Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Along the Border: Some Reflections

The border wall at Southmost Nature Preserve, Brownsville, where the preserve is entirely behind the wall.

Birds have wings, not passports, but birders play by the rules of our society and of our pastime.  Which means, by the listing rules of the American Birding Association, that Mexican birds are not countable unless they are on "our side."  This is the parochial part of our particular game, of course, but it also echoes entrenched political debates on immigration.  Rivers are not arbitrary boundaries, particularly in south Texas, where both sides of the river depend on the Rio Grande/Bravo for irrigation and drinking water, and are bound by a shared history.  Like people, birds depend on the long riparian corridor defined by this river, and so it is that in late fall every year over 800 birders descend on Harlingen, TX to look at birds along the border as part of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (which is only one of the local nature festivals throughout the year).

The resources of time and money that enable these festivals are no small reason for the economic growth of this region that is fueling strong migration (and the drug trade) across the river.  Across the entire US/Mexico border clandestine immigration is at an all-time low, except for the counties in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, especially Hidalgo County, where the number of people crossing has put huge strains on border enforcement.  One particular pressure point is a horse-shoe bend in the river below Mission, TX where two parks face each other across the riverine border: on the US side is Anzalduas Park, and on the Mexican side is La Playita, a small beach and picnicking area.

Anzalduas Park.  On the peninsula within the bend of the river is La Playita, nearly wiped out by Hurricane Alex in 2010.  All that remains of the original outline of the peninsula is a small island on the inside of the bend.  Every time the banks recede the international line is redrawn.  My eBird point for a observations during a boat ride above and below the park is apparently in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Anzalduas Park is a lovely grove of live oak and ash trees, and is renowned as a reliable place to see both Zone-Tailed Hawk and Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, our smallest flycatcher.  On the sunny afternoon I visited and found both birds, families on both sides of the river were cooking, playing with their kids, playing the same music, and enjoying the warmth after two cold days of rain. Kinglets and warblers zipped through the trees and all manner of flycatchers perched on snags and wires.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Anzalduas Park
As I was strolling by a family preparing a picnic, all speaking Spanish, the man called me over and asked (in excellent English) where I was from and whether I kept track of all the birds I see.  He had read a number of news articles about rare birds, had heard of the Festival, and was really interested in the protection of ocelots.  He offered me a beer and we chatted about the park and the change in weather.  I forgot for awhile that the the only things different about these parks from any others were the river, of course, and the two Border Patrol SUVs patrolling the perimeter road; the Sheriff's Department SUV criss-crossing the park; a Border Patrol boat tethered up river; the huge surveillance installation at the bend in the river; and this permanent line of State Police cruisers at the ready.

Anzalduas Park, Mission TX

Surveillance unit, Rio Grande River, Mission TX
Depending on your politics, these images are reassuring or not, but as always nothing is so simplistic as political ideology where real people and local context are taken into account.  While enjoying the sunshine (and the smell of carnitas wafting across the river from Mexico), I heard loud music and a DJ floating around the bend.

The Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) tour boat is a fixture here (I've seen photos and videos sprinkled across the web), and was rather nicer than the tour boat I took a few days earlier to see birds.  I show this for its poignant mixture of national pride—with a stirring soundtrack celebrating Mexico—and recognition of this place and its many layers of importance.  The DJ is talking about how the recent floods had reshaped this bend in the river, and as the boat turns the bend, he says "and here, for those of you who believe in our saints, is our Patron Saint of Immigrants and Floods, which we placed in the middle of the river to remember them."  More stirring music follows as the boat makes a crisp turn around the small floating statue, and then the DJ turns to Anzalduas Park, "in the great state of Texas, United States," and specifically notes that it is famous as a preserve for birds.  As the boat trails by, we see the flags of both Mexico and the United States.  The saint remains, rocking on her little platform, facing the US boat ramp where, a few minutes later, a massive, black Texas Highway Patrol boat is pulled out of the water.

For various perspectives on Anzalduas and the migrant wave of 2014, see articles in The LA Times,  Texas Monthly, Huffington Post, and The New Republic. On birding the park, see the excellent photo tour by David and Jan Dauphin.


Unknown said...

I hear ya. Unfortunately the border thing is today's reality because we cannot continue to pay for unlimited resources, granting privileges to non-citizens. Mexico has had violent drug cartels murdering American tourists and their own people in border cities; their gov't/ police are corrupt, sleazy thugs. I almost took a wrong turn in Hidalgo driving almost into the their checkpoint. I recall Falcon Lake seeing the flags of both nations at the ends of the dam, the border marked only in the lake by lighted pillars. It was here a Colorado couple jet skiing were attacked by Mexican gunboats a few years ago, after my visit earlier. I also remember the US Border Patrol on I-35 north of Laredo where everybody had to stop and be searched with dogs-looking for marijuana, cocaine and heroin. They also are checking for smuggled human beings in semis. It was rather bizarre looking at green jays in Sabal Palms Audubon across the river only 30 feet away! Thanks for an informative, illustrated report.

David Swain said...

Indeed, the situation on the ground at Anzalduas and some other hot-points upriver has gotten dire. The article I link to gives a very balanced look at how both sides of the river remain bound up in shared history and identity. Many of the actual issues lie well to the south, in Cartel murders and violence in El Salvador (where many of the migrants are from), but they all come to a head at places like Anzalduas, where human smugglers use the beach-goers as cover to ferry people and drugs on jet-skis.