Birding season winds down with fear it won’t return if border wall is built in South Texas

The Border Wall

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated. The Save Salineño event has been postponed due to coronavirus fears.

SALINEÑO, Texas (Border Report) — Lois Hughes is having a hard time finishing a sentence. That’s because every time the 76-year-old goes to tell a story, another exotic bird lands in her rural viewing area and distracts the avid bird-watcher who effortlessly rattles off each species and its unique characteristics.

There are, to name a few, striking large green jays; the great — and loud — kiskadee, which sings its own name, “kis-ka-dee”; waddling chachalacas that look like chickens but also are quite loud; Northern cardinals of which only the males are bright red and the females are a dull brown; eye-catching yellow Altamira orioles; the Eurasian collared dove, with a black stripe on the back of its neck; and the bee-eating golden-fronted woodpecker, with a shock of red hair atop its head.

With binoculars held to her eyes and intensity in her stare, Hughes pivots ever so gently so not to scare the various species flocking to this birding mecca in this far-removed part of Starr County, about 9 miles outside the town of Roma, Texas.

Hughes and her partner, Merle Ihne, manage the area for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the winter months. Every fall, they bring their trailer, black cat, and 8-year-old Labrador retriever “Shamois” from Iowa, and set up just feet from the Rio Grande on a slip of land owned by Valley Land Fund.

From Nov. 1 until mid-March, they alternate days overseeing a “viewing area” — several white plastic chairs set up on a rug overlooking a tangle of trees — with another retired couple who live nearby.

Visitation is free but donations are accepted in a jar. Every day, they get anywhere from “zero to 50 visitors,” said Hughes, who has worked here for the past 11 years and has two books filled with visitor information from all 50 states, Canada and 38 countries.

Monday is closing day for this bird-watching season, but this year’s closing has significant meaning for Hughes because this area is slated for a border wall. She’s uncertain if she and Ihne will be back next year if there is a border wall built. More importantly, she said, will the birds return after massive construction or will they avoid this area that is listed as one of the best birding spots in South Texas?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection today announced a $175 million contract was awarded for 15 new miles of border wall to be built in Starr County, including through Salineño, according to a news release. It is unclear where exactly the wall will be built, but wooden stakes already have been put up through the Salineño Preserve.

Part of the draw for the birds is the closeness of the peaceful Rio Grande and all the wildlife it breeds, she said. “The river, we’re connected to it. It would be a disaster to have us walled off from it.”

The river, we’re connected to it. It would be a disaster to have us walled off.”

Lois Hughes, Salineño bird keeper

“It’s a nice environment for all levels of birds. If you’re brand new and you don’t know a thing about them, you can ask any question you want and they come close enough that you can really study their characteristics and so it’s really great for beginning birders,” Hughes said.

Lois Hughes, a volunteer with U.S. Parks and Wildlife who maintains the Salineño Preserve, near Roma, Texas, is seen on March 5, 2020, in this rural birding spot in Starr County. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

This area, which is called the Salineño Preserve, was a little RV park in the 70s that drew birders — mostly retirees from up North — in the winters. In 1984, a couple of birders from Michigan bought the land, which was large enough for up to eight trailers, and they rented out the other spaces to other birders. But in 2007, they gifted the land to the nonprofit Valley Land Fund, which has since hired volunteers, like Hughes and Ihne, to maintain and keep up the site every winter.

This is their 11th winter maintaining the site. A retired veterinarian technician, Hughes says she loves this second-life she’s been given. U.S. Fish & Wildlife consider them “volunteers,” but they don’t have to pay water, sewage or electrical hook up fees for their trailer, which has a prime viewing spot in an area that bird watchers from all over the world flock to for a glimpse of these colorful birds.

“It’s so important to preserve this area,” Hughes said as she slathered a thick yellowish concoction of “bark butter” — peanut butter, lard, cornmeal and black oil sunflower seeds — onto some trees to attract birds.

She will repeat this a dozen times a day, especially when new visitors arrive as it draws in the coveted feathered friends.

They go through one gallon bucket per day. Part of their job is to “feed” the birds this way, which helps to provide them protein during the winter months when insects are not readily available, even in this subtropical climate that has had two freezing mornings this past year.

“The insect population is down in the winter so the peanut butter is a protein substitute,” Ihne says.

After Hughes paints on thick spots of the mixture on a few nearby trees, the birds begin to land in abundance. Some are more skittish than others. Hughes is careful to warn visitors not to make any sudden moves. Talking apparently is OK, since birds are used to human voices and that doesn’t bother them. But don’t cross legs suddenly or shift body weight or pick up a heavy camera and turn quickly because they will scatter like the wind.

“They’re really grateful to have another food source,” Hughes explains. “It’s just pandemonium some days. There’s just so many birds.”

Lois Hughes, her dog “Shamois,” and a visitor watch for birds at the Salineño Preserve in Starr County, in deep South Texas, on March 5, 2020. A Border wall is slated to bisect this tract of land owned by Valley Land Fund, which Hughes and her partner manage during the winters for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All photos by Sandra Sanchez for Border Report.

‘Baldy the Oriole’

Ihne, 78, keeps water levels up and plenty of seeds in old tire hubcaps they have hanging from trees. Half-cut oranges also hang from trees to draw bees and ants, which the woodpeckers love.

Some of the birds they have named.

“Baldy the Oriole” got his name because it appears the skin atop his head has peeled back and he has a bald spot and ruffle of feathers on the back “that makes him look like Friar Tuck,” Hughes said. They have watched him return for five winters, they said.

Lois Hughes observes nature on March 5, 2020, at the Salineno Preserve in South Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We’ve gotten to know him well. He’ll sit up here and squawk at us till we put peanut butter out,” Hughes said.

When Hughes and Ihne first arrive, they can tell how brutal the summer has been and whether the birds have gotten enough to eat by how they come to them. Baldy, for instance, has been coming back for over five years, Hughes said. After particularly dry summers, the birds are quite anxious to have free meals and water readily available.

“We can tell when we first come in how the summer was and if they fared well or not,” Hughes said.

Tranquil nature preserve

Aside from feeding the birds, Hughes plants young trees and flowers and has plastic milk crates atop some to protect them from a roadrunner who “thinks it’s his dinner.” Roadrunners also like to eat snails, she pointed out as she traipses through the scrappy brush filled with prickly pear cacti, sage and mesquite trees.

“They don’t have to destroy this place. It doesn’t make any sense,” Hughes says as she walks near the water’s edge of the Rio Grande. Shamois wades into the cooling water, a stone’s throw from Mexico, and emerges and shakes.

“She doesn’t know that’s another country. She doesn’t care. Why should we wall ourselves off?” Hughes asks.

Stakes placed in the area indicate a border wall would be built near the bench, and would extend 150 feet, very close to the trailer and the Salineno Preserve observation birding area as seen on March 5, 2020 in rural Starr County, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

A Saturday, March 21 Save Salineño event that had been planned has been postponed due to fears of the coronavirus. They had hoped the event would raise awareness about the nature preserve.

Hughes said she and others were blindsided by an announcement on March 2 that 15 miles of new border barrier and a 150-foot-wide enforcement zone would be built in Starr County. Then suddenly wooden stakes with pink and red ribbons appeared on this birding property.

Hughes said Fish and Wildlife have told them that if a border wall bisects this property and they would be south of the wall that they would not be allowed to set up their trailer and stay overnight, but would have to live elsewhere and commute in.

Read a Border Report story on CBP saying Starr County border wall plans are flexible.

Despite repeated requests, CBP officials have not provided to Border Report a map showing exactly where the border wall is expected to be built in Starr County. But officials did say that plans could be changed based on local feedback and geographic and terrain concerns.

Hughes hopes that people will come out and see this outdoor playground wonderland and voice their concerns to lawmakers and border security officials in the chance they won’t build a wall here.

“Trump has no idea the thriving border community commerce that birding brings to this area and how a border wall would destroy this area,” Hughes said. “It would be a disaster.”

If a wall is built, Hughes says she probably will return and continue slathering the peanut butter concoction on the mesquite trees for her beloved birds. “I’m pretty sure we would come back and the birders would also, as long as the gate is open and accessible. At least I hope so,” she said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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