Welcome Home Winter Texans to the RGV

RV and mobile home park operators in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) say all indications point to a successful year for Winter Texan visitors.

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

At South Padre Island, there’s been a 10 percent increase in the number of inquiries from prospective Winter Texans, said Lacey Ekberg, Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) Director. The CVB has received 5,000 to 6,000 calls per month since July, with most of those calls coming from the Midwest and northern states, including Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota, according to a report in the Valley Morning Star and The Monitor.

“Given the number of inquiries, we do not expect less Winter Texan visitors than the previous year,” Ekberg said.

Some parks are able to get a hint of the coming season’s success based on the previous year’s park residents who take advantage of “early bird” discounts, or make their reservations far in advance of their return.

Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito, for example, offers a rate of $75 for the month of October, park spokeswoman Janie Paz said.

Paradise Park RV Resort, in Harlingen last year offered a 5 percent “Early Bird Special” discount for some visitors who paid by June for the next winter. Paradise has 295 recreational vehicle and 255 mobile home sites, office manager Christine Henderson told the Valley Morning Star.

The Great Kiskadee is a South Texas favorite. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Great Kiskadee is a South Texas favorite. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other parks’ discount offers vary from year to year.

Winter Texans are big business in the Valley, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy every year. During the past winter season, Winter Texans had a $751 million direct economic impact on the Valley economy, according to statistics compiled by the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA).

Winter Texans usually begin showing up in the RGV around October 1, Penny Simpson, UTPA professor of marketing and associate dean of the College of Business Administration and director of the Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center, told the Valley Morning Star.

“It’s just a trickle in October,” she said of the annual migration of retirees.

“When they come is tied to the weather. The health of the retirees also determines whether they will return to the Valley each year.”

Visits by retirees from northern states and Canada dropped sharply after the 9/11 terror attacks, but eventually returned to nearly the levels of earlier years.

A biannual survey by UTPA this January showed some drop in numbers of Winter Texans in a January count of seasonal visitors from two years ago.

Simpson said 133,400 Winter Texans came to the Valley last winter compared with 144,000 two years earlier.

Worries about terrorism incidents along the border play into the decision to return to the Valley each year, she added.

Some Winter Texans who have visited the Valley for several winters will stay longer and some make the Valley their home base and visit their northern homes during warmer months, she said.

“We have quite a few people that are annual but stay year-round. But then we have those that are annuals but they are only here for X amount of months and then they go back home,” she said.

While some retirees claim they are no longer Winter Texans because they live in the Valley most of the year, they still go back home to visit family during the hottest months of summer, she said.

“They’re all Winter Texans to me,” she said, laughing.

In recent years, with soaring fuel prices, more retirees are choosing to leave their RVs in the Valley, Henderson said. Paradise Park has a designated storage area for RVs that are not in use.

Sunshine RV Park Manager Lon Huff said Winter Texans are attracted to the Valley by the many species of birds and proudly showed a small lake at his Harlingen park where black-bellied whistling ducks, swans, and roseate spoonbills congregated.

Lon Huff, park manager for Sunshine RV Park in Harlingen, says the park is gearing up to welcome this year’s flock of Winter Texans, including a caravan from Canada that will be staying for several weeks on their way to and from Mexico. (Source: Dina Arevalo/Valley Morning Star)

Huff told the Valley Morning Star that his park’s numbers don’t support UTPA’s statistics of declining numbers of Winter Texans.

“The years of 2010 and 2011 for us were extremely good years,” he said.

Violence in Mexico and high gas prices have not greatly affected the numbers of people wintering at Sunshine RV Park, Huff said.

Baby boomers are an increasing presence in the Winter Texan community, Huff said, adding that there’s a “pretty big” contingent of 55-year-old Canadians at his park.

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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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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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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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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Fewer Winter Texans at Valley RV Parks

If you’re thinking about coming down to Texas this winter, come on down, y’all!

A "Valley Specialty", the green jay takes a bath. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campgrounds, RV parks, and resorts in the Rio Grande Valley report fewer Winter Texans this year, The Monitor reports.

A lackluster economy, drug violence in Mexico, fewer people retiring early, and health concerns have caused a drop in the number of Winter Texans visiting Rio Grande Valley RV parks this season, park managers and residents say.

Numbers are down as much as 25 percent at many RV parks at the start of the season that runs from January through February, they said.

“They were great last year, but this year they’re down,” Barbara North, manager of First Colony Mobile and RV Park in San Benito, said.

First Colony has seen a 15 percent decrease due to the nation’s tough economy and fear of violence in Mexico, North said.

“The numbers have grown until this year,” she said.

In 2010, the number of Winter Texans reached a record high, with 144,000 driving to the Valley, said Penny Simpson, a professor who researches tourism at the University of Texas-Pan American.

The 2010 season saw numbers slowly rebounding from the slump that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she said. Before 9/11, the numbers had peaked at 143,000, reports The Monitor.

The world's largest killer bee makes its home at Hidalgo. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A summer 2011 survey of 130 Winter Texans hinted numbers could drop about 5 percent this winter, Simpson said.

“We were trying to get a feel if the numbers were down,” Simpson said.

The survey asked whether health, gas prices, the economy, or violence and terrorism would influence Winter Texans’ decision to spend the winter in the Valley, Simpson said.

In her survey, Winter Texans cited health as the top factor behind their decision to stay home this year, Simpson said.

The Winter Texan industry is a major driver of the Valley’s economy, Simpson said, adding that in 2010, Winter Texans pumped $802.5 million into the local economy.

Anita Pearson, manager of Park Place Estates RV park in Harlingen said, “They’re a little down from what they were last year,” about 5 percent lower than last year, when the 859-site park was at 85 percent capacity.

Pearson blamed the drop on a national trend that’s leading Americans to work past the traditional retirement age of 65.

“People are working longer. They’re not retiring as young,” Pearson said. “We’re not getting early retirees because people are not retiring as early as they used to. They’re doing other things, like taking cruises and time shares and not staying in one place for six months.”

Barbara Baumhofer, a retired factory supervisor from Mora, Minnesota, said hard times and illness among an aging Winter Texan population dropped numbers from 7 to 10 percent at Victoria Palms Resort in Donna.

Bonnie Klaver said she hasn’t seen as many younger retirees at Texas Trails RV Resort in Pharr.

Visit the historic mansion, Quinta Mazatland, the McAllen wing of the World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The younger people aren’t coming down as much,” said Klaver, a retired farmer from Webster City, Iowa, who has spent 11 winters in the Valley. “They aren’t RVers. They probably don’t have the money to do it yet.”

For decades, the All Valley RV Show has been a top attraction for Winter Texans, but numbers have dropped from peak years in the mid-1990s, when attendance hit about 15,000, said Warren Kininmonth, the event’s chairman.

“This economy is affecting everyone,” said Kininmonth, who said he was counting on numbers to rebound from 8,000 last year. “It’s everywhere.”

Texas Spoken Friendly

Note: This is the last of a 2-part series on RV space availability for Winter Texans

Part 1: RV Space Still Available for Winter Texans

Worth Pondering…
Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Rio South Texas: A Nature Tourism Hotspot

One of America’s most vibrant “birding hotspots” is Rio South Texas; a tropical paradise with almost 500 recorded species of bird. The huge number of bird species, alongside the region’s large tracts of nature preserves and ranch land, is attracting a new color to kaleidoscopic Rio South Texas: green!

Great Kiskadee, a South Texas specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year, this border region brings in more than $300 million from nature loving tourists, who flock in from all over the world to view the majesty of the Western Wood-Pewee, fish the Laguna Madre, or go bow hunting for wild javelina, according to a Rio South Texas Economic Council news release.

This finding comes off the back of a study recently conducted by Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation, Park & Tourism Sciences and Department of Agricultural Economics. Nature tourism has long been an important focal point for the area’s visitor bureaus, and the study’s results demonstrate that these efforts are paying dividends.

In addition to the influx of cash that nature tourists bring to Rio South Texas, these nature lovers also boost local employment. The study estimates more than 4,407 full- and part-time jobs are directly attributable to nature tourism. Given that the survey was conducted during the off-peak season for nature tourism, the resulting figures are likely conservative estimates.

Rio South Texas Economic Council (RSTEC) member and CEO of the Mission Area Chamber of Commerce, Matt Ruszcazak, believes sustainable growth is an important balancing act: “It’s tempting to clear every piece of land for development when your economy is booming like ours, but the benefits that come from caring for nature corridors can also have an impressive and positive economic impact for our area.”

Plain Chachalca, a South Texas specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Once you’ve watched a Yellow-Bellied Kiskadee chase off a Peregrine Falcon, it’s pretty easy to get hooked,” grins Ruszcazak. “This study makes it clear just how positive nature tourism is on a financial level; its effects are not only apparent today, but also set to bring great advantages for the region in future years.”

RSTEC brings together the region’s economic development organizations with a unified, clear vision focused on fostering expansion and relocation efforts by companies seeking an attractive business environment.

The Council also works toward furthering educational opportunities in the region to boost the area and provide local companies with a workforce of highly educated individuals.

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Details

Roseate Spoonbill, a South Texas specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rio South Texas Economic Council

Rio South Texas is located at the southernmost tip of Texas, and bordering Mexico along the Rio Grande River.

Address: P.O. Box 4360, Edinburg, TX 78540

Phone: (956) 928-0641 or (888) 778-3201

Website: RioSouthTexas.com

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
I am humbled by the forces of nature that continuously -mold our great state of Texas into a beautiful landscape complete with geological diversity, flora and fauna. It is my goal as a photographer to capture that natural beauty and share it with others.

—Chase A. Fountain

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