World Birding Center
Birds, Birds and More Birds
Rio Grande Valley parks offer the ultimate birder's paradise.
By Melissa Gaskill
The lower Rio Grande Valley — the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico — contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands and forest. Thanks to these diverse habitats and the Valley’s location in the Central Flyway of migrating birds, more than 500 bird species have been recorded in this area, an astounding avian array.
Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however. In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the WBC consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande and Resaca de la Palma. Together, the parks safeguard nearly 2,200 acres that are home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife — places for visitors to experience nature and the landscape of the Valley very close to its original state.
I walk into Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park early one morning to a cacophony of calls from trees lining the road — the boisterous clatter of chachalacas, squawks of woodpeckers and cooing of doves. These 798 acres once resembled the patchwork of many of our state parks, with tent and RV campers and day-trippers driving in and out. But its transformation to a WBC site in 2004 included elimination of all traffic except bicycles and a park tram. That was an intentional, and monumental, decision, says Russell Fishbeck, former regional parks director over the Rio Grande Valley area and now deputy director of state parks.
“As a day-use park, it is safer without traffic and offers a much-improved wildlife-watching and nature experience,” he says.
Colorful green jays add tropical flair to the bird life of the Rio Grande Valley.
Exploring along the roads and eight miles of trails on foot, I concur. My ears hear only the breeze, the rustle of lizards and other creatures in the grass, and the bird chatter. I can stop and gaze into the trees to seek the source of those sounds without fear of blocking traffic. Throughout the park, bird feeders hang in open areas, mobbed by brilliantly colored green jays, golden-fronted woodpeckers and great kiskadees with lemon-yellow bellies. Other birds sighted at the park include the buff-bellied hummingbird, eastern screech-owl and northern beardless-tyrannulet — a total of 358 species have been recorded here.
The Resaca Vieja Trail winds through trees and brush alive with cheeps, chirps and squawks; the platform at Kingfisher Overlook surveys a large oxbow lake. On the far side of the park, the 1.8-mile Rio Grande Trail takes me to the edge of the country, the Rio Grande, although I can’t see it through the brush. From the two-story-high Hawk Tower, though, I have a bird’s-eye view (pun intended) of nearby Mexico and the tree canopy. In addition to resident raptors such as white-tailed kites and gray hawks, many other species migrate past the tower during spring and fall, including Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks.
I’ve enjoyed my walk but am glad to see the park shuttle pull up, as I still have much ground to cover. Back at park headquarters, I take a turn through an exhibit hall thoroughly covering the world of birds, from bills and feet to habitat, wing type, sounds, size, nests, food, migration and more. A smarter visitor might have stopped here first.
Park biologist Amber Schmitt says tram tours run once an hour, and staff also lead guided bird walks. Primitive camping is still allowed in the park.
Estero Llano Grande State Park, formerly agricultural fields, became a WBC site in 2006. Its 230-plus acres, also free of car traffic, take in a shallow lake, woodlands and thorn forest, along with a wildlife-viewing deck, boardwalks and five miles of trails.
Birds and other wildlife love water; this park contains the largest wetlands environment in the WBC. Hundreds of waders and shorebirds flock here, especially in late summer when water becomes scarce in these parts. Reported sightings include threatened wood storks, colorful roseate spoonbills, ibis and migrating waterfowl such as ducks. The park’s woodland and thorn scrub harbor Altamira orioles and, sometimes, tropical red-crowned parrots and green parakeets.
Wetlands and boardwalks provide good looks at birds at Estero Llano Grande.
From the visitors center, I follow a trail past Ibis Pond and Dowitcher Pond, where turtles sun themselves, onto the Camino de Aves Trail, a 1-mile loop through the brush. At Alligator Lake, I spend a few minutes on the observation deck looking, unsuccessfully, for the lake’s namesake reptile before continuing to the top of a levee for a view of the Llano Grande.
The next turnoff leads to the Spoonbill Trail, which circles Ibis Pond back to where I started. On the other side of the entrance road, lanes of a former RV park have become the park’s Tropical Area, which attracts rarities such as the rose-throated becard, white-throated thrush and crimson-collard grosbeak. The short, narrow Green Jay Nature Trail loops through woods so thick they feel like an enchanted forest.
This park shelters more than 300 bird species, with a record 115 spotted from the deck in one day. Estero Llano Grande offers the best chance to spot the heavily camouflaged common pauraque. Most of the trails accommodate wheelchairs, and tram tours are offered on certain afternoons by reservation. Park staff also offer regularly scheduled guided bird, butterfly and dragonfly walks.
Brownsville’s Resaca de la Palma, which opened as a WBC site in December 2008, had no prior development. That, says Fishbeck, meant the department could design it more or less from scratch.
Great kiskadees are a treat for South Texas bird watchers.
To cover these 1,200 acres more efficiently, I rent a bicycle — a great deal at $5 for the entire day, basket included. I pedal the tram road to Mesquite Trail and follow its meandering to the aptly named Mexican Olive Trail, then through thick woods to an observation deck over a resaca. After soaking up the view there, I take Flycatcher Trail, with a detour on Hog Trail to another observation deck. Hunter’s Lane leads further south along the resaca, where two loop trails go in opposite directions. I choose Quail Loop and, after that, follow the road back to headquarters. (Sometimes parts of these trails flood, so check with park staff before striking off.)
Visitors here frequently sight colorful nearctic-neotropical migrants such as summer tanagers, American redstarts and yellow-breasted chats. Around water-filled resacas, least grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, purple gallinules, herons and migrating waterfowl congregate, and dense ground-level vegetation attracts species such as the olive sparrow, long-billed thrasher and white-eyed vireo. Park staff lead bird and butterfly walks, nature hikes and tram tours.
These three parks aren’t just for the birds, or birders. With their natural habitat and focus on interpretive and educational programming, they offer everyone a rare taste of the Rio Grande Valley as nature designed it.
World Birding Center
The World Birding Center consists of nine sites in the Rio Grande Valley, including three state parks, in a corridor stretching from Roma in the west to South Padre Island in the east. The habitats range from dry chaparral brush to crashing surf, providing a colorful and diverse backdrop for birding.
Estero Llano Grande State Park
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
Resaca De La Palma State Park
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