The Rio Grande Valley – a whole different Texas

By | Category: Travel destinations
a Cardinal bird

a variety of Cardinal bird is one of the more colourful birds found here

On our last day in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, we visited Estero Llano Grande, one of nine World Birding Centers located here, where we were captivated by a flock of some 30-40 soaring white pelicans high in the sky. As they swooped and did their aerial ballet in perfect unison, their wings changing from black to white depending on their direction, we oohed and aahed. Nature’s majesty was there in all of its splendor. Ducks and geese below, green jays flitting in and out, and a magnificent spectacle in the sky above us. The Rio Grande Valley won’t disappoint you, even if you are not a birder. But you just might become one here…

Traveling to the Rio Grande Valley, considered by many experts to be the top birdwatching destination in the United States, we were amused by a large bird flying from gate area to gate area at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, where we were making a connection from Denver, Colorado to McAllen, Texas. The bird, which was seeking bits of tasty crumbs on the floor, seemed a friendly harbinger of the days to come in the Valley.

“For year-round birdwatching, I’d say that the lower Rio Grande Valley is the single best location in the USA,” says Kenn Kaufman, who leads birding and nature tours to all seven continents. He is also an editor and book author, exclusively on nature subjects, as well as a field editor for Audubon Magazine. “The sheer abundance and variety of birds, the mix of eastern and western species, the many subtropical birds that live near the Mexico border, and the vast number of migratory birds that move through the area, all combine to make this region endlessly exciting for birdwatchers,” Kaufman adds.

Plain Chachalaca

Plain Chachalaca

Indeed, a whopping 540 species have been documented in this four-county region of the Rio Grande Valley, 500 miles from Fort Worth, and more than 40,000 people come here from all over the world to see birds they cannot see anywhere else north of the Mexican border, such as the Buff-Bellied Hummingbird and the Great Kiskadee. Native birds include the Plain Chachalaca, White –Winged Dove, Common Puaraque, Couch’s Kingbird, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow and my favorite, the dramatically lovely lime-colored Green Jay, which sports Robin’s-egg blue heads with black plumage on the neck. During migration, birders see Red-crowned Parrots, Green Parakeets, Altamira Orioles (largest oriole in the U.S.,) Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Eastern Screech Owls as well as countless others. Many types here are “accidental,” which means they really are not typical in the region. There are also some 1,000+ native plants which attract the birds as well as a myriad of butterflies (and the National Butterfly Center is in the region as well!.)

McAllen and environs have made birdwatching a priority. There are nine World Birding Centers in the Rio Grande Valley, and five are in the immediate area around McAllen, including Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Estero Llano Grande, Quinta Mazatlan and Hidalgo Pump House. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is also nearby, and well worth a visit. This network of distinctly different birding sites is set along a 120-mile historic river road – each sponsored by a different community, charging very nominal admission fees, and all offering bird walks and other nature events regularly. The network is a US$20 million development based on the joint partnership between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Rio Grande Valley Communities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Each center has its own attributes, personality, and varying flora and fauna (a couple even have alligators!) The Valley is a major bird migration corridor featuring the convergence of two major flyways (the Central and Mississippi) with an abundance of Northern species migrating to avoid the winter cold and to take advantage of northern breeding habitats.mcallengroundsscene2

Non-birders also have plenty to do and see in McAllen, which is delightfully tropical in feel – in fact, it’s at about the same latitude as Miami and features dense palm trees, huisache, bougainvillea, huge prickly pear cacti and Spanish moss. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a world apart from the rest of Texas – more of a blend of the two cultures of Mexico and the United States than perhaps anywhere else in the Lone Star State. The border area is proud of its natural wonders, and is actively expanding wildlife refuges from the Gulf of Mexico westward to the thorny hills of Starr County.

A beautiful must-see is Quinta Mazatlan, one of the World Birding Centers, but also home to a 1930’s adobe hacienda, built and restored in splendid Spanish Revival style, surrounded by tropical landscaping and native woodlands. Trails wind through some 20 acres of bird and animal habitat, but the hacienda itself is nicknamed “mansion with a mission.” It is now owned by the city of McAllen and features period furniture, art and tapestries, as well as a small but exquisite folkloric art room – well worth a visit. Many locals hold their weddings in the mansion or in the garden areas, and we were lucky enough to see a couple having their prenuptial photos taken.

the Tiffany windows in the museum

the Tiffany windows in the museum

The International Museum of Art & Science, a Smithsonian-affiliate, is a place where visitors can easily spend at least two hours. This museum, as its name indicates, is a rare mix of art museum and science museum, with a healthy dose of both. One of the few “Science on a Sphere” locations in the southwest, we were mesmerized by the giant model of the earth, rotating and programmable to show hurricane and earthquake activity (both now and in the past,) seismic faults, weather patterns, night sky, even turtle migration paths, etc. The Science Lab’s resident African pygmy hedgehog and bearded dragon charmed us and the many children there along with us on a field trip. We frolicked along with the kids on the museum’s Digiwall, a giant Swedish-made computer game that works with a climbing wall, then with a musical wooden sound wall, operating with body heat, and various other scientific stations that made us want to stay all day. The art section of the museum awaited us, so we went to view the five art galleries, including a gorgeously staged temporary exhibit “Sacred Visions” (until late April, possibly later) on Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass panels salvaged from churches in various places. The exquisite opalescent colors for which Tiffany was famed glow here – it’s a gem of an exhibit (no Tiffany pun intended.)

and, finally, the great food

and, finally, the great food

McAllen is beloved by middle and upper class Mexicans for its extensive shopping malls, who travel here for power-shopping trips on three-day weekends, astounding us with the number of bags with which they returned each night to the hotel. Retail sales are a major contributor to the economy in the area, seconded by wildlife tourism. Dining is an exceptional treat in this area – this is NOT a Tex-Mex haven, although you can find that in plenty of places. Rather, we were delighted by authentic Mexican cuisine from many different regions of Mexico – like Puebla, Nayarit and Guerrero. Regional specialities such as Mole Poblano, Pescado Zarandeado and Shrimp in Poblano Cream Sauce were prepared perfectly – and at very reasonable prices. McAllen is known for its huge numbers of restaurants – and they are not all Mexican. We also had Italian, fusion, Asian, etc., and there are many hip and trendy new bars opening as well.

The Rio Grande Birding Festival takes place in early November each year, attracting 1,500 visitors in 2015.





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