FLY HOUSTON, TRANSFER TO ROSENBERG
Our winter birding tour to South Texas begins with a morning British Airways 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 to our first stop, at Rosenberg. Night Rosenberg
BRAZOS BEND & LION'S/SHELLY PARK
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 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 also offers a plethora of small birds, with Carolina Wren, various wintering warblers and the skulking Swamp Sparrow among species to watch 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 paying an afternoon visit to 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 February 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. Noisy Great Kiskadees can show well as they perch atop the trees and with any luck a fine Green Kingfisher might appear. In recent years this park has become a well-trodden path for Texan birders, with many great rarities turning up - Flame-coloured Tanager, Greater Pewee and Golden-crowned Warbler are among strays we've been lucky enough to see here in the past!
Leaving Refugio, a 45-minute drive brings us to our next hotel, in Rockport, where we'll take a delicious dinner this evening at an establishment right on the shoreline. Night Rockport
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 and the reserve is 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 encompassed 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, passing Corpus Christi as we go. On the north side of Corpus Christi Bay lies Sunset Lake, 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 out 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 in 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. 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.
A short way east, South Padre Island is another great spot for shorebirds, plus rails, terns and gulls, including Reddish Egret, Wilson’s Plover, Black Skimmer and chances of Clapper, King, Virginia and Sora Rails.
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-tailedHawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, migrating Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, Harris’s Hawk, the rakish White-tailed Kiteand good numbers of Northern Crested Caracarato watch 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 NWR
With its majestic towering palms and jungle-like sub-tropical 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 Groove-billed Ani, Hooded Oriole and Tropical Parula (though the latter is a rare and declining winter visitor here, our 2017 group was 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 here, Olive Sparrow is regular 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 Clay-coloured Thrush.
In the afternoon we’ll try to our luck with some urban specialities. While the origins of both the Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots 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 not perhaps 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 - and the occasional Mexican rarity, too.
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, decked out in an unbelievable pattern 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 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
BENTSEN-RIO GRANDE STATE PARK TO SALINEÑO
Slightly further west than Santa Ana, but with different habitat, is the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. Amongst more local specialties 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 (seen on our 2018 tour) and the wonderful Blue Bunting.
From Bentsen we continue upriver, following the course of the Rio Grande towards Salineño and Chapeno. Campers put out feeders here to attract birds and Scaled Quail, Greater Roadrunner and Long-billed Thrasher should all be present in winter. Specialities to watch for along this section of the Rio Grande include the black and yellow Audubon’s Oriole, and our 2018 tour also enjoyed good views of an adult Grey Hawk. Night Rio Grande City
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, while in the thorn-scrub habitat of Falcon State Park we should encounter the red-crested and cardinal-like Pyrrhuloxia, the 'outsize' Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher and 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 take the direct route, looping inland this time to see a different side of the country - and watching out for White-tailed Hawks over the fields. We break our journey to Houston with an overnight stop back at Rockport, on the coast. Night Rockport
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.
Afternoon drive back to Houston, where we bid farewell to Chris and check-in for our overnight flight back to London.
Lunchtime arrival at London Heathrow, where our winter birdwatching tour to South Texas concludes.