The Best Little Bird Town in Texas

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2003

You half expect people to start throwing away their canes, speaking in tongues and screaming hallelujah when Roy Rodriguez starts preaching about the birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Rodriguez's eyes shine and his usual rapid-fire speech revs into machine-gun gear as he gets going about the nearly 500 species of wild feathered beasts that have been found in a narrow swath of land that follows the Rio Grande along the Mexican border.

"This place is lousy with birds," he declares as we canoe down the river on an early April day. He is not exaggerating. In less than two hours, we see 42 different species of birds: snowy egrets, great egrets, cattle egrets. Tricolored herons, great blue herons, little blue herons, green herons. Harris's hawks, Swainson's hawks, broad-winged hawks, Cooper's hawks, gray hawks.

Rodriguez, who leads these canoe trips for the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, is supposed to be steering the canoe, but he's finding it difficult to keep both hands on the paddle while pointing out the scores of birds that are swooping, soaring, diving, calling. It is spring, and these birds are at their peak, decked out in colorful plumage, fighting one another for territory, showing off for potential mates. Swimming garter snakes and giant breaching yellow carp try to steal the show, but they've got nothing on the small green kingfisher that plunges off an overhanging branch, grabs a small fish and beats it senseless against a log before swallowing it in one gulp.

"Look at the colors on that bird," Rodriguez exhorts, sounding like a Tex-Mex version of the Crocodile Hunter. "See that rusty patch on the breast? It's a male. His head looks positively too big for his body. That's one beautiful bird."

Six of us in two canoes, on a warm Texas day caressed by a light breeze, have entered the tabernacle of birding, and we are all infected with Rodriguez's tent-preacher passion for this region's natural bounty.

Birds as Business

McAllen, Pharr, Alamo and Mission are just a few in a string of border towns that line the Rio Grande in south Texas. None is close to a major city: Brownsville is 60 miles away. McAllen, the largest of the four, with a population of about 110,000, has just one tall and one short high-rise. The city is burgeoning with strip malls, fast-food joints and inexpensive chain hotels, all built to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of "Winter Texans" who come down from places like Minneapolis and Winnipeg to square-dance and escape the cold, and the Mexican nationals who cross the border each day to shop, eat and work. Spanish, not English, is the dominant language, and you can scan the entire AM radio dial and find just two English-speaking channels.

While McAllen is booming, other nearby towns, such as Alamo, are still dominated by fields of onions, cotton and sorghum. There is real poverty here. But the edges of the rusted mobile homes with their chained front-yard mongrels are softened by pastel sunrises, patches of wild sunflowers and olive sparrows on the wire, bills thrown back in song. Such is the effect of the region's natural beauty.

The idea of this place as a mecca for outdoor-loving naturalists seemed a little far-fetched not that long ago. While the potential was there, locals were slow to figure out that binocular-toting tourists with open wallets would come in large numbers to enjoy Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen Rio Grande State Park and Anzalduas County Park, undeveloped lands that sit smack in the middle of a geographic migration funnel anchored by the Rio Grande. Birds and butterflies amass here in great numbers, either as they pass though from wintering grounds in Mexico and farther south, or as permanent residents. It is one of the few places in the United States that attract unusual tropical birds.

Nationwide, wildlife-watching has become a popular -- and profitable -- pursuit. According to the most recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey, in 2001 more than 18 million people traveled to bird-watch. Wildlife-watchers spent about $8.2 billion, the study concluded, with about $229 million dropped in Texas.

Nancy S. Millar, director of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau and originator of the nine-year-old Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in nearby Harlingen (granddaddy of the now 20 or so Texas nature festivals that draw thousands of tourists), was one of the first chamber of commerce types to spearhead the effort to convince business and political leaders that they could make money by saving the land. "I just kept at them," Millar said. "It was just so obvious that our natural attributes were a wonderful way to draw tourists to our region."

Over the years, a strange partnership of dollar-hungry business leaders, government officials and tree-hugging bird-watchers has evolved, and in the past decade, they have joined forces to pull the region, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a world where ecotourism is big bucks. Indeed, a recent survey estimated that more than 95,000 nature tourists visit the Lower Rio Grande Valley annually, injecting nearly $39 million into McAllen alone.

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