Along the Rio Grande with the Birder Patrol


‘Keeping an eye out for migrants from Mexico’

I was on the phone with my Mom the other day and she mentioned that she almost bought a set of camouflage sheets at her church rummage sale. She said she decided not to because she was afraid she “wouldn’t be able to find her bed.”

That’s my Mom (!) Not only did she get me laughing, she got me thinking about camouflage.

We saw a lot of camouflage when we were in Texas recently for one of our Birding Excursions. We saw camouflage-bedecked guys zooming in boats along the border waters, cruising in vehicles along the border roads, and even sipping lattes in the border Starbucks.

Border Guys in camouflage along the Rio Grande, just upriver from us Birder Guys. (Photo by Lynsey Addario for the NY Times)

Note how the Border Guys are doing exactly the same thing as Birder Guy Dude in the photo at the top of this post. Scanning the shoreline with binoculars, looking for Mexican migrants. Except ours were Summer Tanagers, not “bad hombres”.

Also note how their camouflage is actually working pretty well in this setting, even though it was designed, I’m thinking, back during Operation Desert Storm. (There seems to be a time delay on camouflage design. Years after we threw in the Vietnam Towel, National Guard Guys were parading around in dark green swamp-themed fatigues.)

We live about a block away from the National Guard Armory in New York. We often see the Guardsmen milling around looking rather sheepish in their dressed-for-blending-in-the-desert duds. I’m tempted to suggest a special camouflage pattern for The City. Something that would really work here. Maybe a brick background, festooned with graffiti. Or at least something black.

But back to Texas, the Border, and the Patrolling Guys.

Not once did the patrols give we Birders a second glance. Not the boat patrols when we were arrayed along the river bank. Not the vehicle patrols when we were crammed into our big white van. Not even the guys in the Starbucks. (Though I did get a tip of a hat and a “Howdy, Ma’am.”) Was it because we blended in to our background so well?

Is that a bottle of water in your pocket, or are you glad to see the Border? A Border Boat had just zoomed by. That’s Mexico right behind us!

Hmm. If you check out the photo above, I think you’ll agree that it could quite possibly be that we were so geeky that we didn’t warrant close scrutiny. We sent out a veritable force field of protective geekiness. In fact, I have a theory that we could have smuggled in any number of illegals just by dressing them in birder outfits and slipping them into our group.

But again, I digress. Back to our Trip.

I don’t know about you, but I never thought of birdwatching as a particularly dangerous sport, though I have had my share of Birding Adventures. But not even Africa or Brazil and the Amazon and the pirahna prepared me for Texas.

No guns in the bird sanctuary. Kind of like ‘no fighting in the war room’?

We spotted this Blair-Witchy Whatnot on a trail near the Rio Grande. I have absolutely no idea what this means. And I have absolutely no desire to find out.

I honestly have no explanation for this, except to say that it is definitely not a migrating bird

And we were on a nice little nature trail behind the Zapata Public Library when we spotted this sign:

It’s the ‘etc’ that really had us worried

Oh, we did spend a whole fairly non-dangerous day at the King Ranch, which is as big as the State of Rhode Island. Our Jimmy Stewart Clone Guide (also named Jim) told us the King heirs never go there anymore because they just don’t get along. (Maybe they’re really afraid they’ll run into some ‘etc’) We saw the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl there; it’s the only place in Texas where you can see it.

That’s Jim the Jimmy-Stewart Guide in the background. The owl might be up there in those trees. Or not. There were plenty of chiggers and ticks, though

We also spent a day in the driving rain chasing down shorebirds on South Padre Island. Some Of Us forgot our rain gear, but remained undaunted.

Even our rain gear was geeky. Wayne improvises and ends up flapping in the wind, sounding just like a building under construction

But the highlight of the trip has to have been the several hours we spent at the Brownsville dump looking for another Mexican migrant, the Chihuahuan Crow.

Actual welcome sign at the actual dump. No, we did not see any other ‘tourists’ there. Not even the crow

Nope, we didn’t see him. Turns out he showed up there the next day, but we unilaterally agreed not to return and give the dump another go, tempting though it sounded.

That’s me, standing on the only mountain in the Brownsville area. A mountain made of garbage. You know, like zillions of disposable diapers

Speaking of ‘go’, I think it’s time to wrap this up. Tune in next week for more Adventures from Alice. I promise they won’t be about Birders. Or even Borders.

New York City. April 2018



“I see by your outfit that you are a birder”


‘On the Streets of Laredo, way back when — and now’

Nobody goes to Laredo,” says my Texan Friend. Well, call me ‘Nobody’ then, because I’ve not only been to Laredo, I’ve been there twice.

This most recent time shouldn’t really count, since The Dude and I were there not even a whole day, Laredo being merely the ‘end point’ of our birding adventure to the Rio Grande Valley, tales of which I will regale you with another time. Or not. But count it I will, since we did in fact “go walking on the streets of Laredo”, to quote the Immortal Johnny Cash.

We didn’t spy any “young cowboys all dressed in white linen”. Or any cowboys at all. Well, except for these hombres:

The only cowboys we spied. And they were hanging out at the airport, not walking on the streets like any self-respecting Laredo cowboy

No, the time I spent in Laredo that really counts is the time I went there as part of a trip made with my Gramma and Grampa Peterson and my Aunt Marilyn.

Another Road Trip, another time. That’s Aunt Marilyn perched on the hood of our station wagon, G’ma and G’pa there on the right. I was probably in the car, sulking

This trip (which was, of course, a Road Trip) was a gift from my Aunt Marilyn in honor of my graduation from eighth grade. Which meant I was thirteen at the time.

The plan was to drive from Northern Illinois to Mexico. Yes, I said drive. My Aunt Marilyn made a memorable plane trip to Sweden once with my Aunt Net. But my grandparents, as far as I know, never set foot inside an airplane.

Aunt ‘Annette’, with me on her lap. We kids thought she was called ‘Net’ because she wore a hairnet

My grandparents, both the Petersons and the Henrys, were farmers. Which meant they never ever went on vacation. I mean, somebody had to be around to milk the cows. I’m still not sure how they managed to go on this trip. Maybe they and some other Farmer Relations had some arrangement to cover for each other, cow-wise.

My Henry Grandparents on ‘vacation’: cleaning up at poker in their kitchen

So. Back to this graduation-gift trip. Like I mentioned, we drove. Since we couldn’t, naturally, drive all the way to Mexico in one go, we stopped along the way at these places called ‘tourist courts’. These were inexpensive motel-like places, usually with rooms in a row or sometimes even little cabins. Sort of like the Motel Sixes of their day.

My Gramma and Grampa had one room, and Aunt Marilyn and I would share another. I remember after one particularly long day of driving Aunt Marilyn tossing her suitcase onto our chenille-spread-covered bed and raising quite a cloud of dust.

Me with Peterson Grans on the occasion of my Lutheran Confirmation. Same year as 8th-grade graduation, but even more important

My grandparents weren’t cheap, but they had scrimped and saved all their lives and weren’t going to change their ways while on vacation.

We did stay at a fancy resort in the Ozarks on this trip. I’m not sure how my grandparents had heard of this place, but I do know that the attraction was that we could stay there for free. All we had to do in return was listen to a presentation about buying time shares in the place. As if.

Many of the details of this trip are understandably blurry, this being Way Back When. I do recall that while in Texas we visited the LBJ Ranch. Why, I’m not sure, since my grandparents were diehard Republications. In fact I remember that my Aunt Marilyn had a framed photograph of Dwight Eisenhower hanging in her bedroom. I kid you not.

We also visited the Alamo. I distinctly remember my Aunt reading the plaque inside the very tiny fort (I think my living room is bigger, and I honestly don’t have a very big LR) and remarking, “We lost? All our guys died? Then why do we ‘remember’?”

And I remember that we would stop to eat wherever my Grampa saw trucks parked. (No, there were no fast-food places then. The closest thing to a chain was Howard Johnson’s, and that was way too fancy for Grampa.) He said that truckers knew where the best food was. Probably still true, though I haven’t checked in a while.

Anyway. We finally made it to the Mexican Border. Which is right there in Laredo. These days there is a humongous towering gate-like structure there, right next to an even-more humongous outlet mall.

Big honkin’ border tower. Even bigger honkin’ outlet mall

But back then you could just drive your car over the bridge to Nuevo Laredo, and voila! you were in Mexico. Which is what we did. Grampa P parked his Ford and we walked around a bit so we could say we’d been in Mexico. Pretty exotic stuff.

I don’t remember what we did there exactly, except for the walking around. But I do remember that when we got back to the car, it was surrounded by all these little Mexican kids. They had buckets and cloths and were washing the road dust off that Ford and shining it up real nice.

My Grampa looked a bit bewildered and amazed at this outsize gesture of foreign hospitality. We smiled at the kids, they smiled back — and then we got in the Ford and drove on back over the bridge to the good old U S of A.

To the end of his days, I’m sure my Grampa thought the reason they were holding their hands out to us was to wave goodbye.

Another picture of my Grampa P. Just because I have it, and it’s cool

New York City. April 2018