Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding The Valley

I am a fledgling birder, a neotropical neophyte. Yet I burn with a passion to see—down misty trails and through the bright holes of dark blinds—the fabulous spectacle and diversity of the bird world.

And not just any birding. Birding the Valley. The Rio Grande Valley.

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley offers the ultimate birder’s paradise.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower Rio Grande Valley—the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico—contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands, and forest. Thanks to these diverse habitats and the Valley’s location on the Central Flyway of migrating birds, more than 500 bird species have been recorded in this area, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.

This unique region is also home to more than 1,200 different species of plants, 200 vertebrate species, roughly 300 species of butterflies, and over 90 species of dragonflies.

Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however. In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the World Birding Center consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande, and Resaca de la Palma.

Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Together, the parks safeguard nearly 2,200 acres that are home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife — places for visitors to experience nature and the landscape of the Valley close to its original state.

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 355 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies that have been recorded there, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

These 798 acres once resembled the patchwork of many state parks, with tent and RV campers and day-trippers driving in and out. But its transformation to a World Birding Center site included elimination of all traffic except bicycles and a park tram that 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.

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.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden-fronted Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And just as the Rio Grande Valley is the number one birding destination in the U. S., it’s also among the best places to view butterflies, including several species not seen anywhere else.

Local favorites include the diminutive blue metalmark and the Mexican blue wing. Both are drop-dead gorgeous. Other Valley beauties include the border patch, Gulf fritillary, queen, silver-banded hairstreak, orange julia, white peacock and, well, the list goes on and on.

It’s no accident the North American Butterfly Association chose to place its flagship visitor facility here, just two miles from Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Unlike various butterfly conservatories that have been built across the United States, the National Butterfly Center provides extensive outdoor gardens of native nectar plants and specific caterpillar host plants as well as natural habitat to attract large numbers of wild butterflies and to conserve rare native butterflies.

Of the 300 species of butterflies found in the Rio Grande Valley, over 200 have been seen at the National Butterfly Center including a number of rarities and U.S. Records.

National Butterfly Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Butterfly Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Butterfly Center hosts the 21st Annual Texas Butterfly Festival from October 29 to November 2, 2016. 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.

This nature event is followed by the 23rd Annual Rio Grande Birding Festival from November 2-6, 2016 in Harlingen.

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