Monday, November 25, 2013

Rio Grande Valley, Day One

Posted by Kirk
This is part one of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

A weatherman stands on Waikiki Beach in a down parka with blue skies and beautiful waves crashing behind him, "It is literally freezing out here," he says. He has just misused 33% of the words in the sentence. I can only assume he never learned the definitions of the words literally or freezing. "It," "is," "out," and "here" he seemed to have mastered. A few hours later I was snorkeling though the waves watching green sea turtles while the locals pulled wool blankets out of the closet. It was 65° and sunny.

The words of the weatherman those many years ago came back to me sitting on the tarmac at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport in a SunCountry 737 this November. I had stood up in the aisle not because I really wanted to stand but because I was annoyed with the woman from the back row who had suddenly stood up and made a break for the front of the plane the moment the seatbelt sign turned off. I think she imagined, if she hurried, she could somehow make it to the front of the plane before anyone else realized we had landed. Stuck at row 18, she looked rather bitter. Everyone in front of us had already stood up and I saw no reason to let her get in front of me just because she was already standing. I was just as ready to be home as anyone else.

We were on our way back from Harlingen, Texas where it had been warm to Minnesota where it was admittedly cold. A woman one row in front of me, clearly not happy about having just traveled north when everyone sensible was waiting in the airport to board our plane and get back to somewhere warm, decided to loudly opine on the weather of my home state of Minnesota. "It's freezing out there you know. I hope y'aller ready." There someone goes misusing that word again.

"It's not usually this cold." I say out loud.

See what this pride of my home and has done? I'm talking to strangers. I don't talk to strangers. I thought better of giving her a lecture on how freezing is a specific scientific phenomenon that happens at 32° Fahrenheit and, given that it was 42° outside it was not, contrary to what her thin Texan blood was telling her, "freezing." outside. True, we were having a cold spell in mid-November but it wasn't like it was February right?

This is essentially the, "it could be worse" defense but it doesn't work that well when it does, in point of fact, get worse. Far, far worse.

I'm one to talk. I can't stand the cold. My friends have a betting pool going on how long I'll stay in Minnesota. It isn't that I mind the cold, I like the cold. I just don't like being cold.

I'll say one thing for the mind numbing temperatures, they kill a lot of insects. My dear departed grandmother was fond of saying it was colder than a well diggers ass outside. Though, she also said on occasion that it was colder than a witch's tit. I understand why your ass would get rather chilly while hand digging a wet sub-terranian shaft but I'm less clear on the poor mammary gland circulation of witches. I never did figure out if these terms equated to the same temperature or one was colder than the other. The good news is, whether you're measuring in asses or tits,  in return for the cold we get months on end with no mosquitoes or ticks. Best of all, chiggers, those microscopic mites that bite you, liquify a little section of your skin so they can drink it and then make you itch for weeks, are virtually nonexistent in Minnesota. I can take a multi-hour summer nap in the middle of my yard with no arthropodic consequences. The same cannot be said of Texas. As my friend Sharon told me, weeks after you leave, the chigger bites will remind you of all the amazing times in the Rio Grande Valley.

Texas was amazing in part because it was warm. I can see why there are so many "Winter Texans." At every turn it seemed someone was trying to convince us to move down there. While stopping at a liquor store, the manager joined in on the chorus. "Did y'all see the article about Harlingen in the USA Today?"

I decide to tell him that USA Today is what elementary school teachers use to teach forth graders in Minnesota how to read but, being as I mentioned previously I'm not overly fond of chatting with strangers it came out more like, "Nope."

"Well, it was about six months back, you should check it out."

"Thank God I'm a hoarder!" I say, "They all laughed at me but I finally have a use for those six months of back issues of USA Today!" Of course, this actually came out something like "Mmm."

"Yup, Harlingen was rated the lowest cost of living in America!" He proudly beamed. Two things came to mind here. One, if Harlingen has the lowest cost of living then why are your prices so damn high and, two, isn't that just a more polite way of saying it is one of the poorest places in the country?

My companions left with some beer and a small bottle of Irish whiskey. I left unconvinced this warm winter retreat was for me. I can't blame the liquor store owner and his overpriced meager selection of spirits though. I do somewhat blame the chiggers, ticks and trash strewn just about everywhere.

Don't get me wrong, Harlingen is one of my favorite spots in the world, I'm just not going to move there and I don't go for the local charm.

It wasn't cold enough in Minnesota to really drive me away yet. No, really, it gets worse, I promise! Why then would I go?

The birds. It's all about the birds. I bought plane tickets with three other birders from Minnesota and we headed down to soak up an avifaunal diversity found nowhere else in the US.

My traveling companions were so focused on smiling for the camera none of them noticed the flight attendant backing  down the aisle and into my hand. "Are you touching my bum?" She asked. Awkward start to the flight. 
My birding companions for the week were Erik, a twenty-something bird guide and cougar magnet from Northern Minnesota. Curt, a sixty something camera salesman who must have discovered the fountain of youth because everyone thinks he's in his thirties and Tony, a quiet guy with a huge laugh who works on the Purple Martin Recovery Project. We were in Texas from Sunday to Sunday and given that both Sundays were travel days that left five full days of birding. Erik and Curt and Tony had all been to the Rio Grande Valley before. The fact that there were still "lifers" there for everyone to see is a testament to how many birds there are.

Mentioning lifers means we need to flash forward to Wednesday evening for a moment. On Wednesday, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival officially kicked off and we headed to the opening night party with three and a half days of birding already under our belts. We headed to the party in a very round-about way due to bad directions and bad navigation which were par for the course during the week. Sitting in the back seat I absolve myself from any responsibility. We arrived late so my dinner consisted mostly of red wine and snowy owl shaped cupcakes.

Owl-phagy photo By Erik Brunkhe.

I had a short conversation there with one of our Texan birding buddies Kelly. Full disclosure, my autocorrect changed the word "birding" in the last sentence to "boring." I don't think the computer was mocking Kelly, they've never met, but I have no doubt even the computer thinks I have a dubious hobby.

Curt and Erik had met Kelly last year and we re-connected with her on the nearly deserted Boca Chica "Highway" during a highly unsuccessful search for a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. After not finding the bird we cruised down the deserted highway and, passing a white car on the side of the road, Curt says, "Hey, that was Kelly!" This is how birding goes. You run into people you know from across the country then you park your cars in the middle of the road and chat for 30 minutes blocking the nonexistent traffic because no one else in their right mind would be on that road anyhow.

In that 30 minutes, only 10 minutes of actual conversation takes place punctuated by 20 non-consecutive minutes of bird watching which usually springs up spontaneously mid-sentence. Eightly-five to ninety percent of all conversations between birders in the field contain the the phrase, "What were we talking about?"

While chatting with Kelly later that day at the opening party, I must have mentioned the number of "lifers" I'd already seen or perhaps I was just excited over seeing two Red-lored Parrots mixed in with the hundreds of Red-crowned parrots that roost in Harlengen every night. She asked me with a look somewhere between incredulity and curiosity, "Soo, are you on Heroin?"

Okay, this isn't actually what she asked. It was, "Are you a lister?" But, it was asked in that exact same suspicious way. You see, listers, and I mean hardcore listers, are a bit like drug addicts. They have this reputation as people who perhaps care less about the bird and more about the tick on the list. They don't even have to be able to personally identify the bird. You could see a tiny speck five miles away and call it a gyrfalcon. If a hardcore lister has never seen one they might say, "Great!" add the speck to their list and move on never caring if they saw another gyrfalcon again in their lives. I may or may not be exaggerating but you can see how it is wise to approach these creatures wearily. Heroin addicts aren't much fun to bird with.

I then had to explain to Kelly that I do have a list but it is my list. I don't really care about states or countries or any of that. I just like to see birds and keeping a casual list makes it more interesting. She seemed flummoxed that I would count the parrots (clearly descended from caged pets) while not counting domestic ducks in the local park. What can I say, I'm eccentric. I think I simply said, "Parrots are better looking." The truth is that the parrots are wild birds reproducing in the wild but they  happened to come from wild birds that were transported to the area for the pet trade. The domestic ducks are not a wild species. They are freaks living in the wild. My list, my rules. I'm counting the parrots.

This is how it goes and I was looking forward to a week of seeing old familiar birds and new ones as well. I was interested in seeing new "lifers" not for a tick on a list but because I had never seen them.

Back at the Harlingen Airport, first bird of the trip was the Great-tailed Grackle (not a lifer.) We heard and saw them the moment we stepped out of the airport to find our rental car. To those of us from the north, this is a magnificent bird. It puts our common grackles to shame with long showy tails and their wild squawking call. Their complex whistles and songs are the sound of great birding times to come. This is in sharp contract to to how the locals view them. They call them "Aves del Diablo" and curse them for their eternal hell screams. Okay, so maybe not the Aves del Diablo part but give it time, it will catch on.

Immediately upon leaving the airport we hit up a mexican restaurant for lunch and then heaved off to Hugh Ramsey park for some birds. This is a good time to point out two high tenets of birding.

1. Directions to a site/bird will always be terrible.
2. Locals always have different names for places than what the map says.

When it comes to Hugh Ramsey, see tenant #2.

Curt was smart enough to take this photo of the park sign. Kind of pale plumage for a Great Kiskadee. 

In spite of this HUGH sign welcoming you to Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, you should not be fooled into thinking that is actually the name of where you are or that you can find it on a map. It is actually called Harlingen Arroyo Colorado on maps. Same difference right?

We should have seen more at the park, it is a great place for birds but the second bird we happened upon cursed us. As I walked about a hundred feet down the trail I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and swung my binoculars up to a close tree. "Warbler!" I called out.

I saw a lot of yellow and as it dodged between branches I called out details I could see while also trying to get my birding companions on the bird. Erik finally found it and got a good look. "Oh cool" he said, "Connecticut Warbler." We could make out the complete eye ring and other details and didn't think much of it. We were from Minnesota and this was one of our local guys who'd also come down for the fine weather. Erik, who made the call on the bird sees Connecticut warbler weekly up in the boreal forest where he lives.

This one bird opened up a world of trouble. There was a time when we would have seen this bird and moved on. We might have made a little mark in the back of our bird book or on some piece of paper marked "Harlingen, Texas, 2013" but that was a time before the smart phone. Erik had a hunch that this was not a common bird down in Texas and being the giver that he is, he not only made the call that it was a Connecticut but he started to make phone calls to determine who he should tell about his find. He spread the word and we kept hiking.

We wandered around for three hours picking up invisible chiggers that would later feast on our ankles and I picked up Black-bellied whistling Duck, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed flycatcher, Green Jay and Bronzed Cowbird to add to my life list. It was mid-afternoon birding at its worst. Every sighting was fleeting and the walk around the park consisted mostly of Curt and Erik pointing out spots they had seen things last year. This kind of walk down memory lane is fun for people who were there, it's just an incredible tease when you weren't there and the birds are non-cooperative on your visit. "Yes, yes, I'm glad you had a green kingfisher posing perfectly ten feet in front of you on that branch in perfect light. Today, it is just yet another empty branch on an overcast day."

By the time we got back to the parking lot we'd forgotten all about the Connecticut Warbler but local big-whig birders were busy pulling into the parking lot to politely tell Erik he was full of crap.

We hiked the assembled group back out to the same spot but nothing was there. Much further down the trail we encountered a pair of Nashville Warblers which was incredibly bad luck. They look a lot like Connecticut warblers and so everyone began to assume that was what he saw. Poor kid from the Boreal forest comes down to Texas and thinks he's seeing the same birds he sees at home. The thing is though, Erik never thought the Nashville's were the right birds. He called those birds Nashville's from the start. He knows Connecticut warblers. He's a top notch birder who leads tours for a living. He can, and does, ID Swainson's hawks five miles away by how they hold their wing tips and he spends hours upon hours standing in the cold driving winds coming off Lake Superior in the winter to study the cycles of gull plumage in the field. If Erik says he saw a Connecticut warbler that's what he saw.

I'm pretty sure he didn't convince the local cadre of Texas Audubon Society birders that showed up that day. We didn't even have a photo. For what it's worth though, about 200 feet down the trail from the Nashville Warblers, the entire group of 12 locals looked up into a tree with their binoculars and commented on a beautiful pair of Ladder-backed woodpeckers. They watched them for a few minutes and made sure to point this lifer bird out to me before moving on down the trail. I just smiled not having the heart to tell them the birds were actually yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Unlike the Connecticut Warbler, I have the photos to prove it.