Leader of the Flock: Tour Guide for a Day

Text and Photos by Alexandria Simpson

Green Jays
Green Jays 

For a week during the end of September, I had the privilege of visiting the Rio Grande Valley with my family for business and birding.  The birding was my thing; I left the business to my mom and dad.  It was great to be back birding in the Rio Grande Valley, as I lived there for two years and that’s where I got into birding.

During this visit I had my first experience as a birding tour guide. This “job”, with the help of my mom, who is also a birder, was to escort two of my dad’s friends, birders from Utah, and show them the awesome tropical species of The Valley.  I enjoyed being a guide.  Birding is never a job for me.

Common Pauraque 

Common Pauraque
One of my dad’s friends had heard a lot about the famous Brownsville dump or, in more refined terms, the Brownsville Sanitary Landfill, so this was the first stop on the tour.  Upon arrival, the security guard very reluctantly permitted our entry, informing us we could only go a little distance in because it was under water.  Good thing my Spanish is good or we would not have understood him.  A worker stopped us before we had driven more than 500 feet and insisted we turn back.  We tried in vain to reason with him.  As we got back in the car, my dad’s friend shook his head and stated, “Doesn’t he know gulls like water?”  

Disappointed, we decided to try Boca Chica Beach for gulls, terns, and pelagic birds.  I added an Eastern Kingbird to my life list as we stopped along a long and winding road.  After observing a few gulls and terns, we decided to take a small caliche road in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Reserve.  At the end of this little road, I learned how to use pishing to try to attract birds. Because it was my first attempt, I was a little embarrassed to try, but with a little encouragement I learned it was easier than I thought.  Well, making the sound was easy, but getting the birds to respond was not.  The birds seemed to be taking an afternoon siesta.  I resolved to practice pishing at home with the Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice that frequent my family’s property.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge was next on the list.  We started early the next day.  My two tour participants enjoyed Green Jays, Long-billed Thrashers, and Great Kiskadees.  We enjoyed great looks at an Olive Sparrow sitting first on a branch, then on the ground.  Olive Sparrows are normally shy, foraging on the ground in thickets, so I was surprised to find one in a tree.  After seeing enough Northern Mockingbirds to last a few years, the joke of the day became “there’s another ‘elusive’ mockingbird.”  I added Baird’s Sandpiper to my life list and added White-eyed Vireo and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher to my “heard-only” list.  We tried pishing and whistling them out but they were uncooperative. 

On Saturday, we headed over to Estero Llano World Birding Center for the Saturday guided bird walk.  My favorite guide, Huck, was leading the tour, and he was excited to hear I had placed in the 2009 Young Birder contest.  Huck is one of my mentors and always encourages me and answers my questions.  At one of the ponds, Huck showed us a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with their young. In the same pond, a Sora among the reeds became lifer 192. 

Tennessee Warblers along with Black-crested Titmice were in abundance, the former another lifer for me.  After more hiking, we came to one of my favorite ponds. I spotted a Green Kingfisher perched on a low branch overhanging the water on the opposite bank.  This earned me a pat on the back and quite a bit of praise from my friends who hoped to see all three kingfishers (Green, Ringed, and Belted). 

As we turned back, Huck spotted a Nashville Warbler; I got only a quick view, but enough to count.  We also were able to observe a Great Kiskadee fishing in the same pond where we saw the whistling-ducks and Sora. Huck told us they like minnows more than bugs, something I did not know.  On the way back to the observation deck, a Yellow-breasted Chat and another Tennessee Warbler flitted in the trees.  At first, all I saw were little birds, as there were also two House Sparrows in the trees.  I could hardly keep up with them, but I finally saw the yellow belly of the chat:  another lifer!  I was in paradise reveling in all the new birds I was adding to my list.  As if the day couldn’t get any better, while we were making our list for the day, a Ringed Kingfisher called its dry, distinct rattle, earning a place on my heard-only list. 

As a favor and bonus, Huck took my dad’s friends through the tropical part of the park for an extra hour.  I was unable to go, but I left “my” tour participants in good hands.  I later learned I did not miss much.  It would have been fun to bird more, but at least I did not miss adding birds to my life list.

White-tipped Dove 
 White-tipped Dove

At the end of my week-long experience as a tour guide, my participants totaled their lifers.  One of my two tour participants had gained about forty lifers, boosting his life list well over 400.  I was pleased to have assisted him in getting most of those lifers.  I was also pleased to see my own list reach one hundred and ninety-five and my heard-only list go up to nine.  I couldn’t wait to go home to add these birds to my Thayer’s list. 

This trip was a great learning experience for me. I really enjoyed being a tour guide leader and have been inspired to work as one someday.  For now I’ll continue learning in preparation for the day when my tour guide services are again needed.