Two of the places that kept coming up as I researched the best places to find birds were Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuges in the southernmost part of Texas (the Valley). Santa Ana has a dry mesquite habitat that is not found anywhere else in the US, and frequently gets vagrants from Mexico. Laguna Atascosa has one (if not the) highest numbers of bird species of any refuge in the country, and is reputed to be one of the best places in the US to photograph birds.
In the fall of 1995, I decided to fly down there for a quick weekend to see what everyone was raving about. I was not at all disappointed.
The Harlingen Airport was fogged in, and the flight was rerouted to McAllen. This wasn't a problem at all, since Santa Ana is located right between the two cities. As soon as I entered the gates of the refuge, and crossed the bridge over the waterway, I saw a Green Kingfisher, as well as a number of Chachalacas! The chachalacas were calling loudly but well hidden, and it took me a while to finally get a look at one.
There were many great trails to explore, and it didn't matter which one I took. I went down one path and saw Inca Doves, White-winged Doves, a Curve-billed Thrasher, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a Roadrunner. Along another path, I saw a Pauraque, almost invisible as it clung to a tree, turned one way and saw a Western Kingbird, turned another way and saw a Couch's Kingbird, and ended up staring at an Altamira Oriole. On another trail, I had just finished admiring a Great Kiskadee , when I turned around to see a Golden-fronted Woodpecker scoping me out from a low perch, and turned back to see a Ringed Kingfisher diving for fish in a little pond!
All the waterways were full of birds. There were Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks in good numbers, as well as Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets, and both Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks congregating in the trees along the western ponds.
My favorite moment from my experiences at Santa Ana was when I trained my binoculars on a specific branch of a large tree, wondering about what seemed like a brown blob, and there turned out to be both a Green Jay and a Harlan's Hawk, within one branch of each other!
It was hard to tear myself away from that place, but I did want to see Laguna Atascosa as well. The next morning, I headed east, past Harlingen, and arrived at the refuge fairly early.
Unlike Santa Ana, which consists primarily of walking trails, this was more of a drive-in refuge. The scenery was flat and grassy, and a Bobwhite soon stepped out into the road in front of my car. In the grassy fields, I was also able to observe Long-billed Curlews, as well as American Pipits, Dickcissels and several kinds of sparrows. I took a hike (noticing warnings of 'Africanized Bees in the area', but saw none!), hoping for a few straggling songbird migrants, but didn't see much (other than a Tufted Titmouse).
The road eventually ended up at the ocean, where I began to search for Black Skimmers. I was fortunate to find them pretty quickly, although the flock that I saw was sitting on the beach, and I wasn't able to observe them feeding, "skimming" the ocean with their long lower mandible. Gorgeous birds, though.
All the ocean beaches were covered with shorebirds, and there were many pelicans, gull and terns flying over the ocean. At the wetlands areas inland, I was able to find virtually every tall wader in the book: Reddish Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, you name it!