My 5 Favorite State Parks

Every year, America’s nearly 8,000 state parks see more than 720 million visitors—more than two-and-a-half times the number of all visits to national parks, which include marquee names such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These state parks tend to be smaller than national parks, and relatively modest in comparison, but they form the backbone of the park system and enjoy fierce loyalty from families who visit year after year.

Chances are you’re not too far from a state parks. Visit a state park today.

Everyone has lists and seldom do any two lists agree. But lists can be interesting fodder for discussion, debate, and sometimes agreement.

Here are My 5 Favorite State Parks.

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas

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. Witness 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.

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina
Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

One of the special features at Catalina State Park (among many!) is an amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas
The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its blood-red sandstone cliffs and weird rock formations, there’s an other-worldly feeling at Valley of Fire State Park. The terrain at Valley of Fire so resembles Mars that the Mars scenes of Total Recall were almost all filmed here.

Popular activities include camping, picnicking, photography, hiking among the intriguing rock formations, and soaking in the fascinating story of the area’s geological evolution. Park features include Fire Canyon/Silica Dome, Rainbow Vista, White Domes, and Beehives. Valley of Fire State Park is 55 miles—and a few light-years—northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and on exit 75.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Consisting of 6,150 acres with two miles of sugar white sand beaches and three fresh water lakes, Gulf State Park has a modern full-service campground, cabins, cottages, back country trails, and the largest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico.

The park also features an interactive nature center, nationally recognized scenic nature trail, new tennis courts, beautiful beach pavilion, 18-hole Refuge Golf Course, and a 900-acre lake for fishing in the picnic area on Lake Shelby.

Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota
With its pine-clad mountains and striking stone spires giving way in the south to gently rolling grasslands, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park occupies one of the prettiest corners of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Drive on the windy Needles Highway in the north, through narrow tunnels carved through the rock, to mirror-like Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel.” To the south, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop is the place to find pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and the famous “begging donkeys”.

Custer State Park touts itself as one of the few remaining wild sanctuaries in the country. Elk, mountain goats and nearly 1,300 buffalo roam this 71,000-acre park, set in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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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

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Magnet For Birds & Snowbirds

They may be blue in the North Country, but in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the jays have bright green backs, purple-blue heads with black trim down to the chest, and yellowish-green underparts.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 Valley is one of North America’s meccas for birders. And the green jay (pictured above) is the official bird of McAllen, the area’s largest city with 135,000 residents.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park—an area well known by both birders and the U.S. border patrol—is a great spot for bird watching.

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.

Dozens of green jays along with the raucous chachalacas (pictured below), great kiskadee (pictured below), and Altamira orioles (pictured below) congregate around a series of feeders a short distance from the roadway at the first stop on a tram ride from the visitors center.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

This is bird watching made easy in what is touted as one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the United States.

From an observation tower in the park’s south end, visitors catch a glimpse of the meandering slow-flowing Rio Grande and neighboring Mexico. Sharing the park with birders and cyclists, are numerous border patrol vehicles, keeping watch along irrigation canals for people trying to enter the US illegally.

The green jay, along with some 500 other species that stay in the Rio Grande Valley year-round, is one of many head-turning attractions for the tens of thousands of Winter Texans who flock to The Valley annually.

Those who like to combine birding with spectacular architecture do what we did and head to the city-owned Quinta Mazatlan, one of the largest adobe-style mansions in the US.

There, staff relate stories of Jason Matthews, the adventurer who is said to have fought the Turks with Lawrence of Arabia and who built the estate, including a rooftop “hooch” made of sticks.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The place was nearly demolished after being damaged by a hurricane in 1967 but a local couple bought it for a song and restored it to the point it was honored for its splendor by the State of Texas.

At the end of the ’90s, the property was once again up for sale and the city outbid developers seeking to raze the mansion and develop the site. Now Quinta Mazatlan, like the state park, is one of the region’s most important birding areas and one of the most photographed spots in McAllen.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding 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.

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination. At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest.

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
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

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

The many area RV parks are packed with Winter Texans who have for decades discovered Texas as a more economical alternative to Florida.

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Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Mission a Prime Destination For Winter Texans

Located right in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, about 250 miles south of San Antonio, lies a tight knit community of friends, family, and children.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

During winter, they embrace the thousands of Winter Texans that call Mission their temporary home. With winter temperatures averaging 72 degrees and with a ZERO percent chance of snow… why wouldn’t they?

Mission has a little bit of everything for everyone. Close enough to the hustle and bustle of a larger city, but far enough from the harsh cold winters most are trying to escape. While Mission has over 80,000 permanent residents, the Sunbelt community caters to those looking for a sunny alternative to blizzards, snow shovels, and tire chains.

Mission looks forward to another season full of fun loving, adventure seekers who also want to just kick up their feet and enjoy a margarita right on the calm waters of the Rio Grande. There is never a shortage of activities to do, places to visit, or delicious Tex-Mex food to eat.

With more than 300 butterfly species, Mission is proud to be the butterfly capitol of the US.

Two hundred butterfly species have been seen at Mission’s National Butterfly Center, a project of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats. This 100-acre wildlife center and native species botanical garden contains trails for exploring, observation areas, garden café, educational exhibits, and a plant nursery. The beauty of the natural world, the wonder of butterflies, particularly and the powerful role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and sustainable food resources. The Center is open for exploration daily.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Butterfly Center is honored to host the 19th Annual Texas Butterfly Festival. From November 1-4, 2014, attendees will spend three days exploring renowned public lands and private properties with world-class trip leaders and expert guides. The Festival is taking place during prime butterfly season, when you may reasonably expect to see more than 60 species in a day.

In keeping with all the nature that surrounds the area, Mission is also home to the World Birding Center. Known as one of the top birding destinations in the country, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park well deserves its status as headquarters of the World Birding Center. Birders across the nation know Bentsen as a treasure trove of unique Valley specialties, tropical birds found nowhere else in the United States.

Striking Green Jays with bright green backs, purple-blue heads, and yellowish-green under parts; radiant orange Altamira Orioles; Great Kiskadee, an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown; and raucous Plain Chachalacas are just a few of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the park.

Other neo-tropical varieties such as Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Clay-colored Thrush, Hook-billed Kite, and Gray Hawk are also likely. Virtual clouds of migrating Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks are a popular spring and fall spectacle.

Pet friendly amenities at Bentsen Palm Village in the Rio Grande Valley include dog agility course and pet parade. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Pet friendly amenities at Bentsen Palm Village in the Rio Grande Valley include dog agility course and pet parade. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission prides itself on the affordable appeal of the town and it’s amenities.

New restaurants and stores open weekly and huge projects such as the University Of Texas Medical School and a Space X commercial launch pad plan to call the region home.

The recent media exaggerations of the lifestyle in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas have raised some concerns. However, contrary to what is reported by mainstream media regarding safety and illegal immigration, Mission is, in fact, one of the safest places to be. The community’s priority is the security of their visitors and residents.

With its wide variety of outdoor recreation, such as kayaking, canoeing, biking, and golfing at one of four premier golf courses and world class birding and nature attractions, Mission is a place where simple activities become rich and enjoyable experiences.

Mission extends an invitation to come for a visit and see for yourself why thousands of Winter Texans return every year.

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

Details

For additional information on the Mission, Texas, area visit the following websites:

Discover Mission: www.discovermission.com

The Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce: www.missionchamber.com

National Butterfly Center: www.nationalbutterflycenter.org

World Birding Center: www.theworldbirdingcenter.com

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RV Around Texas

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

San Antonio River Walk

The River Walk has grown to a stunning eight miles and will stretch to 15 miles by 2013. Each part offers a unique look and feel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The River Walk has grown to a stunning eight miles and will stretch to 15 miles by 2013. Each part offers a unique look and feel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The famed San Antonio River Walk is 2½ miles of beautifully landscaped waterfront with hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and shopping and is one of the main tourist attractions in the state of Texas. Historically, the waterway was used by Spanish explorers to provide water to their missions. In 1929, Robert H.H. Hugman submitted his design plans to turn the area into a beautiful urban park with apartments, dining, shopping, and boat rides.

Since 1938 the River Walk has been a hub of culture for San Antonio. You can learn about San Antonio’s history aboard a river cruise, people watch as you enjoy delicious food on many of the restaurant’s outdoor patios and simply enjoy this beautiful piece of the Lone Star State.

The World Birding Center (WBC)

The World Birding Center (WBC) is a network of nine unique birding sites in the Lower Rio Grande Valley along a 120-mile corridor following the Rio Grande from Roma to South Padre Island.

The mission of the WBC is to protect native habitat, while increasing the understanding and appreciation of birds and wildlife.

Combining Birding and Photography with our life on the road is like enjoying pecan pie with Blue Bell ice cream for dessert following a turkey feast on Thanksgiving Day! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
In addition to nearly 30 bird species found nowhere else in the US, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is home to an astonishing concentration of more widespread birds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive through subtropical Texas to share the borderlands mix of Texan and Mexican heritage, and take time to look for any of the more than 500 bird species that have been documented in the region.

Three Texas state parks are part of the WBC. They contribute to the Valley’s reputation as a nature destination where visitors come from around the world. Like us, many stay for months at a time, to enjoy the climate, culture, and access to hundreds of species of winged creatures.

The WBC’s network of nine nature sites include Roma Bluffs, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Quinta Mazatlan, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, Resaca de la Palma State Park, and South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

Galveston

The Bishop’s Palace is recognized as one of America’s finest examples of Victorian exuberance and Gilded-Age extravagance. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Bishop’s Palace is recognized as one of America’s finest examples of Victorian exuberance and Gilded-Age extravagance. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the oldest cities in Texas and a major port, Galveston sits on a barrier island two miles offshore, surrounded by 32 miles of sandy beaches, numerous attractions, and one of the largest and best-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the United States.

Once known as “the Wall Street of the Southwest,” Galveston later became the site of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

But the Hurricane of 1900 changed everything. Galveston’s prosperity suddenly came to a halt on September 8, 1900, when the deadliest natural disaster in United States history hit Galveston Island.

Centerpiece of today’s city is the Victorian restoration, in which many neighborhoods have been restored to their 19th-century splendor.

Galveston boasts four districts on the National Register of Historic Places: The Strand National Historic Landmark District, East End National Historic Landmark District, Silk Stocking District, and Central Business District. Galveston is home to three National Historic Landmarks: Tall Ship Elissa, East End, and The Strand. There are approximately 1,500 historic buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the most popular of these landmark districts is The Strand National Historic Landmark District, formerly known as “Wall Street of the Southwest” and now home to more than 100 shops, antique stores, restaurants, and art galleries. The Strand has one of the largest and best preserved concentrations of Victorian, iron-front commercial architecture in the United States.

Today, this barrier island city, situated approximately 40 miles southeast of Houston, is a living history adventure.

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Please Note: This is part 2 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

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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

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Worth Pondering…
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt

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Timeless Texas: Roma Bluffs World Birding Center

The epicenter of Starr County’s birding activity is the Roma Bluffs World Birding Center, on the scenic bluffs high above the Rio Grande in the small town of Roma, a once-thriving steamboat port.

This Buff-bellied hummingbird makes its home in the courtyard of Roma Bluffs World Birding Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of nine sites that make up the World Birding Center (WBC) network, the Roma Bluffs location holds another distinction: It occupies two restored buildings on the old plaza in Roma’s National Historic Landmark District that includes a three-acre riverside nature area.

Roma Bluffs Interpretive Overlook offers a magnificent view of the river, island, and woodlands below, as well as views across the border to the Mexican town of Miguel Aleman. Down a brick stairway, a riverside trail leads upstream. In all, nearly 4,500 acres of nearby state and federal preserves offer excellent birding opportunities.

Roma Bluffs is a great starting point for diverse activities such as walking tours through the National Historic District and birding float trips down the Rio Grande operated by Friends of the Valley Wildlife Corridor.

The district features a central plaza surrounded by vintage structures that illustrate building techniques used along the Rio Grande during the 19th Century. Several of the structures were designed by Heinrich Portscheller, a German architect who arrived in 1879 and combined European styles with local stone and ornate brickwork.

The Roma Bluffs Overlook offers a magnificent view of the Rio Grande and the woodlands beyond in Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Roma’s intriguing setting promises to draw an increasing number of history-minded tourists, most visitors today come for the birding. You can see birds here that you can’t see anywhere else in the United States. For example, Starr County is one of the few spots where you may find five oriole species—Altamira, Bullock’s, Audubon’s, orchard, and hooded.

At Roma Bluffs World Birding Center, visitors find exhibits about the region’s wildlife, as well as staff and volunteers eager to share information about recent sightings and nearby birding hotspots, such as Falcon State Park, Salineño, and Chapeño, all less than 30 minutes away.

The Roma Bluffs Birding Center is housed in the 1878 Ramirez Store and Residence in the Roma Historic District and is owned by the City of Roma and operated by the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Roma is in Starr County, about 50 miles west of McAllen on U.S. Highway 83. The Roma Bluffs World Birding Center is at 610 N. Portscheller Street.

Details

Roma Bluffs World Birding Center

Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Nature trails open seven days a week

Admission: Free

Location: Downtown Roma Historic District at 610 North Portschellar Street (across from City Hall)

The Roma Bluffs World Birding Center is located the old plaza in Roma’s National Historic District. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions: From U.S. 83, turn south on St. Eugene de Mazenod Avenue, and go 1 block south to the plaza. Roma Bluffs WBC is on the northeast corner of Portscheller and Convent streets

Mailing Address: 610 N. Portscheller Street, P.O. Box 3405, Roma, Texas 78584

Phone: (956) 849-4930

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
In the 1970s, Canadian singer Anne Murray popularized a song about “Snowbirds” flying from the north to a land of “gentle breezes.” Since then, the term “snowbird” has described retirees from northern climes who spend a large portion of the year in the U.S. Sun Belt.

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Birding Hacienda: Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center

Quinta Mazatlan, a 1930s country estate in the heart of McAllen, is an historic Spanish Revival adobe hacienda surrounded by lush tropical landscaping and native woodland.

A 1930s historic Spanish Revival adobe hacienda, Quinta Mazatlan, is located in the heart of McAllen. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built on a high knoll by writer and adventurer Jason Matthews and his wealthy wife, Marcia, Quinta Mazatlan (“Quinta” roughly translates to “country estate” in Spanish, and “Mazatland”—the Mexican resort town the couple frequented—means “land of the deer” in Nahuatl, an ancient Aztec language) is an urban oasis and birding hotspot.

After the Matthews left in the early 1960s, the home served as a coffeehouse before passing to local businessman Frank Schultz. In 1998 the property was purchased by the City of McAllen with the help of a $50,000 gift from the Valley Land Fund.

The home and gardens opened to the public as a member of the World Birding Center in 2006.

Formal tropical gardens surround the 10,000 square-foot adobe mansion, and are enriched with native plants.

A unique conference and events center, crushed-rock walking trails wind through more than 15 acres of birding habitat. At various spots on the walking paths, benches and water features offer the visitor reason to pause and observe the wildlife.

Outlying acres of wild Tamaulipan thorn forest have been enhanced with water and bird feeding stations to make them even more attractive to wildlife.

Quinta Mazatlan is an attractive stop for a wide variety of species including both resident and migrant birds. There are over 150 species that have been documented at the McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center, including about 30 species that don’t travel any further north.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quinta Mazatlan offers a variety of fun educational tours all year long including Garden of Eatin’ Tour, Stroll Through History Tour, Woodland Walkabout Tour, Thursday Tree Walks, Walk with a Naturalist, and Nature Speaker Series. Cost of tours included in General Admission fee.

Garden of Eatin’ Tour

Visitors will enjoy an hour long outdoor guided tour focusing on the edible and medicinal aspects of the plants, trees, berries, and blossoms found in our courtyard, gardens, and native Thornforest.

Tours held Wednesdays (October though April) from 10-11 a.m.

Stroll Through History Tour

Enjoy a guided tour of the 1930s estate exploring the unique history of one of the largest remaining adobe homes in the state of Texas. Take a step back in time as the tour begins with the rich history of the Rio Grande Valley including native Coahuiltecan Indians living off the land, the arrival of Spanish explorers, the beginning of the Magic Valley’s agriculture boom, and the founding of McAllen.

Then explore Quinta Mazatlan from its creation by Jason and Marcia Matthews and exquisite restoration by Frank and Marilyn Schultz to the present day McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center.

Tours held Fridays (October though April) from 10-11 a.m.

Woodland Walkabout Tour

Explore the wonders of McAllen’s big backyard while on a guided tour along the trails surrounding the historic adobe mansion. Discover the immense variety of native plants and animals of the Rio Grande Valley’s Thornforest.

Enjoy the sights and sounds of Valley specialty birds including the green jay, buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee (pictured above), and plain chachalaca along with many other resident and migratory birds.

It’s an enjoyable half mile walk along a granite gravel trail.

Tours held Saturdays (October though April) from 10-11 a.m.

Thursday Tree Walks

Join a park naturalist for a brief educational talk about Quinta Mazatlan’s native trees. A different tree species from their native Thornforest is featured each week.

Tours held Thursday Evenings (October through April) from 5:00-5:30 p.m.

Upcoming tree walks include the following featured tree species:

  • Brasil, Capul Negro Condalia hookeri (February 16)
  • Sabal Palm, Palma de Micheros Sabal texana (February 23)
  • Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea var. arborea (March 1)
  • Fresno, Rio Grande Ash, Fraxinus berlandieriana (March 8)
  • Tenaza, Pithecellobium pallens (March 15)
  • Guayacan, Iron-Wood, Guiacum angustifolium (March 29)

Details

Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center

Stroll through history at Quinta Mazatland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (until dark on Thursday)

Admission: $2; Seniors/Children ages 5-12, $1

Physical Address: 600 Sunset Drive, McAllen, TX 78503

Mailing Address: P.O. Box 220, McAllen, TX 78505-0220

Phone: (956) 681-3370

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com and quintamazatlan.com

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
God gives every bird its food, but He does not throw it into its nest.

—J.G. Holland

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Beaks and Feathers: Resaca De La Palma State Park and World Birding Center

Resaca de la Palma State Park boasts the largest tract of native habitat in the World Birding Center network.

A stripe-backed woodpecker of Mexico and Central America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker reaches the United States only in the brushlands and open woodlands of Texas and Oklahoma. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Etched by ancient curves of the Rio Grande, its 1,200 semi-tropical acres provide a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of an international urban center (Brownsville) only a few miles away. Through the cooperation of local and federal land management agencies, a wilderness preserved from days gone by is open to birders and other nature adventurers.

Build it and they will come. In the case of Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville, “they” refers not only to people, but also to more than 270 species of birds, 89 species of butterflies, dragonflies, snakes, and mammals that make the natural sanctuary home.

Resaca de la Palma represents in microcosm what much of the land along more than 100 miles of the snaking Rio Grande River looked like during the arrival of the Conquistadors in the 1500s.

More than eight miles of trails, almost half of those paved, take park visitors into the heart of the park. Most trails lead to four observation decks strategically located on a refilled resaca (an ancient coil of river bed once filled by Rio Grande floodwaters) that winds for six miles through the park.

Take a short stroll from the park’s visitor center to the entrance of the paved, wildlife-rich, quarter-mile Ebony Trail. A chorus of birdsong and the distinct chatter of great kiskadees, a colorful Rio Grande Valley “specialty bird”, echo through the dense ebony-palm-anacua woodlands—an ancient subtropical forest—along the banks of the resaca.

Butterflies endemic to the borderlands of South Texas, such as the Mexican bluewing and band-celled sister, flutter about blooming flowers and shrubs like common senna, huajillo, and granjeno that line the trail.

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interpretive panels erected where the ADA-accessible trail ends at an observation deck and adjoining boardwalk above the wetlands explain the area’s unique natural history. An aerial map and accompanying text help visitors better understand how the floodwaters of the Rio Grande once spread out across the delta, sculpting the land, and how native peoples once prepared food from such native flora as prickly pear cactus pads and mesquite beans.

Resaca de la Palma State Park benefits from its great biodiversity reflected in five different habitats: Tamaulipan thornscrub, ebony-anacua forest, sugar hackberry woodlands, resaca wetlands, and both natural and revegetated grasslands.

As a result of the varied habitat and the park’s location along two major American migratory flyways and its proximity to Mexico and Central America, more than 250 species of birds can be found on the park’s bird list. Look for the bright plumage of Valley specialty birds such as the green jay, Altamira oriole (pictured above), plain chacalaca, olive sparrow, great kiskadee, and groove-billed anis.

Visitors have a variety of options for getting around the park. They can hike, bring their own bicycle or rent one, or catch a ride on a tram that departs the visitor center about once an hour and travels a 3.5-mile loop. The tram stops along the way for those who wish to disembark at trailheads of the Mexican Olive, Kiskadee, Flycatcher, and Coyote trails to observe waterfowl and other critters up close.

The day-use state park offers no overnight camping facilities, but does have a shaded picnic area and spacious visitor center with restrooms, an interpretation hall, and well-stocked Texas State Park store.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had the foresight to purchase the Rio Grande Valley property for the future state park in the 1970s, a period when urban developers and agricultural interests were converting much of the unique borderland habitat into farmland and citrus plantations.

Today, Resaca de la Palma preserves a small chunk of vast swaths of the now mostly disappeared native Rio Grande Valley habitat that supports a population of endangered native plant and animal species.

Resaca de la Palma State Park is located on New Carmen Boulevard a few miles south of FM 1732 west of U. S. Highway 77/83.

Details

Resaca De La Palma State Park and World Birding Center

The ladderback is a small black-and-white woodpecker of the southwestern United States and Mexico that forages. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours: Visitors center open only Wednesday–Sunday, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; nature trails open every day Sunrise-Sunset

Admission: $4 or Texas State Park Pass

Physical Address: 1000 New Carmen Avenue (off Highway 281 or FM 1732), Brownsville, TX 78521

Mailing Address: P. O. Box 714, Olmito, TX 78575

Phone: (956) 350-2920

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

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Timeless Texas: Old Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center

The Hidalgo Pumphouse, a wing of the World Birding Center series of nine Valley sites, is a tribute to the Magic Valley’s early 20th century transition into a dynamic agriculture powerhouse.

Hidalgo Pumphouse was the original pumphouse for the Louisiana-Rio Grande Canal Company. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The historic pumphouse is a symbol of the Valley’s past and is now a landmark for its future as a valuable nature and birding attraction.

Visitors to the pumphouse learn about the steam-driven irrigation pumps that transformed Hidalgo County into a year-round farming phenomenon. They also can wander the museum’s grounds, where hummingbird gardens are planted. Many of the Valley’s amazing bird species are regular visitors.

Hidalgo Pumphouse was the original pumphouse for the Louisiana-Rio Grande Canal Company. It was used to pump water out of the Rio Grande into an irrigation system moving the water 20 miles north to Edinburg.

From the main canal, the water flowed east, towards the coast, and irrigated approximately 70,000 acres. At least sixteen similar pumphouses once lined the Rio Grande—they’ve since been converted to electric pumps.

Hidalgo Pumphouse has been carefully preserved and restored as an example, including the fascinating machinery and the towering smokestack.

Inside the Pumphouse, you can wander around the huge machinery. The boilers, which were originally wood-fired with mesquite, then converted to oil, and later to natural gas, and eventually diesel, are still in place.

On display are both Worthington and Ingersoll-Rand engines. The brick in the fire walls of the boilers was used to pave the walkway behind the smokestack. Interpretive signs explain the uses of the machinery, how the water was pumped out of the river, and the water-hardening system.

Inside the Pumphouse, you can wander around the huge machinery. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the rear is an air-conditioned area with displays about the irrigation system, how the system works, and how it changed the landscape of the Valley.

The grounds immediately adjacent to the Hidalgo Pumphouse have been intensively landscaped to attract birds and butterflies.

You can even stand on a brick map of Old Hidalgo. Before entering the pumphouse, you’ll notice huge gates. These gates once controlled the flow of water into the irrigation system.

There is a 5-mile (roundtrip) asphalt bike trail behind the pumphouse on the levee; you can go east to the wetlands, or west underneath the border crossing. Going west, the end of the trail isn’t marked, and the trail turns into a Border Patrol road. You might want to head back when you get under the bridge. Going east, past the wetlands, the trail ends at a subdivision.

A 2.25-mile (roundtrip) hiking trail parallels the bike trail to the wetlands, but travels under the cover of a forest canopy. The trail is paved.

The pumphouse once sat on the Rio Grande. A flood in 1933 changed the course of the river, a half-mile away from the pumphouse. A channel was dug from the pumphouse to the river, to bring the river water to the huge intake pipes of the pumphouse. Since the pumphouse has been decommissioned, this creates a pleasant lake. There is a covered picnic area and canoe launch on the channel.

You could easily spend a few hours here, both inside and outside.

You can only dream of paying only 5½ cents in combined federal and state tax on gas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next door to the museum, more than 600 acres of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department land has been replanted with native huisache, Texas ebony, and anacua, creating an important birding tract.

Details

Old Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center

Hours: Open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.; Closed Saturday

Admission to the Historic Pumphouse: $4; senior $3; children $2

Note: Hours and admission fees apply only to the Historic Pumphouse

Physical Address: 902 S. Second Street, Hidalgo, Texas 78557

Phone: (956) 843-8686

Website: theworldbirdingcenter.com

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

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