Our Texas: Whooping Cranes, Rio Grande Valley & Hill Country tour takes in the most diverse birding in the United States, offering a stellar assortment of rare and localized species. The critically endangered Whooping Crane, endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, as well as a plethora of Rio Grande Valley specialties, will be our main target species, while an impressive array of migrant shorebirds, songbirds and large numbers of raptors will be encountered along our journey. Other targets include Roseate Spoonbill, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Tropical Parula, White-tailed Hawk, Red-crowned Parrot, Plain Chachalaca, Long-billed Thrasher and Olive Sparrow.
From coastal marshes and beaches, oak motte woodlands, and subtropical thorn forest in the south, to the unique beauty of the limestone hills and cliffs of the Edward’s Plateau, we will enjoy great food and accommodations throughout as we sample some of the best birding in North America!
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Whooping Crane, Roseate Spoonbill, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Reddish Egret, American White Ibis, American Oystercatcher, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Tropical Parula, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Red-crowned Parrot, Green Parakeet, Clay-colored Robin, Golden-crowned Warbler, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Plain Chacalaca, Common Pauraque, Groove-billed Ani, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Olive Sparrow, Ringed Kingfisher, Least Grebe, Long-billed Thrasher, Altamira Oriole, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, White-collared Seedeater
desert and desert scrub, sub-tropical woodlands and palm groves, riverside vegetation, wetlands
Temperatures can reach 90F at this time of the year in the Valley. It can be cool, however, on the boat ride to Aransas
easy hikes; a few longer drives
Today will be devoted to getting our group together and settled in at our accommodations in Rockport before our Texas birding tour. This will include some fine local seafood for dinner, for those who wish to enjoy a taste of the Gulf Coast.
Our Texas birding tour starts off with a bang, with one of the three top endemic birds of the Texas birding tour being our target today – the majestic Whooping Crane! Aboard the “Skimmer”, we will work through the saltmarshes and coastal bends of the vast Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in search of individuals belonging to the only remaining wild population of this Endangered bird. After teetering on the brink of extinction with a mere 21 wild birds in the early 1940s, this species is a true success story resulting from combined captive breeding, re-introduction and conservation efforts. In 2013, there were some 450 birds living in the wild, and the population trend is an optimistic one, though progress is slow. Aside from the clear objective of enjoying lengthy views of this very rare and special bird, there is an impressive list of other potential birds on this morning’s boat ride. Reddish Egret, Black Skimmer, Roseate Spoonbill, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Mottled Duck, American and Least Bitterns, King and Clapper Rails, as well as some 28 species of shorebirds are possible, not to mention the outside possibility of ticking a few good passerines, such as Sedge Wren or Seaside Sparrow. And that’s not to mention all the likely gulls, terns and waders!
After about 3 hours aboard, we will return to our van and begin to head south towards the famed King Ranch. There are several great birding spots en route, especially for passing migrants, so we will have a very pleasant afternoon birding our way into the south Texas brushlands and plains. This is a great time of year for early migrants, and, depending on weather, we could enjoy quite a haul of first-wave species, as well as our first Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Loggerhead Shrikes, Northern Crested Caracara, Cave Swallows and Harris’s and White-tailed Hawks, which are fairly common along the roads here. Migrants that we are likely to encounter at various stops today on our Texas birding tour, or over our upcoming few days in the Rio Grande Valley, include Red-shouldered, Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, Acadian and Great Crested Flycatchers, White-eyed, Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes, Louisiana Waterthrush, Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Black-and-white, Prothonotary, Orange-crowned, Tennessee, Nashville, Kentucky, Hooded, Yellow-throated and Black-throated Green Warblers, among others – certainly an impressive list of beautiful birds possible on just our first day of the Texas birding tour!!! And this doesn’t include any owling opportunities we will take advantage of on the King Ranch, after arrival. Western Barn, Great Horned and the mccallii subspecies of Eastern Screech Owl are all breeding residents on the property.
The King Ranch occupies some 825,000 acres, spanning 3 of the larger Texas counties. This is an area slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island! While it would take weeks to explore all the nooks and crannies of this huge private holding, for the visiting nature enthusiast focusing on the Norias division of the ranch is the best course of action. We will have a full morning to bird the various habitats of this section, though we will certainly focus on the oak mottes and subtropical scrub, which, aside from being the best habitat for migrant passerines, is the native habitat for our first “Tex-Mex” species whose tropical ranges extend but a short distance across the border from Mexico into the United States here. These include Inca, Common Ground and White-tipped Doves, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Brown-crested and stunning Vermilion Flycatchers, charismatic Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, near-endemic Couch’s Kingbird, brilliant Green Jay, endemic Black-crested Titmouse, Long-billed Thrasher, Tropical Parula and Olive Sparrow, many of which even come to the feeders near our accommodations on our Texas birding tour!
Today will also be one of the most exciting days on our Texas birding tour for photography enthusiasts amongst the group, as the headquarters is well-stocked with food for a variety of beautiful birds. While the ranch’s oak habitats do not extend all the way to the lower Rio Grande Valley, where we will spend the next 2.5 days, the grassland and scrub habitats here extend well south into Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, where we will spend this afternoon focusing on these grassland and marsh habitats. Raptors are abundant in this area, and with migration in full swing we can expect good numbers of a dozen species, including the lovely Mississippi Kite. White-tailed and Harris’s Hawks are numerous, while White-tailed Kite shares the grasslands with the much-desired northern race of Aplomado Falcon. This stunning bird was nearly extirpated from its grassy ranges in the southern United States by the early 1900s. Through a vigorous breeding and re-introduction program by the Peregrine Fund, coupled with the released birds’ natural tendencies to mix with wild populations across the border, this species is now well-established in a few parts of Texas, and the King Ranch and Laguna Atascosa are two of those places!
These expansive, healthy grasslands are both wintering and breeding ground for a number of exciting species that can be tricky to see elsewhere. Greater Roadrunner, Curve-billed Thrasher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bewick’s and Cactus Wrens all inhabit the drier scrub, while the lusher grasses harbor Northern Bobwhite, and Botteri’s, Cassin’s, Clay-colored, Lark, Vesper, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows. Though we will have already amassed an impressive list of gulls, terns, shorebirds and waterfowl the day before, Laguna Atascosa will offer us a fine opportunity to learn and compare these often tricky species which, here, are in huge quantity together for study. Least, Gull-billed, Caspian, Common, Forster’s, Royal and Sandwich Terns are all likely! Thirty species of shorebirds, alongside Great, Snowy and Reddish Egrets, Tricolored, Little Blue, Green and Great Blue Herons, American White and White-faced Ibis, and many more will be tallied today on our Texas birding tour, with the possibility of a vagrant always in mind. American Flamingo, Magnificent Frigatebird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Blue Bunting are among the long list of Neotropical vagrant species recorded on the refuge. The oasis effect of the lush vegetation and feeders around the refuge headquarters draw a huge number of desired species, many already mentioned. However, views of Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee and Olive Sparrow are often best here. The mammal list for the refuge includes Bobcat, as well as the only stable breeding population of the elusive Ocelot in the United States. While both cats are seldom seen, and a sighting unlikely, we might chance onto Nine-banded Armadillo or the endemic Texas Tortoise. We will eventually continue to our hotel in McAllen, after another wonderful day in the field.
The town of McAllen will be our base for the next two full days on our Texas birding tour and we can easily explore the diverse habitats found along the Rio Grande Valley from a central location. By now we will have reached the subtropics and native habitats dominated by Tamaulipan thorn scrub with Rio Grande gallery forests. More than 30 species are essentially restricted to the Rio Grande Valley in the United States and visits to the birding meccas of Bentsen State Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Estero Llano Grande and Sabal Palms Sanctuary should net us a good selection of these. Each year a few vagrant birds also straggle across the border from points further south. The Rio Grande Valley offers great chances to observe species extremely rare in ABA territory and if any rarity is around we will make a concerted effort on our Texas birding tour to see it. Regular valley specialties we will see in the McAllen area include Grey Hawk, Groove-billed Ani, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, (Common) Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, White-tipped Dove, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Amazon (Parrot), Least Grebe, Hooded, Altamira and Audubon’s Orioles, and Bronzed Cowbird.
Over the next two and a half days on our Texas birding tour, we will leave some flexibility in the itinerary in order to seek out any rarities that may have turned up and to take advantage of the best weather conditions for migrants on South Padre Island, which is perhaps the best migrant trap in the state. Rarities that have regularly appeared over the past twenty years in the valley, and seem to be increasing, include Roadside Hawk, Rose-throated Becard, Yellow-green Vireo, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and White-necked Thrush. True vagrants that have turned up include Collared Plover, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Violetear and Green-breasted Mango, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Piratic Flycatcher and some 20 other species that have drawn birders from all across the nation! This region truly is a birder’s paradise, with numerous birding preserves, feeding stations and unrivalled coverage by visiting and local birders alike. While birding is definitely our focus on our Texas birding tour, bird photography in the valley is, in a word, outstanding. Due to the paucity of feeding stations and the long-standing culture of birding in the region, the birds are often confiding, offering great photographic opportunities! Though mammals were much more numerous before the huge expansion of the local human population blanketed the area, Bentsen State Park and Santa Ana are still great for chance encounters with anything from raccoons and skunks to Jaguarundi. Add pleasant accommodations and great Mexican cuisine (among other options), and we are sure to be enamoured with the valley.
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