It’s been an indoorsy kind of week here in Montana, so I’m sharing a bit of the past with you guys: an excerpt from “The Winter Texans”, my essay in the current issue of Camas.

While Dennis labors over the corned beef, and the potatoes and cabbage and carrots, Ellie and Chuk and I visit Resaca de La Palma. It’s a long time since I’ve been birding with non-birders (“civilians”, as I privately and self-mockingly think of them) and though I know that Chuk has ample reasons to tolerate my peculiarities, I want to impress Ellie. As we pull into the parking lot I school myself to not dash too far ahead or linger too far behind, to try to keep up some semblance of a conversation, and to remember to share the binoculars if something interesting appears. Which it will. Interesting is a major stock-in-trade of this habitat.

Resaca de La Palma State Park lies just on the other side of Military Highway 281 from Riverbend. Like Riverbend, it is named for the undulating habits of the Rio Grande – a resaca is essentially an oxbow lake, created from a silt-closed meander. Unlike Riverbend, Resaca de La Palma is a part of the World Birding Center network, boasting a checklist of more than 270 species.

This vast number is not only due to the habitat’s native fecundity — which is admittedly great, here where the avifaunas of the U.S. and Mexico blend — but because each year, birds who migrate from South and Central America to the U.S. and Canada are funneled through the region. Though North American birders often think of these birds as our own and of our homes as theirs, they spend so much of the year in their winter habitat or in transit that the question of where their real homes are is a matter of interpretation. Coming home or not, though, they stop off each spring to mingle with the subtropical specialities in a riot of bird life that makes the lower Rio Grande Valley the home of two major birding festivals and nine of these World Birding Centers.

Happily, the park’s status and its many bird-obsessed visitors mean that it has decent funding even in small-government Texas – a share in the 300 million dollars a year that ecotourism brings to the Rio Grande Valley. The visitor center is lovely, clean and modern, with a variety of educational displays and helpful maps alongside the inevitable gift shop. The enthusiastic young woman behind the counter quizzes us, somehow tactfully, on our origins and aptitudes, and suggests a series of trails.

We first head out to the bird blind near the feeders. I’ve seen some blinds that are more hopeful suggestion than actual hot spot, located where people, not birds, want to be. This is the real deal. The feeders are full of seed, garnished with halves of orange and trays of peanuts. And they are jumping with birds.

Almost immediately, I spot a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Unfortunately, Ellie doesn’t care for woodpeckers – used to work the night shift, was kept awake by them. The prompt, raucous arrival of a trio of Green Jays pleases her more. How could anyone not love a bird with a grass-green jacket, an electric blue head, and the outgoing personality of a corvid? They’re undoubtedly the highlight, but other typical feeder birds – Red-winged Blackbirds, Black-crested Titmice, assorted doves and sparrows shuffling through the spillage on the ground — are abundant as well, and I tick off new species after new species.

We stick close to the visitor’s center until the tram arrives to take us on a loop of the entire 1200 acre reserve. I’ve never ridden a tram or taken a guided tour at any state park before and at first I feel jumpy and confined, sure I’ll miss things. But Ellie chats happily with the driver and the other passengers. When we find a flock of White Ibis perched in a dead tree overlooking a marsh, she recognizes them at once — she’s seen them in the water traps and the river. She seems happy to finally learn what they’re called.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck photo by Chuk Radder

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Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at DaysAtDunrovin.com.