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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

Texas - mainly Rio Grande Valley

November 2007

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction
With a business trip to Houston, Texas in early November 2007, this was an opportunity I could not resist for some birding and photography afterwards! Having previously visited the USA several times, a little research quickly suggested that the relatively nearby Rio Grande Valley (RGV) should be a good destination for finding new species and hopefully some productive photography. The RGV has several essentially Mexican species which reach their northern distribution limits in this corner of the USA. For a long time, I was also tempted by the Whooping Cranes which winter on the Texas Gulf coast, in the Rockport area. However, in the event, with only 5 days at my disposal I decided that a round trip of about 400 miles was just too much for connecting with one albeit special species.

This was of course a self organised trip - I was not part of any organised tour group. Nor was I with the family, which allowed for early starts and prolonged photo/birding sessions!

General
Flights
For the business part of this trip, I flew Continental direct from Gatwick to Houston. To get to the RGV, I took the short flight from Houston International to Harlingen, also with Continental. My return was by the same route and carrier.

Accommodation
I had pre-booked some budget hotel/motel accommodation at various places, but in the event this was probably not necessary, as everywhere seemed to have vacancies, especially during the week.

I changed my plans somewhat during my stay, and ended up spending 4 nights in a Studio 6 in McAllen and 2 nights in the Palace Inn motel on the eastern edge of Brownsville. Both places were fine, although the former was very convenient for other basics such as breakfast/dinner restaurants. See end of account for further details.

Maps
Maps were somewhat problematic. I purchased a standard Texas state roadmap (Mapsco) at Houston airport, but this was too small a scale to be much use. It did however have useful town plans of the Brownsville/Harlingen and also McAllen areas. The free map provided by the hire car company (National) was actually better for the RGV as a whole. I had also printed off more detailed maps of key sites from Google Maps in advance of the trip - these were also useful at times. A large scale map of the RGV would have been handy, but I don't know if one exists.

Birding information
For bird ID, I used my well worn copy of the National Geographic's "The Field Guide to the Birds of North America", which dates from my first birding visit to the USA, over 20 years ago.

For site guides, the book "A Birder's guide to the Rio Grande Valley", by Lockwood et al is the standard for the region. The edition I purchased was from 1999, and suffered from being significantly out of date on several of the sites visiting information. Also, I found this book was considerably over optimistic - going on at some length about rarities (which weren't around of course) as is the tendency with these types of guides.

I also spent some considerable time checking out the Internet - there are plenty of trip reports for Texas, but only a few covered the RGV area in early winter. One of the best of these was by the energetic Phil Jeffrey.

Many of the sites visited have their own websites, although in some cases even the information there proved to be out of date! Click on the hyperlinks on the site names below to access these sites. Also, the on-line Rare Bird Alert for Texas provided some information - although it appeared that few if any rarities were present at the time of my visit.

Weather
Generally the weather was hot - unseasonably so according to the locals. Temperatures generally peaked in the early afternoon in the high 20's or low 30's C, with high humidity. Amounts of cloud (a key factor for photography) were variable. Most days there was a fair amount of cloud during the middle part of the day, although early mornings and around dusk tended to be clearer. On my last day, a cold front has passed through and it was positively cool (low to mid 20's)!

Maybe because of the high midday temperatures, it was soon apparent that early starts were most productive, as bird activity was generally much higher in the first couple of hours of daylight than later on. Sunrise was around 06:45, but unfortunately, many of the reserves didn't open until relatively late (8-9am). In a few cases access was possible earlier than the opening times.

Photos
All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 350D with EF400mm/f5.6 lens, usually mounted on a tripod - apart from the flight shots. For a few, a x1.4 teleconverter was also used. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 3.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Dragonflies
Various locations in the Rio Grande Valley, notably the alligator pond at Laguna Atascosta and the Reseca trail at Sabal Palm were very good for dragonflies - for further details and photos click
here.

Daily Account

5 - 9 November 2007
For the business part of this trip, I was based in the Kemah Boardwalk Inn which is in southern Houston, on the shore of Galveston Bay. This was a tourist resort - almost like a mini theme park, with many restaurants, a 'toy' train, roller coaster etc! There was however some reasonable birding to be had even from my room's balcony - with plenty of the expected US water birds, such as Brown and American White Pelicans, Great (White) & Snowy Egrets, with Black-crowned Night Herons coming in around dusk. More local to this part of the USA were several Great-tailed Grackles scavenging around the restaurants. Walking along the Boardwalk, there was a good view over the bay, with passing Caspian and Royal Terns. Also, the odd close fly-by Pelican, which allowed this pic:

American While Pelican, Kemah Boardwalk, Houston (click to enlarge)

American While Pelican, Kemah Boardwalk, Houston (click to enlarge)

Laughing Gull - plenty of these at the Kemah Boardwalk

9 November 2007
Pendleton Park, Harlingen
For the birding part of this trip, I arrived at Harlingen airport late afternoon. By the time I had collected my hire car, the sun was already getting low in the sky, so I decided to head for the nearby Pendleton Park, which was reputed to be a site for roosting Red-fronted Parrots. With minimal effort, here I found four RGV specialities - two without even needing to leave the car! These were Bronzed Cowbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and a brilliant male Vermillion Flycatcher. Also, as dusk approached a flock of Black-bellied Whistling (Tree) Duck flew over - they are apparently also found on the pond in the park! A number of birders also emerged around dusk - from a birding festival which had been on this week, but no Parrots appeared. I was subsequently told that the Parrots had been very difficult to pin down during the festival week, so I didn't try too hard to find them myself.

This brief evening visit made an excellent start to the birding phase of this trip. I then drove in the dark west to McAllen, where I stayed for the next four nights

Bronzed Cowbird

Vermillion Flycatcher

Bronzed Cowbird, Pendleton Park, Harlingen

Male Vermillion Flycatcher

10 November 2007
Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen
Only just before flying out, I found mention on the web of this little known, compact urban site, which was very close to where I was staying in McAllen. Checking out their website, the species list sounded promising, so I decided to give it a try first thing on my first morning. Arriving before the official opening time of 08:00, I was welcomed by one new RGV species - Curve-billed Thrasher in the car park, and another Golden-fronted Woodpecker on the drive up to the house/reception. The grounds in front of the house then produced a distant but adequate view of another target bird - Buff-bellied Hummingbird. Two lifers before opening time! It was then around 08:00, so I paid the minimal entry fee and went to the feeders just behind the house. Here were several Plain Chachalacas, and the omnipresent Green Jays. A bit of waiting produced a brief view of the other local hummingbird - Ruby-throated, and then another species which I couldn't initially identify. Only by looking on Google images afterwards, and comparing with my photo, did I decide it must have been a Clay-colored Robin - a local scarcity if not rarity. (The pic of this bird in the National Geographic book is pretty wide of the mark).

This site also had a short (0.4 mile) trail which I wandered around at least twice in my c. 3 hr stay here. This trail had another more secluded feeding station, which was better when groups of other people (non birders) began appearing, with inevitable disturbance. Good birds here included various other RGV targets - Long-billed Thrasher, Inca Dove, Great Kiskadee and Orange Crowned Warbler. Interesting small passerines on this site also included Tufted (black-crested) Titmouse, Blue-Gray Gnatcather and the ever spectacular Black and White Warbler.

This was a great start to my first full day, with 9 lifers! I can thoroughly recommend an early morning visit to this site, which had easy access and more birds and better stocked feeders than many of the supposedly 'premier' sites, I visited later.

Photo opportunities were also good at the feeding stations, although the light wasn't brilliant. Here are some of the results I obtained at this site:

Clay-colored Robin, Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen

Clay-colored Robin, Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen

Black & White Warbler

Great Kiskadee Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee, Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen

Long-billed Thrasher Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher Curve-billed Thrasher
Green Jay Common Ground Dove
Green Jay Common Ground Dove

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
The Lockwood book describes this site as "providing the best winter birding in the Lower Valley". The park's own website modestly talks about it being "the crown jewel of Rio Grande Valley parks". For some reason all these parks see fit to term themselves, with typical American reserve, "World Birding Centres"! I can only think that all this hyperbole refers to this parks former heyday, when RV's were allowed in, and numerous feeding stations and drips were set up. For some years now, RV's and indeed all vehicles have been banned from the park. The place had a neglected almost derelict feel to it, and according to other birders I met elsewhere, the number of birds visible has declined dramatically, with some no longer considering it even worth a visit.

A further complication is access, and a reasonably long walk-in is needed. I therefore decided to hire a bicycle at a cost of $5, which proved a bit challenging to ride, with all the photo gear I was carrying!

The start of my visit here was around 13:00 - not a good time of day, and certainly activity was at a low ebb when I arrived. The feeding station by the old entrance seemed to be populated only by a herd of Plain Chachalacas and the Ebony Grove station further on was also quiet. The famous trailer loop had a couple of feeding stations, but these had only the now familiar Chachalacas, Green Jay and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. However, the second station did provide some photo opportunities, which passed the time at least:

Green Jay Green Jay

Green Jays at Bentsen

With the midday heat abating, I decided it would be worth moving on, so I wobbled back on the bike to the Ebony Grove feeding station. Immediately on arrival (at around 4pm), I struck pure gold in the form of a pair of the brilliant Altamira Oriole on the feeders - a real RGV speciality, and one I was very much hoping for! I was pretty lucky with this sighting - I later met a couple who had visited in the morning and found no Orioles and no suitable food for them at the feeders (oranges). They had then complained at the visitor centre who promised to go out and redress the matter. It appears I (and one or two others) were the beneficiaries of this! Unfortunately the Orioles were too distant for good photos, and moved off and didn't re-appear when I moved closer. Another new bird giving only distant views at these feeders was White-tipped Dove pottering around at the back, in addition to the now usual Chachalacas and Green Jays. Also, my only clear view of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker (another RGV species) was here.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker Plain Chachalaca
Golden-fronted Woodpecker Plain Chachalaca

Next stop at Bentsen was the Kingfisher overlook which was very quiet in the late afternoon, but I had a further success along the main entry road on my way out - a local told me the nearby loud raptor calls were from a Gray Hawk. I also managed to get a glimpse of both adult and juvenile in flight. So, a somewhat mixed visit to Bentsen, but things certainly looked up towards the end of the day.

Having returned my bike, I headed back to McAllen to try for Plain Parakeets. My information said try 10th street on the north side of town, between Violet and Dove. Passing Violet, I stopped at the first opportunity, and was amazed to see almost immediately a distant flock of Parakeets assembling for roost. I managed to drive closer, and take some photos from the car park of the local supermarket! This made for a good end to a very satisfying day.

Plain Parakeets Plain Parakeet

Plain Parakeets at McAllen on 10th street between Violet and Dove (streets)

11 November 2007
Santa Ana NWR
Another early-ish start saw me arriving at the approach road to Santa Ana (another key RGV site) at around 07:40, some 20mins before opening time. It was somewhat frustrating to find the road closed by a gate, so the only thing was to sit and wait until somebody appeared to open up! At the visitor centre, I paid the usual small entry fee, and found to my surprise that cars are no longer allowed in, despite what is said on the park's own website. Only a non birder friendly tram is available to take people into the further reaches of this park.

So I walked along the shortest trail to the nearby Willow Lake, giving the feeding station by the visitor centre only a cursory look over - the only one operational in the whole park. At the Willow Lake, the trail runs along the shore with three fairly poorly designed look-out points (they don't seem to know about proper hides here!). Nevertheless there were some reasonable birds here, especially early on before too many people arrived to scare them off! Least Grebe and Harris Hawk were lifers, while Northern Harrier, Green Kingfisher and Greater Yellowlegs were quite notable. Other waders (or shorebirds as they are called here), included a flock of Wilson's Snipe, and Lesser Yellowlegs. The surrounding trails seemed pretty quiet apart from a few difficult to spot Olive Sparrows, and a few other of the now customary warblers etc.

Moving on towards the Pintail lakes, I went past a small pool which had an obliging Least Grebe, but heavy shade made for difficult photography.

Least Grebe
Backlit Greater Yellowlegs Least Grebe in a shady pool

At Pintail Lakes, views were distant, and I wished I had brought my 'scope today. Some of the lakes were completely dry, but one had a good selection of waders (sorry shorebirds), with American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt quite obvious despite the distance. More difficult were probable Stilt Sandpipers, possible Dowichers and the odd smaller 'peep'. I assumed (wrongly as it turned out) that I would get closer views of these and other waders later in the trip, when I moved to the coast. It was also quite warm here, and I after a while I returned to the visitor centre and car.

Santa Ana also had some dragonflies, and an impressive collection of very colourful butterflies, including one by the visitor centre which was a real rarity. Unlike the others, it stayed put and allowed itself to be photographed. Others were much less obliging!

Frontera Audubon Thicket, Weslaco
I arrived here shortly after lunch - not a good time of day. There was a long and interesting bird list in the visitor reception from earlier the same day (presumably first thing), although there were no major rarities present. However, this small, urban site (a bit like Quinta Mazatlan but with an overgrown large pond/small lake) was very quiet and I saw nothing new. The feeders were all in heavy shade which was no good for photography but did give better views of Inca and White-tipped Dove than I'd had previously. Also a Black and White Warbler was around. I did meet a 'real' birder lugging a Canon 500mm lens with tripod and flash around, who usefully, it turned out, recommended an early start for my planned trip for tomorrow - more of which below.

At around 15:30, there didn't seem to be much point in staying here much longer, so I decided to try the sewage ponds at McAllen. Big mistake! They took sometime to find, and then there was no evidence that birders were allowed in, let alone welcome, so I departed without seeing anything.

12 November 2007
Salineno
An early start saw me on the road around 06:00, west bound along US 83 heading towards Salineno which was 60+ miles away. This road is not particularly fast, and the urban sprawl didn't end until west of Roma, whereupon the much drier, more desert like terrain was immediately apparent. A Crested Caracara flew over the road, before I turned left on the small road down towards the Rio Grande signed Salineno. Just a little way down this road, I came to an abrupt halt at the sight of some birds on the wire fence right by the road. These were desert specialities, in the form of the exotic looking (& named) Pyrrhuloxia (a nice lifer), but also notable were Lark and Black-throated Sparrows.

I didn't linger here long because I wanted to get to the feeder site by the river at 'opening time' of 07:30, which I just about made. Parking was at the end of the road by the river, and I then walked back up the road a little way, and then right along a track, to find a lone RV, and a feeding station with numerous picnic chairs arranged for birders to watch from! Apparently, this used to be manned by the increasingly elderly DeWinds, but now for the first winter in many years they had not made the trip.

Volunteers were manning this site for a few weeks and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people who were doing this (I didn't get their name) when I was there - without them, none of the following pics would have been possible. This morning certainly proved to be the highlight of my trip. Whether it will be possible to keep this excellent site going remains to be seen, but I have my doubts - I was the only birder that morning at least. For future birders visiting the region, it would be a great loss if there were no winter feeders to bring the birds in so close..

This is the site in the RGV for orioles, and I hoped for all three species, which duly appeared one after the other. First up was a nice Altamira (as already seen at Bentsen), closely followed by the rarer Audubon's, and finally after a bit of a wait a splendid Hooded showed up. All three in only an hour or so - excellent! There may even have been pairs of these birds, but I was too busy taking pics to count!

Altamira Oriole Altamira Oriole at Salineno

Altamira Oriole at Salineno (click right image to enlarge)

Audubon's Oriole at Salineno

Hooded Oriole at Salineno

Other 'goodies' at Salineno included the somewhat less spectacular White-winged Dove (my first siting) & Lincoln Sparrow, as well as good views on and around the feeders of Olive Sparrow and Orange-crowned Warbler.

Orange-crowned Warbler White-winged Dove

Orange-crowned Warbler

White-winged Dove

At around 09:00, I was told this had been a pretty successful morning, and that there was unlikely to be anything new from now on. So we took a short walk down to the Rio Grande, to see what could be found there. After a bit of wait, three noisy Ringed Kingfisher appeared. Raptors included masses of Turkey and Black Vulture, and a highly probable Hook-billed Kite hunting along the Mexican side of the river. A flock of American Wigeon flew over, a Spotted Sandpiper appeared on the near shore and a flock of probable Least Sandpipers flew past. I must admit to being uneasy about the brazen illegal activity happening right beside us - it seems the border patrol is not often here.

From here, I drove further north towards Falcon State Park, via the 'dump' road, which was quiet apart from some more Pyrrhuloxia and a very wary covey of what must surely have been Scaled Quail (but not seen well enough to confirm their ID).

Falcon State Park
This park is in much drier terrain than the lower RGV sites I'd already visited, and adjoins the immense Falcon Reservoir. I was hoping for some desert species, but my expectations were not high given the likely low levels of bird activity during the middle of the day. On the loop to the right of the entrance road, there was one small group of RVs, and here there were more Pyrrhuloxia and a couple of Black-throated Sparrows around the vehicles. Behind the adjacent building, there was a bird feeding area. Spending some time here produced 2 lifers - Clay-colored Sparrows (I think) on the feeders and a Verdin on bushes to the right. Lower down, nearer the reservoir, I went on a short walk along a nature trail, in considerable heat. This produced a 3rd lifer - a nice pair of Bewick's Wren as well as the commoner Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Despite the heat, driving around the park roads also produced some other notable birds, including Roadrunner and Vermillion Flycatcher (in bushes by the reservoir shore).

After leaving Falcon State Park, I tried the area below the Falcon Reservoir dam, as per the Lockwood book, but the side road seemed closed to vehicles, so I didn't try further.

La Joya
After battling my way back along US 83, I thought I'd try the "sparrow alley" road north of La Joya, also as described in the Lockwood book and various web trip reports. This was another mistake! The road was a dirt track, full of large trucks thundering along sending up huge clouds of dust. With nowhere to pull off, this seemed a most unpromising site. With only the briefest of stops possible, all I saw was a single Pyrrhuloxia, before beating a hasty retreat back to McAllen. Maybe early morning weekend visits would be more productive.

American Kestrel
  American Kestrel at Falcon SP

13 November 2007
Laguna Atascosta NWR
Leaving McAllen before 07:00, I was on the approach road to Laguna Atascosta around 08:00. Still in the reasonably early morning this was probably the most productive time of this visit. A few Harris Hawks were hunting over scrubby areas, with a juvenile on wires by the road inviting photography. I stopped at a bridge over a wet channel, and was rewarded with distant views of flights of birds including Sandhill Crane. Nearer at hand was a Wood Stork, and a flock of Roseate Spoonbills went directly over the car, but the dull overcast conditions hampered photography.

Wood Stork Wood Stork

Wood Stork on approach road to Laguna Atascosta

Roseate Spoonbill  Harris Hawk
Roseate Spoonbill Immature Harris Hawk

The visitor centre was open when I arrived around 09:00, but the adjacent feeding station didn't seem worth more than a quick look over - just the by now customary RGV species. I didn't investigate the photo blind, but headed to the nearby large lake - the Laguna itself. En-route a damp area, produced at various times during this visit, Long-billed Curlew, both Yellowlegs, and Willet. The laguna was immense, full of water and covered with thousands of duck - nearly all Coot! Even with the 'scope, many of the duck were too distant to identify. Amongst the Coot, were plenty of Redhead, a few Lesser Scaup, Pied-billed Grebes and one Horned Grebe. The light here was much better early morning than later in the day. There was also a Roadrunner on the corner by the trail to the Alligator pond, but I missed out on an Ani, which others reported here.

Later on, I walked the short distance to the Alligator pond which did indeed have one. This pond was also an amazing place for numerous dragonflies of several different species. I spent some time here waiting for the sun to appear for dragonfly pics.

The 15-mile bayside drive was disappointing. With all the inland areas dry, there was little other than a scattering of birds along the shoreline, including the expected herons and egrets and the odd Black-bellied Plover. There was however an obliging pair of Crested Caracara, which allowed a remarkably close approach:

Crested Caracara Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara on Bayside Drive, Laguna Atascosta NWR

At around 15:00, I decided it was time to move on, so I tried my luck on the shore of South Padre Island, just to the right (south?) of the bridge from the mainland. A small promentary with pier at the end beyond an RV park gave some reasonable views of mangroves and mud, which held the usual herons, including Tri-colored and White Ibis etc. There was also an Osprey fishing which approached close enough to get this reasonable pic. Also a White Ibis did a close fly-by in the "down sun" direction from me:

Osprey White Ibis
Osprey on South Padre Island (click to enlarge) White Ibis (click to enlarge)

This spot was a pleasant end to a lifer-less day, but unfortunately with no sign of Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the mangroves.

14 November 2007
Sabal Palm Audubon Centre
This was the last full day of my stay, and I was keen for a more successful day then yesterday, birdwise. Arriving at Sabal Palm at around 07:30, well before opening time, the feeding station was notable only for a group of stationary, disconsolate Plain Chachalacas - clearly waiting for the food to arrive! At least here the trails are open from dawn, so I took the Reseca loop, which was pretty quiet even early morning. At the start of the boardwalk, there was a little activity with a Wilson's Warbler and glimpses of a Blue-headed (Solitary) Vireo (both trip but not life ticks). The boardwalk had distant Least Grebe and several dragonfly species, including a rarity. Taking the Vireo Lane extension brings you back to water, where a I saw a flycatcher species and took a distant pic - see below. My initial ID of Least Flycatcher has subsequently been confirmed by Steve Gross, for which many thanks.

Probable Least Flycatcher Green Kingfisher
Distant Least Flycatcher Distant definite Green Kingfisher

The Reseca Overlook was a reasonably well designed 'hide' overlooking the deeper portions of the lake. Many Least Grebes, a Redhead, Green Kingfisher and some eclipse/female Blue-winged Teal and a couple of un-identified raptors were present.

Returning to the visitor centre around 09:30, I was presented with a somewhat changed scene than on arrival, with the place thronged by at least one noisy school party. The Chachalacas had perked up, though, as their food had now arrived! A helpful lady in the visitor centre mentioned that Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were coming to a feeder in the butterfly garden, behind the visitor centre. Having suitably re-arranged the feeder position for better photography, I managed to get some pics. Also here was the considerable added bonus of a lifer in the form of a Couch's Kingbird perched briefly on a tree-top just behind the visitor centre. Oh, and yes there were some butterflies as well, but I've no idea what species.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Buff-bellied Hummingbird at feeder behind the Sabal Palm vistor centre

Boca Chica Beach
After the relative success of Sabal Palm, I thought I'd try the road out to Boca Chica beach, and a short stroll along the beach, but this was not overly productive. The road out was quiet, apart from Osprey and the odd Harris Hawk. On the beach itself were a few gulls, including Ring-billed, Willet, Sanderling, some Caspian Terns and a tame Great Blue Heron. There was no sign of the rarer plovers such as Piping or Wilsons, although I met a couple who claimed a Wilson's a long way in the opposite direction from that which I had walked. Incidentally, the Lockwood book suggests driving ordinary cars on the beach. This looked suicidal to me, given the state of the sand just off the end of the road! But OK for the huge 4x4's which were zooming up & down the beach.

Great Blue Heron Ring-billed Gull
Great Blue Heron Ring-billed Gull

South Padre Island Convention Centre and Boardwalk
For my final birding site, I decided to head back to South Padre Island and visit the famous Convention Centre and associated boardwalk, where I spent from around 14:00 till after sunset. During migration periods, the bushes by the Centre can be very good for warblers - with a drip and drinking pool. However, mid November is a little late for migration and I didn't expect any migrant warblers. In the event I was pleasantly surprised. Shortly after arrival I had good but brief views of what can only have been a Prairie Warbler (one had been present earlier) - a nice lifer. Unfortunately this didn't re-appear despite considerable waiting, but during this time I had a brief glimpse of a probable Magnolia Warbler, plus a much more showy American Redstart:

American Redstart American Redstart
A showy American Redstart at the South Padre Convention Centre

The mud flats behind the Convention Centre were shown to me by a helpful female birder with a small dog - who was jubilant over the success of a low tide birding boat trip she had led earlier in the day (with plenty of Yellow-crowned Night Heron apparently - Grr!). These flats had a good if distant ('scope essential) collection of shorebirds including - Piping Plover (another lifer), Least Sandpiper, Semi-Palmated Plover, presumed Western Sandpipers, Dunlin and Sanderling.

Then, as the sun was going down, I had a pleasant time at the end of the longer boardwalk which goes out a little into the bay. This had pretty well all the herons and egrets of the region (i.e. Snowy, Great, Reddish Egrets & Great-blue, Tri-coloured and Little Blue Herons)! There were also some nearby ducks, including Pintail, American Wigeon, Redhead as well as Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis etc. Even more amazing was the fact that many of these species were within DSLR range - seemingly accustomed to people here. The low sun behind me produced some contrasting effects:

Snowy Egret Reddish Egret
Snowy Egret Reddish Egret
Tri-colored Heron American Wigeon
Tri-colored Heron American Wigeon
Pintail Pintail
(Northern) Pintail

Finally, with the sun setting, I headed for the end of the other boardwalk, which looks out over a pool, surrounded by reeds with a nearby muddy gap. A Little-blue Heron flew into roost, and with the sun gone, once it was almost dark, the hoped for crake appeared - but was it Clapper or Virginia? Various people have agreed with my opinion that it was a Virginia Rail- for which many thanks.

Little-blue Heron at dusk Virginia Rail in the dark
   
Sunset from the Convention Centre boardwalk - South Padre Island

15 November 2007
Route 150 south east of Harlingen
Overnight, a cold front had deposited a fair amount of rain, and the temperature in the morning was distinctly cooler, with overcast skies. With my return flight from Harlingen not until 13:00, with some time to kill, I tried driving the roads to the east of US 83/77 - between Harlingen and Brownsville. On the 150 near Bayview, I came across one of the objects of this exercise - a splendid White-tailed Hawk, hunting near the road. The whole area around here seemed good for raptors, with Northern Harrier and Coopers/Sharp-shinned Hawks as well.

From there, it was back to Harlingen airport and so to Houston, and then the overnight flight to London Gatwick. On the approach to Gatwick, the early morning temperature was reported as -4 C, which proved to be something of a shock to a system used to the high 20's! Welcome back to the UK in late autumn!

Systematic list
Although my main aim was not a long trip list, click here for a systematic list of all 121 species seen on this visit to the USA, which included 33 lifers for me. This brings my USA list total (based on only 6 visits, totally about 10-12 weeks in 22 years) to comfortably more than my all time UK list (based on more than 40 years birding)!

Accommodation Details

Place Web Comment
Studio 6, McAllen Motel website An upmarket version version of the Motel 6, but still very cheap by UK standards, given the 2$/ exchange rate. Quiet location, yet convenient for restaurants, including 24hr breakfast place opposite. Perfectly adequate room included a fridge and mini kitchen.
Palace Inn motel, Brownsvile No website!
Phone is 001 956 832 0202
On US 48 on the east edge of Brownsville. Similar price to Studio 6 above. Quiet location, but not so convenient for local restaurants, unless you count McDonalds! Others were a good 10min drive away back near the route 77/83 shlutz. Good access to South Padre Island, and Sabal Palm. Having the car just outside the door made loading/unloading easy. Again fridge in room, but somewhat temperamental A/C (which I used as sparingly as possible)

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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