…but, apparently, you can’t take the Midwest out of the girl.
As you all know, I’m a devoted supporter of The Biggest Week in American Birding, the awesome migration festival held on the Lake Erie shore of Ohio each May. My connection to that place and to the people of the Biggest Week is intense and emotional. After all, this was the event that introduced me to warblers and that continues to teach me so much about the natural world and just generally enrich my life enormously.
So when I went down to Texas on Wednesday for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I knew I would be comparing it to the Biggest Week. I wanted to be as objective as possible, but Mother Nature didn’t make it easy — the first two days it rained all day long. I arrived in the pouring rain on Wednesday and wasn’t able to go birding at all. (I saw lots of Great-tailed Grackles and Coots as I drove past a rainy park though.) The locals said this was the first time they could remember it ever raining during this festival.
My first field trip, on Thursday, was pretty disappointing. A large bus filled with 40 birders loaded up at 5:00 a.m. and drove two long hours west to Salineño in the upper Rio Grande Valley. As dawn broke over southern Texas, we gamely donned our raincoats and put on determined faces, trudging down to the banks of the Rio Grande, where the wind blew rain sideways and fogged our binoculars. Despite these miserable conditions, we spent 20 minutes there watching big flocks of cormorants fly over and a sopping wet Osprey sitting in a tree on the Mexico bank. Then we retreated to a bird feeding station about a hundred yards up the hill. Some of our group were able to take cover under an awning as we spent almost an hour watching the birds feeding. As crowded as this was, I still managed to see about ten life birds there, including the ubiquitous Green Jays and four species of doves. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a single bird photo from that day because I decided it wasn’t wise to take my camera out in that mess. Here’s a cell phone pic to give you an idea of the scene:
We made another stop after this one but it was even worse. I’ll spare you the details of that one.
My second trip, on Friday, appeared to be headed in the same direction, as it rained all the way to King Ranch, about an hour from Harlingen. But, happily, the rain slowed to a light intermittent drizzle for the rest of the day, and it was a really good day. My friends Lynn and Bruce were with me on this trip, so that helped too. And another friend, Raymond, was one of our guides. This was my first time to see Raymond in his leadership role, and I was very impressed with his knowledge of the birds as well as the caring attention he showed to each and every person on that tour.
The very first bird we found that day was the much-desired Ferruginous Pygmy-owl. These tiny tropical owls are on the Endangered Species List, now found in the U.S. only in small areas of Arizona and southern Texas. I got a couple pictures of him and then showed Bruce how to get the same angle through the tree limbs for his shots. I think he got better shots than I did, but this is my best one in the low light and drizzle conditions.
I ended that day with another dozen or so birds to add to my life list, including Vermilion Flycatcher and Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (aren’t those fantastic bird names?). The weather forecast for my last two days was for sunshine and mid-70s, so I had high hopes of finding some more of the region’s specialty birds.
On Saturday my housemates decided to go to Salineño in search of some specific species they needed for their lists, and since I’d already been there I decided to go to a new place. My friend Linda gave me suggestions for an itinerary, and I headed off to see the famed Estero Llano Grande State Park. I had a great morning exploring this beautiful park, seeing White-faced Ibises and my second Loggerhead Shrike of the trip, both new birds for my list. I’d first seen Great Kiskadees in Panama back in August, and got to see lots more of them in Texas. I discovered that they have a crest on their head that is usually flattened down, but that they sometimes raise up. I enjoyed watching this particular Kiskadee for several minutes as he fed in one of the marsh ponds.
And I almost forgot to look for hummingbirds there until I passed a feeder on my way out of the park and saw a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a species we don’t have in Michigan. He seemed much bigger than our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
After a lunch break I headed to Mission, Texas, to see the National Butterfly Center. There are 300 species of butterflies found in the varied habitats here, and about 90 species of dragonflies too. Both butterflies and dragonflies are a challenge to photograph, so I was excited to have this opportunity to practice. When I went in the visitor center to pay the $10 entry fee, the staff told me that the trails were very muddy but I could drive back to the main gardens if I wanted to. I spent a few minutes in the gardens around the building before heading down a very muddy road to the main butterfly area. I passed a large military vehicle with several armed guards standing beside it watching the Rio Grande, a reminder of one of the realities of life for those who live on the southern border.
I spent an hour or so wandering around trying to shoot as many different butterfly species as I could find. I haven’t yet identified most of them, but that will be fun to do later this week. (I’m going to save the butterfly pictures for my next post.) Then I scraped as much mud off my shoes as I could, and headed back to Harlingen.
On Sunday we were all signed up for a field trip to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, but on Saturday night we were all so exhausted from the nonstop activity that we decided to skip the organized trip and go off on our own. And because I had a flight home in the mid-afternoon I planned to stay in Harlingen and bird some of the local parks. But after everyone went their separate ways and I’d had some breakfast, I decided to go ahead and drive to Santa Ana anyway. I wouldn’t have much time there before I had to go to the airport, but I thought I’d see what I could find. I was really hoping to see Chachalacas but couldn’t find them. And that place is so big that I didn’t cover much ground in my short time there. And besides, rushing through the woods isn’t a very good way to find birds — they hear you crashing around and take off before you can get anywhere near them. I actually saw more dragonflies than birds at Santa Ana, and was pleased to get a picture of this pretty green one that I have yet to identify.
As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight that afternoon, I started making notes about my trip. It was my first time to go birding in Texas and my first time at this festival. I ended up with 28 new birds on my life list, which is okay but much lower than I’d expected. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to see any Roseate Spoonbills or Pyrrhuloxia, but I guess that leaves something to shoot for next time.
I’m sure I would have enjoyed this trip more if the weather had been better, but I’m still glad I went. I got to spend time with friends I’d met in Ohio and made a few new ones. My highly-sensitive side was overwhelmed much of the time though — being in a place that’s so culturally different from what I’m used to was great but I didn’t have time to appreciate it all in the way I would have liked to. And staying in a house with my friends was great too, but they’re all very extroverted people and I got pushed beyond my limits with the parties every single night. I even had a meltdown one night because I couldn’t get a moment of quiet time to process everything that was flooding into my brain. (I know my friends learned a thing or two about me by this experience too, possibly that they’re reconsidering our friendship!) Travel is always stressful for me, and it was interesting to be around people who thrive on always being on the move and surrounded by people. I was so far out of my comfort zone it wasn’t funny. I think I’m going to write a separate blog post about how HSP-Kim experienced this trip. After she has a few days to recuperate and ruminate on everything, that is.
I hope you enjoyed the photos. I may have some more to share after I look through them all later. And now I’m looking ahead — so much — to the Biggest Week in American Birding. I’m a Midwestern girl to the core and I’m proud to say that I belong here and I love it here. There’s definitely something to be said for the sunshine of the southwest, but I’m emotionally bound to the landscapes and people of Ohio and Michigan, even if I do have to put up with some snow and cold every year. I’m very glad I can visit those places, but this is my home. And there’s no place like home, at least for me.