phil jeffrey:: Texas, Jan 2012 trip report



 


Texas Birding Trip, Jan 2012

Recent years have seen semi-regular trips to southern TX for birding during the frigid NJ winter. 2012 was no different although 2012 was a little later: last week in January.

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. As before I've been using my iPhone for mapping and its voice notes feature to record field notes - this beats writing anything down as it is more compact and a lot faster. A recent development that I used on my WA-OR 2011 trip was the BirdsEye app which allows mining of the eBird API for local sightings. This supplements the TEXBIRDS postings nicely, although they do overlap with each other. It also provides cues as to local hotspots, although by now I pretty much know my way around the Lower RGV - usefully you can mine it for directions, although by now I have places like Estero Llano Grande in my address book. I have no financial interest in BirdsEye - I bought it based on another birder's report of it and I've personally confirmed it as a useful addition to my arsenal.

I flew into San Antonio via Continental out of Philadelphia, changing in Houston, for $275. Flying into McAllen would cost $400-ish although it's almost worth it based on reduced driving miles. However being based out of SAT makes it easier to justify visiting Port Aransas and Aransas NWR. Continental (now merged w/United) was my traditional airline choice although on my last two trips I flew American Airlines. I rented a car from Dollar-Thrifty. SAT is a smaller airport the pickup and dropoff is off-site, so this does add a little overhead with shuttle buses. I had a fairly good experience with combined Dollar-Thrifty venues in 2011 with the exception of the Thrify venue in Seattle. In this case I reserved a mid-size but because of limited inventory I got a Ford Escape small SUV with an anemic hamster for an engine. An anemic hamster with a sore throat. Doubtless this improves fuel economy (allegedly 29.5 mpg) but does nothing for my ability to pass cars on roads. It also, for the first time ever, had a speed limiter enabled: I was doing 75mph on a 70mph road and it flashes "Warning: approaching vehicle maximum speed". It flashes and it "bongs" as well, which is really annoying since it does that every time you hit 75. Texans aren't gratuituous speeders the way they are in NJ, but I want to be able to drive the thing at 77mph on drives along insterstates without it whining at me.

Yet again this year I failed to visit the Mountain Plover site that I learned of via the RBA: 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. " When coming from the east (i.e. Laguna Atascosa or SPI) then CR 375 seems like a better option than FM 2099 and puts you through Sprague's Pipit territory en route. On this trip the Mountain Plover reports dried up, and the Sprague's Pipits were getting hard to find, so it just never made its way up my priority list.

Distances and Times

Sunrise, Sunset at San Antonio is 7:20am, 6:04pm.

Distances:

The main sites in the RGV are spread over about 50 miles of driving between Brownsville and Mission. This is enough distance that it's not really viable to do Brownsville-Mission-Brownsville loops on a whim. US-83 in the Weslaco-Mission region has finally stopped construction for the most part but it is under construction (widening) between Salineno and Zapata. Going upriver to Salineno and Zapata will take about 1hr 20mins from Mission to Salineno and about 30 minutes longer than that for Mission to Zapata. Roma and Rio Grande City are ALWAYS slow to drive through. The Salineno feeders are open in the winter, but best check their status if you're coming outside that time. They're usually the most productive Dec-Feb.

Hotels

In the Weslaco-Mission area Motel6 is the cheapest chain, Super8 not far behind, but there are others (America's Best Value Inn; La Copa Inn). Prices tend to start in the higher $40's. On South Padre Island out of season you can get sub-$40 rooms. I used Kayak to find hotel rooms on the fly - although often you'll get redirected to other sites. I find Kayak to be a great flight and hotel aggregator site.

Targets

The sole viable life bird on this trip was Golden-crowned Warbler which I found on a second attempt at Frontera Audubon in Weslaco. Brown Jay and White-collared Seedeater were non-lifers on my "better view desired" list and of these I found the Brown Jay, only my second one. I also missed the Rose-throated Becard but this was particularly elusive. Having seen precisely one Seedeater it's getting to the point where I should make a specific two day effort to finally see another one. I dipped on moderate valley rarities like Dusky-capped Flycatcher but had a pretty good time with the valley regulars.

I tried for Harris's Sparrow twice, although the part of TX I was covering was weak for them, and in fact the lower RGV in the 2011/2012 winter wasn't especially good for wintering sparrows. I did better for hummingbirds than usual (4 species) and very well for owls with three species, two of which were in flight. Raptors were also good, including Prairie Falcon (perhaps only my 3rd), an Aplomado Falcon from the released population and a Merlin.

Of the RGV sites Salineno and Estero Llano Grande SP were the best value, with former strongholds like Bentsen Rio Grande SP and Sabal Palm Preserve being somewhat lackluster. Estero has become perhaps the single best spot in the valley for the last few years. South Padre Island is also a good spot, although a little weaker on shorebirds this year, and you always want to get there at dawn to avoid crowds and while the birds are close to shore.

Thursday Jan 26th, NJ to Kingsville TX via San Antonio and Port Aransas

The flight into San Antonio arrived approximately on time despite sitting on the tarmac at IAH for a while, and I was on the road by 1:45pm. This left a rather narrow window for birding before the 6pm sunset: San Antonio to Port Aransas is about 3 hours and I couldn't go via Corpus Christi (a little faster) because it would be during rush hour.

I made a small diversion leaving San Antonio and stopped at Medina River State Natural Area off TX-16 where I went looking for Harris's Sparrow. I didn't find this, not least of all because I had very little time to spend here, but saw: Eastern Phoebe, Northern Harrier, Northern Cardinal, Vesper Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Field Sparrow, Carolina Wren. This was a relatively birdy place even at 2:30pm.

I continued the sprint down to Port Aransas. En route there were both Vultures, Meadowlark sp., another Harrier hunting the median strip along I-37, and several American Kestrels on the wires. At the Port Aransas ferry there were Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Laughing Gulls and a single Great Blue Heron apparently circling over the channel looking for fish. Perhaps it thought it was a pelican. At the sewage plant birding center: Yellow-rumped Warbler in the parking lot, high-ish water level along the boardwalk in setting sun. In 2011 both Sora and Virginia Rail were out on exposed mud late in the day but this time around the water was right up to the reed edges. While there were no rails this location did come through with a typical mix: Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Redhead, unusually elusive Blue-winged Teal, two male Cinnamon Teal, Great and Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrow, Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants, no Pelicans or shorebirds. The nearby Paradise Pond was dry, so no pond at all - the willows were showing signs of stress but there were two water drips running for the birds. I heard several Catbirds but saw none of them but by far the best bird of the day (and one of the best for the trip) was a fly-by Barn Owl that flew right over my head while hunting the grassy area of the pond at dusk.

Overnight at the Motel 6 in Kingsville, staging for the morning's push to the Rio Grande Valley.

Friday Jan 27th, Kingsville to South Padre Island via Rio Grande Valley sites

Two hours of pre-dawn drive got me into Zapata just before sunrise. The extra surprise at the park near the library was a Great Horned Owl in flight, probably going to roost in a nearby palm. On the ponds: Lesser Scaup, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler and Gadwall along with two Great Blue Herons. Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers started the trend of these being the dominant Valley passerines. I saw Common Yellowthroat but otherwise there wasn't any pond-side activity - no Seedeaters. There was, however, a huge (1500?) flock of Red-winged Blackbirds roosting in the phragmites at the library pond, that left in smaller flocks when I arrived. Red-shouldered Hawk was perched in the palms near the back pond. Anhinga and Green Kingfisher and more ducks were over at the pond on the golf course side. Before I left the Green Kingfisher was hunting the main pond itself.

30 miles to the south, and through some road work as they attempt to widen US-83, I was down at the river in Salineno. The river was quiet, but the feeders were far more active. In fact at the feeders there were as many Great Kiskadees as I have ever seen in one place. The Salineno feeders are pretty reliable for all three orioles (Altamira, Hooded, Audubon's) and the best place for two of them. Also present were the expected mix of Green Jay, the Kiskadees, Ladder-backed/Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Long-billed Thrashers, White-tipped/White-winged/Common Ground Doves, Bewick's and House Wren, Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal. The huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding on the seed here also contained a few Brown-headed Cowbirds, a Yellow-headed Blackbird (probably immature male) but Great-tailed Grackles were few and far between. Orange-crowned Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warbers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets were also here. I missed the irregular Brown Jay, which came in at 8:15 that morning but had no fixed schedule and only one visit per day.

Back down at the river Osprey and a few distant American White Pelicans were the main features and some birders that had spent some time on the bank did not report anything of note. I headed up via the dirt Salineno Cut-Off Road toward Falcon State Park (aka Salineno Dump Road, where the dumping happens at the side of the road). The dirt road held nothing. Along the entrance to Falcon State Park I saw Pyrrhuloxia and Black-throated Sparrow but the state park itself was quiet with none of the Meadowlarks and American Pipits that often hang out at the lower camping loop (perhaps too dry?). I did find another Black-throated Sparrow, this one singing, while a Verdin was nearby.

The route down into the Lower RGV proper was predictably slow through Roma and Rio Grande City and I went straight to Weslaco and Frontera Audubon for my only reasonably likely lifer for the trip: a Golden-crowned Warbler. Despite 2.5 hours of searching I did not find this bird and Frontera itself was relatively slow: Black-and-white Warbler, Hermit Thrush, White-eyed Vireo, Long-billed Thrasher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Plain Chachalaca, Carolina Wren, Ovenbird, Black-crested Titmouse. One of the few Buff-bellied Hummingbirds for the trip was a nice find, however.

I'm already bored typing Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers so I'm going to use the banding codes OCWA and YRWA for them for the rest of the report. They were everywhere throughout the valley.

Finally, late in the day after Frontera closed at 4pm I went to the nearby Estero Llano Grande State Park were I worked the tropical area first (the old camp location) before scoping the main pond from the visitor center deck. OCWA, YRWA, Inca Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird (immature male) that had been here for a while was in its regular location at the Orchid Tree. A Wilson's Warbler came in to bathe at a drip. There were three Tropical Kingbirds at the pond, diagnostically twittering - in fact there was a dearth of Couch's Kingbirds in the valley this winter. Also on the pond: American Coot, Least Grebe, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Mottled Duck, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, White-tailed Kite, Spotted Sandpiper, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It can be really fast to skim the water birds at Estero Llano - just walk up to the visitor center deck and a whole bunch of species are milling around in front of you.

Despite dipping on the rarities I got a good slice of the typical RGV birds on the first main birding day. After dark I drove on to South Padre Island and stayed at a cheap hotel near the Convention Center - SPI often has cheap motel rates at this time of year since it's a relatively low season compared to (say) Spring Break when I'm not sure I'd want to be caught dead on the island. The America's Best Value Inn that I stayed at was trying to be a mini-resort with a pool, hot tub and a decent view, but was barely occupied on a Saturday night in late January. Different story in March. (Note: in Jan 2013 they were quoting prices of $90 whereas in Jan 2012 it was more like $40 - but searching a site like Kayak points up cheaper ones with internet and OK reviews).

Saturday Jan 28th - South Padre Island to Mission

I started birding on South Padre Island at dawn the following morning. The gate at the Convention Center end has been removed, although you can see the effects of the ongoing dispute between SPI and the County over the boardwalk - they're clearly going to gate the newer part of the boardwalk where it meets the older (and generally more productive) boardwalk area. I get that they want to exploit ecotourism here, but it makes very little sense to spend a lot of money on a big fancy birding center (I've read $6.5 million) and then miss out on other opportunities - there's little passerine habitat there other than a small patch near the convention center. If you add more, you add birder value instead of just duplicating the existing boardwalk (and at one point attempting to take the 1992-originated part over). Out of that multi-million project I've seen no evidence of significant habitat improvement. Since it wasn't migration I had very little at the small passerine habitat patch right next to the convention center (inevitable OCWA and YRWA and one Long-billed Thrasher) but when first heading out on the trails a nice surprise was a hunting White-tailed Kite.

At the end of the boardwalk at the "hides" there were the expected flocks of waterfowl and herons: Redhead, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Mottled Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Tricolored/Little Blue/Great Blue Herons, Reddish/Snowy/Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White Ibis and a single Roseate Spoonbill. Royal/Forster's Terns and Black Skimmers were in a gull flock at was mostly Laughing Gulls (also a few Ring-billed and Herring) but a single Caspian Tern flew past. Shorebirds were relatively reduced compared to last year - in particular no small plovers: Willet, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, a fly-by of small peeps that were probably Least Sandpiper. Pied-billed Grebe was in one of the ponds but I did not encounter any rails other than hearing one Clapper Rail sound off - many times they're just walking the mud at the edges of the boardwalk. Both Pelicans were out on the water with Brown Pelicans hunting close to shore.

Before leaving South Padre I checked Isla Blanca State Park ($4) for the reported Kittiwake but didn't find it and there was nothing else novel here - not somewhere I would bird if it weren't for the Kittiwake report. En route to Brownsville there was a Harris's Hawk pair along TX-48 and some herons and pelicans in the lake areas along the same road.

I got to Sabal Palm Preserve somewhat late in the morning and consequently it was a little slow, with Olive Sparrow the most interesting bird at the feeders. The Anna's Hummingbird had apparently left a few days prior and the Dusky-capped Flycatcher had decamped for elsewhere on the preserve, so I took a quick hike to the blind on the resaca which was a lot more active than last year (after it had just been filled. There were a lot of Least Grebes, probably 20 or more, with a few Pied-billed Grebes, American Coot, Gadwall, OCWA. About the only other bird of interest was an American Robin - quite a bit further south than I normally see them. I was going to check out the feeders some more but a group was having lunch there and that's the last thing one wants if trying to take pictures of timid Olive Sparrows.

Coming north out of Sabal Palm I made a diversion to Old Port Isabel Road and found an Aplomado Falcon at the hacking tower and a White-tailed Hawk a little further along the road. A Savannah Sparrow was the only other non-vulture bird that I saw here in the middle of the day. The view of the Aplomado was by inference in the heat haze but there was just enough detail to come up with the orange coloration around the legs and the otherwise monochrome aspect. The road condition deteriorated quite quickly so even in a SUV I didn't feel the urge to drive further along the road. Some years it is better than others in terms of surface condition.

I skipped the fields around Sebastian and Laguna Atascosa NWR and instead went back to Frontera Audubon in Weslaco for a second attempt a the Golden-fronted Warbler. I was successful with this almost immediately, alerted by the quiet but obvious dry hard call as it skulked through the undergrowth. It wasn't so much shy as just disinclined to perch up, but I followed it for an hour and attempt to maximize my karma by putting other birders on it. One older birder hugged me after I showed it to her, and this may be a first in all the lifers I've shown all the birders over the years. This was US life bird #645. Other birds at Frontera, slow again in the early afternoon, included Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler and White-eyed Vireo.

Once more to Estero Llano Grande SP where there were more shorebirds on the main pond than at the last visit: Long-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, and all the usual ducks/coots. Tropical Kingbirds, Eastern Phoebe were over the pond along with Cave and Tree Sallows while back in the tropical area I spied an obvious Rufous Hummingbird (one of as many as 3 in the park, apparently) and two Black-chinned Hummingbirds. A Cooper's Hawk was hunting the area, as was Red-shouldered Hawk. I was told of the location of Common Pauraque out near Alligator Pond, which I found without much difficulty although photographing it well was another matter in dim light. The last thing I want to do is disturb a roosting bird, so it was a technical challenge to get things set up quietly.

An attempt to find Red-crowned Parrot at Valley Nature Center did not work out although one Parrot of indeterminate species did fly over at dusk (Red-crowned being the most likely). A sprint at sunset to McAllen located some roosting Green Parakeets at Violet and 10th Ave.

Sunday Jan 29th - Sparrow Road and Weslaco

Sunday is my main day for spending time on "Sparrow Road" north of FM-2221 north-west of La Joya. Sparrow Road is signed as Jara Chinas Road coming from some directions (but not northbound on FM-2221). Truck traffic - particularly gas or oil-field traffic - is simply too intrusive on other days, although there was a little traffic even on Sunday mornings. The vegetation along the road is often coated with dust from the rapidly-moving truck traffic. On this particular Sunday it was overcast and a relatively cold 52 F with a brisk wind out of the north.

The first few miles of Sparrow Road raised the nightmare prospect of a blown morning with nothing to watch. The light didn't help - being heavy overcast with some blue sky on the horizon to taunt me. In the first few miles I saw nearly nothing: no Cardinals, no Mockingbirds, no sparrows - an all-time low experience for this stretch. A few hawks (Harris's, one White-tailed) broke the monotony. Eventually I snagged a couple of Vesper Sparrows and the first "good" bird was a small flock of Lark Sparrows - new for the year. I went the furthest I ever have north on this road in search of birds, to 14 mile Rd N, and then went even further into areas that were mainly agricultural with remnant patches of native habitat.

This paid off big time, leading me to wonder why I hadn't done that before. Although I was curious why I was getting nothing off the native habitat. Working my way north from 14 mile Rd (14 miles north of Route 83?) toward FM-490 I jogged west on a better graded road and then found more sparrows in agricultural fields next to a brushy field. What I imagined to be a Vesper Sparrow surprised me with pale wing markings as it flew past the car. Less than a minute later I had found a large flock of Lark Buntings, and over the next 30 minutes found lots more of them - 300-400 although it was impossible to count them since much of the flock remained in cover at any time. This is a lot more Lark Buntings than I had previously seen at any one time. A few Vesper and Savannah were indeed mixed in, but it was mostly Lark Buntings and Western Meadowlarks here (conveniently calling, since their plumage was a mix of everything between basic and full breeding). The Western "chup" is nothing like the Eastern "zizizizit" and it seemed as if most or all of the Meadowlarks here were Western. While watching the Buntings flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese starting coming over, in groups of ten to thirty, numbering in total a few hundred. There was one flock of Sandhill Cranes, and one of the GWF flocks had a family of Snow Geese with them. All these flocks came from south by some distance and were headed north of FM-490. As far as I can tell the location for the Buntings was here on Google maps.

Hooking around the the west side of the field I encountered Horned Larks (breeding pluamge) and a decent flock of Vesper and Savannah Sparrows. I reached FM-490 and went west for a while, going into Starr Co from Hidalgo Co, but saw nothing and turned around. Some of the fields here were much greener than I expected, perhaps irrigated. Headed back east along FM-490, and near the county border, I stopped to check out an interesting raptor I saw landing on a power line and found it to be a Prairie Falcon. Nearly as interesting was that the small green patch I stopped in front of held more Lark Buntings !! The Prairie picked up hunting, working slowly over the ground, letting me see the black underwing patches. This was my first Prairie Falcon in TX and the first one in several years.

Returning back down the same dirt road south of FM-490 the field had turned into raptor central: Merlin, 4 Kestrels, Caracaras, 3 White-tailed Hawks including one of those exotic-looking dark juveniles. Three Long-billed Curlews emerged from the cover back at Lark Bunting flock before getting spooked by a raptor. If only there had been better light !

Finally after spending a lot of time in this area I worked back down to La Joya and headed to Bentsen. By now it was 11:30am. By far the best section of Bentsen was at the visitor center: Spotted Towhee male skulking along the path from the parking lot to the visitor center, Black-chinned Hummingbird tail-pumping at the feeders, Blue-headed Vireo and Black Phoebe at the water feature and Red-shouldered Hawk along the canal. The walk in was quiet, with only a Verdin of interest. At the Resaca last year's flooding had apparently killed all the cane on the resaca shoreline. Water bird numbers were very low (2 Pied-billed Grebe, 1 Coot) but there were Anhinga, Neotropic Cormorants, Osprey. I also found 2 Belted and 1 Ringed (female) Kingfishers and a Caspian Tern hunting the lake. Bentsen lacked any sparrows to speak of, but I did find one Vermilion Flycatcher near the boat ramp. Usual suspects at the feeder (including more Verdin) at the Ebony Grove. The lack of action at Bentsen was consistent with its lack of appearance in the RGV RBA reports. It paled beside the activity at Estero Llano Grande SP, despite Estero being much smaller.

Reports from Santa Ana NWR indicated a lack of activity around Willow Lakes and pretty much the usual waterfowl at Pintail Lakes, so in contrast to most years I decided to skip Santa Ana. In the 2010 flood the flood line was up at eye level on the paths leading to Willow Lakes so I imagine it'll take a few years for the foliage to get going again. Instead of Santa Ana I did something unimaginative and headed to back Estero Llano Grande where a Roseate Spoonbill was on the main pond with American White Pelican and Greater White-fronted Goose doing fly-bys. I rarely see GWF below US-83. Black-necked Stilt and Spotted Sandpiper were amongst the usual birds on the pond, with Curve-billed Thrasher and Black-chinned Hummingbird at the feeders. In the tropical zone I saw both the Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds at the Orchid Tree and Lesser Goldfinch pair (featuring nice black and yellow male). Two more Curve-billed Thrashers at the tropical zone feeders although these particular feeders mostly bring in House Sparrows and blackbirds.

In search of Black-bellied Whistling Duck I went to Edinburg city park where the nature center was closed but the trails were open. As advertised there were both large numbers of BBW-Ducks and also Cattle Egrets with a few Snowy/Great Egrets and Northern Shoveler. This park does get absurdly busy on weekends although the crowds are not in the native habitat sections for the most part.

Since it was approaching sunset I went out to 10th and Violet in nearby McAllen where I found ~400 Green Parakeets staging on the wires over the road. I made some attempt at looking for Red-crowned Parrot in McAllen south of US-83 and at Quinta Mazatlan parking lot but failed yet again. There was a single male Vermilion Flycatcher outside Quinta Mazatlan.

Monday Jan 30th - Salineno, Zapata and leaving the RGV

Because I'd done fairly well with the usual Lower RGV specialties I decided to go upriver once more to Salineno and Zapata in search of the rarities: Brown Jay and White-collared Seedeater. I left for Salineno pre-dawn and got there at 0815. There were already a fair number of people there and during the morning a total of three tour groups showed up, giving a total of around 50 people. That's the largest number of people I've encountered there. It was also overcast and drizzling that morning. The reason I don't enjoy tour groups was amply illustrated - a lot of the birders there had very limited ideas of what they would be looking at, since it's not totally unnatural to rely on the tour group leader to point out the birds. I'd say that the number of experienced birders at Salineno that morning was no more than 15% of the total number of people. That size crowd is just never quiet, either.

The non-ideal and damp weather also seemed to translate into lower numbers at the feeder, although ultimately pretty much all the usual species turned up, along with one Olive Sparrow and a Verdin coming to feed on an orange and two American Goldfinches. I put a hard limit of 10:30 on staying there, because the Brown Jay was irregular on when it turned up. After packing the camera in the car I wandered along the jeep trail upriver and in one quiet section (just me and not 49 other birders) I came across some Lincoln's Sparrows, a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow, Olive Sparrow and an immaculate male Spotted Towhee. Up near the large island I found nothing, but I was almost back at the boat ramp when a cacophany of raised voices alerted me to the Brown Jay being seen at the feeders. Brown Jay itself is quite large - about the size of a Chachalaca and I watched it for a while as it dithered about coming into the feeders. The sheer number of people certainly did not help.

Just before leaving Salineno for the last time I saw an Eastern Screech-Owl which had stuck its head out of the nesting box behind the trailers, giving me an unprecedented third owl for the trip. I made the 60 mile round trip to Zapata to look for seedeaters and stuck out again (a common problem). There the novelties were Tricolored Heron at the pond and Killdeer on a nearby grassy area. Back downriver, I visited Anzalduas County Park near Granjeno and found it to be in pretty good condition after inundation in late 2010. My main interest here was Bronzed Cowbirds but the icterids were all elsewhere feeding. Instead I found Northern Beardless Tyrannulet plaintively calling, Eastern Bluebird, Vermilion Flycatcher and two Black Phoebes. I've had moderate luck with Tyrannulets at Anzalduas.

Headed east across the valley Estero Llano held the inevitable water birds with Long-billed Dowitchers, Least and Spotted Sandpipers and now Wilson's Snipe. There was one Vermilion Flycatcher along the boardwalk but I was there mainly to photograph Pauraques despite poor light. ALthough my original intention was to push for Laguna Atascosa towards sunset it was just too far away, so I made one more unsuccessful attempt at the Red-crowned Parrots at Weslaco and went north out of the valley to Kingsville as darkness fell.

Tuesday Jan 31st - Port Aransas, Aransas NWR and Medina River

Tuesday was the last birding day, on a particularly tight time schedule to check in for the flight out of San Antonio. I drove pre-dawn through Corpus Christ to Port Aransas but the weather was overcast with few breaks and there was a fair amount of fog around. There were no surprises at Port Aransas wastewater treatment plant ponds, with both Pelicans, Caspian Tern, the usual ducks (Green/Blue-winged Teals, N. Pintail, N. Shoveler, Redhead) and herons including many Pintail flocks, Neotropic Cormorant but a complete dearth of rails or shorebirds. This made for a quick and timely exit via the car wash to get the worst of the road grime from Sparrow Road off the rental car. Unfortunately due to some wet roads some of that went straight back on the car within the next 60 miles. I stopped briefly at Paradise Pond to look for passerines but Hermit Thrush, YRWA and Mockingbirds were the only ones present. Then it was onto the ferry, through Rockport and Fulton and up to Aransas NWR. Along the agricultural back roads American Kestrels and Loggerhead Shrikes were fairly numerous on the wires.

At the visitor center at Aransas NWR there were Eastern Meadowlarks (perhaps one or two Westerns), a couple of Wild Turkeys and both American Kestrel and Merlin. The refuge was fairly full of hawks, most of which were Red-tailed but also held Caracaras. What the refuge mostly held was Northern Cardinal and Northern Mockingbird, both of which were abundant. A few sparrow flocks roadside held Chipping Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow (surprise!). Whooping Cranes were the major targets at Aransas and I got the first four as a family group in one of the controlled burn areas - because of the drought and the increased salinity of the coastal marshes the blue crab numbers are down and refuge personnel are doing controlled burns to add to the food supply (roasted acorns, apparently). I made the drive around the wildlife drive and on the second visit to the observation tower saw the "usual" two Whooping Cranes out in the marsh. That got me up to 6 Cranes and I saw another four at Heron Flats from the overlook. Ten Whooping Cranes is certainly my highest total ever. Common Grackle seen here were the only ones for the trips, and it was notable that American Robins were present in greater numbers. There was certainly a more northern vibe to the bird species up in Aransas.

There was no lingering at Aransas NWR despite it being before noon and instead I made the sprint over local roads toward San Antonio. Texas has high, perhaps dangerously high, local road speed limits of 70 mph on roads that would be set at 45 mph in NJ but this also makes for good headway if you can find the ones that are not too heavily traveled. This in part makes up for the fact that Texans have the worst lane discipline that I have ever seen anywhere - it's not uncommon to see someone travel in the left lane on an empty road for many miles.

Courtesy of those speed limits I got myself 30 minutes of birding back at Medina River Natural Area, covering a little more ground than before but basically seeing exactly the same species - no Harris's Sparrow on this trip, but Song/Vesper/Savannah/Field Sparrows, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Harrier. Then it was off to the airport to return the cranky rental car and fly home. Ironically overnight temperatures when I arrive at PHL were in the low 50's, almost exactly the same temperature as when I was birding the Sparrow Road on Sunday morning.

Sightings List

Least Grebe Tachybaptus dominicus widespread and numerous
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus coastal, Rio Grande @ Salineno
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 Zapata, South Padre Island
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens South Padre Island
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis roost at Edinburg
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea Estero Llano Grande SP
White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis Edinburg
Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons "Sparrow Road" and Estero Llano Grande SP
Snow Goose Chen caerulescens "Sparrow Road"
Gadwall Anas strepera
American Wigeon Anas americana
Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors
Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera Port Aransas and Estero Llano Grande SP
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Green-winged Teal Anas crecca
Redhead Aythya americana numerous at Port Aransas, South Padre Island
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis Zapata
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus South Padre Island and Estero Llano Grande SP
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus Salineno
Cooper's Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Harris's Hawk Parabuteo unicinctus
Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus
White-tailed Hawk Buteo albicaudatus Granjeno, "Sparrow Road", Old Port Isabel Rd
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Aplomado Falcon Falco femoralis Old Port Isabel Rd
Merlin Falco columbarius "Sparrow Road"
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus Austwell nr Aransas NWR
Prairie Falcon Falco mexicanus "Sparrow Road"
Plain Chachalaca Ortalis vetula
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo Aransas NWR
Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata
American Coot Fulica americana
Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis "Sparrow Road"
Whooping Crane Grus americana Aransas NWR
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus Zapata and Estero Llano Grande SP
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus Estero Llano Grande SP
Willet Catoptrophorus semipalmatus South Padre Island and Aransas NWR
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia Estero Llano Grande SP
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus South Padre Island and "Sparrow Road"
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa South Padre Island
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres South Padre Island
Sanderling Calidris alba South Padre Island
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla South Padre Island and Estero Llano Grande SP
Stilt Sandpiper Calidris himantopus Estero Llano Grande SP
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus Estero Llano Grande SP
Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata Estero Llano Grande SP
Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis South Padre Island
Herring Gull Larus argentatus South Padre Island
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia Port Aransas, Bentsen SP, South Padre Is
Royal Tern Sterna maxima South Padre Is
Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri South Padre Is
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger South Padre Is
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Eurasian Collared-Dove Streptopelia decaocto
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica Salineno
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Inca Dove Columbina inca
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina Salineno
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi
Green Parakeet Aratinga holochlora McAllen
Barn Owl Tyto alba Port Aransas
Eastern Screech-Owl Otus asio Salineno
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus Zapata
Common Pauraque Nyctidromus albicollis Estero Llano Grande SP
Black-chinned Hummingbird Archilochus alexandri Estero Llano Grande SP
Broad-tailed Hummingbird Selasphorus platycercus Estero Llano Grande SP
Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus Estero Llano Grande SP
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata Bentsen SP, heard at Estero Llano Grande SP
Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon Bentsen SP
Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana Zapata
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Melanerpes aurifrons
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Picoides scalaris
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet Camptostoma imberbe Anzalduas CP
Black Phoebe Sayornis nigricans Anzalduas CP and Bentsen SP
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus rubinus
Great Kiskadee Pitangus sulphuratus
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus Estero Llano Grande SP
Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus
White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus
Blue-headed Vireo Vireo solitarius Bentsen SP
Green Jay Cyanocorax yncas
Brown Jay Cyanocorax morio Salineno (my 2nd ever!)
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris "Sparrow Road"
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor Estero Llano Grande SP
Cave Swallow Petrochelidon fulva Estero Llano Grande SP
Black-crested Titmouse Baeolophus atricristatus
Verdin Auriparus flaviceps
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Bewick's Wren Thryomanes bewickii Salineno
House Wren Troglodytes aedon Salineno
Marsh Wren Cistothorus palustris Port Aransas
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea
Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis Anzalduas CP, Aransas NWR
Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus Frontera Audubon
American Robin Turdus migratorius lots at Arnasas NWR
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Long-billed Thrasher Toxostoma longirostre
Curve-billed Thrasher Toxostoma curvirostre Estero Llano Grande SP
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapillus Frontera Audubon
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia Frontera Audubon
Orange-crowned Warbler Oreothlypis celata adundant
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga coronata abundant
Black-throated Green Warbler Setophaga virens Frontera Audubon
Golden-crowned Warbler Basileuterus culicivorus Frontera Audubon (LIFE bird)
Wilson's Warbler Cardellina pusilla Estero Llano Grande SP
Olive Sparrow Arremonops rufivirgatus Salineno
Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculatus Salineno, Bentsen SP
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina Aransas NWR
Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla Aransas NWR and Medina River
Vesper Sparrow Pooecetes gramineus widespread
Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus "Sparrow Road"
Black-throated Sparrow Amphispiza bilineata Falcon SP
Lark Bunting Calamospiza melanocorys "Sparrow Road"
Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia Medina River Natural Area
Lincoln's Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii Medina River and Salineno
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana Port Aransas
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis Aransas NWR
White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys Medina River and Salineno
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Pyrrhuloxia Cardinalis sinuatus
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna Aransas NWR
Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta widespread, but especially "Sparrow Road"
Yellow-headed Blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus Salineno
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula Aransas NWR in burn area
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
Hooded Oriole Icterus cucullatus Salineno
Altamira Oriole Icterus gularis Salineno, Bentsen, Estero Llano Grande SP
Audubon's Oriole Icterus graduacauda Salineno
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus Zapata
Lesser Goldfinch Carduelis psaltria Estero Llano Grande SP
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristis Salineno
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
163 species, a little higher than the 2010 and 2011 trips although it didn't feel that it was especially productive.