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Still In Texas

Still in Texas,

Last week I wrote about a birding trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. My son and I chose this area in order to see birds that are found nowhere else in the country (and to take a break from the Cape’s nasty winter weather). The local Texans are so proud of the their avian diversity that they have given the region the title of World Birding Center. Some outsiders have taken issue with this pretentious title; but as the saying goes, it’s not bragging if they can back it up. Let’s see if they can.

On our first morning in the Valley we visited the famous Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. This park sits right on the Rio Grande River and is composed of land that was donated by the Lloyd Bentsen family (remember him?). As we stepped out of the car we were immediately greeted by a small flock of delightful Inca Doves. Inca Doves look just like miniature Mourning Doves, only they show brilliant rufous wings when they fly. (Very fashionable.) The park had several active hummingbird feeders, which attracted Black-chinned and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, and both were new birds for me. After a short walk along one of the trails I found an energetic Black-throated Gray Warbler. Because these warblers live in the west, I wasn’t totally certain of my identification. And like an idiot, I didn’t have a field guide with me. As I stood there grumbling, I heard a voice say, “Want to borrow my book?” It was another birder (who later turned out to be Ken, from Michigan). I graciously accepted his kind offer and quickly confirmed that my original identification was correct. As I handed the book back to Ken, his face lit up and he said, “Don’t I know you?” I smiled back with plenty of false modesty (and a quickly inflating ego) and replied, “Maybe.” This is when Ken said, “No, not you, the other guy,” pointing to my son Casey. Casey? Nobody knows Casey. (You could actually hear the air deflating out of my ego.) It turned out that a few days earlier Casey had shown Ken a nearly impossible to see sleeping pauraque. (See last week’s column.) But things turned my way when I told Michigan Ken that we lived on Cape Cod. Ken then asked if we knew about the Cape’s “famous” bird store. Suddenly, my ego re-inflated and I felt much better.

After solving the warbler mystery, we headed to the river where Casey saw his first ever Ringed Kingfisher. These hefty kingfishers are impressive birds to see. They weigh in at nearly double the weight of our Belted Kingfishers and eat much larger prey, including fish, reptiles and small dolphins. While Casey was focused on the kingfisher, I became distracted by something even larger…but it wasn’t a bird. Standing at the edge of a clearing was a rather large Javelina (ha-va-leen-a), aka, Collared Peccary. Looking like a cross between a black bear and a pig with tusks, Javelinas are desert specialists. Their diet generally consists of desert plants, especially cactuses. However, this particular Javelina was happy just to eat the birdseed that had fallen from one of the park’s birdfeeders (and we complain about chipmunks). We stayed in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park for the rest of the day, before heading to the area’s #1 restaurant for fine dining…Denny’s.

The next day we drove up-river to Falcon Dam State Park. Our first stop was at the park’s visitors center for some birding info. But inside the center there was nothing but empty tables and three old guys working on a jigsaw puzzle and drinking coffee out of ceramic mugs. When I asked about birds, a guy with a long Santa beard, “Mike” (wonderful name) jumped up and said, “Follow me. I’ll show you some birds.” Mike then proceeded to hop on a bicycle, which was decorated with colored beads that made noise as he rode, and headed down the road…all while still carrying his ceramic mug of coffee. I raced to the car so I could follow Mike and was too busy laughing to explain the situation to a totally confused Casey. After about a half-mile and several zigzag turns, Mike led us to his friends campsite, where Norm and Liz were sitting watching their birdfeeders. Liz offered us a chair and then pointed out the birds as they arrived. We saw Black-crested Titmice and Pyrrhuloxias (the desert’s cardinal wannabees). We also saw Orange-crowned

Warblers that were coming to eat, of all things, marshmallows. The feeders also attracted a covey of bobwhites. I acted thrilled to see them, but deep down I was annoyed that Texas still has bobwhites while ours are all but gone. When the bird show slowed, we thanked Liz, Norm and Mike (especially Mike) and headed back to our hotel. As we drove, Casey kept talking about all of the new birds we had seen, but all I could think about was this marshmallow thing and how come Liz knew more about feeding birds than I do? I can’t let this news get out.

About thirty miles from our hotel is the Frontera Audubon Center, a tiny, fifteen-acre property that is set right in the middle of urban sprawl. You might think such a small sanctuary wouldn’t have much to offer, but this place is noted for rarities. And the day we visited was no exception. In the morning the staff had reported seeing a Clay-colored Thrush (a dull-looking bird that only birders would be excited about), a Crimson-collared Grosbeak (anyone would be excited to see one of these) and a Tropical Parula (a colorful warbler). All of these birds are rarely seen in Texas and are unheard of in the rest of the country. Would we be lucky enough to find any of them? I’ll let you know how we did next week.


On a more serious and significantly sadder note:

By now most folks have heard about the passing of the Cape and Island’s extraordinary naturalist and birder, Vern Laux. I’m hardly the person who should be commenting on Vern’s accomplishments as he was in a totally different level of birding than I am. I tend to concentrate on chickadees and cardinals, while Vern focused on the 9,546 other birds around the world. I first met Vern years ago on Maine’s birding Mecca, Monhegan Island. Usually, after a long day of birding, most birders hunker down, sort through their photos, check their field guides and write down a few notes. But Vern was a long way from being “usual.” As I walked past the Island Inn I could see him sitting on the back porch, enjoying a “beverage,” smoking a cigar and telling story after story to the inn’s guests. These guests may or may not have already known Vern, but it didn’t matter. His stories were so entertaining that even strangers were mesmerized.

Don’t get me wrong; Vern wasn’t a cigar-smoking blowhard. His knowledge and birding skills were second to none. Yet, he was one of the rare individuals who, through his boundless energy and passion was able to make the rest of us excited about the sighting of a Mourning Dove, while at the same time stand toe-to-toe with the eggheads of any university.

It is slightly comforting to know that Vern will always be with us through his writings and recorded radio shows. But his real accomplishments might not be realized for a few more years when the young readers and listeners whom he has touched, become the next Vern Laux. For that and everything else I say, thank you. And tomorrow morning when I “keep my eyes to the skies,” it won’t be quite the same, but I’m never going to stop doing it.