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Christmas 2006

Part 1:  Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR, & the NABA Butterfly Garden

Unlike the last ill-fated trip (i.e., the Ross' Gull Stop on the way to Arizona), I drove straight to the Rio Grande Valley, stopping in Tucson, Fort Stockton, and Falfurrias for the nights.  Headed down to the new Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR the morning of the fourth day, at a tract that's just north of Edinburg.  The ABA Guide has you turning left on a dirt road off state route 186, about a mile east of FM 493 (Rio Beef Road), so I started there, doing the "Easy Birder Route" routine and stopping every half mile, picking up distant White-fronted Geese and a fleeing Ferruginous Hawk.  [Ed. note:  after moving here to the Valley and having birded this spot a lot since then, it could have easily been a misidentified Krider's Hawk...]  A little further up the road there was a marshy pond with several Green-winged Teal, a couple of Shovelers, some moorhens, Pied-billed Grebes, and when I started the car, a couple of Soras!  There were lots of yellowthroats and Marsh Wrens around, and further up the road in the mesquite forests there were tons of Lincoln's Sparrows!  A trail off the road goes through more mesquite, and the place was hopping: besides more Lincoln's, a single Clay-colored and White-crowned popped up, along with tons of Orange-crowned Warblers and a single Black-throated Green, and several Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  But the best bird was an Empid of some sort; my gut reaction was Least (even though there aren't supposed to be any Empids here now), as it had a very bold eyering, wingbars, and tertial edging, and had a soft, rising whit call. A lady at the Butterfly Garden confirmed that they've had a lot this winter, so I assumed that's probably what it was, but more on that later...


Access trail at the La Sal tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR


L-R:  Black-throated Green Warbler, Least Flycatcher (rare in the Valley in winter), and "Diagram Moth"

Continuing up the road, in addition to several Couch's Kingbirds and Eastern Phoebes, had yet another flycatcher that's supposed to be gone: a couple of Ash-throateds doing their little "police whistle"!  Green Jays popped up along here as well, always fun to see!  Up at the "T" was a large field with a big flock of Snow Geese in it, although too far away to tell if there were any Ross’ in with them.  The air resounded with Sandhill Cranes as well, and around the corner they were fairly close to the road!  A single Sprague's Pipit flew overhead, and later several similar-sounding Horned Larks flew over as well.


Snow Geese (the darker ones in flight are Greater White-fronted Geese; a few "Blue" Geese are on the ground)


Sandhill Cranes

Now at this point the map in the ABA Guide has you going straight (after you make the right at the T), but the road looked pretty bad, so I opted to follow the good dirt road as it curved around the fields and past another pond where there were Coots, dowitchers, both yellowlegs, and a Lesser Scaup feeding.  Also had some new butterflies in here: the enchanting little Common Mestra, and what may have been both Fatal and Rounded Metalmarks (my "lepper" friend Mike said I was in "Metalmark Hell" right there), in addition to the Dracula-like Sickle-winged Skipper!


Pond along the road with Sickle-winged Skipper


Phaon Crescent (above) and Queen (below)


Common Mestras


Some metalmarks are extremely difficult to identify; both Rounded and Fatal occur here, but I’m presuming Fatal, which is the commoner of the two species.

The woodland was getting thicker as I neared the end of the road, where there's a gate into private land, but in the woodland had dueling Long-billed Thrashers and both Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.  Headed back and picked up a very pale Red-tailed Hawk, in addition to a Sharp-shinned and a couple of Harriers.


L-R:  Long-billed Thrasher, White-eyed Vireo, and young Red-tailed Hawk

The sun was wanting to peek out, so I decided to head straight to the Butterfly Garden in Mission, and wouldn't you know it: it gloomed over just as I got there!  But the lady said that things were still flying, and they certainly were, and when the sun did break through, so did the butterflies!  In addition to lots of flowering plants, they also have "rotting fruit feeders" that attract non-nectaring things, and I was treated to a knockout Mexican Bluewing in here!  Ran into another lady who was shooting butterflies as well, and she pointed out several local specialties such as the Dusky-blue Groundstreak and Little Yellow.  There was just oodles of goodies in there which I didn’t list on Birdchat, but most everything was new, and I was overwhelmed! One of the commonest was the Tawny Emperor, accompanied by what I assumed were Hackberry Emperors as they were smaller and more strongly marked, but according to the book some Tawnies can look like that, and alas, I couldn’t find the "broken" bars that the Hackberry is supposed to have, except on one picture. By scrutinizing the photos after I got back, I thought I also may have had an Empress Leila, which was confirmed by my "lepper" friends!


Queens along the main trail at the NABA Butterfly Garden


White Peacock


Question Mark, named for a little squiggle on the underside of its wing that looks remotely like a question mark!


Left and center:  the very variable Tawny Emperor; right:  Hackberry Emperor


Tawny Emperor feeding frenzy; note the variation from strongly-marked to very worn


Mexican Bluewings blend right in with the trees until they open their wings!


Dusky-blue Groundstreaks


American Snout—no matter what the pattern, the schnozz gives it away!


Lyside Sulphurs (pretending to be a leaf at right...)


Tropical Leafwing and Little Yellow 

Along the woodland Walking Trail I kicked up a Carolina [Hermes] Satyr, and new goodies that hogged the flowering bushes included Lyside Sulphur, Phaon Crescent (Texan was also in here, but he wasn’t new J), Gulf and Mexican Fritillaries, and a Question Mark. There were tons of these little blackish-brown skippers with white dots around, too; I’m assuming most of them are Clouded Skippers, although some of them had wing patterns that suggested either Violet-patched or Fawn-spotted. I also had a mystery butterfly that totally stumped me: it was rather torpid so I was even able to get it on my finger in an attempt to get it to open its wings, and when it did fly off, it was a dull unmarked brownish above. Below it looked strongly veined and had kind of a brushfoot shape, but it matched nothing in the book; I was hoping I didn’t have some mega-rarity, but as I scrutinized the photos more closely when I got home (and after having a lot more exposure to these things in the meantime), I’m pretty sure it was just a washed-out/worn Tawny Emperor.


"Gully Trail" and "Walking Trail"




Clouded Skippers (unless proven otherwise…)


Sickle-winged and Laviana White Skippers


Checkered Skippers can be tough to ID; the two above are Tropical Checkered Skippers (note the darker fringe towards the wing tip)


The fringe is more evenly checkered on the bug at left, making it a probable White Checkered Skipper.  The little guy on the right is so worn I’m not sure what he is...


Texan Crescent on the left; the rest are Phaon Crescents


Ceraunus Blues, with a single Hermes Satyr on the right


Gulf Fritillaries (dorsal above, ventral below)



Mexican Fritillary and Soldier 

Other bugs...


L-R:  Chrysalis of some kind, mystery caterpillar, Swag-lined Wave, Texas Wasp Moth, and Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth

Needless to say I was very focused on things non-avian, but birdwise added a few trip birds such as Eastern Bluebird, Black-crested Titmouse, Olive Sparrow (that actually showed itself), and Altamira Oriole.  I could have sworn an Audubon's was calling, but I couldn't get it to show itself (and later in the trip the strange whistle would prove to be a Long-billed Thrasher).  Along the walking trail some Kiskadees harassed a Gray Hawk, and a curious White-eyed Vireo came in to say hello.  Out in the "vacant lot" added American Pipit to the day list.


 Great-tailed Grackle (token bird...that’s a switch, huh?)

 Around three I had to go find a motel, so I greeted Sue (the lady who had initially told me about the butterfly garden) and tore myself away from there, but not before they gave me a "map" of the Valley that showed several places that were good for birds and butterflies, so I was very anxious to explore some of them! Found the Best Western in Mission and had dinner both nights at the Luby’s Cafeteria next door, which was quite tasty (but way too much food, of course…)

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