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!

February 21, 2013

Birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Part 1

Several years ago some smart people came up with the idea of establishing the "World Birding Center" in south Texas. Stretching for 120 miles from South Padre Island to the small town of Roma, the 9 sites which comprise the "center" (some new and some pre-dating the network concept) attract birders from all over the world, injecting valuable tourist dollars into the local economies of this area. 

In addition to these 9 sites which cooperatively market themselves, birders are also attracted to Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges, Falcon State Park, Sabal Palm Sanctuary near Brownsville, Salineno, Frontera Audubon Center and Anzalduas County Park. Added to all of these areas is the National Butterfly Center in Mission so clearly there are plenty of reasons to escape to the lower Rio Grande Valley in the winter!

On our most recent trip to Texas we stayed for several days in McAllen, which is roughly in the middle of the valley. All of the sites mentioned above can be reached within 2 hours of McAllen so it is a very convenient location. I could write a blog post about each of the places we visited but I'll try to just hit the highlights.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge protects a variety of habitats along the shores of the Laguna Madre. It has tremendous wildlife diversity, and is one of a very few places in the US that supports the endangered ocelot. Aplomado Falcons, Harris' Hawks and many migratory birds find suitable habitat here. A 15 mile auto route and many trails give visitors quite a bit of access to the refuge. 

Unfortunately, the area has experienced considerable drought over the past dozen or so years, and many of the pools that used to support a wide variety of waterfowl are dry. We still enjoyed our visits there, and this is probably my favorite view of the refuge:

The tall plants in the photo go by the name of Spanish Dagger, and are members of the yucca family. They are favored perches of the endangered Aplomado Falcon, and we were lucky enough to see one on this trip.

Speaking of daggers, the native plants in south Texas are nearly all armed with very impressive thorns. I can't imagine how early residents managed to get around and to clear the land. Here is an amazing specimen appropriately called the Allthorn Bush; it is leafless and all its photosynthesis occurs in the twigs and thorns.

Hanging out in one of the drainage pipes of the visitor center was a very cooperative gray-phase screech owl:

Sabal Palm Sanctuary

This property, south of Brownsville, preserves tropical forest that at one time covered 40,000 acres of the lower Rio Grande Valley and has been nearly obliterated by the valley's extensive agricultural development and the fact that the wood of the Sabal Palms was rot resistant and valuable for piers and pilings:

Entering the sanctuary involves driving though a break in the wall that has been erected all along the border by Homeland Security, and there is always a Border Patrol vehicle stationed there: 

Feeding stations and ponds attract a variety of wildlife to the sanctuary. This Great Kiskadee, a large,noisy flycatcher, is one of my favorites:

Behind the sanctuary office is a garden which attracted butterflies, several of which were new to us:

Note that the Dusky-blue Groundstreak in the center photo has had an encounter with a predator, probably a bird. This butterfly is a hairstreak (several of which occur in Ohio), which typically have antenna-like projections at the end of their hindwings. These, coupled with eyespots, fool the predators into thinking that they are attacking the head of the insect, which would be fatal. Losing a bit of the hindwing is far preferable for the butterfly!

Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park

This park, headquarters of the World Birding Center, is one of the most popular birding destinations in the valley.  Park staff and volunteers maintain bird feeders at several locations, in natural settings amid Texas Ebony and Honey Mesquite trees.

When we were there most of the bird activity was at the first feeding station as we walked into the park. We were really amazed to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird with a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, as this is not a common bird in the valley:

A young Cooper's Hawk decided to hang out near the feeders, and although it made a couple of attempts to catch birds we never saw it actually made a successful strike:

The Clay-colored Thrush used to be quite rare in the US but in recent years it has been commonly seen at Bentsen and readily comes to the feeders. Mostly a neotropical bird, it is the national bird of Costa Rica. Its song is reminiscent of its relative, our familiar American Robin.

Here is a close-up of a Great Kiskadee, one of the noisier birds of the valley with its loud "Kis-ka-dee" call:

Falcon State Park

This park has a distinct desert flavor, hosting a variety of cacti and desert wildlife. Typical birds that can be seen here include the Pyrrhuloxia, which, not surprisingly, is in the same genus as our Northern Cardinal:

and the Cactus Wren, which was building a nest in this Spanish Dagger plant:

Other desert birds in this area include Green-tailed Towhee, Verdin, Greater Roadrunner,  and Scaled Quail. Feeders are maintained by winter RV residents who are quite friendly and helpful. I stepped into the park's recreation center at just the right time--chocolate chip cookies were fresh out of the oven and delicious!


This tiny town near Falcon State Park offers access to the Rio Grande and for many years has had a bird feeding area maintained by volunteers that has attracted several species that are more typical in Mexico. This year, the site's usual location had closed but the same volunteers had set up feeders on adjacent U.S. Fish and Wildlife land. 

Very basic seating is set up near the feeders giving excellent photo opportunities, almost forcing us to take lots of pictures, most of which (by far) were terrible!

But a few were decent, so here is some eye candy! First, I adore these Green Jays, and boy were they excited when the volunteers put out the peanut butter:

Here is is closeup of this gorgeous, crazy-looking creature:

Ahh--that guy sure would brighten up an Ohio winter! It seems like nearly every tree or shrub here has thorns, and this habitat is aptly named "thorn scrub". 

Here is another bird, not too dissimilar to our Downy Woodpecker. This one likes dry areas and is called the Ladderbacked Woodpecker:

 I love the delicate spots, awesome bill and red eye of this Long-Billed Thrasher:

And the orioles! What wonderful jolts of color. Four different ones are possible in the Valley; this year we saw the most common, the Altamira Oriole:

and one that is relatively uncommon, the Audubon's Oriole:

And here is a familiar face! The Northern Cardinals almost seemed a bit brighter in Texas than at home:

We had a nice tailgate lunch down by the Rio Grande:

and then headed back down the river.

Roma Bluffs

On the way back to McAllen from Salineno we stopped at Roma Bluffs, another World Birding Center site. Located halfway between Laredo and Brownsville, this town is one of Texas's oldest cities, founded in 1765. Its economy was based on steamships traveling the Rio Grande to and from Brownsville. At the visitor center feeders attract hummingbirds and orioles but the butterfly garden is also a big attraction:

The Roma Bluffs garden also had one of the more interesting plants that we saw throughout the valley, the Texas Mountain Laurel. Looking nothing like the eastern Mountain Laurel of the Appalachians, it is in the legume family and has gorgeous sprays of purple flowers in the spring. At this time of year the woody pods are quite visible and inside the pods are bright red seeds:

Another name for this tree is Mescal Bean. The bright red seeds have been used by native cultures for ornaments and ceremonial purposes; they contain the alkaloid cytisine which is related to nicotine and is acknowledged to be a potent narcotic and hallucinogen. I don't think I'll be wearing any mescal bean necklaces any time soon!

The town of Roma is quite historic, with several interesting buildings including Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church, built in 1853:

Viewing areas along the Rio Grande often feature Border Patrol vehicles:

and as usual my cell phone thought I was in Mexico at this point and sent me texts promising to charge me extra if I dared to make a call or send a message!

February 14, 2013

Entering Tropical Texas

South Padre Island, near Brownsville, Texas, might be best known as a popular spring break destination for midwestern college students. The beaches along the Gulf of Mexico are beautiful (although I've seen them littered with Portuguese Men-o-War) and the Laguna Madre side of this barrier island is lovely in its own way. Indeed, having been there during March many years ago, we can confirm that the place definitely rocks at that time of year. The main road is lined with beach shops, tattoo parlors, bars, hotels, restaurants, and wierd giant critters:

But when you get to the end of the developed part of the main road, the scene changes dramatically. Two fairly new facilities along the Laguna Madre offer access to some excellent birding and great scenery. These include the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center with its viewing tower:

And the South Padre Island Convention Center:

These facilities are adjacent to each other, and have interconnecting boardwalks that allow visitors access to vast marshes and the Laguna Madre. 

The Laguna Madre is a very shallow and hypersaline (saltier than the ocean) bay that is an ecologically important and relatively unspoiled lagoon ecosystem. Thanks to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Padre Island National Seashore, 75% of its shores are protected. Fish, shrimp and crabs feed on the lagoon's abundant seagrass beds, which in turn support a vast array of birds including 75% of the continent's wintering Redhead ducks. 

For a week before we left Columbus we had been reading internet posts about a very rare bird that was being seen at the convention center property: the tiny Flammulated Owl, so named because of some orange-ish feathers around its face. Typically it inhabits mountainous terrain with coniferous forest.

You never know how long these "lost" rare birds will hang around (or survive), but we knew it was worth a try to find it since we were planning to visit this spot anyway. As luck would have it, when we walked up to the convention center several birders had the owl in their spotting scopes!

Actually, I should say that they had "parts" of the owl in their scopes. It was buried deep in dense vegetation and was extremely difficult to see. The next morning we got a somewhat better view.

This tiny owl is still being seen as of mid-February and may indeed spend the winter on South Padre Island.

Near the owl was this gorgeous plant called a Mexican Love Vine (Senecio confusum). 

It was full of Queen butterflies, which are similar to the familiar Monarchs but, among other differences, they have less prominent black veining on the upper side. 

After our owl excitement and butterfly viewing we went out on the boardwalks and had a wonderful time in the balmy air checking out the birds in the marshes and open waters of the Laguna Madre. Here are a few of the "waders" that generally stay in the marshy areas:

The boardwalks provide covered viewing platforms out by the lagoon:

The Black Skimmers put on quite a show:

And a variety of shorebirds looked for a final meal before sunset. Here is a Marbled Godwit:

and some aptly named Black-necked Stilts:

It is hard for us to leave a place like this because the longer we stay the more we see. Finally, though, the light was just about gone, leaving a lovely sunset.