A rare South American bird called a fork-tailed flycatcher took up residence for 15 days at The Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve here in late March, drawing more than 200 birdwatchers from throughout the country to the 1,000-acre nature preserve. The species has been officially sighted in Texas fewer than 20 times since 1879, based on bird records from the Texas Ornithological Society.
Located along the Rio Grande at the southernmost tip of Texas, the Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve protects unique native habitat for a host of rare resident and migrant birds, as well as endangered ocelots and jaguarundis.
Among the Rio Grande Valley’s most important protected natural areas, the preserve is at risk of being forced to close by the Department of Homeland Security’s planned construction of a 16- to 18-foot concrete wall north of the Mexican border and the Rio Grande.
The fork-tailed flycatcher seen at Southmost is a southern subspecies (Tyrannus savana) that breeds in the temperate latitudes of South America and typically migrates northward toward the Amazon basin for the winter (which is summer in the Northern Hemisphere). During the course of its northward migration, this fork-tailed flycatcher strayed at least 1,700 miles further northwest than it was supposed to be, according to bird experts. It should not be confused with a scissor-tailed flycatcher, a bird commonly seen throughout Texas in spring and summer.
A graceful, slender bird with white underparts, gray back, a black cap and a very long forked tail (up to 10.5 inches for males), this fork-tailed flycatcher was first spotted on March 16, by ornithologist Chris Butler, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, while he was visiting the preserve last month.
“At first I thought maybe it was a mockingbird with something wrapped around its tail,” Butler said. “Then I got the binoculars on it and immediately recognized it was a fork-tailed flycatcher. I had never seen one before.” As part of his research, Dr. Butler has studied birds extensively in the Rio Grande Valley and in various other locations in the United States and in Great Britain.
Preserve manager Max Pons, a wildlife biologist, was in the vicinity and also recognized the bird, having previously seen the species in Central America. Understanding how unusual it was to see such a bird in Texas, Pons photographed it, knowing that plenty of evidence would be required to positively identify such a rare bird.
“Having this very unusual bird appear at Southmost Preserve underscores why this place is special,” Pons said. “We have one of only two remaining sabal palm forests in the United States, along with native Tamaulipan thornscrub and resacas, or oxbow lakes – all providing habitat that is critical to wildlife. We also have demonstrations in compatible agriculture taking place here, which help us provide water for the palm forests and the resacas.
“If a wall is built north of the Mexican border as we’ve been hearing, it will make this very unique ecosystem unavailable to researchers and for educational programs, and I don’t see how we’ll be able to carry out proper stewardship of the land to keep the habitat intact.”
The Nature Conservancy’s position on the proposed Mexico border wall can be viewed on the Web.
Word of the bird’s appearance at Southmost spread among ornithologists and serious birders via the Internet as it remained on the nature preserve for several days. Pons received requests to visit the preserve, which is not open to the public, from bird enthusiasts. The bird has not been seen since March 30 and is believed to have flown elsewhere.
Known for its rich and unusual wildlife, the Rio Grande Valley is a destination for birders and nature photographers from around the world who arrive in huge numbers in winter and spring hoping for a rare sighting such as this one. The Nature Conservancy’s list of guests viewing the fork-tailed flycatcher includes visitors from across Texas, plus Louisiana, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Oregon, Colorado, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada, among other places.
In addition to providing habitat for native animals and birds, The Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve is the site of the South Texas Native Plant Nursery, where plants representative of the region are grown and distributed for reforestation projects throughout the Rio Grande Valley. It also serves as a demonstration site for agricultural practices that are compatible with wildlife conservation, including organic citrus groves and sustainable row crops.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.