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: Some Reflections on birding SE Texas  ( 503 )


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Some Reflections on birding SE Texas
« : November 04, 2015, 03:12:51 PM »
I recently returned from a week-long birding expedition to the lower Rio Grande Valley, birding from Laredo to Brownsville, TX.  Overall an interesting and enjoyable experience.  I thought I would share some observations, as many of you have birded there, or will in the future.  Hopefully this is the correct venue to dump some reflections that have been rattling around in my brain for a week.

One of the first things that strikes me when I visit Texas is the pervasive friendliness of its inhabitants.  These people are the most personable I have ever come across.  I have spent several weeks total in the Panhandle in the past, and the same holds true there – an almost unrelenting cheerfulness.  This from a state that elects Louis Gomert and Ted Cruz.

By contrast, Texans make Northern Californians look like zombies.  I birded Point Reyes north to Crescent City several years ago, and I never met a more icy group of people.  People ignore you like you have Ebola.

I was unprepared for the bugs and the heat.  For some reason I thought there would be fewer bugs in the fall, and the forecast called for temps in the mid-80s.  Temps were in the mid-90s (with awful humidity).  And I have bites all over me from these small flies (along with a few very small black mosquitoes that draw blood instantly) that I picked up while stopped by the side of the road.  Luckily I was able to avoid the fire ants; unfortunately my birding partner was not.  [I got my fire ant indoctrination in FL, where I birded by a pond in sandals.  Never experienced such itching before.]

If you are vegan/vegetarian, may God have mercy on your soul.

South Texas is dirty, trash-strewn.  Garbage along the side of the road, no matter where I went.  I took the drive on TX4 to Boca Chica from Brownsville and I couldn’t believe it.  Funny, but that is what struck me during my first visit to Colorado, how much trash was accumulating on the roadside. 

With few exceptions I saw the most beautiful schools – modern, architecturally pleasing, large.  Grade school, high school, didn’t matter (impressive venues to teach Creation Science, hee hee).  I assume this reflects the impact of a commodity economy – petroleum.  The ranches from San Antonio south to the border counties lie over a vast petroleum reserve – and all you see (and frequently smell) are the support facilities.  I think Texas has benefited from the boom in fracking, and their schools reflect that boom.  Of course, as a barrel of oil goes from $100 to $36 things might not be so rosy (ask North Dakota how things are looking now).

I35 north of Laredo – the most beautiful Welcome Center I’ve ever experienced.  Holy mackerel several hacienda-style buildings with gardens and ponds lined with exotic plants.  Wow, I wanted to live there!

Lastly my most indelible impression: the pervasive presence of law enforcement and the effect that had on my emotions.  I did not pick-up a vibe until I hit Laredo and points east to McAllen (Webb, Starr and Zapata Cos, mostly).  It began with our search for the White-collared Seedeater west of Laredo.  Frequent ICE helicopter passes 100 ft over the Rio Grande – upriver and down, upriver and down.  The noise …

We encountered state and local LEOs virtually every mile along US83.  I attempted to get into some of the Las Palmas Wildlife Management Areas along the river, and couldn’t find any signage or visible entrances.  We got near one tract near La Rosita and were stopped by ICE, where we were told we could get in if we were willing to get shot at.

By the time we reached McAllen we encountered three surveillance balloons – tethered at around 2,000ft(?) watching the River.

While searching for the Collared Plover in Hilger (Hidalgo Co.) we were approached by a county sheriff who told us we were not safe there, and that it would be better if we left.

While searching for the Northern Jacana at Santa Ana NWR an ICE helicopter apparently spotted something of interest and circled over the River about ¼ mi from our location for twenty minutes, until two ICE SUVs arrived to check things out.  This in addition to two roadblocks (“Are you both US citizens?”), and being followed by ICE on two occasions (Texas likes extensive frontage roads - you will meet ICE there).

I’m used to roadblocks having birded in Southern Arizona, and I wasn’t too upset at being followed.  But after a while I started to feel I was unsafe; that the heavy LEO presence, rather than provide a security blanket, made me feel that I had something to fear.  We went out twice at night looking for nighjars and owls and on each occasion we just felt – uneasy.

While on an isolated dirt road in rural Hidalgo Co. I noticed headlights about a mile behind.  ICE? LEO?  Something worse?  I could hardly concentrate on finding birds; I just wanted to get to a paved road so that I could maneuver if I had to.  A couple of nights later, by the border in Cameron Co., we just bagged it; I couldn’t handle it.

If I read the numbers correctly about 2.2ml people live in the five counties in Southeast Texas.  Of those over 90% are “Hispanic”.  I wonder how life has changed for these people in the last ten years?  Have any other birders to the region experienced similar feelings?

Tim Balassie
Kane Co., IL




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