Imagine the magnificent sight of seeing millions of birds flying overhead, covering the sky as far as one can see. This is a common sight in springtime in south Texas, along the border with Mexico, as birds head north in springtime on their return migration from warmer winter climates, or on their journey south in fall to escape harsh winter weather.
The migration route of many birds in North American aims toward the narrow funnel of land connecting North and South America, before spreading out again in all directions in South America, and is the reason that birdwatching is so spectacular in this part of the United States. Many nature lovers flock to the Rio Grande Valley during migration times, for an up-close look at one of the world’s most amazing natural events.
One recent development in the area is the World Birding Center, a unique idea which involved creating a string of nine birdwatching sites, which encompass 10,000 acres along 120 miles of the border. Each site interprets a different ecological habitat. These nine sites may have viewing stations, watching towers or boardwalks, to help people better observe and identify the 500 species of birds that have been recorded in the Rio Grande Valley.
The center at the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park serves as the headquarters for the entire World Birding Center complex. This 760-acre park, and the 1,700 acres of adjoining federal refuge, includes woodlands that once were abundant in the area. Four nature trails and a daily tram service lead into the woodlands, where among the many bird species present visitors may spot the noisy, talkative and large Chachalaca, or the smaller, but almost as noisy Green Jay, with its colorful blue head, green wings and black face. Owl prowls, offered at night, to find the Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, and hawk watches, to see the Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks, are just a couple of the many interpretive programs offered.
The center at Edinburg interprets wetland habitat, with small ponds and lagoons, surrounded by native plantings. Birds that can be seen here include 13 species of ducks, and the Green Kingfisher, with a white ring around the neck, contrasting with his green body. In addition to birds, the area is popular with 300 species of butterflies, which also migrate through the area, and with dragonflies. Boardwalks over several ponds help visitors to get an up-close opportunity to view several species of iridescent dragonflies, popular with kids. Each spring the area holds a dragonfly festival, which draws many people to the area to look at these unusual winged creatures.
At McAllen, Quinta Mazatlan is one of the largest adobe homes built in Texas. This 1930’s hacienda, with trails winding through 15 acres of surrounding tropical and native woodland vegetation, serves as an oasis in the middle of an urban area. Visitors may get a chance to see Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, or Olive Sparrows, among others at this birding center site.
South Padre Island, the world’s longest barrier island, provides a critical resting stop for birds that make the non-stop journey across the Gulf waters. Fifty acres of salt marsh and inter-tidal flats, along with several thickets, make up this birding center, as well as interpretive panels, bird blinds, native plantings, and a long boardwalk out to the flats. Birdwatchers will find a dazzling diversity of bird species, everything from warblers, thrushes, orioles and tanagers, to waterfowl such as the Brown Pelican, and shorebirds such as the Piping Plover.
Other sites of the World Birding Center include the Old Pumphouse, in Hidalgo, which in earlier years pumped millions of gallons of water for agricultural purposes. This birding site focuses on hummingbirds, while the Estero Llano Grande State Park birding site in Weslaco focuses on wetland habitat. Trails in the Harlingen Arroyo Colorado birding site wind lead through woodland habitat, and the Resaca de Palma State Park’s semi-tropical wooded area provides additional habitat. Last in the string of birding center sites is Roma Bluffs, which offers the dry, wooded upland habitat preferred by some bird species.
In addition to these World Birding Center sites, the south Texas area includes six national wildlife refuges, including the Santa Ana, which is considered one of the top ten birding spots in the country. A number of private nature sanctuaries, as well as other state, county and state lands add to the abundant choices of places for visitors to watch birds.
In keeping with the wildlife theme, visitors can stay at one of almost a dozen “bird and breakfast” inns in the area, such as the Alamo Inn, Vieh’s B & B, or the Inn at El Canelo. These inns may provide maps of great birding spots, arrange guides, give suggestions on good birding spots, and some even have good birdwatching habitat on their property.
For a nature vacation full of feathered fun, wing on down to south Texas.
Nature and World Birding Center photos available from:
Maritza Y. Munoz
Sylvia Forbes is a freelance travel and nature writer.