South Texas Birding Trip: Gulf Coast (March 28-30)

Previous week temperatures over 100F degrees abated somewhat for our week in Texas' Rio Grande Valley aka "The Valley." Based in Harlingen, Texas, we were centered between two major coastal birding hot spots and border areas where we hoped to see many of the local "specialties." Our timing was a little early to see migrating passerines and the unusual Groove-billed Ani, but as we would later realize, we did arrive at a great time to observe the Broad-winged Hawk migration.

We birded two World Birding Center sites in Harlingen, Harlingen Thicket and Arroyo Colorado, and while they gave us a feel for the area, they weren't very productive for birding. All the other sites we visited had something to offer and were well worth visiting. We found the Texas Coastal Trail map we picked up to be out of date -- we should have noticed the photo of youthful governor George Bush on the back!

Blooming prickly pear cactus greeted us in Harlingen

Our first evening we went out looking for Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots and although unsuccessful, had a blast watching Black-bellied Whistling Ducks coming in for the night at Pendleton Park.

Home to more documented species of birds than any other National Wildlife Refuge in the US, Laguna Atascosa NWR was our first stop the next day. On the way, we were thrilled to see our first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on the wires along the road. They seem much more tail than bird!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Harris Hawk on the way to Laguna Atascosa NWR

The NWR's visitor center feeders and nature trails provided our first and possibly the best look at Green Jays and Plain Chachalacas. Quite by accident, I also got a little too close of a look at a resident alligator just off the trail!

Green Jay

Plain Chachalaca

Mike scolds the alligator for startling Susan

Not what you expect to see on a bird walk!
Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Laguna Atascosa is also of the few places in the US to see the endangered Aplomado Falcon in the wild, and we drove the 15 mile auto loop trying hard to spot one. No luck, but we did see a group of five osprey that at one point looked remarkably like Aplomados to our hopeful eyes.

Ocelots also wander through the coastal thorn forests, though being nocturnal and few in number, we didn't expect to encounter one. Mike did catch a glimpse of a bobcat crossing a sandy wash.

Ocelots are endangered and only 80-120 of them live in Texas, with about 30-35 in Laguna Atascosa NWR

As we were preparing to leave the NWR we were treated to a visit from the stunning Altamira Oriole, perching nearby above our car.

Altamira Oriole

21 foot high section of border wall

A female Crimson-collared Grosbeak had been frequenting the feeders at Sabal Palm Sanctuary since February so we made that our first stop Saturday morning.

We drove through a huge gap in the border fence to enter the sanctuary which had a remote tropical feel, complete with mosquitoes. This was the southernmost point (less than 1/4 mile from the border) we would reach on the trip and our cell phones welcomed us to Mexico.

Border wall with watchful Border Patrol

The birding at Sabal was productive and the visitor center volunteer was very helpful in spotting and identifying birds from the porch of the tiny visitor center. We got good looks at the Grosbeak, Altamira and Hooded Orioles, Olive Sparrows on the porch, plus Louisiana Waterthrush and Least Grebes along the trails and lookouts.

Crimson-collared Grosbeak (rare for Texas)

Sabal Palms at the Sanctuary
Louisiana Waterthrush
Olive Sparrow

Bougainvillea growing in the jungle-like sanctuary

Least Grebe
Hooded Oriole

The volunteer also told us that Aplamados sometimes were seen along the road to Boca Chica Beach and that was all we needed to head even further east along remote Hwy 4. Once again we struck out on the falcons. We didn't linger to walk the beach because it was littered with numerous Portuguese Man O' War.

Susan on Boca Chica Beach

Portuguese Man O' War on Boca Chica Beach

As we were leaving, a lone white bird caught our eye in a nearby tide pool. He turned out to be the fairly unusual white morph of the Reddish Egret!

Reddish Egret (white morph)

About one month after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appamatox Courthouse, 111 Union men died at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, located a few miles inland along our route. A local AM public radio station recording informed us repeatedly that this battle was long forgotten in the history books, and that we should know that the last land battle of the Civil War was fought in Texas. Other than the unfortunate chronology and unnecessary deaths, no other significance of the battle is apparent.

On the way out from Boca Chica Beach we stopped to observe several White-tailed Hawks.

White-tailed Hawk

It was Easter weekend, but we ignored our good sense and headed toward crowded South Padre Island.

As we returned to more populated areas, people were selling colorful dyed eggs along the roadside. For some reason Mike was not interested in buying hard cooked eggs out of the back of a truck in near 90 degrees heat.

We stopped for a quick barbeque lunch in Port Isabel at the newly opened Lady and the Pit, then crawled through traffic in the main tourist section of "The Island" until we got to the World Birding Center.

World Birding Center at South Padre Island

A wonderful facility, it includes a four story high lookout and extensive boardwalks offering superb viewing opportunities. We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the shorebirds and broke away near dusk to explore sand dunes at the northern tip of the island.

Boardwalks at the SPI WBC, looking toward Laguna Madre

Great Egret fishing
Long-billed Curlew

Tri-colored Heron

White Ibis

The ever-present Great-tailed Grackle

Black-necked Stilts

Snowy Egret
The busy beach area near the end of the road north on SPI

On our way home we got a very good look at Laguna Madre, the huge but very shallow (average 3 ft depth) body of water separating Padre Island from the mainland, as we inched across the bridge back to the mainland with hundreds of other day tripping holiday weekend tourists.

Our rental car at the end of the dune-ridden road

Redpolls in Fort Collins

Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea)

Common Redpolls, a small arctic bird in the finch family, have been spotted in Estes Park and a number of other Colorado locations this winter, which is unusual because normally they don't migrate further south than Canada. One of the more reliable locations to find them has been around Lee Martinez Park and the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.

We saw only one there last week so we feared they had already headed north, but recent reports on eBird showed they are still basking in our relative warmth. We lucked out and saw a flock of about 30 birds enjoying the FCMoD feeders! Although we’d heard that Hoary Redpolls had been seen with the Commons, we didn’t see any.

Common Redpoll
Comparison: House Finch at left with Common Redpoll at right

We also spotted this guy, an Eastern Screech Owl (gray morph) along the nearby Poudre Trail. We'd noticed a large dead tree with a hole in it but it didn't seem remarkable. We walked right by it the first time, but on our way out, Mike reminded me that we hadn't looked at the hole with binoculars. When I focused on the hole, I said, "there's an owl there!"

Although we were able to get fairly close to his perch, he seemed completely unconcerned with us, not even opening his eyes for a picture. We'd seen the Eastern Screech Owl in Cambridge, MA, but this was our first one in Colorado.

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

We then decided to head over to the Ziegler road area to see if “our” fox den had any evidence of activity. We saw no foxes, but the soil around the den look disturbed enough that it may be in use again this year. We’ll check back, as we’ve seen a fox and kits here in two previous years. Here’s a fox photo from a couple of years ago.

Red Fox with still-nursing kits

And in the pond across from the den we saw maybe 6 male Common Mergansers wooing two females.
While we were in the area we went over to CSU’s Environmental Learning Center trails to do some birding on the main paved trail.

A Red-tailed Hawk soars over us at the ELC

After the ELC we stopped by to watch the volunteers at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program take out a couple of their birds. We got a front row seat as they fed their Golden Eagle.

Volunteer Pat feeds a Golden Eagle at the RMRP
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

It was a very nice birding day. We didn’t make a list of everything we saw, but here’s a quick list from memory: Common Redpoll, Eastern Screech Owl, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, House Finch, Downy Woodpecker, Canada Goose, Common Merganser, Blue Jay, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Bufflehead, Golden Eagle (in captivity), Mallard, Western Meadowlark, and some unidentified gulls.

On our way home we saw our first Western Meadowlark singing away atop a telephone wire -- a sure sign of Spring!

Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) from a previous spring