Part 3 – A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

This is the last in the three-part series about the Texas trip. It still amazes me when I think of how many great birds I saw in just three days of birding. This first bird is one I can see in Ohio during the breeding season, but I still got a big thrill out of seeing it on its wintering grounds down south. Meet Mr. Crazy Eyes, the White-eyed Vireo.

White-eyed Vireo - Santa Ana NWR w sig
White-eyed Vireo

This bird is mesmerizing and I just can’t get enough of it whenever I see one. And while I’m talking about familiar birds, take a look at this Orange-crowned Warbler eating…wait for it…an orange. I hope I’m not the only one that gets a little kick out of that.

Orange-crowned warbler eating an orange - w sig

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A better look at the Orange-crowned Warbler

I can see this warbler in Ohio during migration, but I got to see so many of them on this trip that I almost found myself saying, “Oh, just another Orange-crowned Warbler.” One day we visited a campsite at Falcon State Park where there were feeders set up, and there were more of this species there than anything else. It was crazy.

At the same feeding station I got my best looks ever at Northern Bobwhites. We were sitting in the car in a light rain, eating our lunch and watching to see what would show up at these feeders. The quail were feeding on the ground on Rick’s side of the car, and whenever I tried to get out to see them, they ran back into the shrubs. I eventually managed to get a photo by crawling on my hands and knees and hiding behind the car’s tires. Very much worth the pain of knees-on-asphalt!

Northern Bobwhite quail w sig

One day as we were walking along the banks of the Rio Grande I heard a very familiar sound and reflexively said, “Downy Woodpecker.” But they don’t get Downies down in the valley. 🙂 As it turns out, it was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, which looks and sounds very much like the Downy, a bird I’m used to seeing here in Ohio. Their call note is often compared to that of a dog’s squeaky toy.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker

And another woodpecker that is very similar to one of my local birds was this Golden-fronted. This species is what I think of as the western cousin to our Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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Golden-fronted Woodpecker

 

This woodpecker was at a birding hotspot at Salineño, on land owned by Valley Land Fund, an organization that protects wildlife habitat in the Rio Grande Valley. On this property there’s a large feeding station maintained by volunteers, and they even provide comfy lawn chairs so you can stay a while. Their guest registry consists of two bulging three-ring notebooks, and I was able to look back and see where I’d signed it on my first visit in 2014.

My previous visit was during a heavy rainfall, and I was huddled under the trailer awning behind a crowd of other people, and wasn’t able to see much. This time was much easier. I saw two species of orioles, the Audubon’s and the Altamira.

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Audubon’s Oriole

 

Altamira Oriole w sig copyright Kim Smith
Altamira Oriole

This location was loaded with Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, various blackbirds, and plenty of other interesting species. I’m really glad we made the 90-minute drive from McAllen to this spot.

The only bird I didn’t see on this visit that I’d really hoped for was the roadrunner. But I’m not disappointed. It just gives me a reason to come back to Texas next winter and try again. During a time when things here in Ohio are pretty bleak, this trip was excellent nature therapy!

Black-necked stilt with reflection - copyright Kim Smith
Black-necked Stilt in a roadside pond

 

Part 2 – A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

This is a continuation of my previous post about winter birding in Texas. As I try to edit photos to show you, I realize that I saw such an abundance of great birds on this trip that I might have to do three posts instead of the planned two.

I’ll begin this time with a focus on waterfowl. At home here on the shores of Lake Erie, it’s often difficult to get good close looks at ducks and shorebirds. But there were a couple places in Texas where I was able to get good views of a large variety of species. Some of them were species that I can find in Ohio, but others were new to me.

One of the new species was this Cinnamon Teal, a gorgeous little duck that usually stays in the western part of this country. The last time these showed up in Ohio was in 2010, according to eBird. I’ve seen both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal here at home, so it was a real treat to see their spicy western cousin. (Get it? Because cinnamon is a spice…haha.) This shows a male Cinnamon Teal with (I think) two females.

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Cinnamon Teal at Estero Llano Grande

This Green-winged Teal was quite cooperative, and this is probably one of my best shots of this species so far.

Green-winged Teal w sig - Estero Llano Grande
Green-winged Teal at Estero Llano Grande

The Blue-winged Teal wasn’t quite as eager to pose for a photo, but I got this guy before he got away from me.

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Blue-winged Teal

How’s that for a teal trifecta?

And even though American Coots are very common back here in Ohio, I was happy to see them in Texas as well. Although coots are often found with ducks, they’re more closely related to Sandhill Cranes than to ducks. So they’re not ducks, they’re…well…they’re just coots, I guess.

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American Coot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
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American Coot at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve seen rafts of thousands of coots before, and in that situation it’s easy to see them as one big unit without details. But when you pay attention to individuals you’ll see that these are beautiful birds. Rich black plumage with a white bill and a pretty red patch on the forehead. And don’t forget that stunning red eye. The other really cool part of this bird is below the water…it’s got big goofy feet that always make me laugh. (That link takes you to a google image search for “coot feet.”)

Ibises are another type of bird I’ve not seen much of before, so I was excited to find two species on this trip. I got a distant view of a few White Ibises at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and wasn’t able to get a very good photo. This was the best I could do, and I had to use my amateurish Photoshop skills to erase some vegetation from the face on this bird. That’s why I’ve reduced the size of this one, so you (hopefully) can’t see the sloppy edits I made. I really need to get better at that.

White Ibis cropped and blurry - Santa Ana NWR
White Ibis at Santa Ana NWR

While watching these ibises out in the marsh, I saw them fighting each other over tasty morsels, a behavior that is typical of this species.

At Estero Llano Grande I got a closer view of another species — this juvenile White-faced Ibis. My attention was so focused on that long down-curved bill that I didn’t even notice how beautiful the feathers were on this bird. Only when Rick (Snider) mentioned it did I start to really pay attention to the rest of the bird. (Rick is the Park Host at Estero, and so I was birding with two Ricks on this day, both of them expert naturalists. How much luckier could a girl get?) I see raspberry, green, and gold in this bird’s feathers…just stunning!

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White-faced Ibis, juvenile

I learned something interesting as we watched the waterfowl at Santa Ana NWR one day. I’d just seen my lifer Least Grebes, and was enjoying trying to find more of them among the marsh vegetation. There were lots of Northern Pintail ducks in there too, and I started to notice that each pintail was closely followed by a grebe.

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I was told that the grebes are taking advantage of food that is stirred up by the feeding behavior of the pintails. These ducks are dabblers, which means that they feed by dabbling at the surface or by dunking their heads under the water, as in this photo.

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Pintail with head under water, grebe watching for an easy meal

Grebes are perfectly capable of going under the water to find their own food, but they’re clearly smart enough to figure out how to get ducks to do the work for them sometimes.

And in writing about this, I learned a new word. My first thought was to say that this was a symbiotic relationship, but I wanted to be more specific, so I did a quick bit of research. It turns out that there are several types of symbiotic relationships, depending on whether one or both of the animals are helped or harmed by the behavior. If they were both benefiting from it, we would call it mutualism. But in this case, while the grebe is clearly the beneficiary of the duck’s behavior, the duck isn’t receiving any benefit (that I’m aware of) from the grebe’s behavior. So that would be called commensalism. I love learning stuff like that!

Well, I think that’s a good thought to leave you with today.  I’ll probably finish this series with some songbirds next time.  I hope you’re enjoying these images and little stories from the trip. I think I’m drawing it out as long as possible because it helps me forget that I’m back in Ohio where it’s so cold and dreary. I was commiserating with a friend today when we realized that we still have months — months! — of winter left.  I can make it, I can make it, I can make it…. 🙂

A Grand Time in the Rio Grande Valley

Good grief, where do I even begin? I just spent a week down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and my head is still spinning from all the beautiful birds I saw. It was so nice to escape the cold of northwest Ohio for a few days, even though the weather down in the McAllen area wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped. Most days we saw high temps in the upper 60s, with quite a bit of cloudiness and some scattered rain.

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Roseate Spoonbills, one of my most-wanted species!

But that didn’t have much of an impact on how much I enjoyed this trip. My only other visit to this area was in November three years ago, and I didn’t have a very good time on that trip, so I was eager to give Texas a chance to redeem itself. And it did that in spades, with the help of my friend Rick Nirschl.

Rick is a Toledo resident who spends winters in the Rio Grande Valley. He has an amazing ability to find any bird you might want to see, whether it’s in Ohio or Texas. He’s well-known for finding new bird and dragonfly records in both states, and even discovered a dragonfly that had never been identified before (It has since been named the Sarracenia Spiketail, Cordulegaster sarracenia). So with Rick as my world-class tour guide this week, I got to see almost every bird I’d hoped to find, as well as enjoying great conversation and soaking up as much of his knowledge of the natural world as I possibly could. Nature experiences don’t get much better than this.

Places we visited included Quinta Mazatlan, Estero Llano Grande, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Falcon State Park, and the National Butterfly Center. Rick also knows lots of special spots along various roads and on the private property of his many friends in the area.

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Pyrrhuloxia, a desert relative of our cardinal

One of the things that made a big impression on me down there was that there were birds everywhere, as contrasted with right now in my part of Ohio, which sometimes feels dead and barren because the birds are so scarce.

And in Texas many of the birds are vocal now, whether it’s the noisy chatter of a large flock of blackbirds or parakeets, or the calls of songbirds in the woods. It was just so refreshing to see and hear so much bird activity at a time of year when I’m not able to do that at home. It’s always fun to be down south in winter and see some of “our” birds on their wintering grounds. I saw more Orange-crowned Warblers on this trip than I’ve seen in my entire life!

Each of these photos is more than just a record of the physical presence of a bird. A photo serves as a memory trigger, reminding me of where I was, what I was searching for, who I was with, and even what we were talking about while we watched the birds. When I get to the point in my life where I can’t travel anymore, I’ll be able to re-live these experiences just by looking through my photos.

But I do have a couple stories to tell you about a few photos. Let’s start with one of my favorites, these American White Pelicans. While planning my trip I’d talked to Rick about some birds I’d like to see. But somehow I didn’t even think about pelicans, so of course he didn’t make any special effort to show me those birds. One day he took me to the home of a friend who lives on a resaca, which is a lake formed when an oxbow of the Rio Grande River gets cut off from the main river and becomes a separate body of water.

We got out of the car and started walking toward the back of the house, toward the resaca. Even from a distance I could see the hundreds and hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling ducks out there (I eventually estimated 1,000). That was really neat, because I’d only seen a few of those beautiful ducks in Ohio a few years ago.

Black-bellied Whistling ducks w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Black-bellied Whistling-ducks

But as we got closer to the bank of the lake, I noticed a few pelicans very close to shore, and my jaw dropped as I absorbed their enormity. I quickly stepped behind a large palm tree to try not to spook the birds, and leaned over slightly to start taking photos of them.

American White Pelicans w sig - copyright Kim Smith
American White Pelicans

Meanwhile, from about 10 feet to my left, Rick was trying to get me to come look at a Ringed Kingfisher. I continued shooting the pelicans and said, “Okay, just a sec, I’m watching the pelicans!” A minute or so later I walked over and looked at the kingfisher, and then went back to watching the pelicans. I just couldn’t get enough of them! In addition to the ones already on the water, I got to see a few more of these colossal birds fly in, a spectacle in itself.

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After we were done watching the birds, we got in the car and had a good laugh when Rick said that lots of people come here specifically to find a Ringed Kingfisher, and I was more fascinated with the rather ordinary pelicans. Don’t get me wrong, that kingfisher was pretty neat. But the pelicans were extraordinary. Oh man, I still smile when I think of those enormous birds with buckets on their faces.

Another day we stopped to watch a large flock of Green Parakeets on power lines in the city of Mission. We also saw Monk Parakeets in the town of Hidalgo. As my friend Ryan says, there’s something so cool about green birds. That bright green almost glows on an overcast day, as does the red of a Vermillion Flycatcher, of which we also saw a few.

Monk parakeets in Hidalgo city - cropped w sig
Monk parakeets

And speaking of bird colors, I finally got to see a Painted Bunting. This clownish bird is aptly named, because he looks like someone spilled several cans of paint all over him. He makes me smile.

Painted Bunting w sig - copyright Kim Smith
Painted Bunting

Another excellent experience was finding this Cactus Wren, a life bird for me. (I haven’t tallied up my life birds from this trip, but I probably added twenty species.) Rick walked up to a row of cacti along a fence and said we could probably find a Cactus Wren there, and boom, this one popped up and started singing directly in front of us. We both slow-walked closer and closer, shooting photos as we moved, and we eventually got up to the fence, which put us about 15 feet from the bird. We both got incredible views of this strikingly-marked wren, and he watched us calmly until we started walking away and then he dropped down to the ground and resumed his business.

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Cactus wren

This Blue Bunting is normally a bird of Mexico and northern Central America, but this species occasionally shows up in southern Texas. This particular bird had been frequenting the feeders at the World Birding Center at Quinta Mazatlan, and after a couple unsuccessful stakeouts, we both got to see it. Unfortunately our sightings were in poor lighting and, combined with the dark color of the bird, made for difficulty getting high quality images. But even a poor image can be a fantastic memory.

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Blue bunting, an unusual find

One day as we arrived back at my hotel, I saw this White-tailed kite hovering above the adjacent field. This was the first time I’d seen this species in the U.S., and I was excited to try for a photo. I knew the chances of getting a good photo were low because of the white bird against a gray sky, but I took several shots anyway. As I clicked through the series of photos on the computer later, I was struck by the varying wing postures I’d captured as the bird hovered in the air searching for small mammals below. I decided to paste two of the different shots together, and this is the result. Isn’t this bird gorgeous?

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White-tailed Kite, 2 images of the same bird

One of the birds I’d wanted to see the most was the Burrowing Owl. And, as usual, Rick knew exactly where to find this one.

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Burrowing Owl

One bird I hadn’t even considered finding on this trip, however, was a Great Horned Owl. These birds are year-round residents in Ohio, and I was focused mostly on seeing birds I can’t see at home. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at Estero Llano Grande one afternoon and saw this beautiful silvery-gray owl sitting among the wind-tossed fronds of a palm tree.

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Great Horned Owl, gray morph

We don’t have this gray color morph up north, as far as I know, so it was a real treat to see this bird. And we were told that there’s another owl in the park, perhaps the mate of this one, although it’s not a gray morph. Despite the name of the bird, those pointy things on top of the owl’s head are not horns. They’re not ears either. They’re just tufts of feathers. I love how they’re blowing sideways in this shot.

I didn’t take many photos of things other than birds on this trip, but I did grab a quick shot of this cow as it emerged from the vegetation on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande River at Salineño. I noticed that the river had been much lower the last time I’d visited this location, and I wonder if the river ever gets low enough for livestock to cross the international border, and if so, how do they deal with that issue?

Cow standing in the Rio Grande River - Salineno Texas

Okay, that’s enough for this time. 🙂 Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Texas trip stories and photos coming up shortly.