The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Welcome to the House of the Blue Mockingbird
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, December 17, 2003, © 2004

That might be an appropriate sign at the entrance to the residence of Allen and Kellie Williams and their three young children. Yet it would not fully emphasize the myriad of attractions that delight visitors from all over the world.
You would never suspect what awaits you as you turn off a Pharr main street in a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood. Once inside the gate you are in a one-acre shaded expanse of front yard canopied by thirteen great Texas Liveoaks bordered on the west by a dense row of Texas Ebony and Anaqua. A dead palm, which Allen scavenged from a nearby field and erected in the yard, displays holes where Red-crowned Parrots have recently nested and fledged a chick. Many nesting boxes adorn the trees. One spot has been a regular home for Eastern Screech Owls. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are also regular occupants of nesting boxes of varying size and shape A large set of playground equipment indicates that not only feathered young are being raised here. Allen often relates how the Black-bellied Whistling chicks have shared the swimming pool with his own children on several occasions.

Great Kiskadees call boisterously as you park near a white pickup with a red sign that reads "Arroyo Reds." The sign advertises upscale river front homes for rent on the Arroyo Colorado where Allen also guides fishing, birding, kayak, and photography trips. You move past a low-lying house which blends into the landscape in the manner of the "organic" architecture of the fabled Frank Lloyd Wright.

On the west side of the house, a gate, arched by a Mexican Love Vine, opens to a trail winding through Valley citrus and Wild Olives amid beds of Blue Mist, Scarlet Sage, Heliotrope and other appetizing greenery for birds and butterflies. Then you arrive at the place of Legend...the fountain and feeding area where hundreds of birders have sat in the chairs and benches to wait eagerly for the phantom, the Blue Mockingbird! This phenomenon from Mexico, a shy bird quite unlike our local Northern Mockingbird in behavior and plumage, first appeared in November of 2002 and has since remained off and on for weeks at a time. Sometimes it vanishes for a while, and although it has not been reported from adjacent yards during those absences, it probably does not stray far.

This ruby-eyed vagrant has been enjoyed by birders from over 42 states, Canada (Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec), England, Scotland, Norway and even Taiwan. The occurrences of arrant avians, such as this rare and beautiful Blue Mockingbird, are peak moments of great delight for birders. The Valley is recognized as a fantastic location to see birds and butterflies which have wandered far from their normal range. When they are first discovered the excitement boils among the birding and butterflying community.. Such was the case of the Two-day Wonder! As a dozen people anxiously awaited the Blue Mocker's appearance, a rather large, scarlet-bellied warbler entered the lower mesquite branches. With all binoculars now focused on this unfamiliar bird fanning its black tail edged in white, the excitement and speculation began. A few minutes later after several field guides were studied, it was determined that a Slate-throated Redstart, another Mexican wanderer and a new species for the Valley, had been attracted to the habitat of the Williamses' back yard. It came; it was seen by many, thanks to the birders' informal "hotlline"; and then it was gone.

What about the person who created this Eden? Allen Williams grew up in Dallas with a nature-loving family. He brought his respect and interest in the outdoors to the Valley in 1990. He is a US Coast Guard-licensed guide and host of "Arroyo Reds." While attending the very first Harlingen RGV Birding Festival, he was inspired by area artist Tony Bennett's program on creating gardens which attract wildlife. He was further intrigued by all the out of state bird watchers he met at Santa Ana NWR. Because of these experiences and the enthusiasm shown by birders and nature lovers in general, he sought to create an oasis of wildlife-attracting habitat which would produce an assortment of seeds, berries, fruits and shelter. In 1997, he began planting drought-resistant vegetation and designing the "paths of glory" that you can now enjoy.

With over 20 species of trees, 43 species of shrubs and lots of ground cover, you may not know where to look! Is it Up or Down? At your feet are the swirled red Turk's Cap flowers, a favorite nectar stop for the many Buff-bellied hummingbirds. The dainty white flowers of the native Plumbago intermixed with the pink, yellow, red and orange-flowered lantanas, et al., are a-flutter with skippers, crescents, checkerspots, fritillaries and many other lepidoptera that you need to view. Above you are compelled to look at wintering or migrating warblers such as the Black-throated Greens and Orange-crowns. A true delight is when they splash about in the fountain, showing off their splendid colors.

For many birders, the reason why the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is so-named becomes clear as its well-concealed rich ruby crest flares brightly during a bath. From the surrounding mesquite and hackberry trees come chirps from Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers foraging closely with Black-Crested Titmice. Curved-billed Thrashers snack on the ever present Fiddlewood berries. Inca Doves sun on the edges of the trails as the much larger White-tipped Doves rustle through the shaded leaves under an aging Huisache tree. A Golden-fronted Woodpecker swoops from behind and noisily lands above the bathing station. With all this activity, it is no surprise that Allen has tallied 114 species of birds on the property and over a dozen more flying over head.

"Plant it, and they will come." Allen suggests that you use native plants when possible but cautions not to be fanatical by restricting yourself to natives only. Calliandra and Hamelia are excellent non-native yet drought-tolerant nectar sources for butterflies and hummingbirds. This seems to be a reasonable approach because many species of birds and butterflies do thrive on the exotics.

Allen's future plans include two ponds, already under excavation, both specifically designed for photographers. Because he knows that Great Kiskadees enjoy fish as much as he does, one pond will be stocked with fish from the local irrigation canals. Following the completion of the ponds, an observation tower will be built to observe more clearly the daily flights of Red-crowned Parrots and the seasonal migration of hawks.

Just outside the gate there is a parking area for school buses. Teachers are invited to visit for a learning experience that would include the right way to reforest the Valley and also learn about and appreciate the birds and butterflies that inhabit this area in greater variety than anywhere else in the United States. If teachers would like to bring their students, they can call Allen at 956-460-9864. Individuals may also arrange private nature tours and landscape consultations.

Here on the border land there are places of special beauty, oases in the mad rush to build and change. These places are lushly green and fascinating in their habitats alive with creatures of rare appeal to the humans who care about the natural world. If you come for a visit, you will realize that this is surely one of the best...and accessible to all. We need to create more of these trails of natural wonder. Allen Williams can show you how it is done.


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