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Birds of a feather

Birding enthusiasts flock to south Texas and
the World Birding Center's nine sites.

Located less than three hours from Corpus Christi and North Padre Island, the McAllen area in southern Texas offers incomparable opportunities for watching birds – as well as butterflies, dragonflies, and other wildlife. There are 39 bird species unique to this Rio Grande Valley – which encompasses Idalgo, Cameron, Williwey and Starr counties – and follows a 120-mile horizontal line.


In Title: From their boardwalk perch, bird-watchers can spot some of the species, such as the Buff-bellied Hummingbird (above), that make the Rio Grande wetlands home. © Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Below: Once a private home, Quinta Mazatlan now is part of the World Birding Center. Lisa Waterman Gray

birding center

One of the sites that make this area special is the World Birding Center, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2015. Bird-watchers visit this area from throughout the United States, although birders come from as far as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Scandinavian countries. When an unusual species is sighted, it's not unusual for bird-watchers to fly in just to catch a glimpse and add another sighting to their ongoing list.

Wildlife enthusiasts generate approximately $463 million per year and support 6,600 jobs in the Rio Grande Valley. Winter Texans may create temporary homes inside one of 300 RV parks in this area between Thanksgiving and March.

With more than 400 bird species that make the valley their home, it's no wonder this area is popular with birders who may find a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a brilliant Green Jay, Kingfisher, or a Great Kiskadee. There are also more than 1,000 rare plants in the Rio Grande Valley.

Where the birds are

The first of nine World Birding Centers in south Texas was once a private home set amid 20 acres near the airport. Today, Quinta Mazatlan is a mansion with a mission. The City of McAllen purchased the property in 1998. Now a wildlife sanctuary, Quinta Mazatlan is home to a variety of birds. In addition to historical or bird-watching tours, guests can participate in bird/nature walks on Tuesday and Saturday mornings year-round.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands & World Birding Center is near McAllen. The 40-acre wetlands oasis offers year-round wildlife viewing amid winding paths and waterside observation platforms. The visitors' center also provides educational exhibits that inform about local fish and aquatic life, while interactive computer programs highlight birds and butterflies.

Operating in Mission, Texas, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is considered one of the nation's top birding destinations and serves as headquarters of the World Birding Center. At 760 acres, this quiet park does not allow motorized vehicles, although sightseeing trams do circulate through the property. Visitors may view more than 325 species of birds and other wildlife, including tropical birds found nowhere else in the United States. There are more than seven miles of trails accompanied by bird feeding stations and water features. A 44-foot tower in the tree canopy also provides a panoramic view that even includes the edge of Mexico.

Located in Weslaco, Texas, Estero Llano Grande State Park is another World Birding Center, which opened in 2006. Previously cotton and sorghum fields, it is run jointly by Ducks Unlimited, the National Park Service, and the state of Texas. There's a spectacular array of south Texas wildlife here, as well as three miles of hiking trails, elevated boardwalks, and observation decks. The park offers the largest wetlands environment in the World Birding Center network.

At Estero Llano, look for the south Texas, grebe, kingfishers, mockingbirds, and coots. Visitors will appreciate views of small turtles sunning themselves amid the ducks. A small lake holds up to seven alligators.

Although not a part of the World Birding Center, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge can draw close to 50,000 visitors per year. The area, located about 20 minutes from McAllen, includes 2,088 acres, three lakes, and 14 miles of trails. Spanish moss drips from towering trees that have re-populated the area since 2010 hurricane damage.

Established in 1943 in and effort to protect migratory birds, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge lies along the east-west and north-south junctures of two major migratory routes that many bird species follow annually. See if you can pick out shy Common Pauraques camouflaging themselves along the ground. This is also the northernmost point where you can see many species whose range extends south into Central and South America.

Lisa Waterman Gray is a contributor from Overland Park, Kan.

May/June 2016 Issue


For more information, contact the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Visit the World Birding Center to find other birding sites in south Texas.

The 23rd annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival planned for Nov. 2 in Harlingen, Texas. Watch for details as they become available at Harlingen is about 35 miles east of McAllen via Interstate 2.

To visit McAllen, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

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