Two birding trips to Texas 26 years apart: Certainly there are more human residents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley today, resulting in more sprawl and less wildlife habitat. On the other hand, ecotourism is more of “a thing” today. But then and now, my focus was on birds.
The year was 1990. I had been birding for a full decade as an impoverished student, and never had the opportunity (or funds) to explore the wider world of birds beyond my home patch and my parents’ winter residence, Florida. When my boyfriend-at-the-time (a skilled birder and ornithologist; let’s call him Ken) suggested we take a two-week trip down the Texas Coast and up the Rio Grande Valley, it seemed like the stuff of dreams. A vacation focused on birds?! What a great idea!
Ken was an impoverished graduate student, too, and we had no choice but to do the trip on the cheap, i.e., camping and usually fixing our own meals on a camp stove. Neither of us had been to Texas previously, and the Internet was young, so we used old-fashioned methods of determining what birds we were likely to see, and where. Ken was a big fan of the original Lane’s Guides to various places, and they served us well. Before we headed southwest, he prepared an itinerary and a checklist of species we’d be able to tick off, both with certainty and with luck. I still appreciate those preparations.
It was early January, and we departed from his sister’s house in New Orleans, heading west under skies that were almost dark with paisley swirls of geese. My life greater white-fronted goose was really 10,000 of them—probably more. I had never seen anything like it.
My life list reminds me that San Luis Pass and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge were generous to a naïve, young Midwestern birder.
We got whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and other birds that had existed tome previously only on paper: long-billed curlew and the hard-to-believe green jay. We stood at the entrance to King Ranch—at the time, it wasn’t open for public birding, but nonetheless had a reputation for being a hot spot for tropical rarities. We wondered how we could score a tour, and came up empty, except for pyrrhuloxia and curve-billed thrasher at the gate. So we went on.
Five days into Texas, we had amassed 141 species, dozens of which were lifers. The weather was abysmal at times, with cold wind and rain. We wore our winter coats at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and saw very few birds.
Our itinerary included the Brownsville city dump (thanks to the Lane’s Guide, no doubt) where we found Mexican (now called Tamaulipas) crow and Chihuahuan raven. It still strikes me as funny that the landfill attendants were well acquainted with birders.
Then we headed up the Rio Grande, hitting major hot spots including Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park (where we tried very hard and failed to see a blue bunting), and Falcon Dam. In San Ygnacio we tried very hard to find a white-collared seedeater and failed on that one, too. I’m not complaining. I tallied about 55 lifers on that trip, increasing my life list by roughly 20 percent. At the time, it was the trip of a lifetime, and clearly, it’s one I will never forget—especially because I was keeping a journal as well as a birding checklist.
Fast forward to March 2016, and the Bird Watcher’s Digest Texas Bird’em Reader Rendezvous: Five days in Texas, not eight; fewer stops, and fewer miles; better weather, and better birding. Amazing, unbelievable birding. Easier birding. Ken and I worked hard for our birds.
This time, our group included experienced guides: my boss (Bill Thompson, III), and local guides Roy Rodriguez, Javier Gonzalez, and Tom Landscheid. They knew precisely where “challenging” birds were and how to find them in a way no book, not even Lane’s Guide, could tell us. Ken and I didn’t know the sounds of the birds of this foreign (to us) land. Back then, we had no way to distinguish between Couch’s and tropical kingbirds because we had no way to practice recognizing their songs, other than by interpreting sonograms! In March, our guides were as familiar with those songs as I am with an eastern phoebe. They recognized sounds instantly, and capably pointed them out to us.
Way back in 1990, I had no idea there were professional bird guides that could be hired, and even had I known, I couldn’t have afforded it—we couldn’t have afforded it. Now I understand and appreciate the value of having a local bird guide. We certainly wouldn’t have found burrowing owl without Roy’s knowledge of the area.
Back in 1990, there were rare bird hotlines—phone numbers we called to find locations of rarities. Ken may have called them, inspiring our wild goose chases for the blue bunting and white-collared seedeater. Today, of course, the Internet makes finding precise locations of birds super easy (when they stick around). Before heading southwest this time, I subscribed to eBird alerts for the three Texas counties I knew we’d be visiting. I knew to study the appearance of crimson-collared grosbeak (female), and that northern jacana was a possibility. I knew I could finally score a blue bunting if I could get to Frontera Audubon Society.
I also knew, and had the resources to study up on the songs of Couch’s and tropical kingbird—which I did on my phone during the flight southwest. In 1990, who could have imagined such a thing?
Oh, and regarding that jacana: I knew it had been sighted repeatedly at Pintail Lake at Santa Ana. I’m sure I could have found Pintail Lake without a guide, but where precisely on Pintail Lake should I look? When we arrived there late in the afternoon, we met a couple who had been sitting on a bench for hours, waiting, watching, hoping that the long-legged tropical bird would show up. Almost instantly, Javier spotted it. That couple didn’t know how to look for it, even though it was right across the water. They didn’t recognize that distinctive bird until it was pointed out to them. They were embarrassed, but I could relate. There is an art to seeing the unfamiliar, and it doesn’t come easily to everyone. Who knows what birds were right in front of me in 1990 that I didn’t know how to see.
There were other reasons why the birding this year was even more amazing than in 1990: Because we were with a tour, we got to go behind the scenes at Laguna Atascosa where we got to see nesting aplomado falcons. Wow! That would have been impossible had I been birding on my own, not on a tour.
And we got to go to King Ranch on a guided tour that made ferruginous pygmy-owl, northern bearded tyrannulet, and tropical parula seem easy. Twenty-six years of waiting and my expectations were more than exceeded.
In five days of birding with super-knowledgeable guides, I saw most of the 55 birds that were lifers for me back in 1990. Collectively, our group found about 185 species, including 6 that were lifers for me, and 9 more ABA-area birds. I saw lots of species I hadn’t seen since 1990, including Altimira and hooded orioles, ringed and green kingfisher, plain chachalaca, Harris’ hawk, oh… don’t get me started. What a trip! What trips, then and now!
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1979, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.