Top 3 Birding Hotspots in Southeastern Arizona

Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads, where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together.

Whitewater Draw, a 1500-acre wildlife area about 28 miles southeast of Tombstone, attracts many species of birds including snow geese and sandhill cranes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Whitewater Draw, a 1500-acre wildlife area about 28 miles southeast of Tombstone, attracts many species of birds including snow geese and sandhill cranes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” harboring rare species and communities of plants and animals.

If you are a birder, Southeastern Arizona is the place to go. Birding enthusiast are attracted to this unique region with many arriving in recreational vehicles.

The following are our suggestions for where to find the best birding spots. Generally, they are located along streams and rivers or in forested mountain canyons. Some will have nearby RV parks or forestry campgrounds but will require a drive in your toad/tow vehicle.

3. Whitewater Draw

The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is in the southwestern part of Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north.

The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats, including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields.

Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.

This is a playa that fills with shallow water during the wet seasons and attracts many types of waterfowl, including migrating snow geese, sandhill cranes, and many kinds of ducks, herons, egrets, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Hunting in the grasslands or soaring overhead are prairie and peregrine falcons and wintering hawks. Spring and fall are good times to spot migratory birds. Surrounding grasslands nurture a wealth of quail, doves, sparrows, and songbirds throughout the year.

Ramsey Canyon Preserve is renowned for its outstanding scenic beauty and the diversity of its plant and animal life, 15, species of humming birds, scrub jays, and acorn woodpeckers (pictured above). © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ramsey Canyon Preserve is renowned for its outstanding scenic beauty and the diversity of its plant and animal life, 15, species of humming birds, scrub jays, and acorn woodpeckers (pictured above). © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While hardly luxurious, this area does have some useful amenities including restrooms, RV access and parking, walking trails and interpretive signs, and viewing platforms with binoculars.

In the wet season, the ground can be soft and muddy. Take precautions. If you will be exploring in a vehicle away from the parking area, a 4-wheel drive is recommended.

Whitewater Draw is a 1500-acre wildlife area about 28 miles southeast of Tombstone.

To read more on Whitewater Draw, click here.

2. Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Managed by the Nature Conservancy, 380-acre Ramsey Canyon Preserve, located within the Upper San Pedro River Basin in southeastern Arizona, is renowned for its outstanding scenic beauty and the diversity of its plant and animal life.

Known worldwide as a birding hotspot, it is home to more than 400 species of plants and more than 170 species of birds.

The featured jewels of this pristine habitat are the 14 species of hummingbirds that congregate here from spring through autumn.

The diverse wildlife and habitats of Ramsey Canyon may be viewed from the Hamburg Trail. This open-ended route parallels Ramsey Creek through the preserve before climbing 500 feet in a half-mile series of steep switchbacks. These lead to a scenic overlook in the Coronado National Forest one mile from the preserve headquarters. From the overlook, the trail continues upstream and enters the Miller Peak Wilderness Area where it joins other trails.

Ramsey Canyon Preserve is about six miles south of Sierra Vista.

To read more on Ramsey Canyon Preserve, click here.

1. San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) encompasses 56,000 acres and some 40 miles of the meandering Upper San Pedro River between the Mexican border and St. David.

The word riparian refers to an area where plants and animals thrive because of an availability of water, either at or near the soil surface. This riparian corridor supports one of the Southwest’s last remaining desert riparian ecosystems.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages this area. Designated a Globally Important Bird Area in 1996, this 56,000-acre preserve is home to over 100 species of breeding birds and invaluable habitat for over 250 migrant and wintering birds.

Designated a Globally Important Birding Area, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, is home to over 250 species of birds including the lesser goldfinch. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Designated an Important Birding Area, San Pedro National Conservation Area, is home to over 250 species of birds including the lesser goldfinch. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good way to visit is to go to San Pedro House, seven miles east of Sierra Vista off Route 90. Located on the site of an old cattle ranch, the visitor center is in the old ranch house beneath the umbrella of two gigantic cottonwood trees. One of these great patriarchs has lived over 130 years. This tree alone is worth a visit. Here you will find informative exhibits, numerous birds, a guided walk along the river, and a charming bookstore run by The Friends of the San Pedro River.

Adjacent to the San Pedro House are ramadas, interpretative exhibits, picnic tables, and bird feeders for close-up encounters with the tiny travelers.

Outside, you can nab a walking stick and explore several miles of trails that lead through sparrow-laden sacaton grasslands, along the cottonwood- and willow-strung riverbank, and beside cattail-lined ponds.

Other San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area access points include St. David Holy Trinity Monastery, St. David Cienega, Charleston, Hereford, and Fairbank Historic Townsite where you can peer into a restored schoolhouse, view an 1882 Mercantile building, and walk the trails to the river.

To read more about San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA), click here.

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on Southeastern Arizona Birding Hotspots

Part 1: Top 6 Birding Hotspots in Southeastern Arizona

The journey continues…

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.

Worth Pondering…
Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

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Top 6 Birding Hotspots in Southeastern Arizona

Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads, where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is home to 260 species of birds including the vermilion flycatcher. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is home to 260 species of birds including the vermilion flycatcher. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” harboring rare species and communities of plants and animals.

If you are a birder, Southeastern Arizona is the place to go. Birding enthusiast are attracted to this unique region with many arriving in recreational vehicles.

The following are our suggestions for where to find the best birding spots. Generally, they are located along streams and rivers or in forested mountain canyons. Some will have nearby RV parks or forestry campgrounds but will require a drive in your toad/tow vehicle.

6. Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve

Between the majestic Santa Rita and beautiful red Patagonia mountains is the rustically charming town of Patagonia. Set among rich foothills and valley grasslands, towering cottonwoods, and the Sonita and Harshaw creeks, Patagonia has been called the “Jewel of the Sonoita Valley” due to its natural beauty and vitality.

Since early days, Patagonia’s oak grasslands, at over 4,000 feet have provided excellent climate and terrain for cattle ranching, and the Patagonia Mountains, filled with rich ore bodies, have attracted miners.

At first glance Patagonia is a town that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. However, a second glance will reveal some surprises about this historical former Spanish land grant. There is a growing community of artists and crafts people that have decided that this is a very desirable area to live and work.

And Patagonia is an internationally renowned bird-watching destination with visitors from around the world stopping here to see over 250 species of rare and exotic birds that migrate from Mexico to this southeastern tip of Arizona.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, is 850 acres of cottonwood and willow forests with trees as old as 130 years and as tall as 100 feet. Well-marked trails take visitors along two miles of Creek and into undeveloped flood plains. More than 260 species of birds call the preserve home, including the gray hawk, green kingfisher, vermilion flycatcher, and violet-crowned hummingbird.

In Patagonia, drive north on 4th Avenue; turn left at the “T” onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Preserve closed Mondays and Tuesdays year-round.

5. Paton’s Hummingbirds

Paton’s Birder Haven is home to numerous species of hummingbirds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Paton’s Birder Haven is home to numerous species of hummingbirds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On your way to the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, stop for a visit to Wally and Marion Patons’ home; it’s on the edge of town on your left.

Paton’s Birder Haven had its start in 1974, when Wally and Marion—life-long bird-lovers—began to plant flowers and install water features on their property. They put up hummingbird feeders and had great success, attracting Violet-crowned Hummingbirds along with even rarer species like the Cinnamon Hummingbird and Plain-Capped Starthroat.

When the couple realized birders were crowding outside their fence to get a better view, the Patons opened the gate and welcomed them inside.

Over time the Patons provided a tent for visiting birders, installed benches, and provided bird guides. They placed a chalkboard in the yard so daily sightings could be noted. On the gate, they installed a tin can called the “sugar fund” for donations to help defray the cost feeding their beloved hummers.

In recent years, Wally and Marion both died, creating an uncertain future for this birding landmark as the remaining family has opted to liquidate the property.

That’s when American Bird Conservancy, Tucson Audubon, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours stepped in to join forces in an effort to purchase the Paton property and together contributed about a third of the purchase amount and entered into a contract with the Paton family.

The remainder of the purchase price—around $200,000—was the goal of the fund-raising effort, which successfully ended October 15 (2013). Thanks to many hundreds of generous birders, the Paton property will now be maintained in perpetuity for birders and birds—in keeping the tradition Wally and Marion Paton began.

The associated groups are scheduled to close on the property in early 2014. Once the sale is complete, Tucson Audubon will assume ownership and management responsibilities of the Paton property, and maintain an office there.

Patagonia Lake State Park is a popular camping and birding site located 12 miles south of town. © Rex Vogel, all rights
Patagonia Lake State Park is a popular camping and birding site located 12 miles south of town. © Rex Vogel, all rights

4. Patagonia Lake State Park

Patagonia Lake State Park is a popular camping and birding site located 12 miles south of town.

The park’s campground offers 72 developed sites, 34 sites with hookups, and 12 boat access sites. Other park facilities include a beach, picnic area with Ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, marina and camp supply store, restrooms, showers, and a dump station.

Hikers can stroll along the beautiful creek trail and see a variety of birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, and elegant trogon.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on Southeastern Arizona Birding Hotspots

Part 2: Top 3 Birding Hotspots in Southeastern Arizona

The journey continues…

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.

Worth Pondering…
Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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Southeastern Arizona Birding Jewel Saved

In mid-September (2013) I reported on the fund-raising effort that had been launched to purchase a landmark birding property located in bird-rich Southeastern Arizona.

Paton's Birder Haven
Paton’s Birder Haven

Anyone who has spent time carrying binoculars, camera, and a birding field guide though the mountains, canyons, and deserts of Southeastern Arizona knows the region as a premiere birding hotspots and a favorite for outdoor recreation and RVing.

The community of Patagonia (population 913), in particular, is home to many talented artists, artisans, and writers. Here you’ll find potters, weavers, jewelry makers, painters, folk and avant garde artists, as well as many known and not so well-known writers.

The elevation (4,050 feet) makes for milder summer temperatures than much of Arizona, plus there are a number of cooling lakes within the general area, but yet in winter the occasional dusting of snow usually melts by noon except in the shady crevices of the surrounding mountains.

Patagonia is located in a lush riparian habitat where Sonoita Creek meanders year-round between the Patagonia and Santa Rita mountains. The diversity of vegetation (riparian, desert, and mountain) provides sustenance for more than 300 bird species—including Mexican and Central American species that reach the extreme northern limit of their range here.

The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and Patagonia Lake State Park are renowned for the 300 species of birds that migrate through or nest along their creeks and waterways.

For many years, birders who traveled to Patagonia often visited the home of Wally and Marion Paton.

Paton's Birder Haven backyard with hummingbird feeders; Wally and Marion Paton
Paton’s Birder Haven backyard with hummingbird feeders; Wally and Marion Paton

Paton’s Birder Haven had its start in 1974, when Wally and Marion—life-long bird-lovers—began to plant flowers and install water features on their property. They put up hummingbird feeders and had great success, attracting Violet-crowned Hummingbirds along with even rarer species like the Cinnamon Hummingbird and Plain-Capped Starthroat.

When the couple realized birders were crowding outside their fence to get a better view, the Patons opened the gate and welcomed them inside.

Over time the Patons provided a tent for visiting birders, installed benches, and provided bird guides. They placed a chalkboard in the yard so daily sightings could be noted. On the gate, they installed a tin can called the “sugar fund” for donations to help defray the cost feeding their beloved hummers.

In recent years, Wally and Marion both died, and the surviving family members opted to liquidate the property.

That’s when American Bird Conservancy, Tucson Audubon, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours stepped in to join forces in an effort to purchase the Paton property and together contributed about a third of the purchase amount and entered into a contract with the Paton family.

The remainder of the purchase price—around $200,000—was the goal of the fund-raising effort, which successfully ended October 15. Thanks to many hundreds of generous birders, the Paton property will now be maintained in perpetuity for birders and birds—in keeping the tradition Wally and Marion Paton began.

Additional funds will continue to be accepted by Tucson Audubon for repairs to the building (including reroofing and rewiring) and the associated property (including much-needed landscaping with native vegetation).

To make a contribution for this additional work, click here.

The associated groups are scheduled to close on the property in early 2014. Once the sale is complete, Tucson Audubon will assume ownership and management responsibilities of the Paton property, and maintain an office there.

In addition to some of the Paton’s favorite hummingbird species like the Violet-crowned and Broad-tailed, along with the rarer Cinnamon hummingbird and Plain-Capped Starthroat, the Patagonia region hosts thick-billed kingbirds, zone-tailed hawks, green kingfishers, black-bellied whistling ducks, northern beardless-tyrannulets, black-capped gnatcatchers, and rose-throated becards.

header_MOQUAnd of course, there’s the exclamation point on every Southern Arizona birding visitor’s list, the elegant trogon.

And thanks to generous birders, the Paton legacy will continue far into the future.

Details

American Bird Conservancy

Website: abcbirds.org

Tucson Audubon Society

Website: tucsonaudubon.org

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours

Website: ventbird.com

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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Saving a Southeastern Arizona Birding Hotspot

Anyone who has spent any time carrying binoculars, camera, and a birding field guide though the mountains, canyons, and deserts of Southeastern Arizona knows the region as a premiere birding hotspots and a favorite for outdoor recreation and RVing.

Paton's Birder Haven
Paton’s Birder Haven

The many unique and special places in this region offer a spectacular array of exotic and unusual birds including species at their extreme northernmost migrating range.

These birding hotspots include Sabino Canyon, the Chiricahua and Huachuca mountains, Saguaro National Park, Madera Canyon, Ramsey Canyon Preserve, Coronado National Monument, Santa Catalina Mountains, San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, Whitewater Draw, Muleshoe Ranch Preserve, Buenas Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and the Mountain Empire of Patagonia-Sonoita.

The Mountain Empire contains important conservation areas, including one of the only remaining high desert short-grass prairies in America, the San Rafael Valley.

Visitors come for the spectacular scenery of the valley in which Patagonia is nestled, and the clean air that beckons hikers into the surrounding canyons.

The community of Patagonia, in particular, is home to many talented artists, artisans, and writers. Here you’ll find potters, weavers, jewelry makers, painters, folk and avant garde artists, as well as many known and not so well-known writers.

The elevation (Patagonia is 4,050 feet, Sonoita is 4,885 feet) makes for milder summer temperatures than much of Arizona, plus there are a number of cooling lakes within the general area, but yet in winter the occasional dusting of snow usually melts by noon except in the shady crevices of the surrounding mountains.

Paton's Birder Haven backyard with hummingbird feeders; Wally and Marion Paton
Paton’s Birder Haven backyard with hummingbird feeders; Wally and Marion Paton

Patagonia is located in a lush riparian habitat where Sonoita Creek meanders year-round between the Patagonia and Santa Rita mountains, not far from the Arizona/Mexico border. The diversity of vegetation (riparian, desert, and mountain) provides sustenance for more than 300 bird species—including Mexican and Central American species that reach the extreme northern limit of their range here.

The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and Patagonia Lake State Park are renowned for the 300 species of birds that migrate through or nest along their creeks and waterways.

For many years, birders who came to Patagonia often visited the home of Wally and Marion Paton.

Paton’s Birder Haven had its start in 1974, when Wally and Marion—life-long bird-lovers—began to plant flowers and install water features on their property. They put up hummingbird feeders and had great success, attracting Violet-crowned Hummingbirds along with even rarer species like the Cinnamon Hummingbird and Plain-Capped Starthroat.

When the couple realized birders were crowding outside their fence to get a better view, the Patons opened the gate and welcomed them inside.

Over time the Patons provided a tent for visiting birders, installed benches, and provided bird guides. They placed a chalkboard in the yard so daily sightings could be noted. On the gate, they installed a tin can called the “sugar fund” for donations to help defray the cost feeding their beloved hummers.

In recent years, Wally and Marion both died, creating an uncertain future for this birding landmark as the remaining family has opted to liquidate the property.

With your help, the property can be maintained in perpetuity for birders and birds—a fitting tribute to the Paton’s legendary generosity. And you will be able to visit to see the birds too!

As a result, American Bird Conservancy, Tucson Audubon, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours have joined forces in the effort to purchase Paton’s Patagonia Birder Haven and have jointly contributed about a third of the purchase amount and have entered into a contract with the Paton family.

Paton feeder
Paton feeder

It is hoped the remaining two-thirds—about $200,000—can be raised through contributions before October (2013).

Once the property is successfully procured, Tucson Audubon would assume long-term management, while maintaining the home and property as a public birding site.

Details

American Bird Conservancy

Website: abcbirds.org

Tucson Audubon Society

Website: tucsonaudubon.org

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours

Website: ventbird.com

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Read More

Birding Hotspot: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

UFO sightings may have put Roswell, New Mexico, on the map, but at nearby Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, strange creatures are more than visitors.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge offers a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities. Visitor Center can be seen in the distance. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They inhabit odd sinkholes, playa lakes, seeps, and gypsum springs fed by an underground river.

Straddling the Pecos River the Refuge consists of an assortment of water habitats. Numerous seeps and free-flowing springs, oxbow lakes, marshes and shallow water impoundments, water-filled sinkholes, and the refuge namesake, Bitter Lake, make up these unique environments.

Scattered across the land are over 70 natural sinkholes of different shapes and sizes. Created by groundwater erosion these water habitats form isolated communities of fish, invertebrate, amphibians, and other wildlife.

Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system. Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the Refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the desert southwest.

The Refuge falls into three distinct areas along the Pecos River:

  • The 9,620-acre Salt Creek Wilderness to the north protects native grasses, sand dunes, and brush bottomlands.
  • The middle unit features refuge headquarters and the auto tour, which winds among lakes, wetlands, croplands, and desert uplands.
  • The southern part of the refuge belongs exclusively to wildlife and is closed to all public access. Here refuge croplands support tremendous flocks of wintering birds.
Solitude and contentment that is Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 10 miles northeast of Roswell, Bitter Lake is truly a jewel, a wetland oasis providing habitat for thousands of migrating sandhill cranes, Ross’s and snow geese, and about twenty duck species such as pintails, mallards, canvasback, gadwall, shovelers, and teal.

Arriving in November, most sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other waterfowl depart in late February for their long flight to breeding grounds in the north.

An 8-mile, self-guided auto tour around the lakes starts at the visitor center near refuge headquarters.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

At first glance, you might see only the 10,000 or so wintering sandhill cranes and 20,000 snow geese. But take a deeper look.

The Refuge also protects and provides habitat for some of New Mexico’s rarest and unusual creatures such as the least shrew, Noel’s amphipod, least tern, and Roswell spring snail.

Barking frogs nestle in limestone crevices or burrow in gypsum soils. Their yapping chorus can be heard in June and July. These odd frogs, found in New Mexico only in Chaves, Eddy, and Otero counties, join other wildlife, some of which are relics from millions of years ago when the refuge was once a Permian shallow sea.

Within the sinkholes and springs, tiny native fish thrive, like the Pecos pupfish, green-throat darter, and the endangered Pecos gambusia.

Pecos pupfish males change from dull brown to iridescent blue in breeding season.

Courting greenthroat darter males rival them in brilliance, transforming from olive to emerald green with reddish fins.

The White-faced Ibis is one of more than 350 species of birds that inhabit Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the Refuge’s 24 fish species are native to the Pecos River drainage waters.

In summer, the interior least tern nests on refuge salt flats, the only place this endangered species breeds in New Mexico. Snowy plovers, killdeer, avocets, and black-necked stilts raise their chicks as well.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Part 2: Dragonflies Habitat: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

Worth Pondering…
I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather heave birds than airplanes.

—Charles Lindbergh

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Frontera Audubon: An Urban Nature Preserve

Located four blocks from the Weslaco downtown business district, Frontera Audubon is a private non-profit nature preserve featuring mature native woodlands, thornscrub, trails, wetlands, and butterfly gardens.

A bird of South Texas and northeastern Mexico, the black-crested titmouse is common in oak woods and towns. It was once considered a subspecies of the tufted titmouse, and the two species are very similar in appearance, voice, and habits. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 15-acre urban site provides habitat for a wide variety of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, and reptiles. Over 70 kinds of butterflies are documented on the nature preserve including many unique in the U.S. to South Texas.

Most of the Rio Grande specialty bird species are regularly seen here including the green jay (pictured below), buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee, long-billed thrasher, green kingfisher, white-tipped dove, groove-billed ani, golden-fronted and ladder-backed woodpeckers, olive sparrow, black-crested titmouse (pictured to the right), and altamira oriole.

The Center is a model in land conservation, water management, and nature tourism. The staff is small in number but large in knowledge and hospitality.

The heart of the Sanctuary is the ‘Thicket’, “native Tamaulipan thornscrub, wetlands, and butterfly gardens” in the 15 acre property that is surprisingly in an urban section of town. It is a great place for novices to sit and watch birds come in to feeders, while rarities draw in experts and photographers to get close-up shots.

All of the trails in the Thicket are dirt trails but very well maintained and quite level with the exception of the elevated boardwalk over wetlands.  There are a number of benches throughout the Thicket as well as seating set up at feeding stations.

Since there is a ramp accessing the visitor’s center, all of the Frontera Audubon Sanctuary except possibly the boardwalk is wheelchair and handicap accessible. There are clean restrooms inside the visitor center where maps of the trails are available as well as information about what birds, and butterflies, are being seen.

The diamond-back water snake is a long, heavy-bodied, tan to gray-brown non-venomous reptile with a pattern of dark brown to black chain-like markings. The belly is yellow, but with dusky brown markings. As the name implies it lives in slow moving waters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ponds are fed by an artificial ‘stream’ that provides running water that is so attractive to birds as well as water drips to ensure the maximum species draw. There are benches across the sidewalk from the water feature where photographers are often seen getting close-up photos.

Thicket Trail

Frontera’s 15 acre site offers opportunities for bird and butterfly enthusiasts and all those interested in the wonders of nature and biodiversity.

Lesser goldfinches breed in the sunflowers behind the Visitors’ Center, and a wetland that has been developed on the property attracts large numbers of black-bellied whistling-ducks and shorebirds. Green parakeets have nested in cavities in the dead trees bordering the pond, and red-crowned parrots roost in old trees. Few places in the Valley are more populated with plain chachalacas. In migration the thicket is among the better spots to see neotropical migrants away from the coast.

Details

Frontera Audubon

Frontera Audubon is dedicated to preserving the native habitat of the Rio Grande Valley.

Admission: $5; senior, $4; children age 12 and under, free

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday; 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; Sunday, 12:00-4:00 p.m.; Closed Monday

Address: 1101 South Texas Blvd (FM 88), Weslaco, Texas 78596

Phone: (956) 968-3275

Website: fronteraaudubon.org

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Please Note: This is the twelfth in a series of stories on Rio Grande Valley nature hot spots

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Oh, what a beautiful morning’,

Oh, what a beautiful day.

I got a beautiful feelin’

Ev’rything’s goin’ my way.

Oh, what a beautiful day!

—“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from the musical Oklahoma!

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Wings of Spring: South Padre Island Nature and Birding Center (SPI BNC)

Padre Island is a gorgeous island off the southern coast of Texas, the largest of the Texas barrier islands and the longest barrier island in the world. Padre Island is made up of North Padre Island, which is 26 miles long and runs south from Corpus Christi’s south jetty to the Padre Island National Seashore.

The Black Skimmer is easy to identify by its large red and black bill, which is extremely thin, with the lower part longer than the top. It has white underparts, a black back and cap, and very short red legs. Look for it while bird watching on Padre Island as it flies along the water, dragging its bill to catch fish. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore then begins south for an additional 70 miles to the artificial Port Mansfield Cut, where jetties were built in 1964, separating Padre Island into two parts.

If you are looking for some incredible bird watching, this is the place to visit in South Texas.

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.

Wildlife watchers have been coming to the Island for many years, in search of birds, primarily, and these nature-tourists come by the thousands.

The ribbon-cutting for the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center was held September 26, 2009, after a long delay due to Hurricane Dolly in 2008, and several million dollars having been spent on the Birding Center.

The center itself is an interpretive center that not only teaches you about the birds and natural surroundings, but also has an outlook five stories in the air that offers scenic views of the dunes of South Padre Island, South Padre Island skyline, beaches, and Laguna Madre.

The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on 50 acres adjacent to the convention center, the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center presents a microcosm of the rich habitats that contribute to this very special place. Dune meadows, salt marsh, and intertidal flats are all represented here, along with thickets of native shrubs and trees that are irresistible to migrating birds in their season.

Although March to early May is the ideal time for seeing migrants, enough avian visitors spend spring and summer in the area that the birding remains good through summer and into the southbound fall migration. Waterfowl gather here in winter.

I consider myself an advanced beginner, able to identify backyard birds, numerous South Texas specialties, and a share of other species in various regions of the United States and Canada.

South Padre Island is located on the “Central Flyway”, the major migration route to and from North, Central, and South America.

South Padre also has a variety of habitats for different birds, making bird watching that much more exciting—beaches, coastal prairies, wind tidal flats, wetlands, and ponds.

A large, orange-billed tern, the Royal Tern is found along ocean beaches. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Attractions include over 4800 linear feet of connected boardwalk (or 0.9 miles), seven shaded bird blinds, a five-story tall building tower with spectacular views, a beautiful Butterfly Garden, auditorium showing a short Richard Moore documentary movie about the wildlife of South Padre Island, and a nature-oriented gift shop.

There is always something happening at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

Bird Walks are held each Thursday and Saturday at 9:30 a.m. Since the group size is limited to 15 people it is recommended that you call ahead or sign up to make sure you can make the tour.  They last about 1.5 hours, so bring a hat, sun screen, camera/binocular, and your birding field guides—or buy what you need in the excellent gift shop.

The Winter Seminar series is held Saturdays from 10:00-11:30 a.m. Call ahead to check the website for topics.

Details

South Padre Island Nature and Birding Center (SPI BNC)

Attractions include over 4800 linear feet of connected boardwalk (or 0.9 miles), seven shaded bird blinds, a five-story tall building tower with spectacular views. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours: Visitors center open 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily; Boardwalks and nature trails open 7 days a week with paid admission, 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset (turn style system available for credit card payment)

Center/Trails Admission: $5; Seniors/Students $4; Children $2; Passes (weekly/ 3 month, annual) available

Physical Address: 6801 Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island, Texas 78597 (between Sea Turtle Inc., and the SPI Convention Centre)

Phone: (956) 243-8179

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com and spibirding.com

Please Note: This is the eleventh in a series of stories on Rio Grande Valley nature hot spots

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt

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Timeless Texas: Roma Bluffs World Birding Center

The epicenter of Starr County’s birding activity is the Roma Bluffs World Birding Center, on the scenic bluffs high above the Rio Grande in the small town of Roma, a once-thriving steamboat port.

This Buff-bellied hummingbird makes its home in the courtyard of Roma Bluffs World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of nine sites that make up the World Birding Center (WBC) network, the Roma Bluffs location holds another distinction: It occupies two restored buildings on the old plaza in Roma’s National Historic Landmark District that includes a three-acre riverside nature area.

Roma Bluffs Interpretive Overlook offers a magnificent view of the river, island, and woodlands below, as well as views across the border to the Mexican town of Miguel Aleman. Down a brick stairway, a riverside trail leads upstream. In all, nearly 4,500 acres of nearby state and federal preserves offer excellent birding opportunities.

Roma Bluffs is a great starting point for diverse activities such as walking tours through the National Historic District and birding float trips down the Rio Grande operated by Friends of the Valley Wildlife Corridor.

The district features a central plaza surrounded by vintage structures that illustrate building techniques used along the Rio Grande during the 19th Century. Several of the structures were designed by Heinrich Portscheller, a German architect who arrived in 1879 and combined European styles with local stone and ornate brickwork.

The Roma Bluffs Overlook offers a magnificent view of the Rio Grande and the woodlands beyond in Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Roma’s intriguing setting promises to draw an increasing number of history-minded tourists, most visitors today come for the birding. You can see birds here that you can’t see anywhere else in the United States. For example, Starr County is one of the few spots where you may find five oriole species—Altamira, Bullock’s, Audubon’s, orchard, and hooded.

At Roma Bluffs World Birding Center, visitors find exhibits about the region’s wildlife, as well as staff and volunteers eager to share information about recent sightings and nearby birding hotspots, such as Falcon State Park, Salineño, and Chapeño, all less than 30 minutes away.

The Roma Bluffs Birding Center is housed in the 1878 Ramirez Store and Residence in the Roma Historic District and is owned by the City of Roma and operated by the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Roma is in Starr County, about 50 miles west of McAllen on U.S. Highway 83. The Roma Bluffs World Birding Center is at 610 N. Portscheller Street.

Details

Roma Bluffs World Birding Center

Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Nature trails open seven days a week

Admission: Free

Location: Downtown Roma Historic District at 610 North Portschellar Street (across from City Hall)

The Roma Bluffs World Birding Center is located the old plaza in Roma’s National Historic District. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions: From U.S. 83, turn south on St. Eugene de Mazenod Avenue, and go 1 block south to the plaza. Roma Bluffs WBC is on the northeast corner of Portscheller and Convent streets

Mailing Address: 610 N. Portscheller Street, P.O. Box 3405, Roma, Texas 78584

Phone: (956) 849-4930

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

Please Note: This is the tenth in a series of stories on Rio Grande Valley nature hot spots

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
In the 1970s, Canadian singer Anne Murray popularized a song about “Snowbirds” flying from the north to a land of “gentle breezes.” Since then, the term “snowbird” has described retirees from northern climes who spend a large portion of the year in the U.S. Sun Belt.

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Birding Hacienda: Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center

Quinta Mazatlan, a 1930s country estate in the heart of McAllen, is an historic Spanish Revival adobe hacienda surrounded by lush tropical landscaping and native woodland.

A 1930s historic Spanish Revival adobe hacienda, Quinta Mazatlan, is located in the heart of McAllen. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built on a high knoll by writer and adventurer Jason Matthews and his wealthy wife, Marcia, Quinta Mazatlan (“Quinta” roughly translates to “country estate” in Spanish, and “Mazatland”—the Mexican resort town the couple frequented—means “land of the deer” in Nahuatl, an ancient Aztec language) is an urban oasis and birding hotspot.

After the Matthews left in the early 1960s, the home served as a coffeehouse before passing to local businessman Frank Schultz. In 1998 the property was purchased by the City of McAllen with the help of a $50,000 gift from the Valley Land Fund.

The home and gardens opened to the public as a member of the World Birding Center in 2006.

Formal tropical gardens surround the 10,000 square-foot adobe mansion, and are enriched with native plants.

A unique conference and events center, crushed-rock walking trails wind through more than 15 acres of birding habitat. At various spots on the walking paths, benches and water features offer the visitor reason to pause and observe the wildlife.

Outlying acres of wild Tamaulipan thorn forest have been enhanced with water and bird feeding stations to make them even more attractive to wildlife.

Quinta Mazatlan is an attractive stop for a wide variety of species including both resident and migrant birds. There are over 150 species that have been documented at the McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center, including about 30 species that don’t travel any further north.

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

Quinta Mazatlan offers a variety of fun educational tours all year long including Garden of Eatin’ Tour, Stroll Through History Tour, Woodland Walkabout Tour, Thursday Tree Walks, Walk with a Naturalist, and Nature Speaker Series. Cost of tours included in General Admission fee.

Garden of Eatin’ Tour

Visitors will enjoy an hour long outdoor guided tour focusing on the edible and medicinal aspects of the plants, trees, berries, and blossoms found in our courtyard, gardens, and native Thornforest.

Tours held Wednesdays (October though April) from 10-11 a.m.

Stroll Through History Tour

Enjoy a guided tour of the 1930s estate exploring the unique history of one of the largest remaining adobe homes in the state of Texas. Take a step back in time as the tour begins with the rich history of the Rio Grande Valley including native Coahuiltecan Indians living off the land, the arrival of Spanish explorers, the beginning of the Magic Valley’s agriculture boom, and the founding of McAllen.

Then explore Quinta Mazatlan from its creation by Jason and Marcia Matthews and exquisite restoration by Frank and Marilyn Schultz to the present day McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center.

Tours held Fridays (October though April) from 10-11 a.m.

Woodland Walkabout Tour

Explore the wonders of McAllen’s big backyard while on a guided tour along the trails surrounding the historic adobe mansion. Discover the immense variety of native plants and animals of the Rio Grande Valley’s Thornforest.

Enjoy the sights and sounds of Valley specialty birds including the green jay, buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee (pictured above), and plain chachalaca along with many other resident and migratory birds.

It’s an enjoyable half mile walk along a granite gravel trail.

Tours held Saturdays (October though April) from 10-11 a.m.

Thursday Tree Walks

Join a park naturalist for a brief educational talk about Quinta Mazatlan’s native trees. A different tree species from their native Thornforest is featured each week.

Tours held Thursday Evenings (October through April) from 5:00-5:30 p.m.

Upcoming tree walks include the following featured tree species:

  • Brasil, Capul Negro Condalia hookeri (February 16)
  • Sabal Palm, Palma de Micheros Sabal texana (February 23)
  • Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea var. arborea (March 1)
  • Fresno, Rio Grande Ash, Fraxinus berlandieriana (March 8)
  • Tenaza, Pithecellobium pallens (March 15)
  • Guayacan, Iron-Wood, Guiacum angustifolium (March 29)

Details

Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center

Stroll through history at Quinta Mazatland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (until dark on Thursday)

Admission: $2; Seniors/Children ages 5-12, $1

Physical Address: 600 Sunset Drive, McAllen, TX 78503

Mailing Address: P.O. Box 220, McAllen, TX 78505-0220

Phone: (956) 681-3370

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com and quintamazatlan.com

Please Note: This is the eighth in a series of stories on Rio Grande Valley nature hot spots

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
God gives every bird its food, but He does not throw it into its nest.

—J.G. Holland

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Beaks and Feathers: Resaca De La Palma State Park and World Birding Center

Resaca de la Palma State Park boasts the largest tract of native habitat in the World Birding Center network.

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 Texas and Oklahoma. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Etched by ancient curves of the Rio Grande, its 1,200 semi-tropical acres provide a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of an international urban center (Brownsville) only a few miles away. Through the cooperation of local and federal land management agencies, a wilderness preserved from days gone by is open to birders and other nature adventurers.

Build it and they will come. In the case of Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville, “they” refers not only to people, but also to more than 270 species of birds, 89 species of butterflies, dragonflies, snakes, and mammals that make the natural sanctuary home.

Resaca de la Palma represents in microcosm what much of the land along more than 100 miles of the snaking Rio Grande River looked like during the arrival of the Conquistadors in the 1500s.

More than eight miles of trails, almost half of those paved, take park visitors into the heart of the park. Most trails lead to four observation decks strategically located on a refilled resaca (an ancient coil of river bed once filled by Rio Grande floodwaters) that winds for six miles through the park.

Take a short stroll from the park’s visitor center to the entrance of the paved, wildlife-rich, quarter-mile Ebony Trail. A chorus of birdsong and the distinct chatter of great kiskadees, a colorful Rio Grande Valley “specialty bird”, echo through the dense ebony-palm-anacua woodlands—an ancient subtropical forest—along the banks of the resaca.

Butterflies endemic to the borderlands of South Texas, such as the Mexican bluewing and band-celled sister, flutter about blooming flowers and shrubs like common senna, huajillo, and granjeno that line the trail.

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interpretive panels erected where the ADA-accessible trail ends at an observation deck and adjoining boardwalk above the wetlands explain the area’s unique natural history. An aerial map and accompanying text help visitors better understand how the floodwaters of the Rio Grande once spread out across the delta, sculpting the land, and how native peoples once prepared food from such native flora as prickly pear cactus pads and mesquite beans.

Resaca de la Palma State Park benefits from its great biodiversity reflected in five different habitats: Tamaulipan thornscrub, ebony-anacua forest, sugar hackberry woodlands, resaca wetlands, and both natural and revegetated grasslands.

As a result of the varied habitat and the park’s location along two major American migratory flyways and its proximity to Mexico and Central America, more than 250 species of birds can be found on the park’s bird list. Look for the bright plumage of Valley specialty birds such as the green jay, Altamira oriole (pictured above), plain chacalaca, olive sparrow, great kiskadee, and groove-billed anis.

Visitors have a variety of options for getting around the park. They can hike, bring their own bicycle or rent one, or catch a ride on a tram that departs the visitor center about once an hour and travels a 3.5-mile loop. The tram stops along the way for those who wish to disembark at trailheads of the Mexican Olive, Kiskadee, Flycatcher, and Coyote trails to observe waterfowl and other critters up close.

The day-use state park offers no overnight camping facilities, but does have a shaded picnic area and spacious visitor center with restrooms, an interpretation hall, and well-stocked Texas State Park store.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had the foresight to purchase the Rio Grande Valley property for the future state park in the 1970s, a period when urban developers and agricultural interests were converting much of the unique borderland habitat into farmland and citrus plantations.

Today, Resaca de la Palma preserves a small chunk of vast swaths of the now mostly disappeared native Rio Grande Valley habitat that supports a population of endangered native plant and animal species.

Resaca de la Palma State Park is located on New Carmen Boulevard a few miles south of FM 1732 west of U. S. Highway 77/83.

Details

Resaca De La Palma State Park and World Birding Center

The ladderback is a small black-and-white woodpecker of the southwestern United States and Mexico that forages. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours: Visitors center open only Wednesday–Sunday, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; nature trails open every day Sunrise-Sunset

Admission: $4 or Texas State Park Pass

Physical Address: 1000 New Carmen Avenue (off Highway 281 or FM 1732), Brownsville, TX 78521

Mailing Address: P. O. Box 714, Olmito, TX 78575

Phone: (956) 350-2920

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

Please Note: This is the ninth in a series of stories on Rio Grande Valley nature hot spots

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

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