On the Plain Chachalaca

 

Plain Chachalaca roof-top running“What a funny bird!”
“It looks like a chicken.”
“They are so loud!”

The above are quotes I hear variations of all the time regarding one of the Valley’s most unique birds, the Plain Chachalaca. No matter what the reaction, chachalacas always get a big response from both locals and visiting birders. They are one of my personal favorite South Texas specialty birds, and I often find myself ensconced in watching them as they run, hop, and sometimes gawkily forage for fruits in Quinta Mazatlan. Yet, despite the charisma of this tropical species, few scientific studies have been done on it. Here I want to explore and briefly summarize some of what is known about the Plain Chachalaca, with most of the information coming from The Birds of North America (hereafter called BNA) account.

PLCH Range
The range of the Plain Chachalaca goes from southern Central America up to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) of Texas.  Also note the small range spots further north on the Texas Coast (San Patricio County) and on the coast of Georgia! These two spots represent areas where chachalacas were introduced by people. Apparently the Georgia population is still going strong!

Chachalacas are a permanent resident, but there is little knowledge if they move locally between seasons. In the LRGV, they are typically found in dense thornforest and riparian woodlands, but can also be seen in more disturbed habitats, such as forest edges and towns. They’re surprisingly urban, and it was always a pleasure to see the chachalacas strut through my family’s yard in Edinburg. Their ability to reside in neighborhoods and do quite well in small urban nature centers is encouraging.

Most of the information on Plain Chachlacas in the LRGV came from a man named Wayne Marion. He did several natural history studies, which remain to be the most comprehensive coverage of the species in LRGV.

Plain Chachalaca chicks eating Esperanza (2)

Young chachalacas eagerly eating the Esperanza flower provided by their parent.

Chachalacas are predominantly vegetarian, but are also known to eat insects and snails. I’ve personally seen them eat: Anacua fruits, Wild Olive flowers, Yucca flowers, plant seedlings (unfortunately they’ve eaten some that I planted!), Pigeonberry fruits, Texas Persimmon fruits, and Turk’s Cap fruits and flowers. In Quinta Mazatlan, they of course love to eat the bird food we provide at the feeders, where they come out in droves to eat the peanut butter suet (click here to see what I mean!).

One thing you’ll notice in the video is the calls the chachalacas are making. Those are described as “purr/mutter” calls in the BNA, and are thought to be contact calls to keep birds together. What they’re most famous for, and why they’re named, is the loud “Cha-cha-lac!” calls they raucously shout. The males, with deeper voices, starts the call, then the higher pitched voice of the female joins in – multiple pairs of chachalacas will perch in tree tops and all create their nearly deafening chorus. In the late summer, the cicadas and the chachalacas can make it difficult to even hear yourself think with their racket.

Plain Chachalaca egg (1)

Plain Chachalacas refurbish the old nests of other birds for their own use, and usually lay 3 eggs per clutch. Interestingly, on a couple occasions I’ve seen the large, rough textured eggs (almost as big as chicken eggs) in the open on the ground. I don’t know how this happens or why, but I would expect that these ground eggs (pictured above) don’t end up hatching.

I like to keep track of the bird community here at Quinta Mazatlan, and have been curious as to how many chachalacas are in the park. The easiest way to try to count all the chachalacas is in the morning when we put out the bird food. The high count seems to be around 30 individuals!

PLCH Average Count

Most eBird checklists submitted for Quinta Mazatlan seem to average around 10 chachalacas, which is a little higher than the average count for Hidalgo and Cameron counties (figure below). We certainly have quite a few chachalacas in the park!

PLCH LRGV Average Count

There is a lot to be learned about Plain Chachalacas, but fortunately they seem to be doing well here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. So long as we keep protecting and providing the native habitat, we’ll be able to enjoy the presence of chachalacas for generations. If you have any anecdotes about chachalacas, whether it be what you’ve seen them eat, an interesting behavior, or just a fun story, please share in the comments!

Happy Birding!

John Brush

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Songbird Stroll October 20, 2015

Migrating birds are continuing to show up little by little as fall migration progresses. Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Orange-crowned Warblers are a couple of the later-arriving migrants that were seen this morning. While scanning the radiantly-red turk’s cap flowers along Birding Creek, the forceful chatter of a Buff-bellied Hummingbird was heard. After drawing our attention to the call notes we saw swaying stalks and leaves where this hummingbird was flying. It was such a treat to see this beautiful Buff-bellied Hummingbird hover and feed as it probed the freshly-opened turk’s cap flowers.

BBHU

Buff-bellied Hummingbird feeding on the turk’s cap flowers.

Green Jays gave their squawky call notes, marking their feeding territories to other jays in the area. As they leaped from branch to branch throughout the mature oak tree, the jays gobbled up acorns found hidden among the leaves. Green Jays feed readily on sunflowers and suet too. They can’t help but show off their endless shades of lime green and ocean blue.

 

GRJA eating sunflower

Down the hatch! A Green Jay is about to swallow a sunflower seed.

We continued to walk towards Ebony Grove after visiting Birding Creek. As we stood below the palm snags we heard and saw Golden-fronted Woodpeckers feeding over our heads. They gave their sharp call notes as the probed up and down the tree trunks looking for insects to eat.

GFWO

Look carefully and you’ll see the bright yellow “front” of this bird’s forehead. That is where the name Golden-fronted Woodpecker originates!

CCTH

Here is one of the many Clay-colored Thrushes seen this morning. They are such a striking bird!

INBU

First heard then seen, the buzzy “bzzt” call note caught our attention as we spotted this female Indigo Bunting.

PLCH

Two Plain Chachalacas rest together and preen each other in a mesquite along Birding Creek.

Below is the eBird checklist form this morning’s Songbird Stroll.  Be sure to join us next Saturday from 8:00-9:30 as we look for recently-arrived migrating birds!
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  50
Plain Chachalaca  20
Inca Dove  10
White-winged Dove  12
Mourning Dove  4
Common Pauraque  1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  2
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  2
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  6
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  2
Great Kiskadee  2
Couch’s Kingbird  2
Green Jay  2
Barn Swallow  5
Cave Swallow  3
Verdin 1
House Wren 2
Carolina Wren 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
Clay-colored Thrush 15
Curve-billed Thrasher 8
Long-billed Thrasher 1
Northern Mockingbird 6
European Starling 2
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Orange-crowned Warbler 1
Olive Sparrow 3
Northern Cardinal 2
Indigo Bunting 1
Great-tailed Grackle 20
Bronzed Cowbird 2
House Sparrow 15

Good birding,

Erik Bruhnke

August 22, 2015 Songbird Stroll

The dispersal and movements of birds throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley is taking place right now. Birding hotspots throughout the Valley are reporting warblers arriving and trickling through. Over the past few days a family of Groove-billed Anis have decided to make Quinta Mazatlan a spot to live and feed as these gorgeous black birds stock up on energy reserves for their southbound migration. The Groove-billed Anis’ hiccuping-yodeling calls are very distinctive and these family groups are often heard before they are seen. This species is exceptionally social as they will hang out in groups and will vocalize quite often. Their large parrot-like bill and fondness of sunning their black wings is unique.

GBAN

Here are Groove-billed Anis feeding in a mesquite during this morning’s Songbird Stroll. There were eight additional Groove-billed Anis nearby when this photo was taken.

The recent downpours have saturated the land with much-needed water. The thickets of trees and low-growing plants currently have an abundance of neon green new growth along many of their branches. Succulent fruits have emerged in good numbers throughout the anacua and prickly pear cactus. The night-blooming cereus have also been producing many shoots of new growth near their fully-ripened fruits. The summer rains work wonders in our hot part of the country.

night-blooming cereus

Here is a stalk of night-blooming cereus. Its rosy-pink fruits are called dragon fruit.

COPA on ground

Through cool downpours and hot sunny days this resident Common Pauraque finds its home on our forest floor. This species can be found throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley within the woods that offer expanses of leaf litter on ground. Such beautiful birds they are! Have you found them yet along our trails?

PLCH baby2

This fledgling Plain Chachalaca is getting so big! Although nearly fully-grown, it is still under the careful watch and care of its parents.

PLCH sleeping

It’s hard work being a chachalaca…

teleus longtail

A teleus longtail was seen this morning along the entrance to Ebony Grove. This butterfly is found throughout the southern tip of Texas and southward. The teleus longtail hosts two white diagonal lines throughout each wing in addition to the long brown “tails” streaming off of each hindwing.

Here is the eBird list from today’s Songbird Stroll.

Plain Chachalaca  20
Swainson’s Hawk  1
Inca Dove  19
White-tipped Dove  1
White-winged Dove  25
Mourning Dove  10
Groove-billed Ani  10
Eastern Screech-Owl  1
Lesser Nighthawk  1
Common Pauraque  1
Chimney Swift  5
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  3
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  2
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  1
Great Kiskadee  3
Tropical Kingbird  1
Couch’s Kingbird  4
Green Jay  2
Cave Swallow  10
Black-crested Titmouse  1
Carolina Wren  2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  1
Clay-colored Thrush  4
Curve-billed Thrasher  4
Northern Mockingbird  3
European Starling  1
Olive Sparrow  10
Northern Cardinal  1
Great-tailed Grackle  15
Orchard Oriole  1
Lesser Goldfinch  4
House Sparrow  11

Good birding,

Erik Bruhnke

August 15, 2015 Songbird Stroll

We’re delving more into migration as each day passes. Throughout the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley birding hotspots are finding the early migrants beginning to trickle through. Not just one, but two, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were seen this morning. In addition to a few more migrating birds showing up each day, butterflies wander and fly around different areas. The meandering butterflies put on quite a show, especially between September and the month of November.

Good looks at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo always make for a great morning! Look at those big and beautiful white tail spots at the end of each feather.

INDO yoga

We even have yoga at Quinta Mazatlan. Here is an Inca Dove stretching its wings and back while its neighbor preens a few feathers.

red-bordered metalmark

Red-bordered metalmark. This beauty is about the size of a quarter.

PLCH

This Plain Chachalaca kept watch as birders walked through our entrance gate. The chachalacas are like a welcoming crew!

GTGR

Great-tailed Grackles are a common bird throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Some of them have started to lose their tail feathers, which will be replaced in the months to come. The timing of their tail molt just happens to be when raptors and songbirds begin showing up in south Texas.

GRPA

Green Parakeets keep watch from their favorite guard post at the entrance to Ebony Grove.

During each songbird stroll we visit many unique areas along our trails. The open landscape and scattered trees of Ebony Grove provide great habitat for Loggerhead Shrikes, Northern Mockingbirds, dozens of Inca Doves, and our Green Parakeets which have taken up residence in the adjacent palm snags. We were treated to seeing them protect their cavities this morning. While observing them from a distance they decided to cling along the palm trunk and vocalize continually. Parakeets are intelligent birds, and we are lucky to have them living right here in our backyard! Have you seen them yet?

Below is the eBird list from this morning’s Songbird Stroll.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  12     Flyover
Plain Chachalaca  16
Turkey Vulture  1
Inca Dove  12
White-tipped Dove  3
White-winged Dove  36
Yellow-billed Cuckoo  1
Eastern Screech-Owl (McCall’s)  1
Common Nighthawk  1
Common Pauraque  1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  2
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  3
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  6
Green Parakeet  8
Great Kiskadee  7
Couch’s Kingbird  3
White-eyed Vireo  2     One near the casita, one in the amphitheater
Green Jay  4
Cave Swallow  3
Black-crested Titmouse  2
Clay-colored Thrush  5
Curve-billed Thrasher  6
Long-billed Thrasher  2
Northern Mockingbird  3
Olive Sparrow  4
Summer Tanager  1     Near the casita
Northern Cardinal  1     Female
Great-tailed Grackle  8
Bronzed Cowbird  2     Emerald Lawn
Orchard Oriole  2     Male and female at Emerald Lawn
Lesser Goldfinch  5
House Sparrow  43

Good birding,

Kelly Smith

August 1, 2015 Songbird Stroll

Although it is only early August, migration is just around the corner. Many songbirds are currently undergoing zugenruhe, which is migratory restlessness.  Many of the birds from the Canadian Boreal forest, northern prairies, northern mountains, and many other northern ecosystems will be passing through south Texas over the next few months.  Birds migrate to follow their favored food sources.

One very ambitious juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird was seen at Quinta Mazatlan today!  Late August is when these beautiful birds begin to show up in their regular numbers for the southbound migration, and this species will be quite numerous in the Lower Rio Grande Valley come September. Get those hummingbird feeders ready with a solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, and be sure to keep them clean with fresh nectar. The hummingbirds will thank you!

RTHU juvenile

Here a juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird takes a break from catching gnats in the air.

COPA

An impressively cute Common Pauraque rests on our forest floor while sporting those stout yet growing tail feathers!

Water often becomes scarce this time of year. The mid-day heat and blustery air wicks the land of standing water. Drought-resistant plants find these conditions tolerable, while many non-native plants struggle to survive on their own. Despite the intense heat and dry substrate various trees and low-growing plants are flowering and going to seed, with much more of this plant reproduction to come. With flowers blooming and seeds being produced, many birds will find food plentiful through the fall season.

PLCH drinking

A Plain Chachalaca drinks from one of our birdbaths.

javelina1

“Francis”, our resident javelina, is quite shy and will often wait until the coast is clear to enjoy birdseed that spills to the ground.

roseate skimmer

Roseate skimmer over Birding Creek.

SWHA

Here is a Swainson’s Hawk seen overhead. This raptor species is known for its two-toned undersides and lengthy, pointed wings.

COKI

A Couch’s Kingbird keeps watch and preens in the early morning light.

ESOW

The Eastern Screech-Owl is doing well today!

INDO

Inca Dove. Look closely and you’ll see that this dove’s right leg is banded!

OLSP backside

The secretive Olive Sparrow searches for seeds and insects on the forest floor. Their colors and markings are subtle yet so beautiful! The Olive Sparrow get their name from the color on their backside, as seen from this photo.

Here is the eBird list from today’s Songbird Stroll.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  2
Plain Chachalaca  16
Gray Hawk  1
Swainson’s Hawk  2
Black-necked Stilt  1     Flew from the Ebony Grove pond!
Killdeer  1     Ebony Grove pond visitor
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  1
Inca Dove  18
White-tipped Dove  2
White-winged Dove  25
Mourning Dove  2
Yellow-billed Cuckoo  1
Eastern Screech-Owl  1
Common Nighthawk  1
Common Pauraque  1
Chimney Swift  16
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1     Juvenile
hummingbird sp.  1
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  3
Ladder-backed Woodpecker  1
Green Parakeet  8
Great Kiskadee  3
Couch’s Kingbird  1
White-eyed Vireo  1
Green Jay  2
Purple Martin  30
Cave Swallow  2
Black-crested Titmouse  2
Carolina Wren  2
Clay-colored Thrush  8
Curve-billed Thrasher  3
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  2
Olive Sparrow  2
Great-tailed Grackle  3
Orchard Oriole  1     Male
Hooded Oriole  1     Flyover
Lesser Goldfinch  2
House Sparrow  30

Good birding. Hope to see you at the upcoming Songbird Strolls!

Erik Bruhnke

Bird Hike March 24, 2015

Phew, what a thrilling morning of birding it was! As the early-morning fog lifted, the air quickly dried and the skies warmed with the radiant sunlight. Plain Chachalacas could be heard singing through the entire morning. We were treated to wonderful looks of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, flitting about and feeding within arm’s reach of some of the visiting birders. We stood still, and let this beautiful migrant feed as it would. The close views provided learning experiences and memories that no camera could ever attempt to capture. What an incredibly beautiful little bird those kinglets are!

As the morning progressed, a light trickle of Broad-winged Hawks were seen streaming through the deep blue sky. While watching the hawks streaming overhead, we quickly realized that the few-dozen birds were being followed by over two hundred additional Broad-winged Hawks. It was so amazing! The kettles of Broad-winged Hawks continued through the latter half of the Songbird Stroll, and by the end of the stroll this morning, a conservative estimate of at least 1,700 Broad-winged Hawks had flown by!

SWHA

A migrating adult Swainson’s Hawk checks us out as it migrates overhead.

BWHA kettle

Here is one of the many kettles of Broad-winged Hawks that pushed north this morning. It is an incredible sight to see so many migrating birds riding thermals together. These Broad-winged Hawks have left their wintering grounds, and are headed north to the northern and eastern forests of North America in search of a nesting site! This beautiful species can be found breeding in deciduous and mixed forests.

BWHA two of them

Two beautiful adult Broad-winged Hawks zip overhead. Note the stocky wings, straight trailing edge of the wing, and pale underside of their wings.

BWHA

Here is a closeup of an adult Broad-winged Hawk flying overhead from this morning. What field marks stand out to you when looking at this picture? Keep your eyes out for more masses of Broad-winged Hawks to come through the Valley very soon!

WHIB

This flock of 70 White Ibis flew overhead this morning.

LAGU

One of the unexpected finds this morning was not just one, not two, but three Laughing Gulls!

PLCH calling

The Plain Chachalacas were very vocal this morning. They could be heard calling throughout the entire Songbird Stroll! Both male and female Plain Chachalacas have the red throat patch.

BBWD

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have been busy chattering and whistling as they look for the perfect tree cavity to raise their young! The whistling-ducks are such a fun and unique species.

CCTH

The Clay-colored Thrushes wowed our eyes through binoculars, once again. This individual had found a muddy patch of soil in the middle of the grass, and was churning up all kinds of good-eats!

ESOW

The resident Eastern Screech-Owl was a treat to see, like always! The Eastern Screech-Owls found here in south Texas are of the McCall’s race, which is a Mexican race of the Eastern Screech-Owl species.

javelina peccary

We had great looks at the javelina today. Have you seen this beautiful animal along our trails yet?


With the dry southern winds outside last night and today were just right for migrating birds to push through the area! The kettles of raptors wowed us, and the bird diversity seen this morning was quite exciting. Despite seeing 45 bird species today, we did not find either of the two Common Pauraques. That is one of the many treats to search for, during this Saturday’s Songbird Stroll!

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  200
Double-crested Cormorant  1
Anhinga  3
White Ibis  70

Turkey Vulture   6

Sharp-shinned Hawk  1
Cooper’s Hawk  6
Broad-winged Hawk  1700
Gray Hawk  1
Swainson’s Hawk  5
Red-tailed Hawk  2
American Coot  1
Laughing Gull  3
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  2
Inca Dove  6
White-winged Dove  7
Mourning Dove  1
Eastern Screech-Owl  1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  1
hummingbird sp.  1
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  9
Red-crowned Parrot  8
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Kiskadee  14
Couch’s Kingbird  2
Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird  1
Green Jay  2
Tree Swallow  5
Cliff Swallow  2
Cave Swallow  6
Black-crested Titmouse  1
House Wren  3
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Clay-colored Thrush  5
Curve-billed Thrasher  5
Northern Mockingbird  5
European Starling  2
Olive Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  1
Red-winged Blackbird  3
Great-tailed Grackle  5
Brown-headed Cowbird  1
Lesser Goldfinch  3
House Sparrow  12

Hope to see you at the upcoming Songbird Stroll this Saturday. We meet at the main house at 8:30. Until then, good birding!
Erik Bruhnke

Bird Hike March 21, 2015


A little light rain won’t keep the fun from happening during our Songbird Strolls here at Quinta Mazatlan! The recent and upcoming rains are most-welcomed throughout Texas. The rains bring much-needed moisture to the many flowers, cacti, and trees, all of which support the existence of year-round birds and migratory birds too! We’re just starting to see the early pushes of songbirds trickling through the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Many of the cavity-nesting birds that live here have been busy searching for that perfect tree cavity throughout our snags, to call their home sweet home this upcoming summer.

BBWD perched up

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks love to perch up high and get a vantage point of their surroundings, especially when looking for a cavity to nest within!

PLCH without tail

This Plain Chachalaca contributed to the loud chachalaca chorus this morning. Note the lack of a tail on this bird. It may have had a lucky escape from a predator within the recent past!

INDO

Inca Dove, also without a tail. Like the Plain Chachalaca shown above, this bird may have had a quick escape from a predator.

CBTH

The song and appearance of the Curve-billed Thrasher is a delight to all birders. Note the soft tan blotching on the frontside, smooth brownish-tan backside, and bright orange eye on this beautiful bird.

COPA

This is one of two Common Pauraques we saw this morning!

cottontail rabbit

The eastern cottontail busily eats the greens this morning.

OLSP banded

This Olive Sparrow was one of several Olive Sparrows seen scratching throughout the leaf debris in search of seeds. They are always fun to watch, but a challenge to find! Note the band on this bird’s left leg. Blurred in the foreground is salvia, a native species of flower that hummingbirds really like!

PLCH wet

Squeaky clean or soaking wet chachalaca… it is all how you look at it.

RUHU

Selasphorus hummingbird. Rufous Hummingbirds are most expected here, however on rare occasions Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and the even-rarer (for the area) Allen’s Hummingbird can show up throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

hummingbird sp

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Do you have your hummingbird feeders and water features out? Migrating songbirds of many species will be passing through soon!


Here is the eBird list from this morning’s Songbird Stroll.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  50
Cattle Egret  1     Flyover, heading north
Inca Dove  10
White-tipped Dove  1
White-winged Dove  4
Mourning Dove  1
Common Pauraque  2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbird  1
Buff-bellied Hummingbird  3
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  7
Red-crowned Parrot  7
Green Parakeet  2
Great Kiskadee  5
Green Jay  3
Bewick’s Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Clay-colored Thrush  6
Curve-billed Thrasher  3
Long-billed Thrasher  3
Northern Mockingbird  2
European Starling  2
Orange-crowned Warbler  2
Olive Sparrow  3
Lincoln’s Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  2
Great-tailed Grackle  10
House Sparrow  8

Good birding to all! Bring on the rains and migrating birds,

Erik Bruhnke