Most of us haven’t considered it, but migration isn’t just rough for birds, it’s draining for birding guides as well.
“Migration is kind of on the down slope now,” said Javier “Javi” Gonzalez, naturalist educator at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. “I’m tired now. It always leaves me like this.”
Gonzalez and the volunteers working for him at the nonprofit birding center deliver three tours a week, which are free to visitors after they pay the entrance fee. Tour times and dates can be found on the center’s website.
“We start here on our back deck and then we have about 50 acres of wetlands here, coastal wetlands,” Gonzalez said. “We have a really unique habitat because we have salt water next to freshwater wetlands so that attracts a huge diversity here.
“We start down the boardwalk to the salt marsh and talk about the habitat, the mangroves, black mangroves, and then we talk about the birds that we see down at the salt marsh, a lot of herons and a lot of shorebirds out on the mud flats, terns, egrets,” he said.
“Then we head over to bird blind No. 3 that’s right over the Laguna Madre, so we’re right over the water and we watch the gulls and the terns fly by or dive into the water for food, for fish.
“The returning leg is the freshwater habitat so you stop seeing mangroves and saltwater plants and start to see cattails and freshwater plants,” Gonzalez said. “So the habitat totally changes and you see a different diversity of birds over there, the least bitterns are over there, the soras, the common gallinules and the gators like to be on that side.”
Gonzalez has a degree in biology but not in ornithology, the study of birds. He said he’s picked up his avian knowledge by observation and hanging around more experienced birders, learning on the fly.
“I started birding pretty much on the Island coming out here fishing and watching the black skimmers, the pelicans, and the great blues, the roseate spoonbills,” he said.
“I was a kayaking tour guide on the Rio Grande for two years up in the Mission area, by Anzalduas Park,” he said. “That’s where I got to know the green jays, the blue grosbeaks, Altamira orioles, gray hawks. It all snowballed from there.”
As the spring bird migration winds down, Gonzalez said the best bird seen at the birding center was a rare visitor, a yellow-green vireo.
“That is mainly a tropical species of vireo and during the summer a few will cross the border and wander into the United States and only here in South Texas,” he said. “That one showed up here for a few days and that’s a species that is pretty sought after by birders, and that one attracted a lot of people to come look for it, so that was a good one to come here for our site.”
Gonzalez said more than 30 species of warblers were identified in the center’s black mangroves alone. As they have grown over the past decade, he said the shore-hugging mangroves are providing cover for “tons” of insects on which the warblers feed.
“You can hear the little warblers, their bills, clicking in there going after bugs,” he said.
Gonzalez has been at the center for two years, he said. Perhaps the biggest satisfaction from the job is working with young people.
“My favorite part of my job would probably be exposing the youth to nature, getting young people into nature — I think that’s valuable,” he said. “And just to see them excited about nature or amazed by something they’re seeing out there … I feel pretty proud when they leave here and they can tell me three or four different species, that feels good.”
By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer