Birding in Texas

If I feel justified in placing an entry on birding in my Sports column, along with thoughts on baseball, soccer and football, It is due to the competitiveness that has crept into this hobby since my youth, when it was a quiet, generally solitary way to spend some time in the woods or at your window watching the bird feeder. Now birders compete for who sees the most, who sees the first, and people compile lists of birds seen in one day, in one year, in one lifetime, in one place, in one state, in one country. Thus, almost every conversation we had in three days of birding in south Texas (February 23-25), consisted of, “Did you see the white-throated robin, the crimson-collared grosbeak, the blue bunting, the black-vented oriole?,” for these U.S. rarities were deemed the only species worth pursuing, and the competition to add them to one’s life list was palpable.
When Gary and I bird, we do keep a running list of what we see on a trip, but the list disappears as soon as we return home. We like to see as much as we can, of course, but we’re hardly crushed if we don’t encounter some bird we’d never heard of before. Finding, identifying, and observing are what we are there for. That sounds simple, but in birding along the Rio Grande Valley it was not that easy, largely because birding the sport has taken over from the hobby.
Every sport has its stadiums, and in south Texas these are the parks – national, state and local – where admission is charged, visitor centers have opened, and lists of birds seen are posted daily. Nine “World Birding Centers” have been set up to lure birders, even though some are as small as a backyard. The odds of a casual birder “finding” something on his own are practically nil, let alone identifying it before someone in the group calls out its name.
Ah, the group. So many of the bird sites we visited consisted of a collection of bird feeders, with birders sitting to one side. It’s better than seeing something in a zoo, and there is still a chance nothing will show up, but the feeders constitute a heavy human hand on the operation. It is just not the same as observing a bird in the wild, in its native habitat, feeding on the worms or thistle that nature provides.
We went to Roma Bluffs, in the middle of a city, because we were told that’s where we could find the buff-bellied hummingbird. Sure enough, at the feeder behind the office, there was the buff-bellied hummingbird. Audubon’s oriole? For that, we were told, you have to go Salineno. A bird-loving couple lived there in their trailer and had set up a gold mine, for the birds, of suet feeders, tray feeders, oranges and grapefruits, and a peanut-butter mix that went on the branches. Among the other regulars at the station were five Audubon orioles, to the delight of visiting birders, who sat in folding chairs and threw money in the jar when they left.
The center of the action, though, was Bentsen Park, which was a trailer park when last we visited ten years ago but is now a birder’s version of Disneyland, with a tram passing by every half-hour to take you to another attraction. (Admittedly, the transportation was welcome in the 94-degree heat.) Perhaps it wasn’t such a great coincidence that on one tram ride we ran into birding friends from Minnesota! Anyway, the attractions here were the blue bunting (“tropical species, very rare and irregular in southern Texas”) and the black-vented oriole (“resident from central Nicaragua to northern Mexico”). We ran into more than one person who had sat at one feeding station several hours in order to catch a glimpse of either bird. On Thursday, we were sitting with a man and his daughter we had met the day before in Santa Ana when I spotted two very plain, very brown birds in a bush. These, we all agreed, were female blue buntings, a view we confirmed when they flew onto a higher branch for a closer, unobstructed look. They ignored the feeder and were quickly departed, so I felt pretty good about the sighting. The next afternoon, after the tram and most visitors had gone home, we stopped back at the same place and had no sooner sat down that the black-vented oriole flew in to the suet feeder and poked around, giving us good looks, for 30 seconds.
These birds hadn’t been our goal, so we didn’t feel particularly triumphant, but at least we didn’t feel left out. Far more satisfying and memorable moments came a bit later, as the sun was setting and we had wandered off from the feeding stations. As I looked across the resaca I saw in the distance a bird hovering in the air – a white-tailed kite. And when I turned around Gary told me to look up at the power line: there was my first vermilion flycatcher of the trip, bringing our total to 95 – not quite the century one always shoots for, but pretty close. Seeing beautiful birds without other people around us and without artificial lures bringing them to us beats the advertised black-vented oriole for me.