Lower Rio Grande, Texas, April 2012

For a long time we planned to visit Texas in the prime migration time for birds flying in from the Yucatan Peninsula. 

These birds typically take off at dusk and fly all night over the Gulf of Mexico, reaching the Texas and Louisianna coasts in early morning.  When the winds are from the south and/or east, most of the birds keep flying when they hit the coast.  When the winds come from the North and/or West, they drop down to rest, feed and water in the first trees that appear.  This can cause what birders call a “fall out” when thousands of birds can be found in small copses.  Once you have experienced such an event, one is really impressed and want to see it again.

Several places along the Texas coast are famous for fall outs: High Island, north and east of Houston; and South Padre Island, north and east of Brownsville.  We were hoping for a fall out in the latter.  It was not to be.

When we arrived, on Saturday, the 14th, the winds were strong, but from the South and East.  Early on Sunday, we traveled over to South Padre, or SPI, as it is known, to check out the area near the Convention Center.  This area has a nice boardwalk out into the salt marshes and some nice shrubs and trees that under the right conditions are humming with birds.  There were very few birds and almost no visitors.

We ate lunch at Pier 19 and as we drove in to this restaurant, we noticed some Laughing  Gulls on a mud flat adjacent to the road.  One had a rosey breast and belly, which I had never seen before in a Laughing Gull.  After lunch we drove out on this mud flat — that was dry and hard — and I photographed the bird a number of times.  I had not brought my bird book, as I thought I knew all the birds that we were likely to see, but after we got home I determined that this gull was a Franklins, not a Laughing, although it was hanging out with all other Laughers.

After checking in to our motel which we had rented at a whopping $39.95 per night (plus tax) we returned to the Convention Center for the late afternoon light.  There were no migrants present, but we did locate a spectacularly breeding plumaged Tricolor Heron.  I staked out this bird for nearly an hour and worked him as he caught a rather large fish.  As soon as he caught the fish, he rapidly walked ashore, as herons usually do, so that if they drop the fish, it will not escape.  Then a strange thing occurred: a willet walked rapidly towards the heron, hoping, I guess to steal the fish had it dropped.  It didn’t!

Later, we found a spot where apparently fresh water is run into the marsh and many birds use it for drinking and bathing.  There were dozens of Laughing Gulls, Black Skimmers, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and a few terms using this spot.  Nearby a breeding plumage White Ibis was foraging, which made a great photo op.

Monday morning we drove over to the Convention Center again, but the conditions were unchanged.  We did find a coooperatie Clapper Rail that posed nicely, but my big lens had fogged up as the humidity was very high and the dew point reached during the night.  That was about it at the Convention Center.

So we hopped back in the car and drove twenty miles or so to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a refuge of thousands of acres surrounding the Laguna Madre, a large, very salty lake.  The refuge was bone dry due to the long lasting draught in much of south Texas.

After a quick visit to the Visitors Center, we found the Altamira Oriole next, but the lighting was bad and the oriole just sat in a nearby tree, high up and mostly unphotographable.  So I walked a short distance to the photo blind.

I have been in this blind many times before, and I was not to be disappointed this time.  There were the usual Great-tailed Grackles (everywhere in the Valley), White-tipped Doves, and the signature bird of the Valley, the Green Jay.  There were also Cottontails and Mexican Ground Squirrels.  As I sat there, occasionally making a photo, I noticed movement at the back of the feeding area.  I was surprised to see a huge snake moving quite rapidly towards the blind.  I was able to make only a single image before it disappeared into the brush.  I estimated it was six feet long and thick!  The biggest snake I have ever seen in North America.  The refuge folks confirmed that this was a Texas Indigo Snake.

After this exciting incident we jumped in the car to drive the the fifteen mile wildlife drive.  The wildlife along this drive is severely reduced due to the draught.  Where there used to be large, shallow ponds, there are now dry lake beds.  We did find a lone Osprey perched on the side of the Laguna Madre and it never moved while I made a few images.  Nothing special, however.

A short time later we spotted a Crested Caracara in a palm right on the side of the road.  On the wrong side of the sun.  I did not think there was a chance that we could drive past this bird and get on the up side of the sun, as this bird is usually quite skittish.  But it happened and I was able to make half a dozen images in full frame mode.

We saw almost nothing the rest of the way around the drive, so returned briefly to the blind.  There I made a few images of cottontails and the ground squirrel, one of which was one of the top shots of the week.

On the way back to SPI, we found a coooperative White-tailed Kite sitting on a phone wire alongside the road.  He allowed some pretty close photography, but the light was not very nice and the esthetics of the scene a little short.

By the time we got back to SPI , the storm clouds were gathering to the north.  We quickly checked out the water feature at the Convention Center (nothing) and then went out on the boardwalk.  There we relocted the Tricolor Heron, the bathing Laughers, and a nice White Ibis in breeding plumage.  By the time a Sora Rail came out in the open the light was almost gone.  We started moving rapidly to the car as the rain started. 

Almost as soon as we got inside our motel room, a full blast huge thunder storm arrived.  The wind was so intense we saw garbage cans flying through the parking lot.  The storm dropped a reported two inches of rain on SPI.  When it let up, we headed out to dinner, having to drive through gutters that had 16-18 inches of water!  The rain was needed, but mostly wasted.  In the restaurant we experienced one of the highlights of the trip: a full dark rainbow that lasted many minutes right over the beach!  And yes, there was a second rainbow, weaker, above the first.

Tuesday we were back at the Convention center, expecting lots more birds, and indeed some migrants had come in.  We saw and photographed Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a brilliant red Summer Tanager, and lots of Orioles, mostly Baltimores, but a few Orchards as well.  There were also a number of birds at the lots along Sheepshead where Chris saw a Blue Grosbeak.  We also saw a Black-throated Green Warbler at this latter location and a Kiskadee, of all things.

We had to change motels Tuesday night to Weslaco, where we had reservations and decided to drive the 55 miles back over to SPI Wednesday morning, hoping for more migrants.  There were more migrants, including at least one Cerulean Warbler, but the sun was intense and unfiltered by any clouds, so the photography very difficult.  My D300s Camera was having trouble with the huge range of exposure between shadows where some birds appeared and the bright sun.

I worked on Warbling Vireo, a Tennessee Warbler, a Black-throated Green and some orioles.  Finally, as I was working that latter, the shutter in my camera locked open and that camera body was done for the trip.  It is now back at Nikon for repair for the third time in seven months.

Fortunately, I had my older D300 along and switched to that body for the remainder of the trip.  After lunch at the Pier 19 on SPI again, we noticed a Red-breasted Merganser drake swimming towards the small boat piers.  I climbed right up on a rock and began preening, allowing for nice photography, albeit in terrible noon light.  As we were watching him, we noticed a nearby Reddish Egret standing on one of the piers.  A Great Blue Heron soon chased him off the piers to a nearby cove and the Reddish then began foraging.  The Reddish uses a method of running around like a crazy bird with its wings stretched out to first scare the small fish and then provide a shadow that the fish interpret to be a safe haven.  It must work well, because all Reddish perform this little dance.

In the afternoon, we drove down to the Sable Palm Sanctuary south of Brownsville, a sanctury owned by Audubon, but leased out to a foundation.  This sanctuary is right along the Rio Grande and indeed the border security fence is just outside the properrty. 

At Sable Palm it was hot and still sunny, but we found a very nice male Hooded Oriole on an orange at the feeding station.  After sitting in the blind and seeing not a whole lot (the sun was also in the wrong position), we returned to the feeding station and spent the rest of the open time working Buff-bellied Hummingbirds.  These colorful hummers can only be found in the US in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The following morning we first visited the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary in Weslaco, only a few miles from our motel.  A young Crimson-collared Grosbeak had been reported here a few days before.  We went out on one of the paths and after a perhaps fifteen minutes ran into Marge who was leading a couple of birders looking for the grosbeak.  She had heard it and soon found it a few feet from where I was standing, but up in a tree.  I got a very brief look before it flew away.  Chris never even got this. 

We walked the trails at Frontera, but saw nothing unusual.  The Chachalacas were sounding off, as they usually do in the morning, and came to the feeding station where we were sitting.  Fox Squirrels also appeared, as well as a few Cottontails and some other not-very-exciting birds.  We moved to the water feature for perhaps a half hour, but absolutely nothing showed.

So off we went to Estero Llano Grande State Park.   There was supposed to be a large flock of Fulvous Whistling Ducks here, but they were not in view and probably a long way from the Visitors Center.  The sun was coming directly from across the big lake at the Visitors Center, so no decent photographs could be made.  We walked around this lake by found little to work.  Even the butterflies and the Butterfly Garden were in short supply.  And it remained HOT!

Reports appeared of another large flock of Fulvous at Santa Ana NWR, so we arrived there even before the Visitors Center opened at 8.  We took a trail down to Cattail Lake where we thought the ducks were supposed to be.  Alas, they were not there.  A photo blind and an overlook exist on the edge of this lake and we visited both.  The only bird of interest was a group of six ibis.  I believe these were Glossys, a rare bird in the Valley, rather than White-faced, a common bird. 

In the afternoon we drove on over to Bentsen State Park.  This was once a thriving motor home park that was filled all winter.  Many of the residents were birders or casual birders and large numbers put out oranges and/or sunflower seed.  Birds were everywhere.  I saw my only Blue Bunting here, as well as the only Masked Tityra ever to appear north of the border. 

Some bright person in the Texas government decided to make this into a World Birding Center and the campers are gone.  So are most of the birds.  There is some small amount of feeding during the winter, but even that had ended.  We took a open-sided small “bus” around the old trailer loop, towed by a pickup truck.  We were the only riders.  We saw not a single mammal and just a handful of common birds.  It was essentially dead.

The old gatehouse, where an employee used to check permits and take entrance money, is now the Nature Center.  It was closed.   The exhibition hall has the same attractive displays as three years ago.  The small food deli is now closed.  The gardens had a few butterflys, but the rain was coming so they disappeared.  A nice woman employee told us about the National Butterfly Center, only a mile down the road.  This is a new facility that I have never visited previously.

We drove over to the Center and found a gorgeous new Visitors Center and many gardens with butterfly atracting flowers.  In one of the front gardens there must have been twenty Queens flitting about, a butterfly closely related to the familiar Monarch.  We were looking specifically for the Mexican Bluewing, photos of which I had just seen at Bentsen.  We were told that they were mostly at the back gardens. 

We drove down there and talked to the owner who pointed out the tree that they feed on and where they hang out.  We found a few but they would not spread their wings when they land.  The apparently always land head down, unlike any butterfly I have ever seen.  After awhile the heat was so intense that neither Chris nor I could stand it  and had to quite.  We drove back to Brownsville for our last night.

The forecast said that northwest winds would arrive during the night, perfect for migrants it is assumed.  And indeed the next morning we drove early back out to SPI.  The orioles were in abundance at Sheepshead, but only a few other birds.  Up to the Convention Center we went, but it was not much different there.  Lots and lots of birders and would be nature photographers; a minimum of birds.  The wind was so strong that most of the birds that were present were hunkered down in the bushes.  We did see and photograph a Blackpoll Warbler, a Prothonotary female, a Warbling Vireo, a Tennessee Warbler and a few others.  Before noon, we gave up and drove down to Pier 19 lunch and then on over to the airport for our return to BWI.  We got in at about 11:30, so were not home until after 1.  That about did us in the following day!