous start, the magic number of 725 species came within reach. While in Oklahoma tying the record on December 18, she got word that a bat falcon had been spotted at Santa Ana NWR during their Christmas Bird Count. She booked the next flight home that afternoon, drove to Santa Ana, sprinted from the parking lot to the observation tower, and got a great look at #725.
The bat falcon is an incredible find, and not just because it sounds like a cartoon superhero. It’s an “ABA first,” meaning the first-ever documented sighting in the United States or Canada. So, to break the record – in her home area, with an ABA first, at a wildlife refuge where she used to work and on whose behalf she had lobbied Congress to save it from the border wall – is just. . .well, Hollywood would reject that script for being too contrived.
This is the sort of rarity that draws birders from out of state – and, sure enough, I met folks who had flown in just to see it. For nearly two weeks after the CBC sighting, its (mostly) regular routine had been to roost in some palms on a nearby farm and then disappear into the park for most of the day. Importantly, it usually stopped on a pole at the park’s entrance at dawn and dusk, sometimes for as long as 30 minutes. The pole afforded fabulous photos (see Santa Ana’s eBird page).
However, “usually” is doing a lot of work in that sentence, as sometimes it skipped the pole – including the two dawns and two dusks I joined the dozens of birders staked out at the intersection of Green Jay Road and U.S. Highway 281. In fact, I came up empty on my first three attempts. On #4, a chilly morning with about 40 tripods lining the road, we saw the falcon fly from a palm tree directly into the park. Someone exclaimed “it’s on that radio tower!” and we ran toward the parking lot to get a better view.
Now, this radio tower wasn’t close. Here’s my best shot, fully zoomed in:
Ok, Lightroom. Ok, 15+ years of processing practice: Do your best. Come on. . .
Well, at least you can tell what it is. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Beyond the South Texas exclusives, the Valley also hosts many southwestern specialties that would be novel to folks from elsewhere:
The helpful experts at the Santa Ana observation tower helped me get another couple of lifers. Someone found a Harris’s hawk:
And soon after, one of them spotted some crested caracaras gliding over Mexico. I’ll take their word for it:
Finally, here are some other photo highlights:
Thanks for reading! Please share highlights, lowlights, and midlights from your week in birding.