It’s birds aplenty in this grand, rich and varied habitat
There is certainly no better way to embrace Texmex species in all their colourful grandeur than by participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF). British expat Julian Hough, who lives in Connecticut, has become a leading light on the American birding scene, and helped introduce me to some of the Rio Grande’s most eagerly-sought birds, as I worked through a five-day itinerary of field trips that the birding festival organisers had customised to help me see most of the valley’s specialities. Leading a crocodile of birders – or should that be alligator in these parts – along the labyrinthine trails of the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Julian was quickly pointing out birds that had been high on my wish list. Feisty Great Kiskadees with their bandit masks held us up as they dashed from look-out to look-out. Even brighter Green Jays, a dream for any colouring book fanatic, played tag in denser cover, their striking green and yellow plumage absorbed by the leaf colour. An Altamira Oriole exploded into view in all its fiery glory. Think flying Christmas lights! As we made our way out of the riparian forest into open wetlands, Julian served up another Rio Grande delicacy, Green Kingfisher, an emerald gem of a bird but surprisingly easy to overlook on a concealed perch. Amid the hubbub of wildfowl and shorebirds, there were much-sought Least Grebes and Mottled Ducks to pick out from the Blue-winged Teal and countless American Coot. Suddenly, the already buoyant mood went up several notches. Julian was on a Hook-billed Kite. The list-hungry Americans went into a frenzy. This was a lifer for many of them, a real doodledandy of a bird for those who had travelled from New York, Washington state and California to see Texas’ finest. On paddle-like wings, it soared effortlessly over the dense stands of moss-covered ebony trees, avoiding the attentions of a passing Harris’s Hawk, before disappearing from view. The hawk had no doubt found a supply of its favourite food – tree snails. One day’s Texan birding, a notebook littered with asterisks denoting lifers, and the adventure was only beginning.
Two hours upstream of the festival headquarters, Salineno, with its population of 302, is unlikely to feature on many tourist itineraries, but for American birdwatchers, the views this hummingbird of a hamlet provides over the Rio Grande has made it a place of legends. The dusty shoreline is pockmarked with tripod feet and engrained in the memories of all those have made a pilgrimage here over the years to see truly wild Muscovy Ducks. I had to make do with three species of kingfisher. Belted and Green were quickly under the belt, but a copper-breasted Ringed Kingfisher, a brash, bruiser of a bird that has ‘gone large’ with the bill order, was simply mesmerising as it disintegrated the Rio Grande’s tranquil somnolence with its raucous calls. A soaring Zone-tailed Hawk, shining out amid a huge flock of Black Vultures, followed by a ghostly Grey Hawk, quickened the pulse to such an extent that some people needed a sit down. There was only one place in town: the nearby winter feeding station with its amphitheatre seating plan to allow perfect viewing of more RG – I was now using the local language – specialities. Among the ostentatious Green Jays and blazing Altamira Orioles, squabbling over strategically positioned orange slices, diffident Olive Sparrows lurked. A Black-crested Titmouse, a recent split from its Tufted relation, and superb Altamira Oriole, another Mexican speciality with a restricted range in
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Common Pauraque Black-crested Titmouse
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge UNITED STATES Mikeweedon Mikeweedon