Trip Report: Texas Whooping Cranes & The Lower Rio Grande

Source: High Lonesome BirdTours
Guide: Forrest Davis
Date: February 24 – March 3, 2012

Editor’s note: all trip reports remain in unedited, original condition.


I picked up our six participants at 4:00 PM, and we drove to Rockport. We stopped along the way at Indian Point Pier where we saw a large number of waterbirds. We had a flock of 8 roosting Roseate Spoonbills; Reddish Egret; Tri-colored Heron; Laughing Gulls; Greater Yellowlegs; Common Loon; Brown Pelican; Double-crested Cormorant; Least Sandpiper; Black-crowned Night-Heron among the 34 species we saw on our drive to Rockport. We had American Avocets farther down the bay along with a Snowy Plover; Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers; Crested Caracara.

We arrived at our beachfront hotel about 5:45, cleaned up, did our bird list, and went to dinner at Latitude 28.02. As usual, we had a lovely dinner with our margarita oysters, backfin crabmeat, butterfly shrimp and an excellent Pinot Gris.


We left at 6:15 for breakfast on a very cold and rainy morning. it continued raining as we drove to the boat landing to board the M/V Skimmer. Captain Tommie was game to go out, so we headed into the rain and wind. It was truly cold! But, we got our usual excellent close-ups of Whooping Cranes along with many other wading birds, shorebird, and ducks. We had a couple of good looks at Peregrine Falcon perched on a buoy. Hooded Merganser was a treat as well. There were lots of Redheads and a few Common Goldeneyes. Other birds we hadn’t seen yesterday: American Oystercatcher, Royal & Caspian Terns, Marbled Godwit, White Ibis, Eared Grebe, Bufflehead, Little Blue Heron. We returned at 10:15, wet and cold, but satisfied. We drove around the Rockport area until lunch perusing large flocks of ducks, most of which were Redheads, but also included Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon, American Coot. Also, Neotropic Cormorant and Snowy Egret were abundant along the shoreline. After lunch, we drove out across Route 35 to see what we could find. Nothing much except a couple of Loggerhead Shrikes. We started towards Kingsville, but stopped at the Indian Point park area again. Folks got some good pictures from the elevated walkway, and we did see one Seaside Sparrow along with many Savanna Sparrows and a Song Sparrow. We continued on to Hazel Bazemore County Park off a Route 77. We saw our first Great Kiskadees, Green Jays and Long-billed Thrashers, all unusual this far north of the Rio Grande Valley. We also found several Pyrhhuloxias, very unusual this far east. Blue-winged Teal was a new duck for us. We spent a couple of hours and saw many birds in the pond.

We finished our drive to Kingsville, had dinner, and headed to be for our early departure of 5:15 AM to the King Ranch.


Departed for King Ranch at 5:15 AM. Had breakfast at What-a-Burger, then met Jim Sinclair at Ranch Headquarters. We drove 45 minutes to the far south division of the ranch. There were many raptors perched up this morning including several Harris’s Hawks, White-tailed Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks. We also found an unusual juvenile Ferruginous Hawk. Of course, our main goal was the Ferruginous Pygmy- Owl. We tried for it about 10 minutes on the road, then walked in about 100 yards where one immediately began calling. We found it in about five minutes, and everyone got excellent scope views. We then headed to the pasture that harbors Sprague’s Pipit. We had made an earlier run without success, but this time one came out in the road tracks and gave everyone decent looks. We left King Ranch about 1:45 for Laguna.


We headed out about 6:30 originally hoping to get in to see if you could find the Golden-crowned Warbler. Unfortunately, Frontera Audubon is closed on Monday, so that didn’t work. We then headed to Estero Llano World Birding Center to see what we could find. We knew a female Rose-throated Becard was being seen periodically in the old trailer park. It was drizzling lightly, not ideal conditions. Several other people were looking, but without success. We did have a surprise bird, a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, well out of habitat. It might have been blown in from the desert areas in the storm on Sunday.

We saw lots of waterbirds including some new ones: Least Grebe, Ring-necked Duck, Anhinga, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron. We also found the pair of Pauraques roosting on the ground next to Kingfisher Pond. We had our first Buff-bellied Hummingbird of the trip (a lifer for several of the group) at the visitor center gardens. We also had our first Curve-billed Thrasher. A White-tailed Kite was hunting over the ponds, and we got excellent looks of one perching along the canal.

We left Llano Estero after lunch and headed for Santa Ana National Wildlife Preserve. We found our first Altamira Oriole at the visitor center feeders. On our walk to the ponds, we saw Ladder-backed and Downy Woodpeckers. We also had two Solitary Sandpipers hanging around several Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Only a Belted Kingfisher at the ponds, no Green or Ringed.

We climbed the observation tower about 4:00 PM. Immediately, we observed an adult Hook-billed Kite soaring at some distance. We also had a perched Gray Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk as well as a soaring Peregrine Falcon.

We had excellent barbecue at Fat Daddy’s in Westlaco and headed back to the hotel.


We started the day by going to Allan William’s garden in Pharr. Within a minute, we had spotted the Crimson-collared Grosbeak (female). She posed repeatedly for the cameras. We left after 30 minutes or so and headed for Frontera Audubon for another go a the Golden-crowned Warbler. We spent about two hours there, but without success. We did see two Clay-colored Thrushes briefly. They were quite scarce this year in the valley. We also had good looks at Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

We made the one hour drive from Frontera to Sabal-Palm afterwards. It was very windy and difficult to find much. We did have Blue-headed Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler and Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, all new for the trip.

After lunch, we drove to South Padre Island and spent some time at the World Birding Center there. We heard a rail calling and at first though it was a Clapper. But, the call was much lower and louder. Shortly, a King Rail emerged from the marsh! Minutes later, an American Bittern came skulking out of the reeds and gave everyone great looks. Finally, a Sora came out behind it and scurried about on the mud flats. Quite an excellent visit we had there! We returned and had dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, Ciro’s, in Weslaco.


We left early to get to Frontera for the Golden-crowned Warbler and Clay-colored Thrush. We struck on both of those, but we did have a close flyover of Red-crowned Parrots. We spent about an hour waiting at the feeders, but no luck on the Clay-colored Thrush. We left for another visit to Estero Llano. No luck with the Becard which had not been seen for a couple of days. We did find Green and Ringed Kingfisher at Kingfisher Pond. We left about 12:00 for Bentsen-Rio Grande Park. It was very quiet there, but we did manage to find a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet.


We were off at 7:30 this morning, packed and headed for Zapata. I hoped to get to Salineno by about 9:00, and we made it by about 9:15. The Massuchesetts group was there, but had not seen the Brown Jay or the Red-billed Pigeon. While standing with them on the river, and Zone-tailed Hawk flew into view and was seen well about 10 minutes. At the feeders, we had Audubon’s Oriole and Northern Bobwhite, both new for the trip. They had not seen the Brown Jay since yesterday morning at 8:15, and the site host believed the jay had left permanently.

We left a little after 11 for El Rio RV Park at Chapeno. The owners reported they had seen Brown Jays the last couple of days, though maybe only one. We went down to the river to have lunch. Nothing much was happening. We came back up to leave, and they told us the Brown Jay had just been at the feeder. I left my card for them to call if they bird came back in.

As we were pulling out, I saw them all waving. I backed up, got out, and sure enough, Brown Jay was calling over my head. He soon made an appearance, perching on a telephone poll for excellent photos. According to the owners, this is the first Brown Jay that has shown up in five years. It came in initially yesterday in the morning. Looks like it might be the Salineno jay that’s stopped showing up there. We went to the library pond after checking in, but no success for the White-collared Seedeater. We were able to get up to San Ignacio before it got too dark but, again, no success for the Seedeater.


Off to San Ignacio at 6:30 AM. Got there and spent about two hours looking for WCSE. No luck. Joel Ruiz, the unofficial monitor for them, had not gotten any reports for a few days. We drove from there to Zapata pond and spent an hour looking there without success.

Headed to Salineno again. Found our trip Cactus Wren and Black-throated Sparrow. At the feeders, we had House Wren and Hooded Oriole, both new for the trip. We spent a couple of pleasant hours there. We heard from a couple people who arrived at the feeders that they had found the seedeaters next to the golf course in Zapata. We headed back there and did find a male and female in the general area. We then returned to Salineno in hopes of finding Red-billed Pigeon, but no luck.


Uneventful three hour drive back to the Corpus Christi airport where I dropped everyone for their flights back home.

– Forrest

Laura Kammermeier

Laura Kammermeier is the creator and managing editor of Nature Travel Network. She is a writer, website producer, traveler, birder and a birding/nature travel consultant. Laura has traveled Uganda, Europe, Ecuador, Belize, Honduras, Israel, and throughout the United States Read More


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