World Birding Center, Texas Hot Spot
I’ve had the great opportunity to visit the Lower Rio Grande Valley several times this year. It’s an amazing place to catch the unique neo-tropical birds of our state along with the occasional vagrant Mexican bird that comes north for a visit. The Valley area stretches from the Gulf at South Padre Island and Laguna Vista to the Falcon Lake Dam and Roma Bluffs. Stringing these areas together for travel are Hwy 83 and the south portion of 281 below Pharr, 77 south of Harlingen and 100 leading to Port Isabel.
Lower Rio Grand Valley
My travel route from Houston runs down highway 59 to Freer then through ranch country on Hwy 16. I keep my eyes open from Freer southward. Once I leave more traveled main roads there is no telling what I’m likely to find on the way to 83. Roadside birding isn’t a bad thing. In the many times I’ve traveled this route, I’ve lucked into pictures of a White-tailed Hawk, Caracaras, two Harris Hawks, Golden-crowned Woodpeckers and a colony of Cliff Swallows. All you have to do is keep vigilant, keep eyes mostly on the road and the vehicle between the lines.
Once you reach Hwy 83, there is a string of nature areas and wildlife asides beginning with 90,000 acres that created the Wold Birding Center in 1979. It expands through the efforts of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife and local communities. The World Birding Center (WBC) is presently made up of nine birding sites along the Rio Grande Valley from Roma to South Padre Island. I haven’t been to all of them yet (waiting for this fall and winter to visit a few), but I have visited three. Each had their own charm and draw. The below video is a quick tour of the different sites and a view of the South Padre Island Birding Center when it was first being built.
The World Birding Center by Joe Hermosa
Roma Birding Center
Roma is one of the oldest historic cities in Texas and the western end of the WBC. You will find its branch in the historic district plaza. Inside are displays about the bird life of the area. In the courtyard is a birding garden with a large patio with tables and benches. At a lower level is a circular two tier viewing area with a water feature at its center and two large oaks shading one side. Native flowering plants and trees shade most of the area. It is a very peaceful place to sit and enjoy the bounty of bird life.
Courtyard Bird Sanctuary
During the Spring when I visited, the visitor center was not always open and the courtyard was not maintained (kept stocked with food and water) as it was manned by out of town volunteers; but I was told the courtyard was kept open year-round by U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteers. The peak season for birding in Roma is during Fall and Winter starting in October.
Spring is not a bad time for birding here though. I saw sparrows, Golden-fronted woodpeckers, Great-crested, Scissor-tailed, Couch’s and Brown-crested flycatchers along with Black-chinned and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. In May and mid-June, sitting in the shady gardens, looking up into the trees; I caught sight of all manner of movement. Birds roamed through the canopy and shrubs looking for feeders, resting places and flying forage. Dragon flies and other insects were in high demand. Flycatchers seemed to like the light stringers running across the patio for hunting perches and vantage points along with the roof cactus garden the best. Hummingbirds and butterflies fluttered around through the flowers along the back walls and the side drive by the wooden carriage gate. A Black-chinned hummer seemed to be king in the sunny areas. From my vantage point on the far side of the tiered circle, I saw him sitting at the top of the shrubs surveying his personal territory. A Buff-belly seemed to reside on the other side of the courtyard partition in the back garden, but he came out to sit with me several times. He had his own preferred perch in a secluded shady bramble. He would sit there for several minutes before making a roaming inspection of the garden beds and then flying back over the wall.
During July I visited again. The gate to the courtyard was locked two days straight, so better luck in October.
The Roma Bluffs
The bluffs are along the riverside just a block from the birding center; a three acre nature area with an observation deck, amphitheater and native plant gardens with a quarter mile walk along the river at the base of the bluffs. Or, at least that's what used to be there when some of my bird finding guides were written. Today, the observation deck still exists and is usable. It still offers a great vantage point for observing birds in the trees along the bluff, the river islands and the neighboring Mexican town across the river; but the picnic tables at the river's edge are over grown with weeds and the stairs down to the river have been fenced off and broken up.
When I visited the bluffs with my husband, what had been a blistering 106 degree July day had become a warm evening with cool winds blowing along the river. Four State Police officers greeted us as we explored the top of the bluffs. We talked for a little while as I took pictures of the views and looked for birds. I couldn't detect where the amphitheater had been. What gardens had existed in the past had long since blended back into the local landscape. None of the officers were local men, so had no knowledge of the bluff's past attractions. We were the only visitors until dusk when a couple was seen arriving with a picnic dinner to enjoy on the observation deck.
While ordering chicken a short few blocks away, we saw the Police helicopter, which had been flying high overhead, descend low and do a sudden 180 in the sky to hover 100 feet over the bluffs. Several people were caught crossing the river (a regular occurrence day and night). Human Trafficking and Drug smuggling are regular occurrences in the Roma area on both sides of the nearby international bridge. I thought of the couple on the observation deck as we watched the helicopter. They must of had a ring side view of the excitement.
WARNING - Law enforcement has been out in force in the area between Zapata and McAllen Texas. I was warned that most of the smaller wildlife areas such as Selineno and Chapeno, near the Rio Grande River, are too risky to visit as drug cartels were fighting for control over the shallow river crossings. I would not suggest a visit to the bluffs or any of the areas smaller scenic locations outside of peak visitor seasons with large groups. For now, it is best to stick to the larger State Parks and National Wildlife Refuges.
Benton-Rio Grande State Park
This is the headquarters for WBC. Parking is in front of the park, away from the offices and learning center class areas. These buildings aren’t in the park, but they give a great prelude to what you will find. The courtyards are planted thick with native specimens clustered around water features. My first sight of Clay-colored Thrushes, a Long-billed Thrasher and Plain Chachalacas were there.
Bentson - Rio Grande Valley State Park
Birds of Bentson Rio Grande State Park
You enter the park by foot or tram service. My first visits were to the inner and outer loop that are bisected by the Kiskadee Trail. These trails run beside an oxbow where Green Jays and Chachalacas are abundant. My first visit was in late May. At the first bird blind I sampled, I was greeted by an enormous yellow frog sitting in a shallow pool of water. Over a half hour period, it was joined by several Green Jays, an Olive sparrow with a fledging, and a Hooded Oriole. The blinds are built with quiet moving louvered slats. I opened and closed them as I changed my vantage point.
On a second trip in June, it was Chachalaca weekend. These large brown game birds were everywhere walking in pairs. A Clay-colored Robin was nesting in the courtyard in a palm tree. I watched for half an hour as she went back and forth bringing food to her two chicks. The nest was high and secure in the upper fronds of a palm tree. I also found Great Kiskadees at the park gate along with a Golden-fronted Woodpecker that was amiable to a portrait session.
South Padre Island
This is the eastern end of the WBC. My husband and I made our first visit as a day trip in mid-June. It really deserved a full weekend to explore, but time was short. This was a quick fact finding visit while on other business. We gathered brochures and maps as we went to learn the area.
South Padre Island, Texas
Birds of South Padre Island
South Padre Island Birding Center
We arrived early in the afternoon, and visited the birding center first. The South Padre Island Birding Center is a pale yellow tall building sporting a high observation tower with a beautiful overlook of the inner shore with a small water treatment plant nearby. The fee to walk the trails is low and well worth it. The boardwalk works its way through shoreline gardens, and habitat samples including salt marshes, shallow bayshore and freshwater marshes. For June in Texas, it was hot, but breezes off the shore were enough to keep it bearable. When we needed shade there were bird blinds, covered areas with benches to sit and enjoy the views. The Red-wing blackbirds were out in force and often landed within a few feet of us on the rails as if to say, “me too, me too,” begging for picture time.
The shore was hosting a butterfly gathering. Little white pairs of wings were darting around all over the place. They weren’t easy to catch in the camera, but I did my best. They chased each other in a mass mating dance. These could be one or a mix of several white butterflies that roam the Lower Rio Grande that include the Florida White and Great Southern Whites.
We saw an Osprey along with gulls and terns fishing in the shallow waters. There were Coots, Common and Purple Gallinules, egrets and herons in the reeds and shore vegetation. Closer to land, there was an assortment of ducks, both Mottled and Mexican that I determinedly tried to tell apart. That isn't an easy task as few bird guides for North America include descriptions of the Mexican Duck. They are generally darker than Mottled Ducks with pale heads. The main identifier is the white stripe around the deep blue block of color on their wings. The males have clear greenish yellow bills while the females can have blotched bills like mallards.
We also caught our first sight of a Least Bittern and Short-billed Dowitcher. The star of the day was a Tri-colored Heron perched on the rail preening his feathers. We held back and just watched him give us pose after pose from just eight feet away.
Tropical Storms and Andy Bowie Park
As luck would have it, we timed our visit on June 15th just before the landing of a tropical storm further north. When we walked the beach that evening, the northeast sky was dark and the outer shore was kicking with high-ish waves for the Gulf Coast. Seabirds were limited to a few seagulls. I’d been told seabirds were normally all over the beaches.
The next morning we saw the news of flooding and massive rains to the north around Wharton and Victoria as the storm moved north toward Houston. South Padre had been hit by perimeter squalls during the night. While it was overcast, we were clear of rain when venturing out after breakfast.
We first headed north to visit Andy Bowie Park. The dunes had walked out over the road during the night. Efforts were being made to clear the sand, but the dunes were from six to eight feet high in most places. We stopped beside a low spot in the sandy walls to climb over to the shore line. Birds were few there, but the views of the Gulf made up for it. Rivers of water were in the process of draining back into the Gulf from tidal pools along the beach. This would require a second visit to see at its best.
Convention Center Bird Life and Butterflies
Padre Island Convention Center and Boardwalk
Heading back toward town, we stopped to visit the other boardwalk trail north of the Birding Center. Due to some differences between the city and county, there are two sets of boardwalks side by side, one belonging to the Birding Center on city property, and one that is part of the South Padre Island Convention Center, county owned. They were once connected, but are now separate entities. The Convention Center boardwalks are free, but not as well maintained as those run by the Birding Center. Yet, oddly, we found a different set of birds in that area to enjoy.
The overcast conditions kept us much more comfortable than the day before. Great-tailed Grackles were now the premier rail sitters. They were taking good positions to make displays all along the route. I found out why as we reached the far end.
Just showing through the tall grass about half way up from the water I caught sight of a nest. It contained three pale blue looking blotched eggs. I took a few quick pictures and left so the mama would come back. We stood under a covered observation area for a time watching the terns, gulls, herons and egrets. A Grackle stood on the roof most of the time calling and raising a fuss. As we left, I caught sight of mama grackle back on her nest again. Two or three quick pictures and then off I went with a rare series of nesting shots. I don’t as a rule hunt for nests. Birds hide them for good reason. But, when I do find one, it is a special treat. This made the second such treat this spring.
At another area along the high grasses, a Common Gallinule popped up to show us how well he could grasp the thick blades together to walk a high vantage point over the water. His bright yellow feet with three strong long toes made it look easy.
Heading back to the parking lot, we found a pair of Wilson’s Plovers, another first for us, blocking our path on the boardwalk. As we stood back admiring them; the female treated us to her hurt wing act. She made a sharp cry and then flopped down on her side and fluttered there on the deck with her mate standing between us. We kept back just watching. The assumption was that they had babies under the boardwalk we couldn’t see. This display is used to distract would be predators from their young. Another visitor came up on the other side in time causing the two to fly off. Besides these sights, we also found the local fish close enough to the surface to view clearly. A turtle also made an appearance below the boardwalks along with a blue crab.
Much More to See
There are many other places for birding in South Padre as well as the other locations of the World Birding Center, National Wildlife Refuges, Audubon sites and areas on public and private land. I just recently purchased a copy of A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley by Mark W. Lockwood et al, with a detailed list. Mind you, the book was written pre-911, so access to some areas listed are no longer possible and other areas, as I mentioned above, have become too risky to visit alone. This is still a beautiful area and I hope to see more as the year goes by. Keep watch for more reports on the sites along this region of birding hot spots in Texas.
Travel Guide for the Rio Grande Valley
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg