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USA | Texas Whooping Cranes & Rio Grande

An 11-day birdwatching tour to South Texas in winter

Limosa’s winter birding tours to Texas begin with an easy boat trip to see the endangered Whooping Cranes at Aransas, from where we swing south towards the border with Mexico to sample the avian riches of the famous Rio Grande Valley. As well as being a wonderful winter birding experience - including numerous localised specialities not found elsewhere in North America - this Texas birdwatching holiday also offers a flavour of birding from the USA’s arid southwest. February is also an excellent month to look for Mexican vagrants - Clay-coloured Thrush, Tropical Parula, Golden-crowned Warbler and Rose-throated Becard are among those we have seen on our Texas birding tours over the years!

Tour Dates

2020

Space
1

Leaders
Chris Charlesworth

Max Group Size: 7
Duration: 11 Days

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Cost: £2995

including return flights from London Heathrow to Houston (Texas), nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £400

Single Supp: £495
Land Only: £2395

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Green Jay TEX B9H2673 BESmall CKweb011212

The sight of our first Texas Green Jay is bound to cause excitement © Brian E Small, briansmallphoto.com

While much of North America may be covered beneath a blanket of snow in winter, those lucky enough to find themselves amidst the sub-tropical habitats of the famous Rio Grande Valley, deep in the south of Texas, are usually enjoying warmer and sunnier weather.

The old saying goes that everything in Texas is big - and that certainly includes its list of birds! Like a corner of Mexico planted north of the border, this amazing region is home to a range of species that are found nowhere else in North America. Around 40 essentially Mexican species are regularly found along the Rio Grande Valley, where exotic residents awaiting our discovery include Plain Chachalaca, Neotropic Cormorant, Least Grebe, White-tailed, Grey and Harris’s Hawks, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Green Jay, Great Kiskadee and the rare Audubon’s Oriole. As a bonus, this corner of Texas also straddles the faunal divide between eastern and western North America, adding chances of such birds as Cinnamon Teal, Greater Roadrunner, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Black-throated Sparrow and Pyrrhuloxia for a real taste of “western” North American birding.

After flying into Houston, a visit to the wetlands of Brazos Bend State Park should guarantee an excellent start to our Texas birding. Little Blue Heron, Anhinga, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and a variety of wintering warblers are all likely here in February before we follow the Gulf Coast west towards Rockport.

Next morning, we board our boat for the chance to get 'up close and personal' with one of North America’s rarest and most spectacular birds - the magnificent Whooping Crane. Around 300 or so 'Whoopers' - more than half the wild population - spend the winter months at Aransas. As well as the cranes, we will scan the marshes for herons, ducks, waders and other wetland birds - with close on 400 species recorded, Aransas boasts the second largest bird list of any park in the US! We may even be lucky to enjoy a pod of Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphins bow-riding our boat.

From Aransas, we travel south to the Rio Grande Valley. Three nights at Harlingen will enable us to explore the southernmost Texas Gulf Coast at Laguna Atascosa and South Padre Island for wintering wildfowl and waders. Nearby, Sabal Palm Sanctuary lies close to the border with Mexico and is home to many Rio Grande specialities, including Inca and White-tipped Doves, Buff-bellied Hummingbird - and who knows, perhaps even a surprise Mexican stray!
 
Moving west to McAllen, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge will entertain us with the raucous calls of Plain Chachalacas as we seek other Rio Grande specialities such as Red-crowned Amazon, Long-billed Thrasher and Black-crested Titmouse. We’ll pay an evening visit to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park to look for Common Pauraque and Eastern Screech Owl, and check woodlands there for the increasingly rare Hook-billed Kite plus possible Mexican strays. Our journey along the valley continues west to Rio Grande City, looking for the likes of Grey Hawk, the dazzling Altamira Oriole, Tropical Parula, the wary Red-billed Pigeon, and both Green and Ringed Kingfishers amongst a host of south Texas specialities.

We conclude our travels along the Rio Grande with a visit to the dry, thorn scrub habitat near Salineño. Greater Roadrunner, Curve-billed Thrasher, Verdin and Pyrrhuloxia are among southwestern delights attracted to feeders here, while half oranges tempt wintering warblers and Audubon’s Oriole - another essentially Mexican species - which come to sip juice from the fruit.

Our carefully planned itinerary allows time to visit the key reserves and to make the most of the region's exceptionally rich and varied birdlife. And as we make our way back north to Houston, a visit to the excellent Goose Island State Park wraps up our South Texas birding.

Guide Chris Charlesworth has led most of our tours “across the pond” over the past 17 years - including our February 2017, 2018 and 2019 tours to south Texas and the Rio Grande. This 2020 trip will be his fourteenth tour to Texas for Limosa, the “Lone Star State” being his favourite birding destination in all of North America.

Whooping Crane CK TX 0217 IMG 8504 copy resized

Our birding begins with a boat trip to see the endangered Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, its only regular wintering site © Gary Davidson

Day 1                                     
FLY HOUSTON, TRANSFER TO ROSENBERG

Our winter birding tour to south Texas begins with a British Airways morning flight nonstop from London Heathrow to Houston. Afternoon arrival in Houston, where Chris will be waiting to welcome us.

We head directly out of the city, westwards for about 50 miles to our first hotel, at Rosenberg. Night Rosenberg

Day 2
BRAZOS BEND TO ROCKPORT

Our south Texas birding adventure starts in earnest today, with an easy drive to the excellent wetlands at Brazos Bend State Park. A network of trails and loops here is sure to have your head spinning with new birds. Tricoloured and Little Blue Herons, American Bittern and Anhinga can all be found, along with Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Red-shouldered Hawk. Over the water Belted Kingfishers perch and noisy, iridescent Boat-tailed and Great-tailed Grackles argue. At this time of year, hundreds of Black and Turkey Vultures roost in the woodlands, where we might also encounter Pileated Woodpecker. A February visit offers a plethora of small birds too, with Carolina Wren, various wintering warblers and the skulking Swamp Sparrow among species to watch out for - and we have a great opportunity to see American Alligator.

After a bird-filled morning at Brazos Bend, we swing south towards Rockport, where we stay tonight - but not before enjoying some further birding along the way this afternoon. We’ll keep our options open but, depending on what’s about at the time, we may well visit Lion's/Shelly Park in Refugio. This small city park regularly attracts loose flocks of warblers in winter: Pine and Wilson’s Warblers were seen on our 2018 visit, along with Blue-headed Vireo and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Parties of wintering sparrows can include Chipping and Lincoln’s and there's always a good number of Northern Cardinals here. In recent years this park has become a well-trodden path for Texan birders, with many great rarities turning up: Greater Pewee, Flame-coloured Tanager and Golden-crowned Warbler are among strays we've been lucky enough to see here over the years!

From Refugio, it’s a 45-minute drive to our next hotel, in Rockport, where we'll take a delicious dinner this evening at an establishment right on the shoreline. Night Rockport

Day 3
ARANSAS BOAT TRIP & TULE LAKE, SOUTH TO HARLINGEN

This morning we enjoy a boat trip to the back bays and estuaries of famous Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Aransas bird list is the second largest in the US national wildlife refuge system, with 394 species recorded. The reserve is also home to more than half of the wild wintering populations of the one of the rarest birds in the world, the Whooping Crane - North America's tallest bird, which arrives here from its breeding grounds in Saskatchewan. There are currently just over 300 Whooping Cranes in the Aransas flock.

As we cruise beside the marsh and shore there will be many other waterbirds to enjoy. Roseate Spoonbill, Hooded Merganser, Great Northern Diver (known here as 'Common Loon'), American Oystercatcher, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Forster’s Tern and Black Skimmer all spend the winter here, squadrons of Brown Pelicans glide silently overhead and excitable Reddish Egrets charge madly through the shallows in frantic pursuit of fry. The Seaside Sparrow is found exclusively in saltmarsh grasses and is another bird we shall be keeping our eyes open for this morning.

After our boat tour of Aransas has concluded we'll drive south towards Kingsville. Sunset Lake lies on the north side of Corpus Christi Bay, where (if the tide is right) sandy flats sometimes hold the rare and declining Snowy Plover. Other shorebirds, herons and egrets can be found and there are Great Northern Divers to watch for in the bay. Tule Lake, on the northern edge of Corpus Christi, has a viewing ‘overlook’ from which we are likely to see Redhead, Canvasback and Bufflehead, along with Black-necked Stilt.

South of here, the habitat changes and the final part of our journey today could well produce an immaculate White-tailed Hawk or perhaps a superb Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched beside the road. Evening arrival at our hotel Harlingen, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where we stay for the next three nights. Night Harlingen

Days 4 & 5
THE LOWER RIO GRANDE: LAGUNA ATASCOSA & SOUTH PADRE ISLAND

Our first taste of birding along the Rio Grande Valley begins on the Gulf of Mexico, where the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a large reserve encompassing many different habitats - from beaches, lakes and ponds to scrub-forest and desert plains. The bird life here is varied and abundant.

Feeders around the park headquarters attract colourful Green Jays, Black-crested Titmouse and Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and winter brings large numbers of ducks and geese to Laguna Atascosa, with chances of Ross’s, Snow, White-fronted, Cackling and Canada Geese as well as huge numbers of Redheads - up to 80% of the North American population, in fact! White-faced Ibis, American White Pelican, Sandhill Crane, Piping Plover, Marbled Godwit, Western, Least and Stilt Sandpipers, Loggerhead Shrike, and Vesper and Savannah Sparrows are also possible at this season.

A short way east, South Padre Island is another great spot for shorebirds, plus rails, terns and gulls. We should find Reddish Egret, Wilson’s Plover and Black Skimmer, and have chances of Sora plus Clapper, King and Virginia Rails.

In fact, this corner of North America is home to an astonishing variety of birds, including a good number of species that are found nowhere else in the US. Birds of prey can be numerous, with Aplomado and Peregrine Falcons, White-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, migrating Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, Harris’s Hawk, the rakish White-tailed Kite and good numbers of Northern Crested Caracara to watch out for.

If time permits, we may also visit the Hugh Ramsey Nature Park along the banks of the Arroyo Colorado River, home to Altamira Oriole - a stunning vision of black and orange from Mexico. Two nights Harlingen

Days 6 & 7
SABAL PALM SANCTUARY, BROWNSVILLE & SANTA ANA

With its majestic towering palms and jungle-like subtropical habitat, Sabal Palm Sanctuary is one of the best birding locations in North America. We’ll wander the trails and linger beside feeders around the visitor centre here, hoping to unearth such gems as Hooded Oriole and Tropical Parula (though the latter is a rare and declining winter visitor here, both our 2017 and 2019 groups were lucky). Sabal Palms is also a great spot to see the localised Buff-bellied Hummingbird, with its forked rufous tail and decurved red bill. Ringed and Green Kingfishers can be present along the river, Olive Sparrow is regularly present and a nice selection of wintering warblers is also likely, with Orange-crowned, Black-throated Grey and Black-throated Green Warblers possible. Sabal Palms is also one of the best places in South Texas to look for Mexican vagrants, such as the Clay-coloured Thrush seen over lunch here on our 2018 tour.

In the afternoon we may try to our luck with some urban specialities. While the origins of both the Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Amazons we will be looking for here cannot be known for sure, the latter is endemic to northeast Mexico. The more widely distributed Green Parakeet occurs from Mexico south to Nicaragua, and it is likely that at least some of the birds present in the Lower Rio Grande are naturally occurring vagrants from neighbouring Mexico.

We then head west along the Rio Grande Valley to McAllen, where we spend the next two nights - though perhaps not before making a quick stop near the little town of Weslaco, where the Estero Llano Grande State Park and Frontera Audubon Sanctuary are blessed with luxuriant sub-tropical vegetation and feeders that attract a fine variety of resident and wintering Rio Grande Valley birds. The occasional Mexican rarity turns up here, too - a male Rose-throated Becard being a super find on our February 2017 visit!

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one of North America’s most famous and productive birding sites. Miles of trails through thorn-scrub woods, fields, ponds and marshes attract most of the birds it is possible to see in Southern Texas! Dazzling Altamira Orioles - the adults brilliant orange and black - build their huge nests of moss in the taller trees. Green Jays, bedecked in their unbelievable costume of green, black, yellow and blue, visit feeders near the refuge’s headquarters along with the peculiar Plain Chachalaca. Ponds along the trails can hold the sociable Harris’s Hawk plus a variety of ducks and shorebirds, while the Hook-billed Kite - an increasingly rare bird nowadays in riparian woodlands along the Rio Grande Valley - is still very occasionally spotted cruising over the canopy on its broad, paddle-shaped wings.

In winter, grassy fields at Anzalduous County Park may conceal the elusive Sprague’s Pipit, and both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks occur - making this a great spot to learn how to distinguish these two very similar looking species. As we work our way through the park, we should pick up Inca Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker and the eye-catching Vermilion Flycatcher.

In the evening we’ll take an excursion (optional) to the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in search of Eastern Screech Owl and Common Pauraque, the latter a neotropical nightjar that reaches the northernmost limit of its range here. Two nights McAllen

Day 8
BENTSEN-RIO GRANDE TO SALINEÑO

Slightly further west than Santa Ana, but with different habitat, is the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. Amongst more local specialities we hope to track down, feeding flocks here may hold Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Hermit Thrush and an assortment of wintering warblers, including the ‘nuthatch-like’ Black-and-white Warbler and tiny Northern Parula. Bentsen is considered by many to be the best winter birding spot in the Rio Grande Valley - and another great place to unearth unexpected Mexican vagrants, such as Clay-coloured Thrush and Blue Bunting.

From Bentsen we continue upriver, following the Rio Grande towards Salineño and Chapeno. Campers put out feeders here to attract the local birds and Greater Roadrunner and Long-billed Thrasher should both be present in winter. Specialities to watch for along this section of the Rio Grande include Grey Hawk and the black and yellow Audubon’s Oriole. Night Rio Grande City

Day 9
SALINEÑO, CHAPENO & FALCON DAM, AND RETURN TO ROCKPORT

Time this morning to enjoy some final birding along the Rio Grande Valley, with another opportunity to explore the arid border country around Salineño and Chapeno. The likes of Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Long-billed Thrasher provide a further taste of ‘western’ US birding, and in the thorn-scrub habitat of Falcon State Park we should encounter the red-crested and cardinal-like Pyrrhuloxia, the 'outsize' Cactus Wren and Curve-billed Thrasher along with numerous 'dry country' sparrows.

After lunch, reluctantly, we must turn our backs on the Rio Grande and start the journey back north towards Houston. But we’ll take the direct route this time, looping inland to see a different side of the country and watching out for the handsome White-tailed Hawk over the fields. We break our return journey to Houston with an overnight stop back at Rockport, on the coast. Night Rockport

Day 10
RETURN TO HOUSTON, FLY LONDON
Our flight home departs Houston this evening so before we leave the unforgettable Texas Coast today we'll have time to enjoy one more terrific location: Goose Island State Park. A variety of habitats are found within the borders of the park, including saltmarsh where Clapper Rails call and chunky Seaside Sparrows perform their display flights. We might also spot a distant Whooping Crane or two in the shallow bays from Goose Island Park. Grey Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and American Robin are among wintering passerines found in the oak trees that also cover a good portion of the park.

In the afternoon we travel back to Houston, where we bid farewell to Chris and check-in for our overnight flight back to London.

Day 11
ARRIVAL LONDON
Lunchtime arrival at London Heathrow, where our winter birding tour to south Texas concludes.

 

Least Grebe ad Boca Raton Florida Arnoud van den Berg 1564

Smallest of the grebes, the Least Grebe's range just creeps north over the Mexican border into southernmost Texas © Arnoud van den Berg, Limosa

What To Expect

An 11-day birdwatching tour to South Texas in winter, featuring an easy boat trip to see the endangered Whooping Cranes at Aransas - one of many highlights on this tour - before swinging south towards the border with Mexico and sampling the legendary birding of the Rio Grande Valley.

Join us for some great winter birding, including numerous localised specialities not found elsewhere in North America, plus a flavour of birding from the arid Southwest USA... While Mexican vagrants we have seen include Clay-coloured Thrush, Golden-crowned Warbler and Rose-throated Becard!

While Texas is a fantastic destination for birding - especially in winter - it’s also very BIG - almost three times the size of the UK! So although our itinerary focuses on one relatively small corner of the 'Lone Star State', please note that a few long drives (150-200 miles over good roads) are necessary on some days to get to and from our ultimate destination - the bird-rich Rio Grande Valley that here forms the border with Mexico. Having said that, main roads are good and we'll enjoy some great birding stops along the way.

We'll be out early most days - including our morning boat trip at Aransas, which usually departs between 7.30 and 9.30am (according to local conditions). We endeavour to do most of the longer drives in the afternoon, when birding is generally quieter, especially on warm days.

In February, daytime temperatures at Harlingen (in the Rio Grande Valley) typically range from 11-23C (52-73F) and rainfall for the month is low (just 43mm). Winter days in south Texas are usually quite warm with plenty of sunshine, but it can feel cool with a sea breeze blowing along the coast.

Weather note!  Notwithstanding the above, you should also come prepared for the possibility of a cold front moving through, when daytime temperatures can drop sharply into the low 40sF (5-9C) - exceptionally falling to around freezing. We strongly recommend you pack rainwear plus a warm fleece or sweater, hat and gloves, just in case - and hope that they won’t be needed!

Birds

180-200 species

Accommodation

9 nights accommodation in Texas, staying in comfortable US-style hotels of good North American standard. All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in our tour price, commencing with dinner in Texas on Day 1 and concluding with lunch there on Day 10.

Food is good, varied and plentiful. Breakfasts are usually buffet-style at the hotels. Lunches will usually be picnics though we sometimes visit a local restaurant or diner. As is the norm in the USA, evening meals will often be taken at a local restaurant since many North American hotels lack their own in-house restaurant facilities.

[Our tour price also includes the expected 15-20% gratuity for all meals in North America.]

Walking

Easy. Short walks over predominantly flat terrain. Sturdy walking shoes should suffice.

Travel

Return flights from London Heathrow to Houston (TX), nonstop with British Airways.

Ground Transport  By air-conditioned minibus

Boat Trips

Our tour price includes a morning boat trip to look for Whooping Cranes at Aransas NWR. The boat has enclosed seating in the event the weather is unsuitable for birding on deck, and we will be sailing in the sheltered waters of the protected bay system so conditions should be quite smooth (you are unlikely to require precautions against motion sickness). Pack a jacket and a sweater or fleece to combat possible cool sea breezes as we travel along.

Rose throated Becard R TX0217 CC 300dpi copy 2 resized

Winter is a great time to look for rarities in South Texas and the Rio Grande, like this stunning Rose-throated Becard photographed on our 2017 tour! © Chris Charlesworth, Limosa

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1 KE, Whooping Cranes & Rio Grande tour, Texas ...Excellent tour, fantastic and colourful birds, great hotels, great food and best of all an excellent leader in Chris... [empty string]
2 SD, Texas Rio Grande tour Chris is first class! [empty string]
3 L&AP, Texas Coast tour Chris has excellent people skills and is inclusive of all members of the group, whatever their birding skills. Brilliant identification skills, too. We would definitely travel with Chris again... We are confident that “Limosa” knows what it is doing, and does it to a very high standard. Reliable and efficient, and pleasant too! Thank you for a great holiday. [empty string]
4 CS, Texas Rio Grande tour Excellent trip, full of birds without being overwhelming. Chris as leader should take credit for this. [empty string]
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