Branded as the Magic Valley to attract people to the region in the early 20th century, the Rio Grande Valley is actually ideally situated for more than a little ecological magic.
Positioned on the 98th meridian — the 100th marks the midpoint of the country — and comprising overlapping habitats in a relatively small area, two major migratory flyways also bisect the Valley.
“Here, east meets west, desert meets the sea, tropics meet the temperate,” said Roy J. Rodriguez, park interpreter at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center. “It has birds unique to the United States, found nowhere else except here.”
There are 30 birds regarded as RGV specialties. And those species are among the 525 documented in the region, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department website.
“That’s what’s so really fun for us as hosts of the festival is to see people see their first green jay for the first time, or their first Altamira oriole,” said Tamie Bulow, registrar for the annual RGV Birding Festival. “Even great-tailed grackles — as obnoxious as they are to us who live down here — when people come down here, it could be the first time they’ve ever seen that bird.
“If you look at it through those eyes, it’s an amazing bird — that huge, long tail and that loud, booming voice, and the squawks and up all night.” Bulow laughed. “Somebody’s happy to see that bird.”
The convergence of so many birds in one area send birders winging to the Valley. Both casual, backyard birders and listers — birders who collect cumulative sightings of different species on “life lists” — have plenty to do and see in the region.
“If they want to see those 30 species, they need to come here to the Rio Grande Valley,” said Tiffany Kersten, recreation supervisor for the City of McAllen and an avid birder. “It’s definitely a hotspot.”
Birding brings serious money to the Rio Grande Valley in the form of ecotourism — $463 million annually, by Texas A&M University’s last count.
But with challenges coming in the form of public perception and border wall construction, Valley birding enthusiasts and nature officials have work to do to engage and educate visitors and residents alike on the area’s ecological importance.
WORLD-CLASS WORLD BIRDING CENTERS
Texas-sized marketing coined the term “world birding center,” a designation now shared among nine nature parks in the region: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, Resaca de la Palma in Brownsville, Roma Bluffs, and South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
Each of the World Birding Centers represents a rich variety of habitats — coastal, temperate, wetlands, desert, and more — and different amenities and programs. The moniker itself brought the ecotourism its organizers had sought, along with investment from Texas Parks & Wildlife and local cities, Bentsen’s Rodriguez says. But that wasn’t all that happened.
“The value of these birding centers is those environmental educators, the interpretive services,” he said. As a part of this effort, organizers develop programs that have measurable positive outcomes. “What we’ve done at these birding centers is create environmental education opportunities for all the schools.”
At Resaca de la Palma, educational programs can even be tailored to complement curriculum currently taught in the classroom. Last year, the park began waiving fees for children during school field trips. All of it is in an effort to help residents realize the value of the parks — and their role in those same spaces across the region.
“We try to educate them about the types of habitats we have in the park that can also be found in their own backyards or just around their neighborhood,” said Lauren Acevedo, park administrative officer at Resaca de la Palma. “That’s one of our main goals — to try and get them to understand how important the area is and why we protect and preserve it.”
Even as the region’s World Birding Centers draw birders and outdoor enthusiasts to their respective parks, other operations are looking to ignite interest in the outdoors on a smaller scale in the community. The McAllen Nature Center, 4101 W. Business 83, offers both free admission and free programs, including weekly bird walks, among others. The accessibility of the nature center brings in a different demographic.
“We get a lot of people coming in actually who aren’t really necessarily nature lovers to begin with,” said Tiffany Kersten, recreation supervisor at McAllen Nature Center. After families enjoy her park, she refers them to others, including the World Birding Centers. “I see us as the gateway site to birding in the Rio Grande Valley.”
It’s a big testament to the power of small spaces.
At 33 acres, the McAllen Nature Center is smaller than most nature centers in the nation and world. But the urban forest offers valuable resources for passing birds and other wildlife, Kersten says. It’s also an example of what people could do around their own homes, creating a mini-oasis for passing birds.
As Resaca de la Palma’s Acevedo explained, RGV residents belong to the same ecosystem whether they’re hiking the trails at one of the region’s parks or having a barbecue in their backyard.
And it’s a matter of considering the food chain, as well as various basic needs, when it comes birdscaping to make residential outdoor areas friendlier to birds, according to Barbara Storz, a horticulture expert who hosts a radio show and writes a newspaper column on gardening.
“We not only have to plant grasses for seeds and shrubs and trees for berries, but we need to put in plants that will be host plants for butterflies,” Storz wrote in an email. “Then, we must step back and avoid any use of pesticides when the plants appear to be covered in caterpillars and trust that the birds will find them. Providing for nature and not interfering with nature is possibly our greatest challenge.”
Looking to attract more birds in your backyard means planning for year-round shelter, nesting, and water, Storz added. To learn more about utilizing backyard spaces, World Birding Centers and other parks offer booklets and programs about native plants. Storz also recommends taking a tour South Texas Master Gardener Educational Garden in San Juan for more insight.
“A home gardener can add a native tree that will host birds, like Texas Ebony or Cedar Elm, and then look for shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers that can expand support for birds,” she wrote.
No backyard for birdscaping? No problem. Even limited space on patios for container gardens can be utilized to draw in more birds.
“Apartment dwellers may support butterflies and hummingbirds with flowering plants on their patios,” Storz wrote.
Native salvia and native turk’s cap attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and songbirds sometimes stop over in succulent gardens during their migration.
“If everyone did that in each of their backyards, if everyone planted a couple of trees and a couple of shrubs, we could completely change the scenario here in the Rio Grande Valley in terms of birding,” Kersten said.
CONSERVATION IS KEY
Cities in the Valley are expanding. But growth shouldn’t come at a cost to conservation and the region’s natural assets, says Javier De Leon, park superintendent of Estero Llano Grande State Park.
“If we look at the Valley in 50 years, if it gets developed as much as some people want it to get developed, are there going to be places for these birds and other wildlife to live?” he asked. “That’s always kind of on our minds because it’s really nice to have places like Estero and Bentsen to go, but the concept of an urban forest — making sure our cities and towns have enough trees to sustain wildlife — is a big thing.”
An urban forest like McAllen’s Quinta Mazatlan is just one example of the numerous opportunities for cities to embrace conservation.
“It’s kind of neat because in the Valley, there’s over 20 nature centers that have staff and programs from Falcon [Lake] to South Padre Island,” De Leon said. “In every town, you’re not really farther than a 20- or 30-minute drive from your local nature center.”
Getting people excited about nature when they visit McAllen Nature Center is one of Kersten’s favorite parts of her job. It’s also a great way to engage interest in conservation.
“About 12 acres of our forest have never been cut over, which is fairly rare even a lot of the other nature centers now,” she said. “They’re pristine.” Visitors to the McAllen Nature Center can see the area as it was 100 to 200 years ago — essentially a time capsule to what the region used to look like prior to development.
But even thriving state parks Estero Llano Grande and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley grew to what they are today from former agriculture fields.
“It’s a testament to habitat restoration,” Bentsen’s Rodriguez said. “As long as it’s not under concrete, you can replace pretty much a lot of the stuff that used to be there.”
Conservation efforts include both preserving the land for the wildlife that need it as well as educating RGV residents on what it takes to be good stewards.
“These folks are coming to our parks, they’re learning about the native habitat, they’re learning about the value of the habitat and the things that live in it,” Rodriguez said. “They’re starting to see the connection and the responsibility they have toward the resource and I think that has changed the way people think and the way people behave.”
The RGV Birding Festival accepts donations to fund conservation projects that study Harris’s hawks and red-crowned parrots.
“Raising money for local projects sustains our mission for conservation in the Valley, supports scientific field research, and bonds our attendees with the Rio Grande Valley,” Bulow said.
Conservation is key for many reasons, but for Bulow, all efforts crystallize into one important point for the RGV’s ecotourism industry.
“The bottom line is they come to see the birds that are in the Valley, and if those birds aren’t here, we’re going to have some problems,” she said. “Our festival would be meaningless if we don’t have those birds here.”
THE VALLEY’S NEST EGG
When a particularly special bird shows up in the region, people want to know about it. That’s what the Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Hotline — rgvbirds.blogspot.com — is for. Birders post sightings, news, and tips for hotspots around the area. It’s not just for local birders.
“The people that have the money and the time, they’ll fly down from Chicago to Harlingen, spend the night in Harlingen, maybe,”said Estero’s De Leon. “Or if their flight gets here at 2 or 3, zoom over to the park try to see it, spend the night, and then fly back the next day — just so they can have that bird on their list.”
De Leon recalled the excitement surrounding a 2014 sighting of a female red-legged honeycreeper in his park. The songbird is rare, most commonly found in Central and South America. Though it was spotted on Thanksgiving Day, by late afternoon, birders from around San Antonio flocked down. By Friday, other Texan birders had arrived, and national birders landed in the area by Saturday.
Flights, car rentals, hotel stays, food and retail purchases, and the jobs those activities support and create, add up. And of the $463 million annually that ecotourism brings to the region, the Harlingen-based RGV Birding Festival nets about $2 million.
The festival celebrated its 25th anniversary last year with 600 participants from 41 states and six countries. The dates for this year’s event are already set: Nov. 6-10.
Most of the birders who keep careful track of the species they’ve seen and crave adding new species to that life list eventually make their way to the Valley. The festival is prepared for them, offering dozens of field trips across the region led by professional guides and organizing seminars headlined by experts, luminaries, and people with good stories to tell. It’s a superlative experience, according to the feedback organizers receive.
“Most people, if you took a raise of hands, you would find that many people have been here as many as 15 times,” Bulow said. “The average is probably anywhere from four to six times people have returned just to the festival. Then they’ll come down on their own at a different time of year.”
Bulow has been with the RGV Birding Festival for three years, but a new challenge has recently emerged for her position.
“For the first time, I’ve fielded questions from people prior to registration about ‘is it safe to come down there?’” she said. “People that have been here before had no qualms, but the new people we were reaching out to, trying to recruit to come down to our festival — they were really sensitive to that.”
THE BARRIERS TO BIRDING
Bulow and the RGV Birding Festival are trying to take steps to manage public perception of the region while offering alternative approaches. Some early efforts include offering festival field trips farther north of the border to reassure skittish visitors.
But one of the Valley’s most storied sites, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, lies right on the Rio Grande. For $1, the Bentsen family signed over the nearly 600 acres to the Texas Parks Board in 1944, the Texas Parks & Wildlife website states. The site opened officially in 1962, and is the Valley’s oldest state park as well as the headquarters for the World Birding Centers.
Bentsen is also in the crosshairs of border wall construction, as are other nature parks along the river.
“If places like the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park get divided by a wall and the clear cutting that’s associated with it, that is just going to devastate a lot of bird populations,” Bulow said. “That just makes me sick in my heart. I have no other words.”
Many people are concerned about the impact the border wall will have on wildlife, including loss of habitat and effect on movement. The ferruginous pygmy owl, for example — an RGV specialty bird — flies just under 5 feet above the ground, researchers from the universities of Arizona and California-Berkely found in 2009. And with only 23 percent of flights above 13 feet, it’s a species that would struggle with flying over a wall.
“Until construction begins at the park and a wall is actually built, [it’s] premature for me to say, with any certainty, what the impacts will be to operations, resources and visitation,” Josh Havens wrote in an email. Havens is the Communications Division director and primary spokesperson for Texas Parks & Wildlife.
It’s an official line repeated by many other officials at state-run parks in the Valley. But whatever the future may hold for these sites, Bentsen’s Rodriguez was certain of one thing.
“I can tell you that we are here and we’re not going anywhere,” he said.