phil jeffrey:: Texas, Jan 2011 trip report


Texas Birding Trip, Jan 2011

A relatively inexpensive last minute fare to San Antonio led me to take a trip to TX yet again in January 2011. The first vacation of any type I'd had in about a year. The Black-vented Oriole and Rufous-backed Robin were lures, although the latter had vanished from Laguna Atascosa just before the trip. By pure luck I came across one at a feeder station in Bentsen State Park on the only day it was seen (perhaps the only visit it made).

If you're reading this for trip planning, my TX web resources and site guide has details that might be some use to you - to avoid repetition I've spun it off into its own web page. The ability to use my iPhone to check sightings and act as a primitive GPS while on the road was very useful although there are places where the iPhone reception is marginal and sometimes you're at risk of invoking international roaming while being so close to Mexico. Both features tend to be valuable but the email access didn't actually change trip plans much. I'd also started using the "voice notes" feature from the newer software as a way of keeping rapid notes in the field rather than writing anything down at the time.

I flew into San Antonio via American Airlines, changing at Dallas-Fort Worth. San Antonio is a relatively small airport. Continental would be a typical choice for this trip (change at IAH) but they jacked their fares up for no good reason just before I was going to buy. I also flew American for the 2009-2010 trip.

Here's a site I was previously unaware of: From RBA: "Mountain Plovers have returned to their traditional site near Sebastian and have been seen through Jan. 3. From Harlingen go north on US 77 to FM 1018 (north of Sebastian) and turn right. Go east on FM 1018 for a couple of miles to FM 2099 and turn left (north). Go north on FM 2099 for a mile or two to Mesquite Road (CR 1600) and turn right (east) and drive through the plowed fields. The Mountain Plovers were about a quarter mile before the road turns to the left on either side of the road. "

Just like my last winter trip to TX where I got Northern Jacana and Bare-throated Tiger-Heron as life birds, this trip I netted another two: Black-vented Oriole and Rufous-backed Robin. While there are several Rufous-backed Robins in AZ this winter, the Oriole is only the 9th USA record so I'm not doing too badly on rarities as I move slowly toward 700. The Rio Grande Valley seemed to conspicuously lack both small sparrows and hummingbirds this winter. Last winter Black-chinned and Ruby-throated were easy to find and Allen's was at the Bentsen feeders. This year it was much harder to find hummingbirds with only Buff-bellied seen with confidence, usually as singles. Single Lark Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrow were the highlights of the sparrows, with only Savannah Sparrow seen in decent numbers.

Distances and Times

Sunrise, Sunset at San Antonio is 7:30am, 5:50pm Distances: Hotels:

Saturday Jan 15th, NJ to Kingsville TX via San Antonio and Port Aransas

American Airlines flight to San Antonio via Dallas/Fort Worth. Mindful of the 12/30/09 chaos at American's desk at PHL I checked in online and attempted to get to the airport extra early. Of course this time it all went swimmingly (in 12/30/09 it was on the back end of a blizzard, which was likely a factor). Arrived SAT at 11:40am with straightfoward car rental from Dollar-Thrifty. It was raining off and on throughout the 3 hour road trip to Port Aransas, with perhaps the strongest rain occuring at the Port A ferry terminal. How auspicious. En route I saw American Kestrel, Great-tailed Grackle, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier.

At the Port Aransas ferry crossing things started to get more interesting: Great Blue Heron, White and Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Comorant, Laughing Gull, Forster's Tern, some Porpoise sp., Osprey, Herring Gull, White Ibis. On the brief ferry crossing a female Great-tailed Grackle was attempting to eat frog's legs. Who knew they were so discerning ? With a little luck on timing the rain ceased when I got to Port Aransas, at least for a while. At Paradise Pond there were many vocal Yellow-rumped Warblers and a few Orange-crowned, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, White Ibis, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Eastern Phoebe. I heard a single Gray Catbird. The tree cover here seems to have been hit hard by a storm, but the boardwalk is intact. On the road to the water treatment plant Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin were on the mudflats. At the water treatment plant itself the sky was pretty dark so I left the camera in the car. The waterfowl action appeared a little slow, with Northern Shoveler (mostly), Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Scaup sp. (atypical Lesser?), a female Redhead. I had good luck with rails, seeing both Sora and Virginia Rail (and also American Coot and Common Moorhen). A smallish number of herons: Great Blue Heron and Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, fly-by Roseate Spoonbill. The water in the pond appeared a little high for shorebirds but I did see Long-billed Dowitcher on the marsh away from the boardwalk. Passerines included Swamp Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the aforementioned warblers. On the main lake there was the e'er reliable Forster's Tern and just as I was leaving a Caspian Tern dropped in.

I also checked out Charlie's Pasture, which is a new development on the bay side of the island (as the Roseate Spoonbill flies it's right next to the wastewater treatment plant ponds). There are some raised boardwalks and what seems destined to be an interpretive display. I could see shorebirds visible on the mudflats closer to the boardwalk, but the light was dire and more rain was threatening so I decided to drive along Mustang Island instead.

Heading south down Mustang Island the rain started again but I did see what appeared to be a Peregrine drop off a perch and chase shorebirds on the flat. By the time I pulled over to check I had missed it, but where I pulled over was the bridge access to Packery Channel (CTC-62 on the central coast birding trail). Across the road was a perched White-tailed Hawk, one of the few of the trip. In the marginal and waning light I went to Packery Channel State Park and scoped the mud islands: a large flock of Royal Terns had a Caspian Tern amongst them, showing stark contrast. Black-bellied Plover and Little Blue Heron were the other birds of note. They've built a small wooden boardwalk around a remnant oak "motte" in the park, but that had absolutely nothing in it. I then drove through Corpus Christi in moderate to torrential rain and spent the night at an unexceptional and aging Motel 6 in Kingsville. [update 2018: Motel 6 disclaimer: I had largely stopped usingthis chain because of their high average ineptitude, but the final straw is their overt racism]

Total 242 miles.

Sunday January 16th, Kingsville to South Padre Island via Rio Grande Valley sites

The rain, which persisted through morning, changed plans a little. A avoided the caliche road west of La Joya like the plague since I expected to either sink in it or slide right off it, instead heading directly to Bentsen State Park. (I left Kingsville at 0510). I got there at 0730 and went straight to the nearby RV park for the Black-vented Oriole. After a little confusion I found the rec center and fairly shortly afterwards two birders from Abilene came up with the Black-vented Oriole at the Coral Bean tree. Also present in the campground were Savannah Sparrow, Orange-crowned and Yellow-throated Warblers, fly-over Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Brown-headed Cowbird, and numerous overlying blackbird flocks, a small hummingbird seen while I was leaving was probably Ruby-throated but I was to come up with zero identified Archilochus hummingbirds on this trip - really quite unusual. Back at the parking lot there were a couple of fly-by Caracaras. On the walk back down Bentsen Palm Drive to the parking lot a (presumably feral) Muscovy Duck was flying right up the road - perhaps the strangest sight for the entire trip. I saw Inca Dove and a female Pyrrhuloxia in the Bentsen State Park gardens before heading into the park proper.

The weather was still overcast but the rain had stopped. Bentsen was only partially open again after the summer's flooding, with the Kingfisher Overlook at the resaca closed. The resaca itself was as full as I had ever seen it. The dominant bird for Bentsen was Orange-crowned Warbler, as it was for all the RGV sites, aided and abetted by Yellow-rumped Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. At the old entrance station feeders there were the usual suspects: Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Inca Dove, Long-billed Thrasher, White-tipped Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Down the road I saw a female Altamira Oriole, a few Clay-colored Robins just past Ebony Grove, then around the Kingfisher Overlook there were many blackbirds, White-winged Dove, Altamira Oriole. Lots of Neotropic Cormorants in flight overhead during the entire visit. There were no kingbirds or other big flycatchers. The resaca held Anhinga, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot and a flyby kingfisher that was probably Belted. The brush by the resaca held Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and Olive Sparrow (often elusive). In the trees there was a brief view of a male Vermilion Flycatcher, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Ironic to find Pine Siskin down near Mexico when there aren't any at my feeders back home. Nearby there was a skulking White-eyed Vireo. In the inner loop I added Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and the "son of Smudgy" (presumed Altamira X Audubon's Oriole hybrid) along with Black-crested Titmouse, Curve-billed Thrasher and Long-billed Thrasher. There was nothing of note on the hike out but I did add Lark Sparrow roadside at garden upon leaving. This was to prove to be the only Lark Sparrow for the trip.

It still remains unclear to me how much conservation work (habitat improvement) they are doing at Bentsen, despite all the hype that accompanied the conversion of the park several years back (removal of the trailer sites, closure to public vehicle access). The 2010 flooding was an inadvertent bonus - something that Bentsen had claimed it was going to do and never did, but nature saved them in that regard. During my visits on this trip the only work I saw being done in the park was some leaf blowing of questionable utility using loud gasoline-powered leaf blowers at the closed resaca boat ramp (very likely by volunteers, not by employees). Nobody was working on the ramp or the overlook at the old fish-cleaning station, although it's possible that people were working elsewhere in the closed sections. The feeders are also the largest draw for birds in the park (the Rufous-backed was at a feeder water drip, the Oriole was not), so despite removing the trailer sites they are still doing the same thing that the trailer occupants were doing.

Next stop was Santa Ana NWR. While the flooding-induced damage at Bentsen was there to be seen but relatively modest, with all the understory intact, the flooding at Santa Ana was clearly far more devastating. At the visitor center I saw: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-crested Titmouse, and a vocal but invisible Carolina Wren. Between the visitor center and the trail head I saw a male Black-throated Gray Warbler in with Gnatcatchers, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned. On the rather wet and sticky hike to Willow Lake (some trails fully or partially closed) the "mud line" in the vegetation was at eye level and it looked like much of the vegetation had been killed, with the area mostly brown. Willow Lake itself was clearly damaged - the ponds etc still existed but the plant life was brown and not green and this was reflected in the absolute dearth of waterfowl (a few coots, a Pied-billed Grebe), a few herons (Great Egret, Anhinga) and a Belted Kingfisher. When wet this lake is usually buzzing. On the walk around the east side of the lake toward the old manager's residence site there was water where I had never seen it before and more vegetation killing, but with more Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Black-and-white Warbler, Carolina and House Wrens were at the old Manager's Residence site, but there was also quite a lot of water in the areas to the east of the paved refuge road. I've never seen it there. Since access to Pintail Lakes was limited, and the extent trails quite muddy, I climbed the observation towers instead where there wasn't anything interesting in the sky apart from many fly-by Great Egrets and Neotropic Comorants. Away in the distance Pintail Lakes appeared overflowing and a single big lake rather than a segmented one. The flooding has certainly considerably impacted Santa Ana and it's going to take quite a while for the vegetation to recover. On the walk back to the visitor center along the paved road I found a small group of Clay-colored Robins foraging in the undergrowth north of the levee. Perhaps they were here because of the vegetation damage south of the levee.

In recent years Estero Llano Grande SP has been pretty productive so I went there in the early afternoon. From the observation deck several Cave Swallows were hunting low over the water, with a few Bank Swallows mixed in. On/near the pond were Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, American Coot, Common Moorhen, Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Common Yellowthroat, Orange-crowned Warbler. The hummingbird feeders were quiet, with a single Buff-bellied Hummingbird there. The water level on the pond was quite high: apparently they had decided to bring the level up, getting surprised by doing so by the heavy rains thereafter. In the Tropical Area (the old RV site): Inca and Common Ground Dove, Curve-billed Thrasher Thrasher, Lincoln's Sparrow, House Wren, Great Kiskadee, Plain Chachalaca, and the inevitable Orange-crowned Warbler.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway
Crested Caracara adult

Weather was making me rewire the trip on the fly, and because of the persistent overcast I decided to make a run for the coast. En route to Laguna Atascosa NWR I saw Killdeer, Reddish Egret, Greater Roadrunner, Red-tailed Hawk, several Loggerhead Shrikes and American Kestrels. At the feeders there was an Altamira Oriole at the grapefruit, but in a triumph of governmental bureaucracy they came to take the grapefruit away at 4pm. Birds apparently only feed during banker's hours. There was a Gray Catbird in the lot as I headed out to the 15 mile tour route. On the route there was a low number of passerines, and what there was was mainly Savannah Sparrows and the a few Eastern Meadowlarks. The Meadowlarks were already in alternate plumage and singing. The water birds on the loop were Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Reddish Egret, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail (mostly), Gadwall, American White Pelican, American Coot and Gull-billed Tern. There was a (normally shy) Caracara roadside that was actually too close to get a full-frame image of. On the scan of the area for Aplomado Falcon (unsuccessful) I did find a Harris's Hawk. Along the shoreline of the bay there were lots of Long-billed Curlew, Dunlin, Willet, Long-billed Dowitcher and a small number of Least Sandpipers. In certain spots there were enormous numbers of American Coots, at some point a monoculture of 100+ of them.

Exiting Laguna Atascosa I made a pre-sunset sprint for South Padre Island and the Convention Center. Headed toward the barrier island were lots of Ospreys perched on roadside wires, and a small group of Harris's Hawks. At the convention center in the waning light: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Royal and Caspian Terns, Black Skimmer, Black-necked Stilt, American Coot and Common Moorhen. A pretty tame Clapper Rail skulked around underneath the boardwalk. At the small patch of bushes at the convention center there was a Long-billed Thrasher and a silent Tropical Kingbird. (Since it was silent I couldn't conclusively ID it but another birder had heard this bird vocalize, so I'm assuming it was the same individual).

Overnight at the rather decent Island Inn on SPI south of the Convention Center, $35 (had Wifi). If working the east end of the RGV in winter, the hotels on SPI are rather inexpensive. However the administration of SPI have taken to locking the gate leading onto the boardwalk from the Convention Center - despite the fact that they did not build that section of boardwalk in the first place. This requires you to pay a fee to enter any part of the boardwalk at the boondoggle visitor center off near the water tower. If they're going to try and get $ out of me that way, perhaps it pays not to stay on SPI and spend your $ somewhere else. The nature center is zero use to me, and in fact the only useful part of the boardwalk that I've found is the oldest section.

360 miles.

Monday January 17th - South Padre Island to Mission

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler

Staying overnight on SPI I returned to the Convention Center and boardwalk at dawn, and thankfully the day had dawned sunny. There was a large group of Redheads resting in the shallow water off the first observation "blind" (they're not really blinds, really just covered platforms). Mixed in were two Mottled Duck, a couple of Northern Pintail and an American Wigeon with one or two Red-breasted Merganser. The herons busied themselves in a mini feeding frenzy nearby: Reddish Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Tricolored Heron and a rather less motivated Great Blue Heron, with a Brown Pelican joining in for good measure. Passerines in the small trees at the center included Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Tropical Kingbird and Long-billed Thrasher. Marsh Wren was nearby in the reeds. Off on the water Forster's and Royal Terns hunted and I was surprised to see two Bonaparte's Gulls. On the mud were a variety of plovers: Semipalmated Plover, Piping and Black-bellied, along with Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Sanderling, American Oystercatcher and Long-billed Dowitcher. There was a single Roseate Spoonbill wading further out. Not especially active with the exception of Redhead, but a nice mild and sunny start to the day.

I left the convention center and a brief stop at Whataburger to grab breakfast made me feel like it was FL - any number of older snowbirds (the human kind) were hanging out there, numbers perhaps exacerbated because the McDonald's was under construction. After leaving the island I headed toward Laguna Atascosa and quite quickly ran into extensive low cloud a few miles south of the reserve, and it got thicker as I headed further north. Since my main target at Laguna was photographs at the blinds I stopped and turned around and headed south-west towards Sabal Palm Sanctuary. By coincidence Sabal Palm had reopened just a couple of weeks prior, after having been locked behind the border fence for 18 months. The heavy cloud accompanied by trek down to Brownsville. I saw a White-tailed Hawk along 511 - now converted into a faster highway with tolls along one section presumably as a means to move traffic quickly to the port - conveniently this also means you can get to Sabal Palm faster if you're using that route.

At Sabal Palm Preserve the feeders were quiet and the preserve fairly quiet. A Cooper's Hawk was circling high above the visitor center. Various volunteers were working in the area of the visitor center because of the holiday (MLK - I don't get this for work so usually forget that it is a holiday). The resaca - apparently recently refilled - was quiet and just had American Coot and a couple of Blue-winged Teal but looked in fairly good condition (i.e. better than Willow Lake at Santa Ana NWR). On the trails I came up with a few birds: Carolina and House Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped and Wilson's Warblers, Easter Phoebe, Black-crested Titmouse. There were no orioles at their traditional location. On the walk up along the south of the resaca a Couch's Kingbird was conveniently singing, avoiding ID quandaries and I finally ran into a Great Kiskadee. I finally came to realize what was calling as it flew overhead in the cloud (which was slowly starting to clear) - Greater White-fronted Goose - a call that was more rapid and nasal than the other geese I knew better. While I heard a lot more than I saw, a break in the cloud let me see a few as they passed over. These were the only geese for the trip. So not an epic time at Sabal Palm, but good to be able to get to it again.

Since the cloud was clearing at Sabal Palm I was optimistic as I skirted the east side of Brownsville and headed north to Sebastian and the Mountain Plover site. The optimism was ill-founded and the heavy cloud moved in again. I found Mesquite Road as per instructions but it only took 10 feet of travel along that wet road to convince me that it was not viable, and I returned to US-77 having been stymied (from subsequent reports I see it might be viable to approach further east). Instead I went west to Estero Llano Grande SP where it was similarly overcast. Of the deck the first Ruddy Duck for the trip, Fulvous Whistling-Duck along with Black-bellied, a distant Vermilion Flycatcher and an even more distant glimpse of one of the resident Tropical Kingbirds. In the tropical area I picked up Black-throated Gray Warbler but otherwise the birds were the same as the previous trip.

Lacking good light anywhere else I returned to South Padre Island for photographic options, but didn't see anything new. There was at least some sun through sunset on the boardwalk - perhaps the only place in the valley that was bright that day. After sunset I encountered major fog bank on SPI near and onto the bridge into Port Isabel. I decided to head west and stay overnight at Mission to stage for an upriver sprint in the early morning.

Overnight Motel 6 Mission $44, 216 miles.

Tuesday January 18th - Mission to McAllen via upriver and RGV sites

On the pre-dawn drive to Salineno the conditions were very foggy - I had hoped distance from the coast would reduce the incidence of fog but this wasn't proving to be the case. Quite limited visibility conditions on the drive west toward Roma. At Salineno itself I could barely see the other bank, and while other birders there were clearly interested in finding a Muscovy Duck I instead walked upriver along the trail. While Salineno had clearly been affected by the flood - some trees uprooted - the habitat was mostly intact here and pretty green. Lincoln's Sparrow, House Wren, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers were easy to find. Great Kiskadee were particularly numerous in this section. At the turnaround at the trail just downstream from the island I found a singing Bewick's Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a surprise Golden-crowned Kinglet. A noisy Ringed Kingfisher called from the bank and sometimes perched within sight. Altamira Orioles were singing from the Mexican side. It looked as if the trees on the big island in the river might have been killed, so I don't know if this effects the suitability of this site for Red-billed Pigeon in future (it was reliable for me in April).

Back at the boat launch the fog had just started to clear a little, but the most interesting bird was an American Pipit foraging by the river. It really was too early in the day to sit by the feeders so I went to Falcon State Park to see if the fog would clear. On the way in, there were a lot of Pyrrhuloxia but the entrance road, the usual widespread Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on the nature trail along with typical valley birds like Kiskadee, Harris's Hawk, Ladded-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Vermilion Flycatcher. What was totally missing was any small sparrows of any sort.

On the lower camping the loop the water level was very high, but initially there were no American Pipit or Western Meadowlarks. I was able to find both in a mixed flock nearby off the boat ramp area. Around the trailer loop I saw Verdin and Greater Roadrunner. At the boat ramp I added Curve-billed Thrasher. But the fog was so persistent and the activity only moderate so I finally left Falcon SP and returned to Salineno where I could finally see across the river and the fog was clearing to reveal a sunny day. Near the river I did manage to dig up a Clay-colored Sparrow.

Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole adult male

The Salineno feeders were doing a good business: all three orioles quickly made themselves obvious (Altamira, Hooded, Audubon's), Green Jay and Great Kiskadee were numerous, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrasher were shy but one or two were present, and there were a small number of Lincoln's Sparrow, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers. At one point a Clay-colored Thrush came in to feed on the peanut butter. There were no doves when I first got there but after a while the expected quartet showed up: Inca, Common Ground, White-winged and White-tipped. One of the Common Ground Doves was particularly pink - a male in alternate plumage. There was also a quartet of blackbirds, although the Great-tailed Grackles outnumbered all the others. Red-winged, Brown-headed Cowbirds fed amongst them, but there was a brief appearance by a shy Bronzed Cowbird (red eye, huge bill) in the trees on the left side. I only saw it the once.

Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher adult male

After some time at Salineno I left to make the tiresome drive back into the lower valley through Roma and Rio Grande City, both places that the traffic always crawls through during the day. I might have seen two Chihuahuan Ravens above Roma but they were too distant to be certain. I returned to Estero Llano Grande and found the usual suspects off the viewing deck, with a Spotted Sandpiper posing for me. High water at Estero Llano meant few other shorebirds. A Red-shouldered Hawk and two Cooper's Hawks were hunting the area. I set off to hike the pools, finding Vermilion Flycatcher and Tropical Kingbird in the corner nearest the Alligator Ponds. The Alligator Ponds themselves were relatively quiet (Least Grebe, Anhinga, Neotropic Comorants) although I did see one Sora that was startled by my shadow near sunset. Back at the observation deck before heading out I saw a White-tailed Kite hunting.

Overnight McAllen, 208 miles.

Wednesday January 19th - McAllen to Kingsville - final RGV day

miles 39075

Finally a day that dawned clear and without fog so I did a quick pre-dawn sprint to "Sparrow Road" in La Joya (or La Hoya depending on what you're reading). I found precisely zero sparrows apart from Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias. The situation might have not been helped by truck traffic even at 0715, but it's also likely that this road isn't doing as well in previous years because of ongoing brush clearing. A few Crested Caracara were milling around.

Black-vented Oriole
Black-vented Oriole adult male

So I went to the RV park at 0800 and saw the oriole for about a minute while some bozo photographer rattled his tripod around in front of it, finally scaring it out of the coral bean bush. I wasn't able to locate it. To my immense chagrin cloud moved in so I decamped to the nearby Bentsen State Park. At Bentsen there was a Clay-colored Robin at entrance station feeder with deformed bill and the usual suspects. I rather rapidly re-found the Black-vented at the first feeders past the old entrance station (a hundred yards or so before the Ebony Grove) by sheer coincidence, although it didn't use the feeders themselves. On towards Kingfisher overlook: Green Heron, Vermilion Flycatcher, the inevitable Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped, Swamp Sparrow. At the Resaca there were Anhinga and this time distant Belted and Ringed Kingfishers perched, with a small flock of fly-over Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. Neotropic Cormorants were especially numerous flying by all morning. Down near the restroom block was American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin. In the inner (ex-)camping loop I waited at the feeders but didn't find much of interest. Altamira Orioles dropped by and the "son of Smudgy" was not particularly forthcoming. However as a consolation prize I did see a Tropical Parula and a Clay-colored Robin. Returning to Ebony Grove and the feeders just beyond it I exhibited an unusual amount of luck, turning up just after a Rufous-backed Robin was seen. It put in a second brief appearance, along with a less shy Clay-colored Thrush, but enough of a view to make the ID unambiguous with a lot of rufous on the back and breast and a contrasting blue-gray head with striated black-and white throat. I waited quite a while there but the robin did not return, although a vocal Gray Hawk may have had something to do with that. In any event the Rufous-backed was not seen on subsequent days, was a first of that species for the park, and in fact this may have been the only sighting of it, period.

One more trip to Estero Llano Grande meant that I found more or less the same species, plus a fly-by White-faced Ibis while eating lunch on the deck. The activity seemed a little slower than previous days - notably no Cave Swallows. In the tropical area Black-throated Gray Warbler, my second Tropical Parula for the day, Yellow-throated, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I failed to find the White-throated Robin (a bird thankfully I'd seen before) so my luck that day wasn't universal, but I was told of a Common Pauraque roosting spot and managed to get OK pictures of the bird.

A brief visit to the gardens at Frontera Audubon just before they closed netted just Buff-bellied Hummingbird and a White-eyed Vireo. Unlike the previous winter trip (2009-2010 over New Year's) there was a dearth of hummingbird activity across the valley, with only fleeting looks at Archilochus species. As the sun worked its way lower I made my first ever stop at Edinburg Wetlands, where in the ponds the waterfowl were numberous: abundant Black-bellied WhistlingDuck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler and the herons weren't far behind: Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron and several Black-crowned Night-Herons. American Coot, Least Grebe and Spotted Sandpiper were the other birds. A really big immature Cooper's Hawk shot into the pond, making threats to attack a BBW Duck, but these big ducks showed no fear of the Cooper's, which appeared to think twice of attacking something that was of similar size and probably weighed far more. As the last bird of the site I accidentally flushed a Green Kingfisher out of the small shallow pond, which still perched up for a view.

For the last bird of the RGV part of the trip I went to 10th/Dove in McAllen where the Green Parakeets were coming into stage just before sunset. Then I headed north up US-281, encountering some quite skeptical INS agents at the usual checkpoint, before spending the night in the Motel 6 in Kingsville.

Thursday January 20th - Kingsville to San Antonio via Choke Canyon

The weather forecast for the Port Aransas area was for cloud and rain, so I skipped that (usually a staple for a trip like this) and instead headed up US-281 to Choke Canyon State Park. At 75 Acre lake in the Calliham unit the water level was quite high with far less waterfowl than the last trip - although it turned out that most were in the bay. On the lake were mainly American Coot, Common Moorhen, Neotropic Cormorant with a few Bufflehead. In the parking lot: Vermilion Flycatcher, Pine Warbler and I was certainly not going to escape OCWA and YRWA on the last day of birding. Tree Swallows flew over. I heard both gunfire and American Pipit. All sorts of ducks flew by, perhaps in response to the hunting: Lesser Scaup, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler. I also found White Ibis, White-faced Ibis, Least Sandpiper. Away from 75 acre lake, In the northernmost loops near the big lake itself, nothing much but two male Wild Turkeys and Green Jay, with a small flock of pipits. At the boat ramp - rather loaded with cars for a weekday - two Vermilion Flycatchers, some Western Meadowlarks, and in the small cove Mottled Duck, Mallard and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. Mallard was trip bird, since the only other Mallard-esque bird was a suspiciously portly semi-domesticated version down at SPI.

Mindful of check-in time for my flight, I went north on the interstate and cut west to Jourdonton to look for Mountain Plover at a sod farm but found only Meadowlark sp. At that point time was pressing so I repacked my bags and returned the rental car. Rather a packed pair of flights from SAT to DFW and DFW to PHL, but baggage claim at PHL was so efficient that I was actually in my own car and back on the road before my scheduled arrival time into PHL. By way of a welcome back to NJ, it snowed that evening. Almost exactly 1,500 miles for the entire loop trip.

Trip list

Least Grebe Tachybaptus dominicus widespread
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus abundant at times
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus SPI, Port Aransas
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Great Egret Ardea alba
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens Laguna Atascosa, SPI
Green Heron Butorides virescens Bentsen
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
White Ibis Eudocimus albus
White-faced Ibis Plegadis chihi Choke Canyon, Estero Llano
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja SPI, Port Aransas
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis
Fulvous Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna bicolor Estero Llano
Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons Sabal Palm
Gadwall Anas strepera
American Wigeon Anas americana SPI
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula Choke Canyon, SPI, Estero Llano
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors
Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera Choke Canyon
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Green-winged Teal Anas crecca Port Aransas
Canvasback Aythya valisineria Choke Canyon
Redhead Aythya americana SPI, Laguna Atascosa
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris Choke Canyon, Estero Llano
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis Choke Canyon
Bufflehead Bucephala albeola Choke Canyon
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator SPI
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus Bentsen, Estero Llano
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Cooper's Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Gray Hawk Asturina nitida Bentsen
Harris's Hawk Parabuteo unicinctus
Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus Estero Llano
White-tailed Hawk Buteo albicaudatus Mustang Island, Laguna Atascosa
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Crested Caracara Caracara plancus
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Plain Chachalaca Ortalis vetula
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo Choke Canyon
Clapper Rail Rallus longirostris SPI
Virginia Rail Rallus limicola Port Aransas
Sora Porzana carolina Estero Llano, Port Aransas
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
American Coot Fulica americana
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola SPI
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus SPI
Piping Plover Charadrius melodus SPI
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus SPI, Salineno
American Oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus SPI
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus SPI
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca SPI
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes SPI
Willet Catoptrophorus semipalmatus SPI
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia Estero Llano
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus SPI, Laguna Atascosa
Sanderling Calidris alba SPI
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla Laguna Atascosa
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus SPI
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Bonaparte's Gull Larus philadelphia SPI
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Gull-billed Tern Sterna nilotica Laguna Atascosa
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia Port Aransas
Royal Tern Sterna maxima SPI, Port Aransas
Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri SPI, Port Aransas
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger South Padre Island
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Eurasian Collared-Dove Streptopelia decaocto Choke Canyon, Port Aransas
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica Salineno, Bentsen
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Inca Dove Columbina inca
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina especially Estero Llano
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi
Green Parakeet Aratinga holochlora McAllen (10th/Dove)
Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus Falcon SP
Common Pauraque Nyctidromus albicollis Estero Llano
Buff-bellied Hummingbird Amazilia yucatanensis Estero Llano, Frontera
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata Salineno
Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon
Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana Edinburg Wetlands
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Melanerpes aurifrons
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Picoides scalaris
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus rubinus
Great Kiskadee Pitangus sulphuratus
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus Estero Llano SP
Couch's Kingbird Tyrannus couchii Sabal Palm
Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus
White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus
Green Jay Cyanocorax yncas
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor Choke Cyn SP
Bank Swallow Riparia riparia Estero Llano SP
Cave Swallow Petrochelidon fulva Estero Llano SP
Black-crested Titmouse Baeolophus atricristatus
Verdin Auriparus flaviceps Falcon SP
Cactus Wren Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus Falcon SP
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Bewick's Wren Thryomanes bewickii Salineno
House Wren Troglodytes aedon
Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa Salineno
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea
Clay-colored Thrush Turdus grayi Salineno, Bentsen, Santa Ana NWR
Rufous-backed Thrush Turdus rufopalliatus Life bird; Bentsen SP
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis Laguna Atascosa
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Long-billed Thrasher Toxostoma longirostre
Curve-billed Thrasher Toxostoma curvirostre
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Pipit Anthus rubescens Salineno, Falcon, Choke Cyn SP
Orange-crowned Warbler Oreothlypis celata
Tropical Parula Parula pitiayumi Bentsen and Estero Llano
Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata
Black-throated Gray Warbler Dendroica nigrescens Santa Ana NWR and Estero Llano
Yellow-throated Warbler Dendroica dominica Estero LLano and Bentsen RV
Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus Choke Canyon SP
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia Santa Ana NWR
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Wilson's Warbler Wilsonia pusilla Sabal Palm
Olive Sparrow Arremonops rufivirgatus Bentsen
Clay-colored Sparrow Spizella pallida Salineno at river
Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus Bentsen
Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis
Lincoln's Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana Bentsen
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Pyrrhuloxia Cardinalis sinuatus Bentsen, Salineno, Falcon
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna Laguna Atascosa
Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta various sites
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus
Bronzed Cowbird Molothrus aeneus Salineno
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
Black-vented Oriole Icterus wagleri Life bird; Bentsen RV park and Bentsen SP
Hooded Oriole Icterus cucullatus Salineno
Altamira Oriole Icterus gularis Salineno, Bentsen etc
Audubon's Oriole Icterus graduacauda Salineno
Pine Siskin Carduelis pinus Bentsen
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristis

154 species (5 less than previous year), a few probables, 2 life birds, many year birds. Possibles included Archilochus hummingbirds, Chihuahuan Raven, Lesser Goldfinch