I love the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival. I love birding the area and I love the people–it’s a fantastic combination of crazy birds and fun socializing. During the festival people come from all over the world and any place you go birding, chances are good you are going to run into someone you know or make a new birding friend. I’ve yet to meet someone who birded the valley and then says, “Meh,” it’s always, “Oh, I love it, I got so many life birds and did you try the food at (insert tiny Mexican diner or barbecue place here)?”
I don’t care how many times I go to south Texas, as soon as I land in that Harlingen airport and smell the humidity and hot air, I get tingly with excitement. I know my time is going to be full of things like Green Jays. I don’t care how many times I see a Green Jay, the day I get tired of seeing one, that’s the time to hang up my binos.
But since RGV is a combination of birds and fun friends…I try to pace myself. It’s no longer a birding race for me to get every single possible lifer, but a marathon of socializing with friends and field trips. Sure I like to get up early and see as much as I can…but I’m human, I like to reconnect with friends over a beer or two at night. I spent an entire week in South Texas and I planned a day to sleep in, it was the day that I was going to visit the trade show during the bird festival to catch up with friends. I hung out late with some friends on Friday night and when I got to my bed after Midnight, I was so excited about my planned day of sleeping in that I couldn’t fall asleep. I was so comfortable in my bed, my feet were so happy I wasn’t standing on them and my brain was so pumped about the idea of not waking up to an alarm that my body was just too happy to go to sleep.
I slept a full seven hours and it was awesome. I took a leisurely shower. I brewed some coffee. As the coffee was brewing, I looked down at my phone and saw a missed call from my friend Clay Taylor. I thought, “Oh, I bet he wants to know where I’m birding this morning. Eh, he’ll figure it out that I’m not going.”
I poured myself a bowl of Lucky Charms and sipped my coffee and decided to call Clay anyway. I dialed his number, let it ring a few times and then hung up. He called back. I answered.
“I’m digiscoping an Amazon Kingfisher on 100 just off of 77. Get it on social media and get out here.”
My brain slowly processed this information like a PC when it starts beach balling when you click to open a large file. And then I learned exactly how painful it is to have Lucky Charms shoot through your nose.
“Get the f*** out of here,” was the only sentence I could form.
Apparently Jeff Bouton was driving on 100 with someone who hadn’t seen a Ringed Kingfisher yet and he saw a large kingfisher fly across the busy highway 100 to a resaca (oxbow lake along the Rio Grande). He pulled over on the highway to get a ringed, but what he found on the resaca wasn’t a Ringed Kingfisher, but an Amazon Kingfisher. Clay explained to me where it was and all I could think is, “It’s the 20th anniversary of the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival and an ABA Code 5 rarity has been found…and now is when all hell is going to break loose.”
I checked on social media and people were either already at the bird or about to leave. I think my favorite was from American Birding Association President Jeff Gordon, “Those awkward minutes between when you hear that Jeff Bouton found an Amazon Kingfisher 12 miles away and when you actually arrive at said kingfisher.”
I had made some late morning breakfast plans with my friend Amy and sent, “Breakfast plans may change for me with the Amazon Kingfisher news.”
Amy texted back and we made plans to get cleaned up and go for the bird. At this point the bird and directions were already on the American Birding Association rare bird alert. Amy and I headed out and wondered exactly how we were going to know where the bird was being seen 100.
No worries, it was very clear where the bird was being seen. Field trip leaders were rerouting their buses and vans to give people the chance to see an ABA Code 5 rarity and a second US record bird. If you can believe it…the Birding 101 field trip which is for people who are going on their first bird trip ever got this bird. There was even a festival volunteer in an orange vest helping to direct traffic (who was later replaced by a sheriff who directed fast moving cars around the birders). Amy and I walked to the crowd and as soon as we did…
Amazon Kingfisher. Boom! It was that easy. The bird hung out, fished, flew across the road and put on quite a show. I was able to get a few quick shots with my iPhone and Swarovski scope. Meanwhile the crowd around me went nuts with “oooooohing” and “ahhhhhing.”
I called some of my friends who were in the Valley and not on the bird yet. Some needed convincing that the bird was only 15 minutes away and that they should risk being late to their trade show booth to come tick this bird. Others were further out and not sure they would even stop for the bird when they returned. I texted them, “It’s a code f***ing 5 rarity. I don’t chase birds and even I chased this one! Get your asses on this bird!”
The last time an Amazon Kingfisher was in the United States was the first ever record in Loredo, Texas in 2010. I remember because I was in Panama looking at an Amazon Kingfisher with Carlos Bethancourt (above with Amy and me) while on a trip to Canopy Tower. And here he was at the festival and I was getting it with him again–too cool. After we got our fill of the bird, Amy and I headed out to get some celebratory lunch and ice cream (not necessarily in that order). As we chowed down I had to marvel that this is why I love the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival so much. The birds are bananas. Rarities are always a possibility: already during the fest people had seen Golden-crowned Warbler, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Painted Redstart. But a second US record showing up and was noticed because so many keen birders are in the area is part of what makes this festival so special–thanks to Jeff Bouton for finding the bird, now that’s how you take the 20th anniversary of a bird festival to the next level.
And if you don’t believe me…here’s a digiscoped video I made (with the iMove app on the iPhone 5s) that encapsulates the excitement of the Rio Grande Valley Festival:
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds – it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog, Birdchick.com, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.
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