phil jeffrey:: Texas, April 2008 trip report
I went to Dallas in late Dec 2008 for personal reasons, and tacked on a few days for birding at the end of the trip. Missing the outbound leg of the flight bumped up plans for one day, which led me to do a rather long series of drives in a compressed timeframe. This sort of craziness is not unique to this particular trip, but shouldn't be emulated by any sane person.
If you're reading this for trip planning, by April 2008 trip has site details that might be some use to you - I've omitted them here because I get tired of the repetition. New for this trip was the ability to use my iPhone to check sightings and act as a primitive GPS while on the road. Both tend to be valuable but the email access didn't actually change trip plans. I'm in love with this little toy as a birding tool, however, and just need to find some listing software so that I can build day lists on the fly. It's certainly easier than finding WiFi for my laptop. It's main deficiency is that the memory is so limited it's largely useless as a hard drive backup tool - I still need to bring my iPod for that on longer trips. For replay of bird song, the iPhone is sufficient, however.
Then down to the valley proper via US-77 and US-83 to Frontera Audubon in Weslaco. I did take the wrong turn down Texas Ave in Mercedes rather than Texas Blvd in Weslaco, but that didn't cost me too much time. Moral: it pays to check the directions rather than doing it by memory. At the thicket in Frontera there was a nice mix of warblers - many Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, a Wilson's and Nashville and Black-and-white as well as Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos. The female Crimson-collared Grosbeak took a little finding but I did see it relatively well (if briefly) a total of four times - interesting that it seemed to be eating the leaves as I had thought that it would be more of a fruit eater. I did not locate the Blue Bunting although there was a report of it. It seems as if the Bunting has been much more difficult to find than the Grosbeak, although both require patience. (Edit: as of March 8th 2009 both birds were still being at Frontera).
Frontera is interesting in that it's on the edge of suburban Weslaco and surrounded by houses and a cemetary and yet - in ways that echo the magnet that Allen Williams' place in Pharr has become - the presence of native foliage really pulls in the birds into a relatively small area. This Google map shows a satellite map of the area. It's not miniscule but it's scarcely abundant habitat except by comparison to the surrounding area (zoom out and see). It gives credence to the rare species that Allen Williams' place turns up.
After 90 minutes in Frontera I left to go to the Sparrow Road in La Hoya, historically productive for me but probably slowly declining in terms of habitat quality. Conditions - like those at Frontera - were ugly with heavy overcast and darkening skies so it took a while to turn up any sparrows at all. Harris's Hawk and Crested Caracara (especially numerous) were easy to find but eventually I found a sparrow flock that was mainly Lark Sparrows but which also held Clay-colored Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow. It wasn't especially productive along this road, but it was at least a Sunday with no traffic at all during the time I was there - and traffic there obviously still is since the roadside foliage is still coated with caliche kicked up from the road.
Since it was getting darker and I was exhausted I decided to take a brief skim of the gardens at the visitor center at Bentsen Rio Grande SP and then call it a day. I found nothing at that location but the light was truly horrible by that point and IDing the small brown birds that skipped by was beyond me, even if I had been still awake. I stayed overnight at the McAllen Motel 6, which is starting to show a lot of wear and I'd opt for the newer one further west in future that's only a couple of $ more. Some of the Super8 prices I saw on expedia.com were rather expensive, although some of the Super8s in the valley are quite cheap if you believe the road-side signs.
I decided that Sabal Palm in Brownsville was too far east (at least 2 hour round-trip, probably more like 3), and discovered that Estero Llano - nearby in Weslaco - was closed on Mondays so from Frontera I turned west and went to Santa Ana NWR. This abbreviated trip didn't ever make it to the coast so I went to very few wet areas. This was a cold morning where I was wearing three (thin) layers, so the mosquitos were not too pernicious although at times were persistent. They liked to bite me on any bare spot that I hadn't coated in DEET but at least there were fewer of them than on previous trips. There was water in Willow Lake so a decent selection of waterfowl were present and a Sora was a nice find, with an immature Broad-winged Hawk hunting the ponds. Least Grebes were plentiful, although there were only a handful of shorebirds. After walking to Pintail Lakes and feeling the mosquitos bounce off me on that murderous connecting trail, there was yet another Kestrel hunting the edge of the ponds - there were many of them roadside this trip, and I must have seen in excess of 50 in just 3 days driving. The best find at Santa Ana was a Green Kingfisher that perched on one of the concrete water control structures for a while, and a more distant male Altamira Oriole. Olive Sparrow and Long-billed Thrasher were good additions for the trip list and not seen elsewhere.
Then I drifted west from Santa Ana (Alamo) to Anzalduas State Park (Mission) where I had not been in several years. The area north of the dike appears closed, perhaps permanently. Anzalduas is slated to be behind the border wall although it's not clear to what extent the plans will go ahead as envisioned with a new administration. Nevertheless this may have been my last visit there. In the main body of the park I quickly found a mixed flock working its way through the trees. Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers were expected, Yellow-throated was a nice find, a Pine Siskin was my first of the year and a long way south for that species - they are still being found in NY. Then I found a flycatcher that ultimately was ID'd as a Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet - I was unfamiliar with the call but another birder there knew it. I found the head pattern to be rather Empidonax-like and the bill not quite small enough, but other details (tail length and remarkably short primary projection) fit Tyrranulet well. Other than the mixed flock it was fairly quiet at Anzalduas but well worth the visit. It's still free on weekdays.
From Anzalduas I again visited Bentsen SP but the garden had a birding group and not too much to offer. I bumped into Joshua Rose and thanked him for his periodic TXBIRDS posts, now that these are pretty much the only reports from Bentsen, and then left after getting a replacement lower TX Coast birding trail map ($3). I did not go into Bentsen itself and the reports have again reflected that it is no longer quite as compelling. Back in 2000 it would have been heresy to skip Bentsen on an RGV trip. How fortunes change....
Then up the valley I went, through La Hoya and Rio Grande City and Roma, where I stopped briefly at the square to take a couple of photographs but didn't do any birding there. I went on to the boat ramp at Salineno where I visited the feeders and found all three orioles (Hooded, Audubon's and Altamira) within a few minutes of being there. There were numerous sparrows and doves at the feeders but the birds were quite easily spooked - feeders attract raptors too. Down at the river I found a Lincoln's Sparrow and Green Kingfisher but apart from a small group of American Wigeon the river wasn't productive. I did check the island upstream for Red-billed Pigeon but found none - this was after all mid-afternoon. Muscovy Duck and Red-billed Pigeon had been reported before and after I was there, but only in the early morning.
After Salineno I visited the nearby Falcon State Park ($2), where the lower loop of the primitive camping section was partially flooded and held American Pipit, Western Meadowlark, Least and Spotted Sandpiper, Ringed and Belted Kingfisher, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Greater Roadrunner and Pyrrhuloxia. A good desert mix but unfortunately photographic possibilities were limited by a big blob of overcast that rolled in shortly after a got there. Grrrrr (I'm chaneling Eastwood's character in Gran Torino with this particular snarl). Beyond Falcon the sun was getting low, so by the time I passed San Ygnacio I decided to skip that site and drive north via Laredo to stay overnight on the east side of San Antonio. I found I was starting to get bored with driving 100+ miles at night but at least it was fast and the border patrol checkpoint efficient. A day and a half in the valley, so many species missed but a good mix seen.
What followed was a sprint - ably assisted by the powerful V6 Hyundai Sonata rental car - along very local and local roads and eventually the interstate up to Dallas to give me the much-desired extra hour of non-birding distraction before I flew out. TX-359 started out flat and pastoral, but north of Hempstead TX-6 was rolling and fast (two lanes each direction) and quite beautiful. At Navasota I switched to TX-90 which was narrower and here the V6 power made it possible to pass slower traffic rather than fume while sitting behind them. I noticed that the lush greenery seen along TX-6 was starting to get drier as I worked my way north through Anderson and Madisonville along TX-90. The Brookshire-Madisonville section was about a third of the route between Brookshire and Dallas, so the drift in terrain was subtle but quite real. Blasting north along the decidedly less scenic I-45 toward Dallas this trend continued, with the hill country getting more scrubby and drier, before the hills themselves finally petered out about 25 miles south of Dallas and I entered the southern extreme of the plains albeit in a rather agricultural form. The southbound leg of this trip from Dallas-McAllen was done mostly in the dark so I wasn't able to watch the terrain change as I drove it. I left Dallas on the 1835 flight to Philadelphia, and apart from relative chaos at baggage claim (poorly signed) and public transportation (too much traffic) in PHL the tail end of the trip was relatively smooth.
|Least Grebe||all over the RGV|
|American White Pelican|
|Neotropic Cormorant||Fly-bys along with Double-crested|
|Great Blue Heron|
|Tricolored Heron||Falcon SP|
|White Ibis||Santa Ana NWR|
|White-faced Ibis||Santa Ana NWR|
|Greater White-fronted Goose||Raymondville, Katy Prairie, Attwater PC NWR|
|Snow Goose||Katy Prairie, Attwater PC NWR|
|Ross's Goose||Attwater PC NWR|
|American Wigeon||Rio Grande River|
|Masked Duck||nr Raymondville, Rio Grande Valley NWR|
|Northern Harrier||Attwater PC NWR|
|Harris's Hawk||fairly numerous|
|probable Red-shouldered Hawk||roadside in RGV|
|Broad-winged Hawk||Santa Ana NWR|
|White-tailed Hawk||Attwater PC NWR|
|Crested Caracara||common, widespread in scrub|
|Sora||Santa Ana NWR|
|Sandhill Crane||Attwater PC NWR and near Raymondville|
|Semipalmated Plover||Falcon SP|
|Black-necked Stilt||Santa Ana NWR|
|Lesser Yellowlegs||Attwater PC NWR|
|Spotted Sandpiper||Attwater PC NWR|
|Least Sandpiper||Attwater PC NWR|
|Wilson's Snipe||Attwater PC NWR, Falcon SP|
|Laughing Gull||Falcon SP|
|Ring-billed Gull||Falcon SP|
|Eurasian Collared-Dove||upper RGV (Salineno etc)|
|White-winged Dove||especially Salineno|
|White-tipped Dove||RGV as far up as Salineno|
|Green Parakeet||McAllen on 10th St|
|Greater Roadrunner||Falcon SP and I-45|
|Buff-bellied Hummingbird||Frontera Audubon|
|Ringed Kingfisher||Falcon SP|
|Belted Kingfisher||Falcon SP|
|Green Kingfisher||Santa Ana NWR, Salineno|
|Yellow-bellied Sapsucker||Frontera Audubon|
|Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet||Anzalduas SP|
|Vermilion Flycatcher||Falcon SP, Santa Ana NWR|
|American Crow||northern TX|
|Cactus Wren||Falcon SP|
|Bewick's Wren||US-281 rest stop|
|Sedge Wren||Attwater PC NWR|
|Hermit Thrush||US-281 rest stop|
|Clay-colored Thrush||Frontera Audubon|
|American Robin||northern TX, heard one at Anzalduas SP|
|Long-billed Thrasher||Santa Ana NWR|
|Curve-billed Thrasher||Falcon SP|
|American Pipit||Falcon SP, Attwater PC NWR|
|Sprague's Pipit||Pipit trail at Attwater PC NWR|
|Orange-crowned Warbler||common and widespread|
|Nashville Warbler||Frontera Audubon, Anzalduas SP|
|Yellow-rumped Warbler||common and widespread|
|Black-throated Green Warbler||Frontera Audubon|
|Yellow-throated Warbler||Frontera Audubon, Azalduas SP|
|Wilson's Warbler||Frontera Audubon|
|Olive Sparrow||Santa Ana NWR|
|Clay-colored Sparrow||Sparrow Rd, La Hoya|
|Field Sparrow||Attwater PC NWR|
|Vesper Sparrow||Attwater PC NWR|
|Lark Sparrow||Sparrow Rd, La Hoya|
|Savannah Sparrow||abundant in some locations|
|Le Conte's Sparrow||Attwater PC NWR|
|White-crowned Sparrow||Attwater PC NWR|
|Eastern Meadowlark||Attwater PC NWR etc|
|probable Western Meadowlark||Falcon SP|
|Brown-headed Cowbird||large #s at Falcon SP|
|Hooded Oriole||Salineno Feeders|
|Altamira Oriole||Salineno Feeders, Frontera Audubon, Santa Ana NWR|
|Audubon's Oriole||Salineno Feeders|
|Pine Siskin||Anzalduas SP (first and only one for the year!)|