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The Lower Rio Grande Birding Seasons

By: Keith Hackland

It is May. The Lower Rio Grande Valley birding season is winding down in its ninth month. It has been busy, but now Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the most visited birding hot spot, is seeing few birders and the volunteers have all departed.

There are plenty of birds everywhere in May nesting and raising young, our very striking birds, wearing bright breeding plumage and singing their best songs. Migrants are moving through – warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles, hummingbirds, raptors; summer night jars are here, swooping across dawn and dusk skies. Spring and summer are wonderful. Mornings are mysteriously misty and full of birds. Evenings are sensuously subtle and full of birds. Late morning through mid-afternoon is hot, bird siesta time – so on hot days birders retire to air conditioning, but on cooler day’s birders chase butterflies and dragonflies which love the sun, while the birds are quiet.

Why are there fewer birders in summer? The answer lies up north. Northerners from America and Europe don’t have to go south to enjoy warm weather. In fact the north offers fierce summer birding competition to us. In summer northern weather is very favorable; exciting migrant and resident birds actively nest, and later migrants flock. Summer is when birders visit Canada, Alaska, other northern states and the western mountains.

Recently we have begun seeing a few summer birders here. They come from the hotter areas and super humid areas – from Arizona to Florida. They enjoy our ocean breezes and moderate heat. There are other great attributes of summer here – no waiting in restaurants, light road traffic, no one in a hurry, long daylight hours and relaxed residents.

The Rio Grande Valley birding season has distinct patterns. Fall bird migration runs July to December. For the birds returning to their homes in Central and South America there is no hurry. Good weather and good food delays give them extra days or weeks along the way, as they take it easy and store fat. Birding is also slower and comfortable. In the fall we are blessed with swarming butterflies, particularly in conjunction with favorable early rains. Millions of sulphurs and snouts cloud the brush land and gently occupy our cities and farms. These huge flocks usually show up September through November, and the number of species spikes, so fall is when the majority of butterfly watchers visit. Fall is also a popular time for nature festivals – Mission’s Texas Butterfly Festival, Raymondville/Port Mansfield’s Wild in Willacy, Harlingen’s large Rio Grande Bird Festival and McAllen’s Wild Walk nature festival for kids.

December through February are the most popular months with birders who wish to escape the north’s deep freeze. Our birds here are at their numeric peak. With all the wintering raptors and water birds every birding spot is crammed full of birds. This bonanza for birders makes it very easy to see huge numbers. Lagunas, Resacas, ponds and rivers are covered with waterfowl, and Belted Kingfishers take up residence on bodies of water ignored all year by our native Texas birds, the Green and Ringed Kingfishers. On sunny days the birders are everywhere too, even birding from canoes on the Rio Grande. This is when Brownsville rolls out their International Birding Festival.

March through May are the spring months for birds here. Winter birds head north to breed, migrants rush through on their way north, and all adult native birds of Texas are engaged full time in breeding, nesting, and raising young. Spring birds are in a frenzy and so are spring birders. The Texas Great Coastal Birding Classic competition runs in April when dozens of teams compete to count the most species in a day or week. Serious listers and twitchers from around the world descend on us to race through the hot spots seeing how high their list of species can go. This is also the favorite time for British birders to visit. McAllen runs the Texas Tropics Nature Festival at the end of March and into April.

It is May again. Time for Weslaco’s Dragonfly Days celebration. Those of us who service birders are unwinding, catching up on paper work and sleep, firing up our barbecue grills, watching the prickly pears bloom and tunas ripen, relaxing in the Rio Grande Valley’s quiet summer daze; just us and the birds