Meredith McGuire collected us at the San Antonio airport and drove us out the lovely home she shares with husband Jim Spickard. I had taken Meredith and Jim to Baby Dreaming, Arnhem Land some years before, and we'd stayed in touch. Now I was to lecture at Trinity University where Meredith was Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.
On the Sunday we joined others at Mitchell Park, once the old sewage ponds but now a sanctuary. Georgina and Marianne were our guides. It was a morning full of birds. One highlight were Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs. It was hard to differentiate the two from photos and illustrations. But their behavior is quite different. There were also good views of Least Sandpiper and Spotted, both in winter and breeding plumage.
I spent some time photographing a beautiful little Rough Green Snake, a colubrid, and thus missed out on seeing an alligator. Never mind! We donated a copy of Birds of Australia's Top End and had quite a long chat with the director on marketing strategies etc.
Over two days I gave four presentations at Trinity, one to a class in Linguistic Anthropology, another to graduating students on scarification and violence, and another to students of ecology. The last was a public lecture on intercultural relations with a focus on women. The ecology lecturer is an authority on elephant shrews and has done much work in Africa. There was some confusion as to what I was to talk about. Meredith thought he just wanted a lecture of ecology of the Top End. But it turned out that he and his students wanted to know something of my Aboriginal relatives as well. All I could do was combine two presentations.
Meredith took us to the fiesta one day, and we walked around beautiful old San Antonio. So many old buildings have been preserved, unlike Darwin. We feasted on Mexican food and beer and had a great time!
On April 22, I addressed members of the San Antonio Sierra Club. They are very active politically. Several members spoke about the candidates for a coming council election weighing up their environmental credentials, and I was impressed with their balanced and yet pragmatic approach. One candidate addressed the group as well. Later he and I discussed strategies for swinging people towards more sustainable practices. I'm starting to think that perhaps I should start a consultancy in the US!
The morning of the 23rd April, Michael and I set off in Jim's Subaru Forester for McAllen in southern Texas, where I was to give a presentation. He had never driven on the other side of the road before, and central San Antonio was a maze of highways. However, we made it out of town and were soon in countryside.
It was a five hour drive through mostly strip development and sprawling housing estatesand towns that all looked all the same. McAllen was one of the worst, and yet it had these little gems like Quinta Mazatlan where I was to speak, and Bentsen Park. Not that far away were birding hot spots like Brownsville and Santa Ana.
We drove straight to Qunta Mazatlan, a grand hacienda set in beautiful gardens, and part of the World Birding Center. Our host and QM's manager, Colleen Hook, greeted us and asked us to follow her to her home, Colleen is the daughter of a man who worked for Muriel Horacek?s husband at Exxon, and is married to Steven, an ophthalmologist with a great sense of humour and a love of books.
They live in a lovely Mediterranean-style mansion with a huge inhouse swimming pool, They've been trying to sell the place for two years, without luck. Colleen said that the population was mostly Mexican-American and they preferred Mexican architecture. A reason for selling, she said, was that they preferred something more sustainable and smaller, now that their children had left home (both were studying medicine elsewhere).
We stayed in a large and very beautiful bedroom upstairs that hadn't been used for some years. This was obvious. Otherwise a previous occupant would have reported the blocked toilet. It overflowed at 3 am when Michael flushed it. There was no drain in the floor and I could envisage the water seeping through the floor into the ceiling below. Our luxurious white bath towels were the only resource available to mop up the water. In my rush to do so, I slipped and hit the wall with a resounding thud. Result - one broken toe.
That morning Colleen had arranged to take us to Bentsen Park. However, she wasn't picking us up until nine, too late for good birding. It was to be a very hot day and she had arranged for us to ride bikes around the park. This I couldn't do because of my toe. So I walked and took the "train", a trolley hauled by a truck. On the way I met two very nice birders, David and Peter Assman. David is Deputy Director of The Dept of the Environment, San Francisco, and Peter is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas. We had a fine time seeing wonderful birds like the Chachalaca, Kiskadee and Green Jay.
Most of those who attended my presentation at QM were senior couples, and most had been to Australia, although few to the NT. Most were "snowbirds" having travelled from the northern USA both to escape the bitter winter and to see the birds migrating from central America.
I often wonder what would have happened if NT tourism had diversified in the 1980s - whether these international birders who overfly from Queensland to NW WA, would have been keener to stop in the NT. Marketed appropriately and with guides capable of delivering to an educated, well-travelled market interested in not only birds but other fauna and flora, ecology and Indigenous people (not just cultural trappings), I believe we would have had been able to compete.
Afterwards Colleen took us on a tour of the QM gardens. Olive Sparrow and Eastern Screech Owl were new birds for me. The gardens are very well laid out and Colleen has an extensive program for getting locals involved. However it's an uphill battle.
Most nearby land is too expensive to acquire, and the tourism focus of the town is on shopping tourism - Mexicans cross the border to do so. However, it's risky for an area to just rely on one industry, particularly mass tourism.
If as appears to be happening Mexicans decide they cannot afford to shop in the US then that market will dry up. As I write this swine flu may be adding to the downturn in this market already brought about by the recession.
The town doesn't appear to have much going for it other than the shopping and the birding. And even that is tenuous. Most of the Indigenous scrub has been cleared to make way for sprawling and quite ugly development. Corridors linking places like QM and Bentsen Park would enable some species to move out into the suburbs.
As with every other city we've visited getting around without a vehicle is nigh impossible. Many elderly birders visiting McAllen might not drive and yet having both money and time they?d be ideal and regular visitors.
The next morning Michael and I planned to visit Santa Ana to do some more birding. I'd have liked to go to Brownsville but we needed to return our borrowed car. However, finding our way out of McAllen proved to be a bit of a nightmare, and no signs for Santa Ana were obvious.
So, in the end, Michael drove decided to head straight for San Antonio. That didn't prove easy either as he took the wrong highway. Still, signs advertising the Texas Birding Highway started appearing, and we hoped to find some great spots to stop. There might have been, but they weren't obvious. So, in the end we returned to San Antonio.
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