The Not So Plain Chachalaca

There is something mundane about a bird that has “plain” in it’s common name. But when that is paired with “chachalaca” now we are talking about a bird that birders will travel to the deepest depths of Texas to add to their life list, because of it’s very limited range in the US, confined to the lower Rio Grande Valley. The great news for birders wishing to add this species to their list is that it is very common and in some parts of Hidalgo County, it is a backyard bird.

The only thing plain about the plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is it’s uniformly brown plumage. The name “chachalaca” is in imitation, according to the Nahuetl language, of it’s loud and raucous call, most often heard during the breeding season. And I was in southern Texas during it’s breeding season. When chachalacas call, they are very hard to ignore and worthy of a spread in my journal.

While I was hawk watching on the observation tower at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, it afforded views, down into the tops of trees. I would often see, and hear,  chachalacas calling from the tallest branches.

Looking down on yet another plain chachalaca calling from the top of a tree, Santa Ana NWR. Digiscope photo.

After my hawk watch I headed over to the National Butterfly Center to visit their feeders, and to look at butterflies. Here the chachalacas where so tame that they were within grabbing distance. (I kept my hands to myself.)

Getting up close and personal with a plain chachalaca at the feeders of the National Butterfly Center. No zoom or scope required.

A quick field sketch from the National Butterfly Center.

I sometimes wish all birds were this easy to identify. A plain chachalaca under a sign featuring the most common birds of the Rio Grande Valley. National Butterfly Center.


The Gem of the Valley

At 8:35 AM, I found myself 40 feet above Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on top of the observation tower. This was my second hawk watch of the trip and my third attempt to add one of the most sought after birds in the entire Rio Grande Valley. This was and is the hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax unicinatus). 

This tropical treesnail hunter is only found in the United States in the wide Rio Grande Valley, between Falcon Dam and Brownsville but Santa Ana NWR is the epicenter for most visitor’s kiteless search.

To prove this point, an hour later, I was joined by two Twitchers (very committed bird watchers) from Essex, England. It’s always good to have witnesses!

Scope view from the Santa Ana NWR observation tower.

Two days before I had hawk watched for three hours and there was a prolific northern movement of hawks, coming up from South and Central America. The most numerous raptor was the broad-winged hawk (thousands) and a good number of Swainson’s hawks, the raptor with the longest migration on planet earth.

This day the hawk migration was more of a trickle, allowing me time to explore the treetops of Santa Ana. What immediately stood out was the local Harris’s hawks that were perched along the canopy.

A pair of the local Harris’s hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus). Two in one scope view!!

As the skies continued to be raptorless, I looked around at the treetops. A small black bird perched on a power pole caught my attention. What stood out, even at distance, was the birds intense red eyes, like it hadn’t gotten any sleep in a week or more. I focused my scope on the bird just to confirm lifer # 526, Bronzed cowbird!

Bronzed cowbird (Molothrus aeneus), flying from the power pole. 

There was plenty of downtime between raptors and, as always, I filled in the time with a sketch. This sketch is a birder peering off to the south, wearing his “birder’s bra”.

I noticed a mixed kettle of black and turkey vultures and broad-winged hawks. Then I saw a bird that clearly stood out, a bird that looked like no other. I trained my scope on the soaring raptor. I mentally ticked off the paddle-shaped wings, heavily barred underwing primaries, distinctive head and beak shape, lazy and deep wing beats.

“I got the kite!” I announce to the British birders and they were soon on the soaring Hook-billed. I was able to watch the kite in the scope for a good five minutes. The search for The Gem of the Valley was over!

One my way back from my triumphant kite watch, an added bonus was seeing the stunning scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannous forficatus). I got great looks at this seasonally common kingbird and as I raised my camera to my eye, just as I pushed the shutter button, it flew.