Saturday, November 8, 2008

Landing in The Valley

From Harlingen, Texas, Kenn writes: What could be more festive than a big gathering of birders? A big gathering of birders in the southernmost tip of Texas! The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, held every November in Harlingen, was one of the first birding festivals established in North America (2008 is its 15th year), and it's still one of the best. Kim and I were here together in 2004 and we're back this year because I'm giving the keynote talk tonight. Although, as I pointed out to the organizers, they don't have to twist our arms to get us to come here.

For sheer variety year-round, the lower Rio Grande Valley is probably the single best birding area in the United States. It features a lot of species that you just can't find anywhere else north of the border, like the spectacular Green Jay (pictured here), a big colorful flycatcher called the Great Kiskadee (after its raucous call), the huge Ringed Kingfisher, the spunky little Least Grebe, and many more. This area also has a mix of birds from the eastern and western U.S., big concentrations of migrating birds in spring and fall, vast flocks of water birds along the coast, and a wintertime climate that's a bit gentler than what you'd find in, say, Chicago or Minneapolis. The migrating humans known as "Winter Texans" discovered this area long ago, and migrating birders are increasingly aware of the lower Rio Grande Valley, to the extent that you can say "The Valley" and birders everywhere will know what you mean.

With such a natural treasure of birds, it was natural that the local community would seize on the opportunity to hold a festival. Our good friend Nancy Millar, who works with the McAllen Chamber of Commerce just up the Valley, played a big part in promoting ecotourism / bird tourism here. She teamed up with local birder Jan Wyrick and with Father Tom Pincelli, the Harlingen priest who is one of the Valley's top expert birders, and they put together a winning combination for the first festival. The event features daytime and evening programs, field trips to birding hot spots all over the Valley, and an exhibit / vendor area where visitors can try out the latest optics, learn about organizations, see artwork and photography, buy books, and generally enhance their experience.

A lot of the top birders in the country come to this festival every year as speakers, exhibitors, and field trip leaders. Because of our crowded schedule, Kim and I could only make it for part of the festival this year. We're looking forward to seeing a lot of our friends tonight and tomorrow. But first we have to rush out and look at those Green Jays and other birds!

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