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Birding The Dog Days Of Summer
By Mary Beth Stowe
published July 2016

There's great birding in the Lower Rio Grande Valley any time of year, but there's no denying that "summer vacation time" is slow, primarily due to the oppressive heat and humidity!

However, there are certain birds that grace our area this time of year that make it worthwhile to get out there and enjoy them! Probably the most sought-after summertime bird is the Groove-billed Ani (although the odd individual usually hangs around all winter somewhere in the Valley), but Couch's Kingbird, Botteri's Sparrow, Bullock's Oriole, Brown-crested and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo also call this area "home" in the summer. Many birds that the tourists enjoy as spring migrants will hang around to breed, such as Dickcissel, Blue Grosbeak, and Painted Bunting. And, of course, the resident Valley specialties will always be around to enjoy, not to mention the possibility of regular vagrants such as Yellow-green Vireo and Masked Duck, both of which have bred here!

The trick to surviving birding in the summer is to focus on the coolest parts of the day. When I'm birding on my own, I shoot to arrive at my destination at sunrise (or even a little before), and wrap up between 11:00 and noon. We get very few birders needing guiding services this time of year, as most come here to either escape the cold northern winters or to experience the wonder of spring migration, but for those who really have no choice, summer in the Valley is better than no Valley at all! So in those rare cases, if someone wants a full day of birding I'll split the hours so that we take advantage of the early mornings and late evenings.

Evenings can be great on any account, as birds are coming in to roost, but in particular visiting birders like to see the Red-crowned Parrots and Green Parakeets, so the hour before sunset is a perfect time to cruise 10th Street in McAllen for the parakeets, and we have a nearby roost of the large Amazona parrots in Weslaco that we can take people to. The Red-crowned Parrot is our only "countable" parrot, but good numbers of feral "escapees" also join the flock, such as White-fronted, Yellow-headed, Red-lored, and Lilac-crowned Parrots.

Personally, I like road birding the best, as you have a chance to hop into an air conditioned car, whereas if I'm doing a morning hiking survey, it gets pretty warm as it closes in on 11:00! Our monthly Birder Patrol trips have braved the deserts around Salineño in July as summer is the best time for Red-billed Pigeon (and again, you're not far from the car as you explore the Dump Road and nearby Falcon State Park). At South Padre Island you can be cooled by a nice breeze, and birding on the beach from your car insures that you can stay cool that way! My most interesting recent "warm weather" birding outing was with the Birder Patrol on May 28th, where we headed down SR 186 to Sacahuistale Flats, an area of thornscrub, grassland, and mesquite savannah. The route actually starts in agricultural area with some roadside palm trees, and this is where we usually pick up nesting Hooded Orioles and singing Dickcissels.

The main target this time of year, however, is the Botteri's Sparrow, a restricted range bird that only occurs here in the summer (another race also occurs in southeast Arizona): it's rather nondescript, with a plain face and breast, long rounded tail, and rather large bill for a sparrow. Nearly identical to the resident Cassin's Sparrow, it's best told by its very different sputtering song that ends like a bright bouncing ball, not unlike an Olive Sparrow's song. It prefers the more open areas, and we weren't disappointed as we heard, then spotted, a bird sitting nicely on a barbed wire fence!

Raptors are to be expected any time of year, with Harris' Hawk being the most common, along with Crested Caracara and the occasional White-tailed Hawk. The route ends in Port Mansfield, where Wild Turkeys are a possibility at the Nature Trail, and a new wildlife viewing area on the Laguna Madre affords good looks at nesting Wilson's Plovers, Willets, and Least Terns, plus other coastal birds that may be passing through (fall migration for shorebirds actually starts in July!). Summer is also the best time to hope for a flyover Magnificent Frigatebird, and this last time we were blessed with three individuals at close range!

So if the dog days of summer are the only time you can take vacation, don't write off the Lower Rio Grande Valley! With planning and common sense precautions, your birding can be just as exciting as any other time of year!