Monday, February 19, 2018
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20171019 LeastGrebe at Estero Llano Grande Bill Supulski

The Least Grebe is one of the species that participants in this year’s RGV Birding Festival may expect to see. Photo taken by Bill Supulski at Estero Llano Grande.

When the Amazon Kingfisher bird was spotted along Highway 107 in Cameron County, it caused a stir. That “stir” was so big that Cameron County Sheriff Eddie Lucio had to send deputies to oversee traffic.

The Amazon Kingfisher is a rare bird. In the American Birding Association (ABA) lingo, it’s a Code 5. (See the ABA Code list accompanying this story.)

Ironically the bird made its appearance during the 20th anniversary of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. A Code 5 bird, according to the ABA is considered a species that has been recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or fewer than three records in the past 30 years. According to Birds of North America, “the Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona) is a resident breeding kingfisher in the lowlands of the American tropics from southern Mexico south through Central America to northern Argentina.”

Tammie Bulow, who is the registrar for the 24th annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival from Nov. 8-12 in Harlingen, has been a birder for more than 40 years. She has been an attendee at the event for two years, a vendor for three years and is now employed by the Festival.

“On a scale of 1-10, it is a 10 as far as festivals go,” Bulow said. “That’s backed up by comments on our Facebook Page and what we hear and by how well it’s attended.”

Using the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium as home, the five-day event has literally hundreds of pre- and post event trips surrounding the festival. There are workshops, seminars, and field trips, which are directed by professionals on either a bus or van.

More than 60 vendors of bird-related products are available for every level of birder at the Birders Bazaar. Field trips are listed on a downloadable worksheet at rgvbf.com. There is a $25 registration fee to participate, then there are separate fees for different field trips, seminars and workshops. The Kiskadee Pass ($25) will also be offered as a blanket registration to cover all seminars and workshops.

“There are literally 100 or more field trips to choose from,” said Bulow, whose past involvement in birding includes president of the Denver Field Ornithologists Club, president of the Central New Mexico Audubon Society and executive director of the World Birding Center on South Padre Island, along with other groups and organizations.

Avid birders know that the Rio Grande Valley is a birder’s paradise. There are nine different World Birding Centers strewn across South Texas from South Padre Island through Hidalgo County and on to Roma in Starr County. For those who are novices – or those who have yet to begin – the process is an easy one. Want to try it for the first time? All you need are some high-power binoculars. If you are a butterflier and have binoculars for that style of watching, they won’t work for birding.

“Butterfly watchers have binoculars that are used more to show definition on something that’s about six to 10 feet away,” Bulow said. “You’re not going to get that with bird watching so you need something with more power to help you see the markings and see what other identifiers they have.”

Bulow recommends that if you get a pair of binoculars before either going to the festival or just to begin bird watching, practice looking through them. Often, there’s not much time to “get on a bird” and it becomes important to become familiar with looking through the lenses and being able to quickly find the species.

“I would just start practicing in my backyard at the birds there,” Bulow said. “You never know how long a bird is going to be somewhere and you need to get on the bird quickly. Some people may take a while to get used to putting binoculars up and looking through them, but that’s really the way to go.”

Checklists are available at the festival, at the World Birding Centers across the Valley and there are plenty more options online.

“We import a lot of field trip leaders to come down to his event and they bring along a lot of experience,” Bulow said. “That’s just one of the things that makes this event so high quality.”

How did the Amazon Kingfisher or any Code 5 bird get out of its normal region and to South Texas? Of course, they flew – but why and how?

“A lot of birds will show up here out of their territory and out of their ranges because they were just blown here,” Bulow said. “Also, a lot of times after breeding season the birds will just fly aimlessly and let the wind take them. There is also a great source of food here.

“And I’m sure there are a lot of rare birds that have come through that have not been discovered. That’s another thing that makes this festival so fun and exciting. You don’t know what’s going to show up.”

It is not unusual for enthusiasts to not just come from all over the country, but there have been times when the serious birder will travel across oceans to see a rare bird, something so rare they can mark off their checklist that it almost becomes a bucket list bird.

There are two keynote speakers scheduled to appear. Nathan Pieplow is the author of “Peterson Field Guide to Birds Sounds of Eastern North America.” His blog “Earbirding,” focuses on his in-depth study. A co-author of the website “Colorado Birding Trail” and a former editor of the journal “Colorado Birds,” he currently teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Nathan will help birders visualize and identify bird sounds with his talk entitled “Bird Sounds Decoded,” which will be held at 6:15 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 9.

The other keynote speaker is Noah Strycker. His talk, entitled “Birding Without Borders: An Epic World Big Year,” will be held at 6:15, Friday, Nov. 10. In 2015, Noah Strycker traveled 41 countries and all seven continents to set the world record by seeing 6,042 species of birds (more than half the birds on the planet) in one calendar year. He has written three books, is an Associate Editor of “Birding” magazine, and is seasonally the on-board ornithologist for expeditions to Antarctica and the high Arctic.

One thing is for sure, nobody can predict what rare species may show up this year at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. In fact, Bulow said that because of all the tropical storms and hurricanes, there could be a whole lot of new and rare birds around South Texas.

“The storm activity in the Gulf and the Atlantic has been unbelievable and it may bring who knows what kind of birds here. We’re excited about this year’s festival. It’s really going to be first class once again.

For more information on the 24th consecutive Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, visit rgvbf.org or on Facebook search RGVBF.Click here for the American Birding Association Codes.

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