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Birding the Valley

Destination: Rio Grande Valley

Travel time from:
Austin – 15.5 hours
Dallas – 9 hours
Houston – 5.5 hours
San Antonio – 4.25 hours
Lubbock – 11 hours
El Paso – 12.25 hours

Bring binoculars — it’s the whirlwind world of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

By Tom Harvey

I am a fledgling birder, a neotropical neophyte. Yet I burn with a passion to see — down misty trails and through the bright holes of dark blinds — the fabulous spectacle and diversity of the bird world.

And not just any birding. Birding the Valley. It’s a time of critical mass, when hundreds of the world’s most ardent birders have flocked to fill their life lists with “Mexican specialties,” those birds seen only at the far southern tip of Texas. A time when vans full of scope-laden warriors wheel out before dawn to jungly thickets along the Rio Grande, each habitat harboring unique bird species.

We are headed to the 18th annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. A roller coaster ride of intensity surrounds this festival. Birding is often done with leisurely delight, but not here. This is the life-on-the-razor’s-edge world of festival birding, the hot rush of stacking up yet another rare find. We’re on a mission.

Birders with guide at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

A dozen white vans line the curb of the Harlingen convention center for the evening’s field trips. We pile in with about 60 birders and roar out for the fastest, most furious birding I’ve ever done.

Our quarry: flocks of parrots and parakeets that have taken roost in the Valley’s cities. Are they escaped pets or tropical migrants that wandered north? No one knows, but they’re here now, in growing numbers that can stop traffic and crane necks.

What ensues is a wild game of mobile phone reconnaissance, where festival vans cruise, looking for the flocks, sharing intel by text and call.

“There they are!” One of our eagle-eyed passengers relays a sighting to our young tour guide driver, and he whips the van around. We pull up behind Walmart, of all places, and the van disgorges its contents in a frenzy. We stagger out, swinging backpacks, cameras and scopes. Other vans wheel in, and eventually five dozen birders are eyeing green parakeets on the roof’s edge.

Walmart shoppers peer curiously at us, and we in turn point and whisper excitedly, trying not to spook the birds. Magnified by our binoculars, they are shockingly green.

After 20 minutes, it’s back into the vans. We spot two curlews foraging under a tree at a busy intersection. Only in the Valley, I think.

We crisscross suburban streets for a quarter-hour, everyone on edgy lookout. And then, again, yes! Birds, ho!

Word spreads quickly through the mobile ether, and again the vans converge. This time we’re in front of a big church. Across the street, lined up for two blocks on phone lines, are more than a hundred red-crowned parrots, chattering and preening. They’re bigger than the parakeets and even more striking.

We stand and chat and marvel. Finally, dusk pulls dimness over the scene, the vans reload, and we head back as night falls.

Our first night’s digs are at one of the oldest and finest birding B&Bs in the Valley, the Inn at Chachalaca Bend, where the grand metal entry gate swings open like a gateway to a private world of green shade. Innkeeper Jesse Breedlove puts my wife and me in the Great Kiskadee Room. On a corner wall are posters for past birding festivals more than a decade ago, a testament to the inn’s place in the birding community.

The Hidalgo Pumphouse.

Next morning, we’re up before the birds. We drive south toward Sabal Palm Sanctuary, the lightening dawn sky on our left and the sinking white moon on our right.

As we turn down the last bumpy road into the sanctuary, there it is: the border wall.

I had heard of it, written about it, seen photos and video of it, but seeing the wall in person is sobering. This section looks about 20 feet high, rusty red-brown steel columns running up to either side of the roadway. We drive through the gap, past a distinctive green and white Border Patrol vehicle. The lone agent in the truck waves us past, and we’re into Sabal Palm.

When the first Europeans came in the 1500s, an estimated 40,000 acres of sabal palm forest lined the Rio Grande delta. Today, the 557-acre Sabal Palm Sanctuary protects a small but ecologically vital remnant of the now-rare native palms.

We can see our breath in the chill morning mist. We tramp quietly through a marvelous maze of trails still muddy from yesterday’s rain, overgrown with bromeliad-laden palms and a riot of vegetation. And birds — some very cool birds.

“Ruby-crowned, seen, not heard,” a man behind us mutters into an audio recorder.

The bird sightings start to pile up. The ruby-crowned kinglet. An orange-crowned warbler. A plump little green bird nibbling new buds in a tree.

Eastern phoebe. Black-throated gray warbler. Around every turn, a new sighting. Some of the birds we see are rarely seen elsewhere in the U.S.

We arrive at a small resaca, or pond, that the sanctuary keeps filled with water, and we huddle into a covered viewing blind built out over the water. Hot light stabs in through viewing holes, and the sightings continue.

Mottled duck, which lives only in Gulf Coast states. Cute little least grebe. Our guide tells us grebes were uncommon here 30 years ago; now they’re everywhere.

The birders are riveted to the blind’s viewing portals, intensely focused. Some of them, like Pamela Clark from Oakland, Calif., have come a long way and paid a lot to be here.

Estero Llano Grande State Park.

On the way back from Sabal Palm, we pass the big international bridge and grab lunch in a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant in Brownsville. Pleasingly, the hubbub around us is almost entirely Spanish. Me encanta la frontera! (I love the border!)

Soon we’re driving into Resaca de la Palma, the Valley’s newest state park. This 1,200-acre site boasts the largest tract of native habitat in the World Birding Center network of nine locations along the Rio Grande corridor. The WBC includes two other state parks — Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley and Estero Llano Grande — plus local sites such as Arroyo Colorado, the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse and Roma Bluffs. All are fabulous birding locales.

Resaca rents mountain bikes or recumbent bicycles for $5-$12 per day, with storage carriers for binoculars and lunch. Many birders prefer the park’s quiet electric trams, with 45-minute free tour rides (included in the park’s $4 entrance fee).

You have to get out of your car to see this park. The paved, looping Tram Road is off-limits to private vehicles. This keeps the landscape quiet and the creatures wild, and the result is a wildlife-filled viewing experience. Branching out from the road are more than six miles of hiking trails.

Today our guides are park hosts Dick and Sherry Wilson, who hop onto recumbent bikes with us. In less than 10 minutes of pedaling, we reach a bridge and see the first water-filled resaca. Down the green, tree-lined corridor, the place is thick with great kiskadees. Water gurgles under our feet — the resacas had been dry for decades, ancient curves of the Rio Grande, but the park bought water rights, built pumps and began flooding them when it opened in 2008.

Sherry points out a spectacular blue metalmark, a tropical butterfly, and tells us they’re planting a butterfly and hummingbird garden, planning for a greener future, even though the region is gripped in drought.

Red-crowned parrots.

The next day I buy a coffee mug festooned with blue metalmarks at the National Butterfly Center near Mission, just two miles from Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

It’s no accident the North American Butterfly Association chose to place its flagship visitor facility here. The day we arrived, people saw 63 butterfly species at the National Butterfly Center. By the end of 2011, the site had recorded 210 different butterflies, all drawn to the lush native gardens.

Here, as at other spots across the Valley, conservation professionals and volunteers are slowly, painstakingly restoring native habitat, re­planting trees and brush, reclaiming pieces of the region’s natural heritage lost to agriculture, buildings and roads.

The green jewel of the 100-acre butterfly center is its shady garden area away from the road, backing up to a water-filled irrigation canal. That’s where the birds, butterflies and people gravitate, and the center is planning a $2 million garden expansion.

Up front stands a handsome new visitor building designed by architect Wendy Evans Joseph. She helped create the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the butterfly pavilion’s façade has a similar, iconic white stone look. Inside, its bright green walls bathe visitors and exhibits in tropical hues.

We leave the butterfly center as the sun sets and drive a few minutes north to crash at Indian Ridge B&B. This bird-friendly haven has 20 acres of habitat and gardens.

The last morning, we board the Riverside Dreamer tour boat for another Valley first — birding the Rio Grande by water. This big, steady boat turns out to be a delightfully pleasant and different way to bird the border.

Our guide is Jane Kittleman, a longtime birder and retired schoolteacher who’s not averse to new tricks. Kittleman has an iPad loaded with a bird identification app, and whenever we spot a new species, she whips it out and not only shows a color illustration, but also plays the bird’s call.

Again, the fabulous sightings pile up. A black phoebe. A big female ringed kingfisher. How ’bout a foot-long reptile? The boat drifts shoreward to show us a blue spiny lizard on a tree trunk — rarely seen in Texas, yet common in Mexico.

A spotted sandpiper flies by and dips his tail at us.


Birding by boat on the Rio Grande.


Along with its natural heritage, the Valley’s multilayered culture is equally rich. Both are on display at Quinta Mazatlan, the McAllen wing of the World Birding Center.

The adobe hacienda, built in 1935, sits amid 20 acres of lush tropical landscaping. It’s a classy place to bird, especially if you like sumptuous interiors and interesting history.

Three families helped create this urban oasis. Jason and Marcia Matthews built the original 3,325-square-foot cottage and hootch. Jason Matthews was a writer and magazine publisher, and when he wanted solitude, he’d shinny up a rope ladder into the hootch, pulling the ladder up behind him.

In 1968, Frank and Marilyn Schultz bought the place and began their seemingly endless restoration. Their tale highlights a seeming Valley contradiction: Frank Schultz was a citrus magnate, and he and the entire region profited from the rich groves that rolled over the landscape. Yet he loved and fought to preserve the native natural heritage, and is recognized for saving the forest around Quinta and adding tropical gardens.

The last “family” is the City of McAllen and by extension the citizen community, which bought the estate in 1998 and opened it as a WBC site in 2006.

The Quinta Mazatlan heritage grows. Thanks in part to a $375,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the site’s new Discovery Center opened on Earth Day in April. The 3,500-square-foot environmental education center has a science lab with microscopes and tools to host school groups.

Yet it’s not just a concrete footprint; it’s a naturescape. Workers removed invasive salt cedar, planted 40 different native species and created the 70-by-40-foot Ruby Pond to attract birds and wildlife. They brought in 20 big boulders for kids to climb on and created a “mesquite cookie trail,” using cut tree stumps to make raised “cookies” kids can jump along. It’s a playscape without the typical swings and slides, one that offers a chance for exploratory natural play outdoors.


Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.


The 19th annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival takes place Nov. 7-11, with complete information and registration online. It’s an exciting way to see the best of Valley birding, with many unique offerings you can’t get otherwise. But you can blaze your own path, on your own time, in this one-of-a-kind Texas region where nations meet and cultures blend.

Details:

• 19th Annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival: www.rgvbf.org
• Inn at Chachalaca Bend: www.chachalaca.com, (956) 233-1180
• Sabal Palm Sanctuary: www.sabalpalmsanctuary.org, (956) 541-8034
• Resaca de la Palma: www.theworldbirdingcenter.com/Resaca.html, (956) 350-2920
• The World Birding Center: www.theworldbirdingcenter.com
• National Butterfly Center: www.nationalbutterflycenter.org, (956) 583-5400
• Riverside Club on the River river tours: (956) 581-4477, www.ontheriver.net/rivertours.html
• Quinta Mazatlan: www.theworldbirdingcenter.com/Quinta.html, (956) 681-3370



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