Birdwatching in Texas

By Stuart Winter

Seeing the Rio Grande snaking its silvery, glistening way into view through gnarled mesquite trees for the first time leaves a surprising sense of disappointment.

Grande as in grand? Any thought that Texans don’t go in for hyperbole in a state of superlatives, where ranches are bigger than some European countries and humungous steaks are almost the size of our cows, is shot down faster than gunslinger on the draw. The Rio Grande may well have been enshrined in Western folklore by John Wayne, but this languid, lazy river with its necklace of resacas is certainly no Mighty Mississippi.

Watching it meander slothfully towards the sea, you can easily skim a stone from the United States on to Mexican soil across a mirrored surface that reflects perfect images of the countless birds continually traversing this most famous of international borders.

Brightly coloured kingfishers and orioles, majestic hawks and herons, dazzling jays and flycatchers… There’s hardly a second when birds are not flitting hither and thither over unhurried waters without a flinch from immigration officials.

That’s when it suddenly dawns. Whoever named the river must have been a birder. The Rio Grande is certainly one of the grandest places I have ever focussed binoculars.

American birders' paradise

A quick look at a map of the United States soon shows why the Lower Rio Grande Valley has such a special place in American birders’ hearts. The Stars and Stripes fluttering by the roadsides denote this southernmost tip of the Lower 48 is as American as mom’s apple pie, yet the subtropical climate and vegetation mean the birds are as Mexican as tequila and tortillas.

Little wonder so many people from every state of the Union make annual migrations to the region to bask in the glory of the most eagerly-sought birds on the American Birding Association checklist. Last November I joined their journey to the Deep South.

There is certainly no better way to embrace TexMex species in all their colourful grandeur than by participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Admittedly nowhere near large as the British Birdfair in terms of marquees and sideshows – its seminars and stands are concentrated in a civic building in the city of Harlingen, a few miles north of the river – the festival, however, does everything to maintain the classic Texan credo of making things big and awesome.

ts field trips and the stellar array of top names leading these tours from the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico way upriver into the Rio Grande’s arid reaches are the stuff of legend. Ask anyone who saw the 2013 Amazon Kingfisher…

Last November’s glossy official programme listed more than 40 excursions over an action-packed, five-day agenda, giving participants of all experiences not only the chance to rub shoulders with the cream of American birding illuminati but also watch them deliver an endless stream of the region’s most highly sought species.

Among the top names starring on the programme for the 22nd annual RGVBF were John Dunn, author of the seminal work on American warblers; acclaimed photographer Kevin Karlson and super twitcher Greg Miller, whose alter ego was played by actor Jack Black in the The Big Year, Hollywood’s take on American twitching. There was also “one of our own” – British expat Julian Hough, who lives in Connecticut and has become a leading light on the American birding scene.

It was Julian who helped introduce me to some of the Rio Grande’s most eagerly-sought birds as I worked through a five-day itinerary of field trips that the organisers had customised to help me see most of the valley’s specialities.

Leading a crocodile of birders – or should that be alligator in these parts – along the labyrinthine trails of the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Julian was quickly pointing out birds that had been high on my wish list.

Feisty Great Kiskadees with their bandit masks held us up as they dashed from look-out to look-out. Even brighter Green Jays, a dream for any colouring book fanatic, played tag in denser cover, their striking green and yellow plumage absorbed by the leaf colour. An Altamira Oriole exploded into view in all its fiery glory. Think flying Christmas lights!

Seeing Green Kingfisher

As we made our way out of the riparian forest into open wetlands, Julian served up another Rio Grande delicacy, Green Kingfisher, an emerald gem of a bird but surprisingly easy to over look on a concealed perch. Amid the hubbub of wildfowl and shorebirds, there were much-sought Least Grebes and Mottled Ducks to pick out from the Blue-winged Teal and countless American Coot.

Suddenly, the already buoyant mood went up several notches. Julian was on a Hook-billed Kite. The list hungry Americans went into a frenzy. This was a lifer for many of them, a real doodle-dandy of a bird for those who had travelled from New York, Washington state and California to see Texas’s finest. 

On paddle-like wings, it soared effortlessly over the dense stands of moss-covered ebony trees, avoiding the attentions of a passing Harris’s Hawk, before disappearing from view. The hawk had no doubt found a supply of its favourite food – tree snails.

One day’s Texan birding, a notebook littered with asterisks denoting lifers, and the adventure was only beginning. The Rio Grande’s upper reaches beckoned.

Two hours upstream of the festival headquarters, Salineno, with its population of 302, is unlikely to feature on many tourist itineraries but for American birdwatchers the views this hummingbird of a hamlet provides over the Rio Grande has made it a place of legends. The dusty shoreline is pock-marked with tripod feet and engrained in the memories of all those have made a pilgrimage here over the years to see truly wild Muscovy Ducks. I had to make do with three species of kingfisher.

Belted and Green were quickly under the belt but a copper-breasted Ringed Kingfisher, a brash, bruiser of a bird that has “gone large” with the bill order, was simply mesmerising as it disintegrated the Rio Grande’s tranquil somnolence with its raucous calls.

Zone-tailed Hawk

A soaring Zone-tailed Hawk, shining out amid a huge flock of Black Vultures, followed by a ghostly Grey Hawk, quickened the pulse to such an extent that some people needed a sit down.

There was only one place in town: the nearby winter feeding station with its amphitheatre seating plan to allow perfect viewing of more RG – I was now using the local language – specialities.

Among the ostentatious Green Jays and blazing Altamira Orioles, squabbling over strategically positioned orange slices, diffident Olive Sparrows lurked. A Black-crested Titmouse, a recent split from its Tufted relation, and superb Audubon’s Oriole, another Mexican speciality with a restricted range in Texas, kept the life list rolling.

Cattle country came next. The festival programme’s exhaustive trip itinerary had me venturing into Kleberg County, an agricultural region where the fields providing forage for the famous Texas Longhorn cattle had flooded from some of heaviest rains in living memory. Shorebirds, never waders the other side of the Atlantic, took advantage of a rolling landscape dappled with pools as they arrived fresh from the Arctic tundra.

Peeps – Western, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers – scuttled between the legs of lanky American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Stilt Sandpipers looked on with a suspicious air, wary of any marauding raptors. There were plenty to fear. Northern Harriers seemed to be patrolling every field, outnumbered only by the American Kestrels atop each telephone pole. Crested Caracaras and delectable White-tailed Hawks were a reminder that we were in deepest Texas.

A huge flock of American White Pelicans, numbering at least 5,000 birds, turned the famous Texan “big skies” into a monochrome kaleidoscope with their abstract shapes set in the pale, milky afternoon sky. Only the purple-painted fence posts provided an incongruous dash of colour. The reason for the colour wash was chilling: purple denotes a land owner’s right to shoot first, ask questions later. Worrying, indeed, but it failed to deter the migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers from taking up squatting rights on virtually every post.

The days rolled and even though I was enjoying a relentless parade of new birds, the lure of the “twitch” could not be resisted, though it meant a three-hour coach journey to the legendary frontier town of Laredo.

The gunfighters have long gone. Perhaps they were driven out of town by the seedeaters? These birds sure are mean. The Rio Grande’s reedy river margins are the only place in the USA to see White-collared Seedeaters, though even in the thin ribbon of habitat, they are as skulking and secretive as any locustella or acrocephalus warbler. We searched and searched.

Vultures circling

Black and Turkey Vultures circled overhead, sensing we would never emerge from the reeds and would make them a great lunch. A whisper trickled through the group: seedeater showing. I was near enough at the head of the queue to sneak a 10 second ‘scope view. Nondescript bird, certainly, some might even say boring, but such views provide an awesome addition to any fanatical American lister’s collection. We had one happy birding posse.

Even with 20 trans-Atlantic trips under my belt, the RGVBF provided 26 lifers, which included: Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds, a best-by-call identification challenge, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, Clay-coloured Thrush and remarkably approachable Common Pauraques, although even at a metre’s distance they were so remarkably camouflaged roosting in brushwood close to a trail through the Estero Llano Grande State Park they could have tripped you up.

To mention disappointments would be chary, yet there was one bittersweet moment on the final of the day of the festival when I took one of the Leaders’ Vans Tours staged to help participants mop up any birds still needed.

A Swainson’s Warbler was my target, a dowdy, furtive ground-hugger, unquestionably the most elusive member of America’s most ostentatious family of birds. We arrived at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center full of expectation.

It had just been seen. Emphasis on the past tense. The neighbourhood Loggerhead Shrike looked mightily smug – and somewhat plump. The warbler had provided breakfast. At least the warbler escaped the ignominy of dangling on a shrike larder. A nearby pair of Aplomado Falcons, think pimped up Hobbies, soon soothed any disappointment.

At last autumn’s exchange rates, my choice of five daily field trips ranged in price from £40 to £60 with a small festival registration fee. Considering the cream of American birding accompanies every excursion, the festival cost is great value for money. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival lives up to its name. I had a grand old time…

Acknowledgements:

Birdwatching attended the Rio Grande Birding Festival, courtesy of Nancy Millar, director of McAllen Convention & Visitors' Bureau – Click here

Access and Accommodation. I flew to McAllen Airport via Houston, an international hub served by British Airways and other major US airlines.

A great place to stay in the valley is at the Alamo Inn B&B, a few minutes’ drive from Santa Ann National Wildlife Refuge. The inn is run by Keith Hackland, a regular exhibitor at the British Bird Fair, and whose warm hospitality, birding knowledge and tireless help made my visit such a success. Click here

For details of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival 2016, click here.