Friday, February 10, 2012

Back in the BPV

site 215
Back in Texas. I might have said back in the "heart of Texas" but honestly, I can't figure out where that might be, geographically speaking. I expect many parts of Texas might lay claim to that distinction so rather than start a gunfight, let's just leave it as "back in Texas". South Texas, or, specifically the Rio Grande Valley. The Central Rio Grande Valley.
It took a week or so to settle back into our site 215 at Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort (owned by Bentsen Palm Development). Washed and waxed the RV and truck. Reorganized the RV's interior. Got the bikes out and assembled. Rekindled friendships with old neighbors. Met new neighbors. You know. Just settled back into where we had left off last year.
Amazingly, for the first time in nine years we didn't have an out-of-country birding trip planned. While there's no lack of activities in the park, we're just not the line dancing, quilting, or card playing types. Were we worried about boredom setting in? Hardly. We've always managed to find things to do to entertain ourselves.
This year we looked forward to having many birding friends arrive (mostly from Wisconsin). Word seemed to have gotten out that we knew our way around the birding community in south Texas so our birding friends just naturally wanted to stop by.
Enter Jennifer Rycenga and her partner Peggy Macres who flew in from Half Moon Bay, CA  for a whirlwind three day birding blitz. We had recently spent time with Jennifer at the 2011 Monterrey Birding Festival and now, Jennifer was on the tail-end of an attempt to see 500 ABA species in 2011. We knew many of the birding sites and were delighted to chauffeur them around to help her meet her quest. She arrived with 468 species. Searching high and low, try as we might, she left Texas with an oh-so-close 499! Not to worry, though, as she and Peggy had flown on to Florida to visit Peggy's mom...where Jennifer easily picked up #500 (Wood Stork) plus four more species to seal the deal.

Carol, Jennifer, Peggy, Tom
Long time friends Dave and Betty Dunsmore arrived for a week long first-time-in-the-Valley visit. They had rented one of the BPV's cozy casitas that put them within an easy two minute walk to our site. As with Jennifer and Peggy, we convinced the Dunsmores not to rent a vehicle as we were happy to drive them around. Much easier for all concerned since we knew a lot of the shortcuts and ins-outs of Texas driving. We also knew how to easily find some of our favorite local eateries. Most birders, after all, are foodies.

BPV casita
Carol, Tom, Betty, Dave on South Padre Island
Vicki Buchmann and Lynn Koss arrived not long after Dave and Betty had departed. They too stayed in a BPV casita and happily agreed to let us do all the driving. Vicki's husband, Jim, isn't a birder and the same was true for Lynn's partner, Laurel. That has resulted in Lynn and Vicki having been on some of our Costa Rica tours so it was like old home week when we got together. Unfortunately, within 24 hours of their arrival, Lynn managed to take a tumble out of our RV and broke her wrist. But that didn't deter her one bit! She soldiered on with a huge smile on her face for the remainder of the week which included a cross border shopping trip into Neuvo Progresso. Lynn has since had surgery on her wrist in Florida where she is being pampered like crazy.

Tom, Vicki, Lynn at South Padre Island Bird Preserve
Greg Seegert, another of our 2011 Costa Rica trip participants was in Texas for a few days. We managed a half day birding with Greg which netted him a female Rose-throated Becard at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Cathy Mauer and her husband Gordy from Medford, WI were also in south Texas for a week. We shared a morning birding with them at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Alas, Cathy and Gordy (as well as Lynn and Vicki) failed to see the Black-vented Oriole before it had disappeared. Bummer. It was one hot bird species that pulled in many birders from all over the country while it was present. Bets are that it wound up as a meal for one of several Cooper's Hawks that frequent the park.

Tom and Greg
most of the "Chambliss group" with Tom, Dave & Betty
A group of Carol's friends from her days at Madison Audubon (the "Chambliss" group) who she had not seen in years arrived in the Valley in January. They had checked into El Rocio, a B and B just up the road from our park. They were self-reliant for transportation but we still managed to link up at a few birding hot spots during their week-long stay. Not long after they left another group (the "David and Shelly Hamel" group) from Wisconsin arrived, also staying at El Rocio. They too had their own transportation but relied on our knowledge of local birding areas. In return they favored us with a couple of home-cooked meals at El Rocio plus hours or conversation!

Carol with the "David and Shelly Hamel group"
On January 4 we participated in the Bentsen-Anzalduas Christmas Bird Count (CBC). A bit of a twist this year as we had been asked to secure the BPV pontoon boat for use in our assigned count area on the Rio Grande. Definitely a new experience as we spent a half day scouring the banks of the river with a group of other area birders. 62 species was our tally that contributed nicely to the overall count of 174 species. And once again our CBC count made ABA CBC history as it included a first ever record of a Black-vented Oriole (still being seen at the time - whew!).

the CBC gang on the BPV pontoon boat
Christmas has also been a time when BPV residents historically help local families in need. This year, rather than select a few families to lavish with gifts, Carol, in cooperation with a local food bank, started a park-wide food drive. Based on the fact that Hidalgo County (where our park is located) and neighboring Starr County are two of the poorest counties in the nation, and that people have to eat all year 'round, the food drive was well received. It will continue through the end of February when many BPV residents begin to depart. The food bank is delighted since many donations tend to fall off dramatically after Christmas Day.

Carol with park managers Guy and Juanita
Now in our third winter in south Texas, we've developed a number of acquaintances within the local birding community. One interesting fellow is Benten Basham. In 1983 Benten "Ben" Basham became the first person to break the 700 species ABA Big Year barrier when he racked up 711 species. No one knows how much money Ben spent on his quest but he has mentioned that back then "you could buy a comfortable house and put a nice car in the garage".
Remember,  in 1983 there was no wide spread Internet or birding list servs. He achieved his total without benefit of many recent ABA splits (Winter Wren, Whip-Poor-Will, Blue Grouse, Sage Grouse, etc.). In fact Ben helped set up NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert), and, he developed what has become the ABA code system which prioritizes all North American birds with regard to scarcity (or ease of finding).

Ben Basham
Tom with Kyle, John and José at Estero Llano Grande SP
The five code system included Code 1 (ex: American Robin) and Code 2 (ex: Least Grebe) birds. These were assigned as the easiest to find or birds that were regularly seen but not predictably. Code 3 (ex: Red-necked Stint) birds were tougher to find species that might require a special trip during a short observation season. Code 1, 2, 3 birds were not, Ben suggested, worthy of urgent phone calls. Ben just wanted to know about Code 4 (ex: Yellow-legged Gull) or Code 5 (ex: Zinaida Dove) birds - birds that had been blown in from other countries or continents. If you've read "The Big Year" you'll know all about Ben.
Major membership growth in the fledgling ABA is attributed to Ben when in 1971 he was appointed to be its membership chair. According to Ben his ABA life total is in the 870's and will likely remain unbroken until Attu, when he visited 14 times, is opened once again to birders.
Early in January our good friends and neighbors, Gayle and Harvey, informed us that they had purchased an RV Supersite lot in the neighboring Retama Village. Very sad so say goodbye as they pulled out of their site but happy for them in their new location. But they're not so far away that we cannot easily walk over and visit. Our new neighbors on the opposite side of our rig are Sue and Ray from New York. Delightful folks - we just don't talk much about the Giants beating the Packers...

we were the beginning of the game!
Ray and Sue - Giants fans but we like 'em anyway!
So what's coming up during the remainder of this year's winter in BPV? Well, we have more friends from WI who will be visiting the Valley. Carol's sister Marge will shortly arrive for a ten day stay with us in our RV. No doubt there will be shopping trips galore. And, hopefully the weather will be far more comfortable than during her visit a couple of years ago when the area was subjected to colder than normal temps (read: killing frost). Carol has begun a water color class. And we continue to be volunteer naturalists at the state park next door. We will continue to build our annual 2012 bird list as we search for a few nemesis ABA life bird species that have eluded us in past Red-billed Pigeon and White-collared Seedeater.

Black-throated Sparrow
Brown Jay (at Salineno)
Curve-billed Thrasher

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