My Life’s Birds: #427-428
March 23, 2007 – Estero Llano Grande State Park, Tx – Birding South Texas back in the 90s, at least the way I experienced it, was a matter of hitting a handful of well worn and well-known birding hotspots over and over and over again until you finally came up with a winner. Typically that was in the form of a Hook-billed Kite or one of the weird Turdus thrushes or, if you’re really lucky, something like Roadside Hawk or Collared Forest-Falcon. Incidentally, I never saw any of those birds. There’s a reason all of those amazing old records were from no more than a half-dozen sites. It was known that those places were where the good birds are, so that’s where the good birders went. This sort of feedback loop, common at any of the great hotspots in North America, manifested itself in fabulous birds to be sure, but not much in the way of diversity in the way of locales. When you went to South Texas, you went to Bentsen and Santa Ana, and if you had a bit more time to expanded it west to Falcon Dam or east to Atascosa, but you kept it simple. After all, you were practically guaranteed a good day at any of those places so why mess with a good thing?
But in the early part of the 2000s, the lower valley realized that the birders that came to chase tropical species were spending good money in the area, and thus started a push to build the birding infrastructure. The resulting World Birding Center, a series of public site specifically managed for birders opened nearly 10,000 acres that had never been available before, and the birders came, and found fabulous birds at all the new sites from Padre Island to Falcon Dam. More than that, it was a symbol of how birding and ecotourism can have a positive impact on local economies. So when I returned to south Texas 12 years later, there was a whole new group of birding locations to explore, and the one with the the most promise was Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco.
The park itself lies on an ancient oxbow lake left by the meandering Rio Grande. The interpretive center looks out on the water where, when we were visiting, several Black-necked Stilts and Long-billed Dowitchers patrolled the shallows. Least Grebes tucked in and out of the cattails and a pair of Roseate Spoonbills foraged in the deeper middle. This was clearly a great place for birds, and once we could be pried away from the bounty on the deck we walked the loop for better looks. We found a small flock of White Pelicans that overwhelmed everything on the water, which was great, but the real kicker was the small flock of Red-crowned Parrots that paused in a snag allowing excellent looks. Most of south Texas’ parrots are urban, and these likely had roots in the city as well, but there’s something about seeing birds like this in some semblance of ‘the wild” that’s exceptionally special.
A fine day of birding (and herping too, we saw alligators!) later, as my dad and I were chatting with the park rangers they mentioned that there were still some lingering Cave Swallows in the flock of swallows under a bridge just around the outskirts of the park itself. We pulled over to find a teeming mass of Barn and Cliff Swallows within which were supposed to be the Caves. In the rolls of birds that are difficult IDs, swallows don’t get the respect they deserve. While they don’t have much in the way of identification pitfalls, picking something interesting out of a swirling, twisting flock of hundreds of birds is extremely difficult and more than a little frustrating. But even though it took some time, my dad and I found a handful of birds that fit the light chinned, light rumped bill appropriately to walk away with an unequivocal life bird. Not a soul satisfier by any means, but that’s how it goes.
Estero Llano, however, was more than satisfying. It’s definitely on the list for next time now.