Birding in South Texas

Not fitting the stereotype of the avid birdwatcher who travels to the most exotic corners of the globe, many RVers simply want to be where the birds are.

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest scopes, peering through the most expensive binoculars, and checking another bird off the official life list, we carry our mid-priced super-zoom cameras and take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color.

That’s what draws us and many other snowbirds to South Texas.

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this ecowonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S. Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay, black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole.

The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After all, The Valley offers not just one but a total of nine World Birding Centers, and it’s located at the convergence of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi.

Often referred to as The Texas Tropics, this area is very popular, too, with snowbirds from the Midwest and Central Canada. However, these winter tourists are not simply referred to as snowbirds but affectionately dubbed Winter Texans. After all, these birdwatchers and winter visitors are very important to the area’s economy, so they are, indeed, welcomed.

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 760-acre 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.

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

Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley 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.

As the trolley rounds the bend into the park visitors are frequently greeted by a sizable flock of the loud and raucous plain chachalaca, a brown, chicken-like species that’s found only in this part of the country.

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.

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.

Yellow-breasted great kiskadees swooped down in front of us and drank from the small pool of water. This flycatcher has black and white stripes on its crown and sides, appears to be a kind of cross between a kingfisher and a meadowlark, and attracts attention by its incessant “kis-ka-dee” calls.

Green jays (pictured above) postured and fluttered at the feeders. This beautiful bird is, indeed, green-breasted (unlike our blue jay), with green wings, but there’s also some white, yellow, and blue plumage. This bird’s flashy coloring, boisterous nature, dry, throaty rattle, and frequent “cheh-chehcheh-cheh” call make it very easy to spot.

common pauraque
A widespread nightjar throughout the Americas, the Common Paraque reaches the United States only in the Rio Grande Valley. Its call is a loud burry whistle, “purr-WEEE-eer.” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A golden-fronted woodpecker fed at the peanut butter log. Barred with black and white above and buff below, the male has red restricted to the cap; nape orange; forecrown yellow; the female lacks red but has an orange nape. Its voice is a loud churrrr; the call a burry chuck-chuck-chuck.

Another World Birding Center located in McAllen, is at Quinta Mazatlan, a historic 1930s Spanish Revival adobe hacienda that’s surrounded by 15 acres of lush tropical landscape and several birding trails.

Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, and roseate spoonbill.

The warm winter climate and the awesome bird watching attract Winter Texans to The Valley and keep them returning year after year. We’ll be back, Hope to see you there.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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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

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