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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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.


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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Flocking to Texas

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

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo tip

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

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

Roseate Spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Did You Know?

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

Little known and interesting fact about Texas

Beaumont to El Paso: 742 miles

Beaumont to Chicago: 770 miles

El Paso is closer to California than to Dallas

King Ranch in South Texas is larger than Rhode Island.

Worth Pondering…
We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

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Winter Texans flock to the Rio Grande Valley

“The Valley,” as it is affectionately called, is an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Starting in the east and heading west, there’s Brownsville, Los Fresco, Rio Honda, San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria, Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen, and Mission.

The Rio Grande Valley is a birders' delight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically not part of The Valley, nearby Rio Hondo, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island are also favorite roosts for Winter Texans. The South Padre Island beaches are never crowded, except during Spring Break, when no Winter Texan in their right mind would venture there.

In trying to define what makes the Winter Texans different from their Snowbird cousins in Florida, Arizona, and Southern California, it seems to us it has to with their roots and the reasons they spend their winters here.

Winter Texans come primarily from a Mid-West, small-town, or rural roots—not that much unlike those that winter in Yuma, Arizona.

Well-represented states include Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. The majority of Canadians who winter in Texas are from Manitoba and Ontario.

Long known to Midwesterners as a great winter spot, many other Northerners have in recent years discovered it, too. New Winter Texans continue to arrive each year and many, like us, become repeat visitors.

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

Most of the larger parks have highly organized activities to make sure you don’t get bored.

Winter Texans have created a culture of their own. And they tend to do what they do back home. They are crazy for dancing!

Numerous activities center around dancing, dance classes, and dance workshops (from pre-beginners to Advance II to Phase VI)—square dance, line dance, round dance, ball room dance, mainstream dance, pattern dance, tap dance, 2-step, waltz, cha-cha, Latin dance, Country Western dance, West Coast swing, clogging—and Bible study.

Even though they spend considerable time participating in the activities and scheduled events at their RV resorts, Winter Texans still have time to get out and explore the Rio Grande Valley.

The Valley offers a wide variety of activities and attractions that you won’t find elsewhere in the American Sunbelt. The area’s many outdoor attractions range from beaches to battlefields, lighthouses to bird and butterfly sanctuaries. The Civil War Battlefield at Palmito Ranch and the Palo Alto Battlefield are both National Historic sites located near Brownsville.

Nuevo Progreso

Shopping is an adventure in the Mexican border towns. The recommended place to shop is Progreso, officially Nuevo Progreso. Park your car for a small fee on the U.S. side and walk across the Rio Grande Bridge. This little town seems to have been built just for Winter Texans. Every block has dentists and pharmacies, where you can have your dental work completed and save money on prescription medication. Mexican produced liquors, such as tequila and Kahlua are also a bargain. There are many fine restaurants in Progreso and shops sell handmade Mexican craft items, souvenirs, linens, blankets, and toys. Haircuts are also a bargain.

The Killer Bee was first sighted in the U.S. near Hidalgo in South Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Did You Know?

The brush land of south Texas is home of some of the richest biodiversity in North America.

Little known and interesting fact about Texas

The name Texas comes from the Hasini Indian word “tejas” meaning friends. Tejas is not Spanish for Texas

Worth Pondering…
Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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