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Los Dos Madres: Birds and Butterflies in Brownsville

Destination: Brownsville

by Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 5.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 9 hours /
  • Houston - 6 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.5 hours

The morning star is still shining when we spot our first bird on Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge - a swallow-tailed kite. An aplomado falcon, long-billed curlew, Botteri's sparrow and verdin follow shortly.

Eleven of us are standing in a row along a pasture road scanning the brush for more birds when I spot motion in the grass perhaps 75 yards away. I train my binoculars on the object, and say quietly, "We've got a coyote coming straight at us at 11 o'clock." He looks to be about half-grown, and his inexperience quickly shows. Even though we are in plain sight, he is so focused on looking for insects on the ground that he is totally oblivious to our presence. When he is within 20 yards of us, he lunges into the grass and comes up chewing. As he rounds a bush perhaps 15 yards away, he suddenly stops and stares at us staring at him. You can almost see a thought unprintable in a family magazine flash through his mind before he turns tail and runs.

I've been wanting to get a close look at a chachalaca, and I strike paydirt at the birding blind near the refuge visitor center, where a watering and feeding station draws birds to within just a few feet. Green jays and white-tipped doves scatter as a flock of chachalacas arrives, chattering noisily. It's obvious that chachalacas rule: Every other bird yields the right of way. For the first time, I am able to photograph chachalacas at very close range and in light that reveals the olive-green iridescence of their feathers and the red throat patch.

I tear myself away and rejoin the group, heading for a waiting boat that will take us across the Laguna Madre to South Padre Island. At Adolph Tomae Park we board a pontoon boat on the Arroyo Colorado. As we cruise the Laguna Madre, the air and the shoreline are filled with birds: great blue herons, great egrets and laughing gulls at water's edge, and Forster's terns, long-billed curlews and tricolored herons flying beside the boat.

The Laguna Atascosa NWR is the largest contiguous protected area of natural habitat on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. On the Mexican side, that same distinction is held by the 30,000-acre Rancho Rincon de Anacahuitas (Corner of the Olive Trees). Stretching between them is the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where nearly 500 species of birds have been recorded. The Brownsville International Birding Festival in July and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival held each November in Harlingen are excellent ways to familiarize yourself with the area.

I'm here for the July birding and butterfly festival. Although it is sweltering by 9 a.m. this time of year, sea breezes keep the coastal area about 10 degrees cooler than it is inland. "This is really not a weird time of year to come to South Texas," says Steve Labuda, manager of the Laguna Atascosa NWR and the leader of our birding group. "It's the only time of year you'll get to see groove-billed anis, scissor-tailed flycatchers and some other local species."

We get to see all these and more on a visit to the Rancho Rincon de Anacahuitas, 45 miles south of Brownsville. By 6 a.m. our van is thumping along Mexico 101; light soon reveals the same endless sea of irrigated farm fields found north of the river. Owner Jorge Martinez gives us a primer on his ranch. It's one of the few remaining undisturbed patches of Tamaulipan thorn scrub and is home to mountain lions, bobcats, ocelots and jaguarundis. More than 420 species of birds, 85 of which are resident, have been documented on the ranch. The ranch contains 72 miles of shoreline, coastal marshes, freshwater ponds and grasslands as well as brush. It has been designated part of an International Site of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

It is a morning Steve characterizes as "decadent birding" because most of the sightings take place from the comfort of our air-conditioned van. By 8 a.m. we've seen Chihuahuan ravens, a curve-billed thrasher, lark sparrows, mourning doves, common ground doves, bronzed cowbirds, Altamira orioles, horned larks, red-winged blackbirds, groove-billed anis and yellow-billed cuckoos. Everywhere we look there are birds - ladder-backed woodpeckers, scissor-tailed flycatchers, Couch's kingbird, a great horned owl, hooded orioles, northern bobwhite quail, olive sparrows.

We walk the last half-mile to the coast, spotting birds as we go. A thatched-roof palapa perches atop the tallest loma. "Lunch," says Jorge, pointing to a billow of smoke from beyond the palapa. When we get there, we find a pot of beans baking in a fire pit, while the cocinero tends chicken, beef ribs and sirloin steaks broiling over a mesquite fire. The palapa sits on a peninsula jutting a mile into the Laguna Madre, and there are magnificent views of water on three sides, a brisk, cooling sea breeze and a frantic, long-billed thrasher on the ridgepole of the palapa. He's afraid to make his getaway with people below, so he spends the entire lunch hour running back and forth along the pole.

After lunch we drive another four miles to a small fishing village on the Mexican Laguna Madre. A scattering of rickety buildings shelters four fishermen resting in hammocks slung between the support posts of a metal roof. Chickens and an assortment of scrawny dogs wander in and out. Perhaps five pounds of shrimp dry in the sun on a homemade rack. Jorge hires their boats to carry birders into the Laguna, hoping to involve local people in ecotourism.

We board a deep-hulled, fiberglass fishing boat at a dock so dilapidated that it could well have been used in a scene from one of the Indiana Jones movies. As 15 people pile into the homemade craft, it settles onto the bottom and becomes firmly stuck. Only determined rocking back and forth by the passengers and the pushing of three anglers frees us. The whole scene would have been surreal, as though we had suddenly been transported to some foreign country, had this in fact not been the case.

The water is the color of molten gold. We pass some of the more than 600 islands Steve says dot the Mexican side of the Laguna Madre. The shores of the islands, and the numerous posts holding nets to guide fish into traps, hold dozens of birds: gull-billed, royal, Forster's and least terns; brown pelicans; olivaceous cormorants. Once back on land, we spook a mob of long-billed curlews in the shade of a tree by the road, and as they move off, we see crested caracaras in a tree in the distance. Exhausted birders snooze until someone spots a flock of wood storks circling above one of Brownsville's numerous resacas. From start to finish, it's been a pretty wonderful day.

Next day I fall in love with butterflies. Butterflies can't fly until their temperature reaches about 80 degrees, so butterfly watchers can rise later than birders. To me, an even more alluring fact is that butterflies can taste with their feet. No wonder they prefer to land on beautiful flowers, which is where I delight in photographing them.

Butterfly expert Carrie Cate explains why the area is a great place to see butterflies. "More than 300 species of butterflies are found in South Texas," she says. "The four counties at the southern tip of the state - Cameron, Willacy, Hidalgo and Starr - have more species than all the rest of the eastern United States combined."

She takes us to tour the grounds of The Inn at Chachalaca Bend, a bed-and-breakfast on 40 acres that appeals to both birders and butterfliers. Habitat ranges from a resaca to dense guayacan forest to an open grassland with a planted butterfly garden. I'm excited to see a chachalaca in the brush, and white-winged and mourning doves coo in the trees. There's a flock of black-bellied whistling-ducks on the resaca. We follow a trail to a gazebo in an open field surrounded by flowering plants, and suddenly eye candy fills the air. There are queen, snout, sulphur and soldier butterflies. Then someone spots a white peacock, followed shortly by a giant swallowtail, dainty sulphur, Texan crescent, gulf fritillary and bordered patch.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley showcases the richest birding and butterfly viewing in the United States. No matter what time of year you visit, birds and butterflies will be abundant here in this land "south of winter."

For More Information:

Brownsville Convention and Visitors Bureau
(800) 626-2639
www.brownsville.org/en/
Rio Grande Valley Chamber of Commerce
(956) 968-3141
www.valleychamber.com
Texas Parks and Wildlife's birding trail maps
www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wildlifetrails
For birding tours of the Laguna Madre by boat, call Captain Mike Kelley at:
(956) 761-8060
For information on the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, visit:
www.manomet.org/WHSRN/l

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