|Birds, Butterflies, Ocelots
The Rio Grande Valley, South Texas, has them all!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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/
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.tpwd.state.tx.us. Texas Parks
and Wildlife Department.
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