I flew to McAllen, Texas, last month with one goal in mind. I wanted to see a Vermilion Flycatcher. A folded-up photo I'd cut from a bird book was packed inside my bag, next to binoculars, a hat and a five-pocket vest.
McAllen, to birders, is like the Serengeti to safari lovers. It's a bucket-list destination with nine World Birding Centers in a major migration corridor in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
"It's hard to wrap your head around it," said ranger Roy Rodriguez at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. "You have 700 known species of birds in the world, and we have 527 of them in four counties."
He explained to our group that two major flyways converge in this region -- not unlike an airport serving as hub for more than one carrier. Couple this with the diversity in climate that comes from the Gulf and an arid inland and you've got a Club Med for birds, butterflies and dragonflies.
Birders who come to McAllen can go solo or hire a professional guide. With Rodriguez as my "wing man," I saw dozens of species in Bentsen. I even got to take part in the spring raptor count from a perch high above the wetlands in the Hawk Tower.
It's the thrill of the hunt that brings some birders here (think "The Big Year" with Owen Wilson). But for others it's the joy of seeing nature's most colorful creatures do something we've all yearned to do at one time or another -- sit in a treetop and cackle.
The Great-tailed Grackle can cackle with the best of them. So can the Plain Chachalaca, a drab, dodo-shaped bird that gets "goofy" on berries. We saw both birds in abundance at Quinta Mazatlan, a 1930s adobe hacienda surrounded by woodlands and lush landscape.
Later that day, my group drove to Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, the region's first World Birding Center on 40 acres of reclaimed farm land in Edinburg. Sharing a dock with some khaki-clad Midwestern birders, I spotted a conga line of bright pink legs in the reeds on the other side of the lake. They turned out to be Black Bellied Whistling Ducks. It was a good find, for which I took full credit. Check!
On day two, we saw two more World Birding sites, including an old pumping station in the border town of Hidalgo. The Green Kingfisher and Altamira Oriole were two of my favorite finds -- both keenly aware of their beauty. As they primped and preened, a Golden Fronted Woodpecker threw verbal barbs from an overhead branch.
Yet, I never did see the Vermilion Flycatcher. This quizzical bird with an explosion of feathers and fluff (think extreme bad hair day) clearly didn't want to be photographed. I suppose it makes sense. If you looked like the offspring of Phyllis Diller and Guy Fiere of the Food Network, you might be camera-shy, too.
The McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau has information on birding, lodging, dining and more at www.mcallencvb.com.