Birds Not Borders

I can’t quite remember when I was first realized that I absolutely needed to visit the Rio Grande Valley, but the seed was planted some time ago. The reputation of this region’s birds and birding locations is iconic. Admittedly, the Brownsville Dump scene from “The Big Year” also planted a seed (“ketchup- potato chips?”)! As I have come to learn more about the birds of North America and their distributions, I am continually fascinated with those species whose ranges just barely reach into the United States. In South Texas, many species of tropical birds reach the northernmost parts of their range and can be found year-round as Rio Grande Valley “specialties”.  As I’ve started to pay more attention to the patterns of  migration, I marvel at all those birds that pass through Texas along the Central Flyway. And, it’s not just birds who rely on travel through Texas – bats, butterflies, dragonflies, sea turtles, and even blue crabs make their way across the state as part of their impressive migratory journeys. South Texas, in particular, is the most important migratory corridor in North America.

Birds migrate, and people do, too. And both enhance the diversity, connectivity, and functionality of communities and ecosystems. The human impacts of a proposed border wall expansion through Texas and other border communities are paramount, but as an ecologist my mind immediately goes to the devastating consequences for wildlife and ecosystems (and, of course, the complex and myriad connections between humans, wildlife, and healthy ecosystems). Trump’s plan to barricade as much of the Texas/Mexico border as possible includes a proposal to build 33 miles of new wall along the levee in South Texas, cutting through some of the most unique habitat in the United States. This proposed extension would cut through portions of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, and the privately owned National Butterfly Center. What little corridor exists between the patches of natural habitat in the Rio Grande Valley will be intercepted, creating a mosaic of ecological islands, disconnected from the Rio Grande River.

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The bold and boisterous Great Kiskadee – a tropical species whose range extends just over the border into south Texas. These are “common” birds in the RGV but I certainly never tired of seeing and hearing them!

So, it was with a sense of both curiosity and urgency that I traveled to the Rio Grande Valley. The impacts of a wall all across the US/Mexico border is concerning, to say the least, but this region is particularly unique, diverse, and vulnerable. The Valley includes one of the last remnants of tamaulipan scrubland in the US – a plant community characterized by Texas ebony, mesquite, retama, and prickly pear, and a variety of rare species of cactus. The impressive indigenous wildlife of this area include species that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the US, including ocelot, jaguarundi, and Texas tortoise. The region boasts a list of over 530 species of birds, 1200 species of plants, and 330 species of butterflies (there have been more species of butterfly documented at the Santa Ana National Wildlife refuge than in all of California!).

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Queen butterfly on milkweed – one of the 330 species of butterflies within a 300-mile wildlife corridor in South Texas

I am lucky to have experienced just a small portion of this incredible biodiversity and beautiful habitats. In 6-days of birding the Rio Grande Valley, I saw 191 species of birds (36 of which were new for my US/ABA list and 22 of which were lifers), thanks to some amazing trips organized by the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, their incredible bird guides (including Hannah and Erik from Hannah and Erik Go Birding),  and the company of my birding buddy, Carly. I will share a few of the highlights here and more of my photos are posted on Flickr!

Upper Rio Grande

The early wake-up and 2-hour drive was well worth it to spend the morning in Starr County, along the upper reaches of the Rio Grande, at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve. At the shore of this incredible river, a stone’s throw from Mexico, we watched as birds rose from their evening roosts and made their way downriver to feed for the day – Mexican Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Neotropic Cormorants, a pair of Crested Caracara, and even a Common Loon! Within moments of seeing the Rio Grande River for the first time, a pair of male and female Green Kingfishers whizzed by, followed later by an impressive Ringed Kingfisher flying upriver. Osprey flew back and forth between US and Mexico, ignorant of this arbitrary geopolitical border, and a Gray Hawk perched on the Mexican side.

We walked away from the river to the famous feeding station at “DeWind’s Yard” – a little slice of birding heaven that is visited by birders from all over the country. The habitat is maintained and supported through a partnership with the Valley Land Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service.  It was a birding frenzy! I saw my first Plain Chachalaca as I walked in and then took a seat to watch the magic unfold. I was welcomed by a stunning Audubon’s Oriole – this typically secretive bird is predominantly found in Mexico and its range just barely stretches into the US, in south Texas. Not to be outdone, an Altamira Oriole joined the party and was quickly followed by a Hooded Oriole. I am partial to thrashers, so was particularly pleased when a Long-billed Thrasher paused for a pose (in fact, their bill is not particularly long for a thrasher!).

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The striking Audubon’s Oriole in Salineño
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Altamira Oriole – another stunning Rio Grande Valley specialty!
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Long-billed Thrasher

The Sparrow family is top among my favorites so I was thrilled to be introduced to the Olive Sparrow. Another Texas specialty, Olive Sparrows are secretive birds of thorn-scrub habitat who prefer to reside beneath dense cover. Luckily, while at DeWind’s Yard, one came in for a bath, affording great observation! Their beauty is a subtle kind – they lack the streaky pattern of many of their counterparts and may appear drab at first glance. But if you take a closer look, you may appreciate their olive upperparts, cinnamon eyeline and crown stripes.

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This Olive Sparrow briefly left the safety of the scrub for a quick bath!

We enjoyed a few other highlights before heading back to the river – White-tipped Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Green Jay, and Clay-colored Thrush, to name a few! We walked a trail that paralleled the river in hopes of finding a very good bird that had previously been reported. Morelet’s Seedeaters used to be common in the Rio Grande Valley (yet another example of a bird whose range just barely extends over the border), but their numbers sharply declined in the 1970s, for reasons that are not entirely clear. In some years, flocks still move north into Texas, but they are unreliable at best. While focusing on an area that a Green Kingfisher had recently flown from, the Morelet’s Seedeater cooperatively flew right into view! I ignored the threat of chiggers and took a few steps off-trail to get a better view. He remained slightly obscured by vegetation, but still afforded some great looks! What a great bird to see on this side of the river! As if that wasn’t exciting enough, I got my lifer Zone-tailed Hawk flying upriver as we made our way back and a beautiful lifer White-tailed Hawk where we ended the day’s trip at Falcon State Park.

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Morelet’s Seedeater along the Rio Grande is Salineño – a very good bird!
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Green Kingfisher – these petite kingfishers are fast fliers, zooming by just above the surface of the water
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White-tailed Hawk – shot from the vehicle as we entered Falcon State Park

But, wait! The day’s excitement continued! After some travel mishaps, Carly finally arrived (sans binoculars, so thanks to Bird Chick and Swarovski for the loaner!). We explored Hugh Ramsey Nature Park – a wonderful patch of habitat nestled amongst the sprawl of Harlingen. Carly got introduced to some of her first RGV specialties – Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and both Curve-billed and Long-billed Thrasher…..and a family of javelinas! We made our way to Dixieland Park near dusk for one of the moments that was a trip highlight for me – a couple hundred of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flying in to roost at sunset. Watching a single Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, with its absurdly long, streaming tail feathers, is a delight – watching a huge flock light up the sky with flashes of salmon-pink is just beyond words.

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A few of the many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers coming in to roost near sunset

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

The Santa Ana NWR is a 2000+ acre National Wildlife Refuge situated along the banks of the Rio Grande River – home to 400 bird species, 450 species of plants, and half of all butterfly species found in North America!! The morning we arrived was cold, windy, and stormy. We bundled up and headed for the trails. I turned to Carly to tell her that she needed to find the Common Pauraque – and find it she did! These supremely camouflaged birds are super tough to spot as they roost on the forest floor during the day time. They are one the only fully resident nightjars in the U.S. and are only found in south Texas (Common and Lesser Nighthawks are both migratory). The Common Pauraque specializes on low-flying insects when they forage and dawn and dusk. The wind and my frozen fingers made photography a bit of a challenge, but this Loggerhead Shrike and Vermilion Flycatcher were hard to ignore! Other highlights included the petite Least Grebe (a lifer!), White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Harris’s Hawk, Green and Belted Kingfisher, Black-crested Titmouse, Olive Sparrow, and several species of warblers!

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Common Pauraque – So well camouflaged on amongst the leaf litter!
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Common Pauraque – one of two we were lucky to encounter at Santa Ana NWR
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Loggerhead Shrike – a songbird with a raptor-identity crisis
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Vermilion Flycatcher – a bright red light in a gloomy morning
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How cute?!?! The Least Grebe is the smallest grebe in the Americas.

A Big Day

Very early on Sunday morning, Carly and I made our way to one of the Rio Grande Valley Festival’s Birding Festivals Big Day Vans. The morning got off to a rocky start – there were a few obstacles between me and my first cup of coffee and one our trip leaders slept late. Neither of those hampered our chances for success – of the 5 Big Day Vans, ours racked up the highest species number of species by the day’s end. It was a fast-paced adventure and a great opportunity to explore some of the best birding hotspots in the Rio Grande Valley. We headed west from Harlingen, beginning the morning at Estero Llano Grande State Park where we picked up over 63 species in an hour (the McCall’s Eastern Screech-Owl was a highlight for me!). We made several quick stops for target birds between the Frontera Audubon Center (our 2nd stop) and Sugar House Ponds (a large pond surrounded by ag fields). At some grain silos, we picked through hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds but came up short looking for a Yellow-headed Blackbird – I’m convinced our search was thorough but it could also have been the THOUSANDS of Bronzed Cowbirds distracting us. Highlights at Sugar House Ponds included Snow Geese, a few American Golden Plovers, a Cave Swallow, ~9 species of duck, and Stilt Sandpiper. At Tiocano lake, we dipped on Clapper Rail (despite our clapping attempts) but picked up Roseate Spoonbill and Wood Stork.

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Black-bellied Whistling-Duck at Estero Llano Grande State Park

 

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A blur of Bronzed Cowbirds taking advantage of spillover at grain silos.
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Roseate Spoonbill at Tiocano Lake

The birding was fast-paced and efficient (this was a competition, after all!) with few photo opportunities. As we headed east toward South Padre Island we had a few exciting stops along the way. While cruising down Old Port Isabel Rd, an unexpected Grasshopper Sparrow perched on a roadside fence, then found shelter in a shrub with a Cassin’s Sparrow (both were highlights for me!). In Laguna Atascosa NWR we got distant looks at a pair of Aplomado Falcon in a nest box. I would love to have another opportunity for a more intimate look at this incredible bird but, even from a distance, one can admire this long-tailed and long-winged endangered falcon, whose population is benefitting from reintroduction efforts in Texas.

The pace picked up as we reached South Padre Island, with only a few hours left in our day. At the outlet of San Martin Lake, we picked up Tricolored Heron (a bird I’ve been lucky to see in my local wetlands), Ruddy Turnstone, avocets, plovers, 3 species of terns, and Reddish Egret (my first time seeing a white morph). The fun really began when we pulled into a Valley Land Fund lot on South Padre Island – one of several residential lots that have been purchased and set aside for conservation. This little patch of habitat must funnel in the migratory birds because we were treated to a great concentration of diversity in a small area. We ran back and forth along the fence grabbing looks a variety of migratory passerines –  Gray Catbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Tennessee Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart, and Indigo Bunting kept us very entertained!

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Summer Tanager at one of the Valley Land Fund lots on South Padre Island
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Black-throated Green Warbler stopping down for a meal and some rest along its migratory journey
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Blue-headed Vireo at Valley Fund Lots 

But, we were still on the move – in-and-out of the van, we were flying! A Marbled Godwit was spotted on a drive-by, a Peregrine Falcon roosted on the patio of someone’s highrise condo, a Tropical Kingbird called from a utility wire. As we stepped out of the vans at the Convention Center, the group split up a bit. While scanning a grassy patch of habitat adjacent to where we parked, I spotted a flurry of “first of the day” birds – a beautiful Chestnut-sided Warbler, foraging nearby to a Wilson’s Warbler, and followed by a Clay-colored Thrush that flushed across the lawn. Next up, a Northern Waterthrush bobbing its way along a small little creek and distant, but satisfying, views of a lifer Sandwich Tern! Time was ticking!!!! After a quick sweep of the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center our fearless leaders made the ambitious decision to circle back to the Valley Fund Lots. Their vision paid off! Within moments of time running out, we all managed to get eye on our last new bird of the day….the lovely Magnolia Warbler. Our time on South Padre Island was short and fast-paced but, mark my words, I will return for spring migration some day soon!

By the end of the day we had racked up….drumroll please…..165 species!! By 3:45 PM! It really was an exhilarating experience and one that speaks to  the incredible diversity of species and habitats in the Rio Grande Valley. It also speaks to the amazingness of the two birders leading the way – Javi Gonzalez, a local naturalist and guide, and Alex Lamoreaux, a volunteer at the RGVBF and guide with Wildside Nature Tours. As we made our way back to the Convention Center, we learned that we were the winners!! Of the 5 Big Day Vans, we had the highest species total and were awarded with a choice of a gift (I parted with Rick Wright’s stunning “Guide to the Sparrow’s of North America).

We spent our final day in South Texas on a more leisurely stroll through Estero Llano Grande State Park, where I enjoyed the chance to slow down and take it all in. Finally, after a brief exploration of Bensten-Rio Grande Valley State Park, we enjoyed a end-of-the day beer along the Rio Grande River. The following day, I had a few hours to get one more chance to spend time with the birds of the Rio Grande Valley before boarding my flight back to reality. At Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, I parted ways with the Plain Chachalacas, Green Jays, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, and Great Kiskadees. I stumbled across a Black Phoebe flycatching at the edge of a pond – my local neighborhood bird is uncommon for this area and eBird flagged me for a rare bird report. A lovely transition back to the birds of California!

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Black Phoebe – an uncommon bird at Hugh Ramsey Nature Park
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The quintessential bird of the Rio Grande Valley…..the colorful, charismatic, tropical Green Jay

 

It’s impossible to capture all of the highlights of this trip in a single post or even in all of the photographs I took. Scroll through for a final look at some of the impressive biodiversity of birds in this region. The unique ecosystems the Rio Grande Valley, and their inhabitants, are worthy of protection and we can’t turn a blind eye to both the human and ecological impacts of the border wall construction.

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This adorable Northern Bobwhite was part of a covey we were lucky to encounter at Rancho Lomitas
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White-tipped Dove, Salineño
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Golden-fronted Woodpecker, DeWind’s Yard in Salineño
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Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Rancho Lomitas
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I caught some Northern Rough-winged Swallows in a rare moment of perching! At Estero Llano Grande State Park.
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Inca Dove at Estero Llano Grande State Park

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