Urban Commando Birding: Chasing Parrots in Harlingen

"This tour is a mix of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Storm Chasers." (Parrot trip leader Jen Brumfield overheard this comment from one of our participants)


This wonderful sketch shows a nice comparison between a Red-crowned Parrot (left) and a Red-lored Parrot (right). Red-lored Parrot is currently considered "uncountable" by the ABA Checklist Committee. (Sketches provided by Debby Kaspari http://drawingthemotmot.wordpress.com)

One of my highlights from this year's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) was leading three late afternoon/early evening "parrot trips." These two-hour forays into the urban neighborhoods of Harlingen, Texas are more like SWAT raids than birding as most of us know it.

Each afternoon Michael Retter gathers and briefs the participants and van leaders before heading out to look for flocks of our target birds--Green Parakeet and Red-crowned Parrot. These trips are always popular, since the Rio Grande Valley is the only place in the U.S. where one can see "countable" populations of these two birds.

For several years Retter has shouldered the responsibility of organizing the RGVBF parrot chases and more importantly keeping track of where roosting parakeet and parrot flocks are consistently hanging out in Harlingen. He passes out maps, leaders exchange cell phone numbers, and we divide up the participants into three unmarked white 12-passenger vans. Shortly after 4PM we leave the Harlingen Convention Center and head for the heavily-urbanized area near the massive Hwy 77/83 interchange in the middle of Harlingen. Over the past year this landscape, which is dominated by concrete, asphalt, chain motels, "big box" retail outlets, and strip malls, has reliably produced flocks of Green Parakeets.

I steer my van towards the Holiday Inn Express, where Shawneen Finnegan and I had seen a flock of 24 parakeets two nights earlier. Nearing the general area, a distant flock of 12 flying parakeets is spotted about three blocks away. We watch helplessly as the flock continues south, passes over the freeway and disappears. We don't bother to call the other vans, convinced that relocating this flock would require battling rush-hour traffic around the chaotic interchange and then trying to find a needle in a haystack once the birds landed.


Green Parakeets are suggestive of Mourning Doves in flight, with long tails and very little head projection in front of the wings. Their large head gives them a blunt front-heavy look.


Here's an example of the pristine urban habitat where one can expect to find Green Parakeets in Harlingen. This shot was taken behind the Walmart off Lincoln St. (Photo by Michael Retter).

Within a couple minutes we get a call from Retter's van, which gets on the same flock of parakeets and sees them land on a powerline behind the local Walmart. Within five minutes three empty vans and 30 birders are lined up behind the Walmart. The loudly chattering parakeets, many in obvious pairs, sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a utility wire grooming one another and occasional engaging in some interesting gymnastics as they squabble over a particular perch. Eventually, most of the flock moves onto the Walmart building where they drink from the rain gutter, which is flush with water after a pre-dawn downpour. We linger with the flock for about 15 minutes as many pictures are taken and scope views of these charming bright green birds are savored.


Green Parakeets are highly urbanized birds, at least in south Texas. This bird is perched atop a Walmart store in one of the busiest sections of Harlingen. (Photo by Dave Irons)

Phew! "One down, let's go find some parrots."

We pile back into the vans and set off in pursuit of Red-crowned Parrots. Retter has the the roost area for these birds staked out, but they don't typically show up there until about 5:30. It's only 4:40, so I opt to leisurely cruise through west Harlingen as we make our way to roost neighborhood near 7th and Williamson. A quick stop at Lake Harlingen in the middle of town yields about a dozen additions to the species list for this trip. Hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks graze on the lawn in the park. Then, Cole Wolf, my co-pilot/navigator for this trip, spots a bright male Vermilion Flycatcher perched along the iron fence on the south side of the lake, which all enjoy, particularly Cyndi Routledge, for whom the flycatcher is a lifer!

We continue on, occasionally crossing paths with the other two vans, which are hopelessly conspicuous as they poke along through otherwise quiet residential neighborhoods. Tropical Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, and Lesser Goldfinch are added to trip list, which ultimately reaches nearly 40 species. Eurasian Collared-Doves, Great-tailed Grackles, European Starlings, and Rock Pigeons are ubiquitous as we double-check every flock of birds perched on wires. As we pull up to one stop sign, we notice a group of egrets, mostly Snowies with one Great Egret and a White-faced Ibis feeding in a drainage canal. Closer scrutiny yields two Mottled Ducks, a Least Sandpiper, and a Wilson's Snipe.

Our broad circles around the area gradually become tighter as it becomes apparent that we aren't going to find the parrots until they come into the roost neighborhood. By the time we reach the baptist church at 7th and Williamson, the other two vans are already parked and off-loaded. We join the assemblage and then mill about anxiously for a few minutes, with some in the group surely wondering if this would be the evening when the parrots no-showed. 


Parrot flocks are often heard before they are seen. They are short-tailed and broad-winged. Their flight is fluttering, with shallow wingbeats that don't extend above horizontal. (Photo by Dave Irons)

Then, without the slightest warning, there is a jolting cacophony of unmistakeable parrot noises. Within seconds a large flock of Red-Crowned Parrots materializes over the top of the church. They circle around overhead for a few moments, then land in some trees in a yard across the street. Eventually, the entire flock--about 175 in all--takes flight again before landing on the powerlines right in front of the group. We start looking through the flock for other species of exotic (non-native, non-countable) parrots. We pick out a few yellow-cheeked birds with restricted red on the crown. These are Red-lored Parrots, the most expected exotic in this flock. As we work through the birds on the wires, two late-arriving birds fly in. They are a bit larger and have mostly yellow heads. Retter yells out, "Yellow-headed Parrots!" They seem a bit nervous about joining the main flock, but eventually settle in on the wires with small sub-group of Red-crowneds down the street. 


Red-crowned Parrot in Harlingen, Texas 11 November 2011 (Photo by Dave Irons).


I'm sure our groups were quite the curiosity to passing motorists. In this image participants are taking photos of parrots amassed on the utility wires along 7th St. near Williamson in Harlingen (Photo by Michael Retter).

No one in the group is in any rush to leave, as most of us realize that it will be at least a year, if not several, before we encounter these quintessential tropical birds again. They are charismatic creatures, seemingly disinclined to ever sit still. Like the Green Parakeets earlier, most of the birds in this flock are in obvious pairs. Their perpetual motion involves much grooming, bill contact, hanging upside down, and mini turf disputes that never become too serious. Several in our group continue snapping photos until the light is so meager that only dark grainy images can be had. 

I led parrot trips on three successive evenings and thankfully we managed to find both parakeets and parrots on every trip. All were high energy affairs fueled by the anticipation and excitement of each new group of participants. We even had some repeat customers who apparently signed up for multiple trips to ensure that they would get both target species. These parrot trips are truly a unique and fun birding experience, as evidenced by the fact that folks will come out and do it all over again even after a successful outing. I'm already looking forward to leading again next year.

To see more of Debby Kaspari's artwork, visit her website at: http://drawingthemotmot.wordpress.com


Nice post, Dave. Great to have you as a co-leader this year. Thanks for all your help!


Makes me want to head back to Texas again! Great story of the chase.


Thanks, Dave, for an incredible commando search for the parrots! It was an awe-inspiring sight for sure. And I’ll never forget the parking lot Curlew as well.


The urban-birding trip was one of my favorites from the festival. When the green parakeets took off flying over the mall, Jen B. cracked me up by saying, “They’re in flight over ‘92% Credit Approval (a billboard)- they’re going to Forever21!”


What a GREAT trip we had in search of the parrots of Harlingen! I have to say it was our favorite trip of the Festival!! And not only because we found 4 species of Parrots and I personally had an additional 5 life bird making a total of 9 new birds in 2 hours! But because it was a true adventure! Many thanks to you, Dave and co-pilot Cole, for your ever watchful eyes, good driving skills and great company.


That trip was loads of fun !! I thought we were just hopping in a van, going to the respective roosts, and then coming back. I never realized we would get to experience the full-throttle thrill of the chase !! Not only that, but the birds were pretty amazing, too! Thanks, Dave !!


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