Amazing Birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Plain Chachalaca

Plain Chachalaca

We were greeted by the loud, raucous croaking sound of two Plain Chachalacas as we entered Sabal Palm Audubon Center south of Brownsville, Texas. They needed a distinctive call, since their feathers were a drab grayish brown. About the size of a chicken, they easily flew up onto the roof of the visitor’s center and from there into a tree. Their call was echoed by other Chachalacas throughout the sanctuary. Residents of the lower Rio Grande Valley refer to their dawn chorus as their alarm clock.

The Plain Chachalaca is native to Mexico and Central America. Its range only extends to the tip of south Texas.

Sabal-Palms-2 The Sabal Palm Audubon Center, identified as an Important Bird Area, also is one of the wildlife corridors that has been developed and nurtured along the southern part of the Rio Grande River to allow non-flying wildlife to move freely back and forth across the river – important to maintaining wildlife diversity. It also contains one of the only remaining stands of Sabal palms.

As we traversed some of the center’s trails, we saw Olive Sparrows, Groove-billed Ani, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.

We watched a vireo flitting in the foliage. Barb got a good look and checked her field guide – a Yellow-green Vireo!

“Its song resembles a House Sparrow,” Barb commented. It is a bird that almost was extirpated in the United States; however, a few have nested in the Brownsville area for the past few years.

Before we left, we walked past the butterfly garden and along the Native Trail to the river.

We visited just in time. A recent news release issued by Texas Audubon announced that due in part to the impending construction of the border wall they “will be forced to curtail public access to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary.” Effective May 15, the sanctuary closed until mid October. Projected construction of the border fence, being built along the levee all along the Rio Grande, will effectively cut the sanctuary off, since it is located between the levee and the river.

Our next stop was at the newly created Resaca de la Palma State Park, part of the World Birding Center complex and located north of Brownsville. It is one of the places where Altamira Oriole’s nest.

“The orioles just finished building their next,” the helpful ranger told us when we purchased our day pass. “You can see the wildlife from our 3.2 mile tram ride through the park,” she continued. “When the tram returns to the main parking lot, the driver will show you the oriole’s nest.”

We boarded the next tram, along with a couple who were local teachers and had the opportunity to go birding during the swine flu school closings. Our driver was Junior Munoz, newly assigned to this park.

“I am trying to learn how to recognize the different birds in the park,” he told us. When he spotted a bird, he would stop and we would help him identify it. The teachers got off at the first resaca (oxbow) stop, where Moorhens, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Great Egret, Least Grebes, Black-necked Stilts, Blue-winged Teal and Coots enjoyed the shaded waters and marsh vegetation.

Beyond the resaca, the vegetation was dry, with stands of mesquite – a typical tamaulipan thorn scrub environment, where we spotted Groove-billed Ani and Blue Grosbeaks. The bright orange and black body of an Altamira Oriole streaked across the road and fortunately landed where we could get a good look. Junior stopped the tram to facilitate our observation.

Altamira Oriole Nest

Altamira Oriole Nest

Back at the parking lot we saw the pendulous nest hanging from a tree adjacent to the parking area. The female must have been deep inside. We watched as the male furtively flew in, went into the nest, and then emerged and flew off.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and the hot sun beat down on us as we walked from the parking area to the visitor’s center.

“You just missed the tram,” the park staff informed us. “You can start walking and pick it up the next time it goes by. It makes its loop every 30 min.”

We trudged along the edge of the road, trying to stay in the shade, which, due to the humidity, wasn’t very cool. Since this area of Texas has been in drought conditions, the grasses and shrubs on either side of the road were parched, and most birds also were taking respite from the heat.

We wandered along the Kiskadee Trail and the Acadia Loop, and ended up at the Kingfisher Overlook along the La Parida Banco, where we sat in the shade on a retaining wall overlooking the water. An Osprey flew by with its gentle wing beats. We were able to watch Altamira and Hooded Orioles going to and from their nests, and then watched with dismay when we saw a Bronzed Cowbird pay a visit to one of the nests.

As we got up to meet the last tram, we noticed a Javelina sacked out on the dry grass. “It looks dead,” Barb said. And then we noticed as it opened its eyes and moved its head slightly. It was too hot to worry about us.

We left just as the park was closing at 5 p.m. Since there are so many birding hot spots along the Lower Rio Grande Valley, we didn’t want to stop for the day. Even though we knew it would be closed, we headed for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, another refuge that would be impacted by the border fence.

Santa-Ana-Wildlife-RefugeJust as we exited the visitor center area, we saw a Clay-colored Thrush (Robin) walking nonchalantly down the path. We had all seen it in Costa Rica, but wanted a U.S. sighting for our ABA list. It was the only new bird we saw at this refuge. We walked some of the trails; however, the mosquitoes were starting to come out in the early evening air.

Border-fence We traveled towards Brownsville on U.S. 281, the “old highway” which connected the original settlements along the Rio Grande. We passed through tiny villages that connected agricultural areas. It was here that we got a good look at the border fence – which already had been constructed.

“We still have time to drive into Harlingen to try and spot some of the parrots as they are getting ready to roost for the night,” I suggested.

The sun really must have affected our judgment as we all readily agreed. According to A Birder’s Guide to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, both Green and Red-crowned Parrots have been found nesting in the palms behind the Wal-Mart in San Benito. We found the Wal-Mart, but not the parrots.

It was late and we could hardly lift our forks when we got back to Brownsville and found a place to eat.

The next morning we headed north towards Salineno, just south of Falcon Dam. Sue, still suffering the after-math of yesterday’s heat, reclined in the back seat. We drove slowly through the village, which looked as if was from a by-gone era, and down the dirt road about a block to river.

We watched a Golden-fronted Woodpecker scrounging for insects in the tree which provided some shade for the car. This is one of the few locations where Green and Ringed Kingfishers can reliably be found, since they prefer the clear waters and inlets below the nearby dam. Willows were hanging over the water – their favorite haunts.

A Great Kiskadee called from the trees and White-tipped Doves quietly flew back and forth.

Rio Grande River at Salineno

Rio Grande River at Salineno

“We have to see it on this side of the river,” Barb reminds us. “It doesn’t count if it is in Mexico – a stone throw across the Rio Grande.”

A birder from New Jersey emerged from wooded trail. He had seen the kingfishers further up river and offered to lead us. In our haste, we forgot to tuck in our pants legs – which resulted in chigger bites.

All of a sudden we heard the clatter of two Ringed Kingfishers, and then we saw them chasing each other across the river and into the trees. We didn’t get a very good look, but at least they were now on the countable side of the river. Before long, they flew out right in front of us.

Back by the car, Barb was able to see a Green Kingfisher as flew from one tree to another, the white outer tail feathers obvious as it flew. “I have been waiting 30 years to see it in the U.S.,” Barb exclaimed.

As we left Salineno, we worried about what would happen to the town with the advent of the border fence. The town, which has been there for centuries, surely would be cut off – along with one of the birding hotspots of the area.

Our final stops were at Falcon Dam state park. Barb and I ate our lunch at a shaded picnic area, while Sue continued to recover from the heat in the air conditioned visitor’s center. Their bird sightings list was out of date and there was very little bird activity in the park.

Our final stop along the Rio Grande was Zapata where we checked out the city park next to the library for a possible Red-billed Pigeon. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any.

As we headed to Laredo and then on to San Antonio, I pondered the fate of wildlife and the economy of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which has been enriched by the thousands of birders who visit each year.

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One thought on “Amazing Birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « It’s a bird thing…

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