I wasn’t surprised that the first new bird I saw at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one of its most common. Green jays sailed over the mesquite to feeding stations set up in a forest alcove, and they gorged on sunflower seed, spilling spent striped hulls onto the ground. I was well-acquainted with their northern cousins—blue, Steller’s, and scrub—and the green jays were every bit as aggressive. But the subtropical kind was more radiant, sporting colors that prismed red, blue, and yellow in the morning’s sun. Soon, other commoners—gold-fronted woodpeckers, buff-bellied hummingbirds, and chachalacas—emerged from the wood, and the tableau became a dizzying calliope of chatter and song. Though the deluge left me breathless, I was about to dismiss the collection as background noise. That’s when Laura, our refuge guide, cautioned, “Remember, there’s no such thing as ‘just another bird.’”
Naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote idyllically about the lower Rio Grande valley in his iconic 1957 book, Wandering Through Winter, and, with over 400 species to be found, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge soon became ensconced on every birders’ bucket list. Like Teale, I had ventured from the north to its subtropical climes. The three and one-quarter square mile refuge sits on the border between Texas and Mexico and is set amongst thousands of acres of cabbage that cover the Hidalgo fine sandy loam with a Berber weave. Yet, more than an oasis, the Santa Ana refuge is at the center of an ecological pinwheel, where the Chihuahuan desert, the tropics, and the coastal plains converge near the Gulf of Mexico. And, two degrees shy of the Southern Cross, the place is about as far south in the continental U.S. that one can go. Simply put, you can see birds there from Mexico and Central America without leaving the States.
The terrain deviated from the resplendent jungle that the adjective “subtropical” connotes, however, prejudged though my expectations were. Laura led us along dry brambled trails, wormholes that fan across the six miles or so of floodplain that snakes through the refuge. Green-stemmed trees and shrubs wove together like finger traps. Dry Spanish moss hung turquoise like cobwebs in a carnival haunted house. Texas ebony and honey mesquite stood gray and dead, asphyxiated by silt-laden floods. With no relief and an imperceptible slope towards the river, I could easily have become lost in the shaded thorned warren. I wondered how the refuge supported such rich diversity. I wondered how we would see more new birds.
“Who’s never seen a pauraque?” Laura asked. The nightjar nests on the ground, sitting patiently, camouflaged amongst leaves and twigs. Such is its mimicry that the bird’s tawny hues match the scalloped patterns of rot on the forest floor. Laura took us to an area with pauraques beside the trail. “Look in about five feet,” she whispered. I scanned the ground, but I still couldn’t find the bird. “Where are you looking?” she asked. I struggled at adjectives for decay. “Look about a foot to the right.” When I changed my mind’s lens, the crenulations of the pauraque’s wings finally popped into view. Though the bird had probably been watching me the entire time I had been looking for her, I sensed both our hearts quickening when our eyes met.
Such attempts to elude are not limited to wildlife, and I had been forewarned that Santa Ana is a greenwood for outlaws. The U.S. Border Patrol shut down a drug trafficking and human smuggling operation on the refuge in 2017, saying: “… transnational criminal organizations continue to exploit our more vulnerable areas that have limited technology and infrastructure.” The refuge appears inherently susceptible. Flowing along the refuge’s southern boundary, the Rio Grande wends within sprinting distance of a Texas state highway. YouTube videos show smugglers known as coyotes leading clients across the river, waiting hidden in the underbrush for an opportune escape. The images are affecting. Yet, perhaps wrongly, I understood that the migration occurs at night—that is, there would be no cause for palpitation during the day.
Laura next led us to a resaca. From my limited understanding of Spanish, I knew the word to translate “hangover,” so I was confused as to her meaning. She explained that a resaca is a side channel that handles the snowmelt from the river’s Colorado headwaters gushing through the valley each spring. The refuge lies in that part of the valley where resacas anastomose, the branching of their channels growing in extent downstream and crackling wet like lightning as the river strikes into the Gulf of Mexico. Back in the day, resacas presented a formidable barrier to travel north and south. For instance, General Santa Anna took the long way around to the Alamo, choosing to bypass the wetted complex and, instead, opted to head west, crossing the Rio Grande upstream at Laredo. Today, dams have left most resacas dry.
Laura explained that the resacas that daisy chain across the refuge had become disconnected from the river and that the Fish and Wildlife Service must now pump water from the river into ponds salvaged from dry channels. The birds didn’t seem to notice the difference. The pools spread languidly under a now bright mid-morning winter sun, and we spent nearly two hours espying birds from one of the many blinds set up on the refuge. I’m always amazed at how birds disavow one’s presence in an open window. The assemblage included shorebirds of various ilk standing on one foot with their heads aback as black-necked stilts tiptoed about. Roseate spoonbills, white ibises, and great blue herons fished the shallows while green-winged teals and widgeons snoozed on grassy islands, the ducks mixed about in the sun. Looking up, I saw ringed kingfishers hovering blue and red expectant of prey and, even higher, cave swallows spreading mottled over their domain, tracking insects floating to the ether.
“Is this where The Wall goes?” someone asked, as if referring to a Band-Aid. Concerned about the abuse that the refuge had received from traffickers and smugglers, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had pushed Santa Ana to the top its list for new construction of the by-then infamous barrier. The agency labeled the plan to build a section of The Wall across the refuge a “pilot project” when, in truth, I saw sections of The Wall nearby, already standing tall, out in the open, like rusty iron picket fences. The barrier raises the hackles of many environmentalists that I know. Laura was quick to assert that refuge employees are not permitted to discuss the controversy, but that didn’t stop others from grumbling about “who needs a damn wall anyway in this day and age” and about the dangers of fragmenting already rare habitat.
What about the ocelot? That was my thought. I came to see ocelot, too. Historically reaching into Texas hill country, the small spotted leopard’s range in the U.S. had shrunk to the handful of scrublands like Santa Ana along the Rio Grande big enough to sustain a reproducing population. Opponents of The Wall claim that the barrier would extirpate the species’ U.S. population. After my trip, Congress approved funds for a portion of The Wall in a measure that expressly bans its construction on the refuge. Scott Nicol, co-chair of Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team, said, “I think we were successful in making walling off Santa Ana politically toxic.” But the bill authorizes 25 miles of wall which, in addition to the 30 miles already in place, would armor nearly the entire Hidalgo County line, severely limiting the cat’s ability to find territory in the U.S.
Fearing its demise in the U.S., I wanted to see a resident ocelot while I could. I justified my dark quest based on the species’ overall health—it is not at risk for extinction and ocelot range all the way to Argentina. Yet, losing the cat, to me, would be one more step into the Anthropocene—I’m not ready to go there. So conflicted, I returned to the refuge later that afternoon to go deeper into its backcountry, following a dirt track to the banks of the Rio Grande. I had built up my expectations of the river through photos from Big Bend National Park where it cascades majestically through desert canyons. But here, perched 30 feet above the valley’s winter stage, I saw the effects of decades of altered flows from upstream dams that left the drainage looking more like a ditch. There was no foamy turbulent flow of the untamed. Instead, olive-green slag eddied slowly around a bend, shaded by dense bramble on both sides.
A lone hawk stood sentry over the river as turkey vultures caught the late afternoon thermals, spiraling over the cabbage fields, first on the U.S. side, then on the Mexican side, back and forth, swirling like the silt-laden flux passing below my feet. Because ocelot can swim, I scanned the banks with my binoculars for game trails leading from the river. I saw only slippery mud and grass along the banks; scaling the escarpments seemed improbable. My curiosity propelled me farther upriver where I found small paths beaten through the thicket, every 50 yards or so, coming from the river. The tunnels were shorter and narrower than the trails I had just traveled with Laura and, on trackways especially well-used, taconite signs were driven into the ground that read, “Cerrado!” This was a good omen, I thought.
My heart beat a bit faster, and my breath drew a bit shallower as I thought I could be within range of the predators. They may have even been watching me. When the trail merged with a dirt road, I found scat strewn everywhere. The droppings could have been ocelot; however, what research I had done indicated it could also have been bobcat, or even coyote. But the site looked familiar; I was sure that I’d seen it on the web in a photo of an ocelot lying on a road. The tangle of fur and small bones in the droppings suggested that, whatever the species, these predators were eating small rodents. If it were ocelot, it may have meant that mothers had been hunting food for their kittens. So, with nightfall approaching, I decided to sit in the brush on the side of the road to wait to see if a cat would emerge on a food run.
That’s when the Border Patrol rumbled toward me in a pickup. I stood up, thinking that they’d stop, assuming they would have questions about my posture. I mean, if you were looking for drug traffickers or human smugglers, wouldn’t you be curious about someone hiding in the woods? But the driver smiled and waved, passing by. As they drove away, I saw another agent sitting in the back, wearing camouflage fatigues and black aviator glasses. A camo balaclava covered his head, and he wore a bulletproof vest. There was no greeting. Soon after that, a Blackhawk helicopter came from the north, leaning in full stride. The progression washed over the landscape like a Movietone of atomic blast waves jerking the world one way with the audience hoping for it to rebound. When I heard the helicopter chop-chop-chop about a mile away, circling over the river, I wondered how anything could make it across.
It was my first time in Tejano country. An early nineteenth-century map of Spanish Texas labels the area between the Sierra Madre Oriental and San Antonio as inhabited by “Indios Bravos” who had been successful in repelling both Spain’s attempts to colonize them and the neighboring Comanches’ and Apaches’ attempts to destroy them. The mountains to the south and west, the area’s remoteness, and the tangle of scrub served their evasion well. When Mexico gained independence in 1810, the region was absorbed into the State of Tamaulipas, which ranged between San Antonio in the north, Tampico in the south, Laredo in the west, and the Gulf of Mexico. Still, the quarter remained a hinterland. Stephen Austin’s map of Texas in 1835 labels the lower Rio Grande valley as inhabited by “Immense Droves of Horses.” After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the territory was divvied out, split at the river.
Today, the two cities that straddle the border near Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge—McAllen and Reynosa—tout themselves as “one of the largest, most continuous binational metropolis in the hemisphere.” Such is the region’s integration that, for the month prior to my coming to the refuge, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that more than 3.5 million pedestrian or passenger crossings into the U.S. had occurred along the border between Laredo and Brownsville. About one million crossings happened at the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge near the refuge. One afternoon, I sat at a Starbucks watching the steady stream. Trucks shuttled between import-export depots on either side of the border, trading fresh food and manufactured goods. Workers went both ways. Families, many of whom have inhabited the area since the Spanish conquests, connected. This is one place, I concluded.
Yes, there are unauthorized crossings, too, and they are especially intense near the refuge. The year before my visit, the Border Patrol apprehended over 137,000 in the McAllen Sector trying to enter the U.S. illegally. That was about half of all interdictions nation-wide during the same time period. That pencils out to about 400 people a day. However, it also represents less than one-half percent of all north-bound crossings. YouTube posts tell stories of families and lone children riding buses from deep within Central America, or walking to the border, rallying with coyotes in stash houses, then making a break, hoping to join with family in the U.S. Some surrender to the Border Patrol, hoping for asylum. Others venture to a prearranged rendezvous. And yet others continue their trek through scrublands deep into Texas, led by coyotes.
I witnessed one interdiction. On the way from the refuge to my hotel, I came upon cruisers flashing blue and red as the Border Patrol, Hidalgo County Sheriff, and McAllen Police detained a truck with Texas plates on the state highway. A woman, Latina, stood on the shoulder with her hands in the back pockets of her jeans, looking at the ground. Though the lights showed her face only briefly and intermittently, I saw enough to feel that she seemed resigned to the procedure. An officer was taking her picture with his phone as more officers searched the cab, spilling contents onto the ground. I wondered if her situation was related to the ruckus by the river when I was looking for ocelot, but I never confirmed a link. After I passed, I held my breath watching from my rearview mirror as she was led to a Border Patrol van that had joined the fray.
When I returned to the refuge the next morning, I heard Laura intone again, “Remember, there’s no such thing as ‘just another bird.’” She used the saying to instruct birders to call out all birds because they might be new—even the common ones—to others on her bird walks. But the aphorism sounded like a pithy tease posted on a letter board encased in glass outside a church in Anywhere, U.S.A. I became attracted to it thinking it preached bigger things. “And, if we’re lucky, we’ll see the becard,” she tagged on. With a distribution concentrated in the Central American mountains, a subspecies of the tropical flycatcher occasionally wanders north into Texas looking for scrublands like those on the Santa Ana refuge. Its range map looks like fingers grappling at the top of a fence. Someone had tweeted about a rare sighting on the refuge the evening before.
On our bird walk, we encountered several private guides leading clients who were also on the hunt for the becard. Finding rare birds is big business. Nature-lovers spend over one billion dollars each year in Texas on wildlife viewing—much of it in the Rio Grande valley. The guides were outfitted for the part, wearing uniforms and carrying high-tech gear. Seeing migrants like the becard in the United States is a rare tick for someone’s life list. I find it odd that such birds, ordinary in Central America, count more once they cross the border. I met one birder who came from Washington, D.C., with the sole purpose of augmenting her U.S. life list. She spent a week around the coastal plains, rising at four A.M. to accompany her guide to backroad wetlands to search for tropical strays. They drove all night to Santa Ana on news of the becard.
Laura attempted to keep our bird walk to a normal routine, traveling through the thicket, looking over resacas, and feigning ignorance about The Wall. Yet she and others were constantly checking their smart phones for becard alerts. We tried to focus on a conversation about the differences between the stilt sandpiper and the dowitcher, either of which, if its legs are underwater, we contemplated half-heartedly, might be mistaken for a lesser yellowlegs. But we’d have an eye on the trees for flashes of red. Once, we become ecstatic on sighting a smaller-than-a-robin bird zipping about to catch insects. But we became deflated, when we zoomed in, to see just another phoebe. As more parties hot for the becard pressed from the north, the day started to resemble a live-action tournament of hare and hounds.
I enjoy seeing rare birds, I’ll admit, but I rather they’d be glimpses through serendipity and not sightings I’d prey upon. For instance, for over fifty years I had wanted to see a harlequin duck. As a child reading Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides, its markings looked like the bizarre face-painting of an Elizabethan clown-actor, and the rebel look resonated with me. Though not rare, the duck is odd in that, instead of inhabiting stereotypical ponds or marshes, it spends its winters in saltwater bays and summers along mountain rivers. I’d traveled along enough river and coastline to wrap the globe, but I’d never seen one. Then, last summer, while sitting on a cedar log lunching on gorp, I saw a pair bobbing past on the swollen flow of the Dosewallips. Later, this winter, while sitting on a rock noshing on a granola bar, I saw a pair diving into the swells off Rosario Beach. The memory of them is now halting.
Seeking relief from the becard obsession, I climbed a forty-foot tall aluminum tower constructed in the middle of the refuge and looked over the canopy toward Mexico. I had thought about crossing to Mexico, earlier that morning, to Reynosa, to try to understand the view looking north. I used Google Maps for a virtual walk downtown, to see where I might go. The satellite pictures of the barrio next to the border crossing showed it tiled, square and tight, streets narrow and the sidewalks even narrower. From the street, shuttered rectangular buildings that were splashed in pastel blues, greens, and pinks stood so high that their walls shaded the street and I couldn’t orient myself to north. I could only find bodegas and taquerias next to the border along with a raft of dentistas and farmacias catering to American medical tourists. There was no wildlife refuge. I didn’t see a destination for me.
I asked the front desk at my hotel where I might visit and they said, “You really shouldn’t go without a guide.” Indeed, drivers with Tamaulipas plates ferried hotel guests across the border to do business. I Googled to learn more and soon found the U.S. State Department warning: travel was not advised due to crime. News feeds reported that the week before I came rival drug cartels had set up roadblocks in Reynosa, staking out territory. Shootouts between the gangs had caught innocents in the crossfire. The day I arrived, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a trip to Reynosa amid the gun battles. The tumult was within about five miles of the refuge, as the crow flies. Later, I sat at the red light where, if I went straight on, I’d enter the sorting chutes at the border crossing. I joked that they put the stoplight there to give one time to think about it. When the light turned green, I turned toward the refuge.
When Laura received a text that the becard was nearby, she signaled for me, and I gathered my binoculars, bird books, and journal, and I scrambled down the metal stairs of the metal tower, jogging to catch up. Groups out with their paid guides couldn’t help but notice the pace and followed. Soon, our exodus joined with others as news of the becard spread like a torrent over the refuge. On the move, Laura explained that the bird, a male, had just been seen in the trees along the road near the river trail. The spot rang familiar as the place where I had sat looking for cats the previous night—where I had my encounter with the Border Patrol. Had I looked up then, I might have seen the bird foraging overhead. Instead, I was focused on feces and distracted by interdictions.
When we arrived at the spot, we found a handful of birders peering into the brush to lock down the becard’s position. The bird came into my view long enough for me to bring him into focus with my binoculars. Most birds on my trip to the Santa Ana refuge required Laura’s excellent identification skills to discern them. The features of the becard, however, were unmistakable. I wrote in my field notes: tufted head slicked back like a D.A. wearing a rose cravat. Others reported hearing a “high-pitched but loud ‘seeuu’ descending.” I’ve since found photos on the web of the bird standing regal. He foraged as he hopped from branch to branch, seeming to accept the disruption without any apparent disquiet. Standing apart, we looked at each other without palpitation.
Soon more birders arrived, and the handful became a crowd. High-powered scopes were set up along the road, and high-end cameras zoomed in and clicked. Guides reminded their clients to keep a safe distance to avoid harassing the bird, but I’m sure we looked impenetrable. As the becard skipped from branch to branch down the right-of-way, the phalanx of paparazzi moved with him, gear swaying from necks and shoulders. I commented sarcastically to Laura that the bird would probably brag to his friends at home about all the attention he received in the U.S. Or maybe it wasn’t funny at all. Eventually, he flew into the brush. From reports I’ve seen since, the becard stayed at the refuge for two more weeks and then returned south.
Teale wrote romantically about encountering the Border Patrol on horseback during his visit to the Santa Ana refuge. What he didn’t write was that the U.S. was conducting one of the largest mass deportations in its history—an Eisenhower initiative with the racist moniker, “Operation Wetback.” I was thinking on such things as I returned home when I encountered a checkpoint about seventy miles north of the border, near Falfurrias. It is part of a network spread across a strip that the Border Patrol’s maps label the “100-mile Buffer Zone.” The depiction reminds me of the no-mans-land shown on those nineteenth–century maps; however, the area is no longer a backwater today.
Red lights of a traffic jam came into view as agents crisscrossed the adjacent fields, trailing dust behind them. Surveillance cameras scanned cars from the side of the road, and mobile observation posts kept watch over the slowing motion. Looking like hunting blinds that freckle the Texas outback, these watchtowers became my border icon. The structure unfolds from a trailer and, fully deployed, a battlement sits atop spindly legs at about 25 feet tall. Adding to the mien, diesel generators hum, venting black smoke, powering surveillance, and tinted black windows peer like snake eyes, readying to strike. They seem every bit like Wellsian tripods to me.
As we inched forward in line, Norteño music bumped anxiously from the cars and trucks around me. The eclectic fusion of Mexican folk with European oom pah pah was the only music I could find on the radio. Accordions, tubas, and clarinets sang in stores, in restaurants, and on the streets—the blood carrying life along with it. So immersed had I become in the songs, I started to dream Norteño. I told my friends about the music, and they hinted that the lyrics glorify the cartels. “It’s chill,” I countered, “I don’t understand the words, but I like the way it makes me dance.”
When I showed my enhanced ID to the Border Patrol agent, he asked about the purpose of my visit, and I told him that I had been birding. “Are you a U.S. citizen?” Yes. “Did you go to Mexico?” No. He continued his test, “Is this your car?” It was not. That was sufficient to prompt a search. “Pop the trunk, please.” The agent peered through my open windows while another agent led a drug dog around my rental and yet another agent searched my bags. I considered asserting my Fourth Amendment rights, but I resigned myself to thought as I watched crows chase a hawk over the fields.
I thought about the aluminum tower at Santa Ana, how the deck is a magnet for hawk watchers every spring and fall, a place to watch raptors stream north and south. E-Bird, the birding website, has a time-lapse map showing bird migrations where South Texas looks and acts like a funnel collecting birds from, and a nozzle spraying them to, North America. Several years earlier, over one million hawks were counted along the Gulf Coast. I imagined what that would look like. Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that she nearly fell from a mountain top, so dizzying was the hawk display on her Virginia mountain. My feet remained firmly planted, however.
I thought about water. They know how to do water in Tejano country. Everywhere I ate, a waiter brought a tall, sweating glass of ice water as soon as I sat down. Watermills, vending machines fashioned like Dutch windmills, dotted the biways. They were always busy; families queued up with an assortment of jugs. I stopped at one to fill my bottles. When I deposited a quarter, a gallon of water dropped as though from an upset bucket. My bottles filled as soon as they met the flow, but much of the freshet cascaded over my arms and onto the ground. By the time I returned to my car, the spill had evaporated. That seemed to be the way of things.
Eventually, the Border Patrol agent came to my window and said, “Okay, you’re good to go.” For a split-second, I felt like lashing out, “Are we REALLY okay?” But I rolled up my window and pulled away. Looking in my rear-view mirror, I watched the car behind me lurch forward with indifference, and I saw the agent wave it on to join the drift. I couldn’t decide whether I was on an ocean crossing or a river headed downstream, perhaps upstream. I couldn’t even decide whether the best verb for the motion was coming or going. In any case, I felt I was wandering but with purpose. And, at that, I finally took in a deep breath and exhaled.
*Photo by Mark Teply: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
Author Bio: Mark Teply holds forestry degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley. His science writing has appeared in Journal of Forestry and Western Journal of Applied Forestry. He lives with his wife in Olympia, Washington.