6 Days in the Valley
Throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley organizations and people are preserving the native plants and animals that call this unique area of varied habitat home.
Whether the focus is introducing children to nature, protecting endangered ocelots or recreating wetlands, these are just a few places we visited that focused on conservation.
National Butterfly Center | Allen Williams & the School Habitat Revolution | Parrots in the City | Bahia Grande: Rebirth of a Bay | Cat Crossing: Underpasses Built for Ocelots | Sea Turtle Inc.
We are a bit early for the season during our September visit, but the National Butterfly Center in Mission doesn't disappoint. Executive Director Marianna Treviño Wright takes us for a tour of the gardens in this butterfly paradise, pointing out species as she spots them, divulging their secret recipe for butterfly-attracting banana brew (overripe bananas, brown sugar and dark beer, spread on tree limbs), and interrupting her tales to apologize that the flowers aren’t in full bloom yet. Things get magical in October, Wright tells us, when thousands of plants on the 100-acre private park burst into bloom, attracting clouds of winged wonders. “You literally have to hold your hand over your mouth when you speak, because butterflies will fly in!” LB
Allen Williams& the School Habitat Revolution
He converted his 2.5 acres in Pharr to a native landscape by planting local trees, shrubs and flowers and installing water features — all to attract birds. The birds definitely showed up. Within a year, a rare blue mockingbird appeared, an event that caused a stir in Valley birding circles. A couple of years later, a black-headed nightingale-thrush arrived, marking the first documented U.S. appearance of the bird.
More rarities showed up, and bird watchers from around the country showed up, too, sometimes getting off the plane and rushing to Williams’ property to see whichever avian attraction was there.
Now Williams has grander plans for his habitat crusade in the Valley, where 95 percent of the native habitat has been cleared away.
As landscape wildlife habitat specialist for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District since 2013, he has been busy helping schools install native plant habitats not only as a water- and wildlife-friendly way to landscape but also as a way to incorporate nature and science for kids.
“Our whole approach is to get the kids involved from a young age to plant the plants and for the teachers to bring the kids back out and incorporate the [school lessons] into the outdoors,” he says. “They’re already having to learn about life cycles of insects, learning about the food chain, learning plant and animal adaptations. Now they’re not just recalling what they read; they’re recalling what they saw, what they heard, what they smelled, what they experienced.”
The school district has committed to installing native habitat at all its elementary schools and using the native plants and animals as a hands-on way to teach biology, botany and environmental stewardship.
“These learning habitats are reconnecting today’s children to the outdoors,” says Susana Ramirez, elementary science coordinator for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district. “They learn what supports local wildlife. They look forward to going outside.”
Williams says he was surprised how few students appreciated the unique plant and bird life of the Valley. He wants them to know anacua trees, great kiskadees and indigo snakes.
Things are already changing. At Pharr’s Palmer Elementary School, which changed its mascot to the green jay and installed native plant gardens, Williams walks the hallways on his way to the school’s 4-acre nature park. He passes a
line of students and asks, “Who’s seen a hummingbird today?” Several students raise their hands.
One young student recognizes Williams as he walks by and says, “Hey, my dad said I could join the bird-watching club!”
Williams answers back: “Fantastic!”
Palmer science lab teacher Yanel Leos says the outdoor lessons are paying off.
“It’s a better way for the students to understand,” she says. “They come to lab, and we’re able to bring them outside. They’re not just looking at pictures of the life cycle; they’re actually able to come and see.”
Building on this success, regional school officials created the Lower Rio Grande Valley Learning Landscape Collaborative, with the Harlingen, McAllen and Donna school districts also committed to building native plant school habitats and using them for school science lessons.
The collaborative caught the eye of former first lady Laura Bush’s Texan by Nature organization, which selected the initiative for its Conservation Wrangler Program.
“This is a transformative project for the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” says Shannon Harris, program manager for Texan by Nature. “If you get school districts on board with creating schoolyard habitats, it’s a win-win situation.”
Not a bad outcome for a guy who just wanted to see some birds. RR
Parrots in the City
At Brownsville’s Oliveira Park, red-crowned parrots fly in noisily each night to roost in the tall trees, unfazed by the teams playing baseball, the families playing soccer and the teens riding skateboards at the skate park.
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley student Caleb Arellano and professor Karl Berg often hear the parrots before they see them, their raucous squawking filling the night air. The pair maintain a monthly census of the birds as part of a ramped-up effort to learn more about this urban-dwelling bird that’s the only wild, native parrot in the United States.
The Rio Grande Valley has a thriving red-crowned parrot population. The South Texas flocks are a smaller but likely more stable population than the one in Mexico, where the parrot faces increasing threats.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has funded two grants to study the parrots. Findings will be shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced in 2014 that the red-crowned parrot was a candidate species for threatened or endangered status. In 2016, TPWD organized the first official parrot census, sending groups of “parrot people” across the Valley to count the birds.
A team from Texas A&M University received a TPWD grant to assess the population dynamics of the South Texas parrots and evaluate threats to the birds. Berg got money from the conservation license plate program to build artificial nest boxes and study nesting behavior.
The parrots nest in dead palm trees, and Berg worries that the Valley is losing more and more nest sites.
“One good hurricane comes through, and all those good palm snags could come down,” he says. “I thought it would be good to put up artificial nest structures to mitigate that loss.”
The history of the parrot in Texas is unclear, but biologists believe they’re native birds.
“We have historical records that people saw parrots in the Valley,” says Tony Henehan, TPWD wildlife biologist in the Valley. “We looked at the red-crowned parrot habitat in Mexico, and we know they exist in big ebony forests and sabal palm forests.
That habitat used to extend to Kingsville. We think there’s a very good chance that the birds in Mexico ranged into the U.S. as well and that they continued to live here in the Valley.”
The parrots, which sport bright green feathers and a vivid patch of red on the head, attract bird watchers who visit the Valley for its rich bird life.
“Our parrots are one of our biggest draws,” Henehan says. “They’re a big, charismatic species. They’re colorful. They have personalities to them. You can watch a pair and get a sense for how they’re feeling and what they’re saying to each other. They’re intelligent. People tend to identify with all those characteristics.” RR
Bahia Grande: Rebirth of a Bay
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
For 70 years, the desiccated wetlands of Bahía Grande produced clouds of blowing dust that coated cars and clogged air conditioners. The basin, a dried-up wasteland, was lacking a key ingredient before it could become a thriving nursery for finfish and shellfish, a magnet for nesting water birds and one of the most successful conservation restoration projects in Texas.
The key: Just add water.
In 2005, a channel was dug to restore tidal flow to the 6,500-acre basin, and the results have been nothing short of remarkable.
“Since that time, this property has been burgeoning with life,” says Boyd Blihovde, refuge manager of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. “We’ve got the largest gull-billed tern rookery in the world. Reddish egrets are nesting on the islands. There are black skimmers, brown pelicans, great blue herons. This went from zero nesting in 2005 to now some of the largest populations in the world for certain species of colonial nesting birds.”
Fish and other marine life have returned, too.
“In the water, it’s been equally phenomenal,” Blihovde says. “Redfish, spotted seatrout, flounder, even species like green sea turtles have come back. The lesson for me is that all you have to do is give Mother Nature a chance. Essentially, all we had to do is open the floodgates for water.”
Bahía Grande was cut off from the Lower Laguna Madre by construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel in the 1930s. It became a dust bowl, practically devoid of life, for decades. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired 21,700 acres surrounding Bahía Grande. It designated the area as part of the Laguna Atascosa refuge and planned a restoration.
Reflooding of the basin, between Brownsville and Port Isabel, began in 2005 with the construction of a pilot channel connecting Bahía Grande to the ship channel. The basin filled quickly. Two smaller interior basins were reconnected to Bahía Grande in 2007, restoring flow throughout the whole system. The project is one of the largest wetland restorations in North America.
It’s been a group effort. The Bahía Grande Restoration Partnership’s more than 65 members include conservation groups, anglers, educators, landowners, government agencies and the tourism industry.
There’s still work to be done. Blihovde says the pilot channel is too small — “like drinking a 5-gallon bucket of water with a straw” — resulting in an inadequate exchange of water and hypersaline conditions in the bay.
Officials want to triple the size of the channel to allow for a greater daily exchange of water. They are working to put together funding to make that happen.
Willy Cupit, TPWD coastal ecologist, says the hypersalinity is a limiting factor for certain plants and wildlife, especially in the upper reaches of the bay.
“It’s a success as it is, but that doesn’t mean there’s not more to be done to make it even better,” he says.
Cupit says he’d also like to see more seagrass get established.
“Seagrass will provide more habitat for fish, shrimp, all the aquatic critters,” Cupit says. “Once the seagrass gets in there, you’ll see more of everything else. The other benefit is you’ll see better water quality.”
On his drive to work every day, Cupit passes by Bahía Grande and sees the transformation — anglers catching fish near the channel, birds flying overhead, vegetation lining the shore — brought about by just adding water.
“For the return on your effort in terms of a habitat restoration project, you couldn’t ask for any better,” he says. RR
Cat Crossing: Underpasses Built for Ocelots
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
Beachgoers on the way to South Padre Island most likely won’t notice that they’re driving over one of the newest innovations for Texas wildlife. Four new wildlife underpasses have been constructed on Texas Highway 100 west of Port Isabel to make road crossings safer for ocelots, one of the most endangered cats in the United States.
A total of 15 ocelot underpasses are being built around Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in what is the first major effort in Texas to incorporate wildlife-friendly crossings in roadways. The first underpasses opened this year.
Besides habitat loss, road mortality is considered the biggest threat to these beautiful spotted cats, found in South Texas. Texas roadways have already taken a fatal toll on ocelots. In one deadly 10-month stretch in 2015–16, seven ocelots were killed by cars. With a Texas ocelot population numbering in the dozens, any deaths are acutely felt.
“These projects have been designed from the beginning because ocelots were getting hit on the road,” says Boyd Blihovde, refuge manager of Laguna Atascosa. “We feel here in South Texas, this is maybe one of our last chances to really help the ocelot avoid extinction.”
Wildlife crossing structures have been shown to be successful in other states and countries. In Florida, for example, panthers make use of wildlife underpasses on roadways, and in Wyoming, pronghorns cross a specially built overpass to travel between their summer and winter grounds.
Of the 15 Texas ocelot underpasses, nine are being built on FM 106 leading into the refuge, four on Texas Highway 100 and two on interior refuge roads.
FM 106 was notoriously bumpy, rutted and filled with potholes. But at least it kept drivers moving at a slower speed as they drove through the refuge, home to the endangered ocelot.
When the Texas Department of Transportation decided to redo FM 106, wildlife managers were justifiably concerned. But they also saw an opportunity. They had been urging the construction of wildlife tunnels for more than a decade. Discussions led to a landmark decision to include the underpasses in the road design.
“We’re really in the infancy in this state for doing this sort of stuff,” says Laura Zebehazy, TPWD program leader for wildlife habitat assessment. “The sky’s the limit on this. It’s all about collaboration, willing partners, funding and people understanding how simple things can make a huge impact when it comes to connectivity for wildlife.”
Along with the underpasses, fencing is being put up to funnel ocelots and other animals toward the crossings. A 2016 international study found an 83 percent reduction in roadkill of large mammals when fencing was used in combination with wildlife crossing structures.
Blihovde noted that a reduction in roadkill will benefit both animals and people. “The fence project and the crossings will make this road safer for everybody,” he says.
In many of the underpasses, “catwalks” have been constructed — basically raised concrete platforms that run the length of the tunnel — so ocelots can cross without getting their feet wet. They are cats, after all. RR
South Padre Island
Executive Director Jeff George gently and thoroughly examines the newest arrival to South Padre Island’s Sea Turtle Inc. in a back room. Vet tech Nina Nahvi and assistant Mariana Devlin pull out measuring tapes and jot down the Atlantic green’s vital statistics. I can’t take my eyes off the poor creature’s grotesque masses of tumors, clustered around its eyes, neck and flippers.
George explains that No. 245 (this year!) is one of many sea turtles suffering from this viral malady similar to herpes, and this one’s in particularly bad shape. Commonly known as FP, fibropapillomatosis was discovered in Texas turtles in 2010, and now nearly half of all green sea turtles display ever-increasing numbers and sizes of tumors. Sea turtles have been on the endangered list for a half-century, faced with a variety of challenges: tangled fishing lines, pollution, boat propellers and now this spreading disease.
Out front in the public area, volunteers monitor injured turtles (most have missing or damaged flippers) as they float placidly in round, open tanks. Visitors read about the turtles in notebooks, and ask questions of the circulating volunteers, who chat happily about their adorable charges. The most famous of them all is Allison, with only one good flipper and a space-age prosthesis that keeps her from swimming in circles or drowning. Other tanks hold permanent residents with whimsical names like Merry Christmas and Hang Ten. A hospital on-site treats and releases 300 to 500 turtles each year.
The staff and volunteers also monitor and protect sea turtle nests on South Padre Island; nest count increases each year are a testament to their success. George says that the 353 Kemp’s ridley nests found in Texas this year are a big jump from last year’s figure of 220.
“That success has taken years of effort from TPWD, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and small entities like us,” George notes.
It’s all in a day’s work here, but soon the modest building will be replaced by a fantastic new $6 million facility that opens this winter, right after Sea Turtle Inc.’s 40th anniversary celebration as a nonprofit in November. Hourly turtle talks, a large aquarium, interactive kids’ exhibits and a 300-seat amphitheater with a view of the wetlands and a top-notch theater system will be features of the new site, just behind the old one. The former facility will continue to operate as an official sea turtle hospital. LB