Big Rio Grande Valley Welcome for Winter Texans

It’s no secret that RV parks and resorts in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) whose livelihoods depend on the annual influx of Winter Texansare facing several challenges.

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

Many of today’s winter visitors are younger and more mobile than their counterparts of years past.

“They may go to Arizona this year, Texas next year, and Florida the next year,” said Kristi Collier, president and CEO of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, which markets 74 RV parks and resorts from Mission to South Padre Island.

Snowbirds unfamiliar with the RGV are also more likely to be concerned by publicity about violence in Mexico, even though cities in the Rio Grande Valley have less crime than other popular winter resort destinations in other states.

Despite these challenges, RV parks and resorts across the Valley are finding that they can continue to grow their business base for the winter season if they offer plenty of organized activities and continue to invest in new amenities for their parks, said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of theTexas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).

Pet Amenities

These new amenities include walking areas and agility courses for people with dogs as well as special pet-related activities.

“Dog parks are a big deal,” said Jacqueline Gomez, who is the marketing director for Llano Grande Lake Park Resort & Country Club in Mercedes, Victoria Palms Resort in Donna, and Alamo Park Mobile Home & RV Park in Alamo. She said each of the resorts has two, off-leash dog areas.

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 dog park at Bentsen Palm Village in Mission has become so popular that the owners recently added a second park so that guests could have separate running and play areas for big dogs and small dogs.

“About 70% to 75% of our guests have dogs, so these kinds of amenities are important,” said Juanita Carvajal, Bentsen Palm Village’s general manager.

Community Gardens

Of course, while pet friendly amenities are attractive to Winter Texans, that’s not the only attraction at Bentsen Palm Village. The 250-site resort recently set aside an open area of the park where its guests can grow their own organic fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“It’s like a community garden,” Carvajal said, “but we give each guest a 10 by 10-foot section where they can put a stake with their name on it. They often grow kale, peppers, tomatoes, onions and radishes. Sometimes, they grow so much they bring it into the office to share.”

Birding, Hiking and Wildlife

Bentsen Palms also markets its proximity to the World Birding Center while also highlighting the rare birds and other wildlife that make their way into the park.

“This past season, we had a family of elf owls that stayed in our park,” Carvajal said, adding that the owls are only 5 inches tall.

“The season before we had Black vented Orioles,” a rare bird native to Mexico and Central America that has a black hood, upper back and wings, and a bright yellow-orange underside.

The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Black-vented Oriole made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many Valley visitors enjoy state parks, national wildlife preserves, and other nature reserves. Others like taking bike rides and walks and kayaking down the Rio Grande River.

Other Activities

RV park operators are finding that other types of organized activities are also critical for today’s Winter Texans.

El Valle del Sol in Mission offers more than 100 activities each week for its guests including classes in wood carving, ceramics, and painting and Tai Chi while its food related events range from pancake breakfasts to potluck dinners with Hawaiian, Cajan, Western, and other culinary themes. The park also has live entertainment with polka bands and other musicians.

Winter visitors like their surroundings to be nice, too, which is why many Rio Grande Valley parks are also investing in aesthetic improvements and other creature comforts.

“We just put in a high powered Wi-Fi system this summer and everybody is real happy about that,” said Ruth Dearinger, manager of VIP Park in La Feria.

Other improvements at the 256-site park include resurfaced streets, landscaping, and the installation of more campsites with 50 amp electrical hookups.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Read More

Birds of a Feather: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center

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 new World Birding Center.

A "Valley Specialty", the Buff-bellied Hummingbird is a common sight at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Wold Birding Center and other Valley nature spots. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 325 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

As a result of the $7 million development of the World Birding Center headquarters, the state park’s 585 acres of river bottom forests and thick thorn scrub were expanded to 760 acres.

The center’s headquarters’ Quonset hut-style buildings, designed to resemble 1930s agricultural structures that dotted the region, incorporate a number of environmentally friendly “green” building features, such as a rainwater collection system, well-insulated ceilings and walls, and sustainable, chemical-free construction materials.

Extensive plantings of native trees and other vegetation surround the headquarters site, attracting the Valley birds and butterflies.

Witness amazing hawk migrations, and enjoy bird walks and natural history tours at this key migratory stopover.

You can spend a whole day exploring bird life along a one-mile walking trail through sugar hackberry, Rio Grande ash, and Texas ebony; and the six-mile paved inner and outer loops.

Or take the tram or rent a bicycle to meander around the loops. You can stop along the way; one prime spot is the ADA accessible hawk-watching tower. The Hawk Tower is not really a tower; it’s an elevated walkway with panoramic views of the surrounding brush country and the adjacent resaca.

Not a "Valley Specialty" but always a delight to view and photograph is the Vermilion Flycatcher. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout the park you’ll see dozens of striking green jays gathered on platform bird feeders. With their bright green backs, purple-blue heads with black trim down to the chest, and yellowish-green under parts, these birds are just one of the tropical joys of the park.

And then there is the radiant orange Altamira oriole that reaches its northernmost range in the Rio Grande Valley from its Mexican and north Central American roots.

But don’t take for granted the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that also reaches its northern limits in the Valley. Chachalacas are members of the Cracidae family of tropical Latin American birds that include guans and curassows and represent the most endangered family of birds in the Western Hemisphere. However, at Bentsen they are raucous and plentiful.

Rare birds show up every winter, including a black-vented oriole last winter, shown in the photo below.

Details

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center

Black-vented Oriole feeding on the flower of the coral bean tree. Its distinguishing feature is the vent, which is all black. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours: 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily

Admission: $5 or Texas State Park Pass

Physical Address: 2800 S. Bentsen Palm Drive (FM 2062) Mission, TX 78572

Phone: (956) 584-9156

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

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

Read More

Flocking to Texas

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, magic arrives on wings in winter. Bird-watchers from around the world converge on The Valley to see rare and unique birds. Situated at the confluence of two major migratory flyways—Central and Mississippi, The Valley is world famous among birdwatchers for the variety and number of birds to be found here.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its diverse ecosystem of semi-arid brush and wetlands provide unique habitats for unusual plant and animal communities, which are found only in subtropical environments.

To the east, the gulf and bay waters, along with coastal prairie, reign supreme, while to the west are the arid lands of a desert-like environment. The northern portions are dominated by dense brush land and oak-choked, landlocked islands, while the southern boundary is subtropical and made of woodlands often draped in long curtains of humidity-loving Spanish moss.

Mostly frost-free, the valley contains the northern-most extension of the Mexican subtropical ecosystem, attracting a variety of neo-tropical birds more commonly found in Mexico.

Much of the valley now supports extensive urban/agricultural activities, but numerous natural areas along the Rio Grande have been protected and provide oases for more than 600 bird species that reside in or migrate through this region.

Many of the subtropical species are South Texas specialties, meaning it’s the only location in the United States where these birds can be found.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These birds include Green Jay, Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee, Green Kingfisher, Green Parakeet, Altamira Oriole, Clay-colored Robin (also called the Clay-colored Thrush), Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Duck, and Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

Plus, every now and again, simply because of its geographical proximity to the tropics, the valley attracts some off-the-wall, rare strays. The valley will then be inundated with bated-breath birders, all hell-bent to add one more special bird to their beloved lists. This winter it was the Rufous-backed Robin (also called the Rufous-backed Thrush), White-throated Thrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blue-throated Hummingbird, and Black-vented Oriole who made its home in our park, Bentsen Palm Village.

Native to Central America and Mexico, the Black-vented Oriole is an accidental visitor to South Texas.

Previous sighting in the United States have been rare. The first of six sightings of this species was at Big Bend National Park on September 27, 1968—and on-and-off to October 1970. Other documented sightings include Kingsville in 1989 and South Padre Island World Birding Center in 2010.

Photo tip

Capturing a bird’s image can be challenging, frustrating, and fun all at the same time. Try to get the bird’s eye in focus. Don’t put the bird in the exact center of your photo. Show the bird doing something interesting.

A major challenge when photographing birds is to get close enough to obtain a decent-size image of the bird.

Roseate Spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a photographer, you need to be two to three times closer to any bird for a good photo as you would need to get with binoculars. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to get good bird photos with a group of birders, since they won’t appreciate the closer approach you’ll need.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Did You Know?

The ocelot, once found throughout south and central Texas at least as far north as the Houston area is now limited to Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy Counties.

Little known and interesting fact about Texas

Beaumont to El Paso: 742 miles

Beaumont to Chicago: 770 miles

El Paso is closer to California than to Dallas

King Ranch in South Texas is larger than Rhode Island.

Worth Pondering…
We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

Read More

Rare bird sighting: Black-vented Oriole

Have you seen the Black-vented Oriole?

The Black-vented Oriole has made its home a short distance from our RV site at Bentsen Palm Village. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Little did we know when we made our reservation for Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort that we’d be entertained by a rare bird feeding in the coral bean trees.

Upon arriving at Bentsen Palm on Monday (January 24), we were informed that a very rare bird—the Black-vented Oriole—had recently made its home in the RV Park less than 100 feet from our site.

Bentsen Palm Village is located adjacent to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center in South Texas.

The black-vented oriole was first sighted at the state park on December 13 (2010) and has been observed daily at the RV Park since December 31 where it flies back and forth between coral bean trees, a small to medium-sized, deciduous tree with a spreading crown and brilliant red flowers. The coral bean is also known as ‘Fireman’s Hat’ because of its beautiful panicles of bright red tubular flowers that resemble the hats of firemen.

The distinguishing feature of the Black-vented Oriole is the vent, which is all black.

It’s a large oriole with black hood, upper back, wings, and tail, including vent. Under parts and lower back are bright yellow-orange. Black bill is long and slender.

The Black-vented Oriole is attracted to the brilliant flowers of the coral bean tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The song of the Black-vented Oriole is a bold, squeaky, gurgling warble. Call is a weak, nasal “nyeh” or “nur”, insect-like and often repeated in series.

Preferred habitats include pine-oak and subtropical or tropical deciduous and dry forests for nesting and breeding. It may also be found in moist lowlands or montanes of subtropical and tropical climates. This species does not normally migrate during winter months.

The Black-vented Oriole is a foraging species, finding insects, berries, and fruit in low vegetation.

The Black-vented Oriole was first described in 1857 by Philip Lutley Sclater, an English lawyer and zoologist.

Native to Central America and Mexico, the Black-vented Oriole is an accidental visitor to South Texas.

Previous sighting in the United States have been rare. The first of six sightings of this species was at Big Bend National Park on September 27, 1968—and on-and-off to October 1970.

The distinguishing feature of the Black-vented Oriole is the vent, which is all black. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other documented sightings include Kingsville in 1989 and South Padre Island World Birding Center in 2010.

Distinguishing characteristics

  • Entire head is black
  • Black wings
  • Orange wedge on wings
  • Black tail
  • Black vent under the tail
  • Light orange on stomach on lower back
  • Gray legs and feet

Photo tip

Capturing a bird’s image can be challenging, frustrating, and fun all at the same time. Try to get the bird’s eye in focus. Don’t put the bird in the exact center of your photo. Show the bird doing something interesting.

A major challenge when photographing birds is to get close enough to obtain a decent-size image of the bird.

As a photographer, you need to be two to three times closer to any bird for a good photo as you would need to get with binoculars. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to get good bird photos with a group of birders, since they won’t appreciate the closer approach you’ll need.

Access to Bentsen Palm Village RV Park

The RV Park management has graciously allowed birders to visit provided that they DO NOT drive into the park (parking is available at Bentsen Rio-Grande Valley State Park, a short walk north on the bike path to the main gate for the RV Park).

Ensure you follow the requests of the RV Park management—be respectful of the residents.

Black-vented Oriole feeding on the flower of the coral bean tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You MUST sign in at the Office on the right as you enter the RV Park on foot. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

DO NOT point SCOPES, BINOCULARS, or CAMERAS in any direction but at the bird.   DO NOT direct your optics toward the recreational vehicles.

Please remember that visiting birders are the guests here!

Worth Pondering…
The Oriole’s Secret

To hear an oriole sing
May be a common thing,
Or only a divine.

It is not of the bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto crowd.

The fashion of the ear
Attireth that it hear
In dun or fair.

So whether it be rune,
Or whether it be none,
Is of within;

The tune is in the tree,
The sceptic showeth me;
No, sir! In thee!

—Emily Dickinson

Read More