South Texas: Birding with a Camera® (BwC)

This is a Birding with a Camera® Tour (BwC). We try to balance seeing as many birds as possible while also trying to take great photos of them. We still target endemics and other specialties. Certain sites have been carefully selected for their photographic opportunities.

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, here are our guidelines and tour practices: Safety Tour Regulations and Policy.

Chachalacas, Kiskadees, Pyrrhuloxias, and Pauraques! Haven’t heard of those? Well, how about Orioles, Jays and Kingfishers? It doesn’t matter — the Rio Grande Valley in Southern Texas has them all. Situated on the international border, the region is a premier birding destination from November to February, those temperate months offering access to countless amazing birds within a few hours’ drive of our gateway city, Harlingen. From arid scrub to palm groves and sandy beaches, we’ll visit legendary hot spots like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Estero Llaño Grande State Park, and South Padre Island. The region boasts fantastic photographic infrastructure, and a moderate pace will allow time to photograph a wide array of species, many of them specialties of the far south. The ever-present possibility of Mexican vagrants adds constant excitement, and we’ll dedicate our final day to finding the iconic Whooping Crane, a spectacular bird and an amazing conservation success story. It doesn’t matter if you’re a wide-eyed novice or a grizzly veteran; the Rio Grande Valley and Whooping Cranes is a must!

Day 1: Arrival in Harlingen; transfer to Alamo. Most participants will need to connect through Houston or Dallas, so we’ll use today as a dedicated travel day, the goal to have all participants meet at 4pm in the arrival area of Valley International Airport in Harlingen (HRL). This airport is small and easy to navigate, yay! Once everyone has arrived, we’ll drive 40 minutes west to the Alamo Inn, a birding-themed bed and breakfast which will serve as our base of operations for our first four nights. If there is sufficient energy and interest, we might make a stop at local parrot roost en-route. We’ll have an introductory dinner and get everyone into bed at a decent hour so we’re ready to go on the morning of Day 2.

Red-crowned Parrots can sometimes be found around the city of Harlingen
Red-crowned Parrots can sometimes be found around the city of Harlingen (Iain Campbell)

Day 2: Bentsen State Park, Anzalduas County Park, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. We’ll start at Bentsen State Park where a fully-stocked feeder array should afford us drool-worthy views of Plain Chachalacas, Great-tailed Grackles, and Green Jays. Proceeding into the park after studying and photographing those raucous residents, we’ll scour the arid habitat for Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Olive Sparrow, and Gray Hawk. Over 350 species have been observed in the park, and a beautiful viewing platform offers great views of the surrounding area, including Mexico!

Come mid-morning, we’ll vacate Bentsen and move a few miles east to Anzalduas County Park. Exploring the banks of the Rio Grande we’ll hope for views of herons, kingfishers, and cormorants. We’ll make a special effort to find Sprague’s Pipit in the entrance field, and we could even catch a glimpse of Hook-billed Kite, if we’re really, really lucky. If it’s going to happen anywhere, history suggests it will be at Anzalduas.

Lunch will be a welcome respite after our inaugural morning, and we’ll head to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in the afternoon. Exploring a series of lakes, we’ll seek a variety of waterfowl, and the adjacent meadows should hold a variety of flycatchers and other passerines. Northern Jacana is nearly annual at the refuge, so anything is possible. This will be the second of four nights at the Alamo Inn.

Just check the jaw on this Pyrrhuloxia
Just check the jaw on this Pyrrhuloxia (Iain Campbell)

Day 3: Upper Rio Grande Valley (Zapata, Falcon Dam, Salineño). Today we’ll travel northwest to seek a number of specialties which are either absent or more difficult to find in the lower part of the valley. Chief among them is Morelet’s Seedeater, a recent split from White-collared Seedeater. The bird is unpredictable, but we’ll make a number of stops in suitable riverside habitat to look for it. Even if we aren’t able find it, there should be kingfishers, flycatchers, and raptors to keep us engaged.

Retracing our tracks south, we’ll stop at Falcon State Park where Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Pyrrhuloxia dwell in the dry surrounds. Forster’s and Caspian Terns are possible over the water, and we’ll keep our eyes peeled for Turkey and Black Vultures overhead.

Our last stop will be Salineño where a variety of birds grace a small set of feeders. Altamira and Audubon’s Orioles are often hanging around, and we’ll spend some time trying to photograph White-tipped Dove and the other species which appear during out visit. The Rio Grande runs just behind the feeders, and we’ll be sure to check it for kingfishers and cormorants before we depart. Red-billed Pigeon and wild Muscovy have been seen here, but we’d have to be pretty darn lucky to see either! It’s South Texas, so we never know, right? This will be the third of four nights at the Alamo Inn.

Green Jays make you feel as though you are birding with flourescent bins.
Green Jays make you feel as though you are birding with flourescent bins. (Iain Campbell)

Day 4: Laguna Seca Ranch. This day is dedicated entirely to Laguna Seca, a photographic ranch where we’ll be afforded incredible views of many Texas birds from custom-built blinds. Laguna Seca offers arguably the finest set-up photography — photography where wild birds are lured onto natural perches with food — in all of North America. Blinds, perches, and shooting angles have been optimized to create breathtaking images, and photographers should bring plenty of batteries and memory cards. Even if you’re not an avid photographer, you’ll appreciate the amazing views of Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Curve-billed Thrashers, Northern Bobwhites, Black-throated Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxias, and others! Disclaimer: Tropical Birding is not responsible if clients get addicted to bird photography and spend their entire life savings on cameras and lenses after visiting Laguna Seca. A final night will be spent at the Alamo Inn.

Common Pauraque will be a target at Estero
Common Pauraque will be a target at Estero (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Estero Llaño Grande State Park and Brownsville Hot Spots. Wanna hear something insane? We’ve been in the Rio Grande Valley for four days and seen loads of amazing birds, but we haven’t visited the single best birding spot in the entire region. Well, that’s going to change this morning when we roll into Estero Llaño Grande State Park in Weslaco. The park boasts an amazing mix of habitats in a small area — wetland ponds, resacas, tropical woodlands, arid scrub — and it fairly easy to rack up 75 species (or more) in a morning at the park. Least Grebes and Black-bellied Whistling Duck frequent the impoundments, and Roseate Spoonbills, American Avocets, and Stilt Sandpipers forage in the adjacent resaca. The rangers usually keep tabs on roosting Common Pauraques (a tropical goatsucker), and Tropical Parula is sometimes lurking in the park’s tropical zone.

We’ll move south towards Brownsville in the afternoon with an eye on Sabal Palm Sanctuary. Birding tropical palm groves, we‘ll search for White-tipped Dove, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, and other passerines. If anything really rare — Blue Bunting or Golden-crowned Warbler for example, has been seen around Brownsville, we’ll be sure to leave time to chase them down. If we’re not occupied with rarities, we’ll head to Oliveira Park at sunset when hundreds of parrot of five species roost each night. We have dinner afterwards and spend our first of two nights in Brownsville.

We will have fun combining cameras with spoonbills!
We will have fun combining cameras with spoonbills! (Sam Woods)

Day 6: South Padre Island. Today will mark our first of three days dedicated to the Gulf Coast. The tidal flats at the South Padre Convention Center are loaded with birds, and we’ll spend the morning honing our identification and photography skills on Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Black Skimmers, and a wide variety of herons and shorebirds. The adjacent thickets often hold passerines (songbirds), and the boardwalk at the nearby South Padre Island Birding Center might offer photographic views of White Ibis, Common Gallinule, Least Bittern, or Virginia Rail.

After lunch, we’ll explore a number of other South Padre Island hot spots, and we might venture back over the bridge to look for Aplomado Falcon. The end of the day is flexible; we can either use it to clean up missing specs around Brownsville, or return to South Padre for extra birding and photography. The end of the light can be epic and makes for stunning silhouette shots. We’ll spend out second of two nights Brownsville.

Close ups of Reddish Egrets are likely at South Padre Island
Close ups of Reddish Egrets are likely at South Padre Island (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Located right on the shores of the Laguna Madre, Laguna Atascosa NWR offers fantastic birding during the winter months. Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Ducks, and Ring-necked Ducks grace the impoundments, and Redheads are usually bobbing about on the open water. Long-billed Curlews explore the mudflats, Gull-billed Terns and White-tailed Hawks wheel overhead, and Reddish Egrets dance in the shallows as they pursue baitfish in their characteristically comical fashion. Aplomado Falcon is often spotted on the refuge, and we’ll make extra effort to locate the bird if we were not able to tick it en-route to South Padre yesterday. We’ll also have a chance to glimpse the bizarre Nilgai, an introduced Asian antelope which roams the refuge.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we’ll begin the three hour drive north to Corpus Christi. We’ll might make a few birding stop en-route or once we arrive, but our main goal is to get into position for Whopping Cranes on our final, full day. This will be the first of two nights in Corpus Christi.

The conspicuous Great Kiskadee, an avian icon of the Rio Grande Valey
The conspicuous Great Kiskadee, an avian icon of the Rio Grande Valey (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Whooping Cranes and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The day’s featured event will be a morning boat trip into Aransas Bay to look for the stunning, five-foot tall Whooping Crane. These incredible birds nearly went extinct in the middle of the twentieth century, the population plummeting to just 20 birds before drastic conservation efforts were implemented. While not recovered to historical levels, the birds have made a dramatic recovery, one subset of the wild group nesting in Northern Canada and wintering in Aransas Bay. We’ll get the full history on the boat, and we’ll spend the afternoon exploring the periphery of the bay on our own. Other birds we might encounter include Sora, Clapper Rail, Crested Caracara, Sandhill Crane, Laughing Gull, and American White Pelican. It will be the perfect day to end a fabulous week of birding and photography. This will be the second of two nights in Corpus Christi.

Day 9: DEPARTURES from Corpus Christi. All good things must come to an end, but you’ll have a healthy bird list, loads of nice photos, and a few new friends after this amazing tour. We’ll be staying close to Corpus Christi airport (CRP), and participants should arrange to leave as close to 10am as possible.

A boat trip will be taken in Aransas for the rare Whooping Crane
A boat trip will be taken in Aransas for the rare Whooping Crane (Iain Campbell)

Yellow-throated Warblers winter in the southern US
Yellow-throated Warblers winter in the southern US (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This is not a physically-demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but the days will be pretty long. One of the many benefits of perfect climate (see Climate Section below) is that we can use the entire day for birding; it’s neither too cold in the morning nor too hot in the middle of the day to be out and about! Sunrise is at 7am, so we’ll be departing the hotel between 6am and 6:30am each day. Participants can expect to make multiple birding stops throughout the day, and we’ll aim to be at our place of lodging between 5 and 6pm to let people rest before dinner. There will be time to rest in the van as we move between locations, and we’ll have a field lunch on most days to avoid restaurants and crowds. Any lunches eaten at restaurants will be eaten outside.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. All of our birding stops will require light to moderate walking, but we’ll rarely cover more than a mile-and-a-half at a stretch. Anyone in average walking shape will do just fine. The pace will be very mellow, and the footing should be level everywhere we go. The drives on this trip are not especially long, the longest of them being around two hours or so. Elevation and topography are non-issues because the entire Rio Grande Valley is at sea level and flat as a pancake.

CLIMATE: Daily temperatures should fluctuate between 45-75F (8-23C), so this will be a very comfortable tour. Rain is always a possibility, but nothing a standard raincoat can’t overcome. It might be a bit chilly on the Whooping Crane boat trip if it’s both overcast and windy, so be prepared for that.

ACCOMMODATION: All the hotels we utilize are fully-modernized with hot water and wireless internet. Importantly, and because of COVID-19 concerns, we have deliberately selected smaller hotels where the rooms are accessed externally. This will minimize time in communal spaces like lobbies and hallways. All lodgings are high-quality with an emphasis on customer service.

WHEN TO GO: Late winter in the United States is considered one of the best periods to visit the Rio Grande Valley. This is often when rarities show up, bird activity is high in this tropical area, and the climate is also more comfortable for birding there, making full days in the field possible in this peak season.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a Birding with a Camera tour that will present excellent photographic opportunities, particularly during our day at Laguna Seca. A number of the reserves we visit have feeders, and South Padre Island makes for excellent waterbird shooting. A tripod might be useful while we’re stationary at Laguna Seca, but those with steady hands can probably get by without a tripod, or use a monopod.

GEAR: Binoculars are essential, and it is very worthwhile bringing a camera. A zoom lens of 100-400mm is a good option generally, or a fixed lens of around 400mm would be fine too. The guide will have a spotting scope for group use, so you do not need to bring, but are welcome to do so, if you wish to. It will be useful at a number of sites.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through the night of day 8; meals from the night of day 1 through to breakfast on day 9 (if you do not leave too early for that); all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; one single airport transfer at the start and end of the tour done as a group (i.e. the guide will meet the group at a given place and time at the Harlingen airport at the start and drop everyone off at Cirpus Christi at given time at the end) This avoids use of hotel shuttles; Tropical Birding tour leader from the night of day 1 through to the night of day 8; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 1 to 9 in a modern, rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver. One boat trip to see the Whooping Cranes on the morning of day 8. Printed checklist to keep track of your bird sightings, this will be given to you y’all on the first night of the tour. Electronic copies can be e-mailed in advance if requested.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; any flights; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.