After an amazing day 7 on the VENT South Texas tour, maybe it was inevitable that we would have an off day. Day 8 started at Santa Ana NWR. I had great visits there in 1975 and 2013 seeing 78 species including many ABA firsts on the 1975 trip. On this day we had 34 species of which three were new for the tour – Cliff Swallow, Sharp Shinned Hawk and most importantly the beautiful Altamira Oriole, which was formerly called the Lichtenstein’s Oriole – named after a German ornithologist of the first half of the 19th Century. The name was changed to Altamira – named after a city in the Tamaulipas State of northern Mexico which is just south of the Texas border. In the U.S. this oriole is only found in extreme South Texas and is endangered here.
Our next stop was the famous (“infamous”?) Brownsville Dump. Up until the 1990’s and into the first decade of the 21st Century this was an easy spot to find what was then called the Mexican Crow. I had seen some there in April 1978 but of course had no photo. They disappeared from the area until some showed up again in 2017. Had this not occurred we would not have made this stop, but now they were a much sought after species – now known as the Tamaulipas Crow. Unfortunately we found none this day despite diligent looking for almost two hours. There were many Vultures (Black and Turkey), thousands of Laughing Gulls and some other gull species including our first of the trip Lesser Black Backed and Herring Gulls and no crow. (I got word from a Washington birding friend today that they were at the dump and had crows – oh well.)
Lesser Black Backed Gull
Much of the rest of the day was traveling to our next birding area in Zapata. The weather was quite overcast and a trip along Las Palmas Road for “desert” species was essentially birdless. For the day we barely had 70 species and only five new ones for the tour to get to 215 total. So not much to write about. The next day would be better.
On the morning of the 10th we had special access to the Santa Margarita Ranch bluff overlooking the Rio Grande River and looking into Mexico. We were targeting two very important South Texas specialties the Ringed Kingfisher and the Red Billed Pigeon. Both were high on my list of photos wanted. The bluff itself was very cool – a pretty spot maybe a couple hundred feet above the river – and precariously perched so tour members with a problem with heights had to stand far back. Maybe 30 minutes after we arrived Barry Zimmer announced that there were Red Billed Pigeons out over the river and flying our way. I snapped a quick picture for the record thinking that would be it. But we got lucky as the Pigeons perched on a relatively nearby snag just upriver from us – and fortunately on the U.S. side of the river. Had they been on the Mexico side, they would not have been “countable” in the ABA area because it is the location of the bird and not the birder that is determinative. The perched Pigeons were a much better photo op even in pretty low quality light.
Red Billed Pigeon
Looking at the photo, it is hard to figure out why this species is called the “Red” Billed Pigeon as the bill looks decidedly yellow. A very close look shows a tiny bit of red at the very base of the bill. There must be a better name – but the only thing I cared about was the observation and the Life ABA Photo.
Shortly thereafter Barry called out our other target bird as a Ringed Kingfisher flew by. The Ringed Kingfisher is quite local along the Rio Grande River and is the largest kingfisher in North America. It kept going and I was pleased to get some decent flight shots. Another new ABA Photo.
Ringed Kingfisher in Flight
Somewhat later another or the same Ringed Kingfisher flew by and this time perched below us. The light had not gotten any better and in fact there were a few raindrops so a difficult photo but one that clearly shows the rufous underparts.
An Osprey had been perched near us the whole time. I had concentrated on the two specialties but with them now found, I gave this beautiful bird its due and took its picture. A few seconds later his (or her) mate came by and the two flew off together.
There had been other birds along the river including a mixed flock of various egrets and herons and a pair of Mexican Mallards, another Altamira Oriole and many Neotropic Cormorants. Now the rain clouds were strengthening and having found our targets, it was time to hike back to the vans. It had been an exceptionally good visit.
We drove some area roads looking for desert birds. We had some – but not exceptional views or photo ops except for a very nice Black Tailed Gnatcatcher and killer looks of a Cactus Wren. The biggest disappointment was that we could hear a close by Scaled Quail (or two) but could not draw it out for a visual.
Black Tailed Gnatcatcher
We continued north and west towards Laredo with an important stop at San Ygnacio where we were looking for one of the birds that was extremely high on my list of targets – the White Collared Seedeater (later in the year split into Morelet’s Seedeater which we saw and the Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater) which is found only in a very few areas right on the river. It would be an ABA Life Bird and if photographed, a Life photo. The San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary was a pretty scruffy looking place – not a lot of maintenance but we were able to find the White Collared Seedeater. Barry and Carlos had picked up its call pretty quickly but it was very difficult to get a visual. In fact this was one of the only times during the trip when I was the one to find the bird – seen just briefly by only a couple of us and a terrible photo by me. So I had the Life Bird and the Life Photo, but I won’t include it here since I got a much better one the next day. A photo I will include is of a Yellow Breasted Chat which responded immediately to the playback and came in for great views.
Yellow Breasted Chat
We had a flyover of another Audubon’s Oriole and our first Black Phoebe of the trip. Oddly we had another important bird here – a House Finch – the first of the trip. They are commonplace almost everywhere else but hard to find in South Texas. We drove some more local roads and had a very quick flyby from a Blue Grosbeak – another new species for the trip. We also finally got a good look at a Pyrrhuloxia – a bird we had heard but not seen the day before. We arrived in Laredo – the final hotel stop for the trip and since the tour would end at midday the next day, this was the night for our celebration dinner. The Blue Grosbeak was the 232nd species seen on the tour – beating last year’s record of 230.
The next morning was a late start with a visit to our last site – the area adjacent to the Rio Grand River just east of the international bridge in Laredo. Once again we were looking for White Collared Seedeaters. Barry was shocked to see the devastation of what had been great habitat for this difficult species. The Border Patrol had cleared out almost all of the appropriate high grass vegetation. Nevertheless we found a couple of Seedeaters and I was able to get a passable photo.
White Collared Seedeater
We also had flybys of both Green and Ringed Kingfishers – glad that we had much better looks earlier. We had seen many Great Kiskadees during our tour but none gave us better views than one at this spot.
Time to end the tour. We headed to the airport and as we pulled in there was yet another Scissor Tailed Flycatcher. We had seen hundreds during the tour and never got tired of this beautiful bird. Barry requested that everyone close their eyes after seeing this last one – to be sure that it was the last bird seen on the visit. A fitting end.
A couple of the participants carried on with Barry and Carlos to the Hill Country on a tour extension. I had to be back in Edmonds before the tour would end so I could not join them and instead rented a car and headed off to the same area on my own. It had been a great tour – yes a couple of misses but so many great birds including most of those targeted. I ended the official tour with three ABA Life Birds – Whooping Crane, Tropical Parula and White Collared Seedeater. I had photos of each of them and new ABA Life photos of 11 others. South Texas is simply amazing!!