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Estero Llano Grande State Park, Fantastic Autumn Birding

Updated on November 18, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Park Greeters

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks greet you at Estero Llano
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks greet you at Estero Llano | Source

Estero Llano Grande State Park in Hidalgo County is part of the World Birding Center east of Bentson State Park in Hidalgo County. According to its webpage on the Texas Parks and Wildlife site it includes over 230 acres of land varying from thornforest to shallow lake with five miles of trails. Originally a Spanish Land Grant, it was granted to Juan Jose Hinojosa, chief justice of Reynosa, in 1776 as the American Revolution was beginning. The park had its grand opening in June 2006.

I discovered this place during my first explorations of the Rio Grande Valley birding opportunities in July 2015. Like Bentson, parking is in front. You walk in down a brick walk through a thick thorn grove. When you get to the visitor center there is a boardwalk leading down to their observation deck looking out on a large shallow lake full of various water birds. It is one of the best showcase entries I’ve ever seen for a state park and just the beginning of what you will find.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Video

I was offered a tour of the park on arriving. Waiting for transportation in the hummingbird garden, the first local to greet me was a jaguarondi coming from behind the classrooms across the sidewalk to the right of me about eight or more feet away. I saw something in the corner of my eye and turned my head just in time to see its thick silky gray tail move into the tall Turk’s cap were it disappeared. That sort of thing will jump start your day. This cat is very endangered, very shy and doesn’t come to our side of the border often, so I was highly honored to be given such an unexpected treat.

After that, I was taken in an electric cart to explore the Kisskadee trail, Alligator ponds, the levy to the back of the park. My tour guide was John Yochum, staff ranger and knowledgeable naturalist. There was something new to see everywhere. Besides the birds, the park has a rich population of lizards, mammals, butterflies, and dragon and damsel flies. I left that day with three new life list birds, a Black-crowned Night Heron, a Northern Rough-wing Swallow and the Common Ground Dove. I also took away a growing love for this park.

Sora Rail

Sora Rail in the Canes
Sora Rail in the Canes | Source

Early Autumn Birding in Estero Llano

My next visit was in September. The weather was still hot, but the park was beautiful and full of wildlife. While there, I found a Sora Rail, the gorgeous hummingbirds, and a Common Pauraque Night Jar. I had come to find Kingfishers, but was told they were nesting at this time. Kingfishers burrow in the banks above water. The chances of my seeing any were very slim. In conversation, I mentioned I would be back in later October and was told about Rio Grande nature festivals. I later signed up for the Rio Grande Valley Birding festival and the Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission. See my article about the butterfly festival here.

About the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and Rarity Season

The Birding Festival was in its 22nd year. The offerings included high end tours such as a pre-festival trip to a private ranch, a post festival trip to Port Aransas and a Pelagic trip off shore in the Gulf of Mexico. Other tours take you on day trips to every conceivable birding site from South Padre Island, the King Ranch, the World Birding Center sites and many other hot spots. Add to that the variety of presentations, workshops and a trade show. You would have to take in this event for several years to understand its depth. I found that this festival, while bringing in high profile tour and professional guides and speakers, is run by local volunteers. They were always very friendly and willing to help newcomers.

These festivals are timed for the tail-end of the migration season and what is referred to as the winter rarity season. The Rio Grande Valley had several rare visitors already. Just a week after my visit in September, a Jacana made a visit to Estero Llano. It left before my next visit, but caused quite a stir.

During the birding festival, according to Birding Festival accounts, “the rarities included Ruddy Ground-dove and Crimson-collared Grosbeak and last year there was a Rose-throated Becard. And if you hang around Marci’s (Marci Fuller) house for any extended period of time, chances are you’ll stumble upon a Green-breasted Mango (just 1 of 281 species on her Yard-list!). It seems that nearly every festival there are some rarities to chase.”

In another account on the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival Facebook page, “In Estero Llano on Wednesday (November 4th) a Blue-throated Hummingbird and Dusky-capped Flycatcher. A Swainson's Warbler was found on South Padre Island. And, during the Cactus Creek Ranch field trip, a Whooping Crane was found hanging out with the Sandhill Cranes.”

When I finished my tours with the Birding Festival on November 4th, I spent several days at Estero Llano looking for the Blue-Throated Hummingbird.

Blue-Throated Hummingbird Male

Hummers and Warblers

Estero Llano hummingbird garden
Estero Llano hummingbird garden | Source
Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler | Source
Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler | Source
Buff-bellied Hummingbird, male
Buff-bellied Hummingbird, male | Source

Watching for Rare Hummingbirds

The Blue-throated Hummingbird was a bird that really shouldn’t have been in the Rio Grande Valley in November, but is known to show up from time to time, mostly in the summer.

  • Normally, you would have a better chance of seeing a Blue-throat in the southeastern corner of Arizona and the Chisos, Davis and Guadalupe Mountain ranges. It is the largest hummingbird to be found in the U.S. It does not have the bright colors of some other hummingbirds. It is described as being dull overall, except for male bird's blue throat. Both sexes have a green backs, with gray underparts. The male has two white stripes across both sides of its face.

I wasn’t the only birder trying to catch this hummer. There were at least three or four others sitting in Estero Llano’s hummingbird garden with me or patrolling the areas around it. The bird we were all watching for was the female. She is dull grey under the chin and through the belly. Her back and tail are green. The tail is tipped with white on the three outer feathers on each side. Females have one stripe on their heads starting at the outer corner of the eye. No luck that day, but I was determined to try again.

Friday morning I came back to the park. The drive was amazing in itself. Birds aren’t the only things migrating this time of year. Cloudless Sulphurs were crossing the road heading south in waves from Falcon Lake half way to La Joya.

I arrived at Estero Llano just in time to hear the excited report from a woman who had seen the bird that morning. I had missed it by half an hour. According to the report, the bird was huge compared to the Ruby-throats we normally see. “She was almost twice as big and she was fat. I heard her before I saw her.” She was said to have had a very high pitched call.

I stayed as long as I could that day checking all the hummingbird feeders and the Turk’s cap around the visitor’s center, which the park staff said was her preference. I caught several good shots of Buff-bellies and female Ruby-throats, but no fat grayish female hummingbird. There were about five other birders there watching with me. They would come by and sit for an hour or more and then patrol around and come back. One couple, with their small senior white dog in a stroller, camped in the hummingbird garden most of the afternoon. They had a Sibley’s guide with them. I asked to see the Blue-throat in their book.

  • The Blue-Throat is five inches long with an eight inch wingspan, as opposed to a Ruby-throat female, which is under four inches long with a four and a half inch wingspan. That and the description of the bird being grayish and appearing fatter should make this an unmistakable bird to see.

I stayed in the hummingbird garden until 2 p.m., then wandered the grounds. Behind the visitor’s center to the right, was a water feature that I thought might also attract her. While waiting, I saw Tennessee and Nashville Warblers bathing in the waterfall cascading off nearby tree branches. Down at the bottom, a stream flowed out of a shady stand of trees. The warblers, a Clay-colored Thrush and Grackles took water and bathed in the shallow water.

The female Blue-throat didn’t make another appearance that day. I left around 5 p.m. Four birders and the little white dog continued keeping the evening watch.

The Big Autumn Birding Day

Sunday, I came back with my husband Greg. He is newer to birding. He dragged his feet about it when I first became serious about the hobby, but working in the Rio Grande Valley with its vast birding opportunities has made a convert of him. Greg says, “You know you’ve become a birder when you leave shelter on a 110 degree day to walk out to the feeder with a dish of water.” Have to say, I was very happy for his conversion as he is a top game spotter from years of hunting. He has been training me, but still finds three for every one bird I spot.

We arrived at 1:30 p.m.; rather late, yes. It had rained most of the night, was foggy that morning and heavily overcast. When it started to clear and Greg was sure it wasn’t going to rain again, he agreed to go to Estero Llano to watch for the bird again. We checked the visitor center staff first to see if she had been spotted that morning. The answer was negative, but they were sure she was still in the park. We then went to the hummingbird garden to find three several birders keeping watch. We stayed for half an hour, but the afternoon feeding time one expects to see hummingbirds in was past. Even the buff-bellies weren’t making appearances. The three of us who were left decided to take to the trails for a while.

Big Day Bird Gallery

Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole | Source
Kisskadee | Source
Gadwalls and Coots
Gadwalls and Coots | Source
Green Heron having a good stretch.
Green Heron having a good stretch. | Source
Green Heron as you normally see them.
Green Heron as you normally see them. | Source
Find the bird. Common Pauraque Night Jar
Find the bird. Common Pauraque Night Jar | Source
A Ringed Kingfisher appears
A Ringed Kingfisher appears | Source
Ringed Kingfisher
Ringed Kingfisher | Source
Anhinga drying in the sun
Anhinga drying in the sun | Source
Green Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher | Source
Least Grebe and Pied-billed Grebe together
Least Grebe and Pied-billed Grebe together | Source

The day cleared after noon and turned out to be a birding bonanza. We caught several bright orange Altamira Orioles high in the trees along the entrance walk gobbling berries. Down the Kisskadee trail to the right side of the front marsh. There were 10 or more Kisskadees with Altamira Orioles moving through the trees. The shy Altamiras kept to the far side of the trees from me, so I could never get a clear shot. The Kisskadees, on the other hand, were all for photo ops. They posed shamelessly.

Behind the marsh, we found a large pond ringed with tall grasses and canes. I had never been to this area before. There we saw a Spotted Sandpiper that must have had a song stuck in his head. His little tail was bobbing up and down to the beat of a KC and Sunshine band song. There was a large flock of Coots and a mixed flock of ducks at the center of the pond. Most were Gadwalls, but there was also a Gadwall hybrid other birders pointed out to us, a Ring-necked duck and a sleepy Cinnamon Teal with its bill tucked in its wing. It never woke while we were there.

Near the shoreline canes, a Green Heron made an appearance. It was a juvenile. It stretched its neck full length and then tucked it back in again. I never knew they could stretch their necks that much. A pair of Pie-billed Grebes floated around with the Coots. I thought, this pond must be a duck magnet later in the year.

We then moved on to the alligator ponds named for their shape and resident reptiles. The first smaller pond had Pied-billed Grebes and Coots. We also saw a female Vermillion Flycatcher on a branch over the water, but that was all. Nonetheless, a female Vermillion was a life-lister for me. I had only seen the male the year before. At the back pond there was much more activity.

First, the place was loaded with Yellow-crowned Night Herons. They were all along the shore in the trees from the trailhead to the observation deck at the end. There were also a few sleeping Common Pauraque in the dark shelter of the trees on the inland side of the trail. I’m always amazed at how well they camouphlage. Again, Greg found them first. As I was getting a few more shots, Greg was calling to me from farther down the trail. He had sighted a Ringed Kingfisher. I jumped to get there, but missed it. It flew as I arrived giving me only a glimpse of it moving through the trees. We tried to follow it to the far side of the trail, but it was gone.

Two minutes later, another or the same bird flew out of the back alligator shallows across the water and landed in a tree on the far shoreline. At that point another group of birders came by. We showed them where the Kingfisher was and together spent 20 minutes watching its movements. It was back in the branches with good foliage covering, but the wind occasionally parted the limbs giving us good views.

  • These, the largest Kingfisher to be found in Texas is a newcomer. Before the 1960s they rarely came to our side of the Rio Grande. Now they seem to be expanding territory northward.

It finally left its well covered first perch to land on a more open branch for a few minutes before taking off toward the front of the trail again.

We never saw the Ringed Kingfisher again. Heading back down the trail allowed all of us to see an Anhinga come out of the water to dry its soaked feathers. Raising its wings to the sun; it looked terrible.

  • Anhingas don’t have the same ability to keep oil in their feathers that ducks do. It’s one of their adaptations for hunting underwater. The lack of oils gives them neutral buoyancy, allowing them to go spear fishing for long periods. The way the flight feathers were sticking together in the picture shown, you can see it was going to take a long time to dry on a cool partly cloudy day. See my article discussing Anhingas, Big Wonderful Webbed-footed Waterbirds.

At the trail head, Greg spotted another kingfisher in the brush, a Green Kingfisher. It flew from its hiding place across the water to land on the far shore in a stand of canes. For several of us, this was another bird for our life lists. I had been looking for both birds here since July.

  • The Green Kingfisher is another rare bird. They are in recovery from past pollution and waterway alterations. Their biggest danger now are fire ants that pester nesting adults in their burrows trying to force egg damage for a meal. How did we get lucky enough to see both in the same day?

Well, it was getting close to 4:30 p.m. by then. We headed back to the visitor’s center. On the way, we caught sight of the grebes again in the first alligator pond, but this time they had a Least Grebe swimming with them. Yes, another life list bird! A good catch for us as these shy birds normally keep to the cover of tall grasses.

Miss Blue-throat

Find the bird.  A dull green female hummingbird in the brush.
Find the bird. A dull green female hummingbird in the brush. | Source
Blue-throated Hummingbird Found
Blue-throated Hummingbird Found | Source

Rarity Finding

Arriving at the hummingbird gardens, we found four other people still watching for the Blue-throat. They said she hadn’t made an appearance while we were away. We took up seats and scanned the gardens for over an hour. I figured that if she was going to show up it would be before sunset. People came by, stayed and left and came back. The Buff-bellies came by on intervals. So did a flock of six House Sparrows and an Orange-crowned Warbler moving through the thick brush behind the feeders.

As I was getting a shot of a female Ruby-throat at the feeder, Greg caught sight of a hummingbird feeding on Turk’s caps to the right of the garden along the walk. The couple we were keeping watch with at the time saw it at his call too. Everyone was suddenly excited. I was too, but had been the farthest away. She flew into a thick stand of brush after being found. I saw her leave the flowers, but couldn’t pick her out of the brush. Imagine the frustration and panic knowing a rare bird was just 10 feet or more from you, but you can’t see it! The couple finally gave me enough direction to find her perch. Geez, she was on the edge of a bramble with her back mostly to us. No wonder I couldn’t see her.

She then very kindly changed perches to more open area. Her back was still to us, but she turned her head from time to time giving a view of part of her white line running from the corner of her eye disappearing into the feathers of her shoulder. She sat there for another minute before ending her evening appearance. According to the time stamps on my pictures, we were treated to seven minutes of sighting time from the moment Greg caught sight of her.

Final Word

The Female Blue-throat may still be in Estero Llano giving visitors a rare treat. As I said before, she shouldn’t be there this time of year. It is possible she was blown into the area by Hurricane Patricia or the other storm systems that came after it. Blue-throats are primarily birds of the Mexican Mountain ranges. Even so, for those who will persevere to see her, she will be a special catch in an unusual place giving patient birders a rarity for our records.

For me, it just cemented the special character of Estero Llano as one of the best birding parks on the World Birding Center circuit. So many great birds to see and rarities seem to pop up often. If you have the chance, make sure to visit this park. You will be amazed with it too.

For more information about rarities and how to find out about sightings, see my July article Chasing Rarities – Bird Finding.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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