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Valley of the Birds

Community groups, local governments and conservation agencies join forces to make South Texas the center of the birding universe.

By Maria Isabel Araujo

In early January, avian biologist John Arvin spotted a social flycatcher at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, World Birding Center headquarters. “I’ll have to check,” says Arvin, “but I think this is the 506th bird species documented in the region.” Arvin issued a bird alert, and about 300 birders showed up the next day.

Lying at the junction of two migration flyways in the middle of one of the most biologically diverse region in the United States, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley is ideally suited to be the centerpiece of an ambitious regional network of birding sites. When the network is complete, there will be nine birding sites, spanning 120 miles from Rio Grande bluffs in historic Roma to the coast of South Padre Island.

Of the nine planned sites, two are essentially complete and open to the public: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley and Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. Four others are still in development, but they are open to the public and have birding trails available — they include South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse and Roma Bluffs. The others that are scheduled to open within a year are: Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville, and Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen.

Fueled by the promise of increased tourism, the WBC network has garnered widespread support among city governments and community organizations in the region. It represents a bold new direction for a region that has lost 95 percent of its original subtropical land habitat and doubled its population in the last 20 years.

“The WBC is a unique example of a diverse partnership that promotes regional cooperation,” says Scott Boruff, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department deputy executive director.

“Nine Valley or Lower Rio Grande Valley communities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have successfully set the stage for a world-class birding experience that will ultimately grow to encompass even more of Texas and Mexico,” he explains.

“These birding and outdoor recreation opportunities enhance the region and benefit from the traditional South Texas hospitality that all visitors to the Valley have come to expect,” Boruff says. “The common vision of these partners has resulted in the conservation of thousands of acres and a boon for bird habitat and birders.”

“It’s no accident that Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley is the site of so many first bird records, but we need to stop desertification and restore the luxuriant vegetation,” says David Riskind, TPWD natural resources director. “Only 2 percent remains of the Rio Grande Delta riparian forests.”

To reverse this trend, TPWD removed some RV facilities, rerouted vehicle traffic and reintroduced periodic flooding in parts of the park. New development is located strategically on former agricultural fields, the surrounding 50 acres of which are being reforested with plants that include Texas ebony, sugar hackberry, anacua and cedar elms to restore native habitat. “The WBC is for the birds,” says Cliff Shackelford, TPWD Partners in Flight coordinator, “because birders understand that habitat is always the priority.”

“Visitors can ride the tram to various trailheads throughout the park and to the 24-foot hawk tower overlooking the resaca (an oxbow lake),” says George Cortez, site manager, “and once completed, the trail network will be more than 7 miles, including 6 miles of accessible trails.”

Educational exhibits at the WBC focus on habitat conservation, bird migrations and bird “specialties,” those rare species that make the area a world-class birding destination. “We’ve seen a lot more specialties this season than usual,” says Arvin. “Something is going on.”

Global climate changes and cyclical low food supplies in Mexico are just a couple of the theories to explain this phenomenon. “Or it could be something as simple as migrants missing their exit and overshooting,” says Shackelford.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, operated by the city of Edinburg, has been open for two years and in that time, has set a high standard for outreach and education. “Between October and February, 2,000 fifth graders participated in our Wetlands Ecology program,” says Marisa Oliva, site manager. “We’ll have summer camps this year, but we’re desperate for volunteers to meet demand.” Recognizing that avitourists are diversifying into other wildlife observation activities, the 40-acre site promotes dragonfly and butterfly viewing as a new nature tourism avenue. “One of the best vantage points to view insects and birds inconspicuously is right here from the visitor center overlooks because you are practically in the pond,” adds Oliva.

Along with Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, the other state parks that will be part of the WBC network are Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco and Resaca de la Palma in Brownsville. The sites will represent a $12 million investment in the region. “The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department appreciates the many partners that are making the WBC a reality, especially the leadership of our state elected officials to direct funds to the WBC,” says Walt Dabney, TPWD state parks division director.

“Resaca de la Palma, which will open early next year, exemplifies these partnerships because it includes about 2,000 acres pooled from the USFWS, the city of Brownsville and the state of Texas.” Visitor access to Resaca de la Palma will depend on compatibility with construction activities this year.

“In the WBC network, this site has the largest tract of native habitat,” says Chris Beckcom, TPWD senior planner, who is laying out the 6-mile trail system at Resaca de la Palma.

Wetlands will be the centerpiece of Estero Llano Grande, a site that will provide outstanding birding on 200 acres of state and USFWS land when it opens this year.

“Since we have the greatest variety of wetlands habitats in the WBC complex, you can see the widest variety of birds,” says Marcy Martinez, site manager. “It’s the perfect environment for our ‘classroom in the parks’ program and to get kids started on their birding life list.” Martinez has been working with school districts to align the site’s field activities with the state educational objectives. “WBC educational programs are critical because these children are the decision makers of tomorrow,” says Russell Fishbeck, state parks division regional director.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in all wildlife observation activities and in nature photography,” says Nancy Millar of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Many ranchers now rent blinds for photography.” According to The 2001 Economic Benefits of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife Watching in Texas, wildlife viewing generated $1.2 billion in retail sales and supported 23,000 jobs statewide. Nationwide, the birdwatching market had 54 million participants in 1995 and grew by 155 percent in 12 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey on Recreation and the Environment.

“Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, which has a number of trails already open to the public, is strategically located near the regional airport and the Texas Information Center to tap into the growing ecotourism market,” says Jeff Lyssy of the city of Harlingen, home of the oldest birding festival in the Valley.

But it’s not all about economics. South Padre Island, which hardly needs more tourists, is building a Birding and Nature Center and will nearly triple the acreage of its current 15-acre birding site next to its convention center. What started as an effort to lure more money into the region has evolved into a community-wide conservation initiative. “I’m one of the converts to conservation,” says David Merrill, a Brownsville stockbroker and president of WBC, Inc., the non-profit organization that mobilized community support. “I began on the board as a chamber of commerce representative, but now I realize that this is more than economics. It’s an opportunity to create a legacy.”

With heritage tourism also increasing statewide, cultural resources will anchor three of the WBC sites. Quinta Mazatlan, a Mediterranean mansion in the heart of McAllen, is specializing in butterfly observation and landscaping with native plants. “We’re renovating and will open this fall, but people are already booking the entire estate for weddings and meetings,” says Colleen Hook, site manager. “This urban oasis, which the city of McAllen expanded from eight to 15 acres, is a demonstration site for backyard stewardship, the kind that even homeowner associations will welcome.”

Old Hidalgo Pumphouse (pictured left), a museum showcasing the transformation of the Valley into an agricultural powerhouse, will remain open through its renovation phase. “This wing of the WBC has been a catalyst to connect city of Hidalgo bike trails and to connect to USFWS and McAllen trails,” says Chuck Snyder, site manager. “We’re also discussing a partnership with the state of Coahuila to offer birding tours to Mexico.”

Restored buildings in Roma’s historic district, a National Historic Landmark, will house the Roma Bluffs visitor center. “This is a city of Roma-USFWS partnership where the city contributes the buildings and the USFWS restores them,” says Smokey Cranfill, site manager. “The scenic overlook at the river bluffs is now open, and trails will connect USFWS land that we know birders want to access along the river.” Through the Youth Conservation Corps, which collects seeds in the summers, and the Rio Reforestation events in the fall, the USFWS is restoring land along the corridor. “Friends of the Corridor are the cornerstone of our community support,” says Cranfill.

“Key partnerships and innovation will make the WBC an icon for world-class birding and conservation,” says project consultant Ted Eubanks, president of Fermata, Inc. Partnerships with Master Naturalists, the Audubon Society and other conservation organizations provide much-needed staffing for interpretive tours, reforestation and other projects. “The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations may also want to partner to include their sites in the WBC network,” says John Herron, of the Texas Nature Conservancy. This year, the WBC is unveiling a partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to host eBird Texas, giving the WBC real-time reporting capability and the opportunity to share in Cornell’s educational technology.

The WBC network is an unprecedented effort that combines economic development, community involvement and habitat restoration. In addition to bringing an economic boost to the region, it promises to provide world-class birdwatching and other outdoor recreation opportunities for visitors from Texas and beyond for years to come.

Mexican Partners Assist with Translations

Kettling, the phenomenon of hawks swirling and rolling in thermal drafts, was just one of the terms that challenged “Museo de las Aves de Mxico” staff when translating the exhibits at WBC headquarters to Spanish. Sometimes there was no comparable term in Spanish and a literal translation could mean something completely different. But Isabel Morn, museum director, and her staff persevered to ensure that the educational messages of the exhibits are accessible to Spanish speakers.

“Through this collaboration, we promote the understanding and appreciation of bird species that is fundamental to habitat conservation,” says Aldegundo Garza, founder and president of the Saltillo-based Museo de las Aves.

Many of the museum’s specimens came from a collection Garza started during his childhood. Today, those meticulously documented specimens are a gold mine for scientists and share the wonders of bird life with thousands of museum visitors. As part of the partnership, Garza has agreed to loan bird specimens for special exhibits at WBC sites.

Mxico has almost 1,100 bird species, or 88 percent of the species recorded in North America. Museo de las Aves’s 2,400-specimen collection allows visitors to view the Harpy eagle, Worthen’s sparrow and other rare, secretive or inaccessible birds that are difficult to observe in nature.

Museo de las Aves is located in Saltillo’s historic district. For more information, visit www.museodelasaves.org.

More Ways to Enjoy Texas Birding

Great Texas Birding Classic — This annual team birding competition is held during Texas’ amazing spring migration. Participants earn the chance to award $51,000 to an approved coastal habitat conservation project. Open to birders of all ages and skill levels from around the globe, it is the biggest, longest and wildest birdwatching tournament in the United States. Mark your calendar for its tenth anniversary on April 22-30, 2006. For more information visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/gtbc or call (866)-GTBCLAS.

Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail — A three-map guide identifies 308 prime birding sites along this 700-mile marked driving trail from Orange to Falcon Reservoir. As the first maps of this kind in the U.S., the coastal trails were so successful that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is mapping other wildlife-viewing sites with the support of public and private partners. Five new wildlife trail maps showcase the Prairies and Pineywoods, Heart of Texas and the Panhandle Plains. This map series is called Great Texas Wildlife Viewing Trails and is available from the Texas Cooperative Extension bookstore at tcebookstore.org or (888) 900-2577.

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