Exile in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

When visiting the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV), we often get a room in an extended stay facility rather than camp, for a break, and also because the cost is about the same, and air conditioning is nice given the high humidity and temperatures in the region. We stayed in Woodspring Suites in Pharr, which is centrally located, within an hour and a half drive of the most far-flung areas we normally visit, and 25 minutes or less from a number of excellent locations.

Anredera vesicaria, Resaca de la Palma SP, TX
Above: Anredera vesicaria, Resaca de la Palma SP, TX

By the time we reached the LRGV on Nov. 2, El Paso was in the national news as the worst spot in the country for COVID-19, with hospitals full, field hospitals set up, multiple mobile morgues brought in, and patients being airlifted to other cities. After studying the statistics for a few days and doing some research, we decided that we should not return to El Paso in November as planned, but should instead spend the first few months of winter in the Southeast. So our two weeks in the LRGV became four weeks, as we tried to do many of the things we would normally have done in El Paso. One advantage of being in the LRGV was that the mask usage was much higher than anywhere else we have been; they are used by everyone indoors, and the vast majority of people outdoors. This situation results from the area having been hit by COVID-19 very badly in late summer. I even decided I could risk getting my first haircut since February!

Band-celled Sister, National Butterfly Center, Mission, TX
Above: Band-celled Sister, National Butterfly Center, Mission, TX

Top priorities were arranging for prescription medications for the coming year (as doctors typically can only prescribe medications in their home state); getting flu shots; signing up for health insurance in 2021; having the truck inspected; and sending in our glasses for lens replacement under warranty. We also ordered over 50 items from Amazon and other online stores, most upgrading or replacing broken and worn-out equipment. This included ordering copies of books we will need for the Southeast, and already own, but cannot reach in storage in El Paso. A mobile RV service installed a new antenna for our cell signal booster, which should significantly improve our ability to use weak signals in more remote camping areas. While replacing canoe rigging, we figured out how to move a bracket to allow access to the bow and stern tie-downs, without using a ladder – this will significantly simplify the procedure for getting the canoe on and off the roof.

Green Jay, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, TX
Above: Green Jay, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, TX

Several days were devoted to ordering a new truck, a rather complex process given our requirements for gross vehicular weight rating, etc. One of the largest uncertainties in our retirement budget plan was how long our trucks would last. Many trucks break 200,000 miles, but I think the expected lifetime is a lot less when the truck is fully loaded to its weight rating 100% of the time. We also have to minimize the chances of a terminal breakdown while far from home. It takes months to order a new truck, and there are few upfitters in the country who can transfer the camper to a new truck. I had hoped we could get 5 years, but we had enough issues on the road this year that I felt more comfortable buying a new one now, after 4 years and about 100,000 miles. The truck is scheduled to be built in late January, but as anyone who read our early blog posts knows, this is only a lower bound.

Julia Heliconian, National Butterfly Center, Mission, TX
Above: Julia Heliconian, National Butterfly Center, Mission, TX

Another time-consuming chore was replacing both of our phones and getting all our specialized files loaded and apps running. The software I wrote, for managing our database of tens of thousands of natural history records, was broken going from Android 9 to 10, so that needed to be fixed as well. All these activities, and a number of others, ended up consuming over two weeks. Under normal circumstances, while wintering in El Paso, they would have been spread out over a couple of months.

Cardinal, Salineno, TX
Above: Cardinal, Salineno, TX

We did spend ten days in the field in the LRGV, spread out across our stay. Our first destination was Resaca de la Palma State Park (SP), a nice site we had not visited before. Our target here was Anredera vesicaria (Madeira Vine), the only species of family Basellaceae occurring in the U.S. This attractive vine is frequently planted in gardens, so we needed to see it in pristine native habitat where its occurrence was clearly natural. An iNaturalist record took us right to a site where a cluster of vines grew over a few square yards of shrubs! The plants were both flowering and fruiting, a bonus. Interestingly, we looked carefully elsewhere in the park and did not find another single Anredera plant.

Great Purple Hairstreak, Falcon SP, TX
Above: Great Purple Hairstreak, Falcon SP, TX

This species was also noted from the Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville, though we could not find it there at the coordinates listed. But later, in a different part of the sanctuary, we found a spectacular cluster of vines covering at least six square yards and climbing up into some short trees! Again, despite extensive searching, we did not find any other plants. Both plant colonies we saw were in small sunny openings in otherwise shaded ebony forests; perhaps they are somewhat restricted to this scarce microhabitat.

White-patched Skipper, Falcon SP, TX
Above: White-patched Skipper, Falcon SP, TX

We spent four days at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, TX, with Nov. 17 being especially memorable, as we saw four species of heliconians that day. These long-winged butterflies are among the prettiest of the subtropical groups. Two of the four species were rarities: Isabella’s Heliconian and Erato Heliconian. Other rare butterflies we saw here included Red Rim and Green-backed Ruby-eye. Our best bird here was Tropical Parula, seen twice, a scarce wintering species. Another good site for butterflies was Falcon SP, where they have a garden they kept watered through the drought that has been afflicting the LRGV. Other places we visited included Estero Llano Grande SP, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley SP, and Salineno, where the bird feeding operation was in full swing. In total we saw 23 new species in 10 days: 16 butterflies, 6 plants, and a dragonfly. Although we’ve visited the LRGV seven times (four since retirement), we still have a lot to learn about this slice of the subtropics!

Fiery Skipper, National Butterfly Center, Mission, TX
Above: Fiery Skipper, about half an inch long, National Butterfly Center, Mission, TX

4 thoughts on “Exile in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

  1. We were wondering how El Paso would fit into your plans this winter… so glad you have found an alternative. Look forward to what your next rig will be!! Know all the research has been done and you will find the one that works optimally for you.

    Bob has surgery, hopefully, this next Thursday – it’s been postponed twice, so fingers crossed! And then if he recovery goes as planned, we’ll be able to track down the sun come January. Not much is certain right now, as you well know.

    Take care, dear friends, and stay well and safe. Love, Connee and Bob ________________________________

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    1. Thanks for your note, Connee! Eileen and I hope that Bob’s surgery finally happens and goes well, with a speedy recovery.

      We’ve shifted our Brazil trip with Bret back a year to January, 2021, after having a nice phone conversation with him. Next up is Bhutan in April — but no idea if that one will go. I wonder what the chances will be of our getting vaccinated before then?

      Take care, Brian

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  2. Can you add me to the distribution list? My sister Martha Sleutel has forwarded one of your letters and I really enjoyed it. I am looking forward to a year of American adventures as soon as we sell our house.

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