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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Top 7 Snowbird Hotspots

Cold winter weather is inevitable. But there is an escape.

Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Residents of the northern half of North America have long found respite from winter’s chill by fleeing to the southern half. As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds avoid winter’s bite, snow and blowing snow, and treacherous icy sidewalks and streets by migrating southward.

Northerners have a bounty of options for destinations. Many snowbirds are north-south creatures with Florida remaining a top spot for Easterners. Snowbirds from the Northwest settle in Arizona and southern California while those in the Mid-West are attracted to Texas. But these states aren’t alone in luring snowbirds, and even within each of these states there’s a bevy of choices to suit every traveler’s taste, interests, and budget.

While many snowbirds head directly south from their northern home and enjoy long-term stays at RV parks and resorts, others cut across the country in a diagonal direction, exploring a whole new longitude. Still other snowbirds follow an itinerary across the Sun Belt sampling a variety of regions and roosts.

Here’s a look at six places that snowbirds might call their winter home.

Yuma and the Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Yuma and the Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs

Rich in natural beauty and blessed with glorious weather, Palm Springs and the desert resort cities of the Coachella Valley is a snowbird and vacation paradise, the ultimate desert playground. Part of the Colorado Desert, the area is bounded by majestic mountain ranges—the San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, and Santa Rosa mountains close by, the little San Bernardino Mountains to the west and the Chocolate Mountains to the east. This desert oasis is also known as a golfing paradise.

Key West

The southernmost tip of Florida has been the end of the line for eccentrics, free spirits, and creative types for a century or more. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams are among its former residents.

Yuma

Yuma’s wonderfully temperate winter climate makes this southwestern Arizona city a popular destination for snowbirds escaping their cold winter homes. Arizona’s warmest winter city and the sunniest year-round spot in the U.S., Yuma has an annual average of 4,133 hours of sunshine.

Yuma is a major growing region for lettuce, dates, broccoli, cabbage, and agricultural seeds. Some of the major attractions around the Yuma area include the historical Territorial Prison, the Yuma Crossing Historic Park, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.

green jay
Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center near Mission © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Diego

San Diego is the last major city in southern California before the Mexican border. Cosmopolitan, and upscale, the area is blessed with a Goldilocks climate that’s never too hot nor too cold, a natural beauty on the Pacific Ocean and a deep restaurant and entertainment scene centered around the central and walkable Gaslamp Quarter.

Mission

Located in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, Mission welcomes the thousands of Winter Texans that call Mission their temporary home. Mission offers some of the most spectacular locations for birding and butterfly watching on earth. The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center and the National Butterfly Center have created havens for the special species unique to the area, and invite birders and naturalists to their sites by offering viewing stations, watching towers, interpretive centers, and various programs.

St. Petersburg

Along with beautiful beaches, St. Petersburg attracts visitors with the Salvador Dali Museum, Fort De Soto Park, and the St. Petersburg Pier. Beach Drive features a variety of dining and shopping opportunities. Glimmering between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg is known for its warm weather and delightful breezes, and fun in the sun.

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Saguaro National Park near Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

There are numerous reasons to visit Tucson and the many other historic towns and sights around Southern Arizona. Some snowbirds come for a week or two. Others stay for the season.

Some of the major attractions include Sabino Canyon, Saguaro National Park, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, San Xavier del Bac (White Dove of the Desert), Catalina State Park, Kit Peak National Observatory, Tohono Chul Park, Pima Air and Space Museum, and Old Tucson Studios.

Worth Pondering…

When you are young, you dream of leaving your house on a set of wheels. When you retire you dream of living in a house on a set of wheels.

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Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis

On the northern side of the Coachella Valley, nestled at the feet of the Indio Hills, the Coachella Valley Preserve is the Old West just minutes from Palm Springs, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indio, and other desert cities.

Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Preserve is a natural refuge where visitors can discover rare and wonderful wildlife species. Enjoy some of the 20,000+ acres of desert wilderness and over 25 miles of hiking trails, most of which are well marked.

By a quirk of nature there’s water here, too, but it doesn’t usually come in the form of rain. The Preserve is bisected by the San Andreas fault, and this natural phenomenon results in a series of springs and seeps which support plants and animals which couldn’t otherwise live in this harsh environment.

Enjoy palm groves, picnic areas, a diverse trail system, and the rustic visitor center, the Palm House. Inside the historic building are trail maps as well as unique displays of the natural and historic features of the area.

The palm encountered in the oases within the Preserve is the California fan palm, or Washingtonia filifera. It is the only indigenous palm in California. The Washingtonia filifera has a very thick trunk and grows slowly to about 45 feet. Dead leaves hang vertically and form what is called a skirt around the trunk providing a place for various critters to live. Inflorescences, or fruit stalks, extend beyond the leaves and bear masses of tiny white to cream colored flowers.

Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the fall months, large clusters of small hard fruit hang from the tree. The palms may live 150 to 200 years.

No one knew just how significant a 6-inch lizard would be to conservation in Coachella Valley.

In 1980 a lizard small enough to fit in the palm of your hand brought the $19 billion Coachella Valley construction boom to a screeching halt.

When the lizard was placed on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all development was jeopardized because it might illegally destroy habitat for the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard.

A six-year conflict ensued as environmentalists battled developers over the fragile desert habitat. Finally, the Nature Conservancy was called in to resolve the bitter stalemate, and the result was a remarkable model of cooperation through which endangered species and economic development could co-exist.

The Conservancy proposed creating a nearly 14,000-acre preserve that would provide permanent protection for the little reptile and other desert species, while allowing developers to build elsewhere in the valley. It was a great experiment in cooperation that produced astonishing results. The creation of the Coachella Valley Preserve proved that through consensus, economic development, and species protection can indeed be compatible.

Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From easy to moderately difficult, from flat terrain to steep grades, hikes of all varieties are available. There are also several designated equestrian trails, but there are no bike or dog-friendly trails.

One hike that is a sure bet for all levels, is through varying desert terrain to the McCallum Grove, about a mile from the Palm House visitor’s center. There are about a dozen isolated palm groves within the preserve, the largest being McCallum Grove.

There’s more water here than anywhere else in the preserve and the overflow allows a large and diverse community to thrive, including tiny freshwater crayfish called red swamp crayfish, desert pupfish, and the occasional mallard duck making a brief stopover during its annual migration.

After leaving McCallum Grove keep hiking west on marked trails out to “moon country”. You will come to an overlook that provides you with great views of the entire area.
From there you can return to the visitor’s center, or continue via the 4.2-mile Moon Country Trail Loop, or the more advanced Moon Country Canyon Extension, which adds an additional 1.63 miles roundtrip.

Other delightful trails include Pushawalla Palms, Horseshoe Palms, and Hidden Palms, which are all somewhat more strenuous hikes.

Coachella Valley Preserve is a great way to spend a day with its fantastic hiking trails, and beautiful vistas, but best of all it’s free and also easy to find. No matter how you choose to spend your time at Coachella Valley Preserve, you won’t be disappointed.

Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Palm Springs take Interstate 10 East to the Ramon Road exit. Turn left and follow Ramon Road and make a left turn on Thousand Palms Road. The entrance to the visitors center is located about two miles on the left.

Worth Pondering…

Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders.
—Edward Abbey

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Saguaro National Park: Two Districts, One Park

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms.

The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Rincon Mountain District (East) includes the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, an eight-mile paved route that provides access to a variety of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The giant saguaro (scientific name Carnegiea gigantea) is the universal symbol of the American Southwest. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the US, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson.

The saguaros are the highlight of this national park, of course. The scenery is spectacular and captures the beauty that is so unique to the region.

The saguaro cactus is a large, tree-sized cactus with a relatively long lifespan. It’s beautiful white, waxy flower (which blooms late May-July) is the Arizona state flower and is a favorite treat for the diverse animal populations that call Saguaro National Park home.

Saguaro National Park has two districts. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West. Both districts have their own visitor center, scenic drives, and hiking trail systems.

The Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District are approximately 30 miles (45-60 minutes) apart. While similar in terms of plants and animals, the intricate details make both areas worthy of a visit.

The Tucson Mountain District (West) Red Hills Visitor Center has excellent facilities for a fine interpretive program. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Tucson Mountain District (West) Red Hills Visitor Center has excellent facilities for a fine interpretive program. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Eastern Rincon Mountain District rises to over 8,000 feet and includes over 128 miles of trails. The Western Tucson Mountain District is generally lower in elevation with a denser saguaro forest.

The Rincon Mountain District  includes a one-way paved road drive, the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop, that winds through the spectacular saguaros and is easily navigable by RVs under 35 feet long and less than 8 feet wide. This 8-mile loop includes several trailheads, picnic areas, scenic vistas, and pullouts. You may want to stop at the visitor center for a guide to the natural and cultural history that can be viewed along the drive. This forest of impressive saguaros is a must-see when visiting the Tucson area.

Speaking of Saguaros…

  • Start out as tiny black seeds no larger than a pinhead
  • Frequently spend their early years under the protection of a so-called “nurse tree,” such as a mesquite or palo verde
  • Grow very slowly—seedlings might poke up only a quarter-inch after a year of life and may be barely a foot tall by the time they’re 15 years old, often living 75 years before sprouting their first arms
  • Reproduce with the help of pollination by birds, insects, and nectar-feeding bats
  • Provide homes for Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers, which excavate nest cavities in saguaros; other birds including elf owls, finches, and sparrows often move into abandoned nest cavities
The Rincon Mountain District  drive, the 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop includes several trailheads, picnic areas, scenic vistas, and pullouts. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Rincon Mountain District drive, the 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop includes several trailheads, picnic areas, scenic vistas, and pullouts. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did You Know?

The average life span of a saguaro cactus is 150 years, but some plants may live more than 200 years. A 20 foot tall saguaro weighs approximately 1 ton (2000 pounds).

Details

Saguaro National Park

Entrance Fees: $10/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Established: National Monument, March 1, 1933; National Park, October 14, 1994

Size: 91,445 acres

2013 Visitor Count: 678,261

Website: www.nps.gov/sagu

Saguaro National Park Headquarters and Rincon Mountain District (East)

Address: 3693 South Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, AZ 85730

Directions: From I-10 exit # 275 (Houghton Road) drive 9.5 miles north to Old Spanish Trail and turn right; the park entrance is 3 miles southeast down Old Spanish Trail on your left

Phone: (520) 733-5153

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park-Tucson Mountain District (West)

Address: 2700 North Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743

Directions: From I-10 Exit # 242 (Avra Valley Road) drive 5 miles west to Sandario Road and turn left; drive 9 miles south on Sandario Road to Kinney Road and turn left; the visitor center is 2 miles down Kinney Road on your left

Alternate Directions: From I-10 Exit #248 (Ina Road) drive west 2.5 miles to Wade Road and turn left; drive 0.6 miles to a big curve; at this point Wade Road will change names to Picture Rocks Road; drive 6 miles west on Picture Rocks Road (while on Picture Rocks Road you will enter and exit Saguaro National Park) to Sandario Road and turn left; drive 3.5 miles south on Sandario Road to Kinney Road and turn left; the visitor center is 2 miles down Kinney Road on your left

Phone: (520) 733-5158

Worth Pondering…

A saguaro can fall for a snowman but where would they set up house?

—Jodi Picoult

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Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can

My favorite Mardi Gras tradition is the crown-shaped King Cake which evolved from the Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany pastry of Louisiana’s early French settlers, who brought the tradition with them from Europe.

Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Presentation of the King Cake is part of the rich Christian celebration, all in homage to the three kings that bore gifts for the baby Jesus.

Our modern versions of this cake, an extra-large rich breakfast-type pastry is decorated with the purple, gold, and green toppings which are indicative of the Mardi Gras colors. Hidden inside each cake is a tiny, naked plastic or porcelain baby to symbolize the baby Jesus. In the early days, a Fava bean or coin, not a baby, was secreted into the cake.

Tradition tells us that the “bean finder,” the person who gets the piece of cake with the baby inside (and doesn’t break a tooth or swallow it in the process!), receives a year of good luck and is treated as royalty for that day—and must supply the next day’s king cake.

The king cake started out as just plain old dough and sugar. Cinnamon was added. Then in ’81 or ’82 bakeries started experimenting with the fillings, cream cheese, Bavarian cream. Then the icing and the sugar. It just kind of evolved.

Some are still just a cake and some have filling like Strawberry, Bavarian Cream, Chocolate, Apple Cinnamon Pecan, Strawberry Cream Cheese, King Creole Praline, Almond Bavarian, Raspberry Gooey Butter, Pecan Praline, Pineapple Praline, Raspberry Cream Cheese, Strawberry Bavarian, Black Forest, Cherry Bomb, Praline Cream Cheese, Oreo Cream Cheese, Kentucky Bourbon, and more. There are as many different flavors of the tasty pastry as there are throws at a parade.

Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And now, more and more bakeries are getting creative and stretching the boundaries of what can be stuffed between layers of brioche and still count as a king cake.

In recent years more restaurants are adding king cake-style desserts including a king cake bread pudding with purple, gold, and green sprinkles. Variations include a king cake bread pudding with lemon goat cheese ice cream and blackberry compote, and king cake bread pudding with goat milk ice cream and huckleberry compote.

One eatery serves a king cake flavored milkshake made from a traditional king cake; a king cake is soaked in milk and tossed into the blender.

Demonstrating that a king cake can be more than one dimensional, one pastry chef’s sundae version of the king cake pulls together contrasts in a way no bakery cake ever could. Three fried balls of brioche, each with a crunchy layer of Carnival colored sugar, alternate with scoops of strawberry, cinnamon, and cream cheese ice cream.

Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another recent trend is Savory King Cakes. One bakery has been selling crawfish king cakes for the past 10 or so Mardi Gras seasons; it makes muffuletta ones, too.

Last week a boudin-stuffed king cake topped with cane syrup and cracklins made the news. The next day, another eatery started making them too.

Another bakery has debuted three new savory flavors: Baked ham and cheese with jalapeno, bacon cheeseburger, and smoked sausage with cheese.

Brace yourselves. A King Cake burger is also available. Given all the attempts and varying degrees of fusion food available these days, it was only a matter of time.

But a King Cake burger? It certainly stops you in your tracks. And it could be in the running for one of the more efficient meals available. You can get dinner and dessert all in one intriguing handful.

Another savory note is the Elvis king cake which includes bananas, peanut butter, topped with marshmallow cream, and candied bacon.

Maybe it’s just more pushing of the envelope. And more uses for bacon, a decade-long trend that will not die.

Why the trend?

The savory ones seem to be taking off because not everyone is making them.

Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mardi Gras King Cake: Eat It While You Can © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everything is evolving. It’s the Internet, social media, and everything else including the Mardi Gras King Cake.

Mardi Gras and king cakes go hand in hand. After all, what’s Mardi Gras without a king cake or savory version of it! So few days in Mardi Gras season this year and so many king cakes to try.

Mardi Gras 2015 falls on Tuesday, February 17. Enjoy the party!

Worth Pondering…

It’s a great party, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy Mardi Gras is not of this world.
—Franklin Alvarado

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Snowbirds Give Back by Volunteering & Workcamping

As more seniors seek ways to enjoy the snowbird lifestyle many are turning to workcamping as a means of supplementing their pensions.

Workcampers are typically employed by RV parks and destination resorts. Pictured above is Coastal Georgia RV Resort near Brunswick and the Golden Isles. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Workcampers are typically employed by RV parks and destination resorts. Pictured above is Coastal Georgia RV Resort near Brunswick and the Golden Isles. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Being a workcamper is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle, one that is actively pursued by some 80,000 workcampers throughout the United States.

Ask ten workcampers to define workamping and you are likely to hear ten different definitions. Technically speaking, however, “workamping” is the contraction of “work” and “camping” to describe a working arrangement for RVers which usually involves a place to camp as compensation for services rendered. Some workamping jobs also pay a salary.

Many workcampers are snowbirds who offset the cost of the snowbird lifestyle by exchanging their knowledge, skills, and labor for a free camping site and occasional minimum wage pay.

Workcampers are typically employed by RV parks and destination resorts, state parks, national parks, wildlife refuges and preserves, US Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilities, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and US Fish and Wildlife Service. They have found that RVers are reliable, trustworthy, happy to work short hours or in short temporary jobs, and will often come back year after year.

Volunteers jobs include trail maintenance, invasive plant removal, wildlife census, habitat rejuvenation, leading hikes and nature walks, and collecting camping fees.

Work-campers often find part time work at national wildlife refuges and state and national parks. Pictured above are sandhill cranes at  Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico), considered one of the most spectacular refuges in North America and consistently recognized as one of the top birding areas in the United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Workcampers often find part time work at national wildlife refuges and state and national parks. Pictured above are sandhill cranes at
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico), considered one of the most spectacular refuges in North America and consistently recognized as one of the top birding areas in the United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some workcampers are on the road full-time, moving from place to place. Other workcampers stay long-term in one location or return to the same RV Park or public campground year after year.

Some camp hosts share responsibility for large campgrounds, while others host smaller campgrounds alone. Responsibilities may include greeting visitors, office duties, collecting fees, equipment rental, organizing schedules, cleaning campground bathrooms, security, groundskeeper, general maintenance, and whatever the campground owner needs an extra hand with.

It’s a perfect match when the campground owner, needing economical help, meets the RVer that enjoys people, the lifestyle, and staying active. If you have experience, it’s a plus, but it’s often not a requirement!

Part-time work-camping couples can have a great time: work a few hours a week in exchange for a free camp site and other perks that may include free utilities and laundry, cable TV and Wi-Fi, propane, etc. Sometimes workcampers will also receive a small salary or other compensation. Other times (especially for campground manager jobs for couples) it’s a full-time job complete with salary and additional benefits and perks. Campground owners have had so much success with using work-campers that they seek them out each busy season.

Commercial companies and other businesses have also found workcampers to be a great resource to help with busy periods during the year.

There are numerous other volunteer positions available to RVers in addition to camp hosting. Opportunities for volunteering are also available at amusement and theme parks, museums and art galleries, visitor information and welcome centers, and other outdoor recreation facilities and attractions.

Some camp hosts share responsibility for large campgrounds, while others host smaller campgrounds alone. Pictured above Bella Terra of Gulf Shores (Alabama), an upscale Class A motorhome resort community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Some camp hosts share responsibility for large campgrounds, while others host smaller campgrounds alone. Pictured above Bella Terra of Gulf Shores (Alabama), an upscale Class A motorhome resort community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often you can find a volunteer position just by inquiring at the location where you would like to volunteer, making it clear why you want to volunteer at that particular place. Numerous nonprofit agencies rely on snowbirds to play an important role during the winter months.

Seasonal volunteers account for about a third of the almost 1,200 people the Pinellas County (Florida) Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), places in about 110 nonprofit groups across the county. The places they work span the gamut of possibilities: visitor centers, interpretation/docents, museums, music and arts festivals, sporting events, theaters, schools, hospitals, extended-care facilities, and a host of other locations.

For snowbirds that love recreational activities and enjoy interacting with other people, volunteering and workcamping offer numerous opportunities for giving back to society.

If you choose to work while you play, enjoy your experience.

Worth Pondering…

The world is hugged by the faithful arms of volunteers.

—Terri Guillemets

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Trio of National Parks That Are Best During Winter

Winter can be one of the best times to get out and explore America’s national parks in an RV.

Two desert systems, the Mojave and the Colorado, abut within Joshua Tree, dividing California's southernmost national park into two arid ecosystems of profoundly contrasting appearance. The key to their differences is elevation.
Two desert systems, the Mojave and the Colorado, abut within Joshua Tree, dividing California’s southernmost national park into two arid ecosystems of profoundly contrasting appearance. The key to their differences is elevation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the busiest national parks experience a major drop in attendance, allowing visitors better viewing opportunities amid less crowded conditions.

Many of these parks are located in the US Sunbelt offering snowbirds a wide variety of unspoiled landscapes to enjoy in warm comfort during the winter.

With snowbirds in mind, the following are my picks for a trio of national parks that are best to visit during winter.

Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases.

Here the lower Colorado Desert meets the higher Mojave Desert, forming granite monoliths, rugged mountains, and surreal geology that lures hikers, desert rats, and rock climbers from around the world.

The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the Mojave and Colorado deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. The Colorado Desert in the eastern section offers low desert formations and plant life, such as creosote bushes, spidery ocotillo, and jumping cholla cactus; the higher, cooler, and wetter Mojave in the western part is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Cold nights and warm days make for ideal treks into palm-lined oases. Or, bike the dirt roads and watch the climbers scale the rocky heights.

A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is known for its majestic towering rock mountains which rise to awe-inspiring heights. Zion is a lush green oasis, surrounded by startling sentinels of stone. With sheer, milky-white cliffs and pristine waterfalls, Zion is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Zion National Park is getting more difficult to navigate with its single road into the canyon and a mandatory shuttle system during the busy months.

Exploring Zion Canyon, center of park activity, during the off-season gives one the flexibility that is impossible seven months of the year. From April through October, private cars are prohibited in the canyon, and visitors must use park shuttles. With 11,000 daily visitors, it’s hard to dispute the need for such restrictions. Still, it’s nice to be on our own—and free of crowds.

The main canyon in Zion was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River. It is narrow, less than a quarter-mile wide. But it is deep, flanked by towering sandstone palisades 2,000-3,000 feet high that draw rock climbers who savor big walls. The six-mile canyon drive ends at a formation known as Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon begins narrowing to a slot only 30-40 feet wide.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The organ pipe has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The organ pipe has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next. Ninety-five percent of the park is designated as wilderness area, which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonaran Desert.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. It is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ.

The organ pipe has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150. Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.

The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way dirt road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the park.

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate big rigs and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

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Mardi Gras RV City

The aptly named campground under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile, Alabama, has been home to 197 trailers and RVs for almost a decade.

The Heathcoe family of Saraland, Alabama, decorate their motorhome in RV City, the campground set up for Mardi Gras under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile.
The Heathcoe family of Saraland, Alabama, decorate their motorhome in RV City, the campground set up for Mardi Gras under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile. (Photo credit: Sharon/AL.com)

And although she’s been coming to Mardi Gras her whole life—and even been a guest in RV City several times—2015 will be the first time Jenny Richardson has her own spot, in-between her two uncles, according to AL.com.

When she picked out her expansive new camper trailer, she was sure of its primary destination, just a few months away.

When she bought her camper, “90 percent of it was because of Mardi Gras and the beach,” Richardson said.

She and her uncles, Mike Wilson and Larry Eubanks, are part of a group of early arrivals to the campground.

“Everybody’s family here,” Richardson told AL.com.

Now taking up a huge swath of land under the Interstate—bordered by Water, Canal, and Jackson streets—RV City is the Mardi Gras brainchild of Ike and Peggy Jimenez.

In 2000, with nowhere for them and their fellow campers to safely congregate, Ike started writing letters to then-Mayor Mike Dow seeking space. Eventually, Dow arranged a piece of state land under I-10.

According to Peggy Jimenez, that wedge of land was home to the first RV City tenants, who numbered about 60. And most of those folks have continued to come ever since.

RV City, the campground set up for Mardi Gras under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile.
RV City, the campground set up for Mardi Gras under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile. (Photo credit: Sharon Steinmann/AL.com)

Now, 14 years later, the number is at a static 197, and folks come together in November of each year to pay their dues, which are $399 per spot, with an extra $25 for those who want to bring a golf cart, said told AL.com.

The spots are grandfathered in—for one to come available, one of the existing campers needs to bow out. There’s a waiting list of 30 to 40 on average each year. And about 30 folks drop out each year, with 30 newcomers then slotted in.

“We enjoy it, we really do,” Jimenez told AL.com. She and Ike are considered the “mayor and first lady” of RV City, according to the campers.

For the first nine years, she said she and her husband—who own a construction business locally—handled all the logistics and organizing without compensation. But recently, they have been getting reimbursed by the city and state.

SMG, the management company that operates the nearby Civic Center, handles the details.

Very few, if any, of the campers in RV City are from out of town.

According to Jimenez, most of the “citizens” belong to one of eight different parading societies, including the Order of Venus, Neptune’s Daughters, Conde Cavaliers, and Mobile Mystics.

Those belonging to certain crewes group together and can be identified by their flags, she said. And yet they all come together for parties each Saturday night during the season, when a DJ plays music for RV City.

Mike Wilson, who considers himself a campground veteran, said last Saturday’s kickoff party is his favorite event of the season, followed by Joe Cain Day, on February 15.

A member of the same mystic organization Wilson belongs to provides the music starting around 6:30 p.m., after their float barn party wraps, he said. It’s a family-friendly event open to the public, and “we watch out for everybody else’s kids,” Wilson told AL.com.

RV City, the campground set up for Mardi Gras under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile
RV City, the campground set up for Mardi Gras under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile. (Photo credit: Sharon Steinmann/AL.com)

But now, they’ve been told by a representative of the state this is the last year RV City will be allowed to occupy that land; that in 2016 it will be unavailable due to upcoming construction.

As for possible relocation, some sites have been discussed by various campers, but Ike and Peggy haven’t heard anything concrete.

“Until the mayor or the city ventures out and tries to locate something else, it’s never going to be this big,” Jimenez said.

But for now, the party is on, and folks will continue to fill their spots and decorate their “homes” in RV City over the next week or so, Jimenez said.

“It’s nice to see families and to be able to get with friends and come down here and enjoy yourselves in a safe environment,” she said. “If it wasn’t for this place here, they’d have no place to go.”

Worth Pondering…

Mardi Gras is a thing that could hardly exist in the practical North….For the soul of it is the romantic, not the funny and the grotesque. Take away the romantic mysteries, the kings and knights and big-sounding titles, and Mardi Gras would die, down there in the South.

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (Harper & Brothers, 1896)

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Escapees Expand Mail Services

Since 1985, Escapees Mail Forwarding Service has been assisting full-time and part-time RVers with all their mail forwarding needs.  As a licensed commercial mail-receiving agent, Escapees provides the largest, most economical service for RVers in the nation.

EscapeesMailServiceLogo2Livingston, Texas-based Escapees Club announced that its mail service has raised the bar again.

The new Escapees: Home satellite centers provide Escapees Mail Service members with a whole new level of flexibility, according to a news release.

This service is specifically designed for full-time RVers interested in maintaining a physical address in Florida, Texas, or South Dakota.

Escapees: Home offers Florida and South Dakota as home-base options and perfectly meshes those two satellite centers with Escapees’ sophisticated mail distribution center in Livingston, Texas.

“Whether you move for personal reasons, or state regulations create undue hardships, Escapees: Home satellite service allows you to change your domicile without alerting your entire list of correspondents,” said Teresa Moore, chief operations officer.

All Escapees Mail Service members receive their very own private mailbox number that corresponds with a Texas (Rainbow Drive) street “mailing address” for general correspondence. Those who select Texas as their domicile may use this as their physical address as well. This same private mailbox number will be used for Escapees: Home mail.

escapees logoEscapees Mail Service members who select the Escapees: Home option, may use one of the “physical addresses” the club offers for domicile purposes and have their state-specific mail (vehicle registration, driver license, and voter registration) sent there. Mail received at our satellite centers in Florida or South Dakota will be forwarded to the Texas facility for processing based on each member’s specific instructions. There is no additional charge for this service. Members pay postage only.

Details

Escapees Mail Service

Since 1985, Escapees Mail Forwarding Service has been assisting full-time and part-time RVers with all their mail forwarding needs.

Phone: (936) 327-8873 or (888) 757-2582 (toll free)

Website: www.escapees.com/mailservice

Escapees RV Club

Escapees-discount-highlightAddress: 100 Rainbow Drive, Livingston, TX 77351

Phone: (936) 327-8873 or (888) 757-2582 (toll free)

Website: www.escapees.com

Worth Pondering…

As you go through life, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

—Yogi Berra

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San Xavier del Bac: White Dove of the Desert

One glance, and you know why it’s known as the White Dove of the Desert.

Mission San Xavier del Bac, sometimes called "the Sistine Chapel of the United States" and the "White Dove of the Desert," is considered the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in the country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mission San Xavier del Bac, sometimes called “the Sistine Chapel of the United States” and the “White Dove of the Desert,” is considered the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in the country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just imagine, in the late 1600s a stranger on horseback has entered a village. Many of the people gather to see this stranger who is dressed in a dark, flowing robe and large brimmed hat. The people of the village greet the stranger and welcome him.

These people are the Tohono O’odham and the village is Wa:k. The stranger is Jesuit missionary and explorer Eusebio Kino.

A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission was founded as a Catholic mission when Father Eusebio Kino first came to the O’odham village of Wa:k (which he transcribed as “Bac”) in 1692.

The mission church of San Xavier del Bac, the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, is a stunning example of Mexican baroque architecture. The Baroque architecture style features playful dramatic elements such as theatrical curtain displays, faux doors, marbling, and overall sense of balance.

After Charles III expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all its holdings in 1767, Franciscans took over the mission in Wa:k.

The current church dates from the late 1700s, when Southern Arizona was part of New Spain. Construction began in 1783 and was completed in 1797. Franciscan missionary Fr. Juan Bautista Velderrain began construction on the present structure using money borrowed from a Sonoran rancher. He hired an architect, Ignacio Gaona, and a large workforce of O’odham to create the present church.

Today that structure is the east wing of the mission, next to the east bell tower.

The walls of the Mission's Byzantine-influenced interior are ablaze with frescoes, a religious gallery of work painted directly on its walls by missionaries two centuries ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The walls of the Mission’s Byzantine-influenced interior are ablaze with frescoes, a religious gallery of work painted directly on its walls by missionaries two centuries ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1783, Father Juan Bautista Velderrain began construction of the present church, which is made of clay brick, stone, and lime-based mortar.

Father Juan Bautista Llorens took over after Velderrain’s death in 1790 and oversaw much of the interior decoration. Among the exquisite murals and statuary — many made in Mexico and painstakingly transported to the church — you’ll see several recurring motifs, including the Franciscan cord and seashells, St. James’ symbol of pilgrimage.

The church’s interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings. It is a place where visitors can truly step back in time and enter an authentic 18th Century space.

Although the friars ran out of money before they could finish one bell tower and decorate one of the largest rooms in the church, the mission opened for services in 1797. The elaborate Mexican baroque exterior and vividly painted interior had the desired effect—to draw native people into the fold.

Following Mexican independence in 1821, San Xavier became part of Mexico. The last resident Franciscan of the 19th Century departed in 1837. With the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the Mission joined the United States. In 1859 San Xavier became part of the Diocese of Santa Fe. In 1866 Tucson became an incipient diocese and regular services were held at the Mission once again. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened a school at the Mission in 1872.

The Franciscans returned to the Mission in 1913. Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity now teach at the school and reside in the convent.

One glance, and you know why it's known as the White Dove of the Desert
One glance, and you know why it’s known as the White Dove of the Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and is open to the public, its primary purpose is to minister to the religious needs of its parishioners.

Restoration of the west tower was recently completed. Work on the east tower and the front facade will proceed as funding allows.

Details

San Xavier del Bac

Location: 9 miles south of downtown Tucson just off of I-19; take exit 92 (San Xavier Road) and follow signs to the Mission

Address: 1950 W. San Xavier Road, Tucson, AZ 85746-7409

Hours: Open 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily, with occasional closures for special services; Sunday mass at 7:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., and 11:30 p.m.

Admission: Free. Donations are appreciated.

Phone: (520) 294-2624

Website: www.sanxaviermission.org

Worth Pondering…

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

—Arthur Ashe

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