phil jeffrey:: Texas, April 2008 trip report


Texas Birding Trip, December 2008

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.

Sunday Dec 28th

The presence of two rarities in the RGV made me change the very fluid plans a little, so I set off from Dallas for the RGV at 3:45am, driving via Austin and San Antonio and reaching the outskirts of the lower Rio Grande Valley around 11:15am. En route there were a series of small lightning storms, none of which were too severe, and the day dawned with a drab solid overcast. Towards the end of this 500 mile sprint I stopped at a US-281 rest area south of Falfurrias and walked the short nature trail there. Notwithstanding the usual issues of lurking around restrooms with binoculars, I found a selection of typical valley and wintering species: Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Inca and Common Ground-Dove, Bewick's Wren, American Goldfinch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped were the predominant warblers for the trip, but the Hermit Thrush and Bewick's Wrens were the only ones I saw during the three days. Further down US-281 toward Edinburg I diverted east along TX-186 towards Raymondville and then up FM-1761 to ponds at part of the RGV NWR - just outside of the East Lake tract (LTC-009). There were three Masked Ducks (out of a total of six that had been seen) that were fairly easy to find on the ponds - all female/immature plumage again, and I have yet to see a male. It's interesting that I've seen this rarity in successive years which starts me wondering if there's a range expansion going on. En route to the ponds I also saw Sandhill Cranes and Greater White-fronted Geese in the air but couldn't see where the flocks were accumulating. Typically I don't see either on RGV trips.

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 were rather expensive, although some of the Super8s in the valley are quite cheap if you believe the road-side signs.

Monday Dec 29th

Since I'd seen Crimson-collared Grosbeak the previous day, I made the decision to work my way out of the valley back north during Monday, making it one of the fastest RGV trips ever - my Nov 2007 TX trip being somewhat comparable. Because dawn was ~7:30am there wasn't much point hitting any other site before Frontera Audubon ($4) opened at 8am so I went back there first. And saw largely the same birds as Sunday except that I did not find the Grosbeak (others did) and there was no sign of the Bunting either. The most memorable part of the trip happened when I saw a Buff-bellied Hummingbird perched and panned the camera to take a photo of it. The hummingbird reacted by buzzing me, eyeballing me 2 feet away from my face to indicate displeasure or at the very least way too much testosterone. I've only ever had a Rufous do that to me before, and only one faced off with me - way back in 1988 in Glacier NP in Montana. Perhaps it saw it's own reflection in the objective lens, briefly. Either way it was a special moment and made up for missing the rarities at Frontera. Altamira Oriole and Yellow-throated Warbler were the only other good finds at Frontera.

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.

Tuesday Dec 30th

The screaming child in the adjacent room of the San Antonio Motel 6 did not enhance my sleep schedule, but I did manage to get out of San Antonio by 0530 and blast eastbound along I-10 pre-dawn. It wasn't quite a fast enough start but I did get to Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR (south-west of Sealy) by 7:45am. I started at the Pipit trail and found numerous Eastern Meadowlarks vocalizing and singing. The extent of white on the tail was greater than the ones at Falcon SP, which led me to think that the latter were probably Westerns (amended as such). I saw two Sprague's Pipits, but these were not on the trail and flushed 20 feet from it so I only saw them in flight. A White-tailed Hawk was roosting near the trail and was not especially pleased to see me. On the auto loop there were more Meadowlarks, abundant Savannah Sparrows and a few Vesper Sparrows mixed in. The reserve was very dry with few to no waterfowl present - a mixed goose flock held Snow, Ross's and Greater White-fronted and there were 30-40 Sandhill Cranes in two other groups. A drying pond held both Yellowlegs sp., Least Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe and Semipalmated Plover. Along the entrance road where the auto loop meets it, I had decent views of LeConte's Sparrow at the start and end of the visit and there was also a Sedge Wren at that location. These are moderately good finds, but not unexpected at that location. A couple of White-crowned Sparrows were also present. In the distance to the east there was a large flock of geese accumulating, but I did not chase them. Instead, with my eye on the clock I headed out to Pattison and Morrison Roads in the area of Katy Prairie north-east of Brookshire. Not much going on there in mid morning with sparrows, but a large flock of geese had accumulated at Pattison Rd in the same location as a couple of years previously. Sadly they were too far from the road to deal with tricky goose ID issues, so I could only discern Snow Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose and Canada/Cackling Goose and not speciate the white-cheeked geese or scope out any Ross's Geese. The hedgerows along Herbert Rd didn't yield any Harris's Sparrows so I left the area fairly soon along very local roads to the north.

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.

Trip list

Least Grebe all over the RGV
Pied-billed Grebe
American White Pelican
Neotropic Cormorant Fly-bys along with Double-crested
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron Falcon SP
Cattle Egret
White Ibis Santa Ana NWR
White-faced Ibis Santa Ana NWR
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
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
Mottled Duck RGV
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Masked Duck nr Raymondville, Rio Grande Valley NWR
Northern Harrier Attwater PC NWR
Cooper's Hawk
Harris's Hawk fairly numerous
probable Red-shouldered Hawk roadside in RGV
Broad-winged Hawk Santa Ana NWR
Swainson's Hawk
White-tailed Hawk Attwater PC NWR
Red-tailed Hawk
Crested Caracara common, widespread in scrub
American Kestrel many
Plain Chachalaca RGV
Sora Santa Ana NWR
Common Moorhen
American Coot
Sandhill Crane Attwater PC NWR and near Raymondville
Semipalmated Plover Falcon SP
Black-necked Stilt Santa Ana NWR
Greater Yellowlegs
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
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove upper RGV (Salineno etc)
White-winged Dove especially Salineno
Mourning Dove
Inca Dove
Common Ground-Dove
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
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Frontera Audubon
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet Anzalduas SP
Eastern Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher Falcon SP, Santa Ana NWR
Great Kiskadee
Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue Jay Dallas
Green Jay
American Crow northern TX
Black-crested Titmouse
Cactus Wren Falcon SP
Carolina Wren
Bewick's Wren US-281 rest stop
House Wren
Sedge Wren Attwater PC NWR
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Hermit Thrush US-281 rest stop
Clay-colored Thrush Frontera Audubon
American Robin northern TX, heard one at Anzalduas SP
Northern Mockingbird
Long-billed Thrasher Santa Ana NWR
Curve-billed Thrasher Falcon SP
European Starling
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
Pine Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Ovenbird Frontera Audubon
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler Frontera Audubon
Olive Sparrow Santa Ana NWR
Chipping Sparrow
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
Lincoln's Sparrow Salineno
White-crowned Sparrow Attwater PC NWR
Dark-eyed Junco Dallas
Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia Falcon SP
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark Attwater PC NWR etc
probable Western Meadowlark Falcon SP
Great-tailed Grackle
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!)
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow
126 species, 2 probables, 1 life bird, several year birds. Possibles included Dark-eyed Junco in Dallas, Boat-tailed Grackle at Attwater NWR. This total compares fairly well to the 113 I had in Nov 2007, despite the abbreviated schedule.