RGVBF 2012 -- Friends New and Old

I often tell my friends that going to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) is like going to a family reunion with folks who you really like, but aren't related to. I come away from each trip the Valley having made new friends and strengthening bonds with old ones. This year's festival was the most fun yet in this regard.

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Before the festival starts, we always spend a couple days at the Alamo Inn. (Photo by Dave Irons)

As always, our week in the Lower Rio Grande Valley starts with a two-night stay at the Alamo Inn and Suites, in Alamo, Texas. Upon arriving on Sunday evening, the familiar face of innkeeper Keith Hackland was there to greet us. We quickly learned that long-time festival leader Bob Behrstock was also staying at the Inn, so we dialed him up and invited him to join us for dinner across the street at the El Dorado Restaurant, where the food is always a treat and the Negra Modelos are always cold. Bob had already eaten, but joined us anyway and kept us laughing as we ate and traded stories. 

The next morning we made the short drive  to Santa Ana NWR, where we met Eric Antonio Martinez, who would be a virgin leader at this year's festival. Mary Gustafson, who coordinates all the field trips for the RGVBF, had met Eric in his native Oaxaca, Mexico two years earlier when she needed a local guide. Utterly impressed by Eric's birding and guiding skills, Mary invited him to come to the festival as a leader. After more than a year spent navigating the process,  Eric obtained a visa to visit the U.S., and he'd just arrived arrived the day before. Mary had asked Shawneen and me in advance if we might show Eric around and take him birding before the festival started. We happily obliged and in retrospect, we got the better end of the bargain.

We birded all day Monday with Eric. Starting at Santa Ana, we scoured the ponds along the Pintail Lakes Trail in hopes of relocating a Northern Jacana found there two days earlier. While out on the trail, we ran into J.D. Cortez, who is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist and Oil and Gas Specialist who oversees Oil and Gas exploration and development activities on the National Wildlife Refuges in the Valley. He and I led a big day trip at the 2011 festival and we were scheduled to lead a similar trip on Wednesday this year. We couldn't turn up the jacana, but enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with a host of local specialty species. 

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Shawneen Finnegan (at the scope), Eric Antonio Martinez (behind Shawneen in the hat) and J.D. Cortez working hard looking for the Northern Jacana at Santa Ana NWR on 5 November 2012. (Photo by Dave Irons)

About 9:30AM vultures started getting up and filling the skies to the south, so our attentions turned to finding unusual raptors as kettles began to form in multiple directions. I picked out a distant soaring hawk with a wing shape that seemed to fit Hook-billed Kite and then got on another all-dark hawk that may have been a Zone-tailed Hawk. Both birds we were beyond the limit of identifiability, so we focused on closer kettles.  A few minutes later, a kettle of vultures formed almost immediately over our heads. We noticed an all-black hawk with a single white tail band in the group, which we initially assumed would be a Zone-tailed, but something didn't look quite right. Shawneen then said, "look at the wing shape." Simultaneously, the three of us realized that we were looking at an adult dark-morph Hook-billed Kite. Light-morph Hook-billeds are seen regularly along this stretch of the Rio Grande, but dark morphs are rarely seen in the U.S. The dark-morph bird was soon joined by a light-morph Hook-billed and the two circled lazily a mere 200 feet overhead. Eric got nice photos of the dark bird, which I was thankful for, as my camera lens had picked this day to have mechanical issues. We concluded that these birds were likely the two that we had not been able ID earlier.

After Santa Ana, we made our way to Estero Llano Grande State Park. Along the way, we made  a quick detour through the sod farms near Progreso. Aside from a large flock of Long-billed Curlews and a White-tailed Kite, the sod farms were pretty quiet. I dropped Eric and Shawneen off at Estero, then made an emergency run to the only reputable camera repair shop in the area, which was 20 minutes away in McAllen. I opted not to leave my lens there after the woman behind the counter informed me that it might be 2-3 days before they could get me an estimate on the repair and likely be more than a week before they could get the work done. Since my lens had been acting a bit funny just before I left home, I'd prudently brought along my trusty old Panasonic Lumix just in case. I could use it and wait until I got home to get my Canon lens repaired.  

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A view looking south into the "tropical area" from the parking lot at Estero Llano Grande State Park. This former RV park has lots of flowering and fruit-bearing plants and is now part of the state park property. (Photo by Dave Irons)

Back at Estero, I met up with Shawneen and Eric who had been combing the "tropical area" in my absence. Nothing too fancy about, but good birding nevertheless. We checked out the main pond by the visitor's center and then succumbed to hunger. Coming back from McAllen, I had noticed "Fat Daddy's Barbeque" along F.M. 1015 Rd. just a mile or so north of the entrance to the park. A full parking lot during the lunch hour is typically a good sign, so we decided to give it a try. Eric sampled the chicken-fried chicken, which came complete with mashed potatoes, white gravy and white bread. Initially overwhelmed by the mountain of food before him, he rolled up his sleeves and plowed through the entire plate. Eric's not a big guy, thus Shawneen and I were duly impressed when he scraped his plate clean. Shawneen opted for the daily special, which was a pulled pork sandwich and I had a combo plate with brisket and pork tenderloin. It was clean plates all around. 

It was going on 4PM. We remained determined to show Eric a life bird, which would be a tall order in these parts where most of local birds are common in Mexico. Eric has a life list in excess of 800 species in his home country. We realized that he might not have seen Sprague's Pipit and when asked, he confirmed that it would be new for him. Off we went for the Sebastian area in southern Willacy County, where Shawneen and I had seen and heard dozens of pipits the previous year. Mere seconds out of the car, we started hearing pipits calling overhead along Co. Rd. 375. At least two dozen birds flew back and forth across the road, but none would land nearby. We got the scope on one distant bird on the ground, but still hoped for a better view. 

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Eric Antonio Martinez (above) is poised in hopes of getting flight shots of Sprague's Pipits along Co. Rd. 375 northeast of Sebastian, Willacy County, Texas on 5 November 2012. Upon finally getting good looks at a bird on the ground, Eric (below) was a happy camper. (Photos by Dave Irons)

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It occurred to me that our presence in plain view on the road might be keeping the pipits from landing close. There was a single tree along the fenceline, so we crowded underneath it in hopes that if we were less visible the birds would land nearer the road. As the light began to fade, a single Sprague's Pipit alit in the short grass about 40 feet from where we stood. Eric got the spectacular views we'd hoped for as the pipit nearly filled the field of view through our 85mm Nikon EDG scope. We lingered along the roadside for another ten minutes as the sun set. We estimated that there may have been upwards of 40 pipits in the area, and a large flock of about 65 Eastern Meadowlarks flew from one side of the road to the other. 

During the drive back to Alamo, we got a call from Bob Behrstock, who invited us to join him for dinner. Still stuffed from our late lunch, we picked him up and headed for Willie's Barbeque  just a few blocks from the Alamo Inn. On this night, Bob ate while we only had cold drinks. After dinner, we returned Eric to the guest compound at Santa Ana. Over the course of one fabulous day we had bonded with our newfound friend from Oaxaca and we would spend the next seven days watching him transform before our eyes as he connected with other leaders and assimilated into the fabric and culture of the RGVBF family. 

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