Venture to southern Texas

April 2-10, 2022

Narrative by Johnny Wilson, photos by Alan Lenk and Simon Thompson

We had a fantastic trip to southern Texas in early April 2022. The trip focused on the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but also included short ventures to the coastal wetlands around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the Juniper-Oak woodlands of the Texas Hill Country. The weather was mild to hot but dry throughout the trip, making for good birding.

Our first stop of the trip, Converse North Park on the fringes of San Antonio, was meant to be a quick visit just to get our eyes sharpened, but it ended up much more than that. Among other highlights, participants had their first opportunity to compare Double-crested Cormorant and Neotropical Cormorant. A few Lincoln’s Sparrows, Couch’s Kingbirds, Swainson’s Hawks, and a very cooperative pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers also made an appearance. The star of the show was a Black-chinned Hummingbird on a nest–a sight that very few participants have ever experienced.

After the hummingbird excitement, it was time to push on towards the Aransas area, which we did via Goliad State Park where we were surprised with about 25 American Pipits in the picnic area, almost certainly a non-traditional stop-over site on their northward migration journey.

On Sunday morning we boarded the Skimmer for a three-hour boat ride around the coastal marshes of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge looking for Whooping Cranes and other wetland birds. Though we were a bit late in the year, the trip didn’t disappoint as we saw the last three Whoopers for the season. Captain Tommy Moore then headed north to a small island where artificial nest-sites were very successful in establishing a heron rookery.

Here, everyone enjoyed several normal and white-morph Reddish Egrets, around 30 Roseate Spoonbills and several Gull-billed Terns among the 40 or so other species we saw on the tour.

We ended our first day at Goose Island State Park where a walk down the beach produced Least Sandpipers, Whimbrels, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Semipalmated Plovers, and a walk in the park’s woodland section produced the trip’s first Black-crested Titmouse, one local fuertesi form of the Red-tailed Hawk, and three species of hummingbird (Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied).

We started Monday with a fantastic twitch in the form of a lost Sooty Tern at a local park in Rockport that seemed to think he was a Laughing Gull. Or perhaps he just took a liking to female Laughing Gulls? Either way, the tern was a lifer for most on the trip, so everyone was happy about this rarity’s presence.

The next stop was the fabulous Leonabelle Turnbill Birding Center on the edge of Port Aransas where the comfortable boardwalk around the marsh produced 54 species in two hours of birding. Highlights included both King Rail and Clapper Rail less than 100 yards from one another, good looks at a Sora and Yellow-headed Blackbird, many Stilt Sandpipers, Marsh and Sedge Wren, and an American Golden-Plover, as well as close-up views of three peep species (Least, Semipalmated, and Western Sandpiper) in one binocular view. Thereafter, it was time to head to the Valley, with participants picking up Upland Sandpiper, Crested Caracara, Hooded Oriole, and Curve-billed Thrasher en route.

We ended our first evening in the Valley at Oliveira Park, well-known for its large parrot roost, which did not disappoint. We saw an estimated 75 Red-crowned Parrots, 30 White-fronted Parrots, 8 Redlored Parrots, and 5 Green Parakeets.

The next day we opened our LRGV bird account in earnest at the Old Port Isabel Road just east of Brownsville, where the highlights were multiple signing Cassin’s Sparrows, a pair of displaying Cactus Wrens, and our first Bullock’s Orioles, Brown-crested Flycatchers, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, White-tailed Hawks, Harris’ Hawks, and Olive Sparrows for the trip. Some participants also saw an Aplomado Falcon soaring high in the sky, but it was a very distant view, leaving this target bird still on the to-get list.

We had a blast visiting South Padre Island, particularly as migratory warblers were present in full force. Here, all participants had prolonged views of Northern Parula, as well as Worm-eating, Prothonotary, Tennessee, Nashville, Hooded, Orangecrowned, Kentucky, Yellow-throated, and Black-and-White Warblers. There were also a few surprises: Simon’s sharp ears picked up a Dickcissel sitting high in a Casuarina tree, a vagrant Black-capped Vireo continued at a local land trust’s plot, and several Lesser Nighthawks did flybys in the middle of the day.

Towards the end of the day we headed to the Aplomado Viewing Area on TX Highway 100 where we saw two Aplomado Flacons near the breeding platform…..until Simon’s sharp eyes noted that the second bird was in fact a Peregrine Falcon. It is very rare indeed to see two predators of any kind sit peacefully so close to one another, so this was special sighting, indeed.

Our base in the Valley was the Alamo Inn B&B, a charming local establishment that caters specifically to birders. A major benefit of staying here is that it is conveniently centrally located for us to visit several famous Valley sites with relative ease. The first such site was Estero Llano Grande State Park where we saw an amazing 71 species over the course of the morning, including Plain Chachalacas, Least Grebes, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, White-tipped Doves, Least Bittern, Long-billed Thrashers, Clay-colored Thrushes, and Bronze Cowbirds. Despite it being daytime, the owling at Estero was also quite good: we saw two Great-horned Owls, an Eastern (McCall’s) Screech-Owl, and a Common Pauraque on a nest.

Day 6 saw us heading to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge where Simon put us to a challenge: we need to see more bird species here than we saw at Estero. Simon’s challenge was met with…silence because few thought we could top the previous day’s feat. But we did it: 78 species, a full 6 species more than at Estero.

Highlights here included Altimara Orioles, many migrating Bank Swallows, Verdins, several Green Jays, both Great-crested and Brown-crested Flycatchers, over a hundred migratory Broad-winged Hawks, and a single lucky sight of a Swallow-tailed Kite. As is customary when on the Rio Grande, we of course also logged a Mexican list for the state of Tamaulipas, where we recorded 14 species during our 12-minute stationary count on the river.

We ended the day at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park where we were hoping to get good views of a resident Elf Owl. This was actually our second try for the owl: the previous night we failed to see the owl because a stubborn Golden-fronted Woodpecker decided to occupy its hole in a telephone pole. This night, however, was much more productive, and we had great views of the owl within minutes of arriving at the spot.

Our last full day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley started a bit slow at Roma Bluffs where we saw Mottled Duck, but no Mexican Ducks. We then headed to Salineño Wildlife Preserve where we saw Audubon’s Oriole, but no Muscovy Duck. Next, we visited the Salineño Dump Road where we saw Ash-throated Flycatchers, Verdins, Pyrrhuloxias, and Black-throated Sparrows, but no Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. Our luck finally turned with an opportunistic visit to Starr County Park where all trip participants had great views of 4 Vermillion Flycatchers, in addition to more Bullock’s Orioles, Loggerhead Shrikes, Scissortailed Flycatchers, and Ash-throated Flycatchers.

Falcon State Park also didn’t disappoint; we were quick to pick the 6 vagrant Snowy Plovers that seemed rather at home along the lake’s shoreline, where we also recorded Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, and Black Skimmer. Elsewhere we saw 3 Northern Bobwhites quickly scurrying over the road, and a very cooperative Pyrrhuloxia, but it took until nearly sunset before we finally saw not one, but two of Falcon SP’s famously cooperative Greater Roadrunners.

Our most productive site on April 9, 2022 was San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary where trip participants had an opportunity to directly compare the similar-looking Cave and Cliff Swallows.

Other species recorded here included Inca Dove, Chihuahua Raven, and the monotypic Yellow-breasted Chat, but it was really a cooperative female Morelet’s Seedeater that stole the show by giving everyone prolonged views. Oh yes, we also saw a Red-billed Pigeon, but on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, so the search for a US bird continued.

A quick visit to Lake Casa Blanca International State Park over lunchtime finally yielded Mexican Duck, in addition to more Bronze Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, Cactus Wren, and Green Jays, while a midday foray at Max Mandel Golf Course finally yielded a Redbilled Pigeon on American soil.

Our final day of the trip started with a complete change of scenery as we hiked the East-West trails at Lost Maples State Natural Area in Texas’ Hill Country. Here, we were rather fortunate to quickly record our first target, Golden-cheeked Warbler, heard from the visitor center (we later saw many, including some of warbler couples having quarrels). The second target, Tropical Parula, was almost as easy to find, but it took a bit of searching before we finally spotted a Black-capped Vireo along the West Trail. Other noteworthy species seen at Lost Maples included Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Spotted Towhee, Canyon Wren, Wilson’s Warbler as well as more Clay-colored Sparrows, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Inca Doves.

An opportunistic midday stop at Cook’s Slough Nature Center provided great views of at least 3 Bell’s Vireos and both Myrtle and Audubon’s subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler, as well as no fewer than 9 Clay-colored Sparrows—our trip was really good to help participants get familiar with this species.

Our last stop for the trip wasn’t birding related at all! We stopped at the Concan Frio Cave to see millions of Mexican Free-tailed Bats ascend from the world’s second largest colony into the evening sky. A truly unforgettable experience.  

In total we recorded 235 bird species and 85 checklists were submitted to eBird.

More Birds…

One thought on “Venture to southern Texas”

  1. Great summary Johnny. This brought back many happy memories. Also enjoyed reading all about you in the latest email from Ventures Birding. It was a privilege to have you on the trip and meet you. Alan, you may critique your photos, but they still look good. Many thanks.

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