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My Life’s Birds: #139-161

October 15, 2008

March 31, 1994 – Santa Ana NWR, Alamo, Tx – There are places on earth that are so undeniably birdy, that any time spent there, especially the first time spent there, is immediately burned into your memory. These are places in which that you know, no matter how long you’ve been at it, that you are without a doubt, a birder and this is what you were born to do. For me, one of those defining places is Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, truly a jewel in the North America’s birding crown, and the first place my dad and I hit on our first morning in the Valley.

I remember pulling into the parking lot as the sun was starting to come up and stepping out of the car to be greeted by strange sounds of bizarre birds piercing the humid morning air. We quickly found a climbing vine and no sooner had we begun to take a close look at its tubular flowers then a Buff-bellied Hummingbird zoomed in, did that thing that hummingbirds do at flowers and booked out. It was on.

We hit the trail and things started happening quickly. Plain Chachalacas screaming in another day, a Least Grebe in the canal by the levee, White-tipped Doves in the trees. Green Jays, so gaudy it’s hard to believe they’re actually real, whipping back and forth from mesquite on one side of the path to the other in family groups, adding to the spectacle. That’s just the way it is here. It’s not just the wildly different stuff either. Nearly every single other niche is filled with a slightly familiar but completely different species. Long-billed Thrashers digging in the leaves instead of Browns. Black-crested Titmice scolding calls replace Tufted. The rolling Melanerpes churrr leads you to Golden-fronted Woodpecker instead of Red-bellied, a loopy whistle to an Altamira Oriole in the top of a tree instead of Baltimore. The wildly different, the differently familiar, it’s all par or the course, and all evident in the first hour.

The trail eventually leads to three resacas, oxbow lakes formed by the twisting and turning of the Rio Grande in years past, where the forest opens up and birds more familiar, but for this young birder, still new, can be found. Typically one can find Whistling Ducks along with the regular dabblers here, and shorebirds in the shallows. We picked up both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and several Long-billed Dowitchers. Common Yellowthoats sang from the cattails and I finally got my first look at the ubiquitous marsh bandit, along with peeks at a White-eyed Vireo, a bird I’d heard often back home but had never yet coaxed out of the bushes. This extensive marsh is special to Santa Ana, and hard to find elsewhere in a region where standing water is quickly diverted to agriculture.

We continued walking a trail around the refuge, and it’s funny to think about, but on all subsequent trips to Santa Ana, we’ve retraced that original route. Along the way we’d pick up more of the birds that make this place so special. Olive Sparrows in the underbursh, Brown-crested Flycatchers and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in the dryer areas, and perhaps most memorably, a Great Kiskadee hunting minnows in a shallow pond. It acted more like a Kingfisher than a flycatcher, but the Kiskadee is a very strange bird and refuses to be pigeon-holed.

As we were leaving the temperature was rising, and birders had staked out on the levee near the entrance watching a parade of migrating raptors passing overhead. They were happy to show us the birds, mostly Broad-winged Hawks heading north in impressive numbers, but included in the flood were both White-tailed Hawks and White-tailed Kites. As we left, Couch’s Kingbirds perched on power lines on the highway back to my grandparent’s and a flock of migrating Long-billed Curlews flushed from a wet meadow, a surprising end to a great day.

The kind of day you’re happy to be a birder.

Green Jay photo by Eleanor Briccetti via flickr
Great Kiskadee from

  1. October 15, 2008 10:35 am

    Man, I love the RGV! Great imagery in the post.

  2. marvin d permalink
    October 15, 2008 5:35 pm

    We leave for 5 months in Santa Ana in about 10 days. Your blog made me want to leave today. I remember some of the trails only vaguely because we spent too much time on the river. We are raring to go!

  3. October 15, 2008 8:42 pm

    @patrick – thanks! RGV is an incredible place.

    @marvin – You are going to have a fantastic time and see some fantastic birds. The lower RGV bird festival is next month, and I know some bird bloggers are coming down. If you see any, tell them hi for me!

  4. Paul permalink
    October 16, 2008 9:47 pm

    Oh, man. Magee Marsh (Ken Kaufmann’s backyard), spring 1999. My life list was a hard-earned 107 Ohio “feeders and breeders” before I learned what a funnel was. Thirty-two lifers in a day! As you become a veteran birder, twitching further and further for a single life bird (I will have to power down the whole house for a month to offset the carbon expended on my Clay-colored Sparrow), you can’t help but long for such days and such places.

    Nice piece! It brought it all back in vivid focus.

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