Eye on the Sky: McAllen a bird watcher's paradise

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Our kids stopped asking. They don’t invite us on vacations anymore nor do they ask us what our plans are for
the summer. We tried, but for some reason they don’t enjoy holidays at the swamp and they can’t understand why we look forward to a trip to the dump.
They perked up when we told then we had been looking at TVs but when they realized we meant turkey vultures they seemed sad. They explain to their friends that we are “different.” We are birders. And, even worse (according to them), we are bird photographers.
When we told our kids we were going to a writers conference in Texas, that seemed to be OK. What we didn’t tell them is that McAllen, Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley is in the same category of fantastic destinations as Pt. Pelee, Pt. Reyes, and Cape May — all meccas for birders. Armed with binoculars, a field guide and the longest camera lens we can carry, we can’t wait to begin the hunt for some of the 500 species of birds that have been spotted here. The land of LBJs (“little brown jobs”— not the former President), chachalacas, kiskadees, and pyrrhuloxias is calling our name — and no, it is not “crazy bird person.”
Perhaps at one time, bird watching was considered a pastime of shuffling people with floppy hats, but today, of the 22.5 million people who travel to enjoy nature and to see wildlife, 18.9 million (84 percent), travel to destinations specifically to view birds.
If you happen to know what a hummer, a lister, a twitcher, and a butterbutt are, if your favorite app is Sibley Birds, and if pishing and squeaking are everyday words in your vocabulary then you may be a birder too. If you are not familiar with the lingo then we need to get you up to speed, as surprisingly, wildlife watching is the No. 1 outdoor recreation pastime in the United States.
According to a recent US Fish & Wildlife Service survey, during 2011, 33.1 million people fished and 13.7 million hunted — a total of 37.4 million hunters and anglers. However, nearly doubling that number, an astounding 71.8 million people participated in observing, feeding, or photographing wildlife.
Wildlife watchers spent $420 million on magazines, books, and DVDs while hunters spent $100 million on these items. With nearly a third of the U.S. population enjoying wildlife watching, this may be an area that OWAA members and magazine editors want to take note of as a writers marketing strategy. By combining outdoor sports such as hunting and fishing with natural history and nature photography, you may be able to find ways to connect people with nature in novel ways.
Besides, birding and photography are fun. As anglers, we already know how to read the water and we are able to discern intimate details about fish species. Hunters are keenly aware of habitats and animal behavior. The OWAA conference is a great place to broaden your horizons and perhaps hook another reader for your column. If you don’t know “which button to push on your camera” consider attending one of a talks on photography and make sure to join us for the informative and highly entertaining Photo Scavenger Hunt session. To start learning birds, grab a field guide and hang around with a birder. By the way, if you hear someone talking about watching boobies while they are snook fishing it is OK …probably.
A hot spot of biodiversity, McAllen is strategically located near many parks, preserves, and refuges that attract a large number of birds and butterflies. Two outstanding establishments in the area are the World Birding Center and the National Butterfly Center. Located only five miles west of McAllen, in Mission, Texas, the succulent gardens at the National Butterfly Center have attracted more than 300 species of butterflies and 90 species of dragonflies and damselflies. Mission is also the headquarters for the World Birding Center. Along with the main headquarters in the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, eight other sites connect strategic habitats from Roma to South Padre Island. Stretching 120 miles, this network of sites provides
visitors ample opportunities to view and photograph birds and other wildlife. Many of these nine sites offer viewing stations, watchtowers, and trails through varied habitats. Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary
in Brownsville is also fantastic for shots of colorful green jays and noisy chachalacas. Also in Brownsville, the Gladys Porter Zoo provides habitat for nesting wild birds and has a splendid orangutan exhibit.
So, if we quietly slip out of one of the conference meetings it may mean that we saw on the birding hotline that a rare bird showed up at the Brownsville dump – please don’t tell our kids. ♦
–Rob and Ann Simpson joined OWAA in 2012. They both teach biology and nature photography at a community college in Virginia. They have written numerous books and articles on national parks coast to coast that promote wise and proper use of natural habitats and environmental stewardship. Long time
national park advocates, their recent work has been centered on providing informative and colorful nature guides on the wildlife and wildflowers of the major parks including Shenandoah, Blue Ridge  Parkway, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite National Parks to be followed by Yellowstone. You can contact them at annrobsimpson@snphotos.com.

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