"Mexico's High Island"
28-30 April 2008
Tour leader: Michael Retter
A Tropical Birding Custom Tour
photo at left: birding La Pesca
Situated just a couple hundred miles south of Texas in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas is La Pesca, a wonderful location with tropical foothill thornforest, saltwater lagoons, freshwater marshes, desolate barrier island beaches, and woodlots that can be the site of amazing fallout events when weather conditions are favorable. The goal of this private tour was to find species that are often hard to locate within Mexican borders, like Clapper Rail, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Tawny-collared Nightjar. Thankfully for us, our trip coincided with the biggest cold front of the entire spring, which turned this sleepy coastal town into migration central.
Day 1: We started the tour early this morning in Harlingen, from where we drove south to cross the border into Mexico. The cold front had just passed here, so we hurried our way south. Along the way, a Greater Roadrunner and a flock of Scaled Quail dashed across the road. Just north of Soto La Marina, we literally drove into two flocks of hundreds of migrating Mississippi Kites. They were traveling against the strong north wind barely above the thornscrub, and at the time, just over the road. Needless to say, we had amazing views of these elegant birds.
After we checked into our hotel, we quickly headed out to look for migrants. An Eastern Phoebe in the hotel parking lot was quite a surprise on this late date. We’d only made it a few hundred yards when a flock of shorebirds appeared from the south, heading directly for us. They finally materialized into a couple dozen Upland Sandpipers, one of our targets! Nearer the beach, a small flooded area next to the road was full of shorebirds, including Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers and all five peeps. White-rumped and Baird’s, being targets, were especially welcome sights. Across the road, a male Pyrrhuloxia and an Altamira Oriole sat up on a fenceline while a small flock of Tamaulipas Crows (the first of many) croaked from the tops of telephone poles overhead. We then drove north along the beach itself, where we found large numbers of terns and “beach shorebirds” huddled together in an attempt to get out of the strong north wind. Undulating flocks of Franklin’s Gulls were blown closer to land, their blushing pink breasts providing a beautiful contrast to the churning, blue-gray Gulf behind them. Suddenly, we spotted a shorebird over the water struggling to reach the shore. As it approached, it gained altitude, and we could see its white wing linings. It was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper—another target! We had a nice look as it flew directly over us, but unfortunately, it didn’t stop.
Amazed at our luck with shorebirds, we decided to head to a shrubby woodlot to look for passerines. On the way back along the beach, a number of flycatchers were perched on a barbed wire fence. We found Eastern Wood-Pewee, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Eastern, Western, and Couch’s Kingbirds. Before we got out of a car at the woodlot, a large flock of Tennessee Warblers flew in front of us. There wasn’t much mixed in with them, but they led us across the road, where we heard an empid “peeping”. It sure sounded like an Alder Flycatcher, and eventually we had a very nice look at it, confirming our suspicions.
Deeper into the woodlot, we found literally hundreds of birds pushed down by the relentless north wind. Yellow Warblers were everywhere, but mixed in with them we found Philadelphia Vireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Painted Bunting among many others. Within a small flock of Red-eyed Vireos we noticed a slightly duller bird. Finally it turned its head and we could see a larger bill and a teardrop-shaped black smudge on the malar: it was a Black-whiskered Vireo, a Caribbean vagrant! We also found some interesting resident birds, like White-bellied Wren, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and White-collared Seedeater. We figured we’d be lucky just to see a cuckoo, so we were floored when we had amazing studies of no fewer than three Black-billed Cuckoos. Finally, on our way back to the car, we noticed a chunky warbler pop up off the ground into a low bush. It stayed well-concealed for a good while before turning its head. We noticed a complete white eye ring, gray throat, and dark slaty bib. We’d found another vagrant: a Connecticut Warbler! It was starting to get dark by now, so we headed back into town for supper.
After a nice meal of local seafood, we headed up into the thornforest-covered foothills to look for night birds. The endemic Tawny-collared Nightjar was definitely the biggest target of our efforts, and we found a few without much effort, including nice views of one perched on a fencepost right next to the road after it flew directly over our heads! We also noted Common Pauraque and Eastern Screech-Owl, the latter at the southern end of its range.
Day 2: We hit the thornforest first thing this morning, targeting Wild Turkey and Yellow-headed Parrot. The parrots were quite vocal, but seeing one proved to be quite a challenge. It took a little while, but once it rained, it poured. Multiple pairs of these massive birds provided some memorable in-flight views of their glowing golden heads and rainbow-patterned wings. Between sightings, we saw a migrating flock of Wood Storks and heard the goggling of a couple distant Wild Turkeys. All the while, we were kept company by Elegant Trogons, Varied Buntings, Long-billed Thrashers, Red-billed Pigeons, Olive Sparrows, and Blue Buntings.
Lunch was calling back in La Pesca, but we stopped at a freshwater marsh along the way, where we promptly found a Swamp Sparrow and a small flock of Mottled Ducks. As I tried to pish the Swamp Sparrow back in for a closer look, a Clapper Rail started calling back. Wow—on our “hit list” but very unexpected! A little playback brought him right out into the open, where he stood feet from us, yelled back, and posed for a few photographs before running back into the cattails. An immature Common Black-Hawk circled over with a Broad-winged Hawk, and a family of Social Flycatchers conversed in a nearby treetop. Just before we got back to the hotel, a Blue-gray Tanager flew across the road within town, extending its known range even further north towards the US.
Still giddy over our luck from the day before, we decided to check the “migrant trap” again after lunch. A large number of the migrants had cleared out, but we were able to relocate the Black-whiskered Vireo. There were also some new migrants: a Willow Flycatcher, a Blackburnian Warbler, a Scarlet Tanager, a flyby Merlin, and a flock of a couple hundred Dickcissels were the highlights. A small group of diminutive Yellow-faced Grassquits, a Roadside Hawk, and a family of Groove-billed Anis rounded out the residents.
On the drive out to the beach, tens of thousands of birds were streaming by to the north along the lagoon. Most were Wilson’s Phalaropes and White-faced Ibis, but we also picked out a small group of Red Knots. A Northern Bobwhite sang from a fencepost, and a Cassin’s Sparrow sang from a nearby bush along the dunes. The latter (a desert species) was quite interesting to see against a background of crashing ocean waves!
At the mouth of the Río Soto La Marina, there was a large flock of gulls and terns roosting on a sandbar, where we hoped to find another target: Lesser Black-backed Gull. While we dipped on this long-shot, we were not prepared for what we found instead: three rare gull species! Unbelievably, we found one adult each of Kelp, Thayer’s, and Glaucous Gulls! The distant views were not totally satisfying, though, so we drove further up the river for a closer look. An American Golden-Plover ran across the road in front of us as we drove through the sand dunes and puddles. While we had closer views of the gulls, an immature male “Mangrove” Warbler appeared on the barbed wire fence just feet from us.
Day 3: We returned to the thornforest at first light and were rewarded with a chorus of Thicket Tinamous, Plain Chachalacas, Blue-crowned Motmots, White-tipped Doves, Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, and Elegant Trogons. Always a welcome sight, a Lineated Woodpecker flew over our heads just before we headed back to the US, having nearly exhausted our list of possible targets.
In Matamoros, we noted some European Starlings, which are found in most of Mexico only along the border. Even though we were back in the US, we hadn’t given up on finding Mexican targets from the US side of the river. On the way towards Boca Chica a bullet-fast Aplomado Falcon buzzed the car. We hit the beach and immediately drove south to the mouth of the Rio Grande. The high tide had pushed up large numbers of gorgeous terns into the sargassum on the shoreline; using the car as a blind, we were able to again have marvelous views of them. Witnessing the courtship antics of a pair of Sandwich Terns was particularly memorable. Close to the mouth of the river, a Piping Plover and a small flock of American Avocets fed (frustratingly) on the US side. With some patience and determination, we eventually saw the plover enter Mexican airspace—another target down! Then it was inland along the river to try to find Seaside Sparrows among the marshes and salt pans. Unfortunately, recent rains made driving the salt pans a little risky, so we gave up on what was a long shot anyway. As the sun set, we enjoyed a flock of Green Parakeets and a pair of Red-crowned Parrots at Fort Brown in Brownsville.
The cold front provided for better birding in La Pesca than we’d imagined, and we ended the tour with over twice the number of targets we’d realistically hoped for! This tour rivaled the best days I’ve experienced on the Texas coast for sheer excitement and numbers of birds. In just two and a half days of birding, we recorded 197 species! All in all, it was one of the most impressive migration spectacles we’d ever witnessed.
This list includes all the bird species that were recorded by at least one of us. Taxonomy and nomenclature closely follow Howell's Checklist of the Birds of Mexico and all subsequent AOU supplements. Quotation marks denote a possible future split. For instance, "Eastern" Blue Bunting means that the eastern form may one day be split from Blue Bunting. Brackets denote the larger taxon that a species has been split from. For instance, Galápagos [Audubon's] Shearwater means that Galápagos Shearwater was once considered a subspecies of Audubon's Shearwater (and may still be by some authorities). Parentheses denote an alternate name used by some checklists.
h = heard only
^ = endemic to northern Middle America
* = endemic to Mexico
(E) = endemic to the non-peninsular Gulf slope of northern Middle America
(NE) = endemic to Northeast Mexico