My Mom and I returned last week from an amazing trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in extreme southern Texas. This all started when my furnace had to be replaced a year or two ago and my mother, bless her heart, loaned me some money to help out with that. I decided that it would be a lot more fun to pay her back with a birding trip instead of with a check, and she agreed, and thus our adventure was born...
Where to go? The 19th annual Lower Rio Grande Birding Festival was scheduled for the second week of November, and I looked into it. I've been to the Valley twice, but both trips were years ago. The Valley is one of the top three places ( if not the #1 place) to go in the U.S. to look for birds and butterflies, especially those that don't occur anywhere else in North America, and I wanted to go there again, badly. Plus, I wanted to show my Mom lots of birds and other things that she has never seen before. The Rio Grande Valley was perfect!
The Birding Festival offered various field trips geared to all levels of expertise in birding and butterflying. Mom and I spent some of our time on these field trips, learning where to go and what to look for from the fantastic, knowledgable leaders, and we spent the rest of the time out on our own. Between the two strategies, we saw almost everything we could possibly hope to see in a handful of days.
I took over 2000 photos, mostly of birds and butterflies, and have spent the last week discarding most of them, organizing them, researching and labeling them, and posting some to my flickr.com page (www.flickr.com/birdingva -- check them out if you like!) The only reason I could spend the week doing this is that I came home with bronchitis, presumably caught on the airplane, and I've been completely housebound. So, glad I had this project to keep me occupied!
It's really hard to whittle down the photos, but for this blog entry I will post my favorite ten bird photos from the trip; next time I'll post some of the beautiful butterflies. (Addendum: Okay, I posted 20 bird photos; it was impossible to cut them back any further. I could easily post another 20).
The most common hawk in the Valley is also, in my opinion, the most beautiful hawk in North America, the Harris's Hawk. Just look at its beautiful colors -- rich chocolate brown and deep chestnut, bright white under the tail and on its tip, and bright yellow on the legs and the base of the bill. These hawks like to stick together in family groups, so when you see one, you will usually see several nearby. The individual above was with a group of six hawks: here are four of them sitting on the same power line:
You will probably recognize this next bird: it is a member of the Quail family and does occur here in SE Virginia (although its numbers are markedly declining here). Even if you haven't seen one, you've probably heard their "Bob-White" call. This is a male Northern Bobwhite. As we were walking along the Rio Grande River, we flushed a covey of maybe two dozen birds; this one landed in a tree, and seemed to think he was invisible as long as he stayed put.
You might not be much impressed with this next photo, but I have to include it among my favorites because this was my target "life bird" of this trip, and she was so hard to find! As I said, I've been to the Rio Grande Valley twice before, and both times I tried to find this tiny little species with the big name, the White-collared Seedeater, with no luck. This is a Mexican species that just barely crosses the border into the U.S. in a very few places along the Rio Grande River where cane grows. Well, one of the field trips offered by the Birding Festival was specifically geared to finding this bird, so I signed up. We left Harlingen at 5:00 a.m. and traveled west into the dry Texas desert 3 hours by bus, until we arrived at a private ranch where these birds had recently been seen. To make a long story short, my group waited about three hours before this one little lone female Seedeater came to our patch of cane. She fed continuously, but she never did come out into the open. She remained under the heavy cover of the cane stalks, and was extremely difficult to see, much less photograph. So I hope you understand why I have to include this poor photo in my list of favorites!
This next bird is called a Great Kiskadee; it is the largest member of the Flycatcher family of birds in the U.S. This gorgeous, bright bird truly looks tropical, doesn't it? And it is as loud and raucous as it is colorful and showy. You will find groups of Kiskadees at almost any pond or body of water in the Rio Grande Valley, calling and chasing each other around.
Look closely at this next photo; you will find a master of camouflage in there. This is a Common Pauraque, one of the members of the "Nightjar" family of birds, related to our Whip-poor-will. These nocturnal birds feed actively during the night, and roost low to the ground during the day, where they blend in perfectly with the ground litter. This particular Pauraque, for reasons we can't comprehend, chose a spot about two feet off a well-used nature trail for its roost. Word spread among birders, and probably hundreds of people went to look at the bird every day -- but it never moved, and returned to exactly the same patch of earth every day. You just have to wonder what its little brain thought of all the fuss.
Here in Virginia, as in most of the U.S., we see one Kingfisher species, the Belted Kingfisher -- you know, that slaty blue kingfisher with the huge crest and the huge bill that hangs around ponds and lakes and dives for fish. In extreme southern Texas, there are three species of Kingfisher, and my Mom and I signed up for a pontoon boat cruise on the Rio Grande to look for these guys (as well as other birds, of course). The one below, a Green Kingfisher, is the smallest of the three. This one is a female; the male has a wide, beautiful, bright orange-chestnut colored band across its breast. But I was very happy to get a nice photo of the "plain" female. (My photos of the third species, the Ringed Kingfisher, are so bad I cannot possibly share them with anyone, ever).
When you think of a tropical bird, you think of outrageous, showy colors and plumage patterns. The Green Jay is probably the signature tropical bird of southern Texas; its appearance and bright colors are so unlikely and stunning that you can't quite believe what you're seeing. It might be the "most-wanted" bird by birders and naturalists who are going to southern Texas for the first time. This jay's demeanor is just like that of our Blue Jays -- noisy and raucous, and they usually travel in small groups.
Here's another of the Rio Grande Valley "specialties," the gorgeous Altamira Oriole. Its counterpart here in Virginia would be the Baltimore Oriole, which is much smaller. If you've seen a Baltimore Oriole's nest, you know it is a work of art; the female bird weaves it from grasses and other fibers, and it hangs like a pendulum from a branch high up in a shade tree. The Altamira's hanging nest is sometimes twice the size of the Baltimore Oriole's, over two feet in length.
This plain, medium-sized bird looks just like a dusty Robin, doesn't it? Well, it is a separate, subtropical species that used to be named the Clay-Colored Robin. Last year its name was officially changed (by the scientist-types who know about these things and have their reasons), to the Clay-Colored Thrush.
It's another bird that barely crosses the Mexican border into the U.S.
There are two species of "Whistling-Ducks" that occur in North America. These ducks have longer legs and necks than other ducks, and they will roost in trees -- and yes, their call has a "whistling" quality to it. They are not actually true ducks, but are taxonomically grouped as a subfamily of a subfamily of Geese! The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, below, is the more common species in the Rio Grande Valley, but we also managed to see one Fulvous Whistling-Duck (second photo). Both are just beautiful.
Here's another Southern Texas specialty; it's a species that everyone wants to see, and everyone likes to say -- it is called a Chachalaca! These ground birds travel in groups, and usually stay well under thick cover, until it's time to visit local birdfeeders! Most of the parks in the Rio Grande Valley do maintain bird feeding stations, to attract birders as well as the birds. The folks there have come to realize that birders bring a lot of much-needed money into the Valley -- millions each year-- so they work hard to keep their parks attractive to the critters.
The parks also put out an abundance of hummingbird feeders, which attract not only migrant hummingbirds like Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but the year-round resident Buff-bellied Hummingbird. This is another bird on everyone's "want" list because its U.S. range only extends into extreme southern Texas. This beautiful hummer is larger than the hummingbird we see here in Virginia, the Ruby-throated, and even though my photos are a bit blurry, you can see how colorful it is.
We saw only two woodpecker species during our trip, and neither of them occurs very far north of Texas. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker, below, sort of replaces our common Downy Woodpecker in southern Texas; it is similar in size and, superficially, appearance. As with all woodpeckers, the males have more red on the heads than the females; this one is a male.
The second woodpecker species is one of my favorites, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker. I tried real hard to get a photo that shows all three color patches on the male's head and nape, and finally got this one.
And last, the parrots! I did not realize it, but two species of parrots that reside in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have been accepted as "countable," wild birds by the American Birding Association, and are included on the official checklist of North American birds. In many cities including Miami and Los Angeles, there are many populations of "escapees," birds that have escaped captivity, and they do not count as wild North American birds. But in southern Texas, the Red-Crowned Parrot and the Green Parakeet have both established and sustained wild populations. We found out where the night roosts were for both species, and added two more unexpected birds to our life lists.
Red-crowned Parrot: Their night roost included maybe 200 birds and was so noisy! You could hear them several blocks away; it was an awesome sight!
Green Parakeets: This roost included only a dozen birds. Our directions to this roost was to go to the Golden Corral restaurant in Harlingen -- and that's where we found them!
I hope I didn't lose your interest somewhere along the way here in this lengthy posting. There was just so much to see in Texas, and it's hard to exclude anything. If you are at all interested in looking for new birds and butterflies, southern Texas is a place you absolutely must go to, and I'd be happy to talk with anyone who would like more information.