Spotting a bat falcon in Rio Grande Valley is one for the life list – Houston Chronicle

Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis) lands on a perch in Costa Rica. Note how it has closed it nictitating membranes to protect its eyes
A list in the lobby of the Alamo Inn B&Bin Alamo, Texas, which caters to birders visiting the Rio Grande Valley.
A bat falcon, never spotted before in the United States, appeared outside the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near Alamo, Texas, in late 2021 and in early 2022.
A bat falcon, never spotted before in the United States, appeared outside the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near Alamo, Texas, in late 2021 and in early 2022.
ALAMO — A vicious wind blows through a stop sign, creating a metallic hawk-like whistle that fails to distract the two dozen birders standing outside a wildlife refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. They’re waiting on a falcon.
A post by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had created a frenzy in February: a bat falcon had been photographed at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Birders from Texas and far beyond assembled to catch a glimpse of a celebrity raptor that had previously never been reported in the United States.
The bat falcon looks like something from a Wes Anderson film. Its habits possess a bit of flair — it swoops in flight, and its head, cloaked in black like a masked superhero, is in constant tic-like motion.
For such a small and elusive creature, the bat falcon looks designed for attention.
Fred Welden flew in from Carson City, Nev., to try to see the bird, one of a few on his checklist for this trip. He arrived in the Rio Grande Valley on a Tuesday night and spotted the bat falcon on a wooden pole outside the refuge, where the bird has been known to perch. Spotting the bird meant Welden could check it off his list, but he wanted something more.
“I want to get the killer shot,” he says, with a camera outfitted with a long lens at his side.
The bat falcon’s patterns over the past two months have made it a fairly reliable visitor to that post. But Tiffany Kersten, who leads Nature Ninja Birding Tours, said the bird only shows up about half of the mornings.
This morning proves to be an exercise in managed expectations. The crowd dissipates over the span of an hour. Welden could be found later that morning hoping to photograph it by Cattail Lakes within the refuge. He hoped the killer shot could be had in this tree-filled expanse along the Texas-Mexico border, rather than atop a man-made utility pole alongside a freeway with 18-wheelers roaring past. But after a few hours, the best anyone could do was spot a falcon-esque profile far in the distance. It might be the bird. But verification was problematic.
Birding isn’t for the impatient. While word of sightings moves more quickly than 30 years ago, the process reminds that animal behavior isn’t clockwork.
I showed up in the Rio Grande Valley without much in the way of expectations. A group from the Houston Museum of Natural Science — curator of vertebrate zoology Dan Brooks, photographer Mike Rathke and videographer Johnny Hemberger — invited me to join their itinerary, which operated on a theme of birds in unusual places. Some of those places were unusual for man-made reasons: The journey started just outside the convention center in South Padre Island, where a few roseate spoonbills could be spied a little early for the species at this time in February. This space — a sliver of land between water — proved fruitful almost instantly: An osprey, disheveled as if having just rolled out of its nest, sat atop a small stump in a sandy flat in the open.
I’d have followed Brooks on any manner of snipe hunt. As a kid, Brooks raised exotic birds with his father, and started bird-watching at 16. He started by spending time with a birding friend, whose father, also an avid bird-watcher, had died. Brooks’ early interest turned into fieldwork and conservation work and, ultimately, a job at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Rathke picked up an interest in birds from his father in Wisconsin.
Birding comes with a degree of failure built in: You can improve your odds of seeing something special. But you’re still hanging hopes on the crooked nail of nature. Birds are gonna do what birds are gonna do.
This week possessed a feeling of escape for me, as it was a week that followed a fair bit of loss. Two friends had died, just the most recent peaks in an EKG of lousy news that has spanned the past few years. Approaching 50, inevitably, bears such sour fruit.
Still, the notion of looking for something elusive proved tantalizing and provocative. At worst, it would be a poor return on an investment of time, a resource I’ve become increasingly protective of. But early into the venture, I came to redefine the phrase “wasted time.” There’s a peaceful payoff in the act of natural pursuit, whether or not it proves fruitful. I assume fishing and hunting, activities I avoided for years, take on a sharper focus for those engaged. Kinky Friedman once told me, “It’s the rainbow, not the pot of gold.” So I went looking for rainbows.
Our first day is low-level successful, with some birding targets — like the osprey and the roseate spoonbill — that weren’t lifers for me or my more experienced company.
For birders, “lifers” is a term representing first-time viewings of birds never before seen in person in the wild; they get checked off on a life list. Rathke puts his life list in the 300s. Brooks has traveled to Africa and Central and South America on birding expeditions. His is a specific 1,506.
The theme of their venture means some of the birds are far from elusive. Our trip passes through Oliviera Park in Brownsville, where a flock of parrots settle in for an evening, providing a soundtrack in a space more dedicated to soccer and, believe it or not, kickball. The park hosts the Tip-O-Tex Little Miss Kickball (“where stars are born and legends are made”). At dusk, the chirps and cheers of parents watching their children play are drowned out by red-crowned parrots, which move as a dark cloud from trees to power lines with a remarkable sound. Once settled, their brilliant greens explode with little flashes of red. They’re a sensory experience.
As someone inclined to stay indoors with a book or an album, I do not fit the archetype for a birder, though I’ve learned over the past two years there is no single birding archetype.
Nevertheless, despite an aversion to nature — camping, really — I’ve seen some things. I’ve seen a childhood acquaintance pick up a black snake by the tail and get bitten on his side. I’ve encountered rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, coral snakes and a baby fer-de-lance that a moronic tourist in Costa Rica held like a strand of pasta. A hawk once whizzed over my shoulder and knocked a small songbird out of a tree to the ground, where the hawk then snatched it up and flew away. I’ve seen whales off of the coast of Alaska create a bubble net, their circular manner of trapping other aquatic life for a meal. Aware it’s a punchline, I’ve seen a bear literally poop in the woods. I’ve seen wild toucans and a few other fancy avian entities in Central and South America. And I’ve also dealt with the empty hook that results much of the time while birding. Once, with my wife and daughter, I went on an eight-hour hike searching for the resplendent quetzal in Panama. I learned more about the ways different fabrics absorb water than I did about the resplendent quetzal.
But the past two years have changed all of us, I would imagine in some ways.
The last story I had filed before leaving the office for the last time in 24 months was about the whooping crane in the Rockport area. The first book I read in March 2020 was “The Falcon Thief,” a riveting and outrageous story that serves as an avian true-crime masterpiece. Next I read “What It’s Like to Be a Bird,” and its author, bird authority David Allen Sibley, humored me with an interview that revealed my ignorance and his even-keeled wisdom.
He acknowledged anecdotally that he’d noticed a spike in interest in birds during the pandemic; I was part of that spike. He politely deflected my query about whether blue jays are jerks. “Well, bird behaviors are more complicated than that,” he said.
Weslaco, a Hidalgo County town 7 miles from the border of Mexico, offers a quieter pursuit than being part of the paparazzi trying to sight a bat falcon. Here, our group seeks the golden-crowned warbler. The little yellow bird was spotted hours before we arrive at a lovely nature center hidden behind the usual park accoutrements. Even if it were nearby, its “tik-tik-tik” call is drowned out by the wind rustling the brush.
Welden appears again. Spend a few days in a birding-rich environment and the same faces cycle through.
Welden, who is traveling with Mike Schlueter, a childhood friend from Odessa, says birding took hold late for him. He retired a little more than a decade ago and took up golf.
“After a while, my golf game wasn’t getting any better,” he says. “And I found I would stop to let people play through while I took photos. My wife said, ‘You like to hike, you like the outdoors, you like photography.’ This just made sense.”
Schlueter mostly serves as company. “You have to understand how weird he is,” Schlueter says.
“I’m one of the least weird people you’ll find out here looking for birds,” Welden replies. “There are people who will go to the outer boundaries to see a bird. That’s not me.”
Then Welden admits to an upcoming trip to Alaska and says his wife urged him to get a refund after repeated travel delays due to the pandemic. He can’t bear to get a refund. This pursuit, it has talons.
Welden rattles off names of some of the birds they’ve seen in Uvalde and Bandera.
“He could be making up all this,” Schlueter says. “And the thing is, I could never fact-check it.”
They plan to leave Alamo for Brownsville, where Welden hopes to photograph a social flycatcher. “I’ll spend all day on it if I have to.”
I immediately struggle to think of any pursuit about which I could say the same. I feel something resembling envy.
Here’s how fleeting spotting elusive birds can be: My HMNS group heads back to Brownsville to try to find that social flycatcher at a land bridge on the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley campus.
While Rathke goes to grab a coffee, Brooks spots the social flycatcher. By the time Rathke returns, the bird is gone. Surely its name is a misnomer.
I head back to Alamo and the Alamo Inn, where we’re staying. For lodging designed to help push people into the outdoors, the B&B is quite comfortable. The rooms are spacious, comfy and decorated in grandparent chic, with ample tchotchkes and bird art. Innkeeper Keith Hackland — a native of South Africa — runs a gift shop that offers souvenirs, naturally, but also implements of the trade, should birders have forgotten anything, from cheaper items like a field guide or a floppy hat to binoculars.
The Alamo Inn’s proximity to Santa Ana and other birding destinations in the Valley is perfect. At 5:30 p.m., I head back to the refuge.
As dusk nears, a much larger group has assembled. Nearly 50 people now stand outside the Santa Ana refuge. A line of telescopes points at the post where the bat falcon most frequently perches. The group feels welcoming: strangers with shared interest, conversing.
“Hello in there,” one birder says to me. I’d forgotten I was wearing a sock hat that reads, “JOHN PRINE.”
The wind has increased since the morning. Some in the community fear it will negatively affect the likelihood of an appearance. But around 6:15, a tall, bearded birder shouts, “There he is!”
I cannot overstate the wash of euphoria that emanates. And I cannot explain it, either. Why am I, an interloper, so thrilled at this sighting? Is it simply payoff on an investment? Is it rooted in grief and emotion? Am I thrashing about to find some thrill to pull me back from the void?
I just know that a hundred eyes converge on a single slippery shadow. The falcon’s entry resembles that found in professional wrestling, with the requisite drama and pomp. The bat falcon swings back and forth over Texas 281, as though he’s trying to stitch together the plant life on either side of the blacktop. He draws close, then peels off and far away. Moments later, he settles on a different pole than his typical perch. The crowd follows.
The scene is a strange mix. Vehicles gush past at 60 and 70 mph, some honking their horns because people are, by nature, obnoxious. I step over a decomposing raccoon and find myself at the base of a pole with a large transformer staring at a bird about the size of my Chihuahua. Without binoculars, the bat falcon wouldn’t seem like much. His mix of curves and sharp corners distinguishes him from tiny songbirds. But his grandness explodes through a lens: That beautiful dark hood covers his head. His right wing juts out every few minutes, undoubtedly a tic that shouldn’t be anthropomorphized. But like a fool, I wave back. Birders high-five each other.
I try to be discerning with the word “spiritual.”
But after feeling a logjam of loss for so long — weeks, months, years, I don’t even know the math of it anymore — and after two days of pursuit, some euphoria flickers at the sight of something special. Truly a moment in which rara avis and I intersect.
We are both far from home. And our transaction is uneven. I’m clearly getting more from this than our little explorer.
Sometimes we travel far from home and find a refuge.
Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle. He came to the Chronicle in 2004 from Rolling Stone, where he spent five years writing about music. He’d previously spent five years in book publishing, working with George R.R. Martin’s editor on the first two books in the series that would become TV’s “Game of Thrones. He misspent a year in the film industry, involved in three “major” motion pictures you’ve never seen. He’s written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy and other publications.
Andrew dislikes monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors.
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