Green Jays, Chachalacas, and Winter Texans in McAllen
There is one place I know that is definitely for the birds, and is all about the birds...the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. During a recent visit to the southern tip of the state, I discovered a lot more about this part of the Lone Star State. I discovered a great place to spend the winter in one of the many RV parks. I discovered that it is an extraordinary bird watching location. And staying in McAllen, I found that there are exceptional restaurants and an almost endless variety of shopping experiences.
My trip to the Rio Grande Valley was a bird watching vacation. This area is home to many tropical bird species found nowhere else in the United States. It is a major bird migration corridor and the location where two major flyways -- the Central and Mississippi -- come together, and that allows the birder an even greater opportunity to see more species. I wanted to visit as many birding sites along the Rio Grande Valley as possible. I was hopeful that I would see a few of the unique species of the region, like the Green Jay, the Plain Chachalaca, the Common Pauraque, and the Great Kiskadee.
This part of the Rio Grande Valley contains the World Birding Center, a series of nine different birding sites. My trip would only include five of the nine sites, but I did enjoy some good birding. The five sites I managed to visit were the Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, the Bentsen - Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco, and the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse.
Quinta Mazatlan is a 1930s historic Spanish Revival hacienda located in the center of McAllen. It is a seventeen-acre urban sanctuary. The large home is surrounded by woodlands that are the perfect habitat for a variety of wildlife, especially birds. There are trails through the grounds where visitors may see the Plain Chachalaca, the White-tipped dove, and hummingbirds. The tour guides tell visitors that Quinta Mazatlan is a "mansion with a mission."
Near McAllen, the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands provide another type of habitat for birds. It is a 40-acre tract of land consisting of a lake and ponds with trails throughout the surrounding woodlands. Birders can enjoy watching waterfowl and shorebirds from platforms overlooking the water. As many as thirteen species of ducks winter in these wetlands. The park hosts bird and dragonfly tours, and wildflower walks at various times of the season. An interpretive center has excellent displays and the full-length windows with provided telescopes allow for easy viewing of wildlife just the other side of the glass.
In Mission, Texas, the Bentsen - Rio Grande Valley State Park, which serves as headquarters for the World Birding Center, is a 760-acre tract that adjoins with over 1,700 acres of U.S. Fish and Wildlife land. It is near the Texas - Mexico border, and from the wheelchair accessible two-story observation tower, visitors can see Mexican buildings across the border while scanning the tree tops for raptors and other wildlife. A visitor center has an exhibit hall, park store, and a meeting room. Surrounding the center are butterfly gardens and hummingbird feeders. Visitors can travel through the park by tram, ride bikes, or walk the seven miles of trails and stop at two enclosed blinds to view or photograph birds up close.
Also adjoining the state park is the Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort, which has one of the largest lists of amenities I have seen previously. It is a 250-site park that offers most anything an RVer, guest, adventurer, or birder could want during his stay. Free wireless, free long distance telephone calling in the US and Canada, free passes into the state park, free bicycles, pool, fitness, and birding blinds. There is even a shooting range and a wood shop. Space does not permit the entire list. Check it out at www.bentsenpalm.com/bentsen-palm-village-rv-resort/.
The next site of the World Birding Center is the Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco east of McAllen. It contains over 230 acres of varied landscape. There are lakes and woodlands, and is the largest wetlands environment of the World Birding Center sites. Migrating waterfowl, waders, and shorebirds gather here, including the Wood Stork, the Roseate Spoonbill, and the ibis. This is the site that I spotted, with the help of the park rangers, the Common Pauraque, which I discovered is not too common.
The Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, another site of the World Birding Center, tells the story of the Rio Grande's transition from a semi-desert region to a fertile valley because of the introduction of irrigation. That was accomplished with the massive steam-driven irrigation pumps located here. Visitors can tour the pump house and wander the museum grounds, where hummingbirds and many other bird species are viewable. The grounds have walking trails and historic tours are provided.
At the five of the nine sites of the World Birding Center along the Rio Grande Valley, I managed to spot a number of rare birds. This area is a hot spot for birders from around the world, hence, its name. But besides being a fantastic birding destination, the Rio Grande Valley, and McAllen especially, has much to offer visitors.
Winter is a great time to visit McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley. So much so, that winter RVers are welcomed and are called "Winter Texans", as opposed to the somewhat unpopular tag of "snowbirds." There are several hundred RV parks within the Rio Grande Valley. Consult the Escapees website for a more detailed listing and descriptions.
The interesting history museum, the Museum of South Texas History (MOSThistory.org) is located in Edinburg, just north of McAllen along Interstate 69C. The museum chronicles the area's history with displays and replicas illustrating significant events. It began as the Hidalgo County Historical Museum in the Old Hidalgo County Jail, which was built in 1910, and is now under renovation. When completed, the Old Jail will continue to be one of the most important sections of the museum. Another museum is located in McAllen. The International Museum of Art and Science is a Smithsonian Affiliate and contains over 50,000 square feet of space for permanent and rotating exhibits. Get full details of current programs and a list of the museum's galleries on their website www.imasonline.org.
Everyone visiting McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley may not want to go birding every day and night. And everyone may not want to shop. But, there is a huge choice of shopping opportunities. Shoppers from all over South Texas and Northern Mexico come to McAllen because of its more than forty shopping centers. The choices range from high-end American retailers to quaint specialty boutiques to outlet shops. So, there is something for every taste.
Not only is there a variety of taste in shopping, but also in eating. I particularly enjoyed the authentic Mexican dishes at the Palenque Grill along Highway 83, the major east-west thoroughfare in McAllen. Other delicious places to eat are the Rodizio Grill and SALT - New American Table. The Rodizio offers Brazilian fare, while SALT has locally grown, organic cuisine.
My birding trip to South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley was enlightening. Not only did I view the rare birds that I was hoping for, but I also found a place that I might become a "Winter Texan."
Keywords: bentsen - rio grande valley state park, birders, birding, common pauraque, green jay, mcallen, museum of south texas history, old hidalgo pumphouse, plain chacalaca, quinta mazatlan, rio grande valley, texas, world birding center
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