South Texas Birding Trip: Rio Grande Valley (March 31 - April 1)

Other birders on our Santa Ana NWR bird walk with Cheryl

Sunday morning at the Santa Ana NWR bird walk, we picked up a number of specialty birds while enjoying the company of our volunteer guide Cheryl and 13 fellow birdwatchers.

Cheryl's ability to identify birds by their song was instrumental in finding many of the birds we saw.

Click on any picture to see a larger version of it. 

White-eyed Vireo

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Brown-crested Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

While photographing a little butterfly, I missed seeing a javelina further up the trail.

Peccary aka Javelina

Apparently it was a day for mammals. We caught a glimpse of a bobcat (my first ever) far out in a meadow, and watched a Nutria in a pond with waterfowl.


Coypu (aka Nutria) with Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Common Yellowthroat

Couch's Kingbird, very common in South Texas

There is no border fence all across the border of Santa Ana NWR with Mexico, as preserving the habitat for wildlife took priority.

Note the "No Border Wall" sticker

We lingered until noon, and the heat took its toll. Unfortunately I didn't have the energy to explore Santa Ana further and we missed checking out the suspension bridge pictured on their website. Here's a link to the eBird report for our Santa Ana birdwalk this day -- 60 species observed by our group of 15 people.

After lunch, rejuvenated by ice cold drinks and AC, we decided to visit another sanctuary before heading back to our room.

Estero Llano Grand State Park in Weslaco, TX was said to a reliable location to see both Green and Ringed Kingfishers, two target birds high on our list. The visitor center was the perfect spot on this hot humid afternoon, as cooling breezes consistently blew in off the lake onto the spacious covered deck.

The Visitor Center with covered observing deck

One very interesting bird we were fortunate to see is the Common Pauraque, a nightjar, which was roosting comfortably on the ground just a few feet off the trail. They are supremely camouflaged and were very difficult to spot at first.

Can you spot the Common Pauraque on the ground?

Common Pauraque

Why it's called Alligator Lake :-)

Glossy Ibis with White-faced Ibis

Green Heron at Alligator Lake

The resident alligator cruises by to check us out
Yellow-crowned Night Heron at Alligator Lake

At one point while cooling off on the visitor center deck, we spotted a Northern Harrier (aka Marsh Hawk) circling close and low. It swooped into the reeds, and we assumed it had caught something. Volunteer Huck was watching too, and explained that the probable prey was a Coot, and that we were watching the hawk standing still in the water waiting for its victim to drown. Binoculars and scopes soon revealed a black claw sticking up out of the water in front of the hawk. Mike's photos further cemented what we saw when the hawk finally dragged the coot deeper into the reeds.

Northern Harrier (aka Marsh Hawk) on the hunt

Northern Harrier drowning an American Coot (note coot's foot below beak)

Harrier lifting coot out of the water
The raptor took off again after a surprisingly short amount of time, and Huck speculated that a snake or even a bobcat could have chased him off. The frustrated Harrier circled around several more times before giving up and flying off. But not before putting on quite a show for us to photograph this normally shy hawk.

Northern Harrier trying to return to its catch

It was very helpful having expert Texas state park volunteers like Huck with us. And it turns out that he knew Cheryl from our morning birdwalk at Santa Ana NWR.

We liked Estero Llano Grande SP so well, we returned the next morning to bird the trails, boardwalks, feeders and ponds all over again. Ultimately the Ringed Kingfisher and White-tailed Kites that had nested here in previous years eluded us.


But our second day we saw our first Anhinga at the far end of Alligator Pond. He was quite close to the lookout deck when we first arrived, but flew across the lake in spite of our stealthy approach. But a little while later he popped up again right in front of us with a freshly caught fish, which he swallowed whole in the blink of an eye!

Now you see it. Gulp! Now you don't. :-)
The Anhinga, sometimes called a Snakebird or America Darter, swims off

House Sparrows with flowering trees

We watched this Roseate Spoonbill aggressively push three different ducks off this log!

Monday afternoon we decided to try Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Unfortunately the visitor center is closed on Mondays, apparently also a disappointment to this Clay-colored Thrush who repeatedly flew into the door and windows.

Clay-colored Thrush

Kingfishers were also likely here so we continued on into the park. Luckily we stopped at the Family Nature Center where we met volunteer Mary. She told us about effects of the 2010 flood and showed us the skeleton of the strange Alligator Gar that was found in the flood's aftermath.

Bentsen volunteer Mary showing us an Alligator Gar skeleton

She also showed us an Altimira Oriole nest, and described the fascinating process the birds use to weave the pendulous pouches. Long thin strips of bark are scored using their beaks, then the bird painstakingly works its way down the length again to peel up the opposite edge. The strip of bark is then woven into a strong but flexible, ventilated nest.

She also told us where to find a nesting Elf Owl pair, but unfortunately nobody was home when we stopped by. A bicycling couple, Frank and Carolyn approached. "We have had a great day at the Hawk Watch with over 9,000 birds!" Frank exclaimed.

Shoot, we were a couple hours late to observe the best count of the year! Without discussion, we both knew we'd be back tomorrow.

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