Are We Secure Yet?

It is still disconcerting, after many trips to the Southwest, to take the dog for a walk and see, up over the tree line, a tethered surveillance balloon. Often it is miles away but I still always am tempted to wave. Here’s one not far from here that was on the ground, probably because of forecast high winds.

We had a presentation this week by a young Border Patrol agent who told us that these came from duty in Iraq, complete with bullet holes, but were very effective, especially at night, for spotting people and drugs. They still are eerie – your binoculars catch them when you look for birds – they are just silent reminders of border issues.

So, during the question period I asked him why, with all the high tech gear (balloons, helps, drones, sensors) why there were still so many agents dragging tires along fence lines like this:

He told that “cutting sign” is still there most effective system because drug traffickers know how to use the blind spots – the washes and arroyos – and it also , by studying footprints in the smoothed-out dirt, gives the BP a good count of “got acrossers.”

The resources deployed here are unbelievable – and that’s just what we can see. I talked about this in a [post last year.](

Of course, former Governor Perry, after a snit over Federal troops, is responsible for hundreds of State Troopers stationed here. In a forty mile drive, it is not uncommon to see 40 patrol cars, usually parked along the highway, sometimes stopping a vehicle. The troopers have to be bored to tears – it looks like they are sitting in their air-conditioned vehicles playing games on their cell phones. Texans, white ones, think it’s a great program from side conversations that I hear but stay out of.

So, two weeks ago, some friend were down on the river at Salenino, a birding hotspot, when they look about a half mile upriver to see six men with bales of marijuana strapped to their backs, wading the river. John, our neighbor, aimed his big camera at them and got some shots that were amazing. Most of us thought it was rather unwise – it’s not the mules you worry about – it’s the guys on each bank running the operation.

We learned yesterday that unlike lower in the Valley where crystal meth is coming across in all sorts of containers and vehicles, here the main drug smuggled is still marijuana. This is the #1 district for the Border Patrol for narcotics in the country. Last year they seized 393,000 pounds.

It does make one wonder about the cost-benefit of going after a drug that is like alcohol in the Prohibition days. But as our young speaker told us with a grin: “Drugs and illegal immigrants: that’s my job security.”

Posted in drugs, homeland security, illegals | Leave a comment

Collector’s Items

Just before I left the lower Valley, I found this license plate at the [Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park]( I did not find the owner but thought it was a good birder plate.

The other day, here at [Falcon State Park](, I came across this one while walking the dog. John, the owner, is an old single guy traveling nearly full-time in a 2005 Airstream and a serious birder.

For you non-birders, twitchers are committed bird-watchers who travel long distances to see a new species just to add a species their “lifelist”, “year list” or other lists. (I generally do not include myself in that category but a really rare bird …..)

John is not only a chaser, he’s a collector. I should have figured this from the back of his vehicle which had probably fifty stickers – non political – all birding places and events he’d been to. Then, while visiting with him, I learned of his liking for old postcards, old photos and the like. He invited me into the trailer for a look and it was indescribable: hundreds of cloth patches from everywhere, a stuffed dog, all sorts of, to me, crap. I can see why he travels alone.

John collects old license plates as well and has a 1972 Wyoming plate on the front of his truck. He switches them out periodically since PA, like many states, only requires a rear plate.

To each his own. I think I’ll stick to electronic images of license plates. And continue to avoid flea markets and lawn sales.

Posted in License Plates, personal opinion, Southwest trip 5, Twitching | Leave a comment

A Birding Surprise

The other evening it was still 80 degrees after supper (Yeah, I know I’m pushing some friendships here) so we decided to take a five mile drive up to a small pond where waterfowl gather. It is on a private ranch so you have to peer through a fence, past brush and trees, often with good luck. It is perfectly safe, right beside a main road, and a local birding hotspot.

There’s a big dip in the road just before the turnoff and I had seen headlights approaching and was cautious. Sure enough, just as we pulled on to the little path that goes up by the fence, a state trooper was pulling someone over. We watched that as I approached the pond and when we looked left, it was a “Holy “&@$!” moment. Here’s what we saw:

Now I knew that there were some elk out on the vast tract and had seen one way off a few years ago, but these guys could almost stir our coffee. There were at least four who just moseyed off as I took a few photos.

You can see some Wales from Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls in the background and the first photo has a Great Egret fishing. I did get a new bird for the county – a Black-crowned Night Heron on the far bank.

Driving back with the truck windows down and the last of the sunset fading over Mexico, it just had been a great hour. We have no TV and lousy internet but there are certainly trade offs. Adios, amigos.

Posted in nature, Southwest trip 5, Texas birding | Leave a comment

Aluminum Envy – A Vintage Airstream Moterhome

Mary noticed that the shiny Airstream as we drove down our loop at the state park, and I nearly hit a post gawking at it. Not only was it an antique, it was self-propelled and towing a Jeep. Here’s what we saw:

I walked Penny past it yesterday morning and later at our rig a voice asked, “Did you polish that yourself?” Steve and Ann were out for a walk so, after asking, we heard some of the story of the vintage Airstream.

Steve told me that he bought the 28 foot unit for $5,000 and it was a wreck. “The windshield was so cracked and crazed that I had to drive it home with my head out the window,” he said demonstrating the technique. “It leaked so much gas that I had to carry gas cans and stop and fill it every few miles. people thought I was crazy.” His partner Ann just grinned and certainly didn’t disagree.

It went into his garage and didn’t emerge for four and a half years, as he worked on it in his spare time. By then, he’d replaced the engine and complete drivetrain (did I mention that he was a GM mechanic?), replaced the dashboard and much of the interior, and spent neTly five months polishing it.

I have had enough experience stripping and polishing an Airstream that I could relate to that. The rest of the work is well beyond my ability or life expectancy.

To top it of, he even has a cool license plate.

And is an angler and free spirit as reflected on his spare tire cover:

Airstream are rather rare out here – we often are the only one in a park. To have one arrive that is so unique and beautiful is a treat. Happy “stremin.”

Posted in Airstream, License Plates, polishing, restoration, Southwest trip 5, Vintage Airstream | Leave a comment

Raptors Rule The Rio Grande Valley

Wherever you go in the Rio Grande Valley, you find hawks – yesterday morning we found a Zone-tailed Hawk in among some Turkey Vultures (it was too far away for photos) and also saw this Osprey waiting for breakfast.

Pretty soon, along the bird came with a fish too large to lift so he/she rested on a rock to think it over. That is the Rio Grande River and you can wade across it – and folks do – but that’s another story.

Grey Hawks are a special bird down here and still rather unique on this side of the border. Here’s one perched on the Mexican side digiscoped at long range.

This one is on U.S. soil and can be counted as such.

Another SW hawk is the Harris’s Hawk distinguished by its rusty color. The one was giving me the hairy eyeball as I viewed him through the scope.

One of my favorite shots of the trip so far is of this Cooper’s Hawk, which I came up on while walking Penny. I stepped on her leash and shot quickly.

I struggle to identify hawks, especially when they are flying. This is a great region to practice and learn to separate Cooper’s, Merlins, Sharp-shinned, and the rare Broadwing from one another. Good birding to you.

Posted in raptors, Rio Grande Valley, Southwest trip 5, Texas birding, Texas birds | 1 Comment

Penny Meets Some Pigs Out Back

Posted in Vermont Birding | 2 Comments

Signs and Sounds of Spring

As I sat outside last evening, dozens of Red-wing Blackbirds were in the tree above me, chattering and calling away, and I thought, "I’m certainly not in Vermont anymore."

Here in deep South Texas where spring comes early (winter never arrives), Northern Mockingbirds are starting to work on their great array of songs. At times it seems like there is a tree full of different birds as the "mocker" run through its repertoire.

Growing season in the Southern Rio Grande Valley is listed as 340 days – I have no idea when the twenty-five non-growing days occur. The thing I have noticed is that fields, one day barren, are after a few days of plowing and planting, are in about a week, green ( often with stoop laborers bent over, tweaking things.) it is an amazing growing system, complete with scarce water from the shrunken Rio Grande, intensive pesticide and fertilizer use, and cheap migrant labor.

Here at Falcon State Park, the Yucca plants are blossoming.

One of the indicators of spring for many Texans is the greening of Mesquite trees, such as this one I saw yesterday on the trail. It is a sure sign for many that the last frost has occurred and that it is safe to plant.

After a brief rain the other night, some flowers are beginning to pop. Here’s some Texas Lantana, a common, but pretty shrub.

I just walked by two Curved-bill Thrashers perched in a tree, singing away to one another. Love is in the air in South Texas.

Posted in Falcon State Park, nature, Plants & Flowers, Southwest trip 5 | Leave a comment

Father Bird

Yesterday morning, Mary and I ( and our bird dog) were at Estero Grande Llano State Park to check out some of the wonderful array of birds there – it was Mary’s first visit. As is my custom, I did a quick scan of the parking lot for birder license plates and found this interesting one.

We wondered for a moment about it (not realizing it belonged to one of the pillars of Valley birding) and went on to a great couple of hours with the birds, and a bellowing male alligator, before heading home.

Last evening, I started reading a book, Heralds of Spring in Texas, that I had borrowed from the RV park’s library.
I was just reading the Preface skimming the acknowledgements when I saw, "Father Tom Pincinellli, a Catholic priest with a deep interest in birds of the Rio Grande Valley and in helping other birders;" and I was on to Google to see if this might be the owner.

Three pages of articles flashed up and it was obvious that a.k.a. "Father Bird" had been at Estero as well. He’s a well-known birder, environmentalist, spokesperson, and articulate person of faith and I think we passed him on the trail, but of course, did not know him. From all that I have read, he would (will) be a wonderful guy to talk with. Mary, as a retired Episcopal priest would have a lot in common while I, a "learning" birder, would have a lot of questions.

Here’s a snip from one article describing his leadership role in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival:

That expert would be Tom Pincelli, a Catholic priest who has been a fixture in RGV birding community since arriving in south Texas in 1980. In birding circles, all you need to say is "Father Tom" or "Father Bird," and many in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond will know exactly who you are talking about. Pincell is a Connecticut native, who started birding in 1972. By the time the church offered him a congregation in Harlingen in 1980, he was well acquainted with the special birding opportunities in south Texas. For a birding priest, this assignment must have been like winning the lottery. Ever since, Father Tom has tirelessly promoted birding and bird habitat conservation in the Valley. When the festival organizers came calling, he was arguably the region’s most well-known birder, thus his involvement brought the fledgling event instant credibility.

Here is a short interview with him.

So, while we are heading westward in a few days, I’m sure that we will try to connect by email now, and in person on a future visit. I’ll also be more aggressive in tracking down the owner’s of birding plates – right then. As this exercise taught me, there are a lot of interesting people driving vehicles with avian vanity plates. Do you know any?

Posted in License Plates, Rio Grande Valley, Southwest trip 5, Texas birding | Leave a comment

Pop-up Birds

Often when birding, a bird pops around a tree trunk or up to the top of a shrub and you want to get it in your binoculars but at the same time, take a photo. Good photographers are fast and shoot like paparazzi’s when a good bird shows itself while the rest of us fumble and often miss the opportunity. (I usually have a Vizsla on leash jerking my arms as I try to lock on the bird.)

Practice does help and when birds are at feeding stations, they tend to stick around for more photo ops.  Other times you just fire away and check the results later.  Here are a few photos from the last week or so, including one (the Verdin) yesterday morning. They are a nice example of the diversity of birds we just see in our travels (“Oh, it’s just another Altimira Oriole.)

An Altimira Oriole feeding at Bentsen Palm State Park this week.

An Altimira Oriole feeding at Bentsen Palm State Park this week.

A juvenile oriole earlier this week.

A juvenile oriole earlier this week.

A molting Vermillion Flycatcher at the county park.

A molting Vermillion Flycatcher at the county park.

A Northern Cardinal "hiding" yesterday morning.

A Northern Cardinal “hiding” yesterday morning.

A pretty Verdin that posed just long enough before departing.

A pretty Verdin that posed just long enough before departing.

We have a few more days here in the Valley before heading up to Falcon Lake State Park. While it will be tough to leave the birds, we won’t miss the traffic and the barking of local dogs who are left out all night. I’m looking forward to some peace and quiet in the boonies.

Posted in Rio Grande Valley, Southwest trip 5, Texas birding | 1 Comment

Getting Buff

One of the things I’ve noticed in the Southwest is the amount of car washing that goes on — cars and trucks are washed continually. There are small setups everywhere – no do it yourself but rather guys who tackle the job as a team. Here in the RV park, roving entrepreneurs will wash your rig or your vehicle for very reasonable prices. Needless to say, they are hard-working Hispanics. When I got a haircut the other day, the young barber said that next time, I could get my truck detailed while I got my hair cut — they had a guy to do that.

So when we arrived, we had by far the filthiest RV unit in the park. We had hit a lot of slush and grubby roads on our trip down from Vermont and the first time I had a chance to tackle the job was when we got settled here at Americana RV Park. You can’t use the potable water system for vehicle/RV washing but there’s an abandoned water system here that available. The water has a lot of minerals but it gets the caked mud and salt off leaving lots of spots and cloudy areas. That prompted me to start working again on polishing, not just for aesthetics but more for protection of the aluminum.

So far, so good.

So far, so good.

I brought my polishing supplies and equipment with me so for the last several days, I have spent an hour or two dabbing on polishing compound and buffing it out. The system I use has a coarse grit, a medium one, and a final polish. I’m working with only the medium stuff and it is slow going, and pretty dirty. I have to wait until people are up and about since the buffer is noisy, and need to finish before the sun gets too high and the temperature too hot — and a morning when I’m not birding or otherwise engaged — so it will be a slow process. It’s a pretty good upper body workout to wrestle with the buffer while balancing on a stepladder.

I’ve got about a quarter of the rig done and will do a little more here before we leave. It’s good to see the unit shine — just to know that it’s better protected. It also sets it off from the SOBs (Some Other Brand) that fill these parks — Airstreams are few and far between.

Posted in Airstream, polishing, rig maintenance | Leave a comment