Birder Heaven: A Large, Plain Estuary

“Have you seen the Rose-throated Becard? It’s at Estero Llano.”
“You still haven’t seen a Pauraque? You’ve got to go to Estero Llano Grande.”
“The birding here is good, but the best birding is at Estero Llano Grande State Park.”

After hearing all the comment, we just had to go check it all out for ourselves.

duck_esterollanograndesp-tx_lah_4363_filteredEstero Llano Grande State Park (which means “large plain estuary”) didn’t exist when I was in Texas five years ago—it was still a sorghum field and dry lake bed. Since habitat takes time to return to its natural state, I wasn’t sure that reality could possibly live up to all the hype. I forget that plants grow faster in south Texas than they do in high, dry Colorado!

We arrived at in Weslaco just as the day dawned, dreary and damp. Parking outside the park gate, we paid our entrance fee at the “iron ranger,” then followed the road to what had once been a mobile home park. Tall trees line the shady lanes and bougainvillea and other exotic flowering shrubs survive from someone’s landscaping. A few park employees who live in some parked RVs had hung out feeders, so we stopped to watch the action for a bit.

tri-colored-heron_esterollanograndesp-tx_lah_0652_filteredThe path to the visitor center was guarded by a flock of noisy Chachalacas squawking in the bushes. Walking past a feeding station, we came to some buildings, including some offices, classrooms, a gift shop, and a broad covered terrace that looks out over a shallow lake full of waterfowl. Pete immediately found a place to plug in his laptop, and he happily settled down to read his email while I checked out the ibis, coots, moorhens, waders (like this Tri-colored Heron) and ducks.

As more people arrived, I was approached by a park ranger asking if I’d like to join the guided bird walk that would be leaving in a few minutes. Of course I would! Highest priority would be locating the Rose-throated Becard, but he also promised to find me my first Pauraque.

orange-crowned-warbler_esterollanograndesp-tx_lah_4466_filteredWith a dozen or so avid birders in tow, our guide led us back through the old home sites, scanning the trees and bushes for birds. Every minute or two, someone called out another species—Orange-crowned Warbler (right), Snowy Egret, Mottled Duck, Crested Caracara, Least Sandpiper, Inca Dove, Harris’s Hawk, Altamira Oriole, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Couch’s Kingbird, Peregrine Falcon, and on and on.

At one spot, the leader beckoned me over and pointed at a fallen tree trunk laying in a pile of dead leaves. “Do you see it?” I stared and stared, but all I saw were twigs and brown, dried foliage.

“You have to look right under the log, there, by that skinny twig. See the eye?”

common-pauraque_esterollanograndesp-tx_lah_4636Finally, my brain registered that what I’d thought was a pile of debris was in fact a Pauraque! Once I saw that first one, I began to see them all along the path. Their camouflage is so effective, I’d been walking right past them without ever being aware of their presence.

Since the becard had been sighted high in a large tree, we were all craning our necks, trying to spot a small bird hidden in a lot of leaves. The mist had turned to a drizzle, and water drops kept smearing on my binos. Getting damper by the moment, I was about to call it a day when someone called out “There it is!” The becard had decided to switch trees, and we caught it in midair.

I have to say it wasn’t exactly the most satisfying look. Mostly what I saw was a dark bird silhouetted against the overcast sky. Once we knew where to look, we were able to spot it again in the high branches, so at least I saw enough to add it to my life list.

ringed-kingfisher_esterollanograndesp-tx_lah_0689_filteredAfter the bird walk, I explored more of the park on my own. The sun finally broke through the clouds as I followed a short trail leading to Alligator Lake. I didn’t see an alligator, although I was assured he was lurking beneath the water. If so, he didn’t scare away the Anhingas perched at the water’s edge. I was delighted to find a Ringed Kingfisher who was happy to pose for my camera, completing my North American kingfisher complement.

buff-bellied-hummingbird_esterollanograndesp-tx_lah_1314_filteredFinally ready to sit down, I returned to the small sitting area and feeding station behind the visitor center. Along with the usual suspects, several Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were taking turns at the sugar water. Their darting flight challenged my reflexes on my camera shutter button!

So, did Estero Llano Grande live up to my expectations? Yes, and more so! All told, my count for the day totaled 67 species, and that was with fog and drizzle during most of the morning. The terrace is a great place to set up a tripod and telephoto lens—in fact, sometimes the birds were too close to photograph! Pete gave it a 5-star rating for non-birding spouses. It’s also a great spot for beginners, since the water offers unimpeded views of dozens of species.

We liked it so much, we came back several times before our trip ended. And if I ever get a chance to return to the lower Rio Grande valley, Estero Llano will be at the top of my list!

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