Back home

I have now returned to Central Illinois where I have been unhappily reunited with cold and snow.  Fortunately, we made the long drive safely through the record breaking snow without any major issues.  After updating all my bird lists into my birding software the final Texas list sits at 174 birds.  Although we didn’t reach 200, both my dad and I thought that the timing of migration was such that we missed a wide variety of birds that we otherwise would have seen.  Estimating a total of roughly 60 hours spent birding, both my father and I feel very good about the quantity and quality of the birds we saw.

One final note about the future of birds and birding in the area; after attending a bird walk at Bentsen-Rio I was able to maintain contact with their naturalist and ask her follow-up questions regarding the future of the bird watching industry.  She voiced concern about habitat loss due to development in the Rio Grande Valley area.  My own personal research found that population in the Rio Grande Valley has increased roughly 23% over the last decade.  Therefore, it is easy to see why habitat loss is a concern, because the Rio Grande Valley is being heavily industrialized.  Additionally, the parks and refuges don’t have discretionary income to buy more land, meaning that industrialization could become more widespread.  Ultimately, there are many reasons for concern regarding the future of birding in the Rio Grande Valley.  However, this area has an unmatched diversity of birds and is incredibly unique and special for birders internationally.  Especially after taking this trip, it will be incredibly interesting to see how policy makers use the value of birds in the area to shape decisions impacting birds overall well-being.  I certainly hope to return to the area one day and am excited to see how things have changed if at all.

Finally, I must thank several people for making this trip so successful and enjoyable.  First, thanks to Richter for making this trip financially possible.  Also, I would like to thank Professor Adelsberger and Professor Mountjoy for giving me great advice and helping me to plan and make this trip logistically possible.  Furthermore, I want to thank all the people I met along the way for being incredibly hospitable and helpful with any questions I had.  Finally, I must thank my dad for joining me on this adventure.  It was an absolute pleasure to have a travel and birding companion and I couldn’t have asked for anyone better to go with to South Texas.  I do apologize for those that I have left out, but please know that I greatly appreciate everyone who contributed to making this trip possible and so enjoyable.  Thanks again and happy birding.  James

Laughing Gulls at Boca Chica Beach

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40 life birds!!!

The fog didn’t lift in South Texas today until right around 9:30AM, which worked out well because we didn’t make it out to Laguna Atascosa until right around 9:00.  Temperatures were supposed to surpass 100 yet again today, but in the end they only reached the mid-90’s.  As a result of the poor weather our morning was not very birdy, but we did get to see a Bobcat cross the road in front of our car.  Another non-bird species we identified was a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, which I got great pictures of as he was sunning himself on the road.  An interesting fact I learned about venomous snakes was that roughly 50% of venomous snake bites are dry, meaning no venom is injected.  I don’t want to test that statistic though.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Eventually the fog lifted and the heat arrived, spurring more bird activity across the coastal tidal flats.  Some of the highlights were very playful Reddish Egrets, a cooperative Cassin’s Sparrow, and an incredibly distant Aplomado Falcon.  After the 15 mile loop around the Gulf’s edge, we headed into the freshwater wetland in search of whatever else the refuge had to offer.  We found a shaded pavilion where we set up the scope to view the Terns flying overhead.  As an added bonus, we added Least and Forster’s Tern as well as the always stunning Black-necked Stilt.  Finally, back at the visitor center an Eastern Screech-Owl was roosting, which even though they are in my backyard in Illinois, were a life bird for me today, my 40th of the trip.  All in all, spending the day birding at Laguna Atascosa NWR was remarkably good considering the uncooperative weather.

I have noticed the effects of drought all week, but nothing as apparent as what I witnessed today.  Many of the coastal tidal flats which we visited early in the morning are famous for playing host to thousands of shorebirds.  Although there were some around, many of the tidal lakes were completely dry.  One target species at Laguna Atascosa was any type of rail, but due to droughts they have supposedly become increasingly difficult to find as their habitat diminishes.  Furthermore, in a dried up tidal lake we witnessed 2 Long-billed Curlews and 1 Whimbrel.  Both of these birds are supposed to be in water, and I really have no idea why they were miles away from their usual habitat.  Nonetheless, today was more evidence of the fact that the drought is effecting birds and potentially their populations in South Texas.

I have heard there is inclement weather up North and due to that my dad and I have decided we don’t want to spend half a day birding and then make the 23 hour drive back home.  Thus, tomorrow morning we will depart for Peoria with the hopes of making the drive more manageable.  It has been an amazing several days in South Texas and I will certainly miss the beautiful birds and nice weather.  I will post again when I return home sometime Monday evening.

Eastern Screech-Owl Roosting

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Through the fence, over the levee….no passport needed.


Least Grebe

Our adventurous day of birding began by attempting to find Sabal Palm Sanctuary.  In doing so it seemed like we crossed into Mexico when the road passed through a large fence being built throughout Texas, supposedly as a deterrent for illegals.  Fortunately, there was a sign which read, “Through the fence, over the levee…no passport needed” in order to reach Sabal Palm giving us reassurance that we were in the right place.  Upon arriving, we found our target bird, a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak, after about 90 minutes of waiting.  We also returned later in the day to find a Swallow-tailed Kite thanks to some advice from other birders.

I want to return to the fence though as a key issue to the future of wildlife in the Rio Grande Valley.  Although birds will fly over the fence, other wildlife will likely have migration routes altered.  Since the many people I have met on this trip enjoy the wildlife in addition to birds, I would argue that the fence could negatively impact nature tourism and ultimately bird tourism.  However, there are wildlife trails (gaps in the fence) to prevent damage to animal migration routes.  I have seen these gaps though and from what I have observed it wouldn’t be hard for an illegal immigrant to get through one of these gaps.  Ultimately, the immigration issue yet again shows itself as a key problem for the future of birding in South Texas.

After our morning visit to Sabal Palms, we began the true adventure by visiting the Brownsville Landfill.  The Tamaulipas Crow was the target, but instead we ended up finding Cattle Egret, White-tailed Hawk (again), and several thousand Laughing Gulls.  The total number of birds at the dump was likely around 10,000, so identifying individuals was difficult.  On top of that, large Caterpillar equipment and garbage trucks roamed the landfill, so let’s just say a Honda Civic was out of place.  Nonetheless, we got some new Texas birds and my first trip birding to a landfill was fairly good with the exception of the smell.

Birds at the Brownsville Landfill

Following the landfill was a trip out to the Gulf of Mexico to identify some of the coastal wetlands and ocean birds we had missed so far.  It took us nearly 3 hours to drive the 18-mile stretch of road, because we were stopping to scope all the mud flats, but it resulted in a nice list for the day.  Highlights included Gull-billed Tern, Ruddy Turnstone, and Snowy Plover.  Overall, we tallied 65 species for the day, while adding 17 new state birds.  Tomorrow is our last full day in the valley and it will take a big day to reach 200.  Nevertheless, I will rest easy tonight at the Inn at Chachalaca Bend, where President Jimmy Carter once stayed during a birding trip he took several years ago.

Sanderling on the beach

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Hidden in Plain Sight

Northern Shovelers

This morning, my dad and I got off to a late start arriving at Santa Ana NWR at 8:15 for the 8:30 bird walk.  Immediately, we were greeted with a flurry of bird sounds walking down Chachalaca Trail resulting in Orange-crowned Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, and the best bird of the day, the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.  Since our ultimate goal for the day included hitting birding sites east, we left Santa Ana by roughly 10:30, but not before getting new Texas birds including Great Crested Flycatcher, Nashville Warbler, Swainson’s Hawk, and White Ibis.

Following Santa Ana, we visited Estero Llano Grande State Park, which was highly productive from a birding perspective.  We spent over a half an hour looking for a Pauraque, which as the picture below shows, blends in incredibly well with the surrounding habitat.  In addition to the Pauraque, Estero contributed unique birds such as Black and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, American Avocet, and Roseate Spoonbill.  After Estero we took a short trip to Resaca de la Palma State Park, where we got another life bird, the White-tailed Hawk.  In addition to birds, I added an Armadillo and roughly 15 foot long alligator to the list of other animals I have seen on the trip.  I’m still hoping for a bobcat or the much rarer ocelot before I leave.

Something I have now noticed at all the World Birding Center locations (Bentsen-Rio, Estero Llano Grande, and Resaca de la Palma) is that there is a unique dichotomy between making money and promoting the environment through education and appreciation.  All the World Birding Center locations have charged a higher entrance fee than National Wildlife Refuges and the WBC’s certainly have more opportunities to make money on patrons (bike and binocular rentals, extensive gift shops, and some camping options).  Both state parks and national wildlife refuges are hurting for money, but the WBC’s seem to be more active in trying to be economic self-sufficient.  In contrast, Balcones Canyonlands NWR (near Austin, Texas) didn’t charge an entrance fee.  When I asked about the future costs of projects they wanted to accomplish in addition to the fact that they make very little revenue, head park officials still said they have no plans of implementing any kind of cost to enter the park.  Essentially, national wildlife refuges put nature first, period.  It seems as though World Birding Centers (state parks) definitely have an appreciation for nature, but also try to capitalize financially on each visitor.

As a final note, my dad and I went through and entered all our listings into a computer software program in order to organize our lists.  To date, I have 33 life birds on the trip and my dad has 25.  Originally, I had made an ambitious goal to see 200 species in Texas during our time here.  With roughly 2.5 days of birding to go, we have amassed 146 total species.  There’s no doubt that the birding we have done so far has been phenomenal, but it will take a herculean effort with a little bit of luck to reach our ultimate goal of 200.  Nonetheless, tomorrow starts at 6:15 with the hopes of seeing a Crimson-collared Grosbeak and whatever else happens to make its way into the sight of my binoculars.

Pauraque roughly 5 feet away

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That’s another illegal trail…

This morning began with a 45 minute drive west to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park for the 8:30 bird walk.  However, we really didn’t walk, as shuttles carted us all throughout the park.  I would have much preferred an early morning walk with temperatures in the high 60’s, but the park was originally designed to support campsites, so there was an extensive road system throughout the park.  Essentially, if I wanted to visit all the birding spots throughout the camp and do so in fewer than 8 hours, a shuttle was necessary.  In the end, the shuttle worked out well though as we saw two life birds, the White-tailed Kite and Elf Owl.

Two additional quick notes about Bentsen-Rio; first we were told that since the sequester Border Patrol presence in the park is 5% of what it used to be.  Second, there were well defined trails running through bird habitat which were eloquently dubbed illegal trails.  Like Santa Ana, Bentsen-Rio also seems to have UDA problems, which I would argue hinder the ability of the park to reach maximum visitor potential.  Although the number we were given regarding Border Patrol presence is likely too extreme, it’s obvious that a future problem for birding in the Rio Grande Valley will be illegal immigrants.

With high winds and cool temperatures (mid-70’s), our bird watching morning was slow.  However, with stops at Anzalduas County Park, Hidalgo Pumphouse, Carlson Lake, and a spot downtown McAllen known for parrots in the afternoon and evening, my dad and I were able to reach 76 species for our daily bird list.  Granted we did bird for roughly ten hours today, but there’s no doubt that we made the most of our time to reach a very high bird count.  Some of the many highlights included Ringed and Green Kingfisher, Vermillion Flycatcher, roughly 200 Green Parakeets, Common Ground-Dove, and Lesser Goldfinch.

Even though the birds today were phenomenal, one of my personal highlights of the day was receiving a copy of a study commissioned by the South Texas Nature Marketing Coop looking at the economic impact of nature tourism in the Rio Grande Valley.  I was placed in contact with the head of Weslaco Chamber of Commerce by John Williams on the first night in the Valley and this connection will undoubtedly be greatly helpful to me in fully understanding the effect of birds on the area.  The study has details including taxes generated from nature tourist expenditures, total economic output, and jobs added as a result of nature tourist activities.  For those curious, as I was, the total direct economic contribution in the Rio Grande Valley for nature tourism was $463 million.  It will be most interesting to follow up with a few questions I have about the methodology of their study, but for now I couldn’t be happier to have been privy to this information.

We still aren’t entirely sure where we will be visiting tomorrow, but one stop will likely be at Frontera Audubon Thickets in search of a Gray Hawk.  Nonetheless, I can only hope that tomorrow will be as successful and fun as today was.

Drought effects at McAllen Sewage Treatment Plant

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What’s a UDA?

Upon arriving at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge today at sunrise, my dad and I encountered five border patrol cars.  Apparently, 15 or so UDA’s (Undocumented Aliens) had crossed the border and were attempting to evade border patrol officers in the refuge.  Although I was told illegals in the site weren’t very common, it did have an effect on refuge operations, as the tram was closed briefly in the morning.  Additionally, as a visitor I wouldn’t say that I was nervous walking the trails, but I was maybe a little more alert just in case.

Regardless, the guided bird walk left the visitor center at 8:30 and for the duration of the tour, many new life birds were found.  Some of the more exciting species were White-faced Ibis, Altamira Oriole, and Clay-colored Thrush, although a total of 58 species were found on the day.  After the guided tour, we walked the trails until roughly 2:30 PM, which was pleasant even though temperatures reached the 90’s again today.  After several days with significant time in the car, a nice breeze and well developed trails made our day hike a highly enjoyable experience.

Another observation that I made today was that when the tram was up and running, the primary riders where those that were more elderly and likely retired.  Throughout the trip, I have noticed that many birding locations throughout the valley cater to a group of people less inclined to walk several miles in hot temperatures.  In addition to the tram, sites regularly fill feeders to bring birds to the visitors.  Also, blinds and viewing platforms are conveniently located to minimize walking time, but maximize what visitors can see, including a tree canopy tower which allows visitors to scan treetops for a variety of species.  This is by no means a bad thing, but the demographic that birding sites throughout the Rio Grande are trying to target is evident.

The rest of our evening was spent back at Casa Santa Ana, where we sat on the back patio and talked with the other four guests about birding sites and recent sightings.  Coincidentally, a White-tipped Dove arrived in the backyard giving both my dad and I one more life bird to end our evening.  As a final aside, for anyone ever in the McAllen area, I was fortunate enough to eat some of the best pizza I have ever had in my life at the Mamma Mia Pizzeria.  I had the Extreme Vegetarian pizza and would highly recommend visiting this restaurant if you ever get the chance.

Tomorrow we are off to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (the World Birding Center headquarters), where we will be attending another guided bird walk.  Forecasts are calling for isolated thunderstorms and lower temperatures, so hopefully tomorrow will be a productive birding day.  South Texas definitely needs the rain though.

Extreme drought conditions in South Texas

Green Jay at the Santa Ana Visitor Center

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About my trip

Hello!  I’m James Fenner and am a junior at Knox College, where I recently took a class which peaked my interest in many environmental economic ideas.  Essentially, I became very interested in valuing assets which traditionally are not valued.  Controversially, these assets are assigned a monetary value in analyses like cost-benefit and then used to make major policy decisions.

In addition to those interests, I have a strong passion for birds.  Thus, the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in South Texas is a birding hot spot, which many people visit this time of year.  While in the Rio Grande Valley it is my goal to meet with as many people related to birding as possible.  I plan to ask questions including but not limited to the culture of birding, problems facing the future of birding in the area, and trends in Rio Grande Valley bird watching.  Additionally, I will live the life of avid birder touring the area to identify as many species as possible.  Along the way I will surely run into other birders who I can talk to and get a further in-depth view of birding in the Rio Grande Valley.

Ultimately, this trip will allow me to gain personal understanding of the value of birds in South Texas.  I will also understand the birding culture and outside influences which could affect this value positively or negatively over time.  It will undoubtedly consist of long and hot days, but it will also be incredibly enjoyable and informative as I broaden my knowledge about two of my personal interests.  Also, my father will be joining me on this trip, ensuring plenty of great memories and lots of fun.

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Mid-March Heat Wave

The Border between US and Mexico

Monday, March 18, 2013 set records in the Rio Grande Valley for hottest temperatures since the mid-1930’s.  Temperatures topped out at a reported 103 degrees in Donna, Texas, where we are spending our evening.

The day began before sunrise by travelling to San Ygnacio, in search of the White-collared Seedeater.  We were taken to a site by John Williams on the Rio Grande River which was overrun with thick vegetation, primarily cane plants.  Although we missed the Seedeater, we were able to see “life” birds including Long-billed Thrasher, Plain Chachalaca, and Muscovy Duck.  After about 90 minutes we left the site along the river and moved to other Seedeater locations.

At the Zapata library, we ran into other birders from Massachusetts who were great to talk to about their birding history in the Rio Grande Valley.  They were making their annual visit to the Rio Grande Valley for birds and I was able to learn quite a bit about the progression of the birding culture.

After Zapata, we headed toward Falcon Dam State Park where we met with Ellen, the resident bird feeding station caretaker.  On top of getting great looks at beautiful birds from a covered patio, we were able to talk to Ellen who had been working at Falcon Dam State Park for the last several years.  She and others visiting the feeding station were able to answer many questions and broaden my knowledge about the local birding culture.  The most interesting bit of knowledge I learned was that last Thursday someone set fire to key bird watching land for reasons which I am still not completely sure of.  I hope to find out more in the coming days, but I suspect competing parties are interested in the land for different uses, potentially involving the drug war across the Rio Grande.

We also visited this site in Salineno, but because of the very high temperatures the number of birds was low.  Overall, we did well regarding our bird list for the day considering the temperatures, but tomorrow at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge will likely be significantly better.  Temperatures should drop to the nineties and we will be attending a guided walk, hopefully resulting in much more species in a shorter amount of time.

Regarding our lodging for the next several nights, we are staying in a Bed and Breakfast specifically for bird watchers.  We met another visitor, who was visiting for two weeks from British Colombia.  I’m looking forward to meeting more of the visitors and talking to them about why they visit the area and how they feel about bird watching in the Rio Grande Valley.  Now, a little after midnight, I will step outside once more in an attempt to locate a Common Paraque which has been seen around here before I go to bed.  There’s no doubt birding in the Rio Grande Valley is an all-day affair and requires dedication, commitment, and sunscreen.

Javelina at Falcon Dam State Park

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Sleep deprivation is temporary, life birds are forever.

After 17 hours the first day and nearly 7 hours today, my father and I have made it to Zapata, Texas where we will begin our journey through the Rio Grande Valley.  We managed to do a little bird watching along the drive, most notably in Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, where we managed to find a Texas specialty, the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  Additionally, we were able to view several birds along the drive approaching Zapata, including highlights of Greater Roadrunner, Harris’ Hawk, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Crested Caracara.  Interestingly enough, in the 50 miles before we reached Zapata the frequency of all species increased dramatically.  Tomorrow will hopefully yield White-collared Seedeater and many other birds common to this area.

Regarding my exploration of the value people in the area ascribe to birds in the Rio Grande Valley, I was able to talk to John Williams tonight to gain very important insights about the days ahead.  He was able to talk to me about his personal experiences, owning a Bed and Breakfast catering to bird watchers, as well as put me in contact with a variety of people in the area with knowledge about local birds.  My conversation with John alluded to bird watching in the Rio Grande to be a very local and social aspect of the community despite the area being known internationally as a bird watching hot spot.  It will undoubtedly be very interesting to meet with locals and visitors in the coming days and I am very excited to learn more.  Tomorrow begins at 6:30 with a short trip to San Ygnacio before heading to Salineno where I have heard temperatures may hit 104 at some point.  I’m looking forward to it.

A brief explanation of the title; my father and I have already accepted that we will be spending long hours birding on this trip and will likely be getting to bed very late and awaking very early.  However, as long as we are seeing life birds, we will embrace the tiredness and enjoy all the experiences that are sure to come.  We will surely be exhausted but the memories and birds will be incredible.

View in Balcones Canyonlands NWR

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