Volunteers turn former dumpsite into South Texas birding oasis.
By Karen Hastings
Colorful native plantings, tons of mulch and hours of volunteer sweat equity are transforming a former Harlingen dump site into a riparian birding oasis.
Bounded by the Arroyo Colorado on the city’s east side, 55-acre Hugh Ramsey Nature Park is part of the World Birding Center system. Olive sparrow and curve-billed thrasher are reliably found here, along with a rare clay-colored robin and northern beardless tyrannulet. Trails come with benches, bird blinds and viewing platforms for the binoculars-and-field-guide crowd.
Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society members have adopted what was once a city eyesore, vanquishing the invasive guinea grass choking the site and replacing it with flowering butterfly and cactus gardens. An arboretum trail of native trees like Texas persimmon, wild olive and ebony is in the works as well, and the group is making plans for a wildflower meadow as well.
Members of the local Texas Master Naturalists also have invested countless hours at the park, in a harmonious collaboration with city park crews. To hold down costs, the group rescued many native under-story specimens from local sites slated for development.
“Our goal is to make this the most botanically diverse urban area in the Valley,” says Mark Conway, a volunteer organizer. “We’re setting an example for towns all over South Texas.”
Thanks to a $500,000 matching grant from TPWD, Harlingen has recently added several shallow ponds and a gravity-fed, rock-lined brook near the entrance to Hugh Ramsey. Herons and black-bellied whistling-duck love the re-circulating water, just as green kingfishers prefer muddy cliffs above the fast-flowing arroyo.
Recent improvements also include upgraded bathrooms, a pavilion for group gatherings, an open-air amphitheater and several wheelchair-accessible crushed granite trails, neatly lined with chunks of deadfall and old palm-tree sections.
Volunteer Diane Ballesteros, who has been shoveling mulch and fighting guinea grass at the park for nearly six years, says she has noticed an increase in green jays, chachalacas and other critters at Hugh Ramsey. Park workers have spotted bobcats along with rabbits, armadillos and indigo snakes.
Also humans: “We see so many more families walking through the park now,” says Ballesteros. “Many stop and say they have been there before and they notice how much it has changed.”
Harlingen Public Services Director Jeff Lyssy says the volunteers have taken a monotonous, weedy patch and turned it into a community asset.
“When they first met with me, they asked ‘What can we do?’” recalls Lyssy. “I answered, ‘What can’t you do?’ We’ve given them a lot of leeway and they’ve run with it — thousands of hours of labor in there, and resources as well. They’ve only enhanced the park.”
Conway calls Hugh Ramsey an example of how ordinary people can make a difference in restoring degraded areas to vibrant native habitat. “If we’re going to do anything for the environment, people are going to have to take places like this and restore them.”
Harlingen’s Hugh Ramsey Nature Park is south of Valley International Airport on Ed Carey Drive, Loop 499, near the intersection with E. Harrison Avenue, FM 106.