By Peter Kleinhenz
I’ll tell you; feeling intense fear and peace at the same time is a strange emotion. Certainly, it isn’t one that I experience often. To be fair, it isn’t often that I’m standing in a totally unique landscape, with the calls of unrecognizable birds echoing around me, all while looking over my shoulder in a place where violent crime is not uncommon.
I was standing on the banks of the Rio Grande in Salineño, Texas. As a part of my Lower 48 Big Year, I was to spend the day birding in extreme South Texas where tropical birds like Altamira Orioles and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds barely penetrate the United States. Due to a fortuitous happenstance involving a flight attendant friend, I can fly anywhere in the U.S. for free. And, whenever I can, I do.
Fighting exhaustion from flying all day, sleeping for three hours, and driving two and a half hours in my rental car to this tiny riverbank village in the middle-of-nowhere, I struggled to locate birds. I recognized zero calls and the thick vegetation made locating birds a challenge. I only count the birds that I see, partly to make the Big Year more difficult and partly because I like to see birds. The various species seemed to be mocking me. Was that, “Hey, stupid, Mexico is 75 yards away and this is one of the most common border crossings sites there is!” that I heard?
Believe it or not, I justified spending the early morning hours alone in this dangerous place to myself. After all, this was one of the only places in the U.S. where White-collared Seedeaters, Red-billed Pigeons, and Audubon’s Orioles could be found. Plus, it wasn’t filled with people like most other major birding sites within the region. It met my criteria.
I veered off the path and bushwhacked through thorn-scrub along the river bank until I reached one of the only old growth Montezuma Cypress trees growing in the United States. The massive limbs dangled above me and above the brown water that many people vehemently opposed to immigration have never laid eyes upon. Among the leaves, Groove-billed Ani’s, Green Jays, Brown-crested Flycatchers, and a Great Kiskadee went about their lives as if they were in Mexico. They had no idea how rare they were in the U.S. To them, this was just another tree. To them, there was no border.
I stood there, smiling, until a couple tears fell down my cheek. My girlfriend had broken up with me two days before. I had just received disturbing news about my health. My financial situation, due to a couple unfortunate accidents, was abysmal. And yet, it was all ok in that moment. The birds seemed to speak for all of nature. “We’ve got you”, they said. “Don’t forget why you’re here,” they advised. “Enjoy these rare moments,” they directed.
So what if I didn’t stumble upon any Red-billed Pigeons or Audubon’s Orioles? I found something far better. I found an inner peace that, however temporary, reminded me there is so much to love about this world. The birds, it seems, knew this all along. Or at least I thought that’s what they said.