Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Rare Bird Invasion at South Texas Refuges
Southwest Region, February 9, 2005
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Sightings of rare avian visitors to the United States are increasing visitation to several South Texas sites, including Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley NWRs. Armed with binoculars, field guides, cell phones and even walkie-talkies, birders from across the United States and many foreign countries are searching the Refuges for Mexican species like the blue bunting, rose-throated becard, roadside hawk and white-throated robin. Although the winter weather in the lower Rio Grande Valley has been unusually cold (Santa Ana had measurable snow - two inches - on Christmas for the first time in recorded history), many rare Mexican birds have been showing up throughout the area since late October. Biologists are unsure why these birds are migrating from Mexico north into the region this winter. Not one, but several blue buntings and white-throated robins have been at Santa Ana NWR since mid-January; single birds of these species have been reported in the past only once or twice at the Refuge. Several rose-throated becards are also present on the Refuge, including two or three young males, which haven't been reported here for many years. On a tract of Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR, a roadside hawk, a very rare visitor to the U.S.(five accepted records), recently has been seen in the same vicinity as a dusky-capped flycatcher, which is only the third record for the Valley. The abundance of Mexican rarities, along with the more regular Refuge specialty birds such as hook-billed kites, green and ringed kigfishers, northern beardless-tyrannulets, brown and green jays, Audubon's orioles and tropical parulas, have significantly increased visitation at Santa Ana. Averaging about 150,000 visitors per year, the visitor season is busiest from December through April. Birders from the north wishing to escape freezing temperatures plan their visits during the normally mild winters in southern tip of Texas. Winter Texans, typically retired folks from the Midwest, also migrate to the lower Rio Grande Valley during the winter. They swell the local population by about 150,000 for the season, and enjoy visiting the refuge to walk the trails and take the popular nature tram tours offered from December through April. "This winter, even with the cool and cloudy weather we've had, there seems to be visitors everywhere," said Santa Ana manager Jodi Stroklund. "I've met birders from all over the country in the past few weeks, and they all seem to be looking for the blue bunting." Between the Winter Texans, local families and visiting birders, the visitor center is like a hornet's nest of activity. Up to six volunteers and staff work at the front desk, selling tram tickets, handing out maps, giving directions to the last known location of rare birds to serious birders, ringing in gift shop merchandise, and telling folks where the restrooms are located. Explains Stroklund, "When a school group visits, it kind of reminds me of a busy fish market or the floor of the N.Y Stock Exchange. It's loud and people are moving in every direction. But everyone seems to get what they came for and the atmosphere is always exciting." Indeed, visitation since the first of the year is up about 20% over last January, and sales at the bookstore are up 60% compared to January 2004. Out on the trails, however, the atmosphere is usually calm, and visitors walk quietly through the subtropical woodlands. The white-throated robin that has been frequenting an area close to a trail seems largely unaffected by the all of the hoopla, and forages in the leaf litter just a few feet from grinning birders. Occasionally, the silence is broken by a ringing cell phone or the excited walkie-talkie chatter of a birder telling her companions that, "I've got the BUNTING at the old manager's residence - GET OVER HERE QUICK!" The times, they are a changing...

Contact Info: Martin Valdez, 505-248-6599, martin_valdez@fws.gov
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