Texas Rio Grande Valley April 2023

    My wife Kelli, our friend Mark and I traveled to the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, on the border with Mexico for a few days of birding. This area hosts several Mexican bird species that can be seen in the US. This was Mark’s first trip and there were potentially many new birds for him. I was hoping for a new species or two but really wanted to get better pictures of the special birds found in this area. I hope the pictures prove I did just that.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

    We used Travelocity to book this trip. That was a big mistake as our seats were de-selected on our return flight and had to pay extra to get assigned seating!

    We had a 9:20 AM American Airlines flight out of LaGuardia to Dallas, then a 1:41 PM flight from Dallas to McAllen TX. Flight, security and even getting from one gate to the other was easy. It’s the only thing that the American Airlines did well; step by step directions from your arrival gate to your next gate on your phone. We used Thrifty car rental. We had to use the Hertz desk to get our keys. Then it was simple walk to our car due to the small airport.

    We arrived at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Weslaco. It seemed the same the last time we were here in 2012. We walked and ate dinner at the near-by The Blue Onion.  


    We shared the  Chevre Goat Cheese & Roasted Red Pepper humus and flatbread appetizer.

    I had the Al Pastor with Chicken - topped with blue onions, fresh cilantro, avocado, and chipotle salsa.

    Kelli had the smoked turkey on a flatbread and Mark the grilled chicken Po’ Boy. Each came with a delicious black bean salad.

    We hit a CVS to get waters and snacks for our stay.  We were very tired from traveling so we went to our respective rooms. Kelli and I just relaxed and watched Survivor.


Thursday April 13

    Texas is an hour behind, so we did not have to get up that early. The hotel is a business hotel and had a good free breakfast each morning.

    We arrived at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo at 7:45 am. We got to the entrance and saw birds right away. It was hard to pull ourselves away from the area into the refuge as the birds were so accommodating. We quickly added birds such as Clay-colored Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, White-winged Dove and Great Kiskadee. Mark had his life Bronzed Cowbird with its distinctive red eye. There was also a Fox Squirrel hanging around the feeders.


Great Kiskadee

Bronzed Cowbird

    We took the longer trail to the Willow Lakes, and it was quiet, till we got to the water. But the trail did yield our first Brown-crested Flycatcher and Couch’s Kingbird. I heard a Tropical Kingbird, but we could not find it. Once at the first observation deck overlooking the pond, it was like we were at a zoo, with birds everywhere; we did not know what to look at next.

    The lake had both Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal, Common Gallinule and American Coot, both Great and Snowy Egrets and a Black-necked Stilt. Other shorebirds included both yellowlegs, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers. Both White Ibis and White-faced Ibis were also present.

    Further along the lake we heard and caught a glimpse of the very plain Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and had the first of many Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

    We also saw small frogs jumping into the water. From the pictures they seem to be Rio Grande Leopard Frog, Lithobates berlandieri aka Mexican Leopard Frog.

Rio Grande Leopard Frog

    We then headed to observation towers and ran across our first Plain Chachalacas.

Plain Chachalaca

    Near a picnic area, there was a very convenient and clean porta john which relieved us of our morning coffee. More parks and refuges should have these in the middle or out of the way places.

    The Towers were fun with spiral staircases and a rope and plank bridge.

    We visited a nearby photo blind. Before entering we had a Laredo Striped Whiptail lizard  Aspidoscelis laredoensis. Some sources believe it to be the result of extensive hybridization between the Texas spotted whiptail, Aspidoscelis gularis and the six-lined racerunner, Aspidoscelis sexlineatus. It is one of many lizard species known to be parthenogenic (Asexual reproduction).

Laredo Striped Whiptail

    Inside the blind we had our first Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, White-tipped Dove, White-winged Dove, and Black-crested Titmouse.

Green Jay


Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole

White-winged Dove

White-tipped Dove

Black-crested Titmouse.

Black-crested Titmouse.

    We made our way to Pintail Lakes and added Least Grebe, Mottled Duck, Ringed-necked Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and a distant Cattle Egret. A number of Rio Grande River Cooters were sunning themselves. We also saw several Little Yellow Butterflies.


Least Grebe

Little Yellow

    We realized we were headed to a dead-end trail and had to back track in the now hot sun back to the visitor’s center. Kelli was not happy. We did some shopping in the gift shopped and cooled down with some cold drinks. We headed back around 1 PM. At the parking lot we spotted an oriole, but it quickly disappeared. It may have been a Hooded Oriole, or the already seen Altamira Oriole. As we drove out we had a couple of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the telephone lines. We ate lunch at a place just down the road from our hotel at Frankie Flav'z Craft Burgers & BBQ Co.

    We shared the Dumpster Tots – Potato Tots with cheese, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro, habanero crema, fried egg, and chorizo.

    Kelli and I had burgers. The All American with tomatoes, onions, pickles, and American cheese. And the Black and Bleu burger with blacken seasoning and bleu cheese. Mark had the Fried Chicken Melt with lettuce, tomato, American cheese, bacon, and Russian dressing. A man came in selling banana bread, so Kelli bought a loaf for five dollars to help their cause.

    Back at the hotel we enjoyed the cold pool and escape the day’s heat.

    Dinner was at Longhorn Steakhouse. We shared the Wild West Shrimp with cherry peppers and garlic butter.

    Kelli had a strawberry salad that was too big and not enough strawberries. I had the shrimp and lobster bisque. Mark had the salmon dinner. Afterwards we found a Dairy Queen for dessert.

    When we returned to the hotel, we saw  Roseate Spoonbills fly by in the parking lot.

Friday April 14

    We had another free breakfast at the hotel. In the parking lot we had the odd sighting of a duck on a lamp pole. It was of course, a Black-bellied Whistling Duck. We headed to Bensten-Rio Grande Valley State Park and arrived about 8:30. In the parking lot someone pointed out an Altamira Oriole nest being built. These long hanging weaved nests can hang 3 feet down. We also chased an Inca Dove to get good looks.

Altamira Nest

    After paying the entrance fee, we waited for the first tram of the day. A group of large birds started soaring overhead. They turned out to be a swirling kettle of Anhinga.


    A hummingbird feeder next to the tram stop attracted a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

    We took the tram four stops to visit the Green Jay blind. Along the way the tram operator pointed out a Great Kiskadee nest. The blind had a White-tipped Dove near the water pool. Kelli then notices a bird high up in the trees. After careful study we figured out it was an immature Gray Hawk.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

White-tipped Dove

Gray Hawk

Gray Hawk

    We walked back along La Parido Blanco (a recasa or the dry channel or a former stream) to the Kingfisher Overlook but found no kingfishers. We did see a Empress Leilia butterfly. We walk to the tram stop and Kelli and I took a rest in a swing chair.

    We just had room for all three of us to get on the tram. The tram operator pointed out the snails that the Hook-billed Kites used to eat.

Empress Leilia

Striped Rabdotus Snail (Rabdotus alternatus)

    We got off at the hawk watch and took the long ramp up. It was cool and very windy. Most hawks were up high.

    We noted; Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk. I found a Peregrine Falcon for the hawk watchers that were tallying the day’s numbers.

    A Couch’s Kingbird came in and sat on a dead snag right off the platform. I eventually got tired of taking its picture!

Couch’s Kingbird

Couch’s Kingbird

    On the walk back we found colorful millipedes on the ground.

    On the way back to the visitor’s center the tram suddenly stopped. We saw two Harris’s Hawks in the distance.

Harris’s Hawk

    We shopped the gift shop and I saw a Buff-bellied Hummingbird at a feeder. But no one else saw it. I discovered a little Café way in the back, Le'Chez Blue, so we decided to eat here. While we ate, we did see a couple of a Buff-bellied Hummingbirds visit the feeders.

    For lunch I had the breakfast spinach wrap with eggs, bacon, sausage, hashbrown and cheese with a special in-house sauce. Kelli enjoyed the southwest wrap with a sun-dried tomato wrap with blackened chicken, corn, black beans and special sauce, and Mark the chicken salad croissant with cranberries, grapes, pecans, and honey. Mark also enjoyed one of their special Herbal Teas. The Australian, with hibiscus flower, raspberry, and sparkling coconut water. We all agreed that this was the best meal of the trip. We highly recommend it.

Le'Chez Blue

    Next, we visited the near-by National Butterfly Center. After looking at the visitor’s center, we drove back to the bird feeders. We heard that a male Audubon’s Oriole had paired with an Altamira Oriole, and both might visit the feeders. We had to wait a little while for them to them fill up for the 1 pm feeding. Then it got busy!Plain Chachalaca and Great-tailed Grackle were busy displaying while feeding.




    A Buff-bellied Hummingbird visited the hummingbird feeder. We saw Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Bronzed Cowbird, and a female Indigo Bunting. Only the Altamira Oriole came in. A Brown-crested Flycatcher made an appearance up in the trees. Dove species included Inca Dove, White-tipped Dove, and many White-winged Dove.

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Plain Chachalaca

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Inca Dove

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Green Jay

Altamira Oriole

    We then caught views of both an Olive Sparrow and a Lincoln's Sparrow on the big rock water feature.

Olive Sparrow

    We took a walk to look for the Audubon’s Oriole but came up empty. It was getting hot so we stopped at the visitor’s center to shop. The road out of the center had a couple of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers as we headed back to the hotel.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

    Dinner was at Nana's Taqueria, also just down the road from our hotel on South International Boulevard (1015). Kelli and I enjoyed a strawberry margarita and a frozen lime margarita. Kelli had the steak tacos, I had the chalupas and Mark the Flautas. We shared desserts of choco flan and tres leches. 

Bistec Tacos – steak tacos with grilled onions & cilantro

Chalupas – filled with chicken, lettuce, tomato, avocado, cheese, and cilantro

Flautas – chicken filled flautas topped with cream and cheese with salad avocado, cheese, and rice on the side

    We headed a bit further south on South International Boulevard to Llano Grande Lake for some sunset birding.A few Roseate Spoon bills flew over as we exited our cars. On the bridge abutment I saw these puffy cute fledglings. They were Black Phoebes! We also saw the parents nearby.

Black Phoebe

    Our target bird here was Cave Swallows and found a few. I tried to get pictures but all of them were blurry. They just move too fast.

    A large kettle of birds drifted in toward us. They were gulls. When they got closer, we could see their black heads, but they were not Laughing Gulls, their wing had black and whitetips – Franklin's Gulls!

Franklin's Gull

    Also present were American Wigeon, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, White Ibis, and Belted Kingfisher.

    As the sun got low we ended the day with a Common Nighthawk cruising over the meadow.


Saturday April 15 

    Today we headed just down the road to Estero Llano Grande State Park World Birding Center. In the parking lot we had great looks at a Clay-colored Thrush. 

Clay-colored Thrush

    We walked to the visitors center and their wonderful wildlife viewing pavilion overlooking Ibis Pond. It was teaming with birds. A flock of Stilt Sandpipers strolled by. Mixed within them were Long-billed Dowitchers probing the mud. An American Avocet and Black-necked Stilts strolled about. A couple of Roseate Spoonbills and some Black-bellied Whistling Duck few in.

     Around the pond were: Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Mottled Duck, American Coot, Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, White-faced Ibis, Northern Harrier, and Great-tailed Grackle. The staff was holding a “Big Sit” to try and see as many bird species as possible, from one spot, in a day. We found out they will be there to nightfall. So, we decided to come back here at the end of the day.

Long-billed Dowitchers

Stilt Sandpiper

Roseate Spoonbill

American Avocet

Fox Sparrow

Roseate Spoonbill & Black-necked Stilt

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

female Great-tailed Grackle


    We circled the pond and viewed a Purple Martin House and heard a Sora call. The woods on the way back to the cars yielded species seen before such as: Plain Chachalaca, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Chimney Swift, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Green Jay, Northern Mockingbird, and Olive Sparrow. I also saw a Large Orange Sulphur butterfly.

Large Orange

    We then headed towards South Padre Island. On the causeway we stopped at the Aplomado Viewing Area. I got my life Aplomado Falcon after some patient waiting. We saw them first on the tower then flying around.

    We also added Black Vulture, Crested Caracara and Eastern Meadowlark to our trip list


    Next was the wonderful South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center. Several birders, photographers and birds were out in front. A flowering bush a few feet in front of us held a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Tennessee Warble, Prothonotary Warbler and an immature Orchard Oriole.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Tennessee Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Orchard Oriole

    Nearby we added a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Painted Bunting.

    We paid the entrance fee inside and headed to the board walk. A few small gators were at the beginning. We quickly found Neotropic Cormorant, Mottled Duck, Roseate Spoonbills and a White Ibis in full breeding color.  

Neotropic Cormorant

Mottled Duck

White Ibis

Roseate Spoonbill

    A Green heron flew onto the boardwalk for great looks. 

Green Heron

    Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns streamed by over the bay. 

Brown Pelicans 

Royal Tern


    At a shaded pavilion I heard a bird singing and could not place it. I found it and could not place it right away. It was yellow with a rusty face. Mark and I identified it at the same time. He used the Merlin song id app and I remembered what is was, a Yellow Warbler, but a variant known as a Mangrove Warbler. Kelli captured video of it singing. 

"Mangrove" Yellow Warbler

" Mangrove" Yellow Warbler


    The boardwalk also gave us close views of Mottled Duck, Common Gallinule and Blue-winged Teal. Near the end of the boardwalk, we added Redhead, Great Blue heron and Reddish Egret. 

Mottled Duck

Common Gallinule

Blue-winged Teal


Great Blue Heron

Reddish Egret

    On our way back to the visitors center we lucked upon a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Back at the center we added Black-throated Green Warbler with very close views. 

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Green Warbler

    We had lunch on South Padre Island at the Longboard. A band was playing. Kelli and I shared shrimp cocktail and chicken lime tacos.

    We made the long drive back to Weslaco.Back at the hotel we had to deal with no seats on our flights tomorrow. I hate Travelocity and American Airlines. First – book with your airline directly. Second- avoid American if you can.

    We visited the Blue Onion again for dinner. This time we tried their flatbreads/pizza. The BBQ chicken had some kick to it.We spent the evening at Estero Llano Grande State Park World Birding Center. The pond was rather quiet with a nice American Avocet lit by the low sun.  A Black-bellied Whistling Duck posed for yet another picture.As the sun set, we saw a Lesser Nighthawk fly by. When it was dark, we started hearing Common Pauraque and Chuck-will's-widow calling. We then heard a boom and peents of a Common Nighthawk. Screech Owls called and I heard a distant Great Horned Owl.


Sunday, April 16, 2023

    We went to Estero Llano Grande State Park World Birding Center in the morning for the last bit of birding before checking out of the hotel and heading to the airport.

    We walked the old trailer park (Tropical Area) to a bird blind. We had great looks at Fox Squirrel, Olive Sparrow, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, with two up in a tree. We heard Red-crowned Parrots but could not find them. In one tree we had a few migrants which included Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler and a Nashville Warbler.

Fox Squirrel

Brown-crested Flycatcher

Brown-crested Flycatcher

Olive Sparrow

Buff-belied Hummingbird

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

    We passed the pond, and it was full of shorebirds. We continued to get to Alligator Lake. On the way I heard and saw a Yellow-breasted Chat. This would be a life bird for Mark, but it ducked down into deep cover before he could get on it. We patiently waited and it came back up. 

Yellow-breasted Chat

    We did not see any gators at the lake but did run into Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. On the way back to the car I spotted a Brown Longtail butterfly. 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Brown Longtail

    Our bird species list for the trip was 133. 

    We check out and drove towards the airport and had lunch at a Texas Roadhouse. They gave out bagged peanuts this time, not loose in a bucket. Kelli had the petite filet mignon; I had a chicken Caesar salid and Mark a pulled pork sandwich. 

    Our 4:18 PM from McAllen to Dallas was on time as well as our 6:01 PM back to LGA. We landed well before our expected 11:45 PM arrival. Rich picked us up and we were home quickly.  

Thanks for reading.  

Michael, Kelli, and Mark


Read our other trip reports at Kelli and Mike's Adventures

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