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My Life’s Birds: #419

August 25, 2010
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March 17, 2007 – near Bentsen RGV State Park, Tx – By the time my dad and I were pulled over by the Border Patrol for the third time in just over half an hour, I had come to realize that the South Texas where I had spent nearly every spring break between 1992 and 1996 was a far different place in the latter half of the 2000s.  My reasons for traveling here were about the same though.  My parents, school teachers both of them, were taking their week off to head south to visit my grandmother, who until recently was one of the snowbirds that spends the cold months living it up in sub-tropical Texas near Mission.  This arrangement was obviously incredibly advantageous for a burgeoning birder, and my family’s yearly trips to the Lower Valley jacked up my life list to a notable number in no time flat.  But once I was out of high school I stopped going down there, even though my dad kept returning and telling tales of White-throated Robins, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and Blue Buntings.  I was eager to return, as you might expect.

That opportunity came in the spring of 2007 when serendipity timed my parents’ return to Texas with my wife’s finalization of her doctoral dissertation.  This may not seem like an obvious connection to you, but if you’ve ever written a dissertation or been around someone who has had that honor, it’s clear enough.  My wife was beyond stressed out, working 14 hour days and hardly taking time to sleep, eat, or shower.  And being the kind-hearted soul that she is, she felt guilty that her single-minded devotion to a Ph.D. was taking her attention from her responsibilities not as a partner and sounding board, but as a functioning responsive human being.  So I proposed what I figured would be a mutually beneficial solution; I’d head to South Texas for a week for family and birding and leave her home in Chapel Hill to work.  Six days hence we’d reconvene.  I’d have a bucketfull of birds and she’d have a mostly complete dissertation.  Win-win.  And bless her heart, she bought it.

So that’s how, on my first evening in South Texas, riding shotgun as my dad slowly drove the dirt roads near Bentsen State Park just after sundown looking for Common Pauraque like so many birders do, we found ourselves at the mercy of the feds.  We had watched with foreboding as the green Border Patrol SUV passed us heading the opposite direction, turned around about 100 meters down the road and cut on the flashing lights as it pulled up behind us.  The officer was friendly when we waved our binoculars, indicating that the border-jumpers we were looking for were distinctly avian in nature.   No doubt we were not the first birders he’d crossed paths with, as he let us return to our birding and he to his nightly survey with a wave and a smile.  All this was fine enough, except that his massive vehicle likely spooked any nightjar in the immediate area, and his route ensured that the roads ahead and behind us had been effectively swept clean.  This little parlor game would repeat itself with a series of Border Patrol officers at least twice more before we finally spotlighted our quarry off a gravel side road heading off into an onion field.  First the reflective eyeshine in the middle of the road that became a brownish lump as we edged slowly forward before flushing with a flash of white in the wings and tail.  And, because our van had nudged it’s way into a field in a suspicious manner, we were immediately pulled over again.

Traditionally this has been the way everyone finds their Pauraques, but with the increasing traffic on our southern border, from both immigrants and the Border Patrol, it’s become harder to find those quiet dirt roads where the Pauraques alight.  The big trucks flush the birds too often, and to facilitate movement of the agents many roads have been paved which leads to more traffic and fewer quiet spots for the birds, which are still present but harder to find when you can’t slowly cruise every backroad looking for eyeshine without bringing the feds down on you.  But that’s the new Valley I guess, for better or for worse.

The birds are still good though, and I had a week to reacquaint with them.

COMPAU by jforb via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)

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3 Comments
  1. August 25, 2010 8:54 am

    Heh, didn’t recognize the photo until the credit.
    Never got up the energy to make the night drive myself but the roosting birds at Llano Grande make it unnecessary. Five minute walk and there are multiple birds within 20 feet of you in daylight.

  2. Nate permalink*
    August 25, 2010 9:24 am

    @jforb – Thanks for making it available! We ended up getting a great look at a foraging bird at Bentsen just before dawn a couple days later so it wasn’t a total loss. We missed the roosting birds at Estero though, a reason to go back I guess.

  3. August 28, 2010 12:21 am

    During my second trip to the valley a couple years ago, I tried the driving-the-raised-dikes-around-Bentsen approach to seeing Pauraques. Pretty sure I saw one, but it was so brief that I couldn’t in good conscience count it. But at least I didn’t get lost or pulled over by border patrol.

    Later, I saw the roosting bird at Estero Llano Grande. Nate, if you make it back there, you owe it to yourself to see a roosting Pauraque in good light. It may sound strange, but seeing it through a scope from 15 feet away was a profound experience, and one of the highlights of my birding career.

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