Day 1 ended up being and excellent adventure covering a variety of habitats and the birds that they support. Truly a great beginning to what was angling to be a wonderful weekend. How would day 2 end up?
Winged Wonders of Welaco
Saturday’s field trip was called Winged Wonders of Weslaco. As the name implies, we never left the Weslaco area but that didn’t mean we would be limited in highlights or numbers of birds seen. After a quick powwow with our trip leader, Mary Gustafson, this group was off to Estero Llano Grande State Park.A quick side note about this park. Last year during the Great Texas Birding Classic, my team took 1st place in the State Park Category by tallying 123 species in 24 hours, all within the park boundaries. You can read about it here.
At Estero, we immediately directed ourselves to the Tropical Zone to look for a Rose-throated Becard that had been recently discovered. The Becard had been fairly elusive in recent days and, when found, only provided short opportunities to view it before disappearing again. However, and for whatever reason, its mood changed this day and it made sure that just about every person that visited the park was allowed fantastic views.
Rose-throated Becards have an interesting history in the Rio Grande Valley. This is where they reach their northern-most limit in distribution. They are associated with open woodlands adjacent to rivers and creeks. Because much of the lower Rio Grande Valley have been usurped by agriculture and only a very few mature woodlands remain (almost exclusively on the US side of the river), this bird which may have been more common and regular in deep South Texas in the distant past, is now so rare and infrequent that sighting one is extremely noteworthy and worth study. The Texas Bird Records Committee considers this a “review species” requiring documentation to be a substantiated record. Rose-throated Becard has been somewhat regular in the Valley in the recent past with 1-2 individuals found per year.
After everyone got their fill from the Becard, we began to explore the park and varying habitats included. We spent time on the observation deck at headquarters taking in ducks, grebes, herons, and hummingbirds. Everywhere you turned, great views of colorful wildlife prevailed. After restroom breaks and reviewing notes, we hit the trails again to take a look at the wetlands and ponds on the eastern side of the park. Along the way, we studied American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Stilt Sandpipers.Mary Gustafson, a really great birding guide! It was about this time that I realized that Mary was such an incredible resource as a guide. She had a genuine and contagious excitement for birds and birders. Beyond that, she was a productive well of knowledge on the topics of natural history and the ecology of birds of this tropical frontier.
So, now that I have declared myself a Mary Gustafson fanboy, we’ll go ahead and move the plot along.
Continuing along the trails, we picked more wetland type birds including both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons, Anhinga, and more ducks. It was on the uplands, though, that we got great looks at a common but extremely cryptic Valley specialty, the Common Pauraque!
Obligatory mention of herps
I’ll go ahead and share here that Erin and I were keeping our eyes out for herps (reptiles and amphibians) but hadn’t had much success with any regional specialties besides Red-eared Sliders and a large American Alligator (which is pretty dang cool to see wherever you are).
Erin and I briefly split off from the group to spend a little time in the Desert Zone of the park. We hoped to find some more reptiles, especially Texas Tortoise and Rose-bellied Lizards. We whiffed on those but did find a Southern Plains Woodrat tucked in a pricklypear midden chowing down on a cactus pad (a favorite food). It seemed a little uneasy eating while being watched. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
It wasn’t long after this that unexpected rain showers hit. The group took lunch under the covered observation deck and wondered around in leisure until it was time for the next stop. While enjoying the canopy shelter of a kind park volunteer’s RV, Erin and I enjoyed watching a Buff-bellied Hummingbird bathe in the beads of rain stuck to the leaves and stems of a neighboring shrub. At Estero, we ended up seeing 69 species through the morning.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdZXx3x34iA
Frontera Audubon Nature Preserve
The trip’s next stop was at the grounds of the 15 acre Frontera Audubon Nature Preserve. This tract supports a combination of open and dense woodlands with wetlands and a restored native Sabal Palm forest.
Hiking the grounds we discovered a mixed species feeding flock that included a Black-and-white Warbler. A Green Kingfisher patiently perched on a branch of a Montezuma Cypress for all to enjoy.Further down the trail, we enjoyed feeder birds and a feeder mammal (Fox Squirrel) taking advantage of the easy meal. While relaxing at the feeder site, we spotted another nice overwintering warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler. With much of the day behind us and the threat of more showers looming, we ventured on to our final stop of the field trip. The Valley Nature Center
The Valley Nature Center provides fantastic hands-on outdoor education opportunities to the community and public at large. We were there to walk the trails of the 6 acre park but another heavy rain shower kept us indoors for over 30 minutes. One of the more unique attractions of the Valley Nature Center is the resident population of piebald Plain Chachalacas. These normally dull brown birds were instead speckled and spotted with patches of bleach white feathers. I wasn’t able to get a photo of this cool anomaly (photo of normal plumaged bird below) but I’ll be looking out for it next time I’m down.Texas Tortoise
Finally! We stumbled upon a little juvenile Texas Tortoise on the trails at the Nature Center. Texas Tortoises are listed as threatened in Texas. It was very nice to see this young critter all shiny and active after the rains.One Last Stop
After a long day of birding, the group disassembled. Erin and I decided that we should rest and make plans for dinner and visiting with friends before taking off to Falcon Lake State Park (almost 2 hours drive) where we had reservations for camping and would begin the next day’s field trip.
But, there was still one thing to do after a long day of birding. Look for more birds! Erin was very keen to look for the roosting sites of the exotic but naturalized Green Parakeets found in the Valley. So, off to the HEB parking lot we went. Looking for a loud and raucous mixed group of Parakeets and Great-tailed Grackles. At the end of the day, we had found 76 species of bird and several other wonderful wildlife.