Monthly Archives: May 2014

Life and Times at the Wildlife Refuge

We’ve settled down at our volunteer assignment here at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. We’re parked next to a small office building that used to be a house. It has a kitchen, three bedrooms and an office for one of the Fish and Wildlife Officers. I used the kitchen oven to bake some honey oatmeal bread that I shared with the Visitor Center crew. The oven was way too hot and the bread came close to burning but was still very good. I plan to try again next week. Last night I made snickerdoodles and they were, of course, a hit at the Visitor Center. I gave some of the cookies to two Border Patrol officers who were on standby last evening, tucked in right next to our motorhome. They were the night crew and told me that’s when all the fun stuff happens. Apparently, in the Refuge, they catch several illegals every night. We haven’t seen any action yet, even though we’re at the periphery of the property. That’s a good thing. We do hear helicopters every few days and have heard about semi-trucks/trailers being stopped only a few miles from here, loaded with illegals

Arlyne Keeping Busy. She designed and printed two color posters, one in English and one in Spanish, showing visitors that three types of passes were available. One is an annual Pass for two Refuges (Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa), one is a lifetime senior citizen Federal pass and one is an annual pass for all Federal Parks and Refuges. No other volunteers bothered to explain all the passes. I think Arlyne probably sold $100 worth of passes the first few days. It seems some of the longer term volunteers and employees really don’t have any “spirit” anymore. Arlyne redesigned the Refuge map as well and included some of our bird pictures. People take the maps all the time to hike the trails and not get lost.

Injured Wildlife. We get a lot of calls from people who have wild animals who are juveniles or injured. Typically, people have tortoises or injured birds. They want to bring them to us but we can’t accept them. However, two Fish and Wildlife employees, who should know better, recently brought us a baby raccoon and two juvenile great-horned owls. The raccoon was in a backyard (next to where we’re parked) and the owls apparently left or fell out of a nest near a gas station. The owls were spooked by something and flew into a wall and were traumatized. The officer picked them up and brought them over. He plans to keep them in a cage until they seem ready to be released. We can only hope for the best. Image



The raccoon was brought to the Visitor Center where Laura, the Volunteer Coordinator, managed to get the raccoon to get some milk from a baby bottle. It’s not raccoon milk but hopefully the little guy will grow up a little. Cristina, one of the two interns we have here has “adopted” the raccoon. I’m sure the little guy will imprint her as the mother and have to be raised as a pet. Image

Today, one of the maintenance workers brought in a tarantula that was found in one of their offices. This was just to show some school kids and then they let it go. One day Art, the maintenance manager, showed up with a Texas indigo snake that had just wandered too close to the Visitor Center. He showed it to us and let it go. It still shows up once in awhile.Image

Rare Birds We Missed. We can’t get ‘em all, of course, but there was a blue-throated hummingbird seen for a few days at a nearby nature center, a crimson-collared grosbeak (very rare in the U.S.) at an Audubon Center (briefly), and a rose-throated becard spotted here at the refuge. Now that spring migration is nearly over and summer seems to have arrived, we will be content with resident birds. Still, there are a few new ones we can hope for.

Interesting Visitors. Last week, a small team of ant experts flew in from the Cincinnati Zoo to find, document and capture some very special ants we have in south Texas. There’s at least one very unusual ant here that’s called the hairy panther ant or the Texas bullet ant. It’s amazing that scientists seriously study wild creatures that we have never heard of. They need special ants for the ant section of the Zoo. Once, a visitor asked me “What are those black birds with the red spots on their wings?” I didn’t have any problem telling him “Those are red-winged blackbirds.”

Photos and Videos. I’ve been experimenting with taking videos of our birding and nature adventures. I’ll take video of anything that moves. It’s too bad I can’t load videos onto my blog (yet). I’ve made two DVDs of photos and videos so far and I’m working on a third. One day perhaps some of you can watch them. Last week, I was taking video of two chachalacas when a Texas indigo snake crossed the path, right past the birds. I got a video of the snake as it worked its way across the path, disappearing into the bushes. Then one of the chachalacas went over to the bushes to (presumably) make sure the snake was gone.  I did get a shot of a normal, healthy turtle one day.  And I got a photo of a snake on the golf course, near my golf ball.  I didn’t disturb the snake.


Snake on the 4th hole.


Upcoming Adventure (I hope). I’ve been working on our Volunteer Coordinator to get me and Arlyne on a trip into the Refuge to check on bobcat traps. A Fish and Wildlife scientist catches bobcats periodically to check their health and sometimes tag them with a radio collar. He uses a wire cage that has a smaller cage inside of it with a couple of live pigeons. The cat goes inside and trips the cage but can’t get at the pigeons. I hope to see a live one and take some pictures and videos. I’ll let you know.

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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Bird Lover


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Around the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

We’re very happy here at the Refuge. We have a great time talking with visitors, telling them the best trails to walk and hearing about their adventures when they come back. I make the suet (that’s messy) and cut oranges for our little bird feeding areas around the Visitor Center. We’re going to stop feeding the birds now because it’s brooding season and we want the fledglings to learn to find natural food on their own. We’ve seen little chicks running after their parents in the vicinity of the Visitor Center.

Both Arlyne and I use our Spanish to converse with visitors. But on just two pages of our visitor book we’ve had people from England, The Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Scotland, Canada and a dozen U.S. states, including Alaska.

We get out quite a bit, exploring the towns along the extreme southern border of Texas. No offense, but it looks a lot like Mexico around here. There are some 12 busy international border crossings along the Rio Grande. We go to Alamo, Pharr, McAllen, Harlingen, Hidalgo and other medium-sized towns. There’s an incredible number of taquerias (taco shops), llanterias (tire sales/repair), tortillerias (tortilla factories), panaderias (bakeries), washaterias (laundromats), carnicerias (meat markets) and used car sales/repair shops, etc. We did go across the border into Nuevo Progreso to have lunch and do some light shopping with another volunteer couple. Very nice lunch, but the town looks like Tijuana 40 years ago. We stayed on the main road but the poverty there is striking. The Mexicans love “winter Texans” over there and they should. But all the visitors have gone back to Minnesota and Iowa and Wisconsin and it’s dreary without them. Even our Refuge is getting quiet……..

Except for the Border Patrol. They get busy as night approaches. A few times, they’ve parked their van near our motorhome, suddenly bursting out to the main road at max acceleration after getting a call. Some of the officers ride mountain bikes around the refuge. Check out Fernando and Jose. I’ve spent a few lunch breaks talking to them. They love what they’re doing; they enjoy the outdoors and the adventure. They do understand the dangers they face. They both have families and dreams about owning a motorhome.



Rumors. We hear about groups of a dozen children (8 or 9 years old) coming across the border at night, usually led by a 15 or16 year old who carries a paper with an address. The Rio Grande River along here runs pretty hard and is fairly deep. If these youthful illegals are apprehended, as they almost always are, the Border Patrol takes them to a processing station, cleans them up, feeds them and takes them all to the address on the paper. Not much else to do, I suppose.

There are both rumors and stories about drug drops and pickups on the Refuge. One story involves a maintenance worker in a remote area of the Refuge who was approached by a man asking for a bottle of water. The worker gave him a bottle out of a cooler he had in his truck. Then another man appeared and also asked for water. As he gave the second man a bottle, the first man took the cooler with water bottles. Hey, that’s my cooler! “No”, the man said, “we’re working here. This is ours now. YOU have to leave.” That reminds me of the line from the Captain Phillips movie when the pirate said: “Look at me. I’m the Captain now.” Some stories involve the displaying of automatic weapons to workers in the Refuge. If you saw the photos in my last blog, you’ll be a believer.

Not Rumors…….  Last week, we heard on the local news that there had been 14 killings in Reynosa, just across the international bridge on the Mexican side.  Ten drug gang members were killed, along with two Mexican police officers and two bystanders.  A couple of weeks before that, twenty bodies were found in the same town.  We hope they keep it all over there.  We’re told that the Zetas are responsible.  California only has 10% of the problems they have here.  We’ve been birding at the little town of Hidalgo, where we can walk along The Fence.  We don’t stay there long.

Success!! After four fruitless and frustrating trips around Brownsville and Laguna Vista east of here, we finally saw the incredible Aplomado falcon! This bird apparently can be seen in Mexico but has been missing from the U.S. since the early 1950’s. It was reintroduced in New Mexico and southern Texas and has been designated as endangered in the US. We first saw one on a power transmission pole with the spotting scope, then saw three of them flying and diving. One of them, probably the nesting female, buzzed us within 20 feet before heading to the nest, probably wondering what our car was doing there. We have a few fuzzy pictures from probably 300 feet but we added it to our list.

Birds, birds, birds. Our trips to the South Padre Island Convention Center and the surrounding areas have allowed us to photograph lots of birds as they pass through on the migration flyway. We do like our birds. We picked up a Canada warbler and a mourning warbler for our life lists. Arlyne has 700 birds on her list now.

As I write this, we’re enjoying our views (and photos) of green parakeets in Brownsville. They’re noisy but great flyers. A few are nesting on the campus of the University of Texas here. We’re assuming they are vagrants from Mexico and not escapees from a pet shop. A college student helped us out when we asked where the parakeets go. He said they usually come in each night at 5 pm. Well, they flew in alright, at 5:04 pm! The birds know what time it is.

Living Close to the Border. A few days ago, Arlyne was manning the Visitor Center phone and got a presumably valid call from a group of “immigrants” who reported that they had crossed the river illegally and had a woman who badly needed assistance (water and food). Arlyne talked to the leader of the group, Lionel, for some time, who told her the group was in the palm tree farm across the road from the Refuge. As we are supposed to do, we informed the Border Patrol, who searched the palm trees to no avail. Another volunteer and I went across the road with some chips, candy and water and called out for Lionel, also to no avail. We don’t know what happened to them. I’m sure they spotted the Border Patrol vehicle and probably didn’t come out because of that. But the plot thickened……Shortly afterward, a contact of theirs (area code 204) called and spoke Spanish with Arlyne. He said he was worried about them, especially about the woman. He wasn’t familiar with our area but the immigrants had told him by phone that they could see the sign for the Refuge and that they were in the palm trees. We never found them.

All the other volunteers have left the Refuge now and it’s just Arlyne and me. We’re pretty comfortable and haven’t seen any illegals coming through, even though we know they come through the Refuge almost every night. Because this area is a wildlife corridor, there is no border fence at the south edge of the Refuge. A couple of days ago a rancher who lives down the road a block from us said he spotted a mountain lion near the refuge. This rancher raises exotic animals to sell to other ranches for sport hunting. I’m beginning to learn what kind of antelopes these are. Speaking of wildlife, a neighboring rancher raised exotic animals for sale to other ranchers who sell hunting permits. He has a small herd of blackbuck and nilgai antelopes. Hunters pay enormous amounts of money to hunt these animals. There are actually quite a large number of some exotic animals raised in Texas which in exceed the quantity remaining in Africa. I think the mountain lion is watching them.


Birds. Here are photos of some favorite birds we saw on the migration route. It’s difficult to see many of these birds any other way, since they head up to New England, Canada and other northern areas.Image




We hope our time here at Santa Ana continues to be interesting and informative. We don’t mean to alarm everyone about the turmoil on the border. I think of the 10 years of turmoil in Colombia and over 10 years of fighting in El Salvador and all the messes going on all over the world. Maybe Mexico has to do their 10 years as well.

Bob and Arlyne Draper

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Posted by on May 6, 2014 in Bird Lover