"Oh, yes," she said. "The good guys shoot tracer bullets."
She was a snowbird from Michigan spending winters with her husband in a trailer about 200 feet north of the Rio Grande in Texas. I was there with birding friends to see the brown jays and Altamira orioles that came to their feeders.
I had asked about the sandy river landing just down their rough road, the sand covered with tracks: "Were drug smugglers ever a problem?"
"There are frequent firefights," she told me, explaining how you could tell who was who.
Border excitement aside, Texas offers some of the best birding opportunities in the country. Good birding sites are scattered along the river. The fringe of vegetation there is semitropical. You can find U.S. bird species there that breed nowhere else. There is also the chance of unusual birds straying across the river.
Texas also is simply an interesting place. I've been there several times, most often with my friend Mike Mulligan, a former Minnesotan now living in Calgary.
Three years ago, he and I and some of his Canadian friends took a killer 10-day tour of Texas. One evening, we watched perhaps 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats exit a cave at dusk near San Antonio. They flew over our heads, wings gently stirring the air. (We did not count the bats. Wikipedia says 20 million.)
Some encounters with nature were less uplifting. While chasing a chuck-wills-widow (related to our whip-poor-will) in a wooded garden, hoping for a photo, I stepped over a log, slipped, and did the splits, a new experience for me. I ripped a hamstring tendon from its hip-point anchor. Oh, Lord, it hurt. I limped away. We bought some ice, and carried on. There was another bird to look for. There always is.
Years earlier in Texas I was offered the opportunity to stand beside a Hispanic chef while he made his signature bean soup. Compliments earned me the invitation. Just be at the restaurant at 6 a.m. Mike could not fathom why someone would give up two prime morning birding hours to learn a soup recipe. We went birding.
As you bird along the river in Texas in recent years and today, the white SUVs driven by the Border Patrol are ubiquitous. The agents pretty much understand birders, although I have a friend who recently was confronted. She stepped from her car at a border crossing point to photograph a roadrunner. An agent immediately stepped up to demand her camera. She talked fast to keep it.
I photographed agents on the river during that recent trip with Mike. I did not make it obvious. Four agents roared upstream in an airboat, certainly a show of force, not a raid, not in an airboat. The agents wore military-style clothing, carried handguns, and had assault rifles in racks beside them. It was impressive.
One of the very helpful tourist agencies in the Rio Grande Valley told me recently that birding visits go on as usual. Tour groups are popular, and birding with companions is a good idea. People illegally crossing the river are sometimes seen but rarely encountered.
Use common sense, she said — always a good idea.
As of mid-November, birds worth a look along the river included Amazon kingfisher, Northern jacana, rose-throated becard, and crimson-collared grosbeak. Pretty good birds.
Read Jim Williams' birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.