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Protect #MySantaAna From a Proposed Border Wall

We at the ABA, along with many in the birding community, have been made aware thanks to an article in the Texas Observer, of a plan to construct part of a proposed border wall through Santa Ana NWR in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This wall would be about three miles long, set atop the levee which runs along the northern quarter of the refuge between the Visitor’s Center and the refuge proper.

Like many birders across the United States and Canada, we at the ABA feel a great sense of frustration and anxiety about this project. For many birders, including a great many of the ABA Staff, Santa Ana NWR is a very special place, rightly called the “crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system” for its extraordinary diversity and the exceptional access it provides to birders and naturalists who wish to explore that diversity.

Much of that anxiety comes from the uncertainty surrounding what, precisely, is going on here. According to the aforementioned article, this section of border wall may be more than just a concrete and steel barrier of the sort seen elsewhere in the Valley. Plans call for lighting, towers, and roads, which require rights of way and sight-lines to the border and could lead to negative impacts on much more of the refuge than the immediate area around the existing levee. It is unclear at this time whether pedestrians will even have access to the refuge beyond the wall. We just don’t know, and much of the preparations for this have occurred in secret.

We’ll have more information on actual, practical, ways for birders to get involved in this issue very soon. But to get the ball rolling, and as a way to collect stories of why Santa Ana NWR is so important to us, we are asking you to share your #MySantaAna stories.

The author, Santa Ana 1992

Here’s mine. I first visited Santa Ana NWR in 1992. I was 12 years old. My grandparents were Winter Texans, some of the thousands of  middle-class, midwestern snowbirds who come to the Valley every winter to escape winter in the middle of the continent. My family would go and visit them in the spring for several years in a row and as a kid with an abiding interest in nature the various parks of South Texas and the incredible birds there were a priority.  My dad and I would make sure to hit a few every year, and every time we’d go to Santa Ana first.

I remember that first trip. We barely made it out of the parking lot because of a Buff-bellied Hummingbird working the flowers in front of the visitor’s center. I’ve been back many time and each visit is equally magical. It’s probably too simple to say that Santa Ana made me a birder. That was a journey through a hundred different places, many of which were closer to home. But I think it was the first place where I really felt like a birder.

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ABA President Jeff Gordon, pre-presidency, Santa Ana 1989

ABA President Jeff Gordon: I dreamt about going to Santa Ana NWR ever since, as a birding-crazy middle schooler, I saw George Harrison’s (the other George Harrison) photo of a Green Jay in his book on Roger Tory Peterson’s Dozen Birding Hotspots. I couldn’t believe such a bird existed–seeing it for myself was an electrifying dream that seemed at the far edge of possibility, quite likely beyond it. But I kept birding–with Santa Ana always on my mind.

I still remember the June day less than a decade later when a flyer for a job opening at Santa Ana landed in my mailbox–it seemed like a golden ticket. And sure enough, I got the job, my first out of college.

The list of incredible, unforgettable experiences I’ve had at Santa Ana over the last 3 decades–from showing a Coral Snake to a tram full of school kids screaming with excitement to sharing a fabulous Golden-crowned Warbler with a field trip group of 60 from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival to walking the trails with Liz and so many other fine birders who have changed the course of my life. Santa Ana, to me, is sacred ground. My heart breaks at the thought of birders and all people not being able to experience its magic.

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ABA Events Coordinator Liz Gordon:  As small girl I went to Santa Ana with some folks from my church we took a grocery store bag of popcorn and fed the Chachalacas. (I had no idea they were in my own backyard!?!) I thought the NWR was a place put in the valley by the government because the Government felt sorry for us because there was no wildlife–so much was destroyed of the native habitat in the Valley replaced by Tropical greens and lawn grass.

When I became a birder I worked as a volunteer for the Wildlife CorridorTask Force promoting birds and birding in the Valley and I remember celebrating when we got the first $10 million of duck stamp money to expand the string of pearls. They were putting in millions each year into expanding the complex that is Santa Ana. I met the love of my life when he came to work on the Tram at Santa Ana, even though it took many many years for us to realize our destiny. I hold that place sacred as a very strong spot in my heart and soul.

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ABA Marketing Director John Lowry, Santa Ana 2016

ABA Marketing & Sales John Lowry: My first experience in the Valley, and every subsequent one, featured a visit to the undisputed centerpiece of the valley. The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge had been on my short list of American parks to visit ever since I realized that this was where you would step into one of the last pieces of natural habitat preserved to protect the very special birds of the valley. That initial entrance through those gates and across that dusty levee introduced me to Olive Sparrows and Tropical Kingbirds, Grey Hawks and Great Kiskadees. Green Jays, of course, and more. The excellent trails and the viewing tower were enough to keep me there for hours and ensured that this emerald oasis in the US National Wildlife Refuge system would be a must stop on every visit to the valley.

Later visits on my own and with friends have given me a brief encounter with a Bobcat with a tracking collar, evidence that researchers value the region as much as me. I’ve recorded many more “life birds” there, of course and I’ve been back probably ten times. As a travel destination for a birder it’s an essential must-see. For the local families with a need to get their children immersed in the plants, birds, butterflies and other critters that can be found here, however it’s more than just a park, it’s their home turf. Their backyard. Their place to explore, learn and grow.

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Birding editor Ted Floyd: I was in college in New Jersey, birding as hard as I could, as often as I could. As you might imagine, most of my birding was in the mid-Atlantic region. Well, I learned that a classmate from Corpus Christi would be heading home for spring break, and I asked if I could accompany him. Sure, he said, but he was also pretty clear that I’d be on my own. Evidently, people go on spring break for reasons other than birding. Anyhow, my friend’s dad was a “dormant” birder, basically taking time off to raise a family, run a business, etc. My appearance at the man’s doorstep was the trigger that got him back into birding. “We’re going to The Valley tomorrow,” he announced.

And so we left the next “morning” in the black of night, arriving at Santa Ana at sunrise. The parade of lifers was ridiculous: Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Ringed Kingfishers, and so much more. It was the died-and-gone-to-heaven moment of my birding life. Close to thirty years later, I still see it that way. Birding at Santa Ana was, quite simply, the most exciting day of birding ever. I don’t get back to Texas very often, but Santa Ana is, and always will be, a part of who I am.

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Webmaster Greg Neise: It took over 35 years before I would finally make the pilgrimage to Santa Ana. Driving through the agricultural desert of Hidalgo County on my first morning in south Texas … I have to admit, was disheartening. The land is flat, desolate, and dry. Entering the parking lot is like being transported to another place. The Tamaulipas scrub forest surrounding the visitor center is tropical, with epiphytes and everything. As I was pulling my camera out of the trunk, a Green Kingfisher buzzed through the parking lot not 10 feet from me! Looking toward the visitor center, the shapes of Chachalacas could be seen in the shadows, walking across the path. I had gotten two life birds—and haven’t even closed the trunk of the car yet!

That day will remain one of my fondest birding memories. Within the next hour, I would get my lifer Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Least Grebe, Harris’ Hawk, Great Kiskadee, Black-crested Titmouse, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and several more. The highlight of that morning was standing atop the observation platform with about a dozen other birders, and picking out a soaring Hook-billed Kite for the group (of course, a lifer for me, too!)

I’ve been able to get back for a visit each year since, during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. And each time Santa Ana comes through with great birds. Last November, it was a Northern Jacana. The place that was so foreign to me as a kid—that seemed as wondrous as the Amazon, or Costa Rica—but is now a familiar old friend, proved in its own way, to be just as magical.

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Please share your #MySantaAna stories in the comments. For more information on what you can do right now to help stop this project, see this post from The ABA Blog.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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