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Farewell to Texas

Final one from Texas,

Are you tired of Texas stories yet? This will be the last one, I promise. When last week’s column ended we had stopped at the Frontera Audubon Center, a small fifteen-acre sanctuary just outside of McAllen. It was late in the day but we had heard that three rare birds (Clay-colored Thrush, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Tropical Parula) had been spotted there, so we decided to stop and test our blitz-birding skills. Here’s how we did.

For some reason, this Audubon center closes at 4:00pm (no owl prowling here). That only gave us an hour before we’d be locked in. (I know it’s hard to get “locked in” when we were outside, but that’s what we were told.) After about fifteen minutes, Casey found the Clay-colored Thrush (again, he beat me), so I focused on finding the other two rare birds. This is when a sweet, elderly Asian woman, who had a look of desperation on her face, almost ran me off the trail. According to her husband, this woman has routinely made the six-hour drive from Houston in hopes of seeing the elusive Tropical Parula…but has always failed. And since the center would be closing in twenty minutes, this trip didn’t look very promising either.

As time grew shorter the lady quickened her pace and raced up and down the trails, all while carrying a camera that was larger than she was. I felt bad for her and wanted to help, but I’m always the last one to find any unusual birds. Then, acting on a tip from two other birders, I spotted the bright blue and yellow parula as it fed in some nearby bushes. I only had the bird in my binoculars for a second when I heard the lady run by. I quickly called her over and tried to point out the bird’s location, but her English wasn’t the best and neither were my directions. In a panic she lifted her camera and blindly started taking photos of the bushes. This is when I grabbed her arm, settled her down and pointed her camera towards the bird’s location. That’s all it took. I could instantly tell from her big smile that her long “goose chase” was over. After she had fired off a million shots with her camera, she relaxed, enjoyed the moment and offered me her heartfelt thank you. I wanted to give her a hug, but wasn’t sure if hugs were appropriate in Texas, so instead I went for the fist bump. That brought an even bigger smile. BTW: In case you are wondering, I never saw the third rare bird (the Crimson-collared Grosbeak), but I didn’t care. Two out of three, and one ginormous smile was good enough for me.

The next day, after eating another early morning breakfast at Denny’s, we headed to the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. Rumor had it that a Northern Jacana was being seen there and we wanted to check it out. Jacanas are noted for having extremely long toes, which allows them to walk on top of lily pads (and palm a basketball). From a distance this odd bird looks part shorebird, part rail and part NBA star. Larry, at the info desk, told us that in order to find the jacana we simply had to follow the “Willow Lakes Trail.” So, that’s what we did, or tried to do. We found lots of trails, but none were marked Willow Lakes Trail…or anything else. (Apparently, Congress cut their sign budget.) No worries. I’m from Cape Cod, where the signs say “north” even though the roads are headed south. I could figure this out. After a few missteps we found the jacana location, where we met several other birders, none of whom had been able to find the bird. Boo! After a quick look, we moved on. This refuge is filled with birds, so I wasn’t going to waste the day looking for just one. We could try again later, if we had the time.

The Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place for birding. On our walk Casey and I found lots of new birds, including Fulvous Whistling Ducks, brilliant Vermillion Flycatchers, feisty little Green Kingfishers, several snipe and one Peregrine Falcon (that kept all of the other birds nervous). After a few hours of walking we headed back to the visitors center for a snack and to check out the gift shop (which I was pleased to see carried the best book ever written about woodpeckers’ headaches). We then decided to try for the jacana one last time. When we arrived back at the viewing spot, everyone was gone. I took this as a bad sign and was just about to announce my negative opinion, when I heard Casey say, in his matter-of-fact voice, “There it is.” I spun my scope around and sure enough, there was the jacana. At this point two thoughts crossed my mind. One thought was, “Yay!” and the other was, “How does he always find the birds before I do?” It was starting to bug me. It also meant that Casey could choose that evening’s restaurant. Yes, our last night in Texas would be again spent dining at Denny’s.

On our long drive back to Houston Hobby we added up all the different species of birds we had seen, which ended up being 154-ish. And even though the Lower Rio Grande Valley has wonderful birds, it’s not the prettiest place I’ve ever been to (lots of industry and industrial farming). Yet, everyone we met was very helpful and friendly. Even the cops were nice. Twice we were pulled over for driving a “car,” instead of a pickup truck, which is required by Texas law. But both times were let go with just a warning. Can’t ask for more than that. When we finally arrived back home I began to realize just how glad I was to be on the Cape. It’s not only because of our beautiful scenery or calm way of life; the best part of being on Cape Cod is…I don’t have to eat at Denny’s anymore. Thank goodness.