Sunday, April 18, 2010

Final Prep before Texas

Only two and 1/2 days until I leave for Austin, Texas and points south. This will be my second visit to the Lone Star State, but my first of any significant duration. In 1996 I spent about 3 hours driving across the Texas Panhandle on I-40, which passes through Amarillo. I don't recall seeing so much as a Turkey Vulture in the flat, dry, red-clay country off the interstate, although several were probably soaring above my light green 1971 Toyota Hilux Pickup. My mind at the time was pre-occupied with a crushing break-up on top of being laid off from my first seasonal position in Denali National Park, Alaska. I was pretty much focused on getting home to, of all places, New Jersey, where I could spend some time with my family, whom I hadn't seen in nearly two years. Plus it was early October, and even though fall migration was in full swing, I was more interested in seeking meditative solace in the peaceful silence of the intermountain west and southwestern Great Plains.
Needless to say, this trip will be much different. I am heading to Austin for NatureServe's first ever Leader to Leader Training followed by their 2010 Conservation Conference, "Biodiversity Without Boundaries." The Training starts on Friday, but I am leaving the east coast early Wednesday morning to explore the Hill Country west of Austin for a day.
On Sunday, I'll be touring Hornsby Bend, a wetland sanctuary that is famous for its great mix of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, as well as eastern songbirds and south-Texas specialty species. On Monday, I'll be presenting at the Conservation Conference on a Mountaintop Removal study I performed for Appalachian Voices.
After Monday's conference sessions, I'll be heading south to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (aka the LRGV). After nearly 20 years of birding, this trip will be a bit of a pilgrimage for me. Most birders make this trip at some point in their lives, as a number of North American bird species are found only in south Texas, and the LRGV has by far the highest concentration of them. In addition, several "vagrant" or "accidental" species from Mexico have shown up on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande on a very rare basis, some only once. For example, just last December, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron, a wading bird found in Mexico and Central America, was seen for the first time ever in the U.S. in Mission, Texas. Birders flew in from all over North America to see it, not exactly an environmentally friendly practice (more on that in another post, I hope). It's this kind of excitement that attracts birders like myself: not only am I guaranteed to find bird species I've never seen before, the prospect of seeing something or even finding something that has never been seen before in the U.S. (at least not in the last 100 years), is utterly tantalizing for a naturalist.
There are about 53 species of "lifebirds" that I could potentially see on this trip. Some of these birds are essentially guaranteed to be found, like the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, south Texas's counterpart to the Red-bellied Woodpecker. These two species are actually very similar, and I would not be surprised if there is a hybrid zone. Another example of similar geographic relationships is the Black-crested Titmouse, which looks much like the East's Tufted Titmouse except that it has a black crest. These two species do in fact hybridize in central Texas near Austin, and it was only about ten years ago that the two species were split.
While I'm in Texas, my friends Warren and Lisa Strobel, the "Bird Couple" ( are experiencing a similar trip in southern Arizona, which is probably the only location in the U.S. that can rival south Texas for its avian diversity and extraordinary composition of "Mexican" species that extend their range into the southwestern U.S. I spent several days there back in 1994 during my formative years as a young naturalist and birder. Living on the road, I camped in the Chiricahua Mountains, where Geronimo made his last stand against the U.S. Cavalry. It was an exhilarating experience, and I recall finding several dozen life-birds in a mere 2.5 days.

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