We were greeted by the loud, raucous croaking sound of two Plain Chachalacas as we entered Sabal Palm Audubon Center south of Brownsville, Texas. They needed a distinctive call, since their feathers were a drab grayish brown. About the size of a chicken, they easily flew up onto the roof of the visitor’s center and from there into a tree, where the males actively displayed their tail feathers to attract a mate. Their call was echoed by other Chachalacas throughout the sanctuary. Residents of the lower Rio Grande Valley refer to their dawn chorus as their alarm clock.
The Plain Chachalaca is native to Mexico and Central America. Its range only extends to the tip of south Texas.
The Sabal Palm Audubon Center, identified as a Globally Important Bird Area, also is one of the wildlife corridors that has been developed and nurtured along the southern part of the Rio Grande River to allow non-flying wildlife to move freely back and forth across the river – important to maintaining the gene pool and wildlife diversity. It also contains one of the only remaining stands of Sabal palms.
I recently returned from a trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley with my friends Barb and Sue. We knew that the sanctuary was at risk and wanted to visit before it was cut off by the impending border wall.
We visited just in time. A recent news release issued by Texas Audubon announced that due in part to the impending construction of the border wall they “will be forced to curtail public access to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary.” The sanctuary closed on May 15; the situation will be reassessed in mid October. Projected construction of the border fence, being built along the levee all along the Rio Grande, will effectively cut the sanctuary off, since it is located between the levee and the river.
As we traversed some of the center’s trails, we saw Olive Sparrows, Groove-billed Ani, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. Flashes of apple green and royal blue announced the presence of Green Jays. These species only venture north to this sub-tropical and biologically diverse environment.
We watched a vireo flitting in the foliage. Barb got a good look and checked her field guide – a Yellow-green Vireo – a bird that almost was extirpated in the United States; however, a few have nested in the Brownsville area for the past few years.
As mandated by the Secure Fence Act passed by Congress in 2006, almost 600 of the proposed 670 miles of fencing have been constructed along the 1,947 miles of border. Since it removes large swaths of vegetation, the fence makes a 60 foot wide impact in the areas where it has been erected.
The path of the fence follows a staccato line along the border. It is not clear how the segments were selected. Some private land owners have had their land seized (although many are fighting back in the courts), while others are left untouched. According to a February 2008 article in the Texas Observer, the wall has stopped short of some gated golf-course communities owned by prominent Texas business people – and political contributors to the prior administration.
We worked our way north along the Rio Grande, stopping to sample the diverse wild life at several of the numerous state parks and wildlife refuges. To further protect the environment, visitors can either walk the trails, or tour the facilities via a tram.
Our next stop was at the newly created Resaca de la Palma State Park, part of the World Birding Center complex and located north of Brownsville. It is one of the places where Altamira Oriole’s nest.
“A pair of orioles just finished building their nest outside the visitor’s center,” the helpful ranger told us when we purchased our day pass. “You can see the wildlife from our 3.2 mile tram ride through the park,” she continued. “When the tram returns to the main parking lot, the driver will show you the oriole’s nest.”
The tram route alternatively passed through resaca wetlands where Moorhens, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Great Egret, Least Grebes, Black-necked Stilts, Blue-winged Teal and Coots enjoyed the shaded waters and marsh vegetation and dry areas with stands of mesquite – a typical tamaulipan thorn scrub environment, where we spotted Groove-billed Ani and Blue Grosbeaks.
Back at the parking lot we saw the pendulous nest of the Altamira Oriole hanging from a tree adjacent to the parking area. The female must have been deep inside. We watched the brightly colored orange and black male furtively fly into a nearby bush, pop into the nest, and then emerge and fly off.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and the hot sun beat down on us as we walked from the parking area to the visitor’s center.
“You just missed the tram,” the park staff informed us. “You can start walking and pick it up the next time it goes by. It makes its loop every 30 min.”
We trudged along the edge of the road, trying to stay in the shade, which, due to the humidity, wasn’t very cool. Since this area of Texas has been in drought conditions, the grasses and shrubs on either side of the road were parched, and most birds also were taking respite from the heat.
We wandered along the Kiskadee Trail and the Acadia Loop, and ended up at the Kingfisher Overlook along the La Parida Banco, where we sat in the shade on a retaining wall overlooking the water. An Osprey flew by with its gentle wing beats, and we were able to watch Altamira and Hooded Orioles going to and from their nests.
We left just as the park was closing at 5 p.m. Since there are so many birding hot spots along the Lower Rio Grande Valley, we didn’t want to stop for the day. Even though we knew it would be closed, we headed for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, another refuge that would be impacted by the border fence.
Just as we exited the visitor center area, we saw a Clay-colored Thrush (Robin) walking nonchalantly down the path. I had seen this bird – the national bird of Costa Rica – when I visited Central American earlier in the year. This was the northern edge of its range.
We traveled back towards our motel in Brownsville on U.S. 281, the “old highway” which connected the original land-grant settlements along the Rio Grande. We passed through tiny villages between agricultural areas. It was here that we got a good look at a segment of the border fence that already had been constructed.
The next morning we headed north towards Salineno, just south of Falcon Dam. We drove slowly through the village, which looked as if was from a by-gone era, and down the dirt road about a block to river.
We watched a Golden-fronted Woodpecker scrounging for insects in the tree which provided some shade for the car. Since they prefer the clear waters and inlets below the nearby dam, this is one of the few locations where Green and Ringed Kingfishers can reliably be found. Dense willows hugged the shore and shaded the water – their favorite haunts.
A Great Kiskadee called from the trees and White-tipped Doves quietly flew back and forth.
“We have to see the kingfisher on this side of the river,” Barb reminded us. “It doesn’t count towards our North American bird list if it is in Mexico – a stone throw across the Rio Grande.”
A birder from New Jersey emerged from wooded trail. He had seen the kingfishers further up river and offered to lead us. In our haste, we forgot to tuck in our pants legs and woke up the next morning with chigger bites.
All of a sudden we heard the clatter of two Ringed Kingfishers, and then we saw them chasing each other across the river and into the trees. We didn’t get a very good look, but at least now they were on the ‘countable’ side of the river. Before long, they flew out in plain view in front of us.
Back by the car, Barb was able to see a Green Kingfisher as it flew from one tree to another, the white outer tail feathers obvious as it flew. “I have been waiting 30 years to see it in the U.S.,” Barb exclaimed.
As we left Salineno, we worried about what would happen to the town with the advent of the border fence. The village, which has been there for centuries, surely would be cut off – along with one of the birding hotspots of the area.
Perhaps there is hope for the wildlife on the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ) has introduced The Border Security and Responsibility Act (H.R. 2076), which would provide a new approach to securing the border, while at the same time protecting our borderlands wildlife and wild place. It would repeal the REAL ID Act waiver authority, which gave the Office of Homeland Security the power to waive all federal, state and local laws in the process of constructing the wall, including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and others. It also would require meaningful consultation with private landowners, as well as public and private wildlife managers.
And, since I have returned, news has come out that Obama’s budget has eliminated the funds to build the remaining 70 miles of fence, which would protect 30 years of inter-agency partnerships and international cooperation to protect the native habitat and its wildlife.
As we headed to Laredo and then on to San Antonio, I pondered the fate of wildlife, as well the economy of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which has been enriched by the thousands of birders who visit each year.