WE’RE HERE. We’re in Alamo, Texas and happy to be working at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.
We handle Visitor Center duties but help out with other things too. We’re Government employees now. We certainly work with a lot of them…..Fish and Wildlife, Border Patrol, biologists, and Refuge employees of all kinds, most of them working in our building. There are six other volunteers as well, including the operators who drive the tram. We thought driving the tram would be fun but it’s not for us. The hour and a half ride is not for birdwatchers. It’s primarily covers the history of the refuge, the characters who lived and died here, and the biology of the trees and grasses. For sure, it is an interesting ride and sometimes lucky tram tourists get to see a wildcat, a beautiful indigo snake and some nice birds. However, the tram doesn’t run in the summer.
THE FEEDING STATIONS. One of our duties is to resupply the two bird feeding stations near the Visitor Center, twice a day. That’s one thing we really like. We put out orange halves, birdseed and suet. (I’ve been making the suet) One of the most charming (and noisy) birds in this area is the chachalaca. They’re small turkey-like birds who have been coming to the feeders here for years. They’re still wild of course, but they like to see us coming. We love them.
HAWKWATCH. I spent some time talking with a group of “hawk-watchers” who situated themselves on the levee road counting migrating raptors. Every day these (mostly) grizzled birding veterans post the birds they see fly over the levee from 8 am to 1 pm. One day, they counted 11,000 broad-wing hawks, which is actually a small number for these birds, who rest for a short time in the Refuge and wait for favorable wind conditions. When these birds migrate through, they typically form “kettles” in the sky, huge groups of circling hawks hundreds of feet up. We saw several of these amazing events. Today, as I write this, the group spotted 109 Mississippi kites.
AND…..THE INTRUDERS. Arlyne and I have walked some of the trails, this being the best way to see wildlife. School children, serious birders and photographers come to the Refuge every day, hoping to see the great variety of wild critters that live here along the Rio Grande River which is, of course, the U.S. border with Mexico. This brings me to the story of the intruders.
One day, Arlyne and I recommended the Pintail Trail to a birding couple. It’s a medium length trail with nice ponds and lots of birds. A couple of hours later, the couple called into the Refuge to report they were looking at two strange and scary people near the trail. They reported two guys who they first thought were hunters, wearing camouflage gear. They looked at the guys through their binoculars and then took some pictures with a big lens. They reported the location of the guys on the Refuge, including latitude/longitude coordinates. The guys noticed they were being looked at and covered their faces and slunk into the brush as one of them began talking on a cell phone.
The couple arrived back at the Visitor Center and described in detail what they saw, including photographs. Everybody in the building was hugely interested. They showed us the photos and I took pictures of their pictures with my phone. It was a scary thing to see. The guys were wearing ghillie suits! I had walked the Pintail Trail the previous day by myself. These are some of the most chilling and disturbing photos I’ve ever seen. What do you think?
A couple of days later, I was chatting with two young, buff Border Patrol guys who patrol the Refuge on bicycles. They had not heard about the photos. I messaged the pictures to one of them. They assured me that these really were “bad guys”, probably scouting a drug route through the refuge. This was not a drill, not an exercise.
I also sent the photos (on request) to the head Border Patrol officer on site. A couple of days after that, a Fish and Wildlife employee told me that the images were of Border Patrol guys hoping to catch “coyotes” or drug runners. I don’t buy it. I think knowing there were intruders like this on the Wildlife Refuge was not something they wanted to share with the public. Even though I’ve included the photos on my blog, just keep this stuff to yourselves. Remember, I don’t really know who they were.
BIRDS. On our days off, we’ve been birding a number of times in the south Texas area and I’ve included some of our shots. Enjoy. We’re going to South Padre Island and Laguna Atascosa NWR tomorrow. Our target birds (life birds) are the aplomado falcon and maybe a paraque. These birds are either scarce or mostly hidden. I’m also experimenting with taking video of birds (and gators). I thought still photography was difficult. But, if you’re patient and lucky, sometimes good things happen. One day soon, I’ll put my best videos on a DVD and share them with many of you. The first picture if a resting black-bellied whistling duck. The next one is a
gorgeous spotted sandpiper (spotted when in breeding plumage).
Our most enjoyable “duty” here is meeting with visitors and talking about travel and birds and nature. Today we had a great time with a British couple, talking about the neat American birds they were seeing, our respective trips to New Zealand and the times Arlyne and I spent in England. Great fun. Today we helped one visitor identify a spider and another to identify a tree with little plum-like fruit. We always feel rewarded when hikers come back from the Refuge trails talking about the great wildlife they’ve seen after we recommended particular trails. This is fun for us.
We’re not done with our adventure here at Santa Ana NWR. Stay in touch.
Bob and Arlyne Draper