By Kathleen O’Neill

Editor’s Note: The following account was written by Kathleen O’Neill,
a young birder participant in last year’s Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Kathleen was the only young birder participant in 2011, so in an effort to attract more young birders, in 2012 the festival is offering a special young birder track, with field
trips, programs, and more, just for young birders. To learn more, including how
to register, see details below, visit the festival website or contact Jennie Duberstein, ABA Young Birder Program Liaison. Space is limited, so register soon!

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival Young Birder Track

Fee $450 / Thursday 8 Nov – Sunday 11 Nov 2012 / Ages: 13-18

The American Birding Association, Leica Sport Optics, and the RGV Birding Festival have teamed up to offer a stellar opportunity for young naturalists. This first-ever Young Birder Track will be conducted in conjunction with the Festival, utilizing its resources and events, but with custom trips and programs for young birder participants. Learn about the natural history and ecology of the region, find out about careers in birding and conservation, and meet other young birders from around the country, as well as pro leaders, authors, and artists, all while seeing the Rio Grande Valley’s unparalleled birds, butterflies, habitats, and more.

Young Birder Track participants do not need an accompanying adult in order to participate (although adults are very welcome to attend the Festival!).

Kathleen’s Journal

Hi! I’m Kathleen and in November of 2011 I
attended the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen Texas. I had a
great time and I also wrote journal entries every day. Each one was very long
so I shortened them up a bit for time’s sake. I hope that you’ll enjoy stories
of my experiences as the only youth birder in attendance at the Rio Grande Valley
Birding Festival 2011! 

Tuesday, November 8, 2012: 8:00pm
(Texas time)

Today has been a very exciting day for me! This morning I
set my alarm for 2:45am (yawn), and left for the airport at 3:30am. The plane
took off right on schedule at 5:42am. It was still dark so I could see beautiful
lights from the city. Before I knew it we had landed in Houston. We had to take
a shuttle to get to our connecting flight, and while riding I saw my first
red-morph Rock Dove. As soon as we
got in to Harlingen we saw a big sign welcoming people to the Rio Grande Birding
Festival. As soon as we got in our rental car I saw a large, brown, striped
bird. It had a very long bill and my brain said, “Long-billed Curlew.” After passing several Loggerhead Shrikes, we stumbled upon a whole field of Long-billed Curlews.

Getimage-6.exeLong-billed Curlew. Photo by Robert Burton/FWS.

There were Common Grackles and meadowlarks in the field, as well. We
also saw the gigantic Iwo Jima Monument. We found our hotel and got our room
key. The pool looked so cool that we jumped in. As we sat in the sun to dry
off, a group of chattering green birds flew over. “Parrots!” mom and I said at the same time. We
looked them up and figured out that they were Green Parakeets. Soon we headed off in search of a good birding

Image 6
Green Parakeet. Photo by Jen Brumfield/Leica Sport Optics.

We discovered Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, where birds were everywhere. We
spotted some feeders and staked them out. An Orange-crowned Warbler came to a seed-filled, flat, rectangular feeder;
under the feeder an Olive Sparrow skulked,
and at the hummingbird feeder was a Buff-bellied
As soon as we started on the trail we heard the “Plthht” of Green Jays. But just as we were about
to chase it down, a man ran up and told us that there was a “Mexican Eagle”
down the trail flying over the cactus. There is no such thing as a Mexican
Eagle, but when we went to investigate, a big bird flew over our heads and away
before we could make identification. It was kind of depressing. After more
hiking with little success (with the exception of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet) we turned back to the car. We were about to
leave when an older couple told us about where we could find Plain Chachalacas. We found a group of
12 by the Hummingbird Garden. A Long-billed
visited the orange feeders. A Buff-bellied
chased a Golden-fronted
off its territory. Eventually the chachalacas strutted away and
we headed back the car. On the way back we solved the mystery of the Mexican
Eagle: a Harris’s Hawk.

ImagePlain Chachalaca. Photo by Cameron Cox/Leica Sport Optics.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011: Seedeater Trip

Today when I woke up (at 3:00am) I was extra excited for the
trip, a Seedeater Sojourn to La Laja Ranch, a privately –owned property (we
were the first large group to be let in). The dust was all over, everywhere.
Mini-dust devils sprang up around every corner. Dust filled our shoes and made
our eyes water, but we were able to ignore the dust and see amazing birds, like
the Great Kiskadee and the Black-crested Titmouse. We looked all
over the property, finding more valley specialties such as Green and Ringed kingfishers and Altamira Oriole.

Getimage-5.exeAltamira Oriole. Photo by Robert Burton/FWS.

We only had a few hours left to stay on the ranch.
Would the Seedeater Sojourn be Seadeaterless? I heard a beautiful call coming
from way up in a tree. “Audubon’s Oriole!”
called one of our guides. But suddenly someone yelled, “SEEDEATER!” and I found
myself running to where the man had yelled, jumping shrubs and dodging branches.
All that effort was worth it for a look at a beautiful male White-collared Seedeater. He perched on
top of the brush, along with two White-crowned Sparrows, allowing great looks
(and photo opportunities) for most of us. An unlucky few who had missed it were
delighted with a duller, but still easily recognizable female seedeater. We reported
it right away and continued down the trail. We got great looks at a Northern Flicker (common in Delaware
but rare for the Rio Grande Valley) and my life Vesper Sparrow. We then headed to a picnic spot, which was cold, rainy,
and horrible. Okay, so not THAT bad, just mostly cold. After lunch we walked a
canyon trail and heard a Rock Wren.
I also saw an Osprey catch a fish
and then drop it. On the way back home the species were counted up, and I only
had one more bird to go until I would have 400 lifers! I expected I would get
it on Thursday. I was already looking at the target bird lists for the next
day’s trip when someone yelled, “Scissor-tailed
!” It was sitting on the telephone wire as the bus whizzed by,
and it is a lifer I’ll never forget, even if it hadn’t been my 400th.

Getimage-4.exeScissor-tailed Flycatcher. Photo by Robert Burton/FWS.

Thursday, November 10, 2011:  Brownsville West

I felt great when I woke up this morning. I was all set to
go on the field trip. I had been anticipating lots of lifers! When the leaders
introduced themselves on the bus, I was really excited to find that one of them
was Greg Miller! He is a famous and REALLY nice birder who got 710 birds, all
in one Big Year (the Jack Black character in the movie “The Big Year” is based
on Greg). On the trip he heard and saw birds that I would not have found myself.
I actually identified a female Vermilion
on this cloudy day, probably my most impressive identification yet
(under the circumstances). I saw the bright red underparts and the streaked
breast and otherwise dull plumage. We moved on to some ponds. At the ponds we
found a pair of American Coots and a
Muscovy Duck (of uncertain origin unfortunately).
On the other side of the resaca (oxbow lake), someone spotted a Least Grebe, which was another life bird
for me. We found a flock of migrants including a Black-throated Green Warbler, a few Orange-crowned Warblers, and a Nashville
, another lifer. We heard a Brown
further down the path. Greg spotted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in flight and I got my life White-tipped Dove on the way out of the

The author and Greg Miller scoping out waterfowl. Photo by Jennie Duberstein.

Tonight Mom and I went to Kenn Kaufman’s talk on how birders aren’t
nerds. He talked about that for a whole hour with lots of humor and stories mixed
in. When he asked for questions at the end, a man suggested that he should
write a guide for birders on “How not to be nerds.” Kenn replied, “I…I am going
to have to…reject that opinion because I have never met a birder
who was a nerd.” Then everyone began to clap and cheer. The man who had asked
the question slumped down in his chair. At the author’s book signing following
the talk, I met Kenn and his wife Kim in person and they are both super nice.

Friday, November 11, 2011: Upper Rio Grande

Today I had to get up at 4:00am, but I was very excited when
I heard that we were going to the most reliable place to see Red-billed Pigeon.

Welcome_birdersVans lining up in the early morning for the day's field trips. Photo by the author.

When we got to our first stop, Great Kiskadees and Green Jays called, and nice male Pyrrhuloxia showed himself. Some
waterfowl were on the river, and raptors worked the riparian corridor. We went
for a walk in a more desert-like area in hopes of finding some desert species,
and I missed two flyover Greater White-fronted Geese (which would have been
lifers). I was sulking in the back of the group when a medium-sized grayish
bird hopped up onto a stick; it turned out to be a Sage Thrasher, which was my one lifer for the day (no Red-billed
Pigeons yet).

IMG_1233A cold, misty morning for a field trip on the Rio Grande. Photo by Jennie Duberstein.

The only other bird we added on the trail was Lesser Goldfinch. The next place we
went to was a place called Starr County Park, where I saw Lark Bunting, Black-throated
and Pine Warbler. That
night I went to The Big Year talk which was interesting, funny, and an
enjoyable experience. Mark Obmascik, the author of “The Big Year,” talked about
how excited he was that they turned his book into a movie, and Greg Miller
talked about his experiences with Jack Black (who played Greg in the
movie). He said when he and Jack went birding, the first bird Greg identified
was a Red-winged Blackbird except at first the bird did not show its red wings
and Jack questioned Greg’s identification skills! It was cool to meet Mark at
the author’s signing, and of course to see Greg again.

Getimage-1.exeGreen Jay hitches a ride on a javelina. Photo by Robert Burton/FWS.

 Saturday, November 12, 2011:  Weslaco

The ride to our location was nice and short in luxury buses
with foot-rests, cup holders and soft seats. Once we arrived at our first
location, Estero Llano Grande State Park, the people were nice, but the birds
were even better. I heard a Sedge Wren
and saw White-tailed Hawk and Cave Swallow, along with two Common Paraques just off the path. It was sunny and beautiful, with
adorable Least Grebes in all of the

Image 3
Common Paraque. Photo by Cameron Cox/Leica Sport Optics.

White-tailed Hawk. Photo by Robert Burton/FWS.

The next place we went was Frontera Audubon Thicket. A big group of
teenagers were there that all thought we were expert birders. What they didn’t
know was that they were standing right next to feeders where Clay-colored
Thrushes had been seen. The thrushes would not come to the feeders with all of
those kids standing there, so we went on a bird walk and saw leaf cutter ants. When
we got back to stake out the feeders, we waited for a while and finally Greg Miller
said, “I think that was the bird!” He went over to the stake-out area and got
me on it, and soon the whole group had a new lifer they could be quite proud
of: Clay-colored
! Best day ever! That afternoon we went to the “Extreme Birder”
seminar with Lynn Barber. She showed bird photos and told stories about her Big
Year birding adventures and misadventures. It was a great talk. We then checked
out the festival trade show. Then, the main festival event (from my
perspective, at least):  The Great South
Texas Birding Quiz Show (a parody of Jeopardy). First, our new friend Andy
Bankert went up to compete in the Quiz show, and had a great time even though
he didn’t win. He got a tote bag prize which he swapped for two books (one of
which he gave to me!) The next group was really good and the whole thing was awesome.
Jeff Gordon (president of the American Birding Association) was in a Kenny Bostick
costume from the movie “The Big Year,” and Liz Gordon (his wife) was Annie
Auklet, also from “The Big Year.” It was
really awesome!

378650_2678071594489_949917448_nAndy Bankert, Jim Danzenbaker, and Jennie Duberstein square off in the Great South Texas Birding Quiz Show. Photo by Donna Pairo.

Sunday, November 13, 2011: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

I could not wait to visit Bentsen, since it is a legendary
park. When we arrived I was very excited. Our guide, Roy Rodriguez, had made
sure that all of the bird feeders were filled just for us. So after a quick
walk through the garden, we headed to the main feeding station. On the way there
we saw a Black Phoebe. There were
tons of Green Jays and Plain Chachalacas, which proved to be
great photo subjects. But the star of the show was the Altamira Oriole. I even got a photo of the bird through a scope. A Great Kiskadee came down to join the
party. Pretty soon, we headed to the hawk watch platform where we saw some Black Vultures feeding on dead fish
from the drying lakes. Just then, the call came in. I could hear the muffled
voice of the guide talking on his walkie-talkie, and he sounded excited. “One
of the rangers is leading a bird walk not far from the platform and he just saw
a flyover Zone-tailed Hawk!” he said. We began scanning the tree line. The
guide said that Zone-tail is known to mimic Turkey Vultures in the hopes of
fooling its prey into thinking it is a harmless scavenger, not a deadly
predator. He described it as a Turkey Vulture with a head. Soon a raptor
appeared. It looked sort of like a vulture but it was not – it was the Zone-tailed Hawk! It soared right past
us twice. I got amazing photos (at least for a digital camera), and it was gone
just as we headed for the next trail. We scanned the brush by a lake for
Vermilion Flycatcher. With no luck on the flycatcher, we headed down a trail that
seemed dead, until…a bobcat stood itself twenty feet or so down the trail,
right in the middle and seconds later ran off with its baby. My mom got a
picture of the bobcat which, though blurry, can still be made out. We were soon
headed back.

Getimage-7.exeZone-tailed Hawk. Photo by Gary M. Stolz/FWS.

That was the end of our scheduled trips for the festival,
but my mom and I had gotten some tips and headed to Old Port Isabel Road, where
Aplomado Falcons were supposed to hang out. We ended up on many unmarked dirt
roads (the only description we had of our target road was that it was an “unmarked
dirt road”) but none with any Aplomado Falcons. We even ended up on Vinson’s
Firing Range—a somewhat worrisome name. But no falcons. So we gave up and
headed to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to spot some
new wetland birds. As soon as we pulled in a birder approached us and alerted
us of the presence of a Tropical Parula (rare and usually only found in
Mexico). My mom and I walked the trails and eventually settled in a large
gazebo by a small creek with those water drippers that the warblers go crazy
for. So after the chachalacas
stalked away, a little bird fluttered down to the drip. “That’s the bird!”
hissed the crowd of birders that had gathered. And it was—Tropical Parula. The other birders all had big fancy cameras that
they got photos with, but even though all I had was my little digital camera, I
got a picture, too. With daylight fleeting, we scanned the wires in hope of
finding the Aplomado. And then, there it was: a falcon. As we moved closer it
flew, but then landed again farther down the entrance road. When we moved in
for a closer look, it flew back to its original location. As we repeated this
pattern, driving back and forth down the road, Mom reported details of the
bird’s pattern as I consulted our Peterson’s field guide. Everything was a
match until Mom said, “It has rufous coloration on its back…wait, does that
mean…” Yes, that meant that we had spent the last minutes of daylight chasing
after an American Kestrel, a bird I
see at least once a month! It was practically only a silhouette in the dim
light, in our defense. Somewhat disheartened, we headed to Wendy’s to drown our
sorrows in chocolate Frosties.

A few
Notes on the Trip:

  • We later discovered that the “Mexican Eagle” is really a
    term used by some birders for Crested Caracara.
  • We found out that the meadowlarks (mentioned in “day one”)
    were Western Meadowlarks. We determined that because an expert on the trip said
    all meadowlarks in good sized groups in winter in the areaare Westerns.
  • Post-trip, I discovered that I had made a life list miscount
    and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was not my true 400th lifer. But since
    it would be so hard to figure out which one really was, I will always treat it
    like #400.
  • The Vinson’s Firing Range road turned out to be Old Port
    Isabel Road after all! But there certainly were not any Aplomado Falcons out
    and about when we were there.
  • Just a tip: if you want to see Aplomado Falcons make sure
    you ask for very specific directions or you’ll end up totally lost!