A Field Guides Birding Tours Report

South Texas Rarities 2023

January 14-20, 2023 with Chris Benesh guiding

Field Guides Birding Tours
The group scanning for birds along the Rio Grande northwest of Laredo. Photo by guide Chris Benesh.

Good weather, a great group, and mostly cooperative birds made for an exceptional Rio Grande Rarities tour in 2023. Hook-billed Kites were the talk of the town, rarities wise, and we had good luck seeking them out at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park early one morning. Other scarcities included the handsome male Rose-throated Becard that Dan Jones spotted for us at Bentsen as well. Beyond these two rarities, we connected with most of the valley specialties (certain parulas excepted), with lots of time to enjoy and photograph many of the specialties.

Our trip started in Harlingen and we spent the first morning at the University of Texas Brownsville campus in the hopes that a long-straying Social Flycatcher might resurface. Despite its absence, we saw a lot of nice birds, including Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Zone-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks, Least Grebe, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, and Green Jay. From there we spent some time searching and finding Aplomado Falcon, some time birding at the Laguna Vista Nature Trail, and then time on South Padre Island with a a massive number of birds on the mudflats near the Convention Center. We finished off the day near Oliveira Park with some Red-crowned and White-fronted parrots.

The next morning saw us heading to Resaca de la Palma, where we again went in search of a certain parula. While that turned out to be a no-show, the area itself was productive, with our first chachalacas, Clay-colored Thrush, and good White-tipped Doves, Olive Sparrows and Long-billed Thrashers. After lunch we visited Estero Llano Grande, one of the finest sites in the valley. We had a nice Eastern Screech-Owl and cryptic Pauraque, as well as lots of ducks (including a Fulvous Whistling-Duck), Least Grebes, an impressive night-heron show, and some more Clay-colored Thrushes. Our last stop that evening was near the hotel watching some big flocks of Green Parakeets coming to roost (along with four Monk Parakeets).

We started off the next day at Bentsen, where our main aim was connecting with Hook-billed Kite. Thankfully we were fortunate to find two of them, one that perched where we could scope it at length. Other highlights there included a male Rose-throated Becard and a surprise Merlin. The Old Hidalgo Pumphouse was where we had our best Buff-bellied Hummingbird, along with a few more Monk Parakeets. After lunch in Hidalgo, we spotted a Ringed Kingfisher on the way to our hotel. After a break, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, where we had our only Green Kingfisher.

The National Butterfly Center was the focus of our next morning. Some beautiful, privately owned property targeted by conspiracy theorists in recent years, it provided for us some of our best oriole encounters. Specifically, the Audubon’s Oriole put on a really good show for us. It was then time to begin heading upriver toward our next digs in Zapata. We made a brief stop in Roma to gaze across into Mexico and the Rio Grande. Starr County Park was good for a few sparrows and Curve-billed Thrasher. Then on to Zapata. In the late afternoon we headed over to Bravo Park and the Zapata Library, where we had our first Couch’s Kingbirds of the tour, a lovely Wood Duck, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and our target Morelet’s Seedeater.

Salineno was a productive spot for us, especially good for nest-prospecting Ringed Kingfishers, and a good mix of birds. From there we headed to Falcon State Park where some Greater Roadrunners put on a memorable show for us. We decided to head northwest of Laredo in the afternoon to try for Red-billed Pigeons at the Max Mandel Golf Course. The pigeons were no-shows, but it was a great view of the Rio Grande and a nice mix of birds.

Our last day together began at Salineno again, hoping for elusive anis. They eluded us, but we had other birds to distract us. We then decided to make another last ditch effort at Resaca de la Palma. Then it was time for hugs and goodbyes.

Thanks to each of you for making this trip a memorable one for me. It was great to catch up with some longtime friends, and to make several new ones. I hope our paths cross again and wish you all the best in the mean time.


One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant

Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)

BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING-DUCK (Dendrocygna autumnalis)

Field Guides Birding Tours
We encountered quite a few of the quirky Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. This pair was captured by Bob Gerdts.

FULVOUS WHISTLING-DUCK (Dendrocygna bicolor)

Nice views of one lurking out at Estero Llano Grande.

MUSCOVY DUCK (Cairina moschata) [I]

The only ones seen were feral stock, though some with a wild phenotype.

WOOD DUCK (Aix sponsa)

A male at Bravo Park in Zapata was a surprise. Two more were seen in Salineno.

BLUE-WINGED TEAL (Spatula discors)

CINNAMON TEAL (Spatula cyanoptera)

Four were at Estero Llano Grande.

NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)

GADWALL (Mareca strepera)

AMERICAN WIGEON (Mareca americana)

MEXICAN DUCK (Anas diazi)

A recent split from Mallard with a somewhat muddled identification criteria, we saw a few decent candidates at Roma and the Max Mandel Golf Course.

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This spectacular Wood Duck was a big surprise at Bravo Park in Zapata. This species is scarce in this part of the state. Photo by Chris Benesh.

MOTTLED DUCK (Anas fulvigula)

Some hanging out at Estero and the Edinburg Wetlands.


GREEN-WINGED TEAL (AMERICAN) (Anas crecca carolinensis)

CANVASBACK (Aythya valisineria)

REDHEAD (Aythya americana)

RING-NECKED DUCK (Aythya collaris)

GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)

We saw a problematic female bird that appeared largely to be a Greater Scaup though thought by some to be hybrid with some Redhead qualities. *throws arms up and shrugs*

LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)

BUFFLEHEAD (Bucephala albeola)

There were some big numbers of this species at Salineno during our visits there.

Field Guides Birding Tours
We had some fantastic looks at Green Jays, one of the truly iconic birds of the Rio Grande Valley. Photo by Chris Benesh.


RUDDY DUCK (Oxyura jamaicensis)

Cracidae (Guans, Chachalacas, and Curassows)

PLAIN CHACHALACA (Ortalis vetula)

The northernmost member of the Neotropical family Cracidae, the chachalacas provided some excitement and entertainment.

Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)

WILD TURKEY (Meleagris gallopavo)

Quite a few of these parading around Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. They have only recently been appearing in this part of south Texas (10 years or so).

Podicipedidae (Grebes)

LEAST GREBE (Tachybaptus dominicus)

A few good sightings of this valley specialty with birds at UT Brownsville, Estero, and Salineno.

PIED-BILLED GREBE (Podilymbus podiceps)

Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)

ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]

EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto) [I]

INCA DOVE (Columbina inca)

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Bill Thompson captured two of the oriole specialties in the Rio Grande Valley, Audubon's and Altamira Orioles.

WHITE-TIPPED DOVE (Leptotila verreauxi)

WHITE-WINGED DOVE (Zenaida asiatica)

MOURNING DOVE (Zenaida macroura)

Cuculidae (Cuckoos)

GREATER ROADRUNNER (Geococcyx californianus)

Yes! Saving one of the best for last, Shannon got her desired roadrunners at Falcon State Park on our final morning.

Caprimulgidae (Nightjars and Allies)

COMMON PAURAQUE (Nyctidromus albicollis)

So cryptic. The bird we observed at Estero demonstrated just how well this species is able to camouflage itself among the leaf litter.

Trochilidae (Hummingbirds)

RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD (Archilochus colubris)

Not sure if we had any rock solid Ruby-throated, but there were a couple of Archilochus that might have been this species.

BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD (Archilochus alexandri)

RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD (Selasphorus rufus)

One visiting feeders at the Laguna Vista Nature Trail.

BUFF-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRD (Amazilia yucatanensis)

Our best study was one at the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse.

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Buff-bellied Hummingbird is a resident specialty of the valley and is the northernmost member of the tropical hummingbird genus Amazilia. Photo by Bill Thompson.
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)

SORA (Porzana carolina) [*]

COMMON GALLINULE (Gallinula galeata)

AMERICAN COOT (Fulica americana)

Gruidae (Cranes)

SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)

Recurvirostridae (Stilts and Avocets)

BLACK-NECKED STILT (Himantopus mexicanus)

Haematopodidae (Oystercatchers)

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER (Haematopus palliatus)

Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)

BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)

PIPING PLOVER (Charadrius melodus)

Nice studies of three birds at the convention center mudflats on South Padre Island.

KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus)

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We had several nice studies of Clay-colored Thrush, including this one photographed by Chris Benesh. This species has become a bit more numerous in south Texas recently, and has been expanding westward.
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)

LONG-BILLED CURLEW (Numenius americanus)

MARBLED GODWIT (Limosa fedoa)

RUDDY TURNSTONE (Arenaria interpres)

SANDERLING (Calidris alba)

DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)

LEAST SANDPIPER (Calidris minutilla)

SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus griseus)

LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus)

WILSON'S SNIPE (Gallinago delicata)

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Another specialty of the region is the Long-billed Thrasher and we were fortunate to have a number of good sightings. This one was photographed by Bill Thompson.

SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)

GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)

WILLET (Tringa semipalmata)

Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)

BONAPARTE'S GULL (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

LAUGHING GULL (Leucophaeus atricilla)

RING-BILLED GULL (Larus delawarensis)

HERRING GULL (AMERICAN) (Larus argentatus smithsonianus)


GULL-BILLED TERN (Gelochelidon nilotica)

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A couple of mostly tropical flycatchers (and near flycatchers) that we encountered were Great Kiskadee (at right) and a rare stakeout Rose-throated Becard (at left) that showed up at Bentsen Rio-Grande State Park. The becard was photographed by Bill Thompson and the kiskadee by Bob Gerdts.

CASPIAN TERN (Hydroprogne caspia)

FORSTER'S TERN (Sterna forsteri)

ROYAL TERN (Thalasseus maximus)

BLACK SKIMMER (Rynchops niger)

Quite a sight seeing a huge flock roosting on the mudflats at South Padre Island. We could really appreciate the unique shape of their bills.

Anhingidae (Anhingas)

ANHINGA (Anhinga anhinga)

Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)

DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Nannopterum auritum)

NEOTROPIC CORMORANT (Nannopterum brasilianum)

Pelecanidae (Pelicans)

AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

BROWN PELICAN (Pelecanus occidentalis)

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Our visit corresponded with a period of Hook-billed Kite activity in the valley. This is one we encountered on our morning walk around Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. Photo by Chris Benesh.
Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)

GREAT BLUE HERON (Ardea herodias)

GREAT EGRET (Ardea alba)

SNOWY EGRET (Egretta thula)

LITTLE BLUE HERON (Egretta caerulea)

TRICOLORED HERON (Egretta tricolor)

REDDISH EGRET (Egretta rufescens)

CATTLE EGRET (Bubulcus ibis)

GREEN HERON (Butorides virescens)

BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Nycticorax nycticorax)

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Bravo Park in Zapata turned out to be the best place for Morelet's Seedeater this year and we were able to track down this male there. Photo by Chris Benesh.

YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Nyctanassa violacea)

Quite a night heron show at Alligator Lake at Estero Llano Grande.

Threskiornithidae (Ibises and Spoonbills)

WHITE IBIS (Eudocimus albus)

WHITE-FACED IBIS (Plegadis chihi)

ROSEATE SPOONBILL (Platalea ajaja)

Cathartidae (New World Vultures)

BLACK VULTURE (Coragyps atratus)

TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)

Pandionidae (Osprey)

OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)

Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

WHITE-TAILED KITE (Elanus leucurus)

HOOK-BILLED KITE (HOOK-BILLED) (Chondrohierax uncinatus uncinatus)

Wonderful looks at one of two from Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. The tree snails on which they feed seemed plentiful in the park at the time.

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One of the the valley's more secretive species is the Olive Sparrow, but thanks to the many feeding stations they have become easier to see. Photo by Chris Benesh.

NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus hudsonius)

SHARP-SHINNED HAWK (Accipiter striatus)

COOPER'S HAWK (Accipiter cooperii)

HARRIS'S HAWK (Parabuteo unicinctus)

This species has some of its highest density in the south Texas brushland.

WHITE-TAILED HAWK (Geranoaetus albicaudatus)

A few nice studies of this attractive species including on the drive across the interior on the last morning of the trip.

GRAY HAWK (Buteo plagiatus)

RED-SHOULDERED HAWK (Buteo lineatus)

ZONE-TAILED HAWK (Buteo albonotatus)

One stealthy bird seen at the UT Brownsville campus.

RED-TAILED HAWK (Buteo jamaicensis)

Field Guides Birding Tours
We encountered a few species of sparrows and two of these photographed by Bill Thompson are two of the cutest. At left is a Clay-colored Sparrow; at right a Lincoln's Sparrow.
Strigidae (Owls)

EASTERN SCREECH-OWL (MCCALL'S) (Megascops asio mccallii)

One at Estero Llano Grande and another at the National Butterfly Center.

GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus) [*]

Alcedinidae (Kingfishers)

RINGED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle torquata)

Several sightings but by far the most impressive were the pair of birds nest prospecting at Salineno.

BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)

GREEN KINGFISHER (Chloroceryle americana)

Our only one on this tour was one at the Edinburg Wetlands.

Picidae (Woodpeckers)


GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKER (Melanerpes aurifrons)


NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)

Quite an exceptional winter for this species in the lower valley. It is normally entirely absent, but we saw one at Salineno and two at the Max Mandel Golf Course.

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We had a couple of daytime encounters with Eastern Screech-Owl. This one was at the National Butterfly Center. This subspecies in the valley, mccallii, differs subtly in plumage and voice from other Eastern Screech-Owls and may one day be considered a good species. Photo by Chris Benesh.
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)

CRESTED CARACARA (Caracara plancus)

A very un-falcon-like falcon, this species was quite plentiful along our tour route.

AMERICAN KESTREL (Falco sparverius)

MERLIN (Falco columbarius)

One spotted perched in a mesquite tree during our morning of birding at Bentsen Rio Grande SP.

APLOMADO FALCON (Falco femoralis)

We did spot one perched on its hacking platform south of Hwy 100 north of Brownsville.

Psittacidae (New World and African Parrots)

MONK PARAKEET (Myiopsitta monachus) [I]

We saw some near the Hidalgo Pumphouse, and four more were hanging out with the Green Parakeet flock in Mission.

RED-CROWNED PARROT (Amazona viridigenalis)

We encounter a huge flock of birds near Brownsville.

WHITE-FRONTED PARROT (Amazona albifrons) [I]

We had a flock of eight birds in Brownsville. This species appears to be slowly establishing itself in this city.

GREEN PARAKEET (Psittacara holochlorus)

We estimated about 350 birds coming to roost near our motel in Mission.

Tityridae (Tityras and Allies)

ROSE-THROATED BECARD (Pachyramphus aglaiae)

A male hanging out at Bentsen Rio Grande put in an appearance late in the morning.

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A tale of two kingbirds. At left is a Tropical Kingbird, and at right, a Couch's Kingbird. For many years they were thought to be the same species, but a closer look (and listen) revealed that they had very different voices. The visual differences are subtle at best and not entirely reliable. Photos by Chris Benesh.
Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers)

BLACK PHOEBE (Sayornis nigricans)

EASTERN PHOEBE (Sayornis phoebe)

VERMILION FLYCATCHER (Pyrocephalus rubinus)

Always a treat, we had birds in Zapata and Salineno.

GREAT KISKADEE (Pitangus sulphuratus)

TROPICAL KINGBIRD (Tyrannus melancholicus)

COUCH'S KINGBIRD (Tyrannus couchii)

Relatively scarce this winter, our best study was of a bird at Bravo Park in Zapata.


One spotted at Bravo Park in Zapata was a good find for mid-winter.

Vireonidae (Vireos, Shrike-Babblers, and Erpornis)

WHITE-EYED VIREO (Vireo griseus)

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We had a few Psittacids on the tour with a bunch of Green Parakeets near our hotel in Mission (left) and some Red-crowned Parrots in Brownsville (right). Photos by Chris Benesh.

BLUE-HEADED VIREO (Vireo solitarius)

We lucked into a couple of these on the tour.

Laniidae (Shrikes)

LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE (Lanius ludovicianus)

This species was seen most days in the lower valley, but typically as were driving from one location to another.

Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)

GREEN JAY (Cyanocorax yncas)

Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)

BLACK-CRESTED TITMOUSE (Baeolophus atricristatus)

Remizidae (Penduline-Tits)

VERDIN (Auriparus flaviceps)

Hirundinidae (Swallows)

TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)

Regulidae (Kinglets)

RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET (Corthylio calendula)


It was an exceptional winter for this species in the lower valley and saw birds at Salineno and Resaca de la Palma. Absent most years.

Polioptilidae (Gnatcatchers)

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER (Polioptila caerulea)

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Bill Thompson's exquisite captures of two of the raptors we encountered on the trip. The White-tailed Kite (left) was hunting over the Laguna Vista Nature Trail and Crested Caracaras (right) proved to be the most commonly seen raptor species.
Troglodytidae (Wrens)

HOUSE WREN (Troglodytes aedon)

WINTER WREN (Troglodytes hiemalis)

One was seen by Bob at the National Butterfly Center that we later found out was known to be in the area.

MARSH WREN (Cistothorus palustris)

CAROLINA WREN (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

BEWICK'S WREN (Thryomanes bewickii)

CACTUS WREN (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)

The only ones seen this year were near our hotel in Mission.

Sturnidae (Starlings)

EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]

Mimidae (Mockingbirds and Thrashers)

GRAY CATBIRD (Dumetella carolinensis)

CURVE-BILLED THRASHER (Toxostoma curvirostre)

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One of the last new highlights of the trip was Greater Roadrunner, a large, mostly ground-dwelling cuckoo that is an iconic part of the American southwest. Photo by Bill Thompson.

LONG-BILLED THRASHER (Toxostoma longirostre)

This species can be rather skulky in the winter months, but thanks to feeding stations, some will come out into the open to feed or drink.

NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD (Mimus polyglottos)

Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)

EASTERN BLUEBIRD (Sialia sialis)

A pair of these were in Bravo Park in Zapata.


A decent showing of this species with as many as nine seen at five different locations.

AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)

American Robins are considered rare in the Rio Grande Valley, and most of us missed them. But Bill locked on to a few flyovers with his camera at Salineno.

Bombycillidae (Waxwings)

CEDAR WAXWING (Bombycilla cedrorum)

It was a good year for waxwings moving south and two flocks were above average numbers for the valley.

Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)

HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]

Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)

SPRAGUE'S PIPIT (Anthus spragueii)

Bill photographed a pipit flying past at the Max Mandel Golf Course. Looking at the image more carefully much later, my immediate impression was that it was a Sprague's. This was also the impression of two other experts that I queried.

Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)

HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus)

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The gang posing for a photo op at Resaca de la Palma on the final morning of the tour.

LESSER GOLDFINCH (Spinus psaltria)

Passerellidae (New World Sparrows)

OLIVE SPARROW (Arremonops rufivirgatus)

CLAY-COLORED SPARROW (Spizella pallida)

One popped up at Falcon/Starr County Park.

BLACK-THROATED SPARROW (Amphispiza bilineata)

This striking species showed well for us along the cutoff road near Salineno.

LARK SPARROW (Chondestes grammacus)

WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

SAVANNAH SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis)

LINCOLN'S SPARROW (Melospiza lincolnii)

SWAMP SPARROW (Melospiza georgiana)

A couple of these were found in Salineno while looking for the anis.

Icteridae (Troupials and Allies)

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)

One was picked out in a big blackbird flock near San Ygnacio.

EASTERN MEADOWLARK (Sturnella magna)

HOODED ORIOLE (Icterus cucullatus)

Seen by part of the group at the Laguna Vista Nature Trail blinds.

ALTAMIRA ORIOLE (Icterus gularis)

An impressive species with a massive bill and a wonderful song.

AUDUBON'S ORIOLE (Icterus graduacauda)

Our only one was at the National Butterfly Center, were it showed nicely for us. This species is actually a bit more common in the brush country north of the river corridor.

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Agelaius phoeniceus)


GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE (Quiscalus mexicanus)

Seeing hundreds of them coming to roost on powerlines in the evening in Mission and McAllen was an impressive sight.

Parulidae (New World Warblers)


ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (Leiothlypis celata)

NASHVILLE WARBLER (Leiothlypis ruficapilla)

COMMON YELLOWTHROAT (Geothlypis trichas) [*]

YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)

YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (AUDUBON'S) (Setophaga coronata auduboni)

WILSON'S WARBLER (Cardellina pusilla)

Cardinalidae (Cardinals and Allies)

NORTHERN CARDINAL (Cardinalis cardinalis)

PYRRHULOXIA (Cardinalis sinuatus)

A couple of good studies of this desert cardinal.

Thraupidae (Tanagers and Allies)

MORELET'S SEEDEATER (Sporophila morelleti)

Formerly part of the White-collared Seedeater complex, this species occurs in the US only along certain stretches of the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Hidalgo County.


NINE-BANDED ARMADILLO (Dasypus novemcinctus)

Two encounters with this peculiar species at Resaca de la Palma and Estero Llano Grande.

FOX SQUIRREL (Sciurus niger)

NUTRIA (Myocastor coypus) [I]

COYOTE (Canis latrans)

COLLARED PECCARY (Tayassu tajacu)

WHITE-TAILED DEER (Odocoileus virginianus)

Totals for the tour: 180 bird taxa and 6 mammal taxa