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Festival Birding Down in South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley

By Mel White
From the Spring 2014 issue of Living Bird magazine.
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl by Ty Ficker
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are a Rio Grande Valley specialty but can be difficult to find in most areas, except for the King Ranch, which hosts an estimated 300 pairs and is an excellent place to find them. Photo by Ty Ficker via Birdshare.

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While they were still back home in China, Shi Linlu and Geng Xuemeng spent some time studying American field guides to try to learn the birds of the Rio Grande Valley.

“But it didn’t do any good,” Geng says, laughing.

“No,” Shi says. She opens a National Geographic guide and points to a random illustration. “Looks very different from the book when you see them move.”

“That’s for sure,” I say. “So, do you have a favorite bird here in South Texas?”

“Oh, yes!” Geng says. “Green Jay! When you see it you go, ‘Wow!’”

Now it’s my turn to laugh. How many of us have had that feeling? Green—and yellow and black and blue…and wow, indeed.

Shi works on crane conservation in China; Geng studies water-quality issues. They’re in the United States as guests of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, taking a few days in early November to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen. They’ve been to a bird festival in China, they tell me—but it seems maybe they mean an ornithological conference.

“Not so many people,” Geng says. “It was scientists and biologists, not the general public.”

We’re on the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica, east of Brownsville, along with about 40 other people who’ve left the tour bus to scan for shorebirds and waders on the beach. Brown Pelicans skim the choppy waves, and a pair of Crested Caracaras flies over the dunes, heading north. Like Shi and Geng, I’m attending my first big-time birding festival, and I’ve come to realize that this kind of camaraderie—meeting new people and hearing their stories, moving from group to group as birders share sightings and scope views—surely typifies the essence of a festival’s appeal.

And let’s not overlook learning new ID tips. Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds are lookalike species best separated by voice; both occur in the Valley. Two days ago someone pointed out that the former says beer and the latter says margarita, margarita—because you sit on your couch and drink beer, and you go to the tropics to drink margaritas. I don’t know about you, but I won’t have trouble remembering this particular mnemonic trick.

A participant shared that tidbit on the first day of the festival during a field trip to Santa Margarita Ranch, 100 miles up the Rio Grande from the Gulf. A bus had dropped a different group on a dirt road, and we’d walked a short distance to a spot called “the bluffs,” where we stood amid thornscrub, looking down on riparian vegetation and a half-mile or so of the river. Thanks to the eyes and ears of the trip leaders (including Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association), the festival began with a virtual parade of great Valley birds.

Altamira and Audubon’s Orioles sat within a foot of each other in a treetop. Belted, Ringed, and Green kingfishers perched along the river. (“A hat trick of kingfishers,” Jeff called it.) A Gray Hawk posed for a scope view. Other treats included a couple of Neotropic Cormorants, a somewhat uncooperative Verdin, two white-morph Reddish Egrets, and the usual local suspects from Greater Roadrunner to Ash-throated Flycatcher to Black Phoebe. After lunch, the bus stopped at Falcon County Park, where a Zone-tailed Hawk flew overhead— proving once again that it pays to check all those Turkey Vultures for their accipitrid mimic.

Here’s another good thing about festivals: participants get to visit sites that they otherwise might not know about or, in some cases, might not have access to. I’d been to Santa Margarita Ranch at least three times previously, but I didn’t know about the bluffs and its excellent sit-and-wait birding potential.

The day after the Upper Valley trip I rode a bus to the legendary King Ranch: established in 1852, larger than Rhode Island, and still owned by descendants of founder Richard King. U. S. Highway 77 traverses the ranch for 23 miles, but to pass through one of the gates and experience its birds you have to go as part of a commercial tour—or sign up for a trip at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

It was the wrong time of year for two King Ranch specialties, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Tropical Parula, so our target birds were Sprague’s Pipit and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Although the latter is very hard to find in most of the Valley, the ranch hosts an estimated population of 300 pairs. Helping our chances even more, the guide for this tour was Tom Langschied, who has worked and done research at the ranch for 20 years and knows its avifauna better than anyone.

First, though, the pipit. Our bus rolled through scrub woods and stopped alongside an expansive grassland, where we split into two groups and started walking. It didn’t take long before one, then two, and then as many as five or six Sprague’s Pipits were in the air around us, stair-stepping high into the sky and performing their famed near-vertical dive back to earth. None stopped in a spot where we could scope it, but some came very close as they flew, displaying their white outer tail feathers.

Well, that was easy. What about the owl? Tom was frankly anxious about our chances, in part because a rainy cold front had arrived the night before and the weather remained chilly and cloudy. We drove through the live-oak woodland the owl frequents—a bedraggled-looking habitat showing the effects of a South Texas drought that’s stretched on now for well beyond a decade. At stop after stop, Tom played the owl call with no response. Trip leaders had been instructed to get their buses back to Harlingen by 1:00 o’clock P.M., and the clock was ticking toward our noon departure time.

Okay, Tom announced, one more stop. This time, it took only moments for a distant pygmy-owl to call in response to the recording. Then a second owl called from the opposite side of the road—much, much closer.

A field trip with a busload of people can be tedious, what with all the loading and unloading, with people schlepping scopes and tripods and cameras with monstrous lenses. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to have 40 pairs of eyes. Miraculously, somebody spotted the tiny owl perched in a roadside tree, its streaks and stripes and spots blending perfectly with the twigs around it. Scopes zoomed in on the bird, and many happy people got a hard-to-find lifer. It was 11:58 o’clock A.M.

“Talk about a ninth-inning win,” Tom said, as we piled back into the bus.

I’d known that the RGV Festival was one of the country’s largest, but it wasn’t until I arrived at Harlingen convention center for my first field trip that I realized what that entailed. Volunteers used flashlights in the predawn darkness to direct vehicles streaming into the parking lot. A half-dozen buses and several large vans sat waiting to take birders to locations up and down the Valley. Guides with clipboards checked the names of people boarding. In its organization and precision, it was less like a bunch of folks going bird watching than like a quasimilitary operation. But that’s the way it needs to be, with more than 800 people attending.

This was the 20th anniversary of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, and in that time it’s grown to be the single largest revenue-producing event for Harlingen’s economy. Nancy Millar, now director of the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau at nearby McAllen, was involved with Harlingen tourism in 1984, and was the festival’s earliest promoter.

“I took it to the board, and most of them were rolling their eyes and going, ‘Oh, good, a bunch of Jane Hathaways running around,’” she says, referring to the dotty bird watcher character in the popular 1960s television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

“The very first year, to kick it off right, we thought about inviting Roger Tory Peterson to be our speaker. I said, ‘Shoot, I’ll ask him.’ I didn’t know who he was, so I wasn’t intimidated. And he said yes. Which gave us instant credibility, of course. It’s just been growing ever since, with more people getting involved, more people understanding the economic impact that it has, and more habitat being preserved.”

The Lower Rio Grande Valley was among the first regions where civic leaders recognized and exploited birding tourism. Local conservationists working to establish new parks and preserves got a major boost recently when a specially commissioned study showed that ecotourism brings in more than $460 million annually to the four-county LRGV area. That’s a lot of Jane Hathaways.

In addition, studies have shown that each vagrant species that shows up in the Valley—Crane Hawk, say, or Yellow-faced Grassquit, or Crimson-collared Grosbeak—boosts the local economy by a minimum of $100,000, as birders arrive and rent cars, eat meals, and stay in hotels.

“Numbers,” one ecotourism promoter told me. “That’s the only thing that gets the attention of politicians.”

It had been nine years since I’d been to the Valley, and on this visit I saw changes that, inevitably, were both bad and good. The freeway between Brownsville and Mission looks more than ever like one long strip mall. Iconic sites such as Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge have suffered from drought and flooding (and, some locals opine, from occasional poor management). The border wall erected by the Department of Homeland Security—which Texans across the political spectrum consider an utterly ineffective waste of money—has fragmented substantial habitat; because legislation exempts it from environmental laws, it has the potential to devastate much more Rio Grande riparian woodland if expansion plans are carried out.

On the other hand, sites including Estero Llano Grande, Resaca de la Palma, and Bahia Grande have created or restored good wildlife habitat, and private groups such as the Valley Land Fund and The Nature Conservancy are working effectively for environmental protection. Surely, few local politicians can be unaware of the numbers regarding ecotourism, especially the annual influx of hundreds of visitors for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. (“Look! Up in the Sky!” the Valley Star headlined on one of two straight days of front-page stories.)

There was certainly plenty to look at during the festival. Attendees who weren’t worn out from eight-hour morning field trips could take an afternoon tour to see some of the feral parrots and parakeets that flock in the Valley’s urban areas. On the drive to Valle Vista Mall to look for Green Parakeets, a guide told us, “Yesterday they were at Wendy’s. The day before they were at Forever 21.” We saw them at the nearby Whataburger parking lot.

As the festival wound down, it still offered one big surprise. Did I mention that it helps to have 40 pairs of eyes on a field trip? How about 800 pairs, including some of the country’s most expert, spread across a locale famed for rarities?

On Saturday, well-known birder and optics guru Jeff Bouton found an Amazon Kingfisher near San Benito, only the second sighting of this species in the United States. Thanks to mobile phones, word spread to nearly all festival goers in minutes. Field trips were cut short; buses and vans and cars sped to Highway 100; deputy sheriffs parked their cruisers, turned on their blue lights, and directed traffic to protect the scores of people who lined the roadside. (The bird hung around the area for a month—and that cha-ching was the sound of another vagrant paying off for the Valley birding lottery.)

The kingfisher may have been the rarest of around 255 species seen during the festival, but plenty of those attending were excited, like Geng Xuemeng with her Green Jay, by the specialties that make the Rio Grande Valley fun on the first or the fifteenth visit.

At the festival’s get-acquainted party, I met Jaymie and Kenneth Bartlett from Riverside, Pennsylvania, who told me they’d gotten interested in their backyard birds a couple of years earlier. That led them to nearby Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and then to Cape May, and then to Maine to see puffins. For Jaymie’s fiftieth birthday present, Kenneth looked at birding trips around the country and decided on the Valley. The day we talked, they’d seen their first Black-bellied WhistlingDuck, Least Grebe, and Great Kiskadee, among other birds, and they were looking forward to more. I didn’t have to ask Jaymie if she was happy with her gift; her smile told me.

I’d like to think that’s the best thing about a festival: the encouragement it gives to folks just getting into birding, the push to another level of interest, of fun. Here are people who share your burgeoning addiction, who’ll lead you to out-of-the way preserves, who’ll show you how to tell a Brown-crested Flycatcher from an Ash-throated, who’ll still exclaim over the beauty of a Crested Caracara even though they’ve seen the species a hundred times before.

Be careful, Jaymie and Ken: before you know it, you’ll be planning all your vacations with a field guide in your hand.

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