Travel

Rare birds

Spread your wings with birdwatching’s elite guard in south Texas
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Photo: Remy Scalza

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(Maps: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

On a muggy April morning near the banks of the Rio Grande in south Texas’ Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a little bird is causing a big fuss. Dull brown and no bigger than a robin, she flits among a canopy of cedar elm and Texas ebony hung with tendrils of Spanish moss. Nearby, an arsenal of binoculars, military-grade scopes and camera lenses the size of bazookas zooms in for a better view.

The bird: a clay-coloured thrush. Her admirers: birders, and not the backyard variety. I’m among avid listers — birdwatching’s elite guard. Uniformed in sensible shoes, sun visors and khakis, listers can ID a warbler at 50 metres. Some plan vacations around migrations. Others think nothing of spending days in the rain to glimpse a rare goose. And, naturally, they keep lists: compulsive, lifelong tallies of every thrush, sandpiper, tern, owl, titmouse and tanager ever sighted.

It’s no accident that birding’s cognoscenti have gathered here at Santa Ana. To the uninitiated, south Texas, with its sprawling RV parks, strip malls and barbecue shacks, might seem an unlikely eco mecca. But the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a 225-kilometre ribbon of green space along the U.S.-Mexico border, boasts more than half the bird species ever recorded in North America, some 500-plus and counting.

Along the meandering Rio Grande, cacti-studded deserts brush against lush riparian forests and Gulf Coast marshes, offering up habitat for just about anything with wings. Dozens of species here are found nowhere else in North America. The region is also among the hemisphere’s most critical flyways, funnelling millions of birds between the Americas every year.

Between state and national parks and private reserves, dozens of birding hotspots like Santa Ana dot the valley. It’s a veritable Shangri-la for avid listers. As for me, I don’t have a list. At least not yet. I don’t even own a pair of binoculars. But I’ve come to the Lower Rio Grande for a crash course in birding, south-Texas style. Working my way up the river, I hope to tick off a few birds of my own and just maybe get to know some real-life listers in the process.

I start my journey just off the coast of Texas on South Padre Island. The beach town sits at the southern tip of 182-kilometre-long Padre Island, not far from where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Packed with mini golf courses and souvenir shops selling sharks’ teeth, South Padre is best known for its spring break rites; some 50,000 co-eds swarm in every March for sun, sand and debauchery. But during the rest of the year, it’s more birds gone wild than Girls Gone Wild.

“There are in the world, depending on who you ask, probably 9,500 species of birds,” says Ryan Welsh, at the time of my visit the head naturalist at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. “Pretty much wherever you go there’s going to be some new weird one you haven’t seen before.” I’m looking at a few right now — flamboyant pink wading birds with spatula-shaped bills called roseate spoonbills. They give me a sideways glance, then resume skimming the muddy shallows for their breakfast.

Welsh and I are on the 1.6-kilometre-long boardwalk at the refuge, one of a network of nine World Birding Center sites in the valley. The walkway winds its way through 20 hectares of saltwater marsh and freshwater ponds and even edges a wastewater treatment plant, which, odour aside, is actually great for attracting birds. We pass black-necked stilts with bubble-gum pink legs, great-tailed grackles that preen in the afternoon sun and whistling ducks that make a sound like a dog’s squeak toy. The boardwalk extends right into the Laguna Madre, the big bay separating the island from the mainland, where a few great egrets are stalking the marsh grass.

“I had a teacher in grade seven who — bad pun — sort of took me under his wing,” says Welsh. “I got hooked on bird watching and never stopped.” I tag along as he escorts 30 excitable fourth graders from the nearby town of Progreso on a guided tour of the sanctuary. None of them speak English, so he grabs his Spanish-English field guide and, with a little help from an iPhone translation app, points out great blue herons, snowy egrets, spotted sandpipers, red-breasted mergansers and a big flock of laughing gulls, whose shrill chatter almost drowns out the school group.

“All these big, colourful birds are completely used to people, so the public loves it,” Welsh says. “But the real birders come for other reasons.” In a conspiratorial hush, he describes clapper rails, king rails and diminutive soras: camera-shy, chicken-sized rarities that hide out in the thick reeds. Just then, the Progreso kids spot a three-metre-long American alligator sidling through the water. A scream goes up, alerting a lucky egret who alights just in time to avoid becoming an afternoon snack.

While Padre Island is perfect for birding 101, more serious birders head inland, crossing the four-kilometre Queen Isabella Causeway to the Texas mainland. Palm trees quickly give way to thorny brush forest — arid, inhospitable terrain where every living thing has thorns, venom, claws or all of the above. Down a potholed stretch of asphalt bordered by prickly pear cacti is the entrance to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 40,000-hectare sanctuary that’s home to more than 400 different bird species, the most of any of the 500-plus refuges across the United States.

“My personal favourites are the raptors,” says Stacy Sanchez, a wildlife refuge specialist at Laguna Atascosa. “But I’ll bird anything.” Laguna Atascosa (which literally means Muddy Lake and was once a defense department bombing range) is so big that most birders attack it by car. I hop into Sanchez’s park SUV and we set out on a 24-kilometre paved loop through thorn forest, inland marshes and out to the bay. Spoiled by yesterday’s boardwalk birding, I’m expecting the wildlife to come to me. This is a different experience altogether.

Sanchez slows the vehicle to a crawl, and we inch forward as she scans the surroundings with her binoculars. After a few minutes, she points to what look like a bunch of puny chickens flapping away in a mesquite tree. “Chachalacas,” she says. “Technically a subtropical, tropical bird. Goofiest things.” On cue, they let out a shrill, three-syllable squawk.

Every so often, Sanchez brakes, points and whips out a dog-eared copy of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America to confirm a new find. (“Loggerhead shrike! See the chunky bill and the band around the eyes?”) I get a feel for the rhythm and tick a few more birds off my own list: terns, gulls and even an osprey, who happens to be in the midst of ripping into a freshly caught mullet. “People call them fish hawks,” Sanchez says. “They’re so cool to watch.”

Above the whir of the air conditioning, she recounts her own migrations: summers in New Mexico, a few years at wildlife refuges in Arizona, then onto Oklahoma and Texas. A solitary life, she says, but not without its rewards. On cue, a lone coyote leaps from the brush and eyes our car with what can only be described as a smirk on his face, then vanishes just as quickly.

So far I’ve seen a fair shar e of birds . But fullfledged listers — the binocular-wearing, guide-toting types who scour whole continents with checklists in hand — have proved elusive. That’s about to change.

Ninety minutes due west of Laguna Atascosa along U.S. Highway 83, just outside the friendly city of McAllen (which boasts great barbecue and, to prove it, America’s fattest zip code) is 308-hectare Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Situated along a scenic bend of the Rio Grande, Bentsen is headquarters of the World Birding Center and home to 340 bird species. Basically, it’s a lister’s Disneyland, complete with a bird-watching tram, wheelchair- accessible hawk observation tower, guided bird and butterfly walks and even a gift shop where you can stock up on the latest avian kitsch, from heron-print bandanas to T-shirts silkscreened with great kiskadees and Altamira orioles.

I climb into what looks like a stretch-limo version of a golf cart for the 8:30 a.m. bird walk. Two dozen birders squeeze in shoulder to shoulder, lugging viewing scopes and hulking camera lenses that cost as much as compact cars. At the wheel is park ranger and interpreter Roy J. Rodriguez, a local boy who grew up hunting and fishing but now spends more time with binoculars than a rifle or rod. “Ready to see some raptors?” he asks, gunning the cart into a forward lurch.

While we zip through lush river forest, Rodriguez — a walking, talking encyclopedia of avian insight — points out Couch’s kingbirds, scissor-tailed flycatchers and endemic green jays, which look like ordinary blue jays dipped to their heads in neon green paint. Finally, we roll to a stop beside the park’s hawk tower.

At the end of a winding wooden ramp rising high above the canopy, a crew of volunteers armed with binoculars are hard at work. Every day in March and April they’re out bright and early, tallying each migrating raptor that flies over. The final spring count, including other sites, usually comes close to a million.

Rodriguez scans the sky with a hand cupped over his eyes, signalling broad-winged hawks, Mississippi kites and lumbering turkey vultures. “A lot of these guys, they can fly 200 miles in a day without flapping once,” he explains. Overhead, raptors rise by the dozens on invisible thermals, then tuck in their wing feathers and plunge north for the morning rush hour.

Suddenly, Rodriguez spots something special. “Merlin!” he yells, throwing a finger at a distant black shape. The whole tower’s worth of listers wheels in unison, grabbing for binoculars and fumbling with scopes. Heads crane, backs arch and oohs and ahhs erupt as a small falcon zips overhead. Hours later, eyes are still skyward, focused with steely resolve on the task at hand. For listers, it’s birding at its best. But I’m ready for lunch.

“There’s no doubt there’s a level of obsession in birding,” says 63-year-old Keith Hackland, a transplant from South Africa and unlikely elder statesman of south Texas birding. “And the more avid birders tend to exhibit a bit more obsessiveness.” We’re in the dining room at the Alamo Inn B&B, which Hackland opened in 1999 after moving to the region, catering expressly to listers. Near the door is a whiteboard scrawled with rare species spotted this week: one Swainson’s warbler, two upland sandpipers.

We’re joined for lunch by 14 members of a birding group on tour from Britain, all retirees. They’ve been up since before dawn, tracking down aplomado falcons, crested caracaras and other specialty birds. Ravenous and red-faced from the Texas sun, they stop only long enough to fill up on sandwiches before hustling to the next stop.

Ironically, Hackland, who grew up spotting birds on his family farm and is now one of the region’s most sought-after guides, isn’t a lister himself. “I have a list in my mind, but I’ve never sat down and written it out,” he says. “For me it isn’t about how many birds you see. It’s the journey that matters.”

To safeguard the avian Eden in his own backyard, Hackland has poured his energies into South Texas Nature, a c0-op working to promote eco-tourism in the valley. His dream is to establish a continuous wildlife corridor along the entire Lower Rio Grande, a 225-kilometre lifeline for hundreds of species whose habitat is fast shrinking.

That evening, just before sunset, we hop in Hackland’s 1997 Mercury Mountaineer, which has a cracked windshield and an odometer stuck at 300,000 miles, and head for one of his all-time favourite spots, Estero Llano Grande State Park, a modest, 93-hectare refuge and World Birding Center site not far off the highway.

The light is fading when we reach the park, nearly empty at this time of night. Hackland lifts his binoculars and points out a bright yellow great kiskadee and a white-winged dove before we even get out of the parking lot.

It’s almost dark when we turn down a path toward Alligator Lake. “The alligators aren’t interested in us,” Hackland says. “I wouldn’t go swimming though.” On the opposite shore, great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets and one little blue heron get jittery and dance from branch to branch, trying to find a spot to roost for the night. Double-crested and neotropic cormorants grunt like hogs. Grackles, the showy crows of south Texas, are whipping up eerie soundscapes, miming cash registers, doors with rusty hinges and otherworldly radio static.

Hackland stops abruptly, puts his hand up and reaches for his binoculars. “There,” he says, pointing to a small bird standing in the dusk just a few metres down the path. “Paraque. A kind of nighthawk.” We watch in silence. Every few seconds, the little bird nips at bugs zipping by in the air, hopping off the ground with each bite. For Hackland, even after all these years, this is a first. “I’ve never seen one doing that up close,” he says, nearly breathless. “It’s spectacular.”

More birds for your buck

Getting there
Flying into Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas, will land you close to the best bird-watching action, putting you within an hour of many major state parks and wildlife refuges. San Antonio and Houston are roughly fourand five-hour drives away from the birding heartland, respectively.

Staying there
A favourite spot among birders is the comfortable Alamo Inn B&B, which is located in a historic 1919 building on the city of Alamo’s original town square. The B&B’s proximity to a number of refuges and parks and the expertise of owner and birdwatching guide Keith Hackland make it an ideal place for listers to stay. A sandier option is the Palms Resort on South Padre Island. Here, off the Gulf Coast of Texas, you can choose between heading to the beach or hitting the pool after a hard day of birding. The beachfront café offers decent Tex-Mex and a lively bar after dark.

Playing there
Birders are sure to keep busy at the nine World Birding Centers scattered throughout the Rio Grande Valley, ranging from the seaside South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center to the lush river forests of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley and Estero Llano Grande state parks. Among dozens of other birding hotspots, the expansive Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Los Fresnos and the Valley Nature Center’s urban sanctuary in Weslaco are both worth a visit. If butterflies are more your thing, the National Butterfly Center offers 40.5 hectares with hundreds of species of the kaleidoscope-winged insects. And after a long day of exploring the fauna amongst the flora, fill up at Cap’n Roy’s Tex-Mex seafood on South Padre Island, famous for its camarones diabolitos: bacon-wrapped shrimp.

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