"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Down to the River!

In the second grade, a matronly teacher with cat eye glasses and a salt and pepper bouffant changed my life.  As I sat at the little desk swooning in the vapors of the blue mimeograhic ink, Mrs. Beasley (yes that was actually her name)  slid a damp sheet of paper in front of each student.  On each page there was an outline of a mockingbird.  My desk mate Francis, eagerly took out her box of big waxy crayons and to my horror began to color the bird green, purple and orange.  Everyone else around me seemed to do the same.  I was shocked!   Didn’t every eight year old know that a mockingbird was supposed to be subtly shaded in tones of gray, black and white?  I took my fat red primary school pencil and did the bird justice.  There it was, sitting on the paper ready to sing in triplicate. Mrs. Beasley noticed and showed the picture to the class. On library days, she let me venture into the nether regions of the Millbrook Elementary book stacks to seek out field guides and other birdy books. For me it was where the real wild things were!  Her attention to my unimaginative but accurate portrayal of a bird was the essential nurturing  of an obsession that possesses me to this day. Thanks  Mrs. Beasley!

 My trip last week to Harlingen, Texas and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival  (RGVBF) is in some ways the fullest expression of my ornithological obsession.  As I flew the second leg of my flight from Houston to the extreme southern tip of the Lone Star State, the muted browns and faded greens of the flattened, coastal plain landscape underneath the wings of the silver bird carrying me looked like anything but a bird Mecca. I must admit that  South Texas from 25,000 feet is none too impressive. But looks can be deceiving.  I knew from a couple of previous trips to the valley what riches lay in store amidst the pans, resacas, and coastal scrub forests of what really is in effect, sub-tropical  Mexico.

One of the biggest birding festivals in the world, the  18 year old RGVBF  pulls in hundreds of avid birders from around the world. While I was there I met enthusiasts from Denmark, England, Maine, California and many points in between.  The big business of birding is on gaudy display in South Texas.    When huge banners proudly announce the festival across streets and in the airport, you’re officially a big deal.  Folks down there don’t seem to mind groups of people walking about with binoculars in search of things with odd sounding names like “rose-throated becard” or “common paraque”. The acceptance of the invasion is in no small part due to the fact that the event l is an engine that helps to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into a Texas economy that recognizes the value of  wildlife watching—so much so that the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail is the model for how birding should be promoted to the masses as a way to bolster both economy and ecology in a state where oil and agriculture otherwise rule the roost.

 And so there I was, for the second year, along with my Sky Dawg brethren, Paul Baicich, Dudley Edmundson, Douglas Gray, Dave Magpiong and  Roy Rodriguez, (Dr. J-Jeremiah Alexander couldn’t make it this year)  searching not very far and not very wide for all of the birds that funnel into the Rio Grande Valley like so much avian gold.  The birds not only pull in the people who want to add new birds to their life lists, they pull in the “Who’s Who” of pro-birders—those who count their lists near capacity in many places but are addicted to the chances at feathered things that drift northward across the Rio or vagrants that get pushed by wind or wandering to gather in hotspots like Bentsen Rio, Sabal Palm, or Laguna Atascosa. The list of birders with more birds seen than missed is impressive.  Sitting in the leaders meeting with so many bird-brains is always a humbling experience.  As I sit among and lead beside the “big guns”, I try to learn the little tricks of the trade –how a primary feather projection here or a wing bar there differentiates one confusing feathered  thing from another.

Roy Rodriguez--Pro Birder,Valley Resident-Sky Dawg!
 Clouds and cool rain greeted us on the first morning.  Not the best birding weather, it was good for a place that’s been locked in drought and heat for over a year.  On that first day out “leading” on a valley raptor tour with Bill Clark, the man who literally wrote the book on the identification of birds of prey, the day was filled hawk-filled. White-tailed hawks with their telltale crisp white bellies soared over fire blackened cane fields while below them several  white-tails in various plumages and a lone Swainson’s hawk, loitering on its trip to South America, shared a lunch of roasted rodents and grasshoppers with turkey and black vultures. All along the roads chocolate –colored Harris’ Hawks, the most social of the soarers, perched sentry-like on phone poles. The red-tails and red-shouldered hawks that make up the majority of the raptor fauna here in South Carolina were just also rans in South Texas and made sporadic cameos among the southwest specialties.  American Kestrels adorned the phone lines like feathered ornaments Loggerhead shrikes—black and white songbirds with hawk hearts—were everywhere-and a welcome sight as they become rarer across most of their range. Cooper’s and sharpies darted out of the forest edges giving micro-second looks at clues to their quick-silver identities. Northern harriers banked and twisted gracefully in the wind. The cherry topping on the day was a pair of endangered Aplomado falcons, holding court over an expanse of pasture and yucca-studded scrub. On Old Port Isabel Road, they share their kingdom with cattle and seem to be doing well there. Everything else that day was gravy. I must admit that every time things flitted out of the ditches or from one grassy tussock to another. I tried to identify  them.  But as we focused skyward for soarers Bill acknowledged that on that day that they were just raptor food. In a place so populated with predators, I wondered how any rodent dared venture above ground or songbird braved the same airspace.  
Mr. and Ms. Gray looking for Grayhawk!

The Aplomado Glow!
That was just day one. It was relaxed compared to what was to come. The fury that valley  birding can turn into was exemplified on the second morning on the river in a little town called Salineño.  As the group wound its way down a dirt road to the ribbon of water that divides the people and politics of Mexico and the U.S., the birds seemed to pay not so much attention to the border.  Mottled ducks coursed up and down the river, a ringed kingfisher hulked over a shoal of fish and neotropic cormorants flew in squadrons in all directions. As quick as someone would call out a species—“green kingfisher at twelve o’clock in the willow” there was another: “kiskadee in the snag!” or “osprey downriver”.  We were birding but even a bobcat that the Border Patrol somehow missed made its way across the river—going south into Mexico. The morning’s list was rounded out with  too many birds to name but some of the notables included Inca doves, a dickcissel, verdin, golden-fronted woodpeckers, gadwall, pintails, white pelicans, Nashville warblers, Bewick’s wrens, green jays.  As all of the feathered fury was flying, chirping and chipping around us, a lone bird appeared in the crown of a tree.  Without thinking I called out- “Red-billed pigeon!” It was a lifer for almost everyone, including me. It’s been a good year for western birds in the Valley and a spotted towhee put in an appearance to add to the list. We finished the morning at Cheryl’s  feeders with field guide stunning looks at a pair of creamsicle orange Audubon’s orioles  and lemon yellow hooded orioles. A pyrrhuloxia, seemingly shier than it’s more vibrant cardinal cousin and an equally shy white-tipped dove put in stage-frightened appearances too.  The green jays, some of the most beautiful bird jewels in their own rights, are common as dirt in South Texas. Somehow though, they insist on being seen and I’m sure most didn’t mind the attention they constantly sought.

The days were long in South Texas and bird filled.  Waking at 3:30 and hitting the bed at eleven on most nights will take it out of you but I wouldn’t trade the exhaustion for anything. Mary Gustafson, who organizes the festival leaders, was gracious in inviting me and a couple of my Sky Dawg brothers  to join the tour leaders a year ago.  In that role as leader, I see my job as not just pointing out birds to species hungry listers, but also to provide insight into the lives of the birds and how they fit into the environment.  Being a conservationist, I hope that in the midst of all the listing that the message of habitat management and compromise in what and where we build and develop gets through as the  key to all the joy that the birds bring wherever we watch them.  Whether in South Texas or in South Carolina, what we do upstream or in our backyards ultimately affects what happens elsewhere.  I tried to slip the message in here and there. A little tidbit to go with your titmouse!
Picking through shorebirds at Boca Chica
  On my final day in the Valley,  we visited the Southmost Preserve, an expanse of over one thousand acres where wood storks, roseate spoonbills and a host of other birds have been largely excluded from the casual birders trip list.  The Nature Conservancy mixes agriculture and avian conservation here with obvious success.  Amidst citrus groves, Neotropical migrants, western vagrants and South Texas residents mix together in flocks that swell the list.  That night, I rejoined the Dawgs for a Becard chase at Estero Llano Grande. The becard was nowhere to be found but we found other treasures.  Common Paraques roosting on the ground in perfect  leafy camouflage were so close that I could count the rectal bristles and see them blinking their eyes as they dreamed whatever goatsuckers dream about.  A scissor-tailed flycatcher posed perfectly against the South Texas sky, it’s salmon flanks and armpits startlingly scarlet as it lifted into the evening air to do its namesake job. The reclaimed and constructed wetlands at the park were filled with waterfowl; blue and green-winged teal, northern shovelers, gadwall, widgeon and black-bellied whistling ducks.  As the moon rose to take it’s shift in the sky from the sun, we made our way back to the parking lot with coyote song accompanying the good feelings.

Resaca with woodstorks & roseate spoonbills at Southmost
I left South Texas a couple of days earlier to get back to the “real” world but I will return.  In the flurry of frenzied birding  that one experiences on such a trip, there is so much more to be had than lifers.  On my last night, the Sky Dawgs gathered for a few well-earned cervezas.  We even recruited a future Dawg--Ray B.  A youngster in his early twenties, Ray was ticking birds off in reflected surfaces like it was nothing.  It was like having matrix birder on board!  He fit in with the old Dawgs easily and I think he just might make the team. Richard Crossley (http://www.amazon.com/Crossley-ID-Guide-Eastern-Birds/dp/0691147787  )  joined us too and we debated the future of birding and best dessert. The company and the conversation was as good as any birding.  People ultimately make the birding good in South Texas and there are plenty of good human beings to put on the list along with the feathered ones. Until next year Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival! Adios!
The Sky Dawgs checking out waterfowl at Estero Llano Grande

 Next festival stop—Duluth and the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival! Sub-zero temperatures and snow to go with the great grays, northern hawks, snowies,  rough-leggeds,  redpolls, snow buntings, pine grosbeaks and of course those ubiquitously curious  masters of mischief, common ravens –affectionately known to my brothers  as Sky Dawgs. Minnesota here we come!

The Sky Dawgs Official Logo-Thanks Paul!


  1. I was glad to read/ "hear" about your trip in more detail and glad that you were able to catch up writing about it on your blog. We had such a busy weekend with a house full of wonderful folks! It's good to be able to catch up!

    I like what you said re: what we do in our own backyards can have implications for conservation everywhere. When one considers the migratory aspects of birding, that is so true and something we all need to be mindful of.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. It was great fun leading with you at Southmost Preserve and Boca Chica, or perhaps we should rename it "Cough Alota" after our experience with the airborne "red tide" particulate.

    I too chased the becard (three times) with no success. No worries, I never tire of poking around Estero Llano Grande, as there are always birds, butterflies, lizards, and the occasional Indigo Snake crossing the road. I had 5-footer on Sunday afternoon. I lucked onto three during the festival.

    Last year I led with Doug Gray, this year with you. Next year perhaps I'll co-lead with one of the other Sky Dawgs.

    Love the story about the mockingbird picture.

    Dave Irons