On Thursday morning, I was given the opportunity to accompany members of the Border Patrol’s marine unit on a patrol of the Rio Grande aboard an airboat.
We put in at a launch on the river about a quarter of a mile or downstream from the international bridge and across from Parque Braulio Fernandez Aguirre in Ciudad Acuña, Coah., Mexico.
I’d never been on an airboat before, let alone an airboat patrolling an international border, so I was first given a briefing about boat dos and donts, shown where the emergency equipment was and buckled into a flotation device.
The agent piloting our boat, Edgar Garcia, also cheerfully handed me a scarf with which to cover the lower half of my face.
When I looked at him questioningly, he grinned widely and said, “Bugs!”
I will recount our adventure in more detail in a piece for the paper later this week, but I wanted to talk here about all of the birds we encountered on our trip.
We first set out upstream, passing back under the international bridge.
There are places here along the river where there are sandbars and small cobbled beaches that come and go as the level of the Rio Grande rises and falls. On the day of my trip, the water seemed fairly low, and the beaches and sandbars held an abundance of birds.
Flocks of Snowy Egrets lifted elegantly into the air at the boat’s approach, flying away from us, then turning like a single bird and settling back onto another spot at the edge of this storied river.
Spotted Sandpipers and their slightly larger cousins, Killdeer, scurried across the shingle, and small flocks of Mexican Mallards winged up and out of the way of the boat. Mexican Mallards resemble their cousins, Mallards, but are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the males and females look nearly the same.
Both male and female Mexican Mallards look like female Mallards, but instead of having orange bills, the Mexican Mallards’ bill is a greenish yellow. Currently this bird is considered a Mallard subspecies.
Garcia turned the boat and headed back downstream, and we boated through side channels of the Rio Grande that looked every bit like they could be on a park in the Serengeti.
We saw all three species of North American kingfishers – Ringed, Belted and Green – in the same mile or two stretch of the river.
Most remarkable to me, though, was the fact that we saw at least eight or nine Green Herons, small, secretive herons that prefer the deep cover of the carrizo thickets along the creek and the rivers. These birds are an indicator species, letting us know the environment is in balance.
Karen Gleason is the senior staff writer for the Del Rio News-Herald. She loves nature and the outdoors and has been an avid bird watcher since childhood.