Texas ecotourism

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Bill Thompson and BWD RR participants-BarbGorges

Bill Thompson III, editor and co-publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, talks about the birds of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on the first day of the Reader Rendezvous in Texas held in March 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle April 3, 2016, “Ecotourists enjoy Texas border birds.”

By Barb Gorges

At the beginning of March, Mark and I indulged in five days of ecotourism in South Texas after visiting our son and his wife in Houston.

We met up with avid birders for another Reader Rendezvous put on by the Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine staff. Last year we met them in Florida.

I’d heard about the fall Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, but had no idea how well bird-organized the entire lower Rio Grande Valley is until a woman from the Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke to us.

2016-3-11a McAllen Green Parakeets byBarbGorges

A stretch of North 10th Street in McAllen, Texas, is an eBird hotspot for hundreds of Green Parakeets coming to roost in the evenings. Photo by Barb Gorges.

I was expecting McAllen, Texas—where we stayed, to be a small town in the middle of nowhere, but its population is 140,000 in a metropolitan area of 800,000, with a lot of high-end retail businesses attracting shoppers from Mexico.

Outside of the urban and suburban areas, nearly every acre is farmed. But in the 1940s, two national wildlife refuges were set aside and another in 1979, as well as a number of state parks. This southern-most point of Texas is an intersection of four habitat types and their birds: desert, tropical, coastal and prairie, and it is a funnel for two major migratory flyways.

One of our local birding guides, Roy Rodriguez, has compiled a list of 528 bird species (we have only 326 for Cheyenne), including 150 accidentals seen rarely—though our group saw two, northern jacana and blue bunting.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Green Jay byBarbGorges

The Green Jay visited feeding stations at several of the national wildlife refuges and state parks visited. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Many of Roy’s common species that we saw are South Texas specialties like plain chachalaca, green parakeet and green jay. We also saw uncommon Texas specialties including white-tailed hawk, ringed kingfisher and Altamira and Audubon’s orioles.

From the rare list, some of the species we saw were ferruginous pygmy-owl, aplomado falcon and red-crowned parrot. Interestingly, several Texas rarities we saw are not rare in Wyoming: cinnamon teal, merlin and cedar waxwing.

Most of the Texas specialties have extensive ranges in Mexico. Thus, a species can be rare in a particular location, or just plain rare like the whooping cranes Mark and I saw further east on the Gulf Coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

What is rare is the cooperative effort shown by nine entities to establish the World Birding Centers, www.theworldbirdingcenter.com, including four city parks, three state parks, a state wildlife management area and a national wildlife refuge. Another partnership has produced a map of the five-county area which locates and describes those and 76 additional public birding sites. The map is helpful even if you are proficient using www.eBird.org to check for the latest sightings.

Wyoming will be coming out with something similar soon, the Great Wyoming Birding Trail map app.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Plain Chachalaca byBarbGorges

The Plain Chachalaca also enjoys citrus fruit put out at feeding stations. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The concentration of birds in south Texas draws people from around the world. We saw the natural open spaces drawing local families too. But it’s the visitors who spend money which the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau counts. They estimate bird-related business is the third biggest part of their economy, after shopping and “winter Texans.”

Roy said birdwatchers contributed $1 million to the economy when a rare black-headed nightingale-thrush spent five months in Pharr, Texas, and $700,000 in just a few weeks while a bare-throated tiger-heron could be seen.

The International Ecotourism Society says ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

We mostly think in terms of ecotourists going to third world countries, but it applies here in the U.S. as well.

“Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel,” continues the description. At each of the seven locations the Reader Rendezvous visited, staff or volunteers gave us historical and conservation background. And each location is managed by conservation principles. I’m not sure about the sustainable travel aspect, though we did travel by van and bus, minimizing fuel and maximizing fun.

2016-3-13 Estero Llano Grande SP--byBarbGorges

Bill Thompson III (vest and blue shirt) helps Reader Rendezvous participants home in on a rare bird at Estero Llano Grande State Park in South Texas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Short of staying home, travel will not be sustainable until modes of transportation have clean fuel and restaurants and hotels are more conservation-minded. But experiencing and building understanding of other places and cultures is worthwhile. At Anzalduas County Park we stood on the edge of the Rio Grande, looking across at a Mexican park, close enough to wave. If a bird flew more than half way across the river, would we have to document it for eBird as being in Mexico? Is there any place to tally the number of Border Patrol trucks, blimps and helicopters we saw at that park?

Besides a few extra pounds from enjoying the always enormous and delicious portions of Texan and Mexican food, I brought home other souvenirs as well: a list of 154 species, 37 of them life birds for me (at least on eBird), photos, great memories and new birding friendships.

Now we’re back in time to welcome the avian “winter Texans” to Cheyenne as they migrate north.

Florida full of great birds and people

Florida Scrub-Jay

The Florida Scrub-Jay is a federally-listed endangered species because its preferred habitat is often cleared for development and agriculture. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published March 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Florida full of great birds and people.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, I had a chance to visit Florida’s birds a second time.

And I learned what it is like to have a nemesis bird—the reddish egret—that eluded me again despite visiting the right habitat at the right time with 40 people on the lookout.

Mark and I took part in a Reader Rendezvous weekend at Titusville, Florida, sponsored by Bird Watcher’s Digest, www.birdwatchersdigest.com, a bi-monthly birding magazine read worldwide and celebrating its 35th year of publication.

Editor Bill Thompson III, son of the founders, was one of the weekend’s event team members which included six magazine staff—all birders–and three local experts.

Having only 34 participants meant the birding experts were easily available for questions and to help spot birds. Although it was billed as a weekend for beginners, many of us were experienced, though not so much with Florida birds.

About a year or so ago I noticed Bird Watcher’s Digest was beginning to offer these Reader Rendezvous trips. Among them, one featured their humor columnist on a trip to the famous Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota in winter (you needed humor to enjoy the temperatures), and another with optical experts to try out a variety of binoculars.

I asked Bill how the idea for the Reader Rendezvous weekends came about. He said he has been a speaker and field trip leader at birding festivals for 20 years and was looking for another way to reach readers. He said, “I love to show people birds.”


Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous participants in Florida share the shore of Lake Kissimmee with airboats while looking at the federally endangered snail kite. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mark and I met several folks who had been on previous weekends, but they didn’t strike me as groupies, though I have to say Bill has amusing takes on the birding life. What is appealing is the event team’s interest in every participant, learning our names and asking often if we were enjoying ourselves.

The other participants were pleasant people who enjoyed the intense weekend of birding. And they didn’t mind indulging Bill in his requests for group selfies. We even agreed to look silly doing “lifer dances.”

The three days (Mark and I opted for the additional Friday trip) wore everyone out, but since all of us had invested time and money to be there, I heard no complaints about meeting the bus at 5:30 a.m. each day. At least we got a break on Sunday-—6:30 a.m. instead.

The Space Coast of Florida (area code 3-2-1, no kidding!) is known for the Kennedy Space Center, and among birders for the Space Coast Birding Festival held mid-January.

While it seemed like the ducks had mostly migrated by the time we arrived Feb. 20, the group still logged 123 species over three days. I documented only 104 because sometimes the group split up. But of those, 13 were life birds for me, bird species I’ve never seen before.

We had a list of target birds—those that were advertised and those requested by participants.

On Friday, we went in pursuit of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally-listed endangered species that makes a brief appearance at dawn when leaving its nest hole in a longleaf pine. The March-April 2015 issue of Audubon magazine (see it at http://www.audubon.org) has an excellent article detailing its life history and population ups and downs.

The half-mile hike in the dark and cold (frost on the grass in Florida!) was worth the minutes we were able to watch the small black and white woodpeckers.

Another target bird we saw in that same piney woods was the Bachman’s sparrow, a species of concern that benefits from habitat work done for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The Florida scrub-jay, a federally-listed threatened species, is easy to find. We saw three sitting in treetops. Harder to find are the remnants of its necessary habitat, oak scrub.

Wood Stork

The Wood Stork is a federally-listed species that doesn’t mind well-behaved birdwatchers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While waiting in line at a potty stop, everyone got a long look at another threatened species, the wood stork. Three of the enormous birds scrutinized us from a nearby tree.

Our first look at the crested caracara, a threatened hawk, was fuzzy, but the next day it swooped over our heads. The endangered snail kite, another hawk, required a spotting scope to be identified.

Perhaps this weekend should have been billed as the “Threatened and Endangered Species Tour.”

At any given birding festival we might have done as much birding, but in the course of several separate excursions with different people each time. With the Reader Rendezvous format, not only did we become acquainted with new birds, we made new birding friends. We may meet up again on another Reader Rendezvous, or here in Cheyenne since some folks were thinking about heading west.

While the weekend was somewhat of a marathon, the equivalent of three of our all-day Cheyenne Big Day spring bird counts plus two evening programs like our Audubon chapter’s monthly meetings, my binocular hand-eye coordination is all warmed up now and I’m ready for spring migration.

Find gifts for birders

Charley Harper puzzle

Environment for the Americas, the folks who organize International Migratory Bird Day, are offering this Charlie Harper puzzle titled, “Mystery of the Missing Migrants.”

Published Dec. 6, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Get creative with gifts for birders.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated. There are now newer editions of the field guides mentioned. Bird-friendly coffee and chocolate are more widely available now at natural food stores.

By Barb Gorges

A good gift is useful, educational or edible, if not homemade. If someone on your gift list truly cares about wild birds, they don’t want energy and resources harvested from sensitive bird habitats wasted on making junk.

Here’s my list, sorted somewhat by a recipient’s degree of interest in birds.

First, for anyone, armchair bird watcher to ornithologist, Houghton Mifflin has three new illustrated books.

“Letters from Eden, A Year at Home, in the Woods” by Julie Zickefoose ($26) includes her watercolor sketches. A frequent contributor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, her bird and nature observations are often made in the company of her young children on their 80-acre farm in Ohio or from the 40-foot tower atop her house.

Zickefoose’s tower may have been her husband’s idea. He is Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and editor of “All Things Reconsidered, My Birding Adventures,” Roger Tory Peterson ($30).

Peterson was the originator of the modern field guide. From 1984 until his death in 1996, he wrote a regular column for the Digest. Peterson had the gift of writing about birds, bird places and bird people so anyone could enjoy his choice of topics. Anyone can enjoy this photo-illustrated book.

The third book, “The Songs of Wild Birds.” ($20) is a treat for eyes and ears. Author Lang Elliott chose his favorite stories about 50 bird species from his years of recording their songs. Each short essay faces a full page photo portrait of the bird. The accompanying CD has their songs and more commentary. My favorite is the puffin recording.

The field guide is the essential tool for someone moving up from armchair status. National Geographic’s fifth edition of its Field Guide to the Birds of North America ($24) came out this fall.

New are the thumb tabs for major bird groups, like old dictionaries have for each letter. It has more birds and more pages plus the bird names and range maps are updated.

Binoculars are the second most essential tool. If you are shopping for someone who hasn’t any or has a pair more than 20 years old, you can’t go wrong with 7 x 35 or 8 x 42 in one of the under $100 brands at sporting goods stores. You can also find an x-back-style harness ($20) there, an improvement over the regular strap.

Past the introductory level, a gift certificate would be better because fitting binoculars is as individual as each person’s eyes.

Spotting scopes don’t need fitting. However, if you find a good, low-end model, don’t settle for a low-end tripod because it won’t last in the field.

For extensive information on optics, see the Bird Watcher’s Digest Web site.

Bird feeders, bird seed, bird houses and bird baths are great gifts if the recipient or you are able to clean and maintain them. To match them with the local birds at the recipient’s house, call the local Audubon chapter or check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and Birdhouse Network sites.

You can make a gift of a Lab membership ($35), which includes several publications, and of course, there’s Audubon and its magazine ($20 introductory offer). Bird Watcher’s Digest ($20 per year), mentioned above, makes learning about birds fun, as does Birder’s World magazine ($25 per year).

For someone who wants to discuss identifying obscure sparrows and other topics of interest to listers, they might be ready for membership in the American Birding Association ($40). The ABA also has a great catalog available to everyone online. It’s filled with optics, gear and every bird book and field guide available in English for the most obscure places in the world.

The ABA tempts members with mailings for trips to exotic birding hotspots, as well as its annual meetings held in different parts of the country. Also check Bird Watcher’s Digest for nationwide bird festival listings.

One subscription valuable to an academic type who doesn’t already have access, is the Birds of North America Online ($40). Every species has as many as 50 pages of information and hundreds of references to studies.

For the computer literate, Thayer Birding Software’s Guide to Birds of North America, version 3.5 ($75), includes photos, songs, videos, life histories, quizzes and search functions.

After the useful and educational, there’s the edible. Look for organically grown products because they don’t poison bird habitat. The ABA sells bird friendly, shade grown coffee and organic chocolate through its Web site.

Coffee and other items are available also at the International Migratory Bird Day web site, and support migratory bird awareness and education.

If the person on your list is truly committed to the welfare of wild birds and wildlife in general, skip the trinkets such as the plush bird toys that sing and don’t add to their collection of birdy t-shirts.

Look for products that are good for the environment. These are items that are energy efficient, solar-powered, rechargeable, refillable, fixable, recyclable, made from recycled or organic materials, or are locally grown or manufactured.

Or make a donation in their name to an organization like Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy or The Nature Conservancy which work to protect bird habitat.

Presents along these lines would be great gifts for your friend or family member, and for birds and other wildlife, any time of year.

American Bird Conservancy: membership, research, advocacy, publications, gear, www.abcbirds.org.

American Birding Association: membership, publications, books, optics, gear, travel www.aba.org.

Birder’s World: magazine, http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com.

Bird Watcher’s Digest: magazine, bird info, bird festival listings and gear for sale, www.BirdWatchersDigest.com.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: membership, bird info, Citizen Science projects, www.birds.cornell.edu.

International Migratory Bird Day (Environment for the Americas): education, online store, www.birdday.org.

National Audubon Society: membership, magazine, research, advocacy, directory of chapters www.audubon.org.

North American Birds Online: Internet data base, http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna.

Thayer Birding: software, www.thayerbirding.com.

The Nature Conservancy: membership, publications, gear, www.nature.org.

Keep up with birding news

Audubon magazine

“Audubon” is published by the National Audubon Society and is part of the benefits of being a member at the national level. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 11, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to keep up with birding news.”

2014 Update: All the birding organizations and publications are now on social media as well.

By Barb Gorges

I am an amateur watcher of birds. Other than a college ornithology class, the bird knowledge I have has been gained informally, by observation, by talking to people and by reading.

I’ve picked up a lot from Audubon chapter members, many of whom are experts on local birds. Some are even formally educated and employed bird biologists.

My library has expanded from a single field guide to about two dozen reference books plus the whole Internet—sometimes very useful when local experts aren’t available to answer my questions or the questions I get from readers.

But no science is static, so it’s important to read the periodicals. My husband, Mark, and I have been reading Audubon magazine for years, but it deals with conservation issues affecting birds more so than birdwatching, which is of high interest to local chapter members.

So, a few years ago I responded to subscription offers from Bird Watcher’s Digest and Birder’s World. Both magazines are informative as well as entertaining, written so even novice bird watchers can enjoy articles about attracting birds to backyards or anecdotes from the field.


Living Bird magazine

“Living Bird” is published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Then, after several years of participation in Project FeederWatch, I finally joined the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Now in addition to the quarterly newsletter, Birdscope, I get the quarterly magazine, Living Bird. Both focus on the Lab and its far-ranging research.

And then there’s the American Birding Association. Because people who are my fonts of local birding wisdom belong to the ABA, I always figured it was over my head. But when it sent me a membership offer this fall, I reconsidered. After nearly five years of exploring birdwatching topics through this column, I decided I needed to expand my horizons.

As I suspected, the ABA (Birding magazine) is geared for the serious birdwatcher, though it is still accessible for us aspiring to higher expertise. Shortly after I joined, however, I had an encounter that personified the elitist stereotype I feared. It started with a phone call from an impatient visitor from the Midwest who’d left his directory of ABA contacts at home, but got my number from someone at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

I have had many nice people with bird questions referred to me, but this man was in a hurry. He was sure he’d seen a kingbird at Lions Park that had a bill too big to be just a western. Could it be a Couch’s or a tropical kingbird?

Having never heard of either of these species, I quickly scrambled through my Sibley’s and found that they range from Mexico a little ways into Arizona and Texas, and they are almost indistinguishable from our western kingbird, except they lack white outer tail feathers.


Birding magazine

“Birding” is the American Birding Association’s flagship publication, but they are also very active in social media. Photo by Barb Gorges.

My very apparent ignorance made the caller even more snappish. Wasn’t there anyone else who could come down immediately and verify his rarity? I gladly passed him off to a more knowledgeable birding friend who actually went to the park, but didn’t see the bird.

Later, my friend, who also belongs to the ABA, told me that our western kingbird sometimes loses the white color of the outer tail feathers in the fall before migrating. And he agreed that this particular specimen of ardent birder came off as rather unpleasant.

Luckily for the ABA, the members I know are much kinder and more patient with those of us of lesser experience. Half the members, according to a 1999 ABA survey, can identify over 300 species by sight and 75 species by sound. About 40 percent bird more than 50 times a year, and for half the 20,000 members, birding is their main leisure activity.

The ABA, in addition to promoting birding skills and ornithological knowledge, even for those under 18, also provides volunteer opportunities using birders’ expertise. Among its programs is support of a conservation project at the location of each annual convention, plus involvement in issues directly affecting birds.

Too often birdwatchers are reluctant to get involved in the politics of conserving birds. They would rather run out to get a last glimpse of the endangered spotted owl than ask for an alternative to cutting the whole forest.

Birdwatchers can also be consumers of products of which the collection or manufacture can have negative impacts on birds. How can one lament the effects on wildlife of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, yet purchase a new SUV that gets less than 10 miles to the gallon?

It isn’t possible to live without any impact on the world’s resources, but it is irresponsible to race after elusive life list birds and ignore the health of those birds and their environment. So I’m glad to find that an organization like the ABA caters to listers, but reminds them of their responsibilities.

Audubon and Cornell, with their partnership on the Christmas Bird Count, Project Feederwatch and other BirdSource programs, are also making the connection between birdwatching and bird conservation.

But before Ted Williams’ latest piece in Audubon magazine can cause too much heartache, or the latest article in the ABA’s Birding magazine, describing the feather-length difference between longspurs, gives me a headache, it’s not a bad idea to step outdoors and hear the twitter of the plainest juncos and remember why I was attracted to birdwatching in the first place.