Four miles north of the Mexican border, on a wide deck overlooking a shallow lake surrounded by wetlands teeming with winged creatures, Ray Brown is taping a live segment of “Talkin’ Birds,” his Boston-based, Sunday-morning radio show. The silver-haired host, whose resonant voice is familiar to listeners of WBZ, WGBH, and WCRB, is talking with a Texas Park Ranger about the birds of the Rio Grande Valley.
“In this state park alone, you can see 300 kinds of butterflies and 326 species of birds,” Ranger John Yochum says into Brown’s microphone. This state park is Estero Llano Grande, in the town of Weslaco, one of many stops along the Texas Birding Trail. And in the wider Rio Grande Valley, which extends 120 miles along the Rio Grande River, “you can see 520 species of birds” — more than half of the total number of birds in all of the United States and Canada. These numbers make South Texas the most productive place for birdwatching in North America.
Bird watching is one of our nation’s fastest-growing pasttimes, pursued, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, by 48 million Americans. That’s nearly one in six of us. Serious birders follow birds, traveling south in the fall or winter to observe their migratory flyways, two of which pass through South Texas. “Lots of people will hop on a plane just to see one bird,” according to naturalist Marisa Oliva, manager of the nearby Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, another one of the federal, state, or locally-run nature preserves on the Texas Birding Trail. “And they’ll go to the Brownsville dump if that’s where the bird they want to see is.”
Just as birders follow birds, Ray Brown follows birders. In 11 years of producing “Talkin’ Birds,” he has migrated to various birding destinations in the United States and beyond. In March he taped a show from a blind in Nebraska, where hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes headed to Alaska and Northern Canada stop each year to feed and roost by the Platte River. Brown did a show from a lodge in the Panamanian rainforest last winter. The Central American nation, which is smaller than South Carolina, is home to nearly a thousand bird species. And in November Brown flew to South Texas.
Early that morning, before taping “Talkin’ Birds,” Brown joined several other Massachusetts birders on a walk along the mesquite-bordered trails of Estero Llano Grande State Park. (Some of his companions spend enough time here to call themselves “winter Texans” or “snowbirders.”) They were hoping to spot some of the 30 or so North American bird species that can be seen nowhere else in the United States. These “specialty birds,” called neo-tropical migrants because they migrate only south from here, include the luminescent Green Jay, the Great Kiskadee, the bright-orange Altamira Oriole, the raucous-sounding Plain Chachalaca, the Hook-billed Kite, the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, the Ringed Kingfisher, the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and – one of the hardest to find – the camouflaged Common Pauraque.
“There’s a Common Pauraque [rhymes with pierogi] up ahead about five feet off the road!” a man all in drab green with large binoculars and a long-lensed camera called out to Brown as they passed in opposite directions on the trail. “Great!” Brown cried, charging ahead and peering down into the thorn brush. Suddenly he stopped. “There it is,” he whispered, pointing. A small crowd gathered, silently following his finger. “Do you see it?” Brown said, eager to make sure that everyone had succeeded in distinguishing the buff-colored bird from the buff-colored brush. “Look for the eyes,” he advised. And there was the Common Pauraque.
In the future, Brown’s far-flung plans for “Talkin’ Birds” will take him to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Acadia national parks, to the Maine Audubon Birding Festival in Freeport, and, he hopes, to Michigan. “I’ve heard there’s great birding right in the city of Detroit,” he says. Even farther afield, he dreams of doing a show from the Galapagos Islands, which have more than 20 bird species that exist nowhere else in the world.
At this time of year, though, Brown can often be found just a few miles from his Boston home, equipped with binoculars and an iPhone with the iBird app. May and early June are peak times for birders in Boston. For about six weeks, thousands of migrating birds stop to rest and eat in the abundant greenspace of Mount Auburn Cemetery, which is fondly known to birders as “Sweet Autumn.” Brown recently taped an episode of “Talkin’ Birds” from the cemetery chapel. “I go there quite often,” he says, adding with a smile, “I almost always get lost.” He doesn’t seem to mind. “Looking at birds connects you with so many things in nature. It’s thrilling to talk to people about birds, and to watch as they discover this astonishing new world.”Eve LaPlante can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.