My Life’s Birds: #126-138
March 30, 1994 – to Lower Rio Grande Valley, Tx – I admit up front to being a very fortunate young birder. Not only did I have a family that was extremely supportive of my burgeoning obsession, but I had, by coincidence really, access to to some pretty phenomenal birding locales. My family loved to vacation in Florida, and instead of DisneyWorld and Miami Beach, we went to Sannibel Island, home of “Ding” Darling NWR where the birds are. And perhaps best of all, I had grandparents, who through nothing more than sheer luck on my part, decided to spend their golden years in Mission, Texas, the heart of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, with arguably the best birding in the entire United States.
And so, in March of every year, we’d load up the van to spend spring break in the Lower Valley, an entire week surrounded by top flight birding and phenomenal tropical birds found nowhere else in the nation. So you can understand that I was excited. On the Friday that school got out, we’d immediately start driving, typically making it across Oklahoma and through Dallas before turning in. The next day we’d have to meander down to the valley at a leisurely pace, and with the Lane Guide to the Rio Grande Valley in my lap, and responses to a bird-finding query on Birdchat (yeah, we were all over it, even back in ’94) we had a couple places to hit on our way.
It wasn’t long before we began seeing the first life bird of the trip, flocks of Great-tailed Grackles, just south of Waco. They were new back then, but in years since they’ve made it all the way into Southwest Missouri. Once we got south of San Antonio, however, the birding really began to get interesting. As the hill country of central Texas turns into the dry chaparral of the south, Harris’ Hawks begun showing up on power poles along the highway, soon joined by the undeniably tropical Crested Caracara. I distinctly remember that Caracara too, feeding on carrion on the side of the road and bounding off, stiff-legged and ungainly, as our car sped by. Add to that the Cliff Swallows flocking to adobe nests under every overpass, and you knew you were someplace really different.
But the key stop on this leg of the journey was an otherwise unremarkable roadside rest stop on the highway south of Sarita, Texas. The Sarita reststop was, at the time, very well known for one bird in particular, and it had the possibility of being the best bird of the entire trip.
It’s not hard to get a family to pull over at a rest stop. The opportunity to stretch one’s legs on the long lone-star drive, not to mention an opportunity to use the restrooms made a birding request that might be otherwise be shot down an easy sell. As we pulled in, the small park sandwiched between the four lanes of highway looked fairly normal, a few mesquite trees and a building holding the restrooms, but the birds, man, the birds came fast and furious and immediately.
Neotropical migrants had begun to move north and here we found Summer Tanagers, Blue-headed Vireos (then called Solitary), and a plain Bell’s Vireo. Within those groups were resident Hooded Orioles sneaking through the thick mesquite branches, and there! The bird we’d come for, tiny but larger than life and brilliantly marked, a Tropical Parula! A pair even! At this time they had been nesting at this place for a couple years and were well-known to locals, which in turn made them well-known to visitors. Lots of birders got their life Tropical Parula at the Sarita reststop, it’s a desirable bird to visitors to the Valley, and quite possible the rarest bird on my lifelist thus far.
Thanks to the suggestion of the birder’s friend, Jim Lane, one more stop, this time Delta Lake, picked up a large flock of American White Pelicans and two unique waterfowl to the area, both Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks. It wasn’t much longer before we finally arrived at my grandparent’s house, but the birds didn’t stop there. When I say that nearly everything is different in the Valley, I mean even the neighborhood birds have that special tropical flavor. As proof, walking down the street as we pulled in, was my last lifer of the day, a tiny Inca Dove.
So, yeah, this was gonna be a good trip.