South Texas: Birding the Border

In addition to nearly 30 bird species found nowhere else in the US, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is home to an astonishing concentration of more widespread birds. Our tour will explore diverse ecosystems, from Tamaulipan thornscrub and coastal prairies to Chihuahuan desert, sabal palm groves, and subtropical oak forests. On this exciting tour you will experience firsthand why the Rio Grande is one of the U.S.’s premier birding destinations. In a nutshell, this tour is all about going after top quality US birds intermixed with some dazzling Neotropical species more typically found south of the US border.

Day 1: Arrival in Corpus Christi. We will meet at our hotel in Corpus in the evening for a welcome dinner.

Day 2: Whooping Cranes to Harlingen. In the morning we will board a boat, and take a cruise to see the rare Whooping Cranes in Aransas NWR. This 3-hour trip provides the best viewing opportunity for the cranes, which typically give the best views from a boat, (rather than on land). The boat trip and further exploration of the Aransas/Rockport area will be great for other birds too, with other possibilities including Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Roseate Spoonbill, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Pyrrhuloxia, and Seaside Sparrow. In the afternoon we will travel to the city of Harlingen for the night.

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)

Day 3: Laguna Atascosa NWR. Heading east, we’ll traverse the coastal prairie, searching the tops of yuccas for standouts like Aplomado Falcon, Crested Caracara, and White-tailed Hawk. We must keep a watchful eye to the sky too, lest we miss a White-tailed Kite, a displaying Sprague’s Pipit, or a passing flock of cinnamon-colored Long-billed Curlews. Flooded areas sometimes host Gull-billed Tern, White-faced Ibis, and the outrageous Roseate Spoonbill. Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge should produce a nice variety of waterfowl and migrating shorebirds like Stilt Sandpiper and Marbled Godwits. Atascosa is famed especially for the massive concentrations of Redheads that winter on the Laguna Madre. Numbers of these handsome ducks amounting to hundreds of thousands in the winter months that amount to 80% of the entire world population. Finally, we’ll check the desert scrub here for some species more typically found in the western US such as Verdins and Cactus Wrens.

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: Santa Ana NWR and Weslaco. Further up the Valley is the impressive Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, protecting a stand of old-growth oaks along the Rio Grande. One of the undoubted attractions for American birders of Santa Ana is access to some quality Neotropical species more typically found south of the US border. As we well as specialties that include Hook-billed Kite, Couch’s Kingbird, Harris’s Hawk, and Tropical Parula, Santa Ana has an impressive bird list of over 400 species. We’ll also visit Weslaco, home to the Valley Nature Center and the Frontera Audubon Thicket. Both locations offer top quality US birds like the highly vocal Great Kiskadee and well-endowed Long-billed Thrasher. The diversity of vagrants recorded here is also impressive, with Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Blue Mockingbird, White-throated Robin, Slate-throated Redstart, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Elegant Trogon topping the list. Though many of the mega-rarities show up in winter and early spring, bumping into a Clay-colored Thrush or another treat would not be out of the question any time of year. The surrounding neighborhoods harbor populations of Red-crowned, Yellow-headed, Red-lored, and Lilac-crowed Parrots. We’ll spend the next two nights in Zapata.

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

Day 5: Zapata area. San Ygnacio and Zapata are the only accessible spots in the US to find the diminutive White-collared Seedeater, and a great deal of our time in the area will be devoted to this species. A trip to Starr County Park will concentrate on desert species, and Vermilion Flycatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Pyrrhuloxia can all be expected. A good mix of cryptic sparrows winters here, and we’ll put our ID skills to the test to pick out Clay-colored, Brewer’s, and Cassin’s Sparrows. Scouring the surrounding desert, we will hope to turn up Scaled Quail and Greater Roadrunner.

White-tailed Hawk is a big, good-looking raptor
White-tailed Hawk is a big, good-looking raptor (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Chapeño and Salineño. Chapeño is well worth a visit as it is one of few US sites that can offer Green Kingfisher; it also has good feeders, which can attract Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Bronzed Cowbirds. Salineño is another nearby spot right on the Rio Grande, and this may be our best bet for birds like Red-billed Pigeon, Audubon’s Oriole, and Muscovy Duck. Palms in the town itself often supports a pair of Hooded Orioles. We overnight in McAllen.

Day 7: Bentsen and Anzalduas. Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park and Anzalduas County Park offer still more opportunities for sought-after Valley specialties. Here we will search for one of the undoubted stars of this tour, the audacious and unforgettable Green Jay. Black-crested Titmouse should also be an easy pick-up as we search for harder birds like Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and the bushy-crested, loud-mouthed Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. We will also search for other showstoppers like the gaudy, flame-colored Altamira Oriole that will surely give the Green Jay a run for its money. The Edinburg Scenic Wetlands have excellent waterbird habitat. With some luck our trip here may provide looks at the vociferous Ringed Kingfisher, the serpentine Anhinga, and the dainty Least Grebe. We’ll return to McAllen for another night.

South Texas is about
South Texas is about "Mexican" birds north of the border, like this Ringed Kingfisher (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Brownsville. The famous Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary will give us a fascinating glimpse of what the lower Rio Grande Valley looked like 200 years ago. This region was once blanketed by such tropical palm forest, though sadly now this small patch is nearly all that remains of this distinctive habitat within the U.S. A visit here gives us a shot at specialties like Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, an unpredictable species that has been found breeding at the sanctuary during the past few years. Buff-bellied Hummingbird and White-tipped Dove are regular, and the feeders are often dominated by boisterous groups of Plain Chachalacas. We’ll look for Tamaulipas Crows in this area as well, although they become elusive after the nesting season. A visit to South Padre Island should provide a lengthy list of shorebirds, wading birds, gulls, terns, and rails to round out our tour. On the beach we could pick up Snowy Plover, and we’ll target the striking Tricolored Heron and gangly Reddish Egret on the other side of the island. After a roosting performance by Green Parakeets, our final night is spent in Harlingen.

Day 9: Departure from Harlingen. The tour concludes this morning when we will be shuttled to the airport in Harlingen.

Red-crowned parrots move in flocks of hundreds down there
Red-crowned parrots move in flocks of hundreds down there (Iain Campbell)



PACE: Moderate. Long days in the field are the norm on this tour, with typical starts of around 5:30am for breakfast, followed by departure at 6am. The longest drive on this tour is around 3hrs on one day, with drives of between 1-2hrs typical on most days of the tour, which covers a lot of sites. One relaxed boat trip of around 3hrs us undertaken on day 2 to search for the Whooping Cranes in Aransas.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. The walking on this tour is in flat areas, and so is easy throughout. The tour is in low-lying areas throughout, and so altitude is not an issue on this tour.

CLIMATE: Typically warm and largely dry at this time of year. While this part of Texas is known for high humidity and temperatures, it is cooler in this month, with highs of 85 Fahrenheit/30 Celsius, possible lows at 50 Fahrenheit/10 Celsius; and humidity at around 55%. March is one of the driest months in the region.

ACCOMMODATION: Good throughout, with full-time electricity, 24-hr hot water, and en-suite facilities throughout. Wi-Fi is available at all of the hotels used.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, focusing on trying to see the highest number of bird species, and therefore if you prefer a more photography –focused trip, then we also offer a Texas Photo Journey. However, this part of the US is typically good for photography, with a lot of open country areas visited, good, bright light conditions, and feeders at a few of the sites.


TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. 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.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from night of day 1 though to night of day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 9; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the night of day 8; hotel airport shuttles on the arrival day and departure day; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable rental vehicle driven by the tour leader; one 3-hour boat trip in Aransas NWR to search for Whooping Cranes; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips to baggage handlers if used anywhere; international and domestic flights to get there; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; 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.