TEXAS

It’s birds aplenty in this grand, rich and var­ied habi­tat

Bird Watching (UK) - - World Birding - WORDS: STU­ART WIN­TER

There is cer­tainly no bet­ter way to em­brace Texmex species in all their colour­ful grandeur than by par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Rio Grande Val­ley Bird­ing Fes­ti­val (RGVBF). Bri­tish ex­pat Ju­lian Hough, who lives in Con­necti­cut, has be­come a lead­ing light on the Amer­i­can bird­ing scene, and helped in­tro­duce me to some of the Rio Grande’s most ea­gerly-sought birds, as I worked through a five-day itin­er­ary of field trips that the bird­ing fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers had cus­tomised to help me see most of the val­ley’s spe­cial­i­ties. Lead­ing a croc­o­dile of bird­ers – or should that be al­li­ga­tor in these parts – along the labyrinthine trails of the fa­mous Santa Ana Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, Ju­lian was quickly point­ing out birds that had been high on my wish list. Feisty Great Kiskadees with their ban­dit masks held us up as they dashed from look-out to look-out. Even brighter Green Jays, a dream for any colour­ing book fa­natic, played tag in denser cover, their strik­ing green and yel­low plumage ab­sorbed by the leaf colour. An Al­tamira Ori­ole ex­ploded into view in all its fiery glory. Think fly­ing Christ­mas lights! As we made our way out of the ri­par­ian for­est into open wet­lands, Ju­lian served up an­other Rio Grande del­i­cacy, Green King­fisher, an emer­ald gem of a bird but sur­pris­ingly easy to over­look on a con­cealed perch. Amid the hub­bub of wild­fowl and shore­birds, there were much-sought Least Grebes and Mot­tled Ducks to pick out from the Blue-winged Teal and count­less Amer­i­can Coot. Sud­denly, the al­ready buoy­ant mood went up sev­eral notches. Ju­lian was on a Hook-billed Kite. The list-hun­gry Amer­i­cans went into a frenzy. This was a lifer for many of them, a real doo­dledandy of a bird for those who had trav­elled from New York, Washington state and Cal­i­for­nia to see Texas’ finest. On pad­dle-like wings, it soared ef­fort­lessly over the dense stands of moss-cov­ered ebony trees, avoid­ing the at­ten­tions of a pass­ing Har­ris’s Hawk, be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing from view. The hawk had no doubt found a sup­ply of its favourite food – tree snails. One day’s Texan bird­ing, a note­book lit­tered with as­ter­isks de­not­ing lifers, and the ad­ven­ture was only be­gin­ning.

Two hours up­stream of the fes­ti­val head­quar­ters, Sa­li­neno, with its pop­u­la­tion of 302, is un­likely to fea­ture on many tourist itin­er­ar­ies, but for Amer­i­can bird­watch­ers, the views this hum­ming­bird of a ham­let pro­vides over the Rio Grande has made it a place of leg­ends. The dusty shore­line is pock­marked with tri­pod feet and en­grained in the mem­o­ries of all those have made a pil­grim­age here over the years to see truly wild Mus­covy Ducks. I had to make do with three species of king­fisher. Belted and Green were quickly un­der the belt, but a cop­per-breasted Ringed King­fisher, a brash, bruiser of a bird that has ‘gone large’ with the bill or­der, was sim­ply mes­meris­ing as it dis­in­te­grated the Rio Grande’s tran­quil som­no­lence with its rau­cous calls. A soar­ing Zone-tailed Hawk, shin­ing out amid a huge flock of Black Vul­tures, fol­lowed by a ghostly Grey Hawk, quick­ened the pulse to such an ex­tent that some peo­ple needed a sit down. There was only one place in town: the nearby win­ter feed­ing sta­tion with its am­phithe­atre seat­ing plan to al­low per­fect view­ing of more RG – I was now us­ing the lo­cal lan­guage – spe­cial­i­ties. Among the os­ten­ta­tious Green Jays and blazing Al­tamira Ori­oles, squab­bling over strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned or­ange slices, dif­fi­dent Olive Spar­rows lurked. A Black-crested Tit­mouse, a re­cent split from its Tufted re­la­tion, and su­perb Al­tamira Ori­ole, an­other Mex­i­can spe­cial­ity with a re­stricted range in

La­guna Atas­cosa Na­tional Wildlife Refuge Com­mon Pau­raque Black-crested Tit­mouse

TEXAS

Santa Ana Na­tional Wildlife Refuge UNITED STATES Mike­wee­don Mike­wee­don

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