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The Best Little Bird Town in Texas
Birders from around the world are flocking to McAllen and the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

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.

Birders from around the world have been drawn by the new Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, a $1.4 million, 700-plus-mile route completed in 2000 that starts near the border of Louisiana, hugs the coast through these border towns and then moves along the river to just south of Laredo. The World Birding Center, a trail of nine nature-viewing sites to be constructed in coming years east to west across Texas, from South Padre Island to Roma, is expected to attract even more travelers. And butterfly watchers, a far smaller but growing group, will likely visit the region in even greater numbers when the North American Butterfly Association's International Butterfly Park is built in Mission.

Birders from England, Germany and France are already everywhere, traveling in twos and threes, intent on adding scores of new birds to their "life lists" of the species they've seen. "We're only here because the birds are here," says Eugene Hood, a pensions administrator from Kent, England, who was on a 17-day trip through southern Texas with two friends, hoping to add a couple of hundred bird species to his life list of 1,000. Don and Jan Pirie from Connecticut, who have traveled to Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and other exotic birding locations, are typical of the American birders who visit the valley. "It's one of the best birding spots in the country," said Don Pirie. "Everyone talks about birding in South Texas."

Like Hood and Pirie, I had come to this birding crossroads to experience the yearly spring commute and, even more important, to see the many specialty birds found in the United States only in this small corner of Texas. On the plane ride down, I thumbed through books that described the green jay, plain chachalaca, olive sparrow, Altamira oriole, long-billed thrasher, hook-billed kite, clay-colored robin, northern beardless-tyrannulet and ferruginous pygmy owl -- birds I could never hope to see without making this trip. My plan was simple: to add as many of these rare birds to my life list as possible, while allowing time to appreciate the local flavor.

Day 1

I am up before dawn, headed for the Santa Ana National Refuge, a 2,088-acre reserve established in 1943 specifically for the protection of migratory birds.

The hawk watch here is a true labor of love. From 7 a.m. until noon, from March 15 to April 15, volunteer bird-counters arch their necks uncomfortably and point their binoculars straight up, intent on figuring out the number of hawks migrating north. This year, they counted 54,788 migrating raptors. Volunteer Gene Wilhelm recalls the 12,500 hawks that flew overhead in just 22 minutes one day in early April. "I call it a river. It was a stream of continuous hawks. Incredible." In 20 minutes that afternoon, we watch about 6,300 raptors (mostly broad-wings with a smattering of Swainson's) float high on the thermals past us.

The refuge offers other surprises, too. A female rose-throated becard, a bird usually found in more tropical locales, has built a nest. Clay-colored robins, another bird that typically stays south of the border, forage below. Even the more usual suspects -- the brilliant-orange-and-jet-black Altamira oriole, the clownishly colored green jay, the noisy and ungainly plain chachalaca -- are enough to cause birding sensory overload.

In late afternoon, I head to Quinta Mazatlan, a historic adobe home on eight acres in downtown McAllen, designated to become the city's World Birding Center site. Jane Kittleman, a retired schoolteacher and expert birder whose North American bird list nears 800 out of a possible 900, leads the way and immediately directs me into the underbrush to see the common pauraque, one of the valley's "money" birds. Sure enough, a pair of pauraques explode like quails from the brush. A family of colorful Harris' hawks hunt overhead, and the first American redstarts and Nashville warblers of the spring feed in the trees.

Later, we visit the home of Allen Williams, who has spent backbreaking hours and many dollars turning the fallow fields behind his house into a native plant Disneyland for birds. The excuse is a chance to see the blue mockingbird, another tropical "accidental" (a bird almost never appearing in a particular area), and the bird does not disappoint. But Kittleman, one of the group of local leaders devoted to advancing this region as a birding haven, is also intent on showcasing Williams's devotion to the land. The two quietly discuss strategies for persuading the hospital that owns 10 acres next door to grant an easement on its property. Some form of this conversation runs through every outing.

At the end of the day, after a plate of delicious enchiladas, beans and rice, I drop like a stone into bed -- but not before doing a quick assessment: I've seen 67 different species in one day, at least 25 of them for the first time in my life.

Day 2

At 8 a.m. I pull up to the McAllen Chamber of Commerce to find a group of intent birders peering through expensive scopes pointed at the city's lone tall high-rise. "We'll introduce you later," Millar says. "Now you've got to see the peregrine falcons. One was just eating a pigeon." And sure enough, a peregrine is calmly preening itself, nestled in the "C" of the Chase Manhattan Bank logo above the 17th floor.

An hour later, Millar, Rodriguez and Martin Hagne, another top area birder who is also the director of the Valley Nature Center in nearby Weslaco, and I are cruising the suburban streets of the neighboring town of Pharr like a SWAT team on the hunt. The van is still moving when Rodriguez swings open the door, stage-whispering, "I hear them. I hear them. Let's go."

We spill onto someone's front lawn, trying to ignore the huge dogs lumbering toward us, as Rodriguez trains his binoculars on a flock of noisy red-crowned parrots, another species rarely found in the United States. They take off, and so do we, jumping back in the van and following the flock as it wings north. Amazingly, we find them again, this time getting a close-up view of the large, brilliantly colored parrots.

We're then off to a private pond surrounded by farm fields that will soon be subdivisions. As Hagne trains his scope on a least grebe, Rodriguez starts talking to local Jose Garza, who has driven his golf cart over to investigate our group. Garza complains about how the land he loves is being parceled off, and Rodriguez seizes the opportunity to educate him about granting a conservation easement on his land.

Bentsen Rio Grande State Park, slated to be the headquarters of the World Birding Center, is our next stop. Two more "wow" birds -- a nesting gray hawk and a northern beardless-tyrannulet, which is much smaller than its name -- are added to my list.

As the day turns hot and still, we use the time to view butterflies, which fill in voids created when heat-sensitive birds take a siesta. Giant swallowtails fly by. An American snout, which sports a doglike muzzle, is sighted. Two butterflies whose names sound like characters from "Star Wars" -- an empress leilia and a tawny emperor -- float past.

That afternoon, I tour the sorghum fields along the Rio Grande that will eventually become the headquarters for the International Butterfly Park. A butterfly trail has already been hacked through the underbrush, and several small fields have been planted with butterfly-friendly native plants. Butterflies as pretty as their names -- zebra heliconians and lyside sulphurs -- are everywhere.

Day 3

The always-present U.S. Border Patrol jeep follows our truck and pulls over as we launch the canoes in an isolated portion of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Rodriguez shrugs; he is used to their presence. "They don't give us any trouble," he says.

As we paddle, Rodriguez tells how he nearly tripped over an illegal immigrant who had curled up to die in 110-degree heat one day last summer. Returning from a six-hour round trip to see the curlew sandpiper, a Eurasian bird that had been blown off course, Rodriguez had stopped at a highway rest stop and followed bluebirds as they flew through a stand of trees into the scrubby desert. There he found the parched man, nearly unconscious, mumbling prayers in Spanish. An ambulance was called, the man's life was saved, and Rodriguez, who had almost said no to the trip, decided that driving three hours each way to see a rare bird may have a greater purpose.

With that story running through my brain, we dock our canoes and I head back into the refuge, trying to squeeze out just one more bird to add to my life list before heading to the airport and a flight home. I hit pay dirt with a black-crested titmouse. During the flight, I list the birds I've seen -- 100 species, 44 of them new to me. My North American life list has been jolted to 325, which, while not impressive, delights me.

The next day, back home in Virginia, I put the top down on my convertible, pop in my Texas Tornadoes CD and head to local Burke Lake, feeling a little let down by the fact that I am not likely to see so much in the way of birds for some time to come. As I hike the levee, a flotilla of three dozen double-crested cormorants comes into view. They are diving, one after the other, coming up with big thrashing fish whose bodies glint silver in the afternoon sun. As I round the bend, I hear the "drink your tea" call of the season's first rufous-sided towhee and spy a newly emerged yellow-and-black tiger swallowtail butterfly as it flutters across the path. Yellow-rumped warblers flit around in the trees as American toads trill to one another.

The showy green jays and great kiskadees have been left behind in southern Texas, but the Rio Grande-inspired awe of the natural world travels well. Now, if I could just find a good plate of cheap, authentic enchiladas.

Carol Sottili will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.

Details: Birding in Texas

GETTING THERE: American and Continental offer connecting flights from all three Washington area airports to McAllen, Tex.; lowest round-trip fare is $401 on Continental from BWI. Southwest flies from BWI to Harlingen, about 35 miles east of McAllen, from $396 round trip.

WHEN TO GO: Birders visit the area year-round to see neotropical species. Spring, with its concentrated migration, is best for those wanting to tally the most species. Birds also migrate in fall but over a much longer period. Winter is popular because the trip doubles as a warm-weather getaway. Summer is hot.

WHERE TO STAY: I stayed at the birder-friendly Alamo Inn (801 Main St., 956-782-9912, www.alamoinnsuites.com) in Alamo. A room with a kitchenette costs $42 a night, and innkeeper Keith Hackland, a birder and leader in the local environmental community, is a great help with local maps and directions to birding hot spots. Other possibilities include Casa Santa Ana (3239 S. Tower Rd., 956-783-5540, www.casasantaana.com; doubles from $90) in Alamo and Indian Ridge Bed & Breakfast (Bentsen Palm Drive and Two Mile Line Road, 956-519-3305, www.indian-ridge-bb.com) in Mission, doubles from $90. If you'd prefer a hotel, the Renaissance Casa de Palmas (101 N. Main St., 888-236-2427, www.casadepalmas.com) is a beautiful historic property in downtown McAllen; doubles from $79.

WHERE TO EAT: I was perfectly happy rolling out of bed and having the football-size 99-cent breakfast taco stuffed with eggs, potatoes and cheese and the bottomless cup of 89-cent coffee at El Dorado Restaurant (755 Main St., Alamo), then returning at night for the $6.95 Mexican plate special. The restaurant is similar to the many locally owned eateries in the area that offer good Tex-Mex food that's hard on the arteries and easy on the wallet. For more upscale dining, try Republic of Rio Grande (1411 S. 10th St., McAllen); the chipotle chicken is excellent.

BIRDING HOT SPOTS: Best bets within easy driving distance of the McAllen area include Anzalduas County Park (956-585-5311, www.missionchamber.com/anzalduas.html), Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (956-785-1107, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/bentsen), Edinburg Scenic Wetland Trails (956-381-5631), Quinta Mazatlan (956-682-1517), Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (956-784-7500, southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/santana.html) and Valley Nature Center (956-969-2475, www.valleynaturecenter.org). Most offer guided birding hikes.

Birders with a week or more usually start at South Padre Island and then head west along the river, through the McAllen area, to Falcon Dam, stopping at various sites along the 140-mile route. In addition, the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail covers the region and is a good place to start doing research; maps can be ordered at 888-900-2577, or can be viewed or purchased at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/birdingtrails/coastal_trail.

Another good resource is the World Birding Center (956-584-9156, www.worldbirdingcenter.org), with nine birding sites in the Rio Grande Valley.

ORGANIZED TOURS: Many birding organizations and tour companies offer group trips to the lower Rio Grande Valley. Resources include the Audubon Naturalist Society (301-652-9188, www.audubonnaturalist.org), Bird Treks (717-548-3303, www.birdtreks.com), Wings Birding Tours (888-293-6443, www.wingsbirds.com) and Borderland Tours (800-525-7753, www.borderland-tours.com). Birdtreks, for example, has a "Winter Birds of South Texas" tour Feb. 6-15, which includes accommodations, guides, meals, entrance fees, ground transportation and tips. Cost is $1,695 per person double; airfare is extra.

NATURE EVENTS: Local nature festivals are a big draw for birders and other naturalists. Choices include the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (800-531-7346, www.rgvbirdfest.com), held in Harlingen in November; the Texas Tropics Nature Festival (877-MCALLEN, www.mcallen.org/tourism/naturefest), held in April in McAllen; the Texas Butterfly Festival (800-580-2700, www.texasbutterfly.com), held in October in Mission; and Dragonfly Days (956-969-2475, www.valleynaturecenter.org/ddays.htm), held in Weslaco in May.

INFORMATION: McAllen Chamber of Commerce, 877-MCALLEN, www.mcallen.org.

-- Carol Sottili

© 2003 The Washington Post Company