Ever since elementary school, I recall being fascinated with birds. Amidst assembling and painting bird models and decorating my bedroom walls with numerous sketched birds, I thought about becoming an ornithologist. However, that didn't happen. Fast forward many years later though, and I am still intrigued with birds of all sorts. Just don't label me as an experienced birder — perhaps enthusiastic amateur is more descriptive.
Off to the Texas Tropics
I recently visited the Texas Tropics, a stretch of land that follows the Rio Grande, separating the U.S. from Mexico. I stayed in McAllen, Texas, using it as a hub for various daily excursions. Why? It has to do with the fact that there are 540 bird species documented in the area. That's a lot of new birds one can add to their life list.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the premier birding destinations in the United States, if not the world. With a concentration of nearly 50 Neotropical bird species found nowhere else in the U.S., more typically south of the border, the valley offers diverse habitats ranging from Chihuahuan Desert, Sabal palms groves, subtropical oak, Tamaulipan thornscrub, and coastal prairies to all types of water — freshwater, brackish and ocean.
The real bonus is this area is the northern-most point for many species that call Central and South America their home and serves as a southern wintering ground for many northern birds. It's where the temperate zone overlaps the tropics. That translates into opportunities to see tropical birds outside their normal habitats, as well as glimpsing permanent residents, such as the audaciously flashy Green Jay, and the noisy Chachalaca, that you won't find anywhere else in North America. Great Kiskadees and the Altamira Orioles are also permanent residents.
Birding the border — The lower Rio Grande Valley
About 500,000 wildlife watchers visit the Rio Grande Valley annually, with birders coming from the United States, Canada, and around the world to glimpse local and migratory birds. Birding places can be found in a patchwork of federal areas, the World Birding Center with nine Texas sites, and several private properties/ranches along a 190-kilometre corridor following the Rio Grande.
According to Nancy Millar, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of McAllen Chamber of Commerce, "Wildlife watching is responsible for $463 million annually in the Rio Grande Valley, and sustains over 6,600 jobs. These birders and other nature enthusiasts who visit represent one-fourth of all the leisure tourism in the area, and spend 2.4 million days here each year pursuing their wildlife-watching hobby."
My birding-the-border excursion involved five places in the span of a long weekend, even as I racked up sightings of favourites such as the Green Jay, Pauraque, Kiskadee, Vermillion Flycatcher, Inca Dove, Plain Chachalaca, and a northerner — the cardinal:
1. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission is a 308-hectare park with subtropical riparian and Tamaulipan woodlands attracting over 300 bird species. The park serves as headquarters for the system of nine Texas World Birding Centers. Expect to find many comforts inside, including a two-storey observation tower, bird blinds, nature trails, and a nature centre along with bathrooms and picnic areas. Most trails are wheelchair accessible. Many Rio Grande Valley specialties can be found here. Bird species you might find are the Green Jay, Least Grebe, Hook-billed Kite, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole. They are also known for their Mexican rarities and wintering songbirds, such as the Clay-coloured Thrush and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.
2. Another World Birding Center, Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen is a historical 1935 Spanish Revival-Style adobe mansion offering urban nature trails and a birding sanctuary not far from the airport. With 8-hectares of Tamaulipan Thorn Forest, birds you might expect to see include: Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Plain Chachalaca, Altamira Oriole, Clay-coloured Thrush, Olive Sparrow, Curve-billed and Long-Billed Thrasher and migrants.
3. Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, a World Birding Center, consists of 16-hectares of trails, observation decks, multiple water features, and an interpretive centre. With an excellent water habitat, expect to find the Ringed and Green Kingfisher, Anhinga, and Least Grebe. Keep on the lookout for Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Least Bittern, and the Fulvous Whistling-duck.
4. With over 93-hectares of trails and eight kilometres of easy walking paths, Estero Llano Grande is another World Bird Center. Sightings might include: all three Kingfishers — Ringed, Belted and Green — Least Grebe, Groove-billed Ani, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Common Pauraque, Altamira Oriole, Northern-beardless Tyrannulet, and Red Crowed Parrot.
5. With the largest block of undisturbed riparian and Tamaulipan Woodland and Resacas, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a champion site with 845-hectares and an impressive bird list of over 400 bird species recorded. (This is a federal national wildlife refuge and is not part of the Texas World Birding Center.) Here you will find many quality Neotropical species more commonly found south of the U.S. border. Expect to encounter Least Grebe, Hook-billed Kite, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Couch's Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, Altamira Oriole, and Clay-coloured Thrush. Some say that Santa Ana is reliable for Ringed and Green Kingfishers as well.
Birder Scott Schiller was over-the-moon with his recent first-time Rio Grande experience.
"I was not prepared for the diversity of avian species I saw in McAllen, and what a pleasant surprise to see familiar friends like cardinals, great blue herons and even American robins; they spend their summers up in my neck of the Wisconsin woods," he said.
"What thrilled me most was my encounter with tropical birds I'd never before seen in my life — Green Jays and Kiskadees, Chachalacas and Kites, and my trip favourite, the incredibly camouflaged Common Pauraque."
If you go:
McAllen Convention & Visitors Bureau
Where to stay:
Wingate by Wyndham McAllen
Where to eat:
Patio on Guerra