Naturalist Journeys, LLC - Small Group Birding and Natural History Tours

SOUTH TEXAS Birding and Wildlife
Nature and Birding Tours with Naturalist Journeys
February 25–March 2, 2014,
with pre-trip extension - Whooping Cranes / Rockport Feb. 22-25


“Plenty of birds plus a great experienced leader equals an unequalled Rio Grande safari.” – Chase Davies

Roseate SpoonbillSouth Texas may be the most exotic birding destination in North America. Here, the range of many subtropical species extends just north of the Mexican border, while many species that breed much further north may be found overwintering. Unique habitats such as Tamaulipan Thorn Scrub and lush Sabal Palm groves are home to some 40 south Texas avian specialties, including Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Hook-billed Kites, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Red-crowned Parrots, Couch’s Kingbirds and Plain Chachalacas.

The pace of our journey allows ample time to explore various locations. We visit a number of sites, including the Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges, wetland habitats on South Padre Island that often attract wintering rails, and Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen Rio Grande, and Falcon State Parks. Many of these areas are legendary Green Jays South Texas Birding Touramong birders for consistently attracting unique wildlife. And, depending on where birds occur, we may add other parks in the region.

This is a great trip to view both birds and butterflies. Over 300 species of butterflies—more than are likely to be found in the entire Eastern United States—have been recorded in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Many of the sites we’ll visit have plantings to attract butterflies. If the winter has remained mild, we may see a diversity of these delightful creatures, as well as some of the Valley’s nearly 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies. 

See our past year’s species lists and Trip Reports to sample the full flavor of this great adventure. Please note this is a birding and wildlife trip limited to 10 persons. 



Reddish EgretTues., Feb. 25 Arrival in McAllen, TX / Rio Grande Valley Birding
Welcome to one of America’s top birding hotspots, often referred to as the Texas Tropics.  If you come from winter-bound areas, warm air, fresh breezes, and brilliant blooms let you know you’ve reached an exotic realm without ever leaving the States!

For a group pick-up, please plan to arrive at McAllen-Miller International Airport (MFE) no later than 1PM.  If you must arrive later, we can arrange transport for you (additional cost) to the Alamo Inn to join the group for dinner and onward.  After checking in, we spend the balance of the afternoon birding at Estero Llano Grande State Park, a fantastic new site in South Texas. Afterwards, we go to a favorite local restaurant to enjoy a welcome dinner, during which you can get acquainted with your guide and fellow traveling companions.
Accommodations at the Alamo Inn, Alamo, TX (D)

Wed., Feb. 26 Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge / Frontera Audubon Sanctuary / Valley Nature Center
A short drive south takes us to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which protects 2,000 acres in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Corridor. With well over 300 species of birds recorded, many birders regard this reserve as the highlight of a visit to south Texas. Extensive trails allow exploration of pond, wetland, open field, thorn forest, and Tamaulipan scrub habitats. Listen for raucous calls of Couch’s Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees, and, with luck, the repeated whistle of the tiny Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Those who wish may ascend the newly constructed hawk watching tower where we may, if we’re lucky, get eye-level views of a Gray Hawk or Hook-billed Kite. During winter, Santa Ana is home to all three North American kingfishers, although their day-to-day presence depends on water levels at the various impoundments.

While at the refuge, we may travel the seven-mile Wildlife Drive via tram, getting off in key locations to walk and explore (tram availability varies from year to year and season to season). The flora is a dense tangle of brush that harbors subtropical bird species more typically found in northeastern Mexico. At red-flowering Shrimp Plants we check for Buff-bellied and other hummingbirds. Tropical Parulas may be calling from the moss-draped limbs of large Texas Ebony trees. Least Grebes may be cruising the small ponds, and we keep our eyes open for a Sora or some wintering shorebirds.

Several mammals more at home in Mexico extend their ranges just over the border here, including both Ocelots and Jaguarundis—both of which are extremely rare. The area also hosts a diverse array of butterfly and other insect species.

Black SkimmerIn the afternoon, we visit one or two small but productive thickets of vegetation in Weslaco –the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary, the Valley Nature Center, or both. Noisy and bold Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are common here, as are Plain Chachalacas and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, and they may be joined by a number of wintering birds. Frontera has hosted many rarities, including Elegant Trogons, Golden-crowned Warblers, Crimson-collared Grosbeaks, and a White-throated Robin. If the Valley has not experienced cold weather, gardens at both sites may produce a variety of butterflies and blooms. Enjoy dinner tonight at a local restaurant.
Accommodations at the Alamo Inn, (B,L,D)

Thurs., Feb. 27 South Padre Island and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
This morning we drive eastward to South Padre Island. At the Convention Center, a boardwalk trail provides access to wetlands along the bay. This area has been a productive location for various species of rails including King, Clapper, and Virginia, barely noticing the humans walking above. There are numerous large waders such as Reddish Egrets and Tricolored Herons, and other waterbirds including American Oystercatchers, Black Skimmers, wintering American Avocets, both pelicans, and various gulls and terns. We also hope to find Piping Plovers—one of the country’s most threatened shorebirds.

Piping PloverThe Center’s butterfly garden often provides habitat for wintering songbirds. As time permits, we may check one or more protected woodlots on the Island. After lunch at a local restaurant, we cross back to the mainland.

Heading northward, we visit Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Lying on the western shore of the Laguna Madre, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge protects over 65,000 acres of coastal habitats. More than 410 species of birds have been recorded here, including the Aplomado Falcon, an endangered species that the Peregrine Fund began to reintroduce to south Texas in 1985. At the visitor’s center and nearby paths, we check out the feeders for close-up views of Green Jays, Long-billed Thrashers, and perhaps a herd of Javelinas. The 15-mile Bayside Drive loop provides us views of coastal prairie, brush land, tidal flats and the margin of the Laguna Madre. Along the route, we’ll look for wintering waterfowl, Sandhill Cranes, raptors (including Aplomado Falcons and White-tailed Hawks), shorebirds, gulls and terns. With luck, we may also encounter a Coyote, Bobcat, Nine-banded Armadillo, or even a Texas Tortoise.
Accommodations at the Alamo Inn (B,L,D)

Fri., Feb. 28 Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park   
This morning we visit Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, one of the Valley’s World Birding Center sites. Bentsen protects an array of habitats that support most of the Valley’s South Texas Birding and Wildlifespecial birds. By walking short trails we visit the river’s edge, ponds, marshes, thorn forest, and mesquite. A recently constructed hawk watching platform gives us an expansive view of the surrounding area. We hope to see most of the south Texas specialties here including Altamira Orioles, White-tipped Doves, Green Jays, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulets, and Great Kiskadees. We may even find a Clay-colored Thrush or something more unusual.

If there is interest, we could visit the gardens at the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) International Butterfly Park, only a few minutes from Bentsen. During its short existence, this site has already produced a huge number of butterfly species—including several first U.S. records.

For lunch, we have a picnic or dine at a local café. We may visit Anzalduas County Park, whose Spanish moss-clad live oak trees often host resident Tropical Parulas alongside a variety of wintering warblers. In fields near the entrance road, we can try for Sprague’s Pipits, a very local wintering bird. Anzalduas often hosts both Ringed and Green kingfishers.
Accommodations at the Alamo Inn (B,L,D)

Sat., March 1 West Along the Rio Grande / Salineño / Falcon State Park
Today we venture into higher and more arid lands to the west, our route following the Rio Grande River. We pass through Rio Grande City, and Roma—once the most inland port for steamship traffic on the Rio Altamira OrioleGrande. We’re likely to find a number of desert birds which could include Verdins, Cactus Wrens, Black-throated Sparrows, White-winged and Inca doves, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Bewick’s Wrens, and Pyrrhuloxias.

During the earlier part of the morning, we station ourselves along the Rio Grande, hoping for fly-by Muscovy Ducks, Red-billed Pigeons or perhaps a Hook-billed Kite. Here, we scan the sky and larger trees for Gray- and Red-shouldered hawks and noisy Ringed Kingfishers. Hopefully, we will be able to catch the song and sight of two beautiful songbirds, Altamira and Audubon’s orioles. 

Continuing a short distance, we visit the 573-acre Falcon State Park adjacent to Falcon Dam, one of the best local places to see desert scrub species such as Greater Roadrunners, Curve-billed Thrashers and, with luck, both Scaled and Northern Bob-white quails. Occasionally, flocks of Lark Buntings are present at roadsides near the park entrance.
Accommodations at the Alamo Inn, (B,L,D)

Laughing GullSun., March 2 Departures from McAllen
This morning, we visit the last of a long list of birding hotspots, before returning to the airport in time for flights out after NOON.  If you must leave earlier, we can arrange a private transfer for you (additional cost).  (B) 


Whooping Cranes / Rockport

Sat., Feb. 22 Rockport
If you are coming to South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, why not add a couple of nights on and join us to spend time with wintering Whooping Cranes, and a host of colorful wading birds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Rockport.  To do this, plan to fly into Corpus Christi, arriving by 2PM.  From here it is a couple hours’ drive to Rockport at a leisurely pace with some great birding. Just north of Corpus Christi, at the tidal flats at Indian Point, we have an excellent chance of seeing Reddish Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and a host of gulls, terns, and wintering shorebirds at close range. In Rockport, we settle into our accommodations for the next two nights. At dinner, enjoy some of the fresh local seafood.
Accommodations in Rockport (B,L,D)

Whooping CranesSun., Feb. 23  Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
This morning’s highlight is a guided boat tour along the edges of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in search of Whooping Cranes—one of only two cranes inhabiting the New World. Aransas is best known for providing habitat for the core wintering population of these highly endangered and magnificent birds. During February, we have a good chance of seeing these outstanding birds in family groups after their 2,500-mile journey southward from their nesting grounds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park.

While on the boat, we also look for several species of herons, egrets, and the incomparable Roseate Spoonbill. Captain Tommy will guide us, aiming to get within close range of these remarkable creatures. With everyone alert on deck, we often find Long-billed Curlews, American Oystercatchers, Seaside Sparrows, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, both White-faced and White ibises, plus a number of other waterfowl and shorebirds. Past trips have produced rarities such as Short-eared Owls and Greater Flamingos.

Roseate SpoonbillAfter lunch, we’ll drive northward to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where we can check the visitor’s center with its many displays and small gift shop. Then we drive the 16-mile Loop Road, which passes through a variety of habitats including edges of open water, mudflats, freshwater and saltwater marshes, coastal prairie, oak motte, oak savanna, and grassy fields. Other creatures we may encounter include Texas Coral Snakes, White-tailed Deer, Javelinas, Nine-banded Armadillos, and Feral Hogs. With luck we may see a Bobcat.

Tonight we enjoy dinner at yet another great local restaurant. If the group is up for it, we may time our afternoon drive of the refuge to come back at dusk, with eyes to pick up sightings of mammals or perhaps some night birds.
Accommodations in Rockport (B,L,D)

Mon., Feb. 24 Rockport / Goose Island State Park / Drive to McAllen
We begin early this morning with a visit to nearby Goose Island State Park. Here, we check the huge Live Oaks for wintering passerines and the edge of the bay for waterbirds. We return to our hotel for breakfast and to pack up, and then head for the Rio Grande Valley. While this is largely a travel day, we past interesting habitat and ponds, and some great areas for viewing raptors along backcountry, agricultural roads.  We plan to be in McAllen by nightfall, but sit back and enjoy the day with Bob Behrstock planning stops according to his network contacts or best hunches as to where the best birds may be.  Some years we’ve spotted rarities like a Masked Duck – one never knows what may appear in Texas each winter and it’s nice to have time this afternoon to explore. 
Accommodations at the Alamo Inn, McAllen (B,L,D)

Tues., Feb. 25 Morning Sneak Preview to the Rio Grande Valley
Those taking the main tour may arrive early to join you, or may be coming in later this day, so consider the morning a sneak preview to the Rio Grande Valley, with guide’s choice to the best area to bird, again based on moisture patterns and the relative abundance or occurrence of birds at the Valley’s numerous hotspots.  We have breakfast and lunch available at the Inn.  In the afternoon, our main South Texas tour begins. (B,L)  

American White Pelican

Neotropic Cormorant

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Cost of the journey is based on double occupancy, $1995.00 from McAllen, TX, departing from Corpus Christi, TX. Cost of the pre-trip extension is $795.00. If booked with main tour, deduct $100.00 from total price.
Single supplement: main tour $175.00, extension $135.00.

More information coming soon!

Naturalist Journeys, LLC is an equal opportunity service provider and committed to the goal of ensuring equal opportunity for all in employment and program delivery.

Photo Credits
Images by tour participant Betty Andres: Roseate Spoonbill pair, Dustywing, Creole Pearly-eye and Jewelwing butterflies, nesting Great Egret, Green Heron with fish.
Green Jays, Bob Behrstock -  
Other images by Tony Beck - find more of his great work at


Naturalist Journeys LLC, a top birding and nature tour company, offers specialty small group travel to many of the best nature destinations worldwide. Naturalist Journeys’ expert guides have decades of experience leading guided nature and birding tours as well as travel photography tours, all with a focus on responsible travel and eco-tourism. Naturalist Journeys also offer Utah hiking adventure tours and adventure travel in national parks and wildlife reserves ranging from in-depth Alaska wildlife tours to guided Texas and Florida birding tours. Costa Rica nature and birding tours are among our top-rated as are our Panama nature tours and African wildlife safari tours. Our many repeat clients enjoy dependable and diverse holidays on Galapagos nature tours, Arctic and Antarctica nature cruises, and birding and wildlife tours from Arizona to the Amazon and beyond.