Monday, April 30, 2012

We're Done!

The 2012 Winter Tram season at Santa Ana National Wildlife Area ended with a whimper today. For months and months contractors have been raising the levee that protect the visitor center (and local farmers and farms) from Rio Grande floods. Today was the day they wanted to pave the road that crosses the levee--the road we drive the tram on. When we confirmed that they were coming today and that we couldn't drive across the levee, we printed out the weekly sales report and packed up and left. It has been a fun three months, giving tours of the refuge, and we have learned sooo much.

But, before we confirmed we would be leaving early, we did the early safety run. We drove to the cemetery, where we sprayed a couple of wasp's nests. Then we took the time for one last walk down the Jaguarundi Trail to the Rio Grande. As we drove down the next section of road, suddenly John said, "Look at that!" I did look and saw an animal with a face mask and long bushy tail with rings running off the road. There had been two of these animals when John first saw them.

We drove along, saying, "What was that?" A raccoon? No. It wasn't any animal we had ever seen before and certainly not one we talk about on our tram tours. When we returned to the visitor center, we started looking at our resource books. Then we asked other people if the animal we suspected had ever been seen here before? Yes, three years ago.

We can't say for sure, because we didn't get a photograph, but it may have been a white-nosed coati. This is photo I picked up on the internet.

You can go here to learn more about this animal--if that is what we saw.

It was a great way to end our three and a half months here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. We're off tomorrow, going (very slowly) North to Alaska.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Our last day of tram tours here at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas, is tomorrow. We are glad we spent this winter here in the Rio Grande Valley. We enjoyed giving the tours. We enjoyed getting more into birding. We saw a lot of interesting sights. We spent time with two distant relatives—Harry and Juanita. Doing genealogy has brought great new people into our lives.

It is warmer here than in Arizona, where we spent the past three winters. Our RV site at the refuge is clearly the best one available in the Valley. It is long, wide, and private because of all the trees. At night there is little artificial light so the moon and stars are clearly visible—when the sky is free of clouds. At night there is no traffic—unless it is the Border Patrol or smugglers.

We learned so much about the history and the plants that grow here in the southern tip of Texas. It has been a real learning experience. That is one of the most valuable aspects of volunteering.

I will miss hearing the pauraques calling at night and the mocking birds singing during the day. We are close to nature: at home, running, at work, in recreation. Everything we need and most of what we want is close by, yet we don’t feel we are in a city. We see lots of agriculture—crops here need lots of attention, unlike corn and wheat and hay we see in Colorado.

On the other hand, we doubt we will ever return to the Valley. The month of April is very hot and humid. And the bugs are awful—mosquitos and gnats are more abundant than the birds.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Life on the Border--Part 3

This is an unintended postscript to my posts about Life on the Border. Yesterday one of the employees who lives on the refuge property drove out of his driveway about 7 or 7:30 am. He found several pickup trucks parked on the refuge road, facing toward US 281, which runs east to west in front of Santa Ana. He wasn't able to get out of his driveway. He watched in disbelief as a group of people ran out of the refuge and hopped in the back of the trucks.

Our employee then was able to get out of his driveway and drove to a local gas station. He went inside for a few minutes, then returned to his truck, only to find someone in the truck bed. He told that man, first in English, then in Spanish, to get out, but the man didn't leave. So our worker called either the police or Border Patrol to help him.

Apparently, the trucks were there to pick up some illegal aliens. One man obviously got into the wrong truck. He was soon under arrest.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Life on the Border -- Part 2

The evening news has reported drug cartel vehicles blocking traffic on international bridges coming into the Valley from Mexico.  It isn’t unusual to hear of families seeking information about a family member last seen or known to be going to Mexico.  A local high school sports star is in jail in Mexico, arrested in a stolen car driven by one of his friends.

One day a rider on one of our tram tours said his friend had driven into Mexico at the one town most Winter Texans feel is safe enough to visit.  It is the town where many people go to shop or have dental work done.  The friend was driving a pickup truck and it was stolen right after he entered that country.  We understand that pickup trucks, especially those with crew cabs and darkened windows, are the preferred vehicle to steal.  A sign at the Pharr police station shows a club (used to protect vehicles from being stolen) and reads, “Never park your car without using the club.”  We never leave our truck without first locking our club to the steering wheel.

A couple of weeks ago, John was waiting at a local Chevy dealer while they serviced our truck.  He was talking with a Hispanic man who works for a company that has branches on both sides of the border.  He also has family in Mexico.  He told John that when his company wants to send people to the facility in Mexico, they send 10 or so people in a van, which they park right outside the entrance to the business.  If any violence erupts in the city, they all pile into the van and speed back to the US side of the border.  He said he no longer visits his family in Mexico because it isn’t safe to go there.

In February, John attended a lecture at the refuge, given by a historian from Roma, TX.  That man lives in Mexico and works for the Texas city.  He told the audience he lives in a beautiful town and he would like to invite everyone to come see it.  However, ”it makes me sad to tell you, ‘please don’t come,’ it isn’t safe.”

The evening TV news reported that local school bus drivers are being trained on how to respond if they have a bus full of children and someone tries to commandeer the bus.  That doesn’t do much to make me feel safe while out on the roads of the Valley.

We understand that the number of Winter Texans has been down in the past couple of years because folks don’t feel safe coming here.  Although we have never personally encountered any danger, it really is an unsettling place to be.  Last summer, during our volunteer stay at Lathrop State Park in Colorado, there was a decided bear problem at night.  During August, I did not feel safe going outside the trailer after dark.  Down here, the feeling is somewhat the same, even though we are surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire and a locked gate. 

In fact, this week after dinner I walked out to lock the gate on our compound.  A Hispanic woman I had never seen before followed me to the gate.  She didn’t speak any English, but indicated she wanted me to leave the gate unlocked.  I agreed, but when I told John about it, he was uncomfortable enough with the situation that he went out and locked it.  After he returned to our RV, she came and knocked on the door.  Since she couldn’t tell us who she was, why she didn’t have her own key, or why she needed the gate unlocked, we didn’t agree to open it again.  I told one of the other tram driver couples about the situation and they investigated and learned she is an intern in the re-veg division and doesn’t have a car.  Someone from town comes to bring her food or take her shopping.  We feel bad about what happened.  But the incident shows how old northerners react when they live near the Mexican border and are housed in an RV compound surrounded by a fence with barbed wire and a locked gate 

Like I said, we feel protected, but not safe.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Life on the Border--Part 1

This is the first of two posts on what it is like to live close to the U.S. border with Mexico.  Part 2 will come tomorrow.

Everyone in the country is aware of the issues of illegal immigration and drug smuggling across our border with Mexico.  During the time we have spent in Arizona the past few years, we thought we understood what was going on.  But you really have to live on the border to understand the problems.  Since mid-January we have been living within a mile or less of the Rio Grande and Mexico.

The local television news is full of stories about these issues.  In the past few weeks, local police have found 50 stash houses for illegal immigrants.  One house had 60 people staying there, all without water or electricity.  Apparently, the coyotes (the people who collect money to help Mexicans enter the US) give people the address of a house on this side of the border.  The people find their own way into the country then locate the stash house.  From there the coyote transports them somewhere north where, hopefully, they can find some work.

During the first half of April two vehicles carrying these illegals crashed on Rio Grande Valley highways.  In one instance, four people died.  In the second accident, nine people were killed.  The 15-year-old driver is in jail, facing homicide charges.  I doubt this is the better life these people were hoping for.

We hear on the news about seizures of drugs.  Last week five tons of marijuana was seized in this part of Texas.  We and others living in this refuge RV parking area have watched two seizures of large amounts of drugs on the road next to our RVs. 

We love where our RV is parked.  It is dark—no street lights.  We can see the stars at night.  It is quiet at night—that is, unless we hear the Border Patrol helicopter overhead or speeding cars belonging either to smugglers or the Border Patrol.

We understand there are sensors on all or most pedestrian routes near the border.  We often go running or walking on the levee near our RV.  Many mornings, about 5 to 10 minutes after we start down the levee, a Border Patrol vehicles rushes up to us.  Then the driver slows down, maybe asks where we came from, and tells us to be safe out there.  What sensors did we trigger?

At least six times a week we are scheduled to take refuge visitors down a trail to view the Rio Grande.  The trail has historically been used to smuggle guns and drugs and cotton and clothes and electronics and people to and from Mexico.  We have been told that there are numerous Border Patrol sensors along that trail.  We have seen clothing and other items left on the trail by people crossing to the U.S. from Mexico.  We have seen people appearing to fish on the Mexican side of the river and waved to them.  But we wonder if they are scouts, checking out when it is safe for people to cross.  This is just a fact of life along the border. 

Daily we see Border Patrol vehicles patrolling near our RV park, driving on the levee that goes through the wildlife refuge, driving and walking through the refuge.  We have seen agents carrying high-powered automatic rifles along the refuge road and through a nearby farm field.  Last week an agent carrying an automatic rifle walked walked past our tram at the visitor center.  We have the highest respect for the Border Patrol and the work they do.  We know they are working hard to catch the bad guys and we feel protected.  But, we don’t feel safe. 

Recently, we have seen them taking boats down into the refuge, headed for a spot they can put in on the Rio Grande.  We didn’t see that earlier in the winter, but we heard on the news that spring is the seasons when illegal border crossings increase.  I am guessing that is because more farm workers and other laborers are in demand up north.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cleaning Day

We live in a very small house that doesn't require a whole lot of cleaning (though more than I am really interested in doing). But for the past three months we have been parked next to a dirt road that leads to a dirt levee that has been under construction most of that time. So this week we knew we had to wash the outside of the RV. And let me tell you, it needed it. Just take a look at the roof. John took this picture after he had washed about 1/4 of the area.

The top of our RV measures about 35 ft by 8 ft. It took over an hour to scrub it. Whew! Glad that job is done for a while. When John finished the roof, we both worked on the sides. Now it looks loved again.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Little Hail...A Lot of Headaches

This morning we took the truck in for a new windshield.  Mission accomplished.  Then we stopped at a Dent Medic place.  They looked at the dents in the hood, looked at the rest of the truck, and said we had $1375 worth of damage.  We said we would think about it, then asked how soon they could fix it.  Not till the first or second week of May.  We leave May 1.

We returned to the RV and John looked closely at the roof of the trailer.  The cover on the skylight above the shower is broken.  So I called to get estimates on that repair.  All of this also required that I carefully read our insurance policies.  Not something that I really enjoy doing.  

Then I called our auto insurance company to report the truck body damage.  That was a 15 minute phone call.  We will get an inspection of the damage done when we go through Colorado on our way to Alaska.  Then they will issue a check, less our $500 deductible.  

I guess we are lucky.  No broken windows and the RV roof is intact.

But who would have guessed that our brief hailstorm would result in at least $2,000 of damage?  I guess that is why we carry insurance.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

It Was Our turn

Well, I guess it had to happen sometime. How many years can you go through hail storms and not experience any damage? Last night as we were finishing dinner, a thunderstorm came in. Then we heard bang...pop...crack...bang. It was hailing. John grabbed some towels and climbed up on the roof--the plastic covers on our vents are really brittle and he wanted to protect them as best he could. Then we waited. If you click on the photo it will enlarge and you can get a better look at the hailstones.

When the storm was over, the sun came out, and our NOAA Weather Radio told us it had moved south of the Rio Grande, John climbed back up on the roof to retrieve the towels. The vent covers were fine. A close look at the hood of the car revealed some dents, however. The last time we suffered hail damage to any of our property was in the late 1970s. I guess we can't expect to dodge the bullet forever.

Then, this morning we got in the truck, only to see this.

One of those hailstones, probably one of the larger ones (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inch diameter), must have hit at the base of the windshield. Since we plan to go to Alaska this summer, we briefly considered waiting till fall to replace the windshield. But we decided that might be a little risky. We'll get it done Monday.

Friday, April 20, 2012


About 2003, when we both retired, we began volunteering once a week at the Colorado Historical Society in downtown Denver whenever we were in town. It was a very positive experience. In 2004 we took a nearly five-month RV trip to Alaska and had a wonderful time. We decided we wanted to spend even more time in our RV in the future, but our finances wouldn't allow us to spend that much money every year. But we discovered volunteer opportunities for RVers that would cover our RV park expenses, while giving us the opportunity to give back and to really get to know the area we were visiting. In 2005 we signed up for two volunteer, or work-camping, positions: Nails Creek State Park in Texas and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. It opened a whole new world for us. We have learned new skills and knowledge and experienced life in seven states and 11 communities.

That first year we did campground maintenance and cleaning at Nails Creek. That included cleaning horse stalls and blowing off campsites, as well as mowing lawns.

We fell in love with rural Texas, county fairs, bluebonnets.

At Bryce, we split our work days between the Visitor Center Information Desk

and roving the trails in one of the most beautiful places on earth, often hiking 35 or more miles each week.

In 2006 we returned to Texas, to Ft. Parker State Park, where we operated the Nature Center on the weekends

And cleared a new hiking trail during the week.

We learned about poison ivy and Confederate Reunion Grounds and searched out John's family history. The following year we headed to Arkansas and Hot Springs National Park. I couldn't find any photos from that season. But we learned how to operate the bookstore and about "taking the baths." We really like Arkansas. Later that summer, we headed to Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah, not far from Bryce Canyon. It is another beautiful spot. There we did some trail repair

and picked up a lot of trash using this mule.

The following year, 2008, we headed to Oregon, first volunteering at Gnat Creek Hatchery. There we did some landscaping and I learned to operate a tractor.

and we helped some with caring for the fish.

Then we were off to the eastern part of Oregon and White River Wildlife Area. We cleared brush from a long-unused irrigation ditch, changing this

to this.

I learned how to use all sorts of equipment.

Oregon is another great state and we hope to spend more time there in the future. We have volunteered at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument three winters. The first year, we weren't prepared to lead tours so we helped with other tasks, like making award plaques.

Neither of us had ever been interested in early Native Americans, but we became really fascinated with the Big House and the people of the Hohokum culture that lived there. We studied, learned, and loved giving the tours.

We have also spent three summers at Lathrop State Park in Colorado. My main job was to operate the camp store.

John cleaned fire pits and last year he also removed invasive Russian Olive trees.

We had deer in our front yard, hiking, biking and trains nearby. One summer we volunteered at 7th Ranch RV Park in Montana. I worked on the front desk and John learned how to clean restrooms till they absolutely sparkled, mowed lawns, and worked on the sprinkler system. In Montana we learned about the battle of the Little Big Horn and the wheat harvest and Indians. This winter we are volunteering at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

We drive the tram

and give tours three days a week.

Here we have learned an incredible amount about the subtropical plants of the area and some early history. We are surrounded by nature and love all the birds here. This is our seventh year volunteering as RVers. They say it is important to keep your brain active to stave off Alzheimer's. This lifestyle certainly encourages us to do just that.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Search of the Illusive...

Bird or dragon fly or butterfly.

We bought a new fanny pack to use when hiking. That gave us an excuse to walk through the forest--as in the sub-tropical thorn forest at Santa Ana NWR. A rare bird has been heard and seen on the Chachalaca Trail, the Tropical Parula. Someone spotted it and posted it on the internet. Birders from all over are flocking here to see it, as it is rare here in the Valley and seen nowhere else in the United States. When we worked last weekend, one woman came into the Visitor Center and said she had heard it and searched for it for an hour, but never saw it. Two days later, she came in and said, "I saw it! Give me a high five." Later that day, others came in reporting seeing the rare bird.

Obviously, we had to look for it ourselves. We looked up what sound it makes: "zzzzzz-up" according to The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. We heard it; we searched and searched with our binoculars; we didn't see it. Later we encountered several other birders--one couple who had seen it. Most had not.

Small warblers that hang out in the tops of trees, especially those that are rare in the Rio Grande Valley, are not easy to find. We did see lots of butterflies (Santa Ana has 251 species). And we saw lots of dragon flies (Santa Ana has 91 species of those). John took a photo of this Queen (I think) butterfly.

I spotted this Phaon Crescent (I think).

It is almost as difficult to take pictures of dragon flies as it is to find small warblers in the tree tops. None are worth sharing.

We climbed one of the viewing towers and saw this Western Kingbird.

We are really enjoying being so close to nature here at Santa Ana. We hear birds singing when we wake up in the morning, all day, in the evening, and even at night (the Common Paraque sings or talks then). Today, during our walk, we saw butterflies everywhere--white, sulfur, orange, brown. They are as small as 0.5 inches, up to maybe 1.75 inches. Beautiful. We saw lots of dragon flies. We heard birds everywhere. It was a great walk.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

And Now There Are Two

The photos get even better. This afternoon John and I went for a walk on the levee and this time there were two Crested Carcaras on the dead tree! Aren't they magnificent?

If you haven't read my earlier post from today, do so to learn why I am so excited.

A Good Purchase

Last August we drove to Denver to attend John's 50th high school reunion. When we arrived at our son's house, we realized that our small Nikon point-and-shoot camera was dead. I don't mean the battery, I mean the camera. We went to a nearby Target, where we purchased a Nikon CoolPix 4100. The salesman said it was very slow to record images, but we weren't too concerned. The camera that had died was a CoolPix and we had been fairly happy with it.

The next night, we attended the reunion dinner. Since I had not had time to read the camera manual, the photos taken were less than satisfactory, to say the least. I hadn't figured out where the point of focus was. Since then, we have found more and more things we didn't like about that camera: it doesn't do well in low light, it didn't take good close-up pictures, most photos aren't quite in focus.

Last week we checked out a small Canon PowerShot SX 260 HS at Best Buy. So far we love it! We have spent several days practicing with it. The photos of birds at the Santa Ana feeding station, which doesn't get a lot of light, especially on cloudy days, have come out very good. A close-up of a flower is really good. And today I took a picture of a bird high in a tree as I walked down the levee. It is excellent.

See if you agree.


Great-tailed Grackle

Red-winged Blackbird

Small flower

Praying Mantis

And best of all, the Crested Caracara

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cold Front

For the past few mornings, it has been 76 degrees when we wake up in the morning. Yesterday the temperature was into the low 90s in the afternoon. And the humidity is high--the weather forecast says "muggy." Last night the TV news weather warned of a strong cold front coming in. That, combined with the hot, muggy air, would produce thunderstorms.

We know that the central part of the U.S. has experienced horrible weather, with over a hundred tornadoes during the past couple of days. So, it sounds like we should take this local weather report seriously.

With a strong cold front coming through, we wondered if we should dig out our long johns, or at least put the heavier comforter on the bed. What do you think? After all, the morning low tomorrow is supposed to be 72.

As I write this, at 7:50 pm Central time, the temperature is 74, the humidity 87%. (Yes, we did get a short, hard rain. That was all.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ordinary Days and Good Food

The last couple of days have been devoted to ordinary things. Yesterday we took the RV to Camping World to have the bearings packed and brakes checked.

We had no trouble getting an appointment--all the Winter Texans have flown north and Camping World was almost deserted. They said it would take two to two and a half hours and the work was done in exactly two hours. How good is that?

Today I had my teeth cleaned. Advice for people living on the road: when you get dental x-rays, get digital or film copies and carry them with you. It was impossible to get my teeth cleaned here without having x-rays taken or showing them a copy of the ones done in November. I told the dentist today it was easier to get medical care than to get my teeth cleaned. (Glad I had the previous dentist's office email the digital copies to me.)

After all this mundane focus, we were out to lunch at the 492 BBQ in Palmview.

It is located in a building that was first a house.

We really enjoyed the chopped brisket sandwich, slaw and fries. The sandwich roll was huge and the BBQ brisket good.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reflectiions on South Padre Island

We had a good time during our visit to the Gulf Coast last week. We enjoyed the Brownsville zoo, birding on the island and running on the beach. We had a good seafood dinner at Dirty Al's and a good salad at Ben and Jerry's. I really felt it was a must to visit the coast and see South Padre while we are in the Rio Grande Valley. It was fun.

However, we don't enjoy staying in motels--and this is the second time we have done that in a month. The Island Inn was OK, and the price was right. Our room had two queen beds, but only one chair. One of us had sit on the bed to read or watch TV. I can't imagine staying there with a party of four. The "continental breakfast" consisted of coffee, orange juice, and miniature donuts. We much prefer traveling in our RV and being home every night, no matter where we are.

Shopping on the island offers boogie boards, swim suits and cheap souvenirs. And there are lots and lots of inexpensive restaurants and almost as many liquor stores.

The main draws seem to be the beach, birding and drinking. It is a place aimed at families and at the surfing crowd. We are glad we went. But once was enough.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Turtle Hospital

During our time on South Padre Island, we visited the hospital for injured sea turtles.

This facility nurses injured sea turtles and attempts to return them to the wild. If that is not possible, they provide a tank for them to live in. To learn more about Sea Turtle Inc, click here.

We watched staff and/or volunteers remove this turtle from its tank. If you look closely, you can see the prostheses the turtle wears two hours a day, learning to swim with it replacing a missing flipper.

After removing the prostheses, the turtle is transported back to its tank.

This is the walkway leading to the turtle hospital.

Here is a similar turtle (or the same one), swimming in its tank.

There were a number of children there when we visited. They really enjoyed the tanks where they could see all sides of the turtle.

We were amazed at how many turtles are injured at sea, often by debris in the water or fishing nets.

The next morning, before leaving the island, we went out for our run. We saw the sun rising through these palm trees.

And over the water. These two photos show the same sun from essentially the same viewpoint, ll minutes apart. I just changed the camera settings.

On our first trip to the beach a day earlier, we saw this line of some kind of ducks fly over. Amazing.