Hidalgo County Birding Pages

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Estero Llano Grande State Park

 

See also the photo essay for Estero Llano Grande State Park on David and Jan Dauphin's site.

Approximate Length:  The hiking loop I take is approximately 3.5 miles.

Approximate Birding Time:  About 4 hours

Facilities:  There is a restroom around the corner from the deck, as well as two restrooms in the Tropical Zone

Fee Area (iron ranger available during non-business hours).

Directions:  Take US 83/I-2 east to Weslaco, and take the International Blvd. exit.  Turn right on International Blvd. and go south.    The park entrance will be on the left.

The visitor's center doesn't open until 8:00, but you can bird the area before that.  Note:  Years ago you used to be able to drive in to the area directly south of the park in order to check out Llano Grande itself as well as the surroundings fields from the levee, but recently the gate to this area has been closed.  I include this narrative for informational/historic purposes, as public use is currently in question...

The Llano Grande often has some birds that you may not see in the park.  Large numbers of White Pelicans and both species of Whistling Ducks can usually be found here, along with both Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets and other shorebirds.  A large variety of waders, including the occasional Roseate Spoonbill, can be found, and on rare occasion even Black Skimmers can occur here.  The usual marshy songbirds, such as Common Yellowthroat and Marsh Wren, can also be found, but one winter I had a Swamp Sparrow, so it's worth checking for phoebe-like "peeps" coming from the reeds!  The road itself often has Common Ground Doves feeding near the fields, and in winter this can be a good spot to get eye-level views of American Pipit and Horned Lark before heading up on the levee.  If you get here just before dawn in summer you'll have lots of Common Nighthawks "beenting" as well!

View of the actual Estero Llano Grande

From here I continue on and up onto the levee (note: drive the levees at your own risk; technically these are not public roads, but I'm assured that it is permissible to bird from them), where you get a bird's eye view of another little wetland and the surrounding agricultural fields.  Sometimes a Green Heron or two hang out in here.  The levee continues on for about two miles before you come to a locked gate (there is room to turn around, but be very careful doing so!); I stop along the way to listen and often pick up Northern Bobwhite (sometimes running across the levee itself) and Horned Larks year round, Dickcissels in summer and migration, and Loggerhead Shrike and American Pipit in winter (and although I have yet to record them, Sprague's Pipits tend to love these levees, and park rangers have had them here).  Farm-loving shorebirds, such as Long-billed Curlew and Upland Sandpiper (the latter in migration and more often heard than seen) can be found here as well.  There are a couple of little wetlands that are worth checking, and raptors are easy to spot, particularly Northern Harriers and American Kestrels in winter, and White-tailed Kites year round (a Short-eared Owl showed up once, but these are extremely rare).  The neighborhood Red-crowned Parrots can sometimes be seen (or at least heard) from the levee's end as well, and this can also be a good vantage point from which to spot migrating geese overhead!

View of the canal when you first climb up on the levee

View from the levee, with a hidden wetland on the north side

Another wetland on the south side (obviously taken on a different day), stuffed with birds!

View to the north from the east end of the levee

At the park, you can pick up common Valley birds such as Couch's Kingbird and Golden-fronted Woodpecker right in the parking lot, as well as possible Red-crowned Parrots.  The little canal you walk across to enter the park often has a Green Kingfisher, but he can be hard to spot; look also for waterthrushes in migration.  I usually take the Green Jay Trail next (on the right just before entering the old RV area, now called the Tropical Zone), which takes you through a lush little jungle that often has birds you won't find in the more open areas of the park, such as White-tipped Dove and the trail's namesake, the Green Jay.  For butterfly enthusiasts, this is a good place for Mexican Bluewings.  Coming pre-dawn (this would be the only accessible part of the park at that hour) might add calling Eastern Screech Owl and Pauraque to your list, although the rangers can often tell you where these two birds can be found during the day!

Entrance to the Green Jay Trail

Along the trail

While I was doing these surveys, the Tropical Zone was not yet open to the public, but now many people bird this area first before heading to the main part of the park.  Conversely, butterfly action can be better later in the morning, so you may want to save the TZ for last.  If birding the main park first, you can make your way to the deck, checking the vegetation along the brick walkway for songbirds; in migration this can be a great place for warblers, but the usual suspects are Olive Sparrow, Black-crested Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and White-eyed Vireo year round, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Orange-crowned and "Myrtle" Warblers, and Blue-headed Vireos in winter.  Closer to the feeder area both Buff-bellied and Archilochus hummingbirds can be plentiful (one year a female Anna's showed up), as well as Inca and White-winged Doves, and even Chachalacas.  A Groove-billed Ani family hung out in this area one year, delighting many visitors!  The spacious deck overlooks Ibis Pond and always has something of interest; both White and White-faced Ibis can show up here (Glossy on rare occasion), and other common residents include Common Gallinule, Coots, Least and Pied-billed Grebes, Blue-winged Teal, and many shorebirds--the usual suspects are Black-necked Stilts, Long-billed Dowitchers, Stilt, Spotted, and Least Sandpipers, and Lesser Yellowlegs, but almost anything can show up, including rarities like Purple Gallinule and mega-rarities like Northern Jacana!  The dead snags can play host to all three kingfisher species, and in summer both Least and Gull-billed Terns can be hanging around.  In winter the place abounds with ducks, primarily Black-bellied Whistling (and the occasional Fulvous), Ring-necked, and Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, and Green-winged Teal, plus an influx of Blue-winged.  Rarer ducks include Cinnamon Teal, Canvasback, and Wood Duck.  Very often a Sora will venture out into the open, and sometimes Least Bitterns can be seen or heard here.  An American Bittern usually shows up annually, but he can be hard to spot (unless he decides to hunt frogs right off the deck, as he's been known to do)!  Please note that the ponds are often allowed to evaporate during the summer for maintenance purposes; I suggest calling the park and finding out the status of the wetlands before your visit to avoid disappointment!

Ibis Pond from the deck, with the Spoonbill Trail boardwalk across the way

Getting there before dawn affords some nifty sunrise shots!

First thing in the morning, the light is much better once you get onto the boardwalk across the way (the Spoonbill Trail), and depending on the water level, you might kick up a Wilson's Snipe in winter, and King and Virginia Rail is also possible.  The grasslands that begin at this point can be great for sparrows and wrens in winter (I had Sedge Wren on one occasion); Savannah and Lincoln's are most plentiful (giving you a great opportunity to practice telling these two similar species apart), and Grasshopper is quite regular (although I've never recorded it personally, LeConte's Sparrow shows up on rare occasion as well).  One year a House Finch (actually considered accidental in the Valley) showed up at the shelter at the intersection, but Lark Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds are the usual suspects!  This is one of my "stops" where I often record Common Yellowthroat and Marsh Wren from the reeds, and scanning the trees over in the Lakeview area may yield Red-crowned Parrots or raptors (although long gone, our visiting Black-throated Magpie Jay would often sit up here as well).

Looking back at the Visitor's Center from Spoonbill Trail

This is a popular place for school field trips!

Grasslands along the trail

Shelter overlooking Ibis Pond

From here I continue on the Spoonbill Trail as it winds through more grasslands; this is the area I had the Sedge Wrens, and I've also kicked up the more buffy-looking Lesser Nighthawk in here.  I then make a right at the intersection with the Wader's Trail to go up on the levee to take a peek.  You can extend your hike (and probably your bird list) by exploring the levee in either direction, but I just sit for five and check out the llano, especially if I wasn't able to access the dirt road due to closure.  This can be a good spot for Vermilion Flycatcher in winter, and again you have a good vantage point from which to look for overpassing raptors!  There's also a nesting box that can be viewed from the levee that often has a "McCall's" Screech Owl peeking out!

The Wader's Trail

View of Estero Llano Grande from the levee

Same area during the floods of 2010, showing well the true purpose of the floodway!  (The floods were caused by water released by upriver dams after the hurricane season that year...)  The floodway was built to divert water from the Rio Grande in the event of an overflow.

Returning to the Wader's Trail, I then swing around Dowitcher Pond, which sometimes has wintering ducks that don't occur in Ibis Pond, including Cinnamon Teal, which can be a tough bird to find in the Valley.  In summer the boardwalk crossing the pond sometimes has Least Terns lounging on it, and on one occasion I had a small group of Wood Storks here!  Occasionally Soras will be poking around the edges in winter as well, and Least Bitterns (summer) or Swamp Sparrows (winter) may be hiding in the reeds.  When the water level is low, this can be a great place for shorebirds, including White-rumped Sandpipers and, on very rare occasions, Hudsonian Godwits!

Sometimes the park has to drain the ponds for maintenance purposes; the photo below shows Dowitcher Pond's usual appearance!

From here I cross the little footbridge towards Alligator Lake, checking the canal for reedy birds and darting Green Kingfishers.  Grebe Marsh is another good spot to check for Green Kingfishers, Common Gallinules, Least Grebes, and other marsh birds.  For lep enthusiasts, the Milkweed Vine all along the drainage canal can be crazy with butterflies when in bloom; some of the more special species I've encountered along here include Guava Skipper and Ornythion Swallowtail!  The trail turning off directly to Alligator Lake can be another good migrant trap, and the trees across the lake can be loaded with night herons of both species, but Yellow-crowned is predominant.  The park's famous Pauraques are usually snoozing in the center section past the "Y", but can sometimes be found at the foot of the boardwalk to the overlook, across the path.  Be sure to check the nest box for a "McCall's" Screech Owl, but please do so at a distance, as standing directly under the box will cause the bird to retreat.  The overlook at the end of the trail is another good "sitting" spot, and is almost a slam-dunk for Neotropic Cormorants (their belching grunts can often be heard clear to Dowitcher Pond), and sometimes Anhinga!  All three kingfishers can show up here, as well as Green Heron and Least Bittern.  Check the power poles for the resident Harris' Hawks (and, yes, there really are Alligators in here)! 

Grebe Marsh

Trail to the Alligator Lake lookout

You may inadvertently wake up a "McCall's" Screech Owl along the trail! 

From here I backtrack to the intersection with the Camino de Aves Trail.  I normally take the left fork where the trail splits, across the other drainage ditch to the park boundary, and make a right on the maintenance road next to the citrus grove to the next intersection to the right (also a maintenance road), and then follow that to where it meets up again with the Camino De Aves.  You can take a shorter loop (which may be a smarter option when it's hot), but either way, you visit drier, desert mesquite habitat where you may pick up birds not found elsewhere in the park, such as Common Ground Dove (practically a slam dunk), Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbird, Curve-billed Thrasher, Bewick's Wren, and Verdin.  On rare occasions I sometimes pick up Northern Beardless Tyrannulet in here, but he's more regular in the TZ.  The bigger trees back by the citrus farm can be good for flycatchers, migrant and otherwise, and my one and only Painted Bunting for the park was found back here.  On the way back to the first footbridge, there's another window into Grebe Marsh that's a little better viewing so far as lighting in the morning goes.

Camino de Aves Trail

Side trail that leads to the north maintenance road

Drainage canal as viewed from the above bridge

Wooded area long the maintenance road

The citrus orchard is visible on the right

Maintenance road heading back towards Camino de Aves

You may pick up a couple more species on the way back to headquarters, but by now you'll probably see more butterflies than birds, and the gardens coming back to the building, behind the offices, along the brick walk, and in the parking lot can be exceptional.  Besides the common Valley specialties, some of the more unusual leps I've encountered here include Polydamus Swallowtail, Pavon Emperor, Malachite, Yellow Angled Sulphur, Potrillo Skipper, and Mexican Silverspot.  Even rare birds can be found here, as a Blue-throated Hummingbird showed up the fall of 2015!

Heading back to the Visitor's Center

A note about the "Tropical Zone":  Just beyond the entrance to the park is an area that serves as a residential area for park volunteers and other private citizens, but is owned by the park and is open to public use (there is a newly-created hiking trail leading from Spoonbill Trail over to this area).  This area was still closed during my initial surveys, but I included any sightings from the few times I visited this area in my data.  It is a welcome addition to the park's habitat with many large trees (native and otherwise) that have been attractive to many rarities over the last few years, including a White-throated Thrush, Rose-throated Becard, Blue Bunting, and Tropical Parula (in addition to the escaped but still gorgeous magpie jay)!  Other more expected species I've seen back here but not elsewhere in the park include Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (which has recently nested there), Clay-colored Thrush, and more rarely American Robin and Cedar Waxwing (winter).  It can be a terrific migrant trap as well, and wintering warblers such as Black-throated Gray and Green, Black-and-white, Wilson's, and Yellow-throated Warblers are possible.  One winter an Audubon's Oriole and Brown Creeper hung around back here, and some new hummingbird feeders stationed along the middle road attracted a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, along with many Rufous-type Hummingbirds.

Huck and John led special field trips into the Tropical Zone to help visitors find their special rarities!

Visiting birders near the entrance to the Tropical Zone

Personal Checklist  ●=small numbers  █ = large numbers (10+) 

Please keep in mind that these lists are NOT comprehensive, and that some months may have had poor overall coverage.  Names in red indicate species that occur in the county but are extremely rare, or that normally do not occur in the county and are irruptive or true vagrants, and should not be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Fulvous Whistling Duck    
Greater White-fronted Goose                    
Snow Goose                  
Wood Duck                      
Blue-winged Teal  
Cinnamon Teal          
Northern Shoveler      
Gadwall        
American Wigeon                    
Mottled Duck  
Northern Pintail            
Green-winged Teal        
Canvasback                  
Ring-necked Duck              
Lesser Scaup                
Ruddy Duck            
Plain Chachalaca
Northern Bobwhite          
Least Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe    
Wood Stork              
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant            
Anhinga      
American White Pelican        
American Bittern                    
Least Bittern          
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Cattle Egret            
Green Heron    
Black-crowned Night Heron    
Yellow-crowned Night Heron    
White Ibis    
Glossy Ibis                  
White-faced Ibis    
Roseate Spoonbill    
Black Vulture                  
Turkey Vulture
Osprey              
White-tailed Kite    
Mississippi Kite                      
Northern Harrier              
Sharp-shinned Hawk                
Cooper's Hawk        
Harris' Hawk  
Red-shouldered Hawk              
Broad-winged Hawk                  
Gray Hawk                      
Swainson's Hawk              
Red-tailed Hawk                
King Rail                      
Virginia Rail                    
Sora      
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet    
Black-bellied Plover                      
Killdeer
Northern Jacana                        
  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Upland Sandpiper                
Long-billed Curlew            
Stilt Sandpiper    
Least Sandpiper  
White-rumped Sandpiper                      
Pectoral Sandpiper                  
Semipalmated Sandpiper                      
Western Sandpiper                  
Long-billed Dowitcher    
Wilson's Snipe            
Spotted Sandpiper    
Solitary Sandpiper              
Greater Yellowlegs        
Lesser Yellowlegs    
Hudsonian Godwit                      
Wilson's Phalarope                  
Laughing Gull                
Least Tern                    
Gull-billed Tern                
Caspian Tern                      
Forster's Tern                  
Black Skimmer                  
Rock Pigeon  
Eurasian Collared Dove          
Inca Dove
Common Ground Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove  
Mourning Dove
  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Yellow-billed Cuckoo                
Groove-billed Ani              
Barn Owl                      
Eastern Screech Owl        
Short-eared Owl                      
Lesser Nighthawk                    
Common Nighthawk            
Pauraque  
Chuck-will's-widow                      
Chimney Swift              
Blue-throated Hummingbird                      
Ruby-throated Hummingbird          
Black-chinned Hummingbird      
Archilochus Hummingbird        
Anna's Hummingbird                      
Rufous Hummingbird                  
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Ringed Kingfisher          
Belted Kingfisher          
Green Kingfisher    
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker                  
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Crested Caracara                  
American Kestrel            
Merlin                      
Peregrine Falcon                  
Green Parakeet                      
Red-crowned Parrot      
Northern Beardless Tyrannulet        
Olive-sided Flycatcher                      
Eastern Wood Pewee                  
Least Flycatcher                    
Eastern Phoebe            
  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Vermilion Flycatcher              
Great Crested Flycatcher                    
Brown-crested Flycatcher            
Great Kiskadee
Tropical Kingbird      
Couch's Kingbird
Western Kingbird                    
Eastern Kingbird                      
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
Rose-throated Becard              
Loggerhead Shrike        
White-eyed Vireo
Bell's Vireo                      
Blue-headed Vireo              
Green Jay
Black-throated Magpie Jay                  
Horned Lark      
Purple Martin        
Tree Swallow              
Northern Rough-winged Swallow          
Bank Swallow              
Barn Swallow        
Cliff Swallow              
Cave Swallow  
Black-crested Titmouse
Verdin                
  J F M A M J J A S O N D
House Wren          
Winter Wren                      
Sedge Wren                      
Marsh Wren          
Carolina Wren
Bewick's Wren  
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher      
Ruby-crowned Kinglet          
Hermit Thrush                      
Swainson's Thrush                      
Clay-colored Thrush    
American Robin                    
Gray Catbird                    
Curve-billed Thrasher
Long-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
American Pipit              
Cedar Waxwing                    
Ovenbird                      
Louisiana Waterthrush                      
Northern Waterthrush                      
Black-and-white Warbler          
Prothonotary Warbler                      
Tennessee Warbler                    
Orange-crowned Warbler            
Nashville Warbler              
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat                      
Mourning Warbler                      
Kentucky Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat    
Hooded Warbler                      
American Redstart                    
Northern Parula                      
Tropical Parula                    
Magnolia Warbler                    
Bay-breasted Warbler                      
Yellow Warbler                
Chestnut-sided Warbler                      
"Myrtle" Warbler              
Yellow-throated Warbler                      
Black-throated Gray Warbler                    
Black-throated Green Warbler                    
  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Canada Warbler                      
Wilson's Warbler  ●         
Yellow-breasted Chat                  
Summer Tanager                      
Grasshopper Sparrow                
Olive Sparrow  
Cassin's Sparrow                      
Chipping Sparrow                      
Clay-colored Sparrow                      
Field Sparrow                  
Lark Sparrow            
Savannah Sparrow            
Lincoln's Sparrow        
Swamp Sparrow                
Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia                
Rose-breasted Grosbeak                      
Blue Grosbeak                  
Indigo Bunting                    
Painted Bunting                    
Dickcissel          
Orchard Oriole                
Hooded Oriole                  
Altamira Oriole    
  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Audubon's Oriole                      
Baltimore Oriole                    
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark    
Western Meadowlark                    
Bronzed Cowbird          
Brown-headed Cowbird    
Common Grackle                      
Great-tailed Grackle
House Finch                      
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch                
House Sparrow

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