A MORNING AT FRONTERA THICKET …by Mary Beth Stowe

This account of a walk in the Frontera Thicket is offered by member and avid birder and butterflier Mary Beth Stowe.

The water feature is bubbling, a phoebe peeps incessantly behind me, the gardens are ablaze with color and alive with butterflies, and the excited voices of visiting birders waft from the parking lot at Frontera Audubon Thicket.  I notice the van from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival inch its way into the lot, barely visible through the trees, and wonder if any of the Buff-bellied hummingbirds whirring and chattering around me would be a life bird for any of them.  The field trip approaches, led by Chris and Jessie, and we chat amiably as they file by.  My buddy Huck Hutchins, tireless volunteer at Estero Llano Grande State Park, follows to keep them all in line.  I give them time to get ahead of me and ironically never run into them again;  with an area of only 12 acres, the thicket is relatively small compared to other Valley birding hotspots, but surprisingly easy to lose yourself in.  Meanwhile, I enjoy the large orange sulphurs batting by, the annoyed croak of a Chachalaca, and the noisy contact call of a Great kiskadee, all old friends to me but excitingly new to the folks visiting the Valley for the first time.

Strolling down the walk and into the thicket, I’m surprised with how the vegetation dampens the sound of nearby traffic.  I walk into another world of tall Tepeguaje, Texas ebony, and shaded understory, keeping an eye out for the Clay-colored thrushes that so like to hide here.  The sun dapples the path, and stepping out into an open sunny area, I am treated to a vesta crescent, a lyside sulphur, and a gulf fritillary all nectaring on mistflower.  Sitting at a bench overlooking the “little lake,” I hear my first Amercian robin of the season SEEEE-pup-pupping unseen, while a Wilson’s warbler cheps and more Chachalacas complain.  The maintenance man saunters up to the nearby tool shack, his mellow whistling sounding deceptively like a Clay-colored thrush.  A nasal pep accompanied by a sapsucker-like wail announces the presence of another winter visitor, the Cooper’s hawk.

Continuing along the trail that runs alongside both the “little” and “big” lakes, a Green kingfisher utters his staccato clicking and a Pied-billed grebe floats in “alert mode” in the “big lake” where I’m still waiting for a Purple gallinule to show up on the lily pads one of these days!  I catch up with another local named Dave just as the Cooper’s hawk swoops in, giving his nasal “sapsucker call” once again, allowing me a great recording and Dave a great picture.  Taking another break on the “boardwalk bench,” I listen to the resident Gray hawk sound his mournful whistle as a backdrop to a pair of excited Couch’s kingbirds pupping and shouting Breer! along with the more jovial rollicking of a Carolina wren.  Somewhere a flock of Black-bellied whistling ducks is approaching, probably heading for the hidden pond behind the fence line to my right where more birders are quietly creeping along.

Wait!  Is that a Pygmy owl I hear?  Oh–it’s probably the field trip calling in some obstinate warblers….  They got the neighbor’s dog excited, anyway.

The milkweed vine is thick along the boardwalk and intermingled with the rushes, and is visited by several angelic white peacocks as they flutter about, as well as a few queens slowly opening and closing their wings as they feed, looking like smaller and plainer versions of the familiar monarch.  The boardwalk turns sharply, and I pause to record a Kiskadee in full song, announcing his name for all to hear when I realize that I’m hearing the distant, persistent rattle of a Ringed kingfisher in the background.  A snout (a little butterfly with a big “nose”) is bullying a much larger gulf fritillary, who is successfully intimidated off the blooms (or else just sufficiently annoyed)!

The shade of the sabal palm grove is a welcome relief, and I stop to rest on a fallen log and enjoy three House wrens all engaged in a burbly song battle.  A bona fide Yellow-bellied sapsucker (and not a Cooper’s hawk playing “wannabe”) gives its nasal call behind me.  I take a brief peek through the heavy gate at the cemetery on the other side and take in the bright colors and flowers that the locals have left to celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones.  Before long I have to retreat to the shade of the grove again and back into the thicket.  I make a mental note to ask Cindy, Frontera’s new director, about this exquisite little plant with the saber-like leaves, the bases of which look painted in pink.  [Note:  I have since learned from Martin Hagne, the director of Valley Nature Center and Cindy that this is called wild poinsettia and graces us with its beauty each December.]  I indulge my compulsion to feel the sandpaper-like leaf of the anacua tree and stop at another bench where now the White-eyed vireos are song-battling.  Mosquitoes remind me that I’m in the woods, but the sirens remind me that I’m still in the city as well.

Stumbling upon another clump of colorful blooms, I notice a tiny butterfly flutter and then land, rubbing its hindwings together in an attempt to fool the  predator (me) into going after the tail rather than the head!  By the time I find it in my camera’s viewfinder, it apparently has figured I’m harmless and has started to sun, showing a lovely lavender upperside.  Thinking it’s just a blue (a rather common group of small “gossamer-winged” butterflies), I try to sneak a peek at its ventral side and discover it’s not a blue, but rather a silver-banded hairstreak, a Valley specialty!  He eventually flees to another perch and rubs his hindwings again while voraciously feeding on nectar, showing off the striking white band against an apple-green ground, accentuated with a stunning maroon marginal band.

I run into Cindy and Charlie, the beloved neighbor and caretaker, at the feeders, who are discussing the mortality rate of birds who become intoxicated, matted down, or otherwise harmed by the sticky seeds of the white plumbago, a native plant which is ironically a superb draw for butterflies.  I promptly forget about the plant I was going to ask her about as the Gray hawks become quite vocal, and one conveniently blasts overhead, just visible through the trees, and apparently visible enough to prompt an Olive sparrow behind me to sound off with a staccato series of alarm calls.  The hawks, meanwhile, give a marvelous performance for the microphone, and while I’m holding my little digital recorder up to capture the concert, a curious Buff-bellied hummingbird obligingly zooms right up to it, uttering a few chirps before speeding away.  By now the Chachalacas have braved coming in to the feeders, and the mosquitoes have discovered me as a feeder, so it’s time to move on!

Heading out, I run into what appears to be a separate field trip, led by Jon Dunn, from whom I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of learning everything I ever wanted to know about sparrow identification in the deserts of a cold Arizona winter at the dawn of Y2K!  The group is stalking a Clay-colored thrush, silent this time of year and thus much more difficult to find.  I point him towards the silver-banded hairstreak, and he points me towards the ruddy daggerwiong that I missed at the entrance walk, and shortly other birds and butterflies and critters are temporarily ignored as I make a beeline back to the visitors’ center.  Cindy is only too happy to show me this stunning butterfly, resembling a rusty-colored leaf with dark brown tiger stripes!   The bug is remarkably fresh, with both hindwing “daggers” intact (and not broken off, which is usually the case), and a glittering blue “eye” at the base of each hindwing.

The gardens around the front of the building are not tobe ignored, either, and I inspect the trellis of balloon vine, the host plant of the silver-banded hairstreak, just in case Jon and crew miss the one I found in the thicket.  Sure enough, one flutters about the foliage, becoming invisible until it again flutters to another perch.  Timing is perfect, and as the field trip leaves the visitors’ center, I flag down Jon and he’s able to get several delighted people on to this special little lep!

I reluctantly need to take off after that, but the morning was refreshing and renewing, with a good mix of enjoying the familiar at a relaxed pace and racing to find those special critters that are “once in a blue moon” treats!  Frontera Audubon Thicket is indeed a jewel and a paradise, a peaceful (and convenient) place to come lose oneself in Creation.

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