Rio Grande Valley: Birds, Birds & More Birds

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley offers the ultimate birder’s paradise.

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 on the Central Flyway of migrating birds, more than 500 bird species have been recorded in this area, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.

The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks dropping into fields to forage on seeds in the Rio Grande Valley. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks dropping into fields to forage on seeds in the Rio Grande Valley. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay (pictured above), black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole (pictured below).

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 World Birding Center 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 close to its original state.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 355 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies that have been recorded there, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

These 798 acres once resembled the patchwork of many state parks, with tent and RV campers and day-trippers driving in and out. But its transformation to a World Birding Center site included elimination of all traffic except bicycles and a park tram that makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.

Walking into Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park we’re serenaded to a cacophony of calls from trees lining the road — the loud and raucous clatter of plain chachalacas, squawks of woodpeckers, and cooing of doves.

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

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 eastern screech-owl and yellow-rumped warblers.

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 winds to the edge of the country, the Rio Grande, although it’s difficult to see through the thick brush.

From the two-story-high Hawk Tower, though, there’s 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.

A stripe-backed woodpecker of Mexico and Central America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker reaches the United States only in the brushlands and open woodlands of southern Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A stripe-backed woodpecker of Mexico and Central America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker reaches the United States only in the brushlands and open woodlands of southern Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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