Birding the Rio Grande Valley, dreading the Wall


ALAMO, Texas – As the nation debates the wisdom of a potentially devastating wall along our southern border, the wildlife that shares this spectacular stretch of habitat continues to survive and thrive in the Rio Grande Valley of southeast Texas.
Plain chachalaca, photo by Bret McCarty

We can only imagine how long this situation will last. Already, noisy bulldozers are belching exhaust and plowing mountains of soil adjacent to the National Butterfly Center, which remains in business in defiance of the threats just outside its gates in Mission.

Given this mounting uncertainty, I joined a group of Northeast Ohio birders for a week exploring the Valley earlier this month. We feared we would never have this opportunity again, depending on the life or death of the Wall.

I was accompanied by my son, Bret, a first-year medical student at the New Jersey School of Medicine at Rutgers University; Jeff Wert, my friend and birding partner since high school; and Karen Lakus, the talented historical interpreter for the Cleveland Metroparks.
As always, the birds, animals and butterflies of the Valley did not disappoint.

Buff-bellied hummingbird/Bret McCarty
Our daily adventures began before sunrise in glorious 80-degree temperatures, taking us to such iconic parks as the Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa national wildlife refuges, Estero Llano Grande and Bentsen-Rio Grande state parks, the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and the Quinta Mazatlan Birding Center. The parks comprise one of the most biodiverse places in North America.

The feeding stations at Salineno below Falcon Dam had closed unexpectedly a few weeks earlier, but the trails skirting the river were busy with Valley specialties such as Morelet’s seedeaters, red-billed pigeon and a ringed kingfisher, similar but decidedly larger than our familiar belted kingfisher. A pyrrhuloxia, cactus wren and lark sparrows were highlights at the ancient Mexican cemetery there.

Cruising the farm roads on our return to Alamo, we enjoyed close-up views of crested caracaras and white-tailed hawks, plus an especially exciting encounter with a Western diamond-backed rattlesnake in the grass by the roadside.
Aplomado falcon/Bret McCarty


The best way to explore the ponds, vast wetlands and scrub-filled fields of Laguna Atascosa are in the comfort of large-windowed touring van, which took us down miles of dirt roads inaccessible to the public, closed in recent years to protect the resident ocelots from becoming roadkill.

Rafts of waterfowl, shorebirds and white pelicans dotted the ponds, and a roadrunner dashed away at our approach. Northern harriers cruised over the fields.

But the highlight of the tour came as we were parked beside a pond, and a raptor dove into an island of tall grass. When the stunning bird emerged and hovered overhead, seeking its feathered prey, we were dazzled by priceless views of an endangered aplomado falcon, a boldly plumed bird that was reintroduced at the refuge a decade ago and has been thriving there in recent years.

Bobcat/Bret McCarty
At nearly every park where we stopped we found Valley specialties such as green jays, Altamira orioles, plain chachalacas, and golden-fronted woodpeckers. Utility wires hosted scissor-tailed flycatchers, loggerhead shrike and Couch’s kingbirds.

Santa Ana offered rarities such as tropical parula warbler and groove-billed anis, plus the best views of buff-bellied hummingbirds, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, olive sparrows, Louisiana waterthrush, least grebes, cinnamon teal, and black-necked stilts.
Western diamondback rattlesnake/Bret McCarty

We’re birders first, but the most exciting event of the week was probably during our drive on a backroad to the Anzalduas County Park. As we approached the ancient La Lomita Mission, a wildcat appeared in the grass by the roadside: a bobcat!

Rather than fleeing in terror into the underbrush, the bobcat regarded us with idle curiosity, wagging its tail and ambling leisurely down a dirt path skirting a field. Jeff and I had seen bobcats during previous trips to the Valley, but they were typically fleeting glimpses. This one was unforgettable.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers/Bret McCarty
At Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, a dozen birders waited patiently for hours on stone benches by a feeding station, anticipating the arrival of a Mexican rarity that was being seen there, a crimson-collared grosbeak. Chachalacas, green jays, thrashers, and clay-colored thrush visited the feeders, but not the grosbeak.

Fortunately, Bret has amazingly sensitive hearing, and heard the grosbeak in a nearby stand of shrubs. He caught a fleeting glimpse of the bird, a green female with a black face, but the rest of us weren’t so lucky.

Nearby, McAllen’s lushly landscaped neighborhoods provided ample opportunities for viewing noisy flocks of red-crowned parrots and green parakeets.
Armadillo/Bret McCarty

Volunteers had ended feeding the birds at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, but the excitement there continued as hundreds of migrating hawks – primarily broad-wings, but also Swainson’s and gray – circled in kettles overhead, riding the winds of an approaching storm front.

Although the proposed wall would have less of an impact on migrating raptors, it would cleave a hundred miles of precious terrain, blocking wild pathways for other migrating birds, jaguars, ocelots and javelinas and destroying private property, iconic parks and the beloved historic chapel of La Lomita, built in 1865, which we visited.
Long-billed thrasher/Karen Lakus

Hard to imagine, but the levee running beside La Lomita chapel, in the tiny hamlet of Madero … is now designated to be the course of a new border wall, cutting the chapel off from its congregation,” The Guardian newspaper wrote March 31.

Father Roy Snipes, known locally as the ‘cowboy priest’ for his Stetson hat, leads prayers for his chapel to be spared. ‘It would still be a sacred place,’ he said, ‘but it would be a sacred place that was desecrated.’”

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