A week ago Eva and I made our first trip to Texas primarily to attend a family reunion in New Braunfels but managed to work in three days birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley. July may not be the preferred time of year to bird the state, not to mention the southern borderlands, with daytime temperatures climbing into the mid and high 90s followed by little evening relief, and humidity levels that are best described as steamy...very steamy. Nonetheless we made the best of it and were well rewarded for all the sweating we did.
In preparation for the trip, reunion aside, I staked out many of the primo birding spots in the area, including Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Anzalduas County Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge among others. What we had not planned on was Hurricane Alex that passed through the week before and the extensive flooding of the lowlands that it left behind. Much to our disappointment all these areas were still under water and thus closed. Kicking into "damage control" mode we dragged out our birder's guides and other reference materials and developed an 11th hour fallback itinerary that probably was as good if not better than the original. Prior to heading to Texas I put together a list of 27 Valley specialty birds with reasonably good prospects of seeing given the season of year. Of that number we managed 21 plus two that were not on the target list well surpassing my 500 mid-life goal (see side bar)...a very successful birding trip indeed and not a bad introduction to Texas.
Having to redirect our efforts to more "inland" birding sites, Tuesday morning our first stop was Chihuahua Woods Preserve outside Mission. The 349 acre reserve owned by The Nature Conservancy of Texas is a fine example of threatened Tamaulipan thornscrub habitat. The vegetation is thick and would be impenetrable if not for several trails providing safe passage. The understory is dominated by immense prickly pear cacti towering to the heights of small trees. These were covered with tasty succulent fruit called tunas by the Spanish speaking people in the Valley. Nearly as interesting as the bird life is the diversity of cacti. To our untrained eyes we easily distinguished at least a half dozen species. Along one of the paths Eva spotted the threatened Texas or Berlandier's Tortoise Gopherus berlandieri plodding along its way perhaps looking for a morning meal of ripe tuna that had dropped to the ground.
Next we headed northeast to Edinburg to check out Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and one of a number of World Birding Centers established throughout the Valley. The wetlands are located within a municipal park and more specifically consists of two impoundments that are part of the city's storm and waste water treatment infrastructure. But do not let this be a turn-off should you ever be in the area. The grounds have been superbly landscaped with native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and other vegetation transforming what was previously agricultural land into a 40 acre "natural" oasis and magnet for birds, butterflies and dragonflies in an otherwise urban setting. My 500th life bird was seen here: Buff-bellied Hummingbirds feeding at red Turk's Cap blossoms.
We ended the first full day at Quinta Mazatlan located south of Edinburg in McAllen. This former estate with mansion (one of the oldest haciendas remaining in Texas) is surrounded by woodlands and gardens on a mere 15+ acres. The most noteworthy sighting there was Green Parakeets which we were told can be hit-or-miss at this time of year.
Wednesday morning was at Estero Llano Grande State Park south of the city of Weslaco. The park is 176 acres including ponds, wetlands, canals, woodlands and fields. Besides a nice diversity of birds and butterflies we were fortunate to spot a large American Alligator gliding on the surface of one pond and also the odd Spiny Softshell turtle Trionyx spinerferus basking on a log. It was here that we got one of the two unexpected birds of the trip: a Clay-colored Robin heard in song but concealed from view in the crown of a large live oak and managed to escape being seen by flying into thick vegetation located on private property abutting the park. Earlier in the day the park naturalist brought to our attention the presence of a robin pair that had successfully nested in the vicinity of our bird. Later we confirmed identification by cross referencing its song with Clay-colored Robin recordings. To my ear the song is similar to that of the American Robin but a bit slower in tempo, lower in pitch and more melodious. Notes are of similar quality to those that might be delivered a Rose-breasted Grosbeak but more slowly.
Next, we dropped in at Frontera Audubon Thicket near the center of Weslaco. This is another former grand residence under restoration and surrounded by 15 acres of birdy woodlands and wetlands. Also located on the grounds is one of the few Sabal Palm Sabal mexicana groves remaining in the Valley.
Towering palm trees are prominent and common fixtures throughout the Valley; however, only the Sabal Palm is native to Texas. Historically, palm forests occupied the lower 80 miles of the Rio Grande Valley and totalled 40,000 acres in 1925. Since then agricultural development has reduced these forests to several patches altogether amounting to less than a couple hundred acres. The largest concentration in the U.S. is south of Brownsville abutting our border with Mexico and located on federal and private conserved lands, but protected they are not. Concerns over illegal immigration into the U.S. and kneejerk political reaction to the problem resulted in constructing the border fence right through the palm groves and ceding as much as 90% of this critical habitat to a "no man's" land on the Mexican side of the fence. This has been a loss to birders who once had access to the Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary but more significantly leaves the ecological wellbeing of the groves and its native inhabitants to an uncertain future.
Our time in the Valley ran out Wednesday afternoon when we had to make our way northward to kickoff family reunion festivities. We returned via U.S. 77 taking us through Texas coastal plain habitats where White-tailed hawks were spotted perched on powerline support structures. A brief stop outside Raymondsville produced a pair of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, the other bird not on the list, feeding in a grassy marsh.
Below is the list of birds identified during our brief visit to the Valley as well along U.S. 281 South and U.S. 77 North. Those preceded by # indicate life birds. Among the six birds on the list of 27 we failed to get are Least Grebe, Ringed and Green kingfishers. During conversations with park naturalists one speculated that the recent extensive flooding may have created much more foraging habitat for these birds to roam about making them much more difficult to locate.
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron Cattle Egret
In these times I suppose no trip to the southern borderlands would be complete without at least one encounter with the border patrol. We had three without incident, and we found the officers to be quite helpful in dispensing advice to avoid potential problems involving illegal immigrants and especially drug runners. Fortunately, we experienced them to be as rare as the grebe and kingfishers we had hoped to see.
Lastly, I must mention the Chicharras Grande (Giant Cicadas Quesada gigas), the source of the most prominent woodland sound in the Valley. Their song, the loudest of any North American cicada, is heard incessantly from dusk to dawn, and where there is one there are many emitting such a racket as to drown out the vocalizations of the noisiest birds. Chic-chic-chic-chic-chic, zwEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE...
If you followed the recent Soccer World Cup playoffs on televsion and heard the nonstop buzzing drone of the vuvuzela horns, then you have a pretty good idea of what a chorus of these insects is like.
Now that we have returned to Vermont with memories, and some photos, of all the wonderful birds we were exposed to in Texas as well as our time reconnecting with family members, the sight of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird dancing over the blooms of scarlet bee-balm in our garden is still enough to catch my attention and admire for at least a few minutes before continuing with home chores.
Photos top to bottom: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Chihuahua Woods Preserve, Buff-bllied Hummingbird, Estero Llano Grande State Park, American Alligator, Great Kiskadee, Sabal Palm Grove, White-tailed Hawks, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Crested Caracara, Inca Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Groove-billed Ani, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Bronzed Cowbirds, and Texas Tortoise.