ALAMO, Texas (Border Report) — A “boldly colored” bat falcon that crossed the border into deep South Texas — the first of its kind ever spotted in the United States — is drawing birders from across the country, and even Europe, to try to catch a glimpse.
Retired school teacher Ray Sharpton, 77, earlier this week drove alone for 34 hours from upstate New York to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, where he has spent the past three days hoping to spot the bat falcon.
Birdwatchers first sighted the elusive 10-inch bird of prey near the refuge in late 2021 and news of it is spreading through the birding world on birding social media sites and eBird alert, the premier website for ornithological discoveries.
“I first heard about the bat falcon on eBird alert,” Sharpton told Border Report. “I’ve been watching it on the computer and finally one day I said, ‘I’m going!’”
He left his home at 3 a.m. on Monday, much to the chagrin of his adult daughter, and drove non-stop in his well-worn 2009 Honda Accord, which has over 212,000 miles, most of it put on birding across the country including Alaska.
Sharpton cat-napped at rest stops and used the trunk as a “kitchen.” Aside from sore legs, he arrived safely at the wildlife refuge Tuesday but is now dealing with foot blisters from so much walking trying to spot the bird.
So far he has had no luck.
Before sunup on Thursday, as temperatures dipped into the 40s — a rare cold snap for this subtropical region — Sharpton looked to the sky for any sight of the sole bat falcon that is drawing so many people to this part of the world.
With binoculars and spotting scope in hand, Sharpton waited patiently for nearly two hours before giving up for the morning.
Near him was David Schroder, 38, who flew in Wednesday from Charlotte, North Carolina, also hoping to see the bat falcon.
This is Schroder’s first visit to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and he takes these types of discoveries quite seriously. With a determined look on his face and binoculars pointed upward his head pivoted and jerked at the slightest aerial motion. He’d crane his neck and point, and he even ran up the highway when he thought he saw a potential candidate.
But, alas, the bat falcon wasn’t showing itself Thursday morning, and it wasn’t on the electric pole across the highway from the refuge’s entrance, where it had been spotting perching, visitors say.
Joe Barnett, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy refuge manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, said about 4,000 birders have flocked to the refuge since the first bat falcon sighting around Thanksgiving.
“Somebody even came from Europe, so it’s drawing a lot of attention. People coming just to see this bird,” Barnett said.
Barnett lives on the refuge and said one evening the bat falcon plopped in the tree above his backyard as he was sitting outside. He said he didn’t have his camera at the ready but he got a good look at him.
“It’s always awesome to see something you’re not expecting to see,” Barnett said.
Birders David Schroder, of North Carolina, top, and Ray Sharpton, of New York, met up Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, as both tried to spot the bat falcon outside the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
The bat falcon is indigenous to Central and South America. Its most northern sightings have been in the southern tip of Tamaulipas, Mexico, the border state across the Rio Grande.
But this particular bird crossed the river, and now he’s stirring up eco-tourism and the birding world.
Jeffrey Gordon, former president of the American Birding Association, traveled from Philadelphia a few days after Christmas and saw and photographed the bat falcon, he told Border Report. His family was on a holiday visiting relatives in Austin, and he said they made the seven-hour detour to South Texas in search of the bird.
Gordon believes the bird is male due to its bright coloring and slimmer size. Females tend to be bigger, he said.
But because few have ever seen this bird in the United States, many birders don’t really even know for what they’re looking.
Gordon says once you’ve seen this bird, you won’t forget it.
“It’s super distinctive boldly colored and easily recognized,” he said.
“It’s got everything going for it. It’s rare. It’s spectacular and it’s a bird of prey and it’s showing up in a great location,” Gordon said. “It’s the perfect storm in the birding world.”
It’s the perfect storm in the birding world.”
Jeffrey Gordon, former president of the American Birding Association
“I’m not surprised that it’s bringing in so many people,” he said.
Although Sharpton struck out Thursday morning, he said his impromptu trip to South Texas hasn’t been a total bust. On Wednesday afternoon he went to Brownsville, Texas, and spotted a social flycatcher, and another bird that was on his “bucket list.”
His goal this year is to spot hit 700th bird. He’s up to 697, and that includes a Steller’s sea eagle, a bird with an 8-foot wingspan normally found in Asia and Russia, that he spotted two weeks ago in Maine.
He hopes to see the bat falcon before he hits 700.
“After 700, I’m going to sit home and let them come to me,” he said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at email@example.com.