I recently attended the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, an outstanding event, with some of the best birds and birders in the country. The Rio Grande Valley in Texas is home to many specialties and frequently hosts rarities. Some of the best birders from around the world lead trips at the festival. The guided trips are too relaxed for serious birders like me, but they are an excellent opportunity for less experienced birders. The important part of the festival is that it gathers an amazing group of people.
Not many young birders make it to this festival because of school, which is a real shame. I had to skip a week of school, but I was able to make up the work afterwards. It was well worth it.
Day one was mostly travel with only a little birding. We drove from Austin to Brownsville, to chase my target bird for the evening: Wilson’s Plover. This bird can be difficult to get in south Texas, but luckily, I knew of a spot. A massive mudflat, this kind of place is only beautiful in the eyes of a birder. The number of birds there was astounding, and while I didn’t see the plover, I saw a great selection of coastal species.
The next day I birded at the South Padre Island Birding Center at sunrise, on an excellent boardwalk through the coastal marsh. I wasn’t able to pick up any lifers, but I did get great looks at some of the more common species. Afterwards, I birded a large mudflat, exposed only at low tide. There were countless wintering shorebirds, including dozens of Piping Plovers, hundreds of dowitchers, and a variety of other waterbirds. I found a Red Knot in among the peeps, a rarity at this date and a very cool bird in general. Both their gorgeous red breeding plumage and extensive migration paths are impressive. This small shorebird will cover more distance in its lifetime than many of us ever will, and all on its own steam. I laid down in the water to photograph the shorebirds, and managed a few nice low-angle shots.
After that, I made a second attempt at the Wilson’s Plovers. This time, I found them right where they were supposed to be, and had close views of two individuals. I will admit this area is not pristine wilderness – to a ‘normal’ person, it just looks like a dump, but to a birder, it looks like shorebird heaven. South Texas is a really amazing spot for shorebirds, and I tallied over 20 different species during this trip. After finishing with the plovers, we ended the day watching the flock of Red-Crowned Parrots at Oliveria Park in Brownsville.
The following day, we visited a marsh in the middle of nowhere, once again at sunrise. This marsh is the only home of the King Rail in southern Texas, and within five minutes of my arrival, I heard two rails. One of the rails couldn’t have been more than a few yards away! I also ran into a field trip group from the festival. It was nice to meet some other birders, and the guides were very skilled. I birded with the group for a while, checking out some local hotspots.
My next destination was a massive agricultural field north of Harlingen. During the previous festival, Mountain Plovers had been seen wintering there. Although they hadn’t been seen yet, I tried to find them myself. Scoping the field from the road was unsuccessful, so I walked out into the field. In this massive expanse of nothingness, I found a feeling of peace. I had never before experienced a similar sensation. Nothing but me, the earth, and the occasional Horned Lark. Another thing this place lacked was a Mountain Plover, but I didn’t mind missing this bird. I’m guaranteed a Mountain Plover over Christmas break.
After lunch I met up with my good friend Max Nootbaar. He and the other Virginia young birders were in town for the festival. Our group birded Estero Llano Grande State Park, a small, but incredibly diverse park. The ducks here were extremely tame, the pintails being close enough to touch. We had a Fulvous-Whistling Duck and a gorgeous male Cinnamon Teal just a little further out. The fulvous was a lifer, and I had only seen female Cinnamon Teal before, so naturally this was super cool for me. We got great looks at these ducks and really got to learn their features. A short walk to the other side of the park yielded a dozen Yellow-crowned Night Herons, American Avocets, and a cooperative Green Kingfisher. The Night-herons were posing perfectly in the evening light, and so we photographed them for a while before moving on. We encountered the kingfisher once again on the way back. That night, we attended the RGVBF kickoff in Harlingen. We got to meet some of the top birders in the country, and I also enjoyed getting to catch up with some birders I hadn’t seen for a while.
On Thursday morning, I was out of the house by 5:15am. Meeting my friends at their hotel, we headed to Santa Ana. The refuge was eerily quiet, with almost no bird activity. This was primarily because a huge cold front had come in during the night. I never expected to be shivering in south Texas, but despite the cold, we were able to get Altamira Oriole, a perched Gray Hawk, and a variety of ducks. At one point, a Peregrine Falcon terrorized the ducks, even catching one, at which point it carried it and dropped it. This must’ve been a lot less fun for the duck than it was for us.
Next, we birded Anzalduas Park. There were hundreds of playgrounds, picnic tables, and barbecues pits, but no people. We only encountered the occasional border patrol in this vast recreational ghost-town. I got two state lifers: Black Phoebe and Zone-Tailed Hawk. We also saw two House Finches, an oddly hard bird in south Texas.
The next stop was the Frontera Audubon Center, the most reliable location for Clay-Colored Thrush and White-Tipped Dove. The doves crept through the undergrowth and thrushes foraged everywhere. A Tropical Parula had been sighted earlier that morning but we were unable to relocate it. From here I went to the RGVBF “Birders Bazaar”, where I tried out some of the finest optics from Zeiss and Leica, met world renowned birders, and talked with friends.
That’s all for now. Part two of this post will include a thrilling chase, the quest for a rare pigeon, and some of the best birders I’ve ever met.