Chapter 1.  Getting started at the Texas border

© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2009 All rights reserved.

Day minus 14 and counting – January 1 – Mustang Island, TX

(Bert) Starting a New Year is exciting because I can start my Year List all over again, and what better place to do it than the Texas coast. By early October I had reached 862 North America species in 2008 when I put away my binoculars and secluded myself to my RV to finally finish writing my book on Belize birding. I reappeared briefly to give a presentation at the Rio Brazos Audubon Society and surprisingly added number 863 – a Red-shouldered Hawk – to the year list while driving to the meeting place.

So not until early this morning did I reappear with binoculars strapped about my neck, prepared to walk the Mustang Island beach and start my list anew. I laughed to myself at 2009 bird #1, a Laughing Gull. But it was species #6 that really got my attention.

This bird I know personally as P545, a color-banded Piping Plover, named for its territory between tenth-mile posts 54 and 55. I first discovered P545 on 12 November 2004 and have visited him subsequent winters and springs, always not more than 50 ft. within his little piece of sandlot. P545 was born in the spring of 2003 at Big Quill Lake in Saskatchewan.

I made my way along the beach, finding more birds for my list, and came upon another dear friend, Piping Plover P46, who religiously stays near post 46. I found this banded plover even earlier than P545 and this one also hatched in 2003 in Saskatchewan, but at Dryboro Lake, Missouri Coteau, in the southern part of the Canadian province. As with P545, I’ve watched P46 dozens of days since 2004 and now again in 2009. When I retraced my steps in the sand, P545 was no longer feeding near the tide water, but had found a resting place high on the beach between the furrows of tire ruts from the streams of cars and trucks that parade up and down the Texas beaches. I hope he makes it to his sixth birthday party in Saskatchewan this spring.

Day minus 2 and counting – January 11 – Pharr, TX

(Bert) When we pull into the rendezvous campground in Pharr, we are greeted by Bob and Ellie, retired Wagonmasters after 20+ trips, and now living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Significant to us is that they were the couple that introduced us to caravans and encouraged us to be Tailgunners for our first birding caravan in 2000 on the west coast of Mexico. Now we are about to depart for our 17th caravan.

Last year’s adventures were the most ambitious of all, having traveled by RV from Texas through Mexico and Central America to Costa Rica, returning via the Pacific side including El Salvador and from Texas heading to British Columbia, via Wisconsin, and then leading a caravan through Alaska and the Yukon and Northwest Territories, returning through the Rockies with a one-month stay in Colorado and then Texas since October: 19,995 miles by RV in 2008. It took me awhile, but all the journals are now on the web site, including hundreds of photos.

Day minus 1 and counting – January 12 – Pharr, TX

(Bert) Almost all of this year’s caravaners are already here. I’m particularly happy to see the two couples who escaped snow storms in Washington and Oregon, so deep and unplowed that it threatened to keep them trapped without enough time to cross the U.S. to meet us. Most of the group is new to our trips. They’ve been reading our past journals so they know the type of adventures in store for them; I hope they are prepared. Two couples have been with us before: Jim and Betty who were on one of our Manitoba caravans and Tom and Charlu who have accompanied us on several south-of-the-border trips, including last year’s trip to Costa Rica. We’ve seen our Tailgunners Larry and Marlene almost every year, either on caravans with us or at company training sessions we attended together. Tomorrow we visit the Mexico border for vehicle permits and personal visas.

Day 0 and counting – January 13 – Pharr, TX

(Bert) What is it about border procedures that make them so time consuming? The reason is rarely reproducible. Our whole group gathers at 1 PM to head to the Hidalgo facility, the largest and most modern along this stretch of Mexico border. To avoid passing twice through the border with vehicles, we park on the U.S. side and walk across. The first few steps click like clockwork, getting the immigration document, filling it out and getting documents photocopied. We take numbered tickets and wait on comfortable chairs facing the eight windowed lines, although behind the darkened windows only about five are manned. Shari has the first number following the half dozen that were ahead of us and her number shows up on the electric display for Caja 7. The rest of us wait and chat in a jovial mood, but after about a half hour some start asking me if it always takes this long, since Shari is still in line and no one else’s number has been called.

After Shari has been in line an hour we notice that the border clerks are not at their desks, are idly taking and occasionally glancing at their computer screens. A Mexican man who seems to be in charge comes out to tell us the computers have stopped, he doesn’t know when they will work again and suggests we go to the Pharr border facility. With no good alternative, that is what we do, arriving there about an hour later. Much has changed here since last year: finished parking lot, new buildings, old ones torn down. Unlike the three processing buildings of previous years, now it is all in one. Only two clerks man the four windows and our group soon swamps their workload. The snail’s pace almost comes to a complete halt when Paul and Pat discover the clerk has reversed the VIN numbers on the two documents for truck and trailer. Paul draws a diagram to detail the problem, as a Spanish explanation seems too complex. The clerk sees the problem but does not know how to undo the mistake and has to hand it over to the other clerk. Hours go by as the two clerks continue processing our paperwork. We carpooled here and as four or five finish, they head back to camp. Larry and Marlene are last of our group in line, followed by a family from Idaho that we learn are traveling on bicycles. In fact they flew to Alaska and started their ride in that state and have now reached the Mexico border. The four of them plan to ride all the way to the southern tip of South America, about a 3 year ride. It is not until 8 PM that Larry, Marlene and I get back to the campground. Seven hours for border procedures; I think that is a record long time for us at the U.S.-Mexico border. I am glad we didn’t wait until the morning we leave the U.S. to get this done.

(Shari) One of the reasons people go on a caravan is to get the expertise of the wagonmasters and the security of a tailgunner. After conducting 16 caravans over a period of 9 years and attending 3 lengthy training classes, we must be very experienced in that regard. In addition, we have experience crossing borders and have done the Mexico/Pharr/McAllen border 10 times. So, I think this time the crossing and paperwork will be a piece of cake and we should be done within 3 hours and have time to go out to eat.

We take the group to the Hidalgo border since last year we found it to work very smoothly. At 1 PM, we carpool to the border, park our cars on the U.S. side and walk across the short bridge to Mexican immigration. We chose to do it this way to avoid the lines at customs reentering the U.S. However, what I did not anticipate is a computer crash just as I start the process of getting my vehicle hologram. After half an hour we notice that not only my line is not moving but neither is anyone else’s. After an hour, a border official suggests that we go to the Pharr border. Unfortunately, I am in mid process and the Mexicans have my driver’s license, passport, and credit card. I must wait but the rest can go along. Just as the group departs the building, the computer perks up briefly and I get my papers.

We join the rest at the parking lot to make our way to Pharr. Here we easily find the right building and begin the process. First we get a little “X” on our visa and a blank filled with 180, indicating a half year permit. We take this and a copy to another booth and wait for our completed visas and vehicle importation permits. Those that only have visas to complete are processed quickly and they can then take their completed visas back to the first booth to get stamped “paid”. The vehicle importation is another story. They take forever and the process is compounded by mistakes. I tell everyone to check their VIN numbers and sure enough the paperwork of the first vehicle processed is wrong. Back in line to get it corrected. After much discussion and a picture drawn on a folder of a car and a trailer, the clerk understands the problem and begins the tedious process of reversing the entries and reissuing the papers. The last person finally reaches camp at 8 PM and full 7 hours from the time we left. It has to have set a record for the longest entry into Mexico that we have experienced. Aside, though, the group is wonderful and takes the situation with grace. Much joking goes on, we bond and have tasted our first experience in another country. I think this group has the makings for being my favorite, but the jury is still out. It will be hard to beat my 2006 Alaska group. We will see.

Day 1 – January 14 – Pharr

(Shari) At 1 AM this morning, I realize I had not yet gone to the bank to get cash. I need it to exchange dollars for pesos this morning. My new I-phone is wonderful. While Bert sleeps, I use AT&T’s 3G network to Google Wells Fargo, I find out that the drive through opens at 7:30. I will be able to get there and back before our 8:00 meeting. After helping Bert unload the car of breakfast snacks and orientation materials, I head for the bank, abandoning Bert and Larry to set up tables and chairs by themselves.

(Bert) We’ve combined our orientation meeting into one long session, starting this morning at 8 AM. I like the first part of these meetings because we ask each person to tell us their expectations of the trip. Fortunately no one says they have no expectations, a sure sign they could be disappointed. Instead, it is not surprising that birds and birding is mentioned by most and in a variety of ways: Jane asks for colorful birds, Heather wants lots of birds, Ken wants a quetzal (an expectation that is unlikely to be met on this itinerary), Janice wants to learn birding, Tom wants to relearn birds he first saw on our 2005 trip, Jim wants nice birds, Gordon wants curassows, owls and turkeys. Pat declares she is a dedicated non-birding spouse; we have a favorite designation for these people (S.O.B., spouse of birder) and these are dear to Shari. Seeing Maya ruins is an oft mentioned expectation (we’ll see many), visiting Guanajuato comes up twice (coming in early in our itinerary), Dee declares she is not a birder but wants to see Mexico and an oropendola, Maxine wants to see a jaguar. Paul and Mike want to take photographs and Bob emphasizes he wants “National Geographic quality” photos.

(Shari) I return in time for the start of the meeting and little by little Bert and I impart our wealth of knowledge. Alternating between us, we talk for four hours with two breaks. As I empty my basket of knowledge, I begin to feel exhausted. I only wonder how overwhelmed the group must feel. We talk about money, food, safety, travel procedures, and birding styles. At 9:30 the money exchangers have not arrived as promised and as Bert discusses travel issues, I give them a phone call. They tell me they will be here at 10:30. We plow on: CB usage, RV parks, road conditions. Finally we hand out bird checklists and travel logs adjourning 10 minutes before noon. After a quick lunch, I proceed to the store and finish last minute shopping. Then it is a load of wash and a shower before our 5 PM social hour. I love it: just about everybody else is ready to relax also and join us for snacks and talk. A quick supper and an early bedtime complete the day.

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