February 27, 2013

Birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Part 2

Here are some more of the sites that we visited on our recent visit to south Texas. What a great trip!

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands

The first of the World Birding Center sites to open, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands offers 40 acres of ponds, butterfly gardens, trails and a visitor center:

The main birding attraction while we were there was a pair of Green Kingfishers. These birds are the smallest kingfishers in North America, significantly smaller than the Belted Kingfishers that are common here in Ohio. The female is on the left and the more brightly colored male is on the right.

Frontera Audubon Center

This 15-acre property in the middle of Weslaco is well-known for attracting neotropical vagrant birds. In past visits, after searching for quite a long time, we have gotten glimpses of Blue Bunting and Crimson Collared Grosbeak here, both very unusual north of the Rio Grande. The property has a delightful water feature at the entrance which attracts Lesser Goldfinches and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. 

Unfortunately, parts of the property are also very attractive to hundreds of Turkey Vultures. Even when they are not roosting the residue that they leave smells pretty awful and I try to avoid that area. Bill (while I'm gagging): "I can't smell a thing!" Ahhh...

This visit featured a Turkey-Vulture look alike, the Zone-tailed Hawk. Since it was nearly sunset, the picture is a bit dim but this is a great bird to find in the US:

In 1981, Jeffrey Glassberg, armed with an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, developed the process of DNA fingerprinting for use in forensic investigations and co-founded a biotech company to commercialize the technique. When he sold his share of the company he turned to his lifelong passion for butterflies. He started the North American Butterfly Association and wrote several books which advocated observing butterflies and dragonflies with binoculars, without using the traditional butterfly collecting techniques of netting and pinning the insects. 

Many years ago Glassberg was in Central Ohio and led a butterfly walk at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park that we were fortunate to be able to attend. Since then the association has grown to over 5000 members and has established the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas on the Rio Grande, which we always try to visit when we are in the valley. Over 200 different butterfly species have been observed on the property!

This year a cold snap in January had reduced butterfly numbers and diversity but we still enjoyed our visit to these extensive gardens which contain both nectar plants and caterpillar food sources. Here are some highlights:

Interestingly, I think that was the only Monarch that we saw the whole week. Its cousin, the Queen, was much more common. I guess most of the Monarchs are wintering in Mexico. The tree that the Monarch is on is called Mexican Wild Olive and it blooms all year, providing nectar for lots of visiting butterflies.

This picture shows one of these small trees, as well as the olive-like fruit:

I really want to go back to the valley in late October or early November. That is when butterfly numbers and diversity are at their peak and migrant birds are coming through as well. We heard about bushes covered with lots of different kinds of butterflies at that time of year and that sounds too good to miss.

Quinta Mazatlan

This Spanish Revival mansion was constructed in 1935 on 15 acres and, at 10,000 square feet, is one of the largest adobe structures in Texas. 

In 1998, the property was up for auction and was purchased by the City of McAllen, and in 2006 it was opened under the management of the Parks and Recreation Department and is one of the World Birding Center sites. It is now used for weddings and other special events, and its surrounding property, both the landscaped portions and the more natural area, is popular with birders and other folks who want to experience a bit of nature in the middle of the city.

We have seen some unusual birds here, but this time most of the action was near the lovely pond:

This Ringed Kingfisher, by far the largest of the 3 kingfishers in North America, perused the scene waiting for the chance to catch a meal. Kingfishers are among my favorite birds and it is always fun to see this south Texas specialty with its imposing beak!

Estero Llano Grande State Park

I may have reserved the best for last. Prior to the mid-2000s, this 230+ acre property was agricultural fields and an RV park. When the World Birding Center concept was initially discussed, the city of Weslaco thought it would be a great idea if one of the sites could be within the city, so that Weslaco could benefit from the educational and recreational opportunities as well as the potential to draw tourist dollars to the area.

The problem was, there was no land available for such a project. To make a long story short, the state stepped in and was helpful in procuring the land, and then park planners got to work and designed a state park specifically for birds and birders. The park was opened in 2006 and has become one of the most popular spots in the Rio Grande Valley. Its habitats, including wetlands of various depths, forest, and thorn scrub support a wide variety of resident and migratory wildlife and are readily visible from several trails, boardwalks and viewing platforms.The name of the park means "big flat wetland" and that is a good description.

We have visited this park several times over the years and have always been impressed by the knowledge and friendliness of park staff and the volunteers. These are some really excellent birders and naturalists! Many of the volunteers have been coming to the valley for the winter for several years, and help out with the frequent bird, butterfly and dragonfly walks.

So here are some scenes from our most recent visit.The first shows the visitor center and the wonderful viewing deck that looks out over many acres of wetland:

The deck is very welcoming for visiting birders:

The guided bird walks start at the feeder area behind the visitor center, where we saw one of the bigger land birds in the area, the turkey-like Plain Chachalaca. This bird is one of the noisier valley residents; click on this link to hear its call and then imagine a whole flock of them calling at dawn!

This park is one of the very few places in the country to reliably see the Common Pauraque during the day. It is a nocturnal bird that roosts on the ground during the day and at night sits in open areas, waits till a moth or other insect comes by, flies up to catch it, and settles back down. If an animal is going to roost on the ground during the day, it had better be hard for predators to spot. See how quickly you can find the bird in this picture:

Here is a closer view of one that isn't quite as well camouflaged:

The best camouflage really has two components: blending in with the background, and staying absolutely still. These birds are doing both; they didn't move at all even with people walking on a trail not 3 feet away.

Alligator Pond is one of my favorite spots here; we always see Black-crowned Night Herons and often spot Harris's Hawks and Green and Ringed Kingfishers (in addition to the resident alligators). The Yellow-crowned Night Herons were particularly photogenic:

The trails go up and over a dike which looks over agricultural fields and an arm of the Rio Grande. Herons hung out in the fields, while Black-necked Stilts, Avocets, White Pelicans and even a Spoonbill were feeding in the water. 

On our way back to the visitor center we checked out the cattail marshes along the way:

Lots of ducks of various species were enjoying the warm Texas winter. On the left is a Ring-necked Duck (which probably should be called a Ring-billed Duck) and on the right is a Northern Pintail, among the largest and most beautiful waterfowl. 

We also did a really interesting butterfly walk at the park with one of the naturalists. This park, like so many others in the valley, provides extensive nectar and caterpillar food plants to attract a lot of different butterflies, including strays from Mexico. They even maintain "feeding logs" smeared with a mixture such as bananas, beer and brown sugar to attract those butterflies that don't frequent flowers. Here is a picture of a Blomfild's Beauty (quite rare even in south Texas) that we saw here last year on one of the logs:

We saw over 20 different butterfly species on the walk and here are a few from this park that I haven't posted before. Of these, the American Snout is the only one that you'll see in Ohio. We looked long and hard on this trip for the Mexican Bluewing which is uncommon but usually present; this photo is from last year and it is such a cool insect that I had to post its picture here.

Every month the park offers a night hike when there is a full moon and we were lucky enough to be there on the right day. It was such a treat to be out hiking at night in the balmy air in shirt-sleeved temperatures. It was a clear night and flashlights weren't necessary for safe walking; the moon provided plenty of illumination.

We did use some lights to find wildlife by their eyeshine. The pauraques that I mentioned above were out on the paths waiting for large insects to fly by and their eyes shone bright red in the light beam. Spider eyes glowed in the grasses like crystals. 

The leaders had small blacklight flashlights in addition to their regular ones, and these illuminated what was for me probably the coolest thing of the entire trip : 

A fluorescent scorpion! Oh my goodness. I had never heard of such a thing but apparently scorpions glow in the presence of certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light due to chemicals in the cuticle. The function of this fluorescence is a mystery but may have to do with light perception. Follow this link for a discussion of this phenomenon.

Scorpions were revealed just about anywhere that the trip leaders panned the blacklights. I was amazed at how common they were. Most were in the dry grasses, and when we looked at them with normal white light they were almost invisible since their color blended in so well. They hide during the daytime, coming out at night to hunt small insects and other types of prey. I don't think I'll be wearing sandals in the southwest any time soon, particularly at night!

So I totally think I need one of these little blacklight flashlights. The gift shop at the state park had sold out of them when we were there but I'm sure I can find something similar online. A friend told me that some caterpillars fluoresce so this summer I'll be checking that out. And of course many minerals in rocks are fluorescent too. These are the same lights that they use on TV on CSI to reveal bodily fluids; I think I'll pass on that!


  1. Those flashlights were in common use among backpackers and canyoneers in the slickrock canyons of Utah. I was tempted, but decided that if I knew how many were out there I would never leave the tent to pee during the night!

  2. After reading that there was a Common Pauraque in those two photos, I still had trouble seeing it... even in the bottom one. Amazing camo!

    When we lived in Texas I was told that people who moved into new subdivisions (ones where the land had previously been grazing pasture or fields), it was a common problem to have scorpions invade their houses. The scorpions didn't understand that this was no longer their habitat. I heard that they would fluoresce under a black light, but I had never seen that before. Cool, yet creepy, yet cool. :D

    It sounds like you had a great vacation.