Sunday, December 18, 2011

A New Mexican Ventures to South Texas

Posted by Linda Rockwell 

Although I grew up in New Mexico, our family traveled to South Texas on a regular basis. My mom's sister Ann lived in San Benito, a small town south of Harlingen. We vacationed there for a couple of weeks every other summer until I went away to undergraduate school. In 2010 I became aware of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival that is held in Harlingen every November, and I began to make plans to attend in 2011. I made my reservations in June, and I began to get excited about my first trip to South Texas in more than 30 years. 

I arrived in Harlingen a couple of days prior to the start of the RGVBF. Fortunately a Twitter and Facebook friend, Marsha Kraus Fulton, offered to take me to Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the World Birding Center sites in South Texas. Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco, Texas attracts a wide array of South Texas wildlife with its landscape of a shallow lake, woodlands and thorn forest. I met Marsha in the parking lot, and we set off to look for birds. 

As we crossed a bridge at the beginning of our walk, we saw a Great Kiskadee. 

Great Kiskadee
I would hear the distinctive call of the Great Kiskadee frequently during my visit.

We saw a group of birders and walked over to see what they were viewing. Common Pauraque were sleeping on the ground under the trees. Their beautiful plumage camouflaged them so well that they were very difficult to see.

Common Pauraque
Can you see the bird?

In the Tropical Area I had my first look at a Golden-fronted Woodpecker at a feeder.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker
A highlight of the day was seeing a rare Blomfild's Beauty butterfly.

Blomfild's Beauty
We spent a wonderful day birding at Estero Llano Grande. I would recommend it to anyone as an excellent introduction to birding in South Texas. 

The next day I drove my rental car to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is on the most southern tip of Texas, along the shores of Laguna Madre. Laguna Atascosa is a unique habitat containing dense patches of thorny brush, freshwater wetlands, coastal grasslands, mudflats and beaches.

Plain Chachalaca seemed to be everywhere…

Plain Chacalaca
  … as well as pretty White-tipped Doves.

White-tipped Doves
I very excited to see many Green Jays, which I had hoped to see during the trip.
Green Jays
Here is a video of Green Jays feeding:

I saw a coyote watching me from the shadows. It was very small compared to the coyotes that I am accustomed to seeing in New Mexico.


A Harris Hawk watched as I left Laguna Atascosa.

Harris Hawk
As I began the drive back to Harlingen from Laguna Atascosa, I saw two birds approaching rapidly. As they flew nearer I saw that they were Crested Caracara. I braked sharply and grabbed my camera. I took this photo through the passenger window without ever taking my rental car out of gear. It pays to keep your camera close at hand!

Crested Caracara
The next morning I made a quick trip to Frontera Audubon. This is a beautiful urban nature preserve in downtown Weslaco. A highlight of the visit was seeing a beautiful Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Afterward I met several online friends--Amy Hooper, Catherine Hamilton, Beverly Robertson, Scott Fraser, Christoper Ciccone and his lovely wife Pamela Griswold Ciccone and Nate Swick--at Alicia's, one of the many excellent Mexican restaurants in Harlingen. One of the best things about attending birding festivals is meeting online friends in person!

The following day was my first official event of the festival, Better Birding with Jon Dunn. We were joined by local birding legend Dan Jones. It was an excellent day, as we saw 115 species on our trip, which included several birding areas on South Padre Island.

Jon Dunn points out a warbler to interested birders on South Padre Island

 We saw lovely songbirds …

Wilson's Warbler
… and beautiful butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly
We then traveled to Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary, which is a beautiful and unique ecosystem located in a bend in the Rio Grande along the border between the US and Mexico. My favorite sighting there was a Least Grebe enjoying a dragonfly lunch.

Least Grebe
That evening we went in search of the Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots that are found in the area. These are wild populations that have probably migrated in from Mexico.

Led by intrepid New Mexicans Cole Wolf and Michael Hilchey we drove around in the birding van, dodging traffic and being thoroughly entertained by our leaders, until we found the Green Parakeets hanging out at the local Wal-Mart.

Green Parakeets
A little later we found a huge flock of perhaps 150 parrots, mostly Red-crowned but also a few Red-lored and Yellow-crowned, invading a neighborhood.

Red-crowned Parrots
The following morning would bring my favorite trip of the festival. We boarded a pontoon boat with Scarlet Colley of the South Padre Island Dolphin Research and Nature Center. We saw amazing numbers of shore birds:

Brown Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Black Skimmer
Little Blue Heron
Roseate Spoonbills
Roseate Spoonbills fly overhead.

While we were out on Laguna Madre Bay, we were delighted to find our boat surrounded by Bottlenose Dolphins.

Bottlenose Dolphins
The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is an extremely well-organized, first class event with outstanding trips and exceptional trip leaders. It was a marvelous opportunity to meet people whom I've only met online. I enjoyed meeting Kenny Salazar, Marci Madsen Fuller (the festival organizer) Kay of the Arroyo Colorado Riverblog and Liz Deluna Gordon. The birding was spectacular, the weather was wonderful, the Harlingen birders were friendly and hospitable and the local cuisine was delicious. It was a wonderful experience, and I plan to return next year.

All photos ©Linda Rockwell. Contact for permission.


  1. A lovely article Linda, what a great variety of birds!

  2. Wonderful article Linda, I love the photos and you saw some birds I have wanted to for a long while.

  3. That is some exciting Texas birding! I think that is the next big bird festival I will plan to attend. Thanks for sharing your fun adventure with this awesome post!

  4. Some awesome pictures in there...I think I like the skimmer the best. Next time I'm there, I need to check out Estero Llano and South Padre Island, I've never been to either place.

  5. What fabulous birding! And your photos are truly excellent. I'm very impressed with the shot you got of the caracara out the window. Thank you for this wonderful post.

  6. Oh my goodness ... what a glorious post filled with outstanding images! Sounds and looks like your birding adventure to south Texas was fabulous. I must make plans to travel to many of the places you mentioned. So many gorgeous birds! If I had to select favorite images, the Crested Caracara, Great Kiskadee and Common Pauraque really caught my eye ... though all are especially lovely. Thanks for sharing such beauty, Linda!

  7. Fantastic post and super photos!!

  8. Absolutely wonderful post & photos! An excellent travelogue as well, and I've added your locations to my Texas list. I won't mention the drooling and massive envy while reading...

  9. I don't know what to say that hasn't already been said by the other comments. But, as a photographer, I must say that you captured some awesome images, Linda. Fantastic.

  10. Wonderful post and super images Linda. So glad you had a great time at the RGVBF. Makes everything we do worthwhile. Thanks for writing of your experience and hope to see you next year.

  11. Beautiful photos and narrative, Linda! I'd love to see that paraque, as it is one I have missed a couple of times in South Texas.

  12. Linda,
    Your article is great--thank you for the nice words about the festival. I love your photos--the one of the golden-fronted woodpecker really captures that funny, noisy bird. Sometimes I forget how really beautiful it is.
    I hope we'll see you next year. In the meantime, I'll follow your blog posts!

  13. I'm so happy that you all enjoyed my first BIF! post. I had a marvelous time at the RGVBF, and I plan to return next year, the festival is extremely well-organized, the presenters are excellent, the birding is fabulous and the locals are friendly and helpful. And did I mention the excellent food? Loved every minute of it!