At the confluence of multiple different environments–“subtropical climate, Gulf Coast, Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert“–and at the nexus of “two major migratory routes for many species of birds” (the Central and Mississippi flyways), Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is home to “half of all butterfly species in North America,” ~400 bird species, even more species of plants, and is home to the Texas ocelot and Gulf Coast jaguarundi, which are no longer found in the US outside South Texas. This relatively small refuge (only 2,088 acres) is thus considered the “crown jewel” of the national wildlife refuge system. It’s part of what makes America great. Birders and other naturalists drawn to Santa Ana and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley support the local economy with at least $300 million every year, as estimated by this 2011 study based on off-peak visitation.
As federal land, it’s also one of the starting points this November for Trump’s ill-advised expansion of the US-Mexico border wall, which will be built on the levee between the parking lot/visitor center and the refuge itself, cutting the refuge off and threatening to destroy it.
The first place I ever wanted to visit, when I got into birding a decade ago, was Santa Ana. I read that South Texas is the best place to bird (and to see butterflies) in the US and Canada, especially during spring and fall migrations. Then the 2009 swine flu outbreak dissuaded me from making the trip. I graduated from medical school, moved to California for residency, and didn’t bird in Texas again for years.
Last weekend, I finally visited for the first time. We drove from Houston to Alamo, one of the most southerly Texas towns, to experience Santa Ana for ourselves, and, along with ~681 like-minded pilgrims from near and far, marched against the planned border wall and for Santa Ana’s continued protection and preservation.
Abstract superlatives about Santa Ana that anyone can read online are relatively meaningless until one actually visits the place. This is an account of our brief experience.
As hot as it is right now where we live, it’s even hotter in three of the four cardinal directions away from Houston. This is definitely not the best time to visit the refuge. Nevertheless, within a few minutes, I encountered multiple “life species”–species I’d never seen before. What’s more, I wouldn’t be able to see several of them anywhere else in the US or Canada.
Unlike most other natural places I’ve visited, Santa Ana is tucked away, with little signage, in an area dominated by development: a paved jungle of gaudy chain stores and congested gas stations yields to old neighborhoods and finally to plowed land, with little trace of the original habitat. Visiting the refuge is like taking a time machine to a lost natural world destroyed by development over many decades.
We visited an hour before dusk on Saturday with two friends who drove separately. (Our friends had arrived earlier, were on a different trail. We discovered the following morning that they became engaged during that hike!) The refuge was bereft of employees or other visitors–it was all ours to explore. >100-degree Fahrenheit daytime temperatures had dipped into the high 90s by this time. It was noticeably more pleasant along the tree-shaded trails.
I began picking up life birds immediately. The first was a plain chachalaca near the levee past the visitor center, just inside the refuge. I’d seen gray-headed chachalacas near Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica in 2013 and speckled chachalacas in the Ecuadorian Amazon earlier this year, but, ironically, the plain chachalaca of my own state was a life bird for me last weekend.
At a branching point for trails, we took the Chachalaca Trail, a lucky choice since it was closed off Sunday during the protest hike. The air was infused lightly with the scent of sage–blue sage? It reminded me of my hikes in Southern California. Mesquite trees and scrub seemed dabbed onto the landscape with a natural watercolor sponge dipped into a dull, light green paint. We walked among live oaks with cascades of hoary Spanish moss billowing in the wind. Sabal mexicana palms peeked out here and there. I heard great kiskadees calling nearby. (We heard their intermittent calls both days in Santa Ana.)
While admiring the Spanish moss, my eye meandered over a statue-like Harris’s hawk staring at me.
Flocks of white-winged doves dominated the trees and sky throughout the entire hike. On our way back to the parking lot, several raucous green jays greeted us. (I last–and first, in the wild–saw one of these beauties along a trail near Hacienda Chichen, in the Yucatán, in 2015.) Groups of three or four groove-billed anis–another life bird–clucked melodiously (like a pleasant ringtone) as they hopped from branch to branch at eye level near the trail. Back at the trailhead, a golden-fronted woodpecker flew onto a nearby tree, staying only long-enough for us to identify it before flying off along the Pintail Lakes Trail–we saw several others of this species Sunday.
Our experience the following morning was very different. Unlike Saturday’s spiritual experience of the refuge in the absence of other people, the refuge was crawling with them Sunday. Friendly refuge employees guided us to parking spots as we arrived. The parking lot filled up well before the scheduled protest.
A white-eyed vireo sang and a white-tipped dove flew overhead as we walked past a naturalist–one of many naturalists, birders, and conservationists there that day–being filmed as he expounded on the importance of the refuge and about the birds he’d already seen that morning.
We met up with our friends, hiked to a large grassy depression that’s a lake in other seasons (there are multiple such seasonal lakes there, with three species of kingfishers and other water-associated birds). They pointed out olive sparrows to us along the way. Great egrets and barn swallows occasionally flew overhead. At one point, I saw at least seven northern rough-winged swallows sitting on a power line. (We saw southern rough-winged swallows in the cloud forests of Ecuador in June.) Along this same power line, I later saw a rare olive-sided flycatcher and then a Couch’s kingbird. Four of these species were life birds for me.
Turkey vultures soared overhead, mourning doves sang unseen, and mockingbirds flew by as we walked to the hawk tower in preparation for the march. On the way, I saw an Altamira oriole nest–the longest nest of any North American bird, by the largest North American oriole, another South Texas specialty. It reminded me of the many oropendola nests I saw hanging from trees in Costa Rica and the Amazon.
Nearly an hour later, many more people had accumulated at the hawk tower. We started our march toward the levee. Along the way, a naturalist tried to help a large butterfly on the ground grasp his finger and flip right side up while another person watched. A few large and innumerable small butterflies flew about the refuge–so many, in fact, that we later almost stepped on a couple of them while hiking one of the trails.
As we stood on the levee in peaceful protest of a wall that could devastate this uniquely beautiful refuge, one of our friends spotted an Altamira oriole looking at us from the forest below. I quickly snapped a photo of this life bird before it flew off. Large flocks of red-winged blackbirds rose and fell in the fields opposite the refuge while golden-fronted woodpeckers threaded between the Washingtonia robusta palms. Beyond them, a stampede of deer escaped an unclear threat.
I appreciate the Santa Ana employees and the organizers of this protest. I am disappointed by the callousness, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness of our national leaders for threatening to destroy this vulnerable wildlife sanctuary. I feel that I need to return to Santa Ana many more times, in different seasons, to explore the depths of its complexity; I’ve barely scratched the surface with last weekend’s visit. However, future visits may not be possible if the border wall goes up at Santa Ana this fall.
If you feel as we do, please contact your senators.