Wild Texas: Venturing to the Valley - Trip Report #20

Venturing to the Valley

Welcome to the park!

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Location: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park & Lower Rio Grande Valley, TX
Time of Year: Mid-February
Weather: Mid-upper 60s daytime, mid-40s at night; sunny, breezy
Activities: Camping, birding, photography, hiking
Submitted by: Shannon Moore

We camped at tent site #87, nestled beside the park's large bird observation blind and within walking distance of one of the park's resacas. Note: Due to the volume of RV visitors in the winter, some of the water-only campsites which are typically reserved for tent campers are also issued to RV visitors; as with many other Texas State Parks, the park staff typically lets you choose from the available spots when you arrive.

Sunset on the resaca

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Overnight, we were treated to the sounds of a large pack of coyotes yipping excitedly in the nearby woods and the hoots of a great horned owl. In the pre dawn hours, a small group of javelina arrived, snorting and crunching noisily on the deer corn left scattered by previous campers. By sunrise, the winds had subsided and the nearby resaca was shrouded in a thick veil of fog. A few solitary American coots, double-crested cormorant and American white pelican fed across the resaca amidst swirling water vapor.

Our second evening in the park, we had a fantastic experience just before sundown. We wandered a short way down the road from our campsite and heard the same raucous calls we had heard the previous evening, but this time we saw the source of the calls -- dozens of plump, roadrunner-like birds called chachalacas. They were all over the tree canopy, flying across the road, perching in the trees beside and across from us. I took several videos of them before returning to the resaca behind our campsite to take sunset photos.

After dark, we stopped by the restrooms; on the walk back to our site, we were treated again, this time to a half dozen pauraque scattered at intervals in the roadway, making their whistling call and hopping/flying after each other. We watched their antics and were surprised at how close they flew to us, landing on the ground only a few feet away. Back at our campsite, Justin read from our bird guide that birds in the nightjars family, like these pauraques, have such short legs that they are unusable -- these birds cannot walk or perch easily, they only fly and land on the ground! We were elated at the evening's events, granting us two new "lifers" to our bird lists and the opportunity to view them in natural surroundings, exhibiting their characteristic natural behaviors. A treat!

We began to pack up our camping gear around 8 AM on Sunday, Feb. 18, and were treated to yet another wildlife encounter. As we stood by the picnic table, the unmistakable sound of bird talons on tree bark caused us to look up; two chachalacas had landed in front of us on a horizontal tree branch, not more than 8 feet away. The birds leisurely began to eat the seed a previous camper had left on the bark. Justin and I watched them in amazement, mimicking their call, and then I raced back to our car to get my digital camera. The chachalacas "kissed" beaks a couple times and did not fly away; when they were finished, they just walked down the tree limb, hopped to the ground, wandered into the brush and then flew back into the trees. A fitting end to our first camping trip in the Valley!

During our stay in the Valley, we also visited Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge -- the largest protected habitat (45,187 acres) left in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The refuge staff were very helpful in pinpointing birding opportunities, although they noted the cold front's passage results in fewer bird observations. The refuge headquarters also serves as an interpretive center with dioramas, murals and informative displays; the grounds are landscaped with native plants and shrubs, and there's a bird observation blind and bird feeding station. We observed six green jays, numerous red-winged blackbirds and a half dozen javelina feeding in the fenced observation area outside the headquarters. Picnic tables are also available, near the parking area. If you have time, be sure to drive 15-mile Bayside Drive, the refuge's one-way driving road through the protected area. There are also 5 hiking trails, totalling about 7 miles, at the refuge.

Our Bentsen-Rio Grande Bird List

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Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail

Our Laguna Atascosa NWR Bird List: