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Rare birds are a treat for Texas wingshooters

November 15, 2018

Most Texans have never heard of a chachalaca, much less seen one. Or a white-tipped dove. Or a clapper or sora rail. Mention snipe, and most smirk, imagining some nonexistent nocturnal bird practical jokers contrived to torment naïve youngsters.

But those birds are very real, if little known and often underappreciated, pieces of a natural bounty that gives Texas the most diverse assemblage of game birds in the nation.

And they are part of the reason Texas is home to the nation’s largest contingent of resident wingshooters, with as many as a half-million or so Texans who annually head afield to pursue upland and migratory game birds. That’s more than double the number of bird hunters found in any other state.

Texas doesn’t hold all of the dozens of species of migratory and resident game birds found in North America. But it has most of them, including a couple found nowhere else in the nation. No other state holds as large a variety of game bird species as does Texas, or, in most cases, as many of them.

Most Texas wingshooters concentrate their efforts on the most abundant and widespread species — the more than two dozen species of waterfowl, the tens of millions of mourning and white-winged doves, and arguably the nation’s best remaining wild populations of bobwhite and scaled quail.

But it’s pursuing some of the lesser known game birds — some residents, some migrants that winter in the state — that can provide the spice that makes Texas wingshooting so wonderfully diverse, constantly challenging and often enlightening.

Take the chachalaca, for example. Texas is the only state in the nation where a wingshooter can pursue this species of upland game bird. And the Lower Rio Grande Valley is the only area of the state where this native of the impossibly thick Tamaulipan thornscrub habitat that edges into Texas can be found.

Texas’ chachalacas — their name is said to come from the raucous call they make — are a subspecies of these long-legged birds that look like a slimmer version of a pheasant in much more subdued feathering. They are found from Central America north along the Gulf Coast plain to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the northernmost edge of their range.

Chachalacas are creatures of the thickly packed matrix of ebony, mesquite, huisache, retama, spiny hackberry, bumelia and dozens of other trees and shrubs that make up the Tamaulipan thornscrub ecosystem. Their behavior is very different from most other game birds. They spend most of their time foraging on the ground or, more often, in and among the shrubs and trees where they scamper and climb instead of flying, acting more like squirrels than birds.

Hunting these brown birds might best be described as a combination of squirrel hunting and wingshooting. Engaging them involves moving along the edges of the thick cover in which the birds live or carefully picking one’s way through the terribly thorny stands of woods, watching for birds on the ground, or scurrying among the limbs and taking shots when the bird flush.

Expect to encounter single birds or small groups of no more than three or four. They aren’t prone to gather in large numbers.

Hunters taking a chachalaca can expect a great meal as well as a challenging hunt. The birds are delicious, with light meat similar to that found in other gallinaceous bird species.

Chasing chachalacas can be a tough hunt, and almost certain to leave hunters scratched, pierced and bloodied by the thornscrub. But it’s a singular experience available in this country only in four counties in the Lower Rio Grande Valley — Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy. The 2018-19 season runs Nov. 3- Feb. 25, and hunters are allowed to take as many as five of the birds per day.

Hunters looking for public chachalaca hunting opportunities can find them on five units of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area, including the Baird, Anacua, Carricitos, Longoria and Tucker units.

Those same public hunting units are good spots for Texas wingshooters to encounter one of the state’s other lesser-known game birds and one, like the chachalaca, found nowhere else in the nation except Texas.

White-tipped doves are one of three native dove species considered game birds in Texas. But unlike mourning doves and white-winged doves, which are ubiquitous throughout the state, white-tipped doves are found only in deep South Texas.

Like the chachalaca, whitetips are a tropical or semitropical species. Their native range goes as far south as Argentina, with South Texas the limit of their northern range. They are found in no other state.

Unlike their gregarious mourning and white-winged cousins, whitetips are fairly solitary birds seldom seen in groups of more than three or four and most often in singles or pairs. Whitetips are similar in size to whitewings, but lack the flash of the white chevrons on their wings.

The “white tip” of their name refers to a very subtle edge of white on the tip of their primary feather. The birds are a muted gray, but with some metallic sheen to the head and nape. They’re also more round-bodied than the trim mourning doves and blocky whitewings.

Whitetips spend a lot of time on the ground, behaving much like their nongame cousins, Inca and ground doves. And most of that time is spent in or very near thick overhead cover such as the thornscrub of the Lower Rio Grande Valley or heavily wooded strips edging fields.

Like Inca and ground doves, whitetips tend to fly much lower to the ground than mourning doves and whitewings, seldom getting more than 10 or 20 yards above the ground and often flying close to and parallel to the edges of cover.

That low-flying behavior and their tendency to fly a bit slower and with less “juking” than mourning doves makes them slightly easier targets for wingshooters who encounter them. And Texas wingshooters hunting doves in deep South Texas are quite likely to encounter them.

Whitetips, while nowhere near as widespread or abundant as whitewings or mourning doves, have a strong, apparently stable population that appears to be expanding a bit. Once limited almost exclusively to a handful of counties in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, whitetips can be found as far north as the Corpus Christi area and are commonly encountered in some of the eastern and southern “Brush Country” counties, mostly within 50-75 miles of the Rio Grande.

Whitetips are considered game birds under federal and Texas regulations and are part of the state’s 15-dove aggregate daily bag limit during both the Special White-winged Dove Season in early September and the later “regular” dove season. But because of whitetips’ limited range and population, wingshooters are allowed to take no more than two of the birds per day as part of that 15-dove aggregate limit.

And Texans do take a fair number. The most recent data from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s annual small game harvest survey estimates wingshooters took about 143,000 white-tipped doves during the 2017-18 hunting season.

Texans’ next opportunity to take whitetips will come in December with the opening of the “winter” segment of the regular dove season in the state’s South Dove Zone. That season opens Dec. 14 and continues through Jan. 21

Those who do take a whitetip will have a treasure that’s just as wonderfully tasty as a mourning or whitewing dove. But it also will be a symbol that represents the rich diversity of this state’s game bird resources.

Mourning and whitewing doves, bobwhite and blue quail and the more than a score of waterfowl species found in Texas are rightfully the main focuses of the state’s wingshooters.

But it’s those lesser known and mostly ignored game birds such as chachalacas, white-tipped doves, rails, woodcock and Wilson’s snipe that make a strong case for Texas being the nation’s premier wingshooting state. Even if most people don’t know they exist.

shannon.tompkins@chron.com

twitter.com/chronoutdoors

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