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Run for the Border

By Rob McCorkle

Destination: McAllen

Travel time from:

AMARILLO - 14 hours / AUSTIN - 6 hours / BROWNSVILLE - 1 hour / DALLAS - 9 hours / EL PASO - 10 hours / HOUSTON - 6 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 4 hours

Join thousands of nature tourists in the “Texas Tropics,” where you can catch sight of birds that range no farther than the Rio Grande Valley.

Sunset is still more than an hour away, but the party on a power line above a strip shopping center in the heart of McAllen is in full swing. Hundreds of green parakeets - most of them mated pairs - squawk, preen and flutter overhead.

The sighting of bird species endemic to Mexico has become increasingly commonplace in this city of 115,000. The green parakeet is one of 500 avian species documented in the bird-blessed Rio Grande Valley — a five-county region stretching 200 miles from Brownsville to Laredo — that serves as a major portal to Mexico’s rich natural and cultural resources. Tens of thousands of nature tourists travel to the “Texas Tropics” year after year in the hope of glimpsing the dozens of specialty birds that range no farther north than the South Texas border region.

For my March visit, the tourism folks of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau placed this novice birder in the hands of guide Roy Rodriguez, a McAllen native and self-taught naturalist in his 40s. An accomplished birder, Roy considers himself a rare bird in his own right, a Mexican-American involved in a subculture dominated in the United States by Anglos, most of them old enough to be his parents.

I met Roy after visiting the International Museum of Art and Science, a 19,000-square-foot facility designed to instill an appreciation of the area’s fragile environment, how precious water is and the role humans play in the health of the Valley ecosystems.

A culture of conservation can’t help but pay future dividends for the Valley, where one study has shown nature tourists pump $100 million a year into the area’s economy. But rapid urban growth, agricultural development and a persistent drought have reduced the Valley’s native swath of riparian woodlands, thorn scrub and floodplain forests to 5 percent of its former acreage.

“Some of our biggest problems are pollution and apathy,” Rodriguez tells me as we gaze at the squawking parakeets. “Many people in the Valley don’t understand just how little of the Valley’s natural environment is left.”

Rodriguez belongs to Friends of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (formerly Friends of the Wildlife Corridor), an organization dedicated to raising millions of dollars from private and government sources to preserve and restore about 135,000 acres for wildlife habitat in the lower Rio Grande Valley. With 80,000 acres set aside, conservationists are more than halfway to that goal.

I have chosen to stay my first night at the historic Casa de Palmas, a Spanish mission-style hotel visited by many celebrities. With red tile roof, lush courtyards, arched portals, wrought iron and tile, Casa de Palmas harkens to the city’s early days as a railroad town, when border banditos stirred up trouble and the Mexican Revolution thundered just across the river. A brass plaque denotes Casa de Palmas as one of the Historic Hotels of America. Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Bing Crosby are just a few of the many notables who have stayed there.

The next morning, we’re off to one of the Valley’s major birding hot spots, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in nearby Mission. Just outside the park gates, we pass the headquarters of the World Birding Center. Work crews are buzzing about three brick buildings with tin roofs designed to collect rainwater, a key component of a sustainable, environmentally sensitive design. When completed, the WBC will consist of almost 4,000 acres of bird-friendly habitat and exhibits at nine sites located throughout the Valley, from Brownsville to Roma.

Bentsen’s 585 acres and Santa Ana NWR’s 2,000 acres are the last remaining well-preserved tracts of riverine hardwood forests that once crowded the banks of the Rio Grande. The giant cypress trees were removed long ago for railroad ties, but cedar elms, hackberry (palo blanco) and other trees still remain. Many are stunted by the lack of river flooding that once prevailed. Nonetheless, the resaca woodlands and thorn scrub that cover the park provide ideal food and cover for an amazing variety of birds and other wildlife.

Just a few feet down the road, Roy is already on point. “Put your bins on that snag over there,” he implores, oblivious to the increasingly steady rain. “See the ladderbacked woodpecker.” A few steps later he is exclaiming: “Oooo, look, an Altamira oriole.” I train my glasses on the burnt-orange beauty in a mesquite 20 feet away.

And so it goes for the next 90 minutes as we prowl the inner loop, stopping at bird blinds and feeding/water stations along the way. An impressive parade of feathered beauties strut their stuff, pecking at bird feeders and fruit slices nailed to trees, and cavorting in the water features: indigo buntings, bronzed cowbirds, green jays, golden-fronted woodpeckers, plain chachalacas, Lincoln sparrows and red-winged blackbirds.

Just off the roadway at the edge of the mesquite thicket, perhaps 15 feet away, a small group of javelinas snuffles around for something to eat. They glance at me nonchalantly and go back to their feeding.

On the way to Anzalduas County Park in Mission, Rodriguez detours to show me a new 40-acre butterfly park being developed by the North American Butterfly Association. Workers are planting citrus trees, a variety of flowering shrubs and wildflowers — some of them native to Mexico — at the NABA headquarters whose presence gives credence to Mission’s title as the Butterfly Capital of Texas.

A quick spin through Anzalduas County Park rewards us with sightings of a Western meadowlark, roughwing hawk, mottled ducks and several species of wading birds just below the dam.

After lunch we meet Mark Curry of McAllen’s Parks and Recreation Department for a tour of a remarkable old estate that is being converted into the city’s World Birding Center site. In the 1930s, an eccentric adventurer and businessman named Jason Mathews built Quinta Matzalan, a complex that included an ornate, adobe-block main house, a detached cottage and a second-story retreat called a “hootch,” a greenhouse and a swimming pool, all set on eight acres of irrigation canals, exotic gardens and native woodlands. The garage of the 6,700-square-foot main home will be converted into the local WBC site’s visitor center. Birding enthusiasts will be able to stroll the grounds where more than 150 species of exotic flora and 110 bird species have been documented.

“The great thing about the location,” Curry says, “is that you’ll be able to fly into the city airport and within five minutes of grabbing your bags and getting a rental car, be here birding at Quinta Matzalan, receiving information about the whole birding center network, maps, directions and so forth. Then, you can step out into our native habitat and see chachalacas and parrots flying overhead.”

An hour later, we check into Casa Santa Ana Bed and Breakfast in Alamo and then make a late afternoon excursion to the charming, easy-to-access Mexican town of Nuevo Progreso, only 20 minutes away. Winter Texans and other tourists are drawn here to peruse well-stocked mercados and tiendas, such as the Canada Store, and to feast on local cuisine. After filling my shopping bags with Mexican ceramics, I am soon eating grilled cabrito (goat) in one of the town’s renowned restaurants, La Fogata.

Casa Santa Ana is situated at the edge of an agricultural field less than a mile from tomorrow’s destination, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Owners Judy and John McClung designed it with birders and other wildlife enthusiasts in mind. They have planted hundreds of native plants that offer refuge for both migrant and resident birds. The bed and breakfast reflects the South Texas architectural tradition, with Saltillo tile floors, bullhide rugs and hand-painted Talavera bathroom basins and tiles.

The next morning under threatening skies, Rodriguez and I rendezvous with a group of birders at Santa Ana NWR for a four-hour birding canoe trip on the Rio Grande. Santa Ana is known internationally as a mecca for birders and other naturalists. The Visitor Center exhibits note the 2,088-acre refuge is home to 1,100 plant types, half of all North American butterfly species, nearly 400 bird species and the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi. We crowd into a canoe shuttle van for the 25-minute ride to the put-in point.

I am pleased to know my new buddy, intrepid birder Roy Rodriguez, will pilot my canoe. A light rain begins to fall and I curse myself for not wearing a hat to keep it off my glasses. Less than three minutes on the torpid waters of what Mexicans call the Rio Bravo, Roy announces he has found a spotted sandpiper on the Mexican shoreline. Binoculars in all canoes are raised for a look. Another few yards downriver, someone points out a ringed kingfisher, the largest of the species, with his brick-red throat and telltale blue-gray crest clearly visible. Minutes later, a blue-winged teal slices across the bow at about 50 yards.

Throughout the next three hours, we revel in a vibrant pageantry of birds: great kiskadees, Eastern phoebe, Couch’s kingbird, great blue heron, white-crowned heron, double-breasted cormorant, green-winged teal and gray hawk. By the time the waterlogged flotilla reaches the takeout point, I’m exhausted but energized by what I’ve seen.

What a trip, I think to myself as I slide down in the van seat for a return to Santa Ana. But that’s not all the Valley has up its sleeve. As the van rounds a bend on one of the refuge’s back roads, a bobcat darts in front and disappears into the brush. In baja Texas, nature’s show never ends.

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