By Kathleen O’Neill
Editor’s Note: The following account was written by Kathleen O’Neill, a young birder participant in last year’s Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Kathleen was the only young birder participant in 2011, so in an effort to attract more young birders, in 2012 the festival is offering a special young birder track, with field trips, programs, and more, just for young birders. To learn more, including how to register, see details below, visit the festival website or contact Jennie Duberstein, ABA Young Birder Program Liaison. Space is limited, so register soon!
Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival Young Birder Track
Fee $450 / Thursday 8 Nov – Sunday 11 Nov 2012 / Ages: 13-18
The American Birding Association, Leica Sport Optics, and the RGV Birding Festival have teamed up to offer a stellar opportunity for young naturalists. This first-ever Young Birder Track will be conducted in conjunction with the Festival, utilizing its resources and events, but with custom trips and programs for young birder participants. Learn about the natural history and ecology of the region, find out about careers in birding and conservation, and meet other young birders from around the country, as well as pro leaders, authors, and artists, all while seeing the Rio Grande Valley’s unparalleled birds, butterflies, habitats, and more.
Young Birder Track participants do not need an accompanying adult in order to participate (although adults are very welcome to attend the Festival!).
Hi! I’m Kathleen and in November of 2011 I attended the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen Texas. I had a great time and I also wrote journal entries every day. Each one was very long so I shortened them up a bit for time’s sake. I hope that you’ll enjoy stories of my experiences as the only youth birder in attendance at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival 2011!
Tuesday, November 8, 2012: 8:00pm (Texas time)
Today has been a very exciting day for me! This morning I set my alarm for 2:45am (yawn), and left for the airport at 3:30am. The plane took off right on schedule at 5:42am. It was still dark so I could see beautiful lights from the city. Before I knew it we had landed in Houston. We had to take a shuttle to get to our connecting flight, and while riding I saw my first red-morph Rock Dove. As soon as we got in to Harlingen we saw a big sign welcoming people to the Rio Grande Birding Festival. As soon as we got in our rental car I saw a large, brown, striped bird. It had a very long bill and my brain said, “Long-billed Curlew.” After passing several Loggerhead Shrikes, we stumbled upon a whole field of Long-billed Curlews.
There were Common Grackles and meadowlarks in the field, as well. We also saw the gigantic Iwo Jima Monument. We found our hotel and got our room key. The pool looked so cool that we jumped in. As we sat in the sun to dry off, a group of chattering green birds flew over. “Parrots!” mom and I said at the same time. We looked them up and figured out that they were Green Parakeets. Soon we headed off in search of a good birding spot.
We discovered Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, where birds were everywhere. We spotted some feeders and staked them out. An Orange-crowned Warbler came to a seed-filled, flat, rectangular feeder; under the feeder an Olive Sparrow skulked, and at the hummingbird feeder was a Buff-bellied Hummingbird. As soon as we started on the trail we heard the “Plthht” of Green Jays. But just as we were about to chase it down, a man ran up and told us that there was a “Mexican Eagle” down the trail flying over the cactus. There is no such thing as a Mexican Eagle, but when we went to investigate, a big bird flew over our heads and away before we could make identification. It was kind of depressing. After more hiking with little success (with the exception of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet) we turned back to the car. We were about to leave when an older couple told us about where we could find Plain Chachalacas. We found a group of 12 by the Hummingbird Garden. A Long-billed Thrasher visited the orange feeders. A Buff-bellied Hummingbird chased a Golden-fronted Woodpecker off its territory. Eventually the chachalacas strutted away and we headed back the car. On the way back we solved the mystery of the Mexican Eagle: a Harris’s Hawk.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011: Seedeater Trip
Today when I woke up (at 3:00am) I was extra excited for the trip, a Seedeater Sojourn to La Laja Ranch, a privately –owned property (we were the first large group to be let in). The dust was all over, everywhere. Mini-dust devils sprang up around every corner. Dust filled our shoes and made our eyes water, but we were able to ignore the dust and see amazing birds, like the Great Kiskadee and the Black-crested Titmouse. We looked all over the property, finding more valley specialties such as Green and Ringed kingfishers and Altamira Oriole.
We only had a few hours left to stay on the ranch. Would the Seedeater Sojourn be Seadeaterless? I heard a beautiful call coming from way up in a tree. “Audubon’s Oriole!” called one of our guides. But suddenly someone yelled, “SEEDEATER!” and I found myself running to where the man had yelled, jumping shrubs and dodging branches. All that effort was worth it for a look at a beautiful male White-collared Seedeater. He perched on top of the brush, along with two White-crowned Sparrows, allowing great looks (and photo opportunities) for most of us. An unlucky few who had missed it were delighted with a duller, but still easily recognizable female seedeater. We reported it right away and continued down the trail. We got great looks at a Northern Flicker (common in Delaware but rare for the Rio Grande Valley) and my life Vesper Sparrow. We then headed to a picnic spot, which was cold, rainy, and horrible. Okay, so not THAT bad, just mostly cold. After lunch we walked a canyon trail and heard a Rock Wren. I also saw an Osprey catch a fish and then drop it. On the way back home the species were counted up, and I only had one more bird to go until I would have 400 lifers! I expected I would get it on Thursday. I was already looking at the target bird lists for the next day’s trip when someone yelled, “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!” It was sitting on the telephone wire as the bus whizzed by, and it is a lifer I’ll never forget, even if it hadn’t been my 400th.
Thursday, November 10, 2011: Brownsville West
I felt great when I woke up this morning. I was all set to go on the field trip. I had been anticipating lots of lifers! When the leaders introduced themselves on the bus, I was really excited to find that one of them was Greg Miller! He is a famous and REALLY nice birder who got 710 birds, all in one Big Year (the Jack Black character in the movie “The Big Year” is based on Greg). On the trip he heard and saw birds that I would not have found myself. I actually identified a female Vermilion Flycatcher on this cloudy day, probably my most impressive identification yet (under the circumstances). I saw the bright red underparts and the streaked breast and otherwise dull plumage. We moved on to some ponds. At the ponds we found a pair of American Coots and a Muscovy Duck (of uncertain origin unfortunately). On the other side of the resaca (oxbow lake), someone spotted a Least Grebe, which was another life bird for me. We found a flock of migrants including a Black-throated Green Warbler, a few Orange-crowned Warblers, and a Nashville Warbler, another lifer. We heard a Brown Thrasher further down the path. Greg spotted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in flight and I got my life White-tipped Dove on the way out of the park.
Tonight Mom and I went to Kenn Kaufman’s talk on how birders aren’t nerds. He talked about that for a whole hour with lots of humor and stories mixed in. When he asked for questions at the end, a man suggested that he should write a guide for birders on “How not to be nerds.” Kenn replied, “I…I am going to have to…reject that opinion because I have never met a birder who was a nerd.” Then everyone began to clap and cheer. The man who had asked the question slumped down in his chair. At the author’s book signing following the talk, I met Kenn and his wife Kim in person and they are both super nice.
Friday, November 11, 2011: Upper Rio Grande
Today I had to get up at 4:00am, but I was very excited when I heard that we were going to the most reliable place to see Red-billed Pigeon.
When we got to our first stop, Great Kiskadees and Green Jays called, and nice male Pyrrhuloxia showed himself. Some waterfowl were on the river, and raptors worked the riparian corridor. We went for a walk in a more desert-like area in hopes of finding some desert species, and I missed two flyover Greater White-fronted Geese (which would have been lifers). I was sulking in the back of the group when a medium-sized grayish bird hopped up onto a stick; it turned out to be a Sage Thrasher, which was my one lifer for the day (no Red-billed Pigeons yet).
The only other bird we added on the trail was Lesser Goldfinch. The next place we went to was a place called Starr County Park, where I saw Lark Bunting, Black-throated Sparrow, and Pine Warbler. That night I went to The Big Year talk which was interesting, funny, and an enjoyable experience. Mark Obmascik, the author of “The Big Year,” talked about how excited he was that they turned his book into a movie, and Greg Miller talked about his experiences with Jack Black (who played Greg in the movie). He said when he and Jack went birding, the first bird Greg identified was a Red-winged Blackbird except at first the bird did not show its red wings and Jack questioned Greg’s identification skills! It was cool to meet Mark at the author’s signing, and of course to see Greg again.
Saturday, November 12, 2011: Weslaco
The ride to our location was nice and short in luxury buses with foot-rests, cup holders and soft seats. Once we arrived at our first location, Estero Llano Grande State Park, the people were nice, but the birds were even better. I heard a Sedge Wren and saw White-tailed Hawk and Cave Swallow, along with two Common Paraques just off the path. It was sunny and beautiful, with adorable Least Grebes in all of the ponds.
The next place we went was Frontera Audubon Thicket. A big group of teenagers were there that all thought we were expert birders. What they didn’t know was that they were standing right next to feeders where Clay-colored Thrushes had been seen. The thrushes would not come to the feeders with all of those kids standing there, so we went on a bird walk and saw leaf cutter ants. When we got back to stake out the feeders, we waited for a while and finally Greg Miller said, “I think that was the bird!” He went over to the stake-out area and got me on it, and soon the whole group had a new lifer they could be quite proud of: Clay-colored Thrush! Best day ever! That afternoon we went to the “Extreme Birder” seminar with Lynn Barber. She showed bird photos and told stories about her Big Year birding adventures and misadventures. It was a great talk. We then checked out the festival trade show. Then, the main festival event (from my perspective, at least): The Great South Texas Birding Quiz Show (a parody of Jeopardy). First, our new friend Andy Bankert went up to compete in the Quiz show, and had a great time even though he didn’t win. He got a tote bag prize which he swapped for two books (one of which he gave to me!) The next group was really good and the whole thing was awesome. Jeff Gordon (president of the American Birding Association) was in a Kenny Bostick costume from the movie “The Big Year,” and Liz Gordon (his wife) was Annie Auklet, also from “The Big Year.” It was really awesome!
Sunday, November 13, 2011: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
I could not wait to visit Bentsen, since it is a legendary park. When we arrived I was very excited. Our guide, Roy Rodriguez, had made sure that all of the bird feeders were filled just for us. So after a quick walk through the garden, we headed to the main feeding station. On the way there we saw a Black Phoebe. There were tons of Green Jays and Plain Chachalacas, which proved to be great photo subjects. But the star of the show was the Altamira Oriole. I even got a photo of the bird through a scope. A Great Kiskadee came down to join the party. Pretty soon, we headed to the hawk watch platform where we saw some Black Vultures feeding on dead fish from the drying lakes. Just then, the call came in. I could hear the muffled voice of the guide talking on his walkie-talkie, and he sounded excited. “One of the rangers is leading a bird walk not far from the platform and he just saw a flyover Zone-tailed Hawk!” he said. We began scanning the tree line. The guide said that Zone-tail is known to mimic Turkey Vultures in the hopes of fooling its prey into thinking it is a harmless scavenger, not a deadly predator. He described it as a Turkey Vulture with a head. Soon a raptor appeared. It looked sort of like a vulture but it was not – it was the Zone-tailed Hawk! It soared right past us twice. I got amazing photos (at least for a digital camera), and it was gone just as we headed for the next trail. We scanned the brush by a lake for Vermilion Flycatcher. With no luck on the flycatcher, we headed down a trail that seemed dead, until…a bobcat stood itself twenty feet or so down the trail, right in the middle and seconds later ran off with its baby. My mom got a picture of the bobcat which, though blurry, can still be made out. We were soon headed back.
That was the end of our scheduled trips for the festival, but my mom and I had gotten some tips and headed to Old Port Isabel Road, where Aplomado Falcons were supposed to hang out. We ended up on many unmarked dirt roads (the only description we had of our target road was that it was an “unmarked dirt road”) but none with any Aplomado Falcons. We even ended up on Vinson’s Firing Range—a somewhat worrisome name. But no falcons. So we gave up and headed to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to spot some new wetland birds. As soon as we pulled in a birder approached us and alerted us of the presence of a Tropical Parula (rare and usually only found in Mexico). My mom and I walked the trails and eventually settled in a large gazebo by a small creek with those water drippers that the warblers go crazy for. So after the chachalacas stalked away, a little bird fluttered down to the drip. “That’s the bird!” hissed the crowd of birders that had gathered. And it was—Tropical Parula. The other birders all had big fancy cameras that they got photos with, but even though all I had was my little digital camera, I got a picture, too. With daylight fleeting, we scanned the wires in hope of finding the Aplomado. And then, there it was: a falcon. As we moved closer it flew, but then landed again farther down the entrance road. When we moved in for a closer look, it flew back to its original location. As we repeated this pattern, driving back and forth down the road, Mom reported details of the bird’s pattern as I consulted our Peterson’s field guide. Everything was a match until Mom said, “It has rufous coloration on its back…wait, does that mean…” Yes, that meant that we had spent the last minutes of daylight chasing after an American Kestrel, a bird I see at least once a month! It was practically only a silhouette in the dim light, in our defense. Somewhat disheartened, we headed to Wendy’s to drown our sorrows in chocolate Frosties.
A few Notes on the Trip:
- We later discovered that the “Mexican Eagle” is really a term used by some birders for Crested Caracara.
- We found out that the meadowlarks (mentioned in “day one”) were Western Meadowlarks. We determined that because an expert on the trip said all meadowlarks in good sized groups in winter in the areaare Westerns.
- Post-trip, I discovered that I had made a life list miscount and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was not my true 400th lifer. But since it would be so hard to figure out which one really was, I will always treat it like #400.
- The Vinson’s Firing Range road turned out to be Old Port Isabel Road after all! But there certainly were not any Aplomado Falcons out and about when we were there.
- Just a tip: if you want to see Aplomado Falcons make sure you ask for very specific directions or you’ll end up totally lost!