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The Past, and the Future, of a Texas Birding Landmark

A review by Sheridan Coffey

Border Sanctuary: The Conservation Legacy of the Santa Ana Land Grant

by M. J. Morgan

Texas A&M University Press, 2015

240 pages, $32–hardcover

Even before its establishment as the third national wildlife refuge in Texas, Santa Ana, the largest remaining area of old growth thorn forest in the U.S., was famous for its avian diversity. In Border Sanctuary, M. J. Morgan tells the story of this land as it passed from Spanish conquistadors to Mexican and American ranchers and finally to the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system.

I have been going to Santa Ana for years. I remember walking in on my first trip, hearing a chorus of Plain Chachalacas, and realizing I had never been anywhere like this before. The sight of an Altamira Oriole constructing its pendulous nest was jaw-dropping. The historic cemetery, a long hot walk from the headquarters, made me a bit curious, but at the time I was more interested in the birds than in the human residents of the past. I was unaware of just how lucky we are to still have these woods.

Morgan begins the book in 1943, with the federal government’s acquisition of the land known as the Santa Ana tract. In the 1920s and ’30s, members of the Rio Grande Valley Nature Club, headed by Irby Davis, had put in untold hours of challenging field work to collect data on the area’s nesting birds, driving 60 miles round-trip from Harlingen. In those years, the federal government was more concerned with “taming” the still wild Rio Grande, which shifted its course with floods and drought; the numerous resacas, or oxbow lakes, in evidence today mark those changes and the river’s earlier channels. The Rio Grande’s naturally changing footprint was a threat to cotton fields and citrus orchards, and flood control was a high priority. Protecting forestland was secondary at best, particularly during the Depression years. But Davis and the club pushed hard, and succeeded eventually in bringing what forest remained under federal protection, saving it for future generations.

The social and political history of Santa Ana goes back much further, though. Morgan takes us back to the earliest Spanish settlement in the mid-eighteenth century and examines how the introduction of domestic animals changed the landscape. Ranches sprang up on both sides of the river. The original land grants were issued by Mexico to the Leal family in 1834; Morgan recounts that family’s history on the land and describes the importance of the resacas and ebony groves in making Tejano ranch life more comfortable. Unfortunately, there are large gaps in the public record, some of which the author fills in with conjecture.

The history of the Rio Grande Valley is also tied closely to the Mexican–American War, the U.S. Civil War, and conflicts with indigenous peoples. These events had significant impacts on the ownership and management of the land. Technical advances in irrigation led to changes in agriculture, with serious effects on forests and grasslands. Unscrupulous land agents and tax collectors forced many land grants to be broken up, and wildlife populations decreased as forestland was fragmented. Large stands of bald cypress were cut for lumber. Grasslands were overgrazed and then plowed under to be planted to cotton and sugar cane.

One of the most effective ways that Morgan illustrates these changes is by tracing the fates of particular Santa Ana plants and animals over time. The extirpation of jaguars and jaguarundis, not uncommon at the time of Spanish settlements, was caused by habitat loss and hunting. Plain Chachalacas, abundant in the early years, suffered a serious population decline: Irby Davis could find only a single nest in 1940. Now, with the protections Santa Ana offers, that species has made an amazing recovery. The author uses the example of Dicliptera vahliana, a native wildflower with delicate red blossoms, to demonstrate the effects of flood and drought cycles on plant life. I wish she had brought in more examples of insect life, as Santa Ana has produced so many important butterfly and dragonfly records, with at least seven new species of dragonflies for the U.S. just since 2004.

The book makes good use of photos and maps. The pictures of the refuge at the time of its establishment are sobering, particularly the illustrations of savagely overgrazed grasslands. The extensive notes whet my appetite to delve further into the history of this area.

Unfortunately, I found Border Sanctuary a slow read, with a lot of repetition; I found it difficult to follow at times, particularly in the family histories. On occasion I felt that the book might have been better as a couple of lengthy articles.

I value accuracy especially when it comes to birds, and so I found off-putting such statements as this one: “The acreage holds cuplike bearded flycatcher nests and the heavy stick nests of red-billed pigeons protecting but a single pure white egg.” I have to assume that Morgan is speaking of the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, though even that really doesn’t make sense. Red-billed Pigeons are no longer known to nest at Santa Ana, and as far as I can determine, they haven’t done so in quite some time.

In spite of my criticism, I think this book is one worth owning. As birders, we need to have a deep appreciation for those who fought for land preservation. We must also be aware that the same dangers that almost took Santa Ana from us persist today, and some are perhaps even more pressing.

I visited the refuge recently. As I walked the trails and saw the damage caused by the massive flood of 2010, I was struck by how much at risk this habitat still is. Floods have always occurred, but dams and other human-caused changes to the river have created a new dynamic. The area nearer the headquarters has changed much since my first visit years ago: Invasive grasses have taken over large areas, there are fewer trees, areas that were once in dense shade are now brightly lit. As birders, we understand the dire need for conserving habitat. Santa Ana deserves to be near the top of the list.

Sheridan Coffey developed her keen interest in nature as a young child in rural Pennsylvania, and took up birding with a passion when she moved to Texas more than 20 years ago. Coffey served as Media Editor of the publications of the Texas Ornithological Society and is a former copy editor for the ABA’s Birder’s Guide magazine. 

Recommended citation:

Coffey, S. 2017. The Past, and the Future, of a Texas Birding Landmark [a review of Border Sanctuary, by M. J. Morgan]. Birding 49: 65-66.

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Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • Ted Floyd

    My first trip to Santa Ana NWR, on spring break my senior year in college, was one of the three or four grandest experiences of my life–up there with first laying eyes on the Amazon or heading out into the Humboldt Current. That refuge is a national treasure, and the U.S. National Wildlife System contributes so much to the quality of life in America.

  • Pingback: Birding Online: February 2017 « ABA Publications()

  • Gregg Gorton

    What a place! Thanks for this thoughtful review. –You mention Irby Davis’ role. I’m interested in learning more about the life and work of this important figure, so I’ll pick up the book.

  • I remember my first trip to Santa Ana as if it were yesterday. We went with a group of people while we were in college and made an incredible weekend out of it. Haven’t been back since, but really really need to.

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