THE HUNT FOR THE
When a new species shows up, birders race to catch a glimpse.
“Pull over! Pull over!”
My heart thumping, I quickly steer the car off the road and turn into the entrance of the Rio Grande Valley’s Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, where a rare raptor has recently been sighted.
We spot a bird of prey on a power line. It flies around the park entrance and lands on a telephone pole, just as the rare bird is known to do. I grab my binoculars. My girlfriend, Heather, grabs her camera with the long lens. Is this the never-before-seen spectacle that’s taken the Valley’s bird-watching scene by storm and spurred bird watchers to fly in from around the country?
Maybe we’ve been lucky enough to find it, or maybe this is just a little too good to be true.
Change of Plans
When we checked into the birder-friendly Alamo Inn two days earlier, we didn’t know the hunt was on, but it was — a hunt that would consume us for the next 48 hours and give us a glimpse into one of the wilder and crazier sides of bird watching.
Let’s start with the name of the bird. The bat falcon.
Heather noticed it on the list of recently seen notable birds on the flipchart at the inn.
“What’s a bat falcon?” she asked. “I want to see that.”
With a name like that, who wouldn’t?
We looked it up.
Whoa, we think as we see the photo. That’s a good-looking bird.
Wait, it eats bats?
This bat falcon is a “vagrant” bird, one that has strayed outside its normal range. It’s the first recorded occurrence of this species not only in Texas but in the entire United States. That’s catnip for bird watchers.
I might have even been tempted to jump on a plane to see it, but I didn’t need to. Heather and I found ourselves in the middle of bat falcon frenzy right here in the Rio Grande Valley.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” a refuge worker tells us. “We’ve had people coming in from around the world.”
Mike Hingerty, from California, is one of those people. While Mike joined us in a daylong photography workshop at a photo ranch, he has his heart set on seeing the bird.
“I flew in mainly to see the bat falcon,” he says. “I’ve been to Santa Ana three times so far and have seen it one out of those three times. It hangs out at dawn and dusk on a pole near the entrance of the refuge. Here, let me show you my photos.”
So the news is true. People are flying in to see this bird.
Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
Chase Fountain | TPWD
“People keep life lists of birds,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ornithologist Cliff Shackelford. “It’s like a baseball card collection. You want to see all these birds, or collect all these cards. In this case, it’s a new species for the U.S. If you keep a list of all the birds in the country, you’ve got to try to get a new checkmark, so you race down there even if you’re from California or New York.”
We’re intrigued, but not convinced we should get up before dawn for a sighting. We arrive at Santa Ana after a late breakfast. We’d already planned a visit since it’s one of the state’s premier wildlife refuges and a birding hotspot.
And, sure, it would be cool to see the bat falcon. In addition to its handsome good looks, the bat falcon is a bird of prey, which makes it interesting and charismatic. Who wouldn’t want to see it in person?
“It’s so conspicuous!” Shackelford says with an ironic laugh. “This guy is out front and center, sitting on a telephone pole where everybody can see him, at a refuge that’s one of the top three most heavily birded sites in Texas.”
The Right Raptor?
After stopping our car outside Santa Ana and peering at the bird, we decide it looks more like a kestrel than a bat falcon, though it’s occupying the falcon’s typical spot. We’re not completely sure. (Heather and I call ourselves the Bad Birders, owing partly to Heather’s joking claim that she cannot reliably identify any bird smaller than a cat.)
We look up a helpful description. A bat falcon is 8-10 inches long and sports bold, distinctive coloring: a bluish-black head, back and tail, with silvery edges on the feathers; a contrasting white neck and throat; a barred black-and-white chest; and a pair of orange trousers. Dapper, indeed. It’s dressed like the cool kid going to prom.
As we head out on a short hike, we run into a group of people finishing the morning guided bird walk.
“The bat falcon stayed on the pole till 10 this morning — much longer than normal,” bird walk leader Lisa Murray tells us, meaning we’d missed it by a mere 30 minutes. She confirms that Heather’s photo shows a kestrel.
Dang. Somehow, that makes us want to see the bat falcon even more.
Lisa Murray and husband Steve offer to meet us after lunch if we want to hike to Cattail Lakes, a place the falcon often stays when it’s not around the entrance.
“It likes to perch in the tops of trees,” Steve says. “At Cattail Lakes, it can look over the lake from its perch and swoop down to eat dragonflies.”
The bat falcon got its name because it eats bats, but its diet also includes birds and large insects such as grasshoppers and dragonflies.
They recommend we join a WhatsApp group called Bat Falcon Chase 2022 to get updates on the bird, so we do. Posts offer frequent updates on falcon sightings.
“Any new info?” was the latest post. None yet.
Other Valley Stars
We run into avid birder Marnie Mitchell, who’s flown in from Tennessee to see the falcon. She shares a list of other birds she wants to see in the Valley. Others were seeking these birds as well.
“There’s the social flycatcher in Brownsville,” she says. “There’s the hook-billed kite at Bentsen. There’s a purple sandpiper at South Padre Island on one of the jetties. And there’s the golden-crowned warbler at the Valley Nature Center.”
“Oh,” Heather says, remembering a similar-sounding bird and hoping to establish a moment of connection. “We saw an orange-crowned warbler yesterday.”
Mitchell’s not impressed.
“That bird lives here.”
I didn’t know that was a drawback.
“What’s the rarest bird you’ve seen?” she asks us.
We don’t have a good answer. Heather offers up the whooping crane. It’s endangered. I try golden-cheeked warbler, figuring it has a limited U.S. range.
“Lots of people have seen those birds,” she tells us, unmoved.
Maybe, we thought, the bat falcon could be our answer to that question. When the next Rufous T. Birdwatcher asks us about our rarest bird, we’ll have a stellar response.
The Accidental Visitor
The bat falcon is not actually a rare bird. It inhabits a range spanning from central Mexico to the northern parts of Argentina. This one was deemed rare because it decided to fly across the Rio Grande. It’s more accurately called a vagrant or accidental bird.
Texas attracts quite a few accidental birds, thanks to a diversity of habitats, long coastline, location on the Central Flyway and proximity to Mexico and the tropics, says Roy Rodriguez, lead interpreter at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Winter in the Valley is a peak time for rarities.
“There are lots of birders concentrated in the Valley during winter. More eyes find more rarities. Winter can be great, especially during ‘Mexican invasion’ events like the one we had in 2020-21,” he says. “This year, the Valley experienced just a few winter rarities, but they were a big deal, like the bat falcon.”
Notable birds such as the elegant trogon, blue mockingbird and masked tityra have made temporary forays into South Texas in past years, spurring their own flurries of excitement in the birding world. Vagrant species show up in other parts of the state, too. 2021’s highlight was the brief appearance of a Steller’s sea-eagle, a massive bird whose home range includes China and Russia. In 2020, the white wagtail, an arctic species, got Austin birders excited.
On the walk back to the Santa Ana visitors center, we run into a couple of birders coming from the direction of Cattail Lakes. They saw no sign of the bat falcon there, nothing to report on WhatsApp.
The only “new info” is no new info.
We catch up with the Murrays for our planned hike to Cattail Lakes, but we’re hesitant to embark on a 5-mile hike with an unlikely payoff. Instead, we take the tram tour through the park to the same location.
A cold front has blown in. The wind howls through our thin layers of clothing, and cold rain begins to pelt us. We look for the bat falcon to no avail. We check WhatsApp. The still-unanswered message mocks us: “Any new info?” No, there is no new info. We have no idea when, if ever, there will be new info. Nobody knows where the falcon is.
One Last Attempt
Why do we care so much about this bird that we didn’t know existed two days ago? The thrill of the chase is an aspect of birding that can elevate it from a backyard pastime into an obsession. It’s one of the reasons people compile life lists and state lists of bird species. It compels them to fly across the country to see a rare bird or wait for hours behind a tree or crawl through thorny underbrush. It’s why a bird has its own WhatsApp group. It’s the force that motivated us to take a tram ride in the rain to a remote South Texas lake.
We still can’t find the falcon, but our hike back is marked by one notable occurrence. We hear a flock of chachalacas making a raucous noise, like an alarm, and the perpetrator, a bobcat, runs onto the trail in front of us, looks us in the eye and skitters away, giving us goosebumps.
We debate whether we should stay to see if the falcon shows up at dusk or call it a day and move on. Maybe the falcon has moved on. Maybe the cold front made it change its patterns. We don’t know, but we decide to stay.
As dusk approaches, we walk toward the entrance to the refuge, feeling hopeful but uncertain. We brace ourselves against the gusting wind. Something catches our eyes, a bird swooping above the field across the road from the refuge. It flies like a bird of prey.
We join another birder and watch together for a while. Sure enough, the bird lands on the telephone pole, but only for a second, just enough time to get a positive ID.
Kestrel? No. We take a minute to process the new info: The bat falcon has landed.
Chase Fountain | TPWD
725 Birds? Check!
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