Birding South Texas, April 29 to May 5

Since we retired in 2016 we have been taking trips to visit parts of the US that are new to us, to observe the flora and fauna living there, and round out our life lists for the American Birding Association’s North American region. In 2016 it was the Klamath Mtns of Northern California for oaks and conifers, in 2017 we visited Maine for nesting seabirds, in 2018 the mountains of Kentucky for elusive warblers of the Appalachian thickets, and also in 2018 the Channel Islands and surrounding water of Southern California for the Island Scrub Jay and a variety of boobies, shearwaters, and storm-petrels.

This year it was South Texas. Flying east against the time zone changes is an all day event. We left East Wenatchee at daybreak on the 29th and finally landed in Austin a couple hours before sunset. Finding a place for the night took all our energy. However, we managed to enjoy the ever ubiquitous, entertaining great-tailed grackles.

Balcones Canyonlands

Before sunrise the next morning on April 30, we began birding in earnest as we headed to the Shin Oak Observation Deck in the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge to look for black-capped vireos. On the way, I managed to snatch a couple calls of the Chuck-will’s-widow through the open car window. This was my first new bird of the trip (#1).

At the observation deck, a strong breeze made it almost impossible to see birds as they stuck close to the shrubbery. However, there were at least two vireos singing their characteristic song, which I recorded along with the wind. The black-capped vireo was #2.

View from the Sunset Vista at Balcones Canyonlands

We continued on to the Cactus Rocks area of the refuge in an attempt to see the Texas warbler (aka golden-cheeked warbler) in the Ashe’s junipers. This stop was equally daunting as the wind continued to blow. We managed to hear some snatches of song, and catch a few glimpses of warblers (#3). We also saw the Woodhouse’s scrub jay. This population in the Edward’s Plateau may one day be designated a separate species from others in the US intermountain West so it was worth noting.


The refuge, northeast of Austin, was actually a side trip for us as our main targets were located a couple hundred miles south so we took the four hour trip to Kingsville. Just north of Kingsville we began encountering numerous raptors and checked off crested caracara, Harris hawk, and white-tailed hawk (#4), all new for Lorna. After checking into our motel and grabbing dinner, we went out looking for our first real south Texas birds. Our first stop was at a poorly maintained nature sanctuary. We won’t mention the name so as not to embarrass the school that sponsored the area. However, it was a real dump, in spite of the no dumping signs.

We moved onto Dick Kleberg Park where we were delighted to see black-bellied whistling ducks circling the pond there. They weren’t new for us, but they make us feel we were in south Texas. They also turned out, after the grackles, to be one of the common birds at the locations we visited in south Texas. A couple of squabbling ladder-backed woodpeckers got our attention, or we might have missed the chuck-will’s-widow resting on a nearby tree branch, new for Lorna since she hadn’t heard the bird earlier in the day, and allowed me to add it to my seen list. The trees were also noisy with golden-fronted woodpeckers, new for Lorna, and another species that would be with us throughout south Texas.

King Ranch, Norias Division

Before daybreak the next day, May 1, we joined up with Barb Rapstein of the King Ranch and four other birders (Deb & Dick Comeau, Ryan O’Donnell, and Leah Waldner ) for the 9 hour birding tour on the ranch’s Norias division. There are several species of birds difficult to find anywhere in the US outside the King Ranch so birders thank the King Ranch for offering these tours

At our first stop on the division we quickly picked up the Couch’s kingbird (#5), the first of many on our trip. However, the featured bird at this stop was the ferruginous pygmy-owl. While our guides were searching for a cooperative bird, our first green jay flew in (#6). After the roosting owl was located (#7), we drove on to the oak woodlands for more targeted birds.

Giant ballmoss on oaks, King Ranch

In the oaks Barb played recordings of the three primary targets to entice them to respond and reveal themselves. She was first successful with the northern beardless tyrannulet. We all had excellent views of what can be a secretive bird as it perched out in the open. I thought we had both seen it previously in Guadalupe Canyon, AZ, but Lorna couldn’t recall it; new bird for her. At our stops in the oaks we usually heard olive sparrows (#8) singing from the brush; we continued to hear them just about everywhere in suitable habitat in which we stopped in south Texas during the next three days.

The next target to emerge was the tropical parula (#9). The birds were rather prolific singers giving their extra little zip at the end of their songs that differs tropical parula from northern parula. One male emerged and gave us great views as it also sat in the open.

The Audubon’s orioles were a little more difficult, but eventually we also saw those (#10). We first heard them, then saw them flitting in the canopy, but finally one emerged in the open and sat where we could admire it’s distinctive size and yellow and black plumage. As we were admiring the orioles we heard a distinct buzz, and then a hummingbird came into view. Buff-bellied hummingbird (#11)!

On the mammal line, we also had a herd of bull nilgai cross the road. These antelope introduced from India have become rather common in Texas.

Back to the Norias division headquarters we enjoyed the picnic lunch provided by the King Ranch, while listening to a calling great kiskadee (#12). Back in the van, the sharp eyes of the other participants found groove-billed anis (#13) sulking in the brush. Fortunately, the birds came out and gave us excellent views. The only other bird usually regarded by the King Ranch tour as a target was the Botteri’s sparrow, which we had both previously seen in AZ. However, Barb was able to find a singing bird, which gave us great views from our cover in the van. Barb also pointed out the active nest of a white-tailed hawk.

On the way out to end the day, we stopped at a flooded playa at which we padded our Texas state bird list with a variety of waders.

Santa Ana refuge and the Quinta Mazatlan

After the conclusion of the tour, Lorna and I headed south to Alamo, where we checked into the Casa Santa Ana B & B for a three night stay. Originally, I had planned to make an evening walk to the legendary Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Although the refuge is only a few hundred yards from the Casa, after the early start to the day, the heat and humidity, and an exhaustingly successful day on the King Ranch, we contented ourselves with watching a couple of buff-bellied hummingbirds contend with each other and a horde of ruby-throated hummingbirds at the Casa feeders.

Unfortunately, we also slept in the following morning, May 2, missing early morning activity. However, we did make it to the Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen by 8 to chase the crimson collared grosbeak, which we dipped on. We may have been a couple days too late. We did enjoy the noisy flocks of plain chacalachas (#14), and added clay-colored thrush (#15) and long-billed thrasher (#16).

Following an afternoon nap back at the Casa Santa Ana we hiked the levee to the Santa Ana refuge headquarters. The refuge didn’t disappoint us as we found two least grebes (#17) in the small pond next to the entrance. A walk through the areas of Spanish moss produced several Altamira orioles (#18) for which the refuge is famous. Lorna finally got a decent look at a black-crested titmouse and a flock of mottled ducks, both new for her. We rounded out our list with the white-tipped doves (#19) doing their imitation of a jug band.

Spanish moss at Santa Ana

Salineno to Bentsen

We were up before 5 on May 3 for the 80 mile trip to Salineno, the primary spot for south Texas specialties, with access to the Rio Grande River itself. While the river flow was up, we still managed to see a great list of birds. The Morlett’s seedeater (#20) that had been reported was singing from the top of his favorite shrub, a ringed kingfisher (#21) made an overflight, a pair of what were probably the Mexican race of the mallard flew down the river, and a group of Neotropic cormorants, new to Lorna, flew up river. At Chapeño, just a few miles upriver, we had a green kingfisher (#22) momentarily land right in front us. On the road back out to the highway, a large, all dark pigeon flew across the road and landed on the line, red-billed pigeon (#23)!

Following that we spent a rather fruitless afternoon at the renown Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park hoping for the hook-billed kite; if there was one we were just too hot and tired to see it. That evening we slept with the door open and listened to the common paraque (#24).

South Padre Island and Home

First thing in the morning, May 4, we waved good-bye to the Rio Grande Valley and headed toward South Padre Island. We made one stop at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge where an aplomado falcon was found at a usual spot on Hwy 100. The falcon was new to Lorna; I had seen one back in 1973 at Columbus, NM.

Our first stop at South Padre Island was at the jetty where we guessed we could find bottle-nose dolphin. We were not disappointed; this was a new mammal for both of us. The boardwalks out into the mangroves at the convention center was our next destination. We were hoping on finding clapper rails and any boreal migrants passing through. Our mistake as we couldn’t get close with some event attracting crowds of people and cars.

At that point we escaped the crowds and headed up the coast to the Corpus Christi area where we planned to spend the night. We were able to check in early at our motel, and after watching the Kentucky Derby we headed out for some evening birding. We finally did get our clapper rails (#25) in the marshes at Cavasso Creek.

The next day we completed our round trip to the Austin airport and flew home. All in all, Lorna added 33 species to her birding life list, and I added 25.