Mexican Butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

On our last day in Texas, we visited the famous National Butterfly Center (NBC), located near McAllen, to search for south Texas butterflies and odonates.  The NBC is a huge native plant garden, managed for the incredibly diverse butterfly fauna of south Texas.  To date, they have recorded 235 species on the one hundred acre property, which is probably more than anywhere else in the United States.  When we stepped out the back door of the center into the gardens, butterflies swarmed everywhere.  I watched more than one hundred queen butterflies clustered on a flower-laden bush.  Lesser numbers of monarchs and soldiers were mixed in with the queens.  Smaller sulphurs, skippers, crescents and hairstreaks darted through the air around us.  Many of the species that were most common there were nearing the northernmost extent of their range, making them special prizes for the butterfly enthusiast that doesn’t plan on going to Mexico.  All the new and exotic looking butterflies made it hard to concentrate on photographing just one species at a time.  As soon as one of the more abundant species, such as a little yellow, or a large orange sulphur landed, something else of interest would fly right in front of my face.


The little yellow (Pyrisitia lisa) is not one of the “south Texas specialty” butterflies, having a range that extends across much of the East, but it was still the first time I had seen one.

We wandered through the garden towards a trickle of water coming out of the woods, which we hoped would hold some dragonflies.  Sure enough, as we approached we saw rosette and carmine skimmers flying long fluid loops above it.  When we inspected the pool more closely, we found a desert firetail perched on a rock.  I slipped my leg into the pool to get closer for a photograph of this completely red southwestern damselfly.  Suddenly, I began to feel movement on my legs.  Looking down, I realized I’d stepped in a fire ant nest for the second time in two days.  I was able to get them off me before they really started to hurt, but so much for my desert firetail photos.  A dazzling mallow scrub-hairstreak perched in perfect lighting nearby quickly made up for it, though.


Mallow Scrub-hairstreaks (Strymon istapa) can only be found in the United States in south Texas and south Florida.

We turned away from the open gardens, onto a sand trail that led through subtropical hackberry woodlands.  We saw logs, coated in some sort of sugar goop, propped up next to the trail every hundred feet or so.  These logs were always swarming with tropical leafwings and hackberry and tawny emperors.  Occasionally, a three-inch long, iridescently colored wasp would buzz by or land on one of the sugar logs.  A sign farther on advertised them as tarantula hawks, (Pepsis sp), capable of the second most painful sting of any insect in the world.  They apparently prey mainly on the Texas brown tarantula in North America.  Off to our right, a brilliant blue flash caught my eye.  Turning, I saw a medium sized blue butterfly flitting about, the filtered sunlight glinting off its wings.  It was a Mexican blue-wing, one of the species I was most excited about seeing.


Mexican blue-wings (Myscelia ethos), live no where else in the U.S but the Rio Grande Valley.

Soon, we approached a group of people standing on the trail and looking at something in the trees above them.  They pointed us to a malachite, a huge spectacular butterfly, the color of the mineral it was named after.  Black mottling accented its light green wings.  Unfortunately, it flew off before I could get a picture.  We came out of the woods on the other side into more gardens swirling with butterflies.  Someone showed us a clytie mini streak perched on the tiny flowers of a bush.  Hairstreaks are my favorite group of butterflies, so this little gem was a special treat.


Clytie Ministreaks (Ministrymon clytie), are another Rio Grande Specialty.

We wandered back through the gardens, stopping every now and than to photograph something new.  When we reached the NBC building, we stopped at a little concrete lined pond in front of it.  We knew a damselfly called the Caribbean yellow-face could be found around here somewhere, but we weren’t sure exactly where.  We checked the pond, and to my surprise, we saw a tiny blue damselfly with a bright yellow face zipping away from us.  By mid afternoon, I was feeling ready to fall asleep in the heat, especially after getting up at four AM for the past five days.  We had seen forty-one species of butterflies.  Most of them were new for me, and many of them were very rare in most of the country.  I wasn’t able to include all the pictures I took at the NBC, but if you are interested, you can look at more of them here: RGVBF 2017 flickr.

Birding the Upper Rio Grande Valley

We drove into the parking lot of the Harlingen Convention Center at 4:30 AM.  The huge fifty plus person bus that would take take us west along the Rio Grande Valley into Starr County idled at the curb.  We grabbed the lunches the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) had prepared for us, and hurried to join our friends on the bus.  We were very excited about this festival field trip to the “Upper Rio Grande Valley” because that area hosts some rare specialties that can’t be found closer to Harlingen.  Particularly, we were hoping to see white-collared seedeaters, red-billed pigeon, and wild muscovy ducks.  Despite these birds being very rare and local Rio Grande specialties, we figured we would get at least one.  In addition, Starr County has large stretches of desert, which host an assortment of southwestern desert species, such as greater roadrunner, black-chinned sparrow, cactus wren, and pyrrhuloxia.

The overcast sky began to brighten as we neared our first birding location, a preserve along the Rio Grande called Salineño.  We walked down an old, cracked road, through thick, green vegetation.  The cool morning mists drifted off the ground, obscuring the old buildings and trees that lined the road.  Our guides told us that we would have to split up into groups to seek the seedeater, because too many of us would scare it.  As another group branched off, we continued down toward the river to watch for red-billed pigeons.  We came to a small boat launch, where we set up our scopes and waited.  Mist rose off the muddy waters of the Rio Grande in front of us.  Audubon’s and altamira orioles called from the feeding station behind us.


Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis)

Green jays constantly flew over the river in front of us.  Double-crested and neotropic cormorants flew overhead.  We saw northern pintail, gadwall, blue-winged teal, lesser scaup, and the “Mexican” subspecies of the mallard on the river.  We waited patiently for the seedeater group to come back, without seeing a pigeon.  When the first person from their group wandered into view, we asked them if they’d seen the seedeater.  They nonchalantly replied that they had.  We asked our guide if our group could go and look for the seedeater.  He said he didn’t personally have much interest in it, but eventually led the way.  We walked up a trail over sandy bluffs overlooking the river, scanning the cane patches where our guide said the seedeaters liked to hang out.  As we worked our way upriver, we encountered a mixed flock, mostly blue-gray gnatcatchers and orange-crowned warblers, but we also found a Nashville warbler, a Bewick’s wren, and a verdin.  We stared down into the thick cane for hours, not daring to move for fear of scaring off the supposedly super timid seedeaters.  Every few minutes someone would raise their binoculars, and invariably they would mutter “common yellow-throat” as the bird slid back out of sight.  At noon our guide announced we had to return to Harlingen.

The next day, my friends and I decided to make the two hour drive back to Salineño one more time, in hopes of seeing the seedeater with a smaller group.  My friend Max also knew a place nearby where we could get scaled quail, and other desert birds that we had been hoping for on yesterday’s trip.  When we arrived at the boat launch, we were glad to find we were the only ones there.  We walked slowly up the path toward the cane stands, listening for unusual calls and watching for unaccounted movement.  As we stood staring intently at the largest patch of cane, my friend Ander said he thought he saw one.  We turned, and not twenty feet away, in a small mesquite bush, sat a tiny, cinnamon brown bird.  At long last, a white-collared seedeater!


White-collared Seedeaters (Sporophila torqueola) have become increasingly hard to find in Texas, despite being reasonably common as recently as the 1940s.

Just as we all got on the bird, it flew out of the bush, flashing it’s white wing-bars and small tail.  We followed the bird away from the river, into a small, rocky gully, where we suddenly heard a whistled down-slurred “chew” call from the trees above us.  Looking up, we saw the White-collared seedeater perched in another tree.  No wonder we hadn’t found them the day before by looking in the cane stands.  At the sound of another “chew,” we looked down to see a second bird hoping on the rocks.  We watched the two birds forage and chatter for a while, before they flew off across the river.  It was amazing how much easier they were to find without a huge group of people.

As we drove toward our next stop, a nursery specializing in the plants of the south Texas desert called Rancho Lomitas, the landscape became increasingly desolate and arid.  Huge cacti and thorny bushes grew next to the road.  Black-throated sparrows perched on emergent vegetation.  When we stepped out of the cars onto a soil of hard-packed sand, we were greeted by a man named Jim, who told us about the Ranch and showed us to chairs in front of his trailer that looked out on a well-stocked feeding station.  He told us that if we waited long enough, we should be able to see cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxias, and scaled quail right there.  As soon as we sat down, green jays began swooping in five feet in front of us.  The incredibly close proximity allowed me really appreciate their intricate and gorgeous blue, black, and green patterning.


Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)

After about five minutes, a movement behind a large flower pot next to me caught my eye.  A cactus wren hopped out from behind the flower pot, and flew up to a platform hanging from a huge cactus, right in front of my face.  It was a life bird for many of my friends.  Suddenly, something moved in the dense brush behind the feeders.  Than a cute plumed face came out into view.  Before long, there were five scaled quail scratching on the ground right under the feeders.  When someone walked past, they would fly up into a tree above our heads, and slowly come back down.


Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

We watched the birds at the feeder for a while longer, and than decided to bird the nearby roads to see if we could find a pyrrhuloxia.  Sure enough, just on the other side of the clearing from Jim’s trailer, we found the desert cardinal perching in the top of a dense, thorny bush.  Pyrrhuloxias are mostly a waxy gray color, with a bright yellow bill and a red crest and face, and red flight feathers.  As we continued down the road, we heard a Bewick’s wren chattering in the grass.  As we paused to watch it, I saw another bird fly across the road.  As it flew, it flashed white edges of its tail.  When it landed, we saw it was a female lark bunting, a lifer that I had not expected on this trip.


Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)

When the lark bunting finally disappeared back into the grass, we turned and saw a great horned owl perched on the power line farther down.  We approached as much as we could without bothering it, and photographed it.  What a great end to a great day of birding.

Birding Big Day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Thick mist rolled off the spiny limbs of unfamiliar tropical vegetation as strange calls pierced the stillness of the early morning.  We crossed over a small channel of water, watching for green kingfishers, and then walked into the woods on the other side.  Large oak branches draped in Spanish moss hung over the trail.

We were at the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, located in the very southern tip of Texas.  Birding at Santa Ana and other locations in southern Texas had been a long awaited dream for me, and it felt unreal that it was finally happening. My friends and I were participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF), and had scheduled this day to be a “big day,” an attempt to see as many species as possible in 24 hours.  We had all agreed in advance that we would be extremely relaxed about the pace, as we wanted to have as much time as we wanted with each new species.

As we continued walking through the old, tropical woodland, we heard the calls of great kiskadees, plain chachalacas, long-billed thrashers, and golden-fronted woodpeckers.  Mourning, white-winged, and Inca doves foraged on the ground.  Up ahead the trail opened into a large, wet marsh, called Pintail Lake.  As we walked out on an elevated dike towards the water, we heard American pipits, and spotted a vermillion flycatcher and two tropical kingbirds perched on projecting sticks.  We set down our scopes and started scanning the many ducks on the water.  We quickly found 11 species, including black-bellied whistling duck, mottled duck, redhead, and the lakes namesake, the northern pintail.

As we were about to get back into the cars, a small, gray Buteo flew low over the parking lot and landed in a nearby tree.  It was a gray hawk, a lifer for most of us.


Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus), photo by Theo Staengl

I had never been to our next stop, a small city park called Anzalduas, before, but I had heard it was a good place for zone-tailed hawk.  We drove there on roads on top of high dikes overlooking the Rio Grande.  Border Patrol vans were everywhere, but most just waved at us as we drove past.  When we finally got to Anzalduas, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  A far cry from most of the natural areas we were birding in the Rio Grande Valley, Anzalduas was a large expanse of sparse grass under periodically spaced trees, broken only by decrepit playground equipment.  The only other people around were twenty or so border patrol agents.

A local constable drove up and unpleasantly informed us that the road we had driven on into the park was closed to the public, despite the complete absence of signs saying so.  He warned he’d give us a citation next time.   We walked up a side road to another dike, across the park from the Rio Grande that was supposedly a very reliable spot for zone-tailed hawk, and possibly for hook-billed kite.  After several uneventful minutes, two things happened very quickly.  First, I noticed the constable’s car coming up the road toward us, and a large, thin-winged, mostly black raptor, a zone-tailed hawk, flew low over us.  We ignored the constable, and had beautiful looks at the hawk.


Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)

When we looked down from the hawk, we saw the constable talking with my mom and our unofficial guide, who knew the local area well.  The constable pointed to two huge signs in front of the road we had just walked up, that said “no public use.”  We had honestly missed the signs because we had approached from the side, but from the constable’s perspective it sure looked sketchy.   In the end he let us go, and we hurried quickly off the dike.  The only other notable bird we saw at Anzalduas was a house finch, locally uncommon in the Rio Grande Valley.

Forty minutes later, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Frontera Audubon Center’s small tropical reserve.  We walked the short, dirt trails through dense undergrowth, scanning the bushes around us for warblers and clay-colored thrushes.  As we neared a small feeder station near the visitor center, we found our first thrush flock, with about five clay-colored thrushes.


The range of the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) just barely extends into the United States in the very southern tip of Texas.  Clay-colored thrushes and many other predominantly central American species that just extend into the southern Rio Grande Valley are what makes south Texas such a birding hotspot.  These species are often referred to in the US as Rio Grande specialties, even though many of them are much more abundant further south.

We continued on the trails deeper into the woods, listening and looking for warbler activity.  That morning, someone had spotted a tropical parula there, which would be a life bird for all of us.  Soon we came to a wooden platform overlooking a small lake.  Warblers, mainly orange crowned, chipped and flitted in the dense willows.  We scanned the flock to the best of our ability, and were able to add Nashville, black-and-white, and black-throated green warblers to our day list.  We spent another hour roaming the trails looking for the tropical parula, but it proved to be a waste of time.  I was able to photograph a buff-bellied hummingbird, another fairly range restricted species, at one of the feeding stations, though.


Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis)

As we got out of the car at Estero Llano Grande State Park, I was beginning to feel worried we had spent too much time at Frontera, and we wouldn’t have enough day-light at South Padre Island, an important shorebird spot, later in the day.  Evan so, I couldn’t help enjoying the bountiful ducks at the visitor center lake at Estero.  Wild ducks swam peacefully about, clearly used to humans being nearby.  A vermillion flycatcher foraged from a dead stick over the marsh, its brilliant red belly and crown contrasting beautifully with its brown back and eye-line.  We added cinnamon teal and least grebe to our day list.  One of the birds I was personally most excited to see here was the common pauraque, a large tan nightjar of Central and South America.  While it is locally extremely common in south Texas, it is so cryptically patterned that one could easily walk within a foot without seeing it.  We were walking along a dusty dirt road near where pauraques have been known to roost when I almost stepped on one.  Once we noticed it, we were so focused on photographing it, we failed to see two others within a yard of it until some kind older birders pointed them out.  What a weird looking bird!


Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)

We raced along the highway as the sky became cloudier and the sun sank ever lower toward the horizon.  Our rental car’s tinted windows probably did not help our feeling of impending darkness.  When we stepped out of the car at the mudflats above the South Padre Island Convention Center, wind coming off the Laguna Madre buffeted us and tore at our clothing and scopes.  We hurried over the muddy sand toward distant shorebird flocks, hoping the incoming tide wouldn’t strand us.  As soon as we could, we put down our scopes and started scanning.  We quickly found most of the common shorebirds we needed, along with two piping and snowy plovers.  It was only the second time I had ever seen a snowy plover, and it was a lifer for some of my friends.  We ran back to the cars across what were now inches of water, soaking our shoes.  We spent the rest of the daylight birding around the slightly more sheltered trails of the convention center.  Our list for the day was 126 species, the most I have ever seen in a day.