People can become enthusiastic, compulsive and obsessive about nearly anything. Plenty of marriages have gone off the rails when one spouse has developed a time-devouring absorption in an activity – shopping, blackjack, golf – that the other partner does not share. Anglers have been known to study bass’s feeding and spawning habits as if doing research for doctoral dissertations: which line to use in murky water, which lure to use when the moon is full, which rod to use when attempting to pitch a 4-inch plastic worm under a dock from a johnboat in heavy wind on a Tuesday afternoon in May. This kind of minutiae matters to those who pursue fish, because every bit of information can help. This all-knowledge-is-good-knowledge mindset, I recently learned, is especially prevalent among birders.
Keith Hackland, owner of the Alamo Inn, a bed & breakfast in the small town of Alamo in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, gently pointed out during my visit to the region that birders are often as tuned in to the environment they scan as anglers are. Learning the habits of birds – the kinds of trees various species are likely to roost in, which hour of the day birds feed and when, specifically, birds begin their journeys north and south – all play into how birders plan both their trips and their days. Since I was a birding skeptic – to paraphrase Mark Twain, I thought birding was a good hike spoiled – I asked Keith to enlighten me, and I couldn’t have asked for a better master.
Keith and his wife, Audrey Jones, own a truck camper that they take out when they find the time. Audrey is a doctor who owns a local family practice, and Keith runs the Alamo Inn, a wonderfully affordable establishment brimming with fowl-infused décor. Birders from around the world descend on the Alamo Inn each winter, since many of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s more than 500 species make their home in the region in the cooler months. The Alamo Inn can supply
birders with anything they might need in the field – binoculars, vests, hats, birding guides, maps and a flock of birding books – and Keith occasionally guides guests in the field. Most birders will not require a guide, since the nearby wildlife refuges are easy to negotiate, and the birds are generally plentiful. I, however, was on a more important mission than simply adding another species to my life list – a list that didn’t exist: I was trying to understand the essence of birding, to comprehend why people spend their time this way; it is similar to my quest to fathom the appeal of Dancing with the Stars.
After making the short drive to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Keith and I set out along one of the flat trails that lead through this 2,088-acre wild enclave, home or host to 397 different bird species, as well as endangered ocelots, indigo snakes, malachite butterflies and javelinas. During my March visit, the parched terrain surprised me, but I learned that
April generally brings rain, water that must certainly change the complexion of the Rio Grande that delineates the southern border of the refuge and the border with Mexico. The vegetation on either side of the river is called a river forest, ranging from 50 to 200 feet wide, and six of the most rare nesting birds live in the river forest in and around
the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Many birders, Keith among them, are concerned that the wall the federal government is building along the border will wipe out these species in the United States.
Thankfully, plenty of different kinds of birds were on display as Keith and I walked the peaceful trails. We saw Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Great Egret, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Kestrel, Merlin, American Coot and Plain Chachalaca and a dozen others during our short excursion. While admiring the 360-degree views of the flat terrain that makes up this part of South Texas and Northern Mexico, I spied the yellow plumage of two Great Kiskadees, then admired the bright-orange hue of an Altamira Oriole.
Suddenly, birding made sense to me – from the isolated tranquility of the viewing tower, I experienced nature on its own terms, passively, without interrupting its rhythms or imposing my will upon it, as I would while hiking or biking. The silence was broken only by the calls of birds, the White-tipped Dove and the Golden-fronted Woodpecker most prevalent among the calls Keith and I heard from our birders’ aerie.
Most of the tens of thousands of snowbirds – known as Winter Texans in these parts – who spend the cool
months in the Lower Rio Grande Valley probably know that the region’s birding is famous internationally. These itinerant Texas residents may not know, however, that in addition to the numerous well-known birding spots that exist within the extensive Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, they will find wonders, with and without plumage, at El Sal Del Rey Tract.
Keith and I parked at the trailhead, then walked about a mile and a half on the well-maintained trail. Eventually we reached a large open section of drying dirt and mud. Being careful of our footing, we crossed the embedded tracks of whitetail deer and Nilgai – a large species of antelope native to India and Pakistan that was imported for hunting. We approached what appeared to be a sheet of ice, a flat slab of whiteness that stretched out for a couple hundred yards. All that whiteness, we knew, was salt, hence the Salt of the King name. The unusual terrain was somewhat disconcerting, since my only experience on a surface that looked similar involved the possibility of crashing through the surface, then frantically hoping to survive. This concern only existed in my head, not in reality, because unlike ice, salt forms from the ground up. I truly enjoyed my short stay in this novel environment, but, more important, on the walk back we saw an early Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, (956) 784-7500.
Alamo Inn, (956) 782-9912.