6 Days in the Valley
During our time in the Valley we visited twenty-four parks. This seems like a huge number given the short time frame and number of staff, but it barely scratched the surface.
Known for the nine parks that make up the World Birding Center, the Rio Grande Valley is also home to nature centers, refuges, management areas, preserves and any number of city, county and regional parks.
Here is a selection of the parks we did visit, representing only a handful of the those that you can see in the Valley.
Frontera Audubon Nature Preserve | Estero Llano Grande State Park | Resaca de la Palma State Park | Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park | Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area
Just south of downtown Weslaco we find a hidden 15-acre natural haven with an impressive array of birds, butterflies and assorted wildlife. Easy trails wind through the dense undergrowth of the Tamaulipan thornscrub, orchard butterfly gardens, wetlands and ponds. Benches and chairs dot the property so visitors can relax and enjoy the local species and rarities this nature preserve attracts. You can’t miss the iconic Skaggs House, a Texas Historic Landmark built in 1927 by the property’s original owner. SS
Estero Llano Grande State Park: Nature in Action
Buff-bellied hummingbirds buzz the feeder at Estero Llano Grande State Park as a great kiskadee flies overhead and a green jay calls from a nearby tree. In a short nature walk led by interpretive specialist Lorena Guerra, we manage to see 22 species of birds, including nine Valley specialties.
Estero Llano Grande opened in 2006. Pieced together from farmland, a dried-up lake, a trailer park and a church camp, its 230 acres contain some of the most diverse habitat in the Valley. The park’s wetlands attract wading birds and shorebirds such as ibises and roseate spoonbills. The lake is a hot spot for migrating waterfowl. The woodlands and thornscrub contain Valley species such as the green jay and groove-billed ani.
“This used to be an onion field 15 years ago,” says park Superintendent Javier de Leon, who estimates that 85 percent of visitors to the park come for the birds. “Now it’s habitat for lots of birds, and it’s a place for people to learn.”
On the trail, Guerra points out a common paraque sitting motionless on the ground. The bird’s highly effective coloration makes it almost impossible to see against the background of sticks, dirt and leaves.
When a great kiskadee flies by and sounds its kis-ka-dee call, Guerra points out that two of the Valley specialty species, the kiskadee and the plain chachalaca, are what she calls “onomatopoeia birds,” meaning their names reflect the sounds the birds make.
The chachalaca’s loud cha-cha-lac call is most commonly heard during morning hours.
The park isn’t just about birds, though. Alligators, javelinas and bobcats are found there. Plants such as Texas ebony trees, Turks cap and snake-eye bushes provide food and shelter for wildlife.
The park hosts regular butterfly and dragonfly walks, too. As with the birds, many species of butterflies and dragonflies can be found in South Texas but nowhere else in the United States. RR
Resaca de la Palma State Park isn’t even open when we show up for a surprise visit, but the staff happily drops their work to lead us on a tour. The heat is building quickly on this September morning at the Rio Grande delta, but there’s a breeze wafting through the tangle of ebony and mesquite and anacua trees, their branches intertwined in a race up to the sunlight.
Superintendent Pablo de Yturbe and colleagues Lauren Acevedo and John Wagman recount the history of the 1,200-acre park that’s also the largest World Birding Center location, opened in 2008. Plants that grow nowhere else in the U.S. are found here in this subtropical habitat. Acevedo points out a hidden ribbon snake in a mesquite tree; Wagman tells us how huisache blooms are used to make perfume in Europe.
“You’re always watching something different going on,” de Yturbe says of their love for this place. “The forest calms you, gives you a good vibe, good energy.”
Though the park has been open less than a decade, much has been accomplished. Where invasive guinea grass once dominated and choked the landscape, native trees and plants now rise up. Wagman leads native plant tours on the weekends; he has already identified 73 different species in the park.
Our walk leads us to one of four decks that overlook the resaca, and we admire the new interpretive “touch” panels, beautifully illustrated and with Spanish translations. Since the resaca is dry on this day, most of the birds we see are in the trees across the way, but we dream of the common yellowthroat, black-bellied whistling ducks and great kiskadees the water attracts.
Rent a bike or ride the tram. Take a guided nature hike to learn about the flora and fauna. Enjoy haunted trails each October. Shop in the Sabal gift store. There's so much more at this jewel of the Rio Grande Valley. LB
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park: Watching for Hawks
John Kaye spends his mornings at the top of the hawk-watching tower at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, keeping track of migrating hawks. He’s up there every day for two months in the spring and two months in the fall.
From the top of the two-story tower, we can see across the top of the tree canopy, with views across the park and into Mexico.
“Mississippi kite — beautiful,” Kaye says, raising his binoculars. “That one is an immature bird, just getting the white in his wings.”
The kites migrate from the U.S. Great Plains to South America every year, passing through South Texas. These graceful fliers can snatch insects from midair and eat them while soaring.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park has recorded 358 species of birds, including many of the sought-after Valley specialty birds. It’s one of the top bird-watching destinations in the country. During spring and fall migration, thousands of hawks and raptors can be seen from the hawk tower on their journey north and south.
Kaye spots something else in the sky.
“Broad-winged hawk,” he says. “Look closely and you’ll see that the trail edge of the wing is tipped in black. This is a mature adult.”
During the peak of migration, broad-winged hawks can form huge aerial flocks, one of the great spectacles of migration. Since it’s still early in migration season, we see just a handful. Kaye, a retiree and park volunteer, enters the data he collects into a database maintained by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is one of the larger tracts of Rio Grande floodplain forest remaining in the area. Nearly 800 acres are shaded by cedar elm, Texas ebony and anacua. The Bentsen family, who purchased the land in the 1920s, preserved the area that is now the state park because of its beautiful ebony trees. They sold the land to the Texas Parks Board for $1 in 1944, making it the oldest of the state parks in the Valley. RR
The dove hunting in South Texas is legendary.
Just as deer hunters flock to the Hill Country each fall, bird hunters flock to the Valley. When the temperatures start to drop, thousands of hunters head out to the grain fields and sunflower fields to raise shotgun to shoulder as the season gets underway for mourning doves and white-winged doves.
“Historically, this was the place to go, and it still is, for white-winged dove hunting,” says Tony Henehan, wildlife biologist at Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area. “This used to be the only place in the country you could hunt them.”
As its name implies, Las Palomas (“the doves”) was set up for birds. The WMA has 3,311 acres of land across 18 units, and dove hunting is the WMA’s main activity.
For hunters who don’t have access to a private lease, the WMA offers an affordable way to go bird hunting, with many opportunities available through TPWD’s public hunting program.
And if you ever wanted to give chachalaca hunting a try, Las Palomas offers that, too. RR