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The Best Birding in the Valley

December 5, 2011
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Back when I used to visit the Valley in the mid-90s, there were pretty much two main places you went.  You’d go to Bentsen State Park and cruise around the trailer loop, gawking at the colorful birds and the equally impressive feeder set-ups employed by the denizens there, and you’d spend the morning at Santa Ana NWR, where you’d pick up your water birds in the expansive marshes on the edges of Pintail Lake.  If you were especially ambitious you could head eastward to Laguna Atascosa, or westward to Starr County for dry-country birds, but for my dad and I, limited as we were with familial obligations to non-birders, Bentsen and Santa Ana were it.  And honestly, for a lot of people those are going to be enough.

But in the intervening time between those mid-90s visits and my late 2000s return to South Texas, the World Birding Center came along and transformed birding in the region, adding many new sites and updating others in an attempt to make birds and birding a major part of the economic infrastructure in the area.  It worked like gangbusters and several of the sites that were unknown or not yet created when I was there before are top flight, must visit, local hotspots.  Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Estero Llano Grande State Park south of Weslaco.

The park was built  in 2006.  That winter, a Northern Jacana showed up at one of the newly filled ponds.  Birders in Texas and beyond never looked back and its reputation as the place to be was set.

Now the park consists of acres of lush marshes teeming with water birds of all varieties, a vast open grass and shrub field scattered with mesquite trees and raptors, and what is known as the “Tropical Zone”, and old trailer park now shaded with live oaks and boasting one of the busiest and most accessible feeding stations in the area.  Bentsen and Santa Ana are still amazing places (there’s hardly a hotspot in the Valley that doesn’t have something going for it), for for bang for your buck, you cannot beat Estero Llano Grande.  I’ve had slow days at the other sites, but never ever here.

What follows are a few random photos from the two days I spent there.  There are others that I intend to fit into other narratives, but these were too interesting and too random to leave out. Enjoy!

In the Tropical Zone, I was witness to an epic battle between a juvenile Harris’s Hawk and a young Rufous Hummingbird.  The hummer kept pummeling this young hawk so long as it sat in this Australian Fir, which was apparently a bit too close to the flowering bush the hummer was jealously guarding from a Ruby-throated Hummingbird that also happened to be around.

You can probably guess who came out the victor here.  The hawk soon moved on.

Curve-billed Thrasher is one of those birds you generally don’t expect in the eastern part of the Valley, as it prefers the drier parts farther west.  But as you’ve no doubt heard, much of Texas suffered an epic drought these last couple years (not the Valley, interestingly), and lots of those birds from places that are marginally habitable even in the best of times, are moving around quite a bit.  So they can be found just about anywhere these days.  This is apparently from the olberholseri group, which is different from the birds I saw in Arizona years ago which I gather are palmeri.  So a potential armchair tick, even if it is a longshot.

There are few North American birds more elegant than White-tailed Kites, and to see them so regularly is amazing.  This adult bird was hunting grasshoppers in the drier part of Estero Llano Grande, doing that hang in the air and pounce thing that kites do.  If its massive crop is any indication, the big bug pickings are exceptional.

The marshes across from the visitor center are nothing short of amazing, and covered with loads of birds.  Even better, a trail runs the entire perimeter making it possible to easily find the best light and go from there.  When I took the photo of the Blue-winged Teal above, the light couldn’t have been more perfect, and the birds are accustomed to visitors so if they do scatter, they do so slow enough to allow a patently mediocre photographer like myself to manage some beautiful images.

White-tailed Hawks are incredible raptors, but they occur in so many and varying colors and forms that they always manage to throw me off when I first see them.  Young birds show a dark body and that classic white ascot look, but as they mature that white spot expands, so from year 2 through 5 or so they can look like practically anything if you get hung up on the plumage and ignore the long, thin wings.  And frankly, there are few birders in North America who see them often enough to not get fooled once in a while.

More to come from Estero Llano.  This place is phenomenal

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4 Comments
  1. Matt permalink
    December 5, 2011 10:15 pm

    It’s interesting to hear how things have changed. Sounds like very positive changes. I know that most of the original habitat down there was converted to farmland, but it sounds like more will be preserved now, and maybe even restored. BTW, do you know how things are going as far as the proposed border fence is concerned? I would love to go down there again.

  2. December 6, 2011 8:45 am

    Estero llano sounds like a fantastic, birdy place!

  3. December 12, 2011 4:04 pm

    I have never even heard of this place. Clearly too much time has passed since I birded down there. Thanks for the educational post/sweet bird shots.

  4. Nate permalink*
    December 29, 2011 9:52 pm

    @Matt- The border fence is around, and from everything I’ve heard it’s not a benign structure. But it’s patchy, and affects some spots, like Santa Ana, much more than others.

    @Chatterbirds – It is, indeed.

    @Steve- It’s the hottest spot in the valley anymore, maybe even bigger than Bentsen. Crazy how fast things change.

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