A couple weeks ago, my husband Mike and I took a trip to Texas to see birds. While most Minnesotans go south in the winter to escape the snow and cold, that was not our main goal. We actually find Minnesota in winter to be beautiful, bug free, and invigorating. But, by the end of January we are getting pretty bored with the same species of birds coming to our feeders and we know we have to wait another two months, at least, before we begin to see new species.
It was this desire that caused us to look south and book airplane tickets to Brownsville, Texas; a part of the country I had never seen. We knew that at this time of year there would be many birds along the Rio Grande and the Gulf Coast. We chose a fairly well described and small area to explore – the Refuges and Parks around Brownsville, McAllen and South Padre Island. The land itself is completely flat, which is not surprising since it was once a vast wetland and ocean floor; the overall vegetation was scrubby brush. As soon as we walked out of the airport and to our rental car, we began our ‘treasure hunt’ and the first find were the Great-tailed Grackles. About 6 inches larger
Great-tailed Grackles travel and gather in large groups – photo by Mike Link
than the Common Grackle, they would be the most common (abundant) bird we would see the entire time. In fact, they presented us with a sight we have never seen.
The first evening, Mike went outside the hotel to see what he could find and he came back in and said I had to come out and “see something”. We got in the car to go to a restaurant and as we pulled out of the parking lot he pointed at the telephone wires alongside the road. They were packed with squawking, squeaking Great-tailed Grackles; seriously packed on the lines extending in every direction. It was dusk and more and more birds were flying in as we slowly drove along gawking out the windows. Thousands, millions maybe, of birds gathering to roost along the busy highway. We speculated that Alfred Hitchcock must have filmed “The Birds” in Brownsville.
That was just the beginning of our bird adventure. It would grow to include 96 species, many which we never see up north and others that are very difficult to find even when they do come this far.
We learned about a unique wetland called a Resaca – which is basically an oxbow lake left over from the meanderings of the Rio Grande. This is a very dry part of the country and these water filled channels are magnets for birds (and alligators in some cases). Most of the birds we saw were either, waterfowl, sea birds, or wading birds. It seems we were a bit too early for the songbird migration, but nonetheless we were excited and appreciative of the birds we did find.
There was something else I noticed while we were there and this is, I believe, a part of the human nature, something we have carried with us since we first walked upright. It is our craving for novelty and how fast novelty can wear off. Think of children when they get a new toy; think of us adults when we get a new car or any new gadget. Our excitement and pleasure is great for a short burst of time and then it quickly fades away.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks gather along a Resaca. Photo by Mike Link
This was true of our birding experience. Two birds in particular stand out. One was the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. The most striking features of this bird are its bright pink legs and feet and it’s equally bright ‘wax lips’ bill. With very few exceptions they are only found down in this region. When we found a group resting along the edge of a Resaca in Brownsville we were thrilled. Then we found some more down at the other end of the waterway; then we found them in every water feature at the Gladys Porter Zoo. When we saw them sitting on the roof of our hotel the next day, we laughed, and realized that we were already feeling the ‘ho-hum’ – more Whistling Ducks. After only 2 days!!
The same could be said of the Green Jays. These are magnificently beautiful birds, with feathers that seamlessly blend from shades of green to blue. The field guides cannot come close to capturing their subtle shades. We were at the Resaca de Palma State Park when we first saw them. The Visitor Center is surrounded by bird feeders, but we noticed that they were all empty, so we went inside and asked the staff person if they were going to fill them. She apologized and said she would get right on it. If there were ever a demonstration of the power of providing bird seed to wild birds, this was it.
We browsed inside the building for a few minutes and then went back outside. Near a small water feature, a mixed type of bird seed had been spread on the rocks and ground and there were now numerous birds of several species flying down to feed. We saw Plain Chachalaca’s, White-tipped Doves, a Long-billed Thrasher and Green Jays. We were only several feet away from all this action and the bird’s did not seem worried about our presence.
The feathers on the Green Jay are some of the prettiest in the bird world. Photo by Mike Link
When we first saw the Jays, we spent minutes gazing through our binoculars, mesmerized by their stunning features. But, Green Jays are found in all the places we visited, so before long we were saying – ‘it’s another jay” and barely giving it a glimpse. Mike pointed out more than once that we may never see these birds again and so we must fill our brain cells with their image.
The lesson of course, is to never take anything for granted, especially in nature. We are back home and watching the Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Nuthatches come to the bird feeders again. We continue to be entertained by their activity and we are trying to appreciate their familiar beauty, but to be honest, we are looking forward to April when we know there will be some new species to feed our need for novelty.