20th Rio Grande Valley Birding Fest — A Fest of “Amazon” Proportions

The 20th Annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (Nov 6 – 10, 2013) will go down in history as one of the all time classic birding festivals! The festival had everything this year — including the discovery of an ABA code 5 rarity – the Amazon Kingfisher.

First and foremost, the vital ingredient here is birding. The Rio Grande Valley is home to a wide variety of habitats from seashore and coastal marshes to desert scrub and everything in between, within a couple of hours drive of Harlingen, the centre of the festival. Add to this the valley being located on one of the biggest migration flyways in the world and the result is a very diverse birding experience – possibly an overwhelming one. Fortunately there were more field trips than you could wave a stick at, all run incredibly smoothly under the watchful eye (sadly for the last time) of the amazing Mary Gustafson. These trips made it possible for anyone to chase the valley specialties they were after in the company of some top tour leaders. Alternatively, you could learn new skills at workshops, like shorebird ID with ‘Mr Shorebirds’ himself, Kevin Karlson… or simply have fun birding in some great company.

As the above suggests, it was also the people that made this festival so special. The list of speakers and field trip leaders read like a who’s who of Northern American birding this year, from field guide gurus David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman to the godfather of birding tours Victor Emanuel and ABA president Jeff Gordon. Not to mention the super-friendly birding community of the valley and the masses of visiting birders from all corners of North America and further afield. It was especially good to meet birders from south of the border in Mexico this time.

Painted Redstart by Mike Watson

Painted Redstart by Mike Watson

For me, the birding started while I was still en route – I was pleased to learn of a Painted Redstart at a rest area as I made my way south to set up for the event. Although it was rather hyperactive, I enjoyed some nice views of this gorgeous bird before it was time to move on again. Sadly the Golden-crowned Warbler, another southern stray that the folks attending the diversity conference a couple of days earlier had seen, appeared to have moved on before I was able to locate it, as had a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Maybe I will catch up with this bird one day, that is now three narrow misses for me. However, I was more than happy to make do with three Clay-coloured Thrushes, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, White-tipped Doves, Great Kiskadees and a Long-billed Thrasher instead, at the lovely little Frontera Audubon thicket reserve.

Rain was hammering down outside my hotel room that night as a cold front from the northwest pushed through, and my first morning was a little quiet on the field trip to El Canelo ranch with US birding legends Father Tom Pincelli and Shawneen Finnegean. We still enjoyed a nice selection of birds that included Vermillion Flycatchers, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker feeding low down in moss-covered mesquite and a tame Curve-billed Thrasher. We added Couch’s Kingbird and Loggerhead Shrike to the trip list, along with Harris’s Hawk, Common Ground Dove, Belted Kingfisher and Sprague’s Pipit. New warbler species were tallied – a couple of gaudy Yellow-throateds and a Chestnut-sided. Lincoln’s Sparrows skulked in the thickets and a few House Wrens scolded us as we passed. The ranch is also home to some introduced mammals, notably Nilgai and Scimitar-horned Oryx. It is bizarre to see the latter flourishing here now that its original populations in North Africa are extinct in the wild!

I spent another morning cruising the open country of Willacy County to the northeast of Harlingen, where Loggerhead Shrikes and American Kestrels were dotted across the landscape of vast agricultural fields and wind turbines. Sandhill Cranes, Horned Larks and a handful of raptors, notably Northern Harriers and White-tailed and Harris’s Hawks, also brightened my meanderings up and down farm roads in this area. My progress was difficult now that normally bone-dry tracks were either waterlogged or simply under water. At Harlingen Airport, the regular flock of hundreds of smart Bronzed Cowbirds (another of the 30 or so valley specials) were mostly under cars, seeking shelter from the midday sun, either in the shadows or perched on the tires under wheel arches.

Amazon Kingfisher by Mike Watson

Amazon Kingfisher by Mike Watson

Things had been going well with plenty of valley specials already under the belt for most — and even some nice strays –- when Mr Leica USA, Jeff Bouton, turned the festival on its head with a truly stunning find: an Amazon Kingfisher. An ABA code 5 rarity, it was only the second record for the US and it caused a lot of plans to be changed as folks raced to get to the shoulder of Highway 100 where it hung out, only 10 minutes drive from downtown Harlingen. Helpful Jeff was trying to get someone a lifer Ringed Kingfisher when he stopped to check a large kingfisher that flew across the road. When he tracked it down by the small roadside resaco (or ‘ox-bow’ lake) he was amazed to see it was dark green…

It’s not even in the freakin’ book!, I thought when I heard the news. I had originally planned to go further up-river that morning, which would have put me well away from the action, but was persuaded by Robert Kirk and friends to have a more sociable stroll around Santa Ana, only 30 minutes away – does everything happen for a reason? Jeff made hundreds of people very happy with this amaz(on)ing find  — Ohio birding dynamo Jen Brumfield reported that some of her field trip newbies had seen four species of kingfisher on their first ever birding excursion! The friendly local police department closed a lane of the highway to protect the gathered birders. I can’t imagine something like this happening at home in the UK, they would be more likely to be handing out tickets and moving folks on instead. Even ABA first lady Liz Deluna Gordon was out in the highway slowing down curious motorists in passing vehicles. Nice one Lizzie! It was wonderful to enjoy this special bird with so many friends from far and wide.

Large Orange Sulphur Butterfly by Mike Watson

Large Orange Sulphur Butterfly by Mike Watson

Even before all the excitement broke out, Santa Ana had been nice, with my first Olive Sparrow foraging in the understory by the side of one of the paved roads, although things were otherwise quiet here. Other birds included valley specials like White-tipped Dove, Long-billed Thrasher and Black-crested Titmouse and there were also a lot of butterflies on the wing, notably the truly gorgeous Mexican Bluewing. In fact it was impossible to miss the many colourful butterflies in the valley this year; to quote the ABA’s Greg Neise ‘There were so many butterflies in the air that it was difficult to scan for raptors at times.’ Now that is really something! Next year I am hoping to double down and attend the Texas Butterfly Festival in Harlingen, which takes place immediately before the birding festival.

I spent my last morning in the valley well upstream in the Falcon Dam area, following a tip from Michael O’Brien. The valley’s seemingly endless franchise strip peters out after Rio Grande City and more natural-looking desert scrub takes over from here westwards. Just downstream from Falcon Dam, the Rio Grande River at Salineño was very productive. No megas (Muscovy Duck and Red-billed Pigeon are sometimes seen here) but a gorgeous lemon-yellow Audubon’s Oriole was singing in trees near the small feeding station there and several Altamira Orioles were also hanging around. An Osprey, which had been perched by the river, dived in for a fish while several more flew overhead. A pair of massive Ringed Kingfishers zoomed past – another welcome addition to my ABA list. It might soon even be big enough to be worth totaling! Eventually a local farmer backed his pickup to the riverbank to fill a water tank and it was time to head off.

Greater Roadrunner by Mike Watson

Greater Roadrunner by Mike Watson

Moving on to Falcon Dam State Park, I eventually managed to find my main target, Roadrunner! It had been a couple of years since I last saw one and it is one of my favourites. They were foraging furtively on the scrub edges of the access roads, but I managed a few decent photos – though it is always a challenge to squeeze all of their tail into the frame. One of them dispatched a large stick insect in front of me. I couldn’t stop myself singing Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ 1970s hit — and I say roadrunner once, roadrunner twice, we’re in love with this feeling now and we’ll be out all night. The butterfly garden at Falcon Dam was also excellent, adding species like Sickle-winged Skipper, Southern Skipperling and Large Orange Sulphur, as was the small blind at the bird feeding station that allowed some sweet close views of birds including the two Thrashers.

Long-billed Thrasher by Mike Watson

Long-billed Thrasher by Mike Watson

After the final session in the vendors’ market and before the traditional end-of-festival survivors party, I joined friends Sharon ‘Birdchick’ Stiteler, ‘Mr Peru’ Barry Walker and the Urban Birder David Lindo for an impromptu parrot chase around suitably urban Harlingen. This did not take very long at all as Sharon had them staked out to the minute and we saw Green Parakeets  at their traditional pre-roost gathering place outside the Holiday Inn Express (outside Barry’s hotel room window actually!) and then Red-crowned (and the even more dubious Red-lored) Parrots by the Calvary Baptist Church. I also need to say a massive thank to the amazing Marci Madsen Fuller and her team of festival organisers and helpers who make all of this possible every year. It is incredible to see what they have built here, quite simply a blueprint for all birding festivals.

All too soon it was time leave the valley but I still had time for a final fling. A visit to Aransas NWR in South Texas had long been on my list of things to do. I guess all world birders make the pilgrimage here eventually to see the majestic Whooping Cranes on their wintering grounds, and with such conspicuous birds it is more a case of how close the birds are rather than whether or not you are going to see them. The classic way to do this is via a Whooping Crane Tours boat trip out of Rockport on Captain Tommy Moore’s ‘Skimmer’. The boat trip was very enjoyable and Captain Tommy was great fun, as well as being very knowledgeable about the birds of the area. Along with the cranes we saw a good variety of waterbirds including most of the herons and egrets and several shorebirds, including plenty of Western Willets. Kevin Karlson told me recently that research has suggested that all Eastern Willets spend the winter outside the USA so all east coast birds in winter are likely to be Westerns. A total of around 50 species included a Peregrine sheltering under the heron nesting platforms in Carlos Bay and a pair of Hooded Mergansers on a small pool near Sundown Bay.

Whooping Cranes by Mike Watson

Whooping Cranes by Mike Watson

At 1.5 metres tall, the Cranes can be seen from a vast distance and are easily separated from the many Great Egrets by their usually horizontal backs. We were lucky that there were a couple of family groups fairly close to the main shipping channel, otherwise our views could have been much more distant. The coastal landscape here is truly massive and it is very easy to underestimate the size of the vast bays enclosed by the barrier islands… until you check the scale of the map. One of the pairs was also calling to each other, apparently a warning call referring to us so we did not pause here too long. There are not too many birds down to three figures in North America and it was a special privilege to spend some time with the Whooping Cranes.

As you can see, the 20th Annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was a rollercoaster of great birding, great people, adventure, and fun. The only consolation that it is over is anticipation of the 21st Annual RGV Birding Festival next year.

Mike Watson

Mike Watson

Mike Watson lives in Lancashire, England and is a photographer, bird guide, and client manager for Birdquest. Mike started birding at an early age in northeast England and is still a keen ‘local patch’ man, Read More

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