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Pedal, Paddle, Bird!

Bikes, canoes and kayaks are the vehicles for active birding.

By Karen Hastings

Muddy, tired and elated, we pull back into the parking lot of the McAllen hotel where we’d first introduced ourselves in the predawn gloom, 12 hours before. It has been, pronounces our river guide, one of the best birding days she’s seen on the Rio Grande in quite a while. Everyone has a favorite moment.

For Cheryl Longton who “lives to bird,” it isn’t a bird at all, but the diamond-backed water snake that surfaced, stick-like, to watch as our canoe rounded a boulder, and then melted back beneath the flowing water grass. Monica Monk, a biologist, likes the picturesque waterfall that recent rains created near our rocky lunchtime rest stop, up a narrow inlet into the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

As for me, one of several novice birders on this day-long cruise, the trip’s highlight is a crested caracara that glides south over our heads, reptile dinner writhing in its beak. Or maybe the visual feast of three Audubon’s and Altamira orioles, together in one yellow-and-orange, treetop display. Or the unexpected gathering of roseate spoonbills, American white pelicans and spotted sandpipers that waited for us on a gravel bar, and then took languid flight just as we slipped silently by.

This was a great canoe trip, made even better with binoculars. Or maybe a great birding trip, enhanced by the addition of a canoe, and a river that still runs grand through some of the best birding territory in the state.

“Oh my God, I’ve got birds, food and a canoe. It doesn’t get much better than this,” enthused Cheryl, delving into a box lunch provided for our outing. “What more could you ask for?”

Perhaps a bicycle?

Across the four subtropical counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, home or host to more than half the bird species found in the United States, birding combined with the added attractions of paddling and biking is gaining in popularity. Mild weather in the prime November-to-April months, blessedly smooth terrain, and water choices ranging from the Laguna Madre to the Rio Grande to the Arroyo Colorado give birders plenty of opportunities to combine their passions.

Birding and biking, say those who participate, allows you to cover greater distances; to stop and start at will; to hear the birds calling. In a canoe or kayak, birders can maneuver closer and more quietly to good viewing spots, arriving at a different vantage point on shorebirds, waders and species that prefer riparian stretches of Rio Grande ash and oak.

The trend challenges the pedestrian image of bird watching - a gentle amble in the great outdoors. Whether on guided trips or striking out on their own, bike-, canoe- or kayak-birders are ratcheting up the action — combining their wildlife search with some good-for-you cardiovascular exercise, and some self-propelled forays into prime and often less-accessible birding territory.

Tom Pincelli, a Roman Catholic priest, birding columnist for the Valley Morning Star and frequent nature guide, is passionate about combining birding with his other favorite pastime — cycling.

The exercise itself is a big part of it, says Pincelli, whose SUV license plate reads “Fr. Bird.”

“You can hear better, see better; you’re not confined,” he says. “You get the same benefits as walking, with the extra benefits of covering more ground.”

Groups and locations that promote birding are taking notice.

  • Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo last winter launched its Tour de Birds — a seven-mile ride around the 2,088-acre refuge, led by experienced guides and open to all levels of birders and cyclists. An island of thorn forest habitat in the Valley, Santa Ana is host or home to nearly 400 different species of birds.
  • The annual Wild in Willacy nature festival in Willacy County regularly includes a bird-and-bike ride during its two-day celebration each October, usually from Port Mansfield on the Gulf Coast, back along a mostly rural path to downtown Raymondville.
  • Harlingen has a new 2.1-mile bike path along the Arroyo Colorado, from the city’s McElvey Park and past The Harlingen Thicket, a 40-acre pocket of native brush recently set aside as a nature preserve.
  • And the World Birding Center, a system of nine birding sites from South Padre Island to the bluffs of Roma in Starr County, has a new fleet of quadracyles and bicycles, available for rent at its soon-to-be-completed new headquarters outside Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

“We’re trying to introduce birding to new audiences, to invite more people into this social activity by including a variety of outdoor activities like biking and canoeing,” says Colleen Hook of the World Birding Center, a partnership of state, federal and local sites working to promote birding and habitat conservation in the Valley. “If you already enjoy biking or canoeing, and you add the activity of birding, the enjoyment of both is increased. It’s a double benefit.”

On one mild fall morning, a mixed group of adults and teenagers gathered at the visitor’s center at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission. They were there to sample the WBC’s new quadracycles — low-slung, two-seater bikes with side-by-side pedals — as well as to test-drive the mix of birding and biking at this popular refuge.

Gisela Saenz, an elementary school principal who volunteered for the outing with husband Michael and sons, Michael Jr., 14, and Brian, 12, said the family had never been birding before. “But the kids liked the part about bicycling in the park. I didn’t have to bribe them,” she said with a laugh.

Before even leaving the parking lot, the birding bug had bitten as well, helped along by an ample supply of extra binoculars and a nearby feeding station that was attracting an impressive array of green jays.

Before the three-hour trip was over, this group of novice birders was eagerly joining in the search for Bentsen’s many specialties — Altamira oriole, long-billed thrasher, great kiskadee, golden-fronted woodpecker, plus five different species of hawks wheeling overhead. They delighted in seeing a raucous band of chachalacas sampling the sweet purple berries of one of the park’s many anacua trees.

Younger members of the group looped back and forth, while the adults kept a relaxed pace more suited to watching and listening. The quadracycles easily kept up with traditional bicycles, and featured the added benefit of a platform between two riders — just right for toting a small cooler, field guides or other paraphernalia.

All the while, Brad McKinney kept up a rolling lesson on bird calls: the hiss of an olive sparrow, the high-pitched peep of the northern beardless-tyrannulet, and the breezy “kip, kip, kip, brear” of the Couch’s kingbird.

“We know there are exotic birds here, but we just never went on a trip to look for them,” said Gisela Saenz, after the group had circled back to the visitors’ center. “It’s a lot of fun on the bikes. We were saying we need to get some so we can come back on our own.”

Both an avid cyclist and birder, McKinney, who teaches high school in Brownsville, says Bentsen is like other Valley refuges — flat, and with often overlooked remote areas.

“Most people who bike and bird, they want to get out, smell the smells and see the sights, following nobody’s path but their own,” says McKinney. “When there’s not much going on, you can cruise, and then you can hear a chip and put on the brakes and you’re in the middle of this great activity. You can see more than you would on foot, and you can make it as challenging as you want to.”

Other good spots for birding and biking in the Valley include the 45,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the largest protected wildlife area in the region. On its 15-mile tour loop and several no-cars-allowed service roads, you might spot the endangered aplomado falcon, or flocks of roseate spoonbills.

For cyclists wishing a shorter trip through the refuge’s grasslands, thick brush and waterside habitats, park ranger Jody Mays recommends driving the tour loop to the Redhead Ridge Overlook, and then cycling to the Moranco Blanco service road, which ends at a precipice overlooking the bay, about seven to eight miles round trip.

But McKinney’s favorite place to bike and bird in the Valley is the accessible resort community of South Padre Island. Especially during the spring migration, the various wooded lots and public green spaces between the Queen Isabella Causeway and the SPI Convention Center are alive with a colorful confetti of indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers and black-throated warblers.

“You can cover the island, four miles from the bridge to the convention center, easy,” says McKinney. “Stop at all the woodlots, stop at the boardwalk, stop someplace for lunch. On a bike, you’re just wheeling in, wheeling out. You’ve got the Laguna Madre on one side, and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. There’s a lot happening in a really short space.”

The tip of Texas also promises a range of birding and paddling adventures, starting with canoe trips organized by Friends of Santa Ana. A volunteer group that supports the 77,000-acre Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Friends group says its aim is to “take back” an often-maligned waterway with fun and educational outings along its least-developed and most scenic stretches.

Based at Santa Ana, the Friends offer scheduled half- and full-day trips, and can put together custom-guided canoe trips for groups as well. The longer trips, which start south of Falcon Reservoir in Starr County and end six miles downriver near the tiny community of Salineno, pass through the best river habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Hackberry and mesquite cover numerous islands in the stream, which also flows past some of the last remaining Montezuma baldcypress trees on the river.

While similar guided kayak or canoe tours are not regularly scheduled in the Laguna Madre or along the Arroyo Colorado, both waterways offer singular birding experiences to those who want to strike out on their own.

Tom Pincelli has kayaked back channels of both the Arroyo Colorado and the Laguna Madre, and made numerous canoe forays along the Rio Grande. “It’s a very silent approach, and as a result you can get very close to the birds,” he says. “It’s not a question of seeing something you otherwise wouldn’t; it’s a question of getting really close. To a lot of the waders, for instance: black-crowned night-herons in the reeds. Shorebirds too. Kingfishers. It’s a great approach for photographers.”

Kayak-birders touring the Laguna Madre shores and South Padre Island wetlands can rent sit-on-top models at The Boatyard, a longtime island establishment on Padre Boulevard. Owner “Jibber” Terheggen notes that kayaks cannot launch or land at nearby Laguna Atascosa, and suggests the closest spot to embark on a water tour of that refuge is from Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park, adjacent to the refuge in Arroyo City, or from Holly Beach, to the south.

For those seeking a guided birding/paddling experience, November through April is the most popular time for Friends canoe trips along the Rio Grande. A recent cool, foggy day found one such expedition — a group of nature tourism and state parks officials from around the country, in town for a conference - enjoying the river at its best.

While the much-anticipated brown jay eluded our group, it was an altogether excellent day for birding. More than three dozen notable species made an appearance, including clay-colored robin, all three kinds of U.S. kingfisher, black-bellied whistling-duck, eastern and black phoebe, and several great blue herons, roosting in riverside trees like so many prehistoric pterodactyls.

“I love to canoe and be out in nature, especially when I’m with people who’ll tell me what I’m seeing,” said Jenny Thom, a novice birder and visiting information specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Monica Monk, who has led many such river tours, says canoe birding appeals to a broader range of people, from those seeking a more vigorous outdoor activity to those simply eager for a different point of view on what nature has to offer. “Most people just see the river from the land looking down. You get a different prospect from the river looking up,” Monica observed. “Paddling by and looking for birds: I’d say that everybody who’s been on one of these trips has just loved it. It’s a very relaxing kind of adventure.”

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