Unexpected Guest of Honor at 20th Annual RGVBF

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This apparent hatch-year female Amazon Kingfisher, just the 2nd well-documented record for the United States, was the star of the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. This photo was taken on day two (10 November 2013). 

Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."  (John Lennon)

November 9,  2013, which seemed destined to embody "Murphy's Law," for me and nearly 40 0ther birders, ended up being a day that none of us and no birder fortunate enough to be at the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival will ever forget. 

Festival organizers, determined to make this year's festival–the 20th anniversary edition–an event worthy of the occasion, assembled a cast of birding luminaries and local birding legends to headline the celebration. While it might be hard to imagine the collective star power of David Sibley, Kenn Kaufman, Jon Dunn, Victor Emanuel and Father Tom Pincelli being upstaged by a single bird, they and seemingly everything else were pushed off of the front page by the discovery of the U.S.'s second Amazon Kingfisher on the penultimate day of the festival. A surprising array of rarities had already highlighted the week, including a pre-festival Fork-tailed Flycatcher near Brownsville and the continuing presence of a Golden-crowned Warbler, two Painted Redstarts, and a Tropical Parula, but those paled when compared to this find.

Jeff Bouton, the Leica Sport Optics Marketing Manager for the U.S, became an instant festival celebrity when he found the bird shortly after 7:00AM on Saturday morning. He notified festival field trip coordinator Mary Gustafson, who quickly spread the news among leaders of field trips scattered up and down Lower Rio Grande Valley. Over the next eleven hours all roads between Salineño and Brownsville led to a stretch of Texas Hwy 100 just southeast of San Benito. For some the bird was a drive-up, while others waited up to two and half hours to get a glimpse. Father Tom prevailed upon the Cameron County Sheriff (one of his parishioners) to send out a couple of squad cars to direct traffic and ensure the safety of the hundreds of birders who would converge on the scene.

Each and every festival leader and participant could probably share a personal story about learning of this bird and the ensuing chase to see such a mega rarity. Field trips were abandoned. Vendor booths went unmanned. Festival staff took turns making the 20-minute sprint, while their anxious fellow volunteers impatiently awaited their turn to go see the bird. Birding is simultaneously a personal and social experience, thus the combination of seeing a life bird and doing so with others who share your passion invariably creates indelible memories. On this occasion Shawneen Finnegan, Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon and I were leading a trip to South Padre Island. I had met Victor briefly at Estero Llano Grande State Park in early 2012 and reintroduced myself at the start of the festival. Barry and I had never met until the day before our trip. We were comparative strangers at the start of the day, but from this point forward the four of us will be linked by the shared joy of seeing this magnificent bird, showing it to others and the experiences described in the narrative below.

South Padre Island lies at the terminus of Hwy 100, about 25 miles east of where the kingfisher was found. Our day had gotten off to a rocky start, with the charter bus company scheduling one less bus and driver than what was needed for that day's festival outings. The staging for festival field trips is done in alphabetical order. On this day, South Padre Island was at the back of the queue...no bus for us. 

Our field trip participants were remarkably tolerant of the snafu, in part because a large flock of Red-crowned Parrots decided to make their first stop out of the roost on a utility wire on the far side of the convention center parking lot. Having Victor as one of the leaders was fortuitous. After running his own international nature tour company for 30+ years, keeping the troops entertained comes to him as naturally as breathing. He shared all sorts of interesting natural history information about the Red-crowneds and other species of Amazona as we set up scopes and enjoyed prolonged views. 

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Red-crowned Parrots are the only Amazona parrot considered established in Texas. These birds were photographed in Harlingen on 10 November 2011. Their range is restricted to northeast Mexico and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. 

Nearly an hour after our scheduled departure time (6AM) a bus rolled up to the convention center. We boarded hastily while festival staffers loaded a jug of water and cups into the cargo bay. Our departure was then waylaid by another problem. They couldn't get the bay door to release and close. Our already harried driver Gilbert, who was driving this bus for the first time, frantically pushed control buttons in hopes that one of them would release the lock on the bay door. Finally, he hit the right one and the door fell closed. We were on our way shortly after 7AM. Ironically, our belated departure took us past the kingfisher site about the time it was being discovered. I remember seeing a couple of birders standing by the side of the road as we sped past, but they weren't familiar faces.

Since our trip was an hour late in getting started we were given the green light to extend it an extra hour (trips normally return by 1PM), which would put us back at the convention center around 2PM, well after the typical lunch hour. Festival president Danny Hoehne suggested that we find a place on the island to buy lunch for the group and assured us that the cost would be covered by the festival. Upon arriving at the our first birding stop–the South Padre Convention Center–Shawneen began making phone calls in hopes of finding a lunch option that wouldn't chew up too much birding time. 

While Victor, Barry and I called out birds on the mudflat, she was on the phone. At some point I heard her calling my name and turned around to see her insistently waving for me to come over to where she was standing. The next words out of her mouth were, "Mary (Gustafson) just called, there's an Amazon Kingfisher back towards Harlingen." We gathered up the group and other leaders and I told them, "We have a rare bird emergency." The four leaders huddled up and considered our options. Did we want to continue with the trip and try to stop on the way back to the convention center, or would it be more prudent to go right away and see if we could salvage the rest of the trip later? It was sort of a no-brainer and no one expressed discontent when we announced that we would be getting back on the bus after just 15 minutes of birding on South Padre.  

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With the addition of our busload, nearly 60 birders were on site less than two hours after the Amazon Kingfisher was found. 

Being much closer to the kingfisher than most of the soon-to-be-abandoned field trips, ours was the first bus or van load of birders to reach the site. Surely this was some sort of cosmic payback for all the obstacles that the day had thus far presented. As we rolled up on the resaca and slowed to park on the north side of the road, we spotted a group of about 15 birders on the south side with optics raised.  It was clear that they were on the bird and I think all four leaders simultaneously called out "they're on it! We quickly located the kingfisher, which was teed up on a dead snag sticking out of the canal. Most on the bus were able to see the kingfisher before we came to a stop. With bins, scopes, and cameras in hand,  nearly 40 of us bailed from the bus in record time. About the time we were all out of the bus, the bird flew across to a small section of the abandoned oxbow on our side of Hwy 100. We set up scopes, snapped photos, and wallowed in our good fortune. 

As we savored the kingfisher over the next 25 minutes, car after car and other festival vans descended on the scene. It was clearly time to get our charges back on the bus and reduce the man swarm, at least temporarily. We drove back to South Padre, arriving about 40 minutes late for a scheduled boat tour on the Laguna Madre. Thankfully, our captain ("Noe") and the crew at Dolphin Docks in Port Isabel were able to accommodate our now hopelessly mangled itinerary. 

We enjoyed a spectacular cruise around the lower Laguna, which featured awesome views of various gulls, terns, skimmers, shorebirds, and a reasonably close-up encounter with a Mangrove (Yellow) Warbler. Noe expertly maneuvered his craft to the backside of a channel marker for point-blank looks at a Peregrine Falcon, surely the best-ever views of a wild Peregrine for most on the boat. We returned to dock just after 12:30PM, disembarked, then made our way back across the Queen Isabella Bridge and onto the island, where a local Subway had 36 sets of pre-ordered sandwiches and chips waiting. Like the outcome of our day...the order was perfect!

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Kyle O'Haver, seen in the reflection over Victor's head, took this celebratory shot of me, Shawneen, Victor, and Barry shortly after we returned to the convention center. Despite 150+ years of of collective birding experience, these smiles demonstrate that the magic of birding and the company we enjoy along the way is a lifelong gift.   

During the ride back to Harlingen, each leader took a turn at the microphone sharing their thoughts about the experience and thanking our participants for being such good sports throughout. With the last turn at the mic I offered up the quote at the top of this page and then concluded with,

"Today, we were living!"

1

Dave-thanks for your excellent account of a day none of us will ever forget. I have seen many rare birds in over sixty years of birding but none with the type of drama . It was great sharing this special event with you, Shawneen and Barry. All week birders from all over the country have been seeing the kingfisher . I called a guy in Wisconsin yesterday on his cell phone. He answered and told me he was looking for the kingfisher and had run into one of my oldest birding buddies who was standing next to him!

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What a fantastic treat for all of us that were at the festival! Too often, these rare birds offer only fleeting glimpses to the first birders on the scene. Nice to have such a stunning bird shared by virtually everyone at the festival and beyond! This will definitely become a “remember the year that..” legend. Can’t wait to see the dashcam footage from the police cars!

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