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Birds, Butterflies, Ocelots
The Rio Grande Valley, South Texas, has them all!
by
Christine Roberts


One of my most recent fascinating trips was to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Based in the delightful city of McAllen, voted one of the best small cities in North America, to live and work, by the readers of a leading U.S. magazine, I was conveniently located close to the border of Mexico and surrounded by a wondrous choice of abundant, exceptional nature reserves.

Seven annual nature festivals as well as other enterprising events take place each year in the Valley, where visitors can expect to rub shoulders with the country’s best birders during their stay at eco-friendly hotels or charming B & B’s. For, while Texas is famed for its birds, it’s even more renowned for exceptional hospitality!

McAllen is a city that boasts a sub-tropical climate and is often a surprise to visitors who expect to find a sleepy agricultural town of yesteryear, not a rapid-growing, animated, cosmopolitan city. While agriculture is still significant to the region, their sweet grapefruit and onions have long been famous. Tourism and industry, too, have transformed its infrastructure following opening of new roads, hotels and a plethora of restaurants.

Birding to the region is a huge draw-card for tourists. Reputed to be the best birding location in the U.S, popular viewing sites include Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen-Rio State Park, Falcon Dam, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco (my favorite) and Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary.

Thousands of nature lovers flock to this region each year to get a glimpse of the curious Green Jay, the boisterous Plain ChaChalaca, the delightful Great Kiskadee and, Red Crowned Parrot, among others. Some 36 species out of approximately 500 spotted here are found nowhere else in the country. Rare animals including ocelot and jacarundi are also observed.

Interestingly, in many Valley towns, particularly in McAllen, parakeets and red parrots line the wires as they noisily gather to roost in the evenings. They certainly enjoy living in neighborhoods with large trees and lovely homes!

Birders just love the picturesque birding trail maps - a collection of three, covering The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail – enabling them to explore the region by car, at their leisure or with a group. The stunning full-color Trail maps have been produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife in conjunction with the Texas Department of Transportation. They include exquisite illustrations of birds that can be found in each area along with details of attractions, places to eat, lodging, viewing sites, trail locations and the most obscure birding spots.

World Birding Center

After a decade of study and planning, the Valley’s communities have long recognized the huge birding tourism potential on their doorstep and are now devising exciting plans to protect and link the diverse habitats and wildlife-watching opportunities under a World Birding Center emblem.

The Center is a partnership between nine local communities, Texas Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Headquarters of the WBC will be situated at Mission’s Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park and opened early this year.

The Rio Grande Valley’s WBC will actually be a regional complex of sites, each with their own distinctive appeal, stretching from the pristine beaches of South Padre Island to the historic, riverside bluffs (former inland port) of Roma. The $20 million project includes information and interpretive centers - from the conversion of a stupendous 65-year old adobe mansion in McAllen where their local WBC center will be housed - to more than 1 900 acres of untrampled Tamaulipan woodland at the southernmost tip of Texas.

A City With The Flavor Of Mexico, served up Texas Style

One rare visitor – only documented in Texas seven times – is the Green-breasted Mango, a bird that usually frequents Central and South America. The first sighting of an adult bird of the species occurred in McAllen in February 2001 and is only one of the magnificent hummingbirds that are occasionally spotted in the Valley.

One of several great field trips to be taken during the nature festivals is with the Guarantee Van who promise that if they cannot show their group at least 10 of the following bird list then dinner is on them! However, according to McAllen Chamber's tourism team, the birds are so easy to see that they've never bought a meal in seven years! Included on their list is the Green Jay, Least Grebe, Tropical or Couch’s Kingbird, Tropical Parula, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Fulvous or Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Green or Ringed Kingfisher, Altamira or Hooded Oriole, Bronzed Cowbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Groove-billed Ani, and many more.

Square Dance Capital

Not only is McAllen and environs renowned for its birds but also as the world’s Square Dance Capital. Come February, then the annual Square Dance Jamboree is held, attracting “Winter Texans” who flock to the region to avoid the colder climes, either to visit friends or to stay in their winter homes.

While the city is home to over one million people, it serves more than 3 million living nearby and in Mexico. The latter come to shop, attend nature and culture festivals, and to enjoy a range of international cuisine and entertainment. Mexico is 15 minutes drive from the border and exciting opportunities for historical expeditions, nightlife, dining and shopping awaits the visitor across the border, too.

The annual Candlelight Posada is staged during December, an event that’s a blend of traditional and modern Christmas activities, geared for the family. The focus of the 2-day event is the Procession and Nativity, involving two nights of stage entertainment; crafts and games for the youth; a Santa Claus parade and lighting of the Christmas tree by the Mayor.

Several golf courses - open year round - are found in the region with reasonable green fees being a bonus. Also, there is fishing, rodeos and a new WaterPark. New for tourists this year is the chance to join fascinating historical and birding (longer) tours across the border into Mexico. Best bird-viewing site in the region, I thought, was at Weslaco's Valley Nature Center. Progreso is just across the border from Weslaco and is very small and tourist-friendly. A perfect place to get a taste of Mexico literally and figuratively. You just park on the U.S. side and walk across the border very easily, perusing the 10 or more stores and restaurants, with no driving necessary!

Roma

Roma was among the string of Mexican towns founded in the 1750’s. With the growth of river trade in the 1800’s, it emerged as an important inland shipping port with flourishing mercantile enterprises. In 1765, Spanish colonists crossed the Rio Grande to establish ranches and after the Mexican-American War, this US city experienced a huge economic boost. Many superb brick structures were designed and built by German-born Heinrich Portscheller. Then, in 1993, the National Parks Service recognized Roma's Historic District as a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition bestowed on a U.S. historic property.

Currently undergoing a massive restoration project, this city is proud to still have the last remaining suspension bridge – one of five such bridges that spanned the Rio Grande River. Regarded as a prime location for studying construction technologies, its historic buildings in the Landmark District are mostly intact and date from mid to late 19th century. Fronted by stone or brick sidewalks their expansive courtyards are in the Hispanic/Moorish tradition.

The city’s architectural richness makes it ideal for interpreting the Hispanic life of river towns and borderlands culture. Thus, Roma’s Restoration Project - a joint undertaking - aims at conserving a core group of buildings and returning them to a state of usefulness.

History buffs as well as birders are drawn to the Valley, to view old forts, observe the last-drawn working ferry used for crossing the Rio Grande, some excellent museums, historic shrines and battlefields. The region’s typical architecture aptly reveals South Texas’ ties with Mexico and a distinctive past.

Getting to the Valley

From within the US, Continental Airlines operate local flights to Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, or American Airlines and Continental Airlines operate flights in to McAllen’s International Airport. In addition, flights are offered in to Valley International Airport, Harlingen on Continental Express and Southwest Airlines, among other choices.

Alternatively, it is about a five-hour drive by car from San Antonio to McAllen. I found Enterprise Car Rental the best deal in San Antonio as I needed to drop off the car once I had reached McAllen. San Antonio is the perfect three-night stop-over following a long-haul direct flight in to the US, such as from London/ Houston, followed by a connecting flight Houston/ San Antonio.

With Mexico next door, much of McAllen has a decidedly Hispanic flair – from food to architecture to music. Fine restaurants abound such as traditional Mexican to Texas barbeque and great seafood.. One of my favorite food experiences was at the El Pato chain of restaurants which have a wonderful Mexican-style ambience. They offer exceptional value and serve delicious food. and you can either opt to eat in the restaurant or order a take-away - the latter is beautifully packed.

South Padre Island

Ideally, the end of your holiday should be spent at South Padre island, located 25 miles north of the Mexican border on the tropical tip of Texas. This 34 mile-long island is connected to historic Port Isabel on the mainland by the 2 1/2 mile Queen Isabella Causeway. Regarded as Texas’ premier resort, its southern seashore is ranks among America’s top ten beaches. Bordered to the east by the Gulf of Mexico and the west by the shallow Laguna Madre Bay, it is blessed with abundant bird life, dolphins and has more than 300 bird species recorded to date.

Its noteworthy history began in 1519, but it was only in 1974 that the longest causeway in Texas, across the Laguna Madre was completed, paving the way for future development.

Must-sees on and around South Padre

The Isla Blanca Park on the southernmost tip is reputed to be the biggest and best in Texas. Port Isabel has a renovated lighthouse and keeper’s cottage – the only one on this coastline open to the public with a museum containing one of the largest collections of Mexican artifacts from the U.S./American War.

Sea Turtle, Inc. www.seaturtleinc.com is dedicated to educating the public about endangered turtles. Few realize that picking up a turtle by its shell without supporting its tummy is comparable to a human being lifted by a finger, toe-nail or hair! Ouch!
South Padre Island Visitor Center enjoys a gorgeous view of the ocean, overlooks a Nature Trail and a boardwalk system which extends across four acres of wetlands. Here, visitors can observe birds and spot the resident alligator family – free of charge, and it is wheelchair-accessible.

There is a “Whaling Wall”, painted by Wyland, an environmental artist who is paying homage to whales and other creatures of the sea through painting 100 similar walls across the world. He definitely captures the grandeur of his subjects, as drawing whales on small canvases can be extremely limiting. His wall on South Padre marks the 53rd life-size canvas, spanning 153 ft. in length, and covering three walls, 23 ft. in height, without any cost to town or State.

The Island has its very own families of Bottlenose Dolphins living in Laguna Madre Bay. Husband and wife team, George and Scarlet Colley have been studying, filming and documenting dolphin families for eight years. They have named some of them, including BooBoo, Angel, CanOpener and Sharkey. Scarlet and George operate Fins to Feathers Tours.
An International Fishing tournament takes place each year around the end of July, and a Ladies Kingfish Tournament in August. One of the prizes for the latter is awarded for the best hard-luck story! www.sopadre.com

Tips

A free shuttle service, “Catch the Wave” operates every 15 minutes.
Accommodations range from $29.95 to $200.

Scampis on the Bayside is a great restaurant – vanilla and caramel flan is irresistible!

Among the fantastic B&B Inns in the region are:-

Casa Siesta (Mexican style) www.casadesiesta.com. Also, Inn at El Canelo in Raymondsville where you can spot the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

Inn at Chachalaca Bend $40-$100 double including breakfast on the mainland).

A new Travel Lodge - near to beach, shuttle and restaurants, from $50-$150.

South Padre has the only coastline where five species of turtle can be seen. Kemp’s Ridley Turtle is protected - most endangered species. Number of nesting turtles in 1947 were 250 000. In 1985 only 300 and in 2002 just 5 000.

Alamo Inn – built in 1919 was a communal building including a bank and drugstore. It was acquired by Keith Hackland (formerly from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa) and his wife Audrey. It has been a B&B Inn for the past three years. Guests staying three nights get the 4th night free. Keith is President of Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. His Inn is a short drive from McAllen.

Two-Nation Vacation

Southernmost city on the US mainland is Brownsville, located 23 miles from South Padre Island, directly across from Matamores, Mexico. Brownsville dates from colonial days of Imperial Spain and has a unique past, covering periods of explorations, wars, revolutions and colorful banditry. Today, its Fort Brown is home to the University of Texas Brownsville/Texas Southernmost College.

Renowned as the site of the first battle of the Mexican/ American War in 1846, exhibits and photographs are housed in a Museum in the town’s Southern Pacific railroad passenger depot. The proud heritage of two cultures is celebrated annually at the end of February in a colorful Mardi Gras - four days of carnivals, parades, dancing and cultural events in recognition of two nations' unique relationship.

Must-sees in Brownsville

Palm trees, flowers and greenery grace this town, another top bird-watching area. Best birding experience of all is found at Weslaco’s Valley Center. Not to be missed is the outstanding 31-acre Gladys Porter Zoo, among the top ten zoos in the US, built on an old Rio Grande River canal where the landscape is covered with more than 250 species and sub-species of tropical and neo-tropical plants.

This attractively-designed home to more than 1 600 animals representing over 460 species – 47 endangered – that are allocated to four geographical areas - Asia, Africa, Tropical America and Indo-Australia. All residents live in open exhibits with refreshing, flowing waterways.

Brownsville is renowned for its parakeets, parrots, Tamaulipas Crows and rare gulls, seen at its famous landfill. Nearby is the 527-acre Audubon Sabal Palm Grove which is home to the only native Texas palm.  A large hangar at Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport contains flying World War 11 aircraft, an artifact museum, gift-shop and meeting rooms. And retired CAF Colonels show visitors around the Rio Grande Valley Wing of the Confederate Air Force.

Those tourists interested in butterflies can join a tour on the Butterfly Express to local gardens and wildlife refuges to spot White Peacock, Crimson Longwing, and others. As for the tiny White-collared Seedeater, a concentrated effort is made to find this species on a day trip up river in Zapata.

Golfers will find that green fees range from US$27-US$45 at the South Padre Island Golf Club, an 18-hole, par 72 course, located on the mainland, only a 10-minute drive from the Island.

Matamores, Mexico

Matamores, Mexico is a strategic point on the Mexican-American border and receives thousands of visitors each year. Among its historic buildings are The Casamata, the only surviving fort after six battles took place there over the past 150 years; the neoclassical Cathedral of Our Lady Refuge, built in 1832 and the Municipal Palace, once a second home to city leaders – built in 1831 in French Creole style and remodeled in 1995. A pleasant option for dinner and shopping.

The best travel adventures come to an end far too quickly! Worth noting is that there are accommodations to suit all budgets and that special rates apply during Birding and Butterfly Nature events. And, by 2004, the World Birding Center should be fully operational. Time for another visit!

Christine Roberts traveled to McAllen, Texas in May 2002 to experience the magnificent birds found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, South Texas. Based in McAllen, she visited Roma, Brownsville, Harlingen and environs, several amazing birding sites and ended off with two nights on South Padre Island, the premier beach resort of Texas. And, she briefly crossed the border in to Mexico, from Brownsville, to have dinner in Matamores.

Some useful contacts and websites:

www.southtexasnature.com

www.tpwd.state.tx.us. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

www.BrownPelican.com. Brown Pelican Inn

www.alamoinnsuites.com.  Alamo Inn

www.Brownsvillechamber.com

www.cityofbrownsville.tx.us/city

www.divesouthpadre.com

www.sopadre.com

www.brownsville.org

www.mcallencvb.com

www.valleychamber.com

www.tpwd.state.tx.us

www.mcallenchamber.com/tourism/naturefest/field_trips.asp

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Email:  Christine Roberts

 

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