I needed to retire to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. It takes place in November, which in the academic world is the busy season, the time when students are researching papers and taking mid-terms. The first thing I did when I retired this summer was look up the dates of the RGVBF. And, then the June date when registration opens. Which was a good thing, because I wasn’t able to get to a computer till three hours after the opening bell, and several field trips were already maxed out!
So, on Monday, November 4th, 2013, one day after the completion of the New York Birders Conference (a project I had been working on for 9 months), I boarded a plane for Harlingen. Texas. Visions of life birds and ABA birds and neotropical butterflies and seeing new and previously-only-known-through-the-Internet friends were dancing through my head. I didn’t want to make a list of target birds, I didn’t want to tempt fate, but I couldn’t help dreaming of Green Jays and Red-bordered Pixies. (I photographed the Green Jay above two days later at a feeder at Falcon State Park. Alas, the Pixies were elusive, a reason to return.)
I always love the first day I bird a new place, and was very happy I had arrived a day before the festival started so I could get the feel of the lower Rio Grande Valley at my own pace. I decided to start with a visit to Frontera Audubon, located in Weslaco, where a Golden-crowned Warbler had been seen a few days earlier. Golden-crowned Warblers are usually seen in Central and South America and I have seen this bird in Costa Rica. But, not the United States! So, this would be a nice addition to my ABA list. The bird was not seen that Tuesday, despite the efforts of many birders, and although I was disappointed, I was too busy taking in all the other wonderful wildlife there to not be wonderfully happy. Butterflies were everywhere! Clouds of Queens and Phaon Crescents and Common Mestras. I got my first Texas life bird immediately in the parking lot: Plain Chachalaca!
On the Thicket Trail, I heard and then saw Great Kiskadee, an ABA bird.
And then, sitting by the creek near the Visitor’s Center, I saw my 600th ABA bird, Baeolophus atricristatus, Black-crested Titmouse!
I would see many Black-crested Titmice during the next few days, but none as special as this small, feisty but camera-shy bird. I know it’s just listing, and listing is not the same as really knowing about the bird and its behavior and taxonomy and all the other things we should know about a bird as birders, but I was very excited about this milestone. And, even better, when I put the news on Facebook, my friends were excited with me! It’s always nice to know that you’re not totally crazy. Or, that there are other crazy people who value the same crazy things you do.
I also photographed damselflies and dragonflies, though the numbers were far less than the butterflies. There are several red dragonfly species in southern Texas, including Carmine Skimmer, a Life Ode. I didn’t realize till I got home and looked at my photographs that this one has a crumpled wing, poor thing. It didn’t seem to bother him, but then again, I didn’t see him fly very far. (Carmine Skimmers are much rosier, with a more purple-ish thorax, than this photo indicates. An example of how sun and angle can influence dragonfly photography.)
This damselfly is a Kiowa Dancer, another Life Ode. The key to identification is the short-long short-long patterning on the abdomen.
I took one more walk down the Thicket path on a final fruitless search for the Golden-crowned Warbler. Fewer birds were in sight and the wonderful, promising bird sound had quieted. I did see a White-tipped Dove bathing, another ABA bird. Two small Inca Doves were nestled nearby and scurried into the underbrush as I pointed my camera at them.
It was time to bird another new place. Since I had missed out on the Golden-crowned Warbler, I headed for the University of Texas, PanAm campus, about 20 minutes away, where a Painted Redstart had been seen. Another neotropical warbler, I hadn’t seen a Painted Redstart since my trip to Arizona at the beginning of my birding “career”. The campus was not far away, but it took me almost two hours to realize that the courtyard where I was looking for the warbler was the Wrong Place. Really, how many courtyards “north of the Science Building” could there be? At least two.
I walked around the RIGHT courtyard a bit frantically. I was parked at a meter in the campus parking lot, and time was running out. Time was out. I took one last look at the tree next to me. “Oh! There you are, oh lovely tiny little bird. Thank you for showing yourself. I have one minute in which to take your photo.” Good thing I did, because after I ran back to the meter, put in more money and returned, the courtyard full of students doing a botony project, no warbler in sight. Birding is all in the timing.
Of course, the Bird of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was the Amazon Kingfisher, found by Jeff Bouton on November 9th, off of Route 100, near San Benito. Second record of this bird in the United State (assuming it will be approved by the records committee, which seems likely). News of the Big Find trickled in to my field trip at the Santa Ana NWR, about an hour’s drive away, making me very anxious and fidgity. Seeing this lovely Ringed Kingfisher did not alleviate the Amazon Kingfisher heebie jeebies.
The field trip returned at noon, but my first foray out to TX-100 came up dry, the bird had disappeared. And, I needed to return to Harlingen for my photo workshop. At this point, it felt like every birder and random person at the festival had seen it but me! And, let me add that this would not be a life bird, I had seen Amazon Kingfisher in Ecuador. I wanted to be a part of the excitement, cheering and laughing and slapping hands.
Fast forward to 4:30pm. I approach the “Amazon Kingfisher spot” a second time and see police cars, red lights spinning. “Damn,” I think, “They’re making us move our cars. Why oh why???” Ha! I was so wrong! The local police were not making birders move on from the twitch. They were HELPING birders stay safe. What a concept! I parked right in front of one of the helpful policemen, jumped out of my car, and birding friends Doug Gochfeld,and David LaPuma put me in front of a scope pointed right on the Amazon Kingfisher. “Bam!”, as Doug said. ABA Bird, rarity encounter, target achieved! I had become a part of this giant twitch that enveloped the 900 birders and vendors of the festival for the next few days. (And, in fact, the kingfisher is still being seen as I write this on November 23rd.)
The Amazon Kingfisher was a good ways down the resca when I first saw it. We had fun watching it fly out for a snack and returning to the north side of the resca, perching on various snags, sometimes a little out of sight, but always flying back out into view. Finally, as the light was beginning to fade, the bird flew right towards us and perched for a nanosecond on this snag right in front of me. I got off one photo before it flew back a bit and then over our heads! About a hundred birders crossed TX-100, the police stopping traffic. The kingfisher eventually settled himself in a spot only visible from a small area on the edge of the road, and us birders watched happily as new birders, including a guy named David Sibley, approached and viewed the bird from the two scopes placed in that spot. This is part of the fun of a twitch. Sharing the wealth, bestowing the viewing.
I loved birding and observing nature in the Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was the perfect way in which to get my first taste of Texas. Great birds, great butterflies, great people. I will be writing more about my adventures in Texas soon.