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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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  • Lucie Bruce

    I live in Weslaco, 13 miles from Santa Ana. I go there about every 10 days—not just for birds, but also butterflies, moths, dragonflies, reptiles. Talking to a Border Patrol agent, he says “unknown sources” already say the refuge will be closed and the visitor center will be used as a Border Patrol Sub-station. Yes, this is a second-hand rumor. But could it be true? Everything else has been done secretly. Any suggestions from the ABA would be greatly appreciated. There is an active petition
    https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/save-santa-ana-wildlife-refuge

  • Cc

    Sorry but we need the wall whatever it takes.

    • Walter Wickenburg

      Just like Trump, we don’t need the wall. I highly doubt any illegal immigrants are coming through the NWR. It won’t be effective and it waste billions of dollars and destroy important habitat.

      If you really care about nature, you should be against the wall.

      • Chloe

        A couple friends of mine went there and actually witnessed some immigrants passing through the refuge and trying to sneak onto a bus. A lady was caught but the men got away.

    • bcogal

      Keep in mind that only 5% of the border lands in Texas are in public hands. So my initial question is, how much of an impact is this even going to make in this quixotic attempt to build a wall? In the meantime a crown jewel of our national Wildlife Refuge system will be severely impacted. Or, to put it in another way, according to the Texas Observer article, a federal official who is involved with the planning said, “If the levee wall is constructed, it will essentially destroy the refuge.”

    • Lucie Bruce

      Does this include losing Bentsen State Park and Big Bend National Park? There are other solutions. “Whatever it takes” is not the answer. The first step could be open discussions, not back room deals.

      • Beth Ann Doerring

        yes.

    • Liz Spritely

      If we really need a wall. Don’t bulldoze the habitat. Build the wall along the highway.

    • Chas in Catonsville

      GO AWAY.

  • Kelly Smith

    As a twice former resident of the Rio Grande Valley, I can say with certainty there is not enough ‘nature’ in the RGV for families. Most of it is not accessible. People need places like Santa Ana NWR to be able to explore, be curious, and learn about the world around them. Children need wild places to let their imaginations grow and to gain an appreciation of the world around them. Birding can be an important part of that, and the ABA does a lot to help young birders. Three other nature centers in the RGV have already been walled off. Pretty soon there won’t be any left with easy access for families.

  • Luke Safford

    Last year I took my then 7 year old son on a road trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley from Tucson over spring break. Santa Ana NWR was the highlight of our trip. We were the first ones there that morning and it was like stepping into another world. I can’t believe this is even on the table as an option. Here’s to hoping next generations are able to experience this amazing location.

  • Greg Swick

    Santa Ana NWR is very special to me because of the many times that my son Nathan and I explored the riparian thorn forest ecosystem there. It was near the refuge where we followed BirdChat directions to my Spark Bird, the Tropical Parula, at Saritas Rest Stop on the way to the bird-rich Lower Rio Grande Valley. The refuge is an American treasure, and doesn’t need a wall destroying its natural beauty. #mysantaana

  • Pingback: #MySantaAna: What Birders Can Do RIGHT NOW « ABA Blog()

  • Beth Ann Doerring

    I saw my first I think, 13, Whooping Cranes fly over us at the entrance to Santa Ana in 1972. Since then I have seen many and cheered their recovery. We don’t need the wall,; we need the refuge! I have been there many times but not recently and am looking forward to returning soon. The wall is not needed anywhere let alone in the many National and state parks and wildlife refuges. People need nature and nature needs people to protect and save our world. We cannot survive without nature, peace, birds, animals, sanctuaries, refuges. Save the Santa Ana and all wild places along the border.

  • Eric Scholz

    I’ve birded for over forty years and my best experiences have been along the Mexican border. I love the border region, and I am a strong supporter of the wall, on environmental grounds. Unchecked migration is destroying the southwest through population impact. If the ABA opposes the wall, it does so on behalf of so-called progressives, not on behalf of conservationists or birders as a group.

    • I’m not sure I understand. It is not clear how a 3 mile long section of wall, limited entirely to the refuge, will impact “unchecked migration” in any measurable way.

      Are you arguing that we should accept the destruction of this natural place to prevent destruction of other natural places? How are we supposed to decide which places to sacrifice? If uniqueness and cultural heritage play a role, Santa Ana ought to be at the top of the list.

      • Eric Scholz

        Hey Nate, nobody’s talking about a wall limited entirely to the refuge. I maintain that unchecked immigration is an ecological disaster, and that this has long been the mainstream environmentalist position. I might allow that this does not address “cultural heritage”, except that environmentalism is, for most of us, a big part of our cultural heritage.

        • Building the wall off the refuge will likely require seizing of private property and years of litigation. There are no current plans to do so. I still contend that it will not impact migration in the least.

    • Pat Stallings

      Spoken like a true Trumpite. How could anyone support the wall on “environ- mental grounds”? Santa Ana is a true jewel. I first visited there years ago when you could still drive through the park yourself. This wall will stop migrants and strays, which are one of the area’s main draws, unless they can fly over it.
      In their zealous efforts to stop “human” migrants, the administration is ignoring the rights of other people to visit and absorb this tiny remnant of the original landscape. SInce its about the only one left, it needs to be protected for future generations and the wildlife it supports. If ABA opposes the wall, it does so on behalf of ME and many others! If there has to be a wall, there is always a better way.

      • Eric Scholz

        “This wall will stop migrants and strays, which are one of the area’s main draws”: that’s one of the best lines I’ve read.

  • Laura Keene

    Why is Santa Ana so special to birders? The best birding happens in places where nature exhibits her innermost beauty and complexity, and Santa Ana boasts some of the most amazing and sought-after species in the US. I visited Santa Ana on January 4th of my 2016 Big Year. During my visit I recorded 58 species, representing 7.6% of the species on my 2016-year list. A rare Northern Jacana was playing hide-and-seek with birders in Willow Pond. But it wasn’t just a quick visit to tick a rare bird, it was a destination. This day was a solitary journey around the beautiful ponds and meandering the trails through the woods. It was a day of discovery to observe a Harris’s Hawk in a nearby tree eating prey, and to see the stunning Green Jays and Great Kiskadee. The call of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet snagged my attention. Green and Ringed Kingfishers perched on branches and surveyed the ponds. It was such a pleasure to enjoy so many special species that thrive in this habitat along the Rio Grande River. While It seems to many that wildlife has no barriers, building and maintaining a wall destroys part of the vital habitat that is critical to these species. I don’t know the answer to protecting the border, but I do know that it is crucial that we protect the wildlife of Santa Ana.

  • judyliddell

    I wrote this after visiting the Lower Rio Grande Valley, including Santa Ana NWR, in 2009 – https://judysjottings.wordpress.com/2009/05/23/impact-of-the-border-fence-along-the-lower-rio-grande-valley/

  • Josh Cantor

    I’m heading down to the Rio Grande Valley this winter, and as an ABA Area lister and a conservation biology student, I can say if the last pockets of native habitat fall to development, the nearest place to get the most desired species from the valley is in Mexico, currently NOT part of the ABA Area. It’s not just birds that would be affected, Santa Ana supports an equally diverse cast of native reptiles, amphibians, mammals, plants, and arthropods not found elsewhere in the ABA Area

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