Texas Part II

Day 3 (April 17) – As noted in the previous Texas post, the first half of our trip had been planned completely around seeing Black Rail, with three full days dedicated to the effort. Picking up Black Rail just a couple hours into the first of those days freed up a whole swath of time for other endeavors.

On the morning of the 17th, we set out for Laredo, and the Mexican border. We had both visited the Rio Grande Valley previously, but were itching for a return trip. I still needed White-collared Seedeater as an ABA bird, which was part of the motivation for making the trip down.

As we headed toward the valley, we made stops in far fields south of Houston, which yielded a number of highlights, including Swainson’s and White-tailed Hawks, White-rumped, Pectoral, Stilt, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Sedge Wren.

A few hours later, in the mid-afternoon, we arrived in Laredo, where temps had entered the triple-digits. Undeterred, we headed to one of the locations where seedeaters had recently been reported: the Las Palmas Trail. Our search for the White-collared Seedeater was a success, and we ran up a total of five birds, including three males singing in the vegetation along the Rio Grande, with the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo in the background.

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White-collared Seedeater

We also notched a number of other RGV specialties, including Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, and Long-billed Thrasher. A migrant Grasshopper Sparrow was another solid pickup.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

After Las Palmas, we headed to our lodging for the evening, and enjoyed some delicious Mexican food in town.

Day 4 (April 18) – Waking early, we set out for one of my all-time favorite birding spots: the small town of Salineño, and specifically, the portion along the Rio Grande. When you arrive, Mexico beckons from just a few meters away. The river is decently narrow in this area, and it is fairly easy to make out birds in the canopy on the other side. Our sense of place was further enhanced when we were passed by a boatload of Mexican men, heading off to work for the day.

I think multiple factors are involved in making Salineño one of my favorite places to go birding. First are the birds, of course. This is the best location in the ABA area to observe extremely restricted RGV specialties like Audubon’s Oriole, Red-billed Pigeon, and Muscovy Duck. The location also contains an abundance of all the fantastic Rio Grande Valley birds, and I saw many life birds here on my first visit in March 2011. Second is the location. The Rio Grande is probably more wild and unspoiled here than anywhere else east of Laredo, and the edge habitat created by the river makes birds easy to see. Finally, through a combination of these two factors, one really gets the sense of birding in the tropics, something that’s near impossible to come by in the rest of the ABA.

The best time to visit Salineño is probably February-March, when the three big species are easiest to see, the oriole thanks to a nearby feeding station that pulls them down to eye level. We were well past the location’s annual peak, with the winter visitors that maintain the feeders already gone, and had the spot to ourselves for the majority of our visit.

We walked up and down the river in both directions, our main goal simply to enjoy as many of the cool birds that this location offers as possible. In the end, we missed the three biggies, but still had a great time. Our highlights included loudly-calling Plain Chachalacas at sunrise, Northern Bobwhite, Gray Hawk, White-tipped Dove (calling from the Mexican side), Brown-crested Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Green Jay, Olive and Lark Sparrows, Bronzed Cowbird, two Altamira Orioles building a nest (and mobbing a Crested Caracara that came too close), and three more White-collared Seedeaters singing along the river.

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Crested Caracara

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Crested Caracara and Altamira Oriole

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American Coot

After Salineño, we birded some roads east of Falcon Dam State Park, where I’d had luck on my last trip to the area. The place was again birdy, and our highlights were great looks at a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers, along with Harris’s Hawk, Cactus Wren, Cassin’s Sparrow, and Pyrrhuloxia.

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Ash-throated Flycatchers

Eventually, we cut our losses and began heading north. We were slated to start making our way out to West Texas the next day, but in the meantime, we decided to dedicate the next twenty-four hours to pinning down some Edward’s Plateau specialties.

In the early afternoon, we stopped off on a productive piece of road, which yielded amazing looks at singing and skylarking Cassin’s Sparrows, in addition to Bell’s Vireo, Verdin, Curve-billed Thrasher, Clay-colored and Vesper Sparrows, and Blue Grosbeak.

Continuing on, we reached the Neal’s Lodges area outside Uvalde with a couple hours of daylight left. Our target bird at this location was a recently-reported Tropical Parula, which managed to evade us despite our best efforts. A Northern Parula that landed with its back to us got our pulses rising before turning around and slamming our hopes back down.

The avifauna of the Edward’s Plateau is on odd one. It is primarily Eastern, despite its longitudinal position, but also contains some Western and RGV species. Last but not least, its uniqueness is confirmed by the presence of a breeding endemic: the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

All of these groups were represented on our visit, during which species like Carolina Chickadee, Great Kiskadee, and Black-chinned Hummingbird were seen side-by-side.

After daylight ran out, we returned to Uvalde to regroup, with plans to return to the area at sunrise.

Day 5 (April 19) – The previous evening, we’d stopped at the Neal’s Lodges office before heading back to Uvalde. The purpose of our visit was to inquire if there were any local birders present that might be aware of the most recent locations where the Tropical Parula had been seen. We were provided with a number, but unfortunately, the person did not pick up. The next morning, just as we were about to leave to return to Neal’s, we received a call, and were provided with a location for the parula, as well as a couple other Edward’s specialties.

Upon arrival, we headed straight to the Tropical Parula location. Immediately upon exiting the car, we had a possible sighting, but the bird was too fleeting and frankly so unexpectedly sudden, that we weren’t able to clinch the ID. Dave and I eventually split up; while he went down to check the river (where we’d tried the previous evening), I remained at the spot we’d been given.

A few minutes later, I heard a Tropical Parula sing. After what seemed like an eternity spent frantically trying to pin the bird down, a stunning male Tropical Parula flew onto a dead branch right in front of me:

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Tropical Parula
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In the words of Dave Hursh, “like a ripe citrus fruit.”

Dave came up and caught the bird before it flew off (he’d seen them in the ABA area before, including at this same location). We also got glimpses of a second bird, which was probably a female. Mission accomplished.

We spent another hour and a half scouring the lodge grounds, looking especially for the two big Edward’s Plateau birds: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. We heard one Golden-cheeked sing, but weren’t able to pin it down. With time running out, we decided to run to an area where these two species are found in higher density, before making the long drive west.

(Other highlights at Neal’s included an almost ridiculous proliferation of White-eyed Vireos, great looks at a pair of Canyon Wrens singing and moving about the cabins along the river, Olive Sparrow, Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak.)

A little less than an hour after departing Neal’s, we arrived at the Lost Maples SNA (State Natural Area), site of my life Golden-cheeked Warbler in 2011. It is a beautiful location set amongst the rolling hills of the plateau, and we greatly enjoyed the brief time we spent birding there.

The standouts were of course the two biggies. We had tremendous looks at multiple singing Golden-cheeked Warblers (including scope views!), and followed a male Black-capped Vireo around for a while, receiving only occasional glimpses as a reward.

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Poor photo of a Golden-cheeked Warbler

Other good birds on this short but very successful stop included White-tipped Dove, both Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and stunning male Lazuli and Indigo Buntings. The Edward’s Plateau sits right at the confluence of East and West, and seeing both representatives of these groups certainly illustrates that point.

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A subpar photo, but the only one I’ve ever taken that shows Lazuli and Indigo Buntings in the same frame.
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Lazuli Bunting alongside a House Finch severely infected with conjunctivitis.
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Black-crested Titmouse, also from Lost Maples.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away, and headed west, excited to begin the final climax of our adventure.

-Alex

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