February 21, 2013

Birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Part 1

Several years ago some smart people came up with the idea of establishing the "World Birding Center" in south Texas. Stretching for 120 miles from South Padre Island to the small town of Roma, the 9 sites which comprise the "center" (some new and some pre-dating the network concept) attract birders from all over the world, injecting valuable tourist dollars into the local economies of this area. 

In addition to these 9 sites which cooperatively market themselves, birders are also attracted to Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges, Falcon State Park, Sabal Palm Sanctuary near Brownsville, Salineno, Frontera Audubon Center and Anzalduas County Park. Added to all of these areas is the National Butterfly Center in Mission so clearly there are plenty of reasons to escape to the lower Rio Grande Valley in the winter!

On our most recent trip to Texas we stayed for several days in McAllen, which is roughly in the middle of the valley. All of the sites mentioned above can be reached within 2 hours of McAllen so it is a very convenient location. I could write a blog post about each of the places we visited but I'll try to just hit the highlights.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge protects a variety of habitats along the shores of the Laguna Madre. It has tremendous wildlife diversity, and is one of a very few places in the US that supports the endangered ocelot. Aplomado Falcons, Harris' Hawks and many migratory birds find suitable habitat here. A 15 mile auto route and many trails give visitors quite a bit of access to the refuge. 

Unfortunately, the area has experienced considerable drought over the past dozen or so years, and many of the pools that used to support a wide variety of waterfowl are dry. We still enjoyed our visits there, and this is probably my favorite view of the refuge:

The tall plants in the photo go by the name of Spanish Dagger, and are members of the yucca family. They are favored perches of the endangered Aplomado Falcon, and we were lucky enough to see one on this trip.

Speaking of daggers, the native plants in south Texas are nearly all armed with very impressive thorns. I can't imagine how early residents managed to get around and to clear the land. Here is an amazing specimen appropriately called the Allthorn Bush; it is leafless and all its photosynthesis occurs in the twigs and thorns.

Hanging out in one of the drainage pipes of the visitor center was a very cooperative gray-phase screech owl:

Sabal Palm Sanctuary

This property, south of Brownsville, preserves tropical forest that at one time covered 40,000 acres of the lower Rio Grande Valley and has been nearly obliterated by the valley's extensive agricultural development and the fact that the wood of the Sabal Palms was rot resistant and valuable for piers and pilings:

Entering the sanctuary involves driving though a break in the wall that has been erected all along the border by Homeland Security, and there is always a Border Patrol vehicle stationed there: 

Feeding stations and ponds attract a variety of wildlife to the sanctuary. This Great Kiskadee, a large,noisy flycatcher, is one of my favorites:

Behind the sanctuary office is a garden which attracted butterflies, several of which were new to us:

Note that the Dusky-blue Groundstreak in the center photo has had an encounter with a predator, probably a bird. This butterfly is a hairstreak (several of which occur in Ohio), which typically have antenna-like projections at the end of their hindwings. These, coupled with eyespots, fool the predators into thinking that they are attacking the head of the insect, which would be fatal. Losing a bit of the hindwing is far preferable for the butterfly!

Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park

This park, headquarters of the World Birding Center, is one of the most popular birding destinations in the valley.  Park staff and volunteers maintain bird feeders at several locations, in natural settings amid Texas Ebony and Honey Mesquite trees.

When we were there most of the bird activity was at the first feeding station as we walked into the park. We were really amazed to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird with a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, as this is not a common bird in the valley:

A young Cooper's Hawk decided to hang out near the feeders, and although it made a couple of attempts to catch birds we never saw it actually made a successful strike:

The Clay-colored Thrush used to be quite rare in the US but in recent years it has been commonly seen at Bentsen and readily comes to the feeders. Mostly a neotropical bird, it is the national bird of Costa Rica. Its song is reminiscent of its relative, our familiar American Robin.

Here is a close-up of a Great Kiskadee, one of the noisier birds of the valley with its loud "Kis-ka-dee" call:

Falcon State Park

This park has a distinct desert flavor, hosting a variety of cacti and desert wildlife. Typical birds that can be seen here include the Pyrrhuloxia, which, not surprisingly, is in the same genus as our Northern Cardinal:

and the Cactus Wren, which was building a nest in this Spanish Dagger plant:

Other desert birds in this area include Green-tailed Towhee, Verdin, Greater Roadrunner,  and Scaled Quail. Feeders are maintained by winter RV residents who are quite friendly and helpful. I stepped into the park's recreation center at just the right time--chocolate chip cookies were fresh out of the oven and delicious!


This tiny town near Falcon State Park offers access to the Rio Grande and for many years has had a bird feeding area maintained by volunteers that has attracted several species that are more typical in Mexico. This year, the site's usual location had closed but the same volunteers had set up feeders on adjacent U.S. Fish and Wildlife land. 

Very basic seating is set up near the feeders giving excellent photo opportunities, almost forcing us to take lots of pictures, most of which (by far) were terrible!

But a few were decent, so here is some eye candy! First, I adore these Green Jays, and boy were they excited when the volunteers put out the peanut butter:

Here is is closeup of this gorgeous, crazy-looking creature:

Ahh--that guy sure would brighten up an Ohio winter! It seems like nearly every tree or shrub here has thorns, and this habitat is aptly named "thorn scrub". 

Here is another bird, not too dissimilar to our Downy Woodpecker. This one likes dry areas and is called the Ladderbacked Woodpecker:

 I love the delicate spots, awesome bill and red eye of this Long-Billed Thrasher:

And the orioles! What wonderful jolts of color. Four different ones are possible in the Valley; this year we saw the most common, the Altamira Oriole:

and one that is relatively uncommon, the Audubon's Oriole:

And here is a familiar face! The Northern Cardinals almost seemed a bit brighter in Texas than at home:

We had a nice tailgate lunch down by the Rio Grande:

and then headed back down the river.

Roma Bluffs

On the way back to McAllen from Salineno we stopped at Roma Bluffs, another World Birding Center site. Located halfway between Laredo and Brownsville, this town is one of Texas's oldest cities, founded in 1765. Its economy was based on steamships traveling the Rio Grande to and from Brownsville. At the visitor center feeders attract hummingbirds and orioles but the butterfly garden is also a big attraction:

The Roma Bluffs garden also had one of the more interesting plants that we saw throughout the valley, the Texas Mountain Laurel. Looking nothing like the eastern Mountain Laurel of the Appalachians, it is in the legume family and has gorgeous sprays of purple flowers in the spring. At this time of year the woody pods are quite visible and inside the pods are bright red seeds:

Another name for this tree is Mescal Bean. The bright red seeds have been used by native cultures for ornaments and ceremonial purposes; they contain the alkaloid cytisine which is related to nicotine and is acknowledged to be a potent narcotic and hallucinogen. I don't think I'll be wearing any mescal bean necklaces any time soon!

The town of Roma is quite historic, with several interesting buildings including Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church, built in 1853:

Viewing areas along the Rio Grande often feature Border Patrol vehicles:

and as usual my cell phone thought I was in Mexico at this point and sent me texts promising to charge me extra if I dared to make a call or send a message!


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  2. Hi Deb! We are glad you had such a nice trip! We really enjoyed your pictures, so we just shared them with others on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/mcallencvb). Come back soon!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Part 2 is now up!

  3. Lots of great birding opportunities! I like that they had seats near the feeder... nice for those of us who don't have a lot of telephoto. I especially liked seeing the birds that were related to our Ohio birds.