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The Parrots of the Rio Grande Valley

November 17, 2014 3 comments

I recently traveled to Harlingen in south Texas to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. One of the highlights of the festival (for me) was getting to see wild parrots, both with one of the festival tours and on my own.

The red marker shows the location of Harlingen.

The red marker shows the location of Harlingen.

People attending the festival could sign up for a ‘parrot tour’ of Harlingen. There are Mexican Red-headed Amazons (AKA Red-crowned Parrots, Amazona viridigenalis) and Green Conures (AKA Green Parakeets, Aratinga holochlora) living right in the city. During the parrot tours, three vans would head out in search of the parrots and the first van to find the parrots would let the other two know where they were.  The festival occurs outside of the parrot breeding season, which means the roosting flocks would be quite large.  When parrots are breeding, they will roost in or around their nests; thus they won’t form these huge flocks.

The tours started at 4 pm, which is when the parrots begin forming large roosting flocks. The parrots often forage and rest in smaller groups during the day but before nightfall they congregate in large groups. This is a very noisy process – the parrots will start calling noisily, and once a flock is assembled, they would all fly around, calling, until it was dark and they had found a suitable spot to sleep for the night. The parrot flocks would roost in slightly different locations each night so a bit of searching was needed to find them. The searching was done with the windows of the vans open, as conures and Amazons are very noisy, which makes them easier to find. The conures and the Amazons stayed in separate flocks.

The groups first went out in search of the Green Conures. The tour group I was with located a flock of them quite quickly. Most of the conures were perched on power lines, although a few were up in palm trees. Most were calling to each other and a few pairs were busy preening each other.  Even though it was outside of the breeding season, mated pairs would stay close to each other.

A pair of Green Conures preening each other. The other bird in the picture is a European Starling.

A pair of Green Conures preening each other. The other bird in the picture is a European Starling.

Green conures 2

Green Conures perched on power lines.

green conures 3

Green Conures

A few of the Green Conures had some red feathers on their heads, but that is normal for the species. Green Conures do breed in the Rio Grande Valley so the population is self sustaining. They begin breeding in March. It is unclear whether the population was established from birds who dispersed in naturally from Mexico or from pet birds who escaped or were released (or both).  As Green Conures do occur in northern Mexico, it is certainly plausible that they occur naturally in the Rio Grande Valley.  The same is true for the Mexican Red-headed Amazons.

After locating the Green Conures, the groups went in search of the Amazons.  When I did the tour, the group of Amazons was located along power lines and in trees in a residential neighbourhood.  Their loud calls helped us find them.  Tour leaders brought out spotting scopes so we could get better looks at the birds, and many people took photos, including me (although mine did not turn out very well).  At one point, the entire flock of birds (about eighty or so) flew away as though something had startled them.  We did later find the flock perched on power lines next to a church.

I later headed out to the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco (about a 20 minute drive west of Harlingen), as I read that parrots can be found in that area.  I looked through the nature center and took a walk on the trails. I asked one of the staff if parrots frequent the area and she told me to stick around the park by the nature center at 5:00 pm or so because a large flock of Amazons generally roosts in the area.  At about 5, I drove around the area (with the car windows open) and found a very large flock of Amazons about a block away from the nature center.  This flock was composed primarily of Mexican Red-headed Amazons, but I did count about five Red-lored Amazons in the bunch.  There was also a Double Yellow-headed Amazon with them.

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Red-lored Amazon

Red-lored Amazon

Double Yellow-headed Amazon

Double Yellow-headed Amazon

The flock was incredibly noisy and more and more birds kept arriving from all directions.  The birds would call, preen themselves, preen their partners, or squabble over positions in trees or on the wires. They were very amusing to watch.

At one point they got up and flew to another location about a block away.  They settled there for a bit and then the entire flock circled around the neighbourhood before settling to roost in some large trees in someone’s front yard.

I enjoyed watching them so much that I returned to Weslaco a second time to seek out the flock.  Again, I had no trouble finding them – I just drove around the neighbourhood until I heard the flock.  I also stopped at the Frontera Audubon Center and did some birdwatching on their trails. Several turkey vultures were circling above the trails and I managed to get the below picture of one:

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I also got a few more pictures of the Amazons:

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Mexican Red-headed Amazons

Amazons on a Wire

Amazons on a Wire

Stay tuned for more blog posts about my birding trip to south Texas. I got to see some extremely rare birds and I will be sharing pictures of them!

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