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: Harlingen. We will meet at our hotel in Harlingen in the evening for a welcome dinner.

Day 2: 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.

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

Day 3: 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.

Day 4: 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.

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 5: Chapeño and Salineño. Chapeño is well worth a visit as it is the only place in U.S. with a chance for Brown Jay. While we search for our main target, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Bronzed Cowbirds will drop in on the feeders. If we have luck with the jays, we’ll scope out the river, hoping to catch a Green Kingfisher flying by. Salineño is another great 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 6: 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.

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

Day 7: 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 8: Harlingen. The tour concludes this morning when we will be shuttled to the airport.

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)


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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: South Texas has a very pleasant climate in winter. Some rain is possible.

DIFFICULTY: Easy.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to very good.