Migrating Hummingbirds Face Drought Conditions

As the ongoing drought worsens, migrating hummingbirds may find little native vegetation to sustain them as they fly south for the winter.

Black-chinned hummingbird at Arizona Desert Museum, Tucson. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Black-chinned hummingbird at Arizona Desert Museum, Tucson. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year, local birding experts say, it’s essential that humans feed the tiny feathered travelers.

On a recent visit to Central Texas, Norma Friedrich, president of the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society saw no native flowering plants on which the hummingbirds would rely as they pass through Texas, en route to Mexico and Central America. The migrating birds will be forced to rely almost entirely on humans for their food, Friedrich told the Valley Morning Star.

This year, more than ever, the hummingbirds will seek out flowering plants in gardens, as well as feeders in yards, on porches and patios.

The migration should start any day now, she said. The first to arrive will be the ruby-throated hummingbirds. The ruby-throats, which spend the summer in New England, the northeastern U.S., and southern Canada, will be followed by black-chinned hummingbirds that travel south from the western United States. Then the Rufous hummingbirds arrive, migrating from the western United States and as far north as Alaska.

Friedrich also reminds humans who feed any birds of a lesson many birders know: “You attract more birds with water than with seeds.” A water mister or a lawn sprinkler with a fine spray will attract many kinds of birds. The appreciative hummingbirds will give themselves showers by flying through the spray.

Nesting hummer at Arizona Desert Museum, Tucson. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Nesting hummer at Arizona Desert Museum, Tucson. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The regular and widespread practice of feeding hummingbirds in Rockport (Texas) resulted in the city’s annual hummingbird celebration, this year marked its 25th anniversary, September 12-15.

Feeding

Feeding hummingbirds requires a limited amount of paraphernalia, according to several specialized websites.

To begin, you need a hummingbird feeder, sugar, water, measuring cups, and a suitable place to hang the feeder. For feeder maintenance, you need a couple of brushes to clean the inside of the feeder and the little holes where the birds feed.

Boil water and measure one quart into a container. Let the water cool and add one cup of white granulated sugar. Stir or shake until the sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate unused sugar-water. Pour sugar-water into a hummingbird feeder. At first, fill the feeder with one to two cups of sugar-water.

If the feeder is empty in a day, it means you have hummingbirds feeding from it. At the peak of the migration, you may be filling it daily. If that’s the case, consider hanging a second feeder several feet away from the first one.

When the feeder is empty, wash it thoroughly using a bottle brush to remove any film on the inside of the feeder. Use a small brush to clean the holes where the hummingbirds feed.

Do not use artificial sweetener, corn syrup, or honey. Use only regular granulated sugar.

Do not use red dye. Some dyes can harm the birds, and it’s unnecessary anyway. Other useful information from the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society:

Buff-bellied Hummingbird at Frontera Audubon Thicket in the RGV near Weslaco, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Buff-bellied Hummingbird at Frontera Audubon Thicket in the RGV near Weslaco, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hang the feeder in a shady location, such as from a tree branch or along the eaves of a porch.

Some gardeners hang feeders on shepherd’s hooks staked among flowering shrubs, providing a bird buffet. It’s important, though, to hang the feeder where it’s easily accessible because you’ll need to regularly remove, wash, refill, and rehang it.

It’s also a good idea to hang the feeder outside a window, so you can watch the birds feeding.

Don’t hang the feeder where it will be accessible to neighborhood cats.

Turn on a lawn sprinkler or a mister. The hummingbirds — and all other birds — need water, especially in the current drought conditions. The hummingbirds will cool themselves when they fly through the spray.

Hummingbirds are especially attracted to red or yellow flowers. Recommended native plants that attract hummingbirds include Sophora, bottle brush, esperanza, pride of Barbados, and native Turk’s cap. Hibiscus, although not a native plant, also attract hummingbirds.

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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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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Birds of a Feather: Harlingen Arroyo Colorado World Birding Center

Gateway to the entire World Birding Center (WBC) network of nine sites, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado World Birding Center is close to the U.S. 77/U.S. 83 Expressway and the Valley International Airport, but remains a quiet wooded retreat from the hustle of urban life.

The Green Kingfisher occurs from the Rio Grande Valley south through Central and South Americal to central Argentina. Green Kingfishers are often seen perched on a low shaded branch close to water before plunging in head first after their fish prey. They also eat aquatic insects. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Harlingen Arroyo Colorado is unique in that it is the only WBC site composed of two separated properties: Hugh Ramsey Nature Park to the east and Harlingen Thicket to the west.

The two sites are connected by major streets and hike-and-bike trails, and the Arroyo Colorado (“arroyo” is Spanish for stream) which is the largest flowing waterway in the Lower Rio Grande Valley with the exception of the Rio Grande River.

Texas Ebony woodlands dominate 55-acre Hugh Ramsey Park, while the 40-acre Harlingen Thicket is primarily composed of mixed upland thorn forest. Volunteers help to restore both to their native beauty, with trees, shrubs, and flowering plants that support varied wildlife. Together with other habitat preserved along the arroyo, they provide a rare refuge for birds and other creatures in the heart of the city.

The great kiskadee is a large member of the flycatcher family. It is about ten inches in length. It has black and white stripes on the crown and sides of its head. It has a white line above its eyes. Its chest and undersides are a bright yellow and its throat is white. Its back and wings are brown and its bill and legs are black. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Harlingen’s wing of the WBC provides much-needed breeding grounds for many “Valley specialties” like the green and ringed kingfishers, common pauraque, groove-billed ani, long-billed thrasher, and olive sparrow. Endangered red-crowned parrots are found here, and during migration periods, the two sites are an important stopover for avian travelers seeking food and rest.

Harlingen Thicket is often overlooked by wildlife watchers, because Hugh Ramsey Nature Park is so fantastic. This is a mistake, because Harlingen Thicket can also be great for birds, butterflies, and dragonflies.

To reach Harlingen Thicket from Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, leave Hugh Ramsey’s parking lot and turn left (west) onto Ed Carey Drive/Loop 499 back towards the Expressway. Drive 1.0 miles west to Business-77/Sunshine Strip and turn right onto Bus-77/Sunshine Strip.

Here it can get just a little tricky: take Business-77/Sunshine Strip to Commerce Street, which will come in on your left. Take Commerce Street to the north for a very short distance and turn left onto Taft Avenue. Go 0.1 miles on Taft Avenue, across the railroad tracks, and immediately turn left into the Harlingen Thicket parking lot.

A small, stocky wading bird, the Green Heron is common in wet spots across much of North America. It can be difficult to see as it stands motionless waiting for small fish to approach within striking range. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you messed up at the Business-77/Sunshine Strip exchange with Commerce Street, just take the first left you can from Business-77 and go to Commerce Street, turning back south to Taft Avenue, then right on Taft Avenue to the Harlingen Thicket.

If you come into Harlingen from the west and want to go directly to Harlingen Thicket, take the Expressway to Harlingen and take the Downtown Exit to Tyler Avenue.  Continue east on Tyler for 1.2 miles to Commerce Street and turn right onto Commerce and travel south for 1.3 miles to Taft Avenue. Turn right on Taft, go 0.1 miles, crossing the railroad tracks and turn left into the Harlingen Thicket parking lot.

Details

Harlingen Arroyo Colorado World Birding Center

Hours: Nature trails are open seven days a week, sunrise to sunset

Admission: Free

Physical Address: 1001 S. Loop 499, Harlingen

Phone: (956) 427-8873

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The Hummingbird’s Hum

Hummingbird, Hummingbird
Hum a lovely song.
Hummingbird, Hummingbird
Let me hum along.
Hummingbird, Hummingbird
a song so sweet.
Hummingbird, Hummingbird
Oh, please let me.

—Hayley Jordan

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Flight Deck: Estero Llano Grande State Park and World Birding Center

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination.

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

At the geographic center of the World Birding Center (WBC) network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Even beginning birders and nature lovers will enjoy exploring this 230 plus-acre refuge, which is convenient to all the Rio Grande Valley has to offer.

Estero Llano Grande is the equivalent of Disneyland for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Park developers have done an excellent job of erecting observation decks, boardwalks, wheelchair-accessible trails, and primitive trails to provide an up-close view of birds and other wildlife.

The park gets its name from the original Spanish land grant for the area known as Llano Grande, which means Large Grassland or Plain. An “estero” is a low-lying area of land often flooded by rain or overflow from a nearby river. So, Estero Llano Grande means “the wet place on the big plain.”

It’s amazing what adding a little water to a typically sun-parched environment can do to attract birds and other wildlife. You need look no further for proof than the almost 200 rejuvenated acres of Estero Llano Grande State Park in the Rio Grande Valley.

A recent visit revealed a six-foot alligator (pictured below) taking in the last rays of the afternoon; butterflies flitting in search of nectar; and numerous birds soaring over sunflower patches, perched in snags, and wading in ankle-deep waters.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Ducks Unlimited, and other groups spent six years and more than $3 million re-vegetating a sorghum field and dry lakebed with native trees and shrubs, creating wetlands habitat once commonly found throughout the Rio Grande Valley; and building boardwalks, picnic facilities, and an environmentally friendly Visitor Center.

Birds are not the only winged creatures found at Estero. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What distinguishes Estero Llano Grande State Park from other WBC sites is its extensive wetlands environment, anchored by a section of the Arroyo Colorado on the south and southeast edge of the park.

The park has a good variety of controlled wetlands habitat varying in depth from six inches to two feet, as well as Alligator Lake that is about eight feet deep. With a marsh in the back and some canals in the middle of the park, there’s plenty of water to draw lots of birds.

In addition to creating six impoundments, workers replaced old plumbing, and created habitat for wildlife by planting 3,000 native trees and shrubs, such as Texas ebony, acacia, anaqua, Montezuma bald cypress, cedar elm, and sabal palm.

The thick-trunked sabal palm, which is Texas’ only native palm tree, helps to provide the park with a jungle-like feel. Sadly, only 100 acres of the original 40,000 acres of the Rio Grande Valley’s sabal palm forest survive today.

A stroll along the brick walkway at the park entrance through a thickly planted thorn forest to the Visitor Center helps acquaint visitors with dozens of native flora, including desert lantana, whitebrush, anachuita, and huisache.

A short woodland trail skirting Alligator Lake provides shade and good views of kingfishers, herons, egrets, and other birds on the way to a spacious viewing platform overlooking prime gator habitat.

Estero Llano Grande shares some of the same specialty birds as the WBC headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, plain chacalaca, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, coots, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, roseate spoonbill, and long-billed dowitcher.

The well-stocked State Park Store provides an ideal place to pick up a gift for that hard-to-please friend or family member. Many items are site-specific, such as binoculars, birding books, bird feeders, and hand-painted bird ornaments.

A short woodland trail skirting Alligator Lake provides shade and good views of kingfishers, herons, egrets, and other birds on the way to a spacious viewing platform overlooking prime gator habitat. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande State Park is located in Weslaco just off FM 1015 about two miles south of U.S. Highway 83. It is one of 113 state parks, historic sites, and state natural areas that make up the Texas State Park System.

Details

Estero Llano Grande State Park and World Birding Center

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

Admission: $4 or Texas State Park Pass

Physical Address: 3301 S. International Blvd. (FM 1015), Weslaco, Texas

Mailing Address: 154A Lakeview Drive, Weslaco, Texas 78596

Phone: (956) 565-3919

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

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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Taking Wing: Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center (EWBC)

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center opened in March 2003 and became the first of nine World Birding Centers.

Sometimes called the tree duck for its habit of nesting in trees, the black-bellied whistling duck is a year-round resident of the lower Texas Gulf Coast. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Center sits on 40 acres within an Edinburg city park. Built on re-claimed farm fields adjacent to the city’s effluent and floodwater ponds, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is a showcase for wildlife and a native habitat site set amidst an urban setting.

Surrounding the Interpretive Center, the 3.5-acre native butterfly habitat offers some of the most diverse habitat in the region.

Waterfowl and shorebirds like the green kingfisher, black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, and American avocet have a home here, and can be easily viewed from platforms overlooking peaceful freshwater lagoons. At least 13 species of ducks flock here in winter months.

The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. They stock a number of binoculars that can be checked out for use on their grounds at no cost for those paying the minimal entrance fee. There is a small but well stocked book and gift shop in the Visitor’s Center.

They offer a number of nature programs including EWBC naturalist-led weekly bird walks (every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.) and butterfly walks (every Thursday at 10:30 a.m.) No level of experience is required.

Long-billed Thrasher forages on the ground, sweeping its bill from side to side in leaf-litter. It tosses litter upwards and behind with its bill, and scratches with its feet for food. It runs quickly on the ground while searching for food. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of my favorite places at the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is this elevated boardwalk over a small pond near the Visitor Center. This is a great place for nature photography as it draws dragonflies and birds in a setting that allows close-up views and photos. Birds I have seen in this section that are drawn by the still water include yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers, eastern phoebes, hermit thrush, long-billed thrasher, common yellowthroat, and the great kiskadee shown in the photo below.

Details

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center (EWBC)

Hours: Monday-Thursday, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; Sunday, closed; Grounds open daily, sunrise to sunset

Admission: $3; children/seniors $2

Physical Address: 714 S. Raul Longoria, Edinburg, Texas 78539

Mailing Address: P.O. Box 1079, Edinburg, Texas 78540

Phone: (956) 381-9922

Websites: theworldbirdingcenter.com and edinburgwbc.org

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 stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, and repeatedly calls out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
The Humming Bird

A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel;
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal;
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,–
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’s ride.

—Emily Dickinson

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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

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