In our first adventure, we were just getting the lay of the land in McAllen, located in southern Texas a little over a one-hour flight from Dallas along the 100 mile expanse of the northern bank of the Rio Grande River separating the United States from Mexico.
Sitting at the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, which also includes South Padre Island, Brownsville, Harlingen, Alamo, Port Isabel, Phar, Edinburg, Mercedes, Mission and Weslaco (pronounced wes-la-coe) dotted along this east-west stretch, McAllen is the largest city with an estimated 140,000 denizens.
Despite its boutique size, McAllen and the surrounding area is an international draw for its 120 miles of bird habitats, ranging from coastal wetlands to freshwater marshes, riverside thickets and dry chaparral brush.
As a result, visitors will find nine distinctive birding centers along this migrating stretch designed to highlight, preserve and educate the public about this natural ecological area that is home to over 500 species of birds and butterflies—some not found anywhere else in the U.S.—and other wildlife.
Each of these centers offer its own unique indoor and outdoor exhibits, walking trails, bird blinds, observation platforms, historic structures, organized bird walks—some of which go no further than the Rio Grande Valley—and more.
One of the most popular birding entities in the valley is Quinta Mazatlan, the McAllen Wing of the World Birding Center. (“Quinta” is Spanish for an estate, villa or country house, and “Mazatlan” is an ancient Indian translation in Mexico meaning “Land of the Deer.”)
Each year, Quinta Mazatlan boasts about 2.4 million visitors, an estimated 40,000 of them international guests coming from Mexico, the U.K., Germany and Scandinavia, where there are scores of birding and wildlife enthusiasts.
This stunning urban oasis here is centered around a beautiful historic Spanish revival adobe-style hacienda built in the 1930s by an aviator who was captivated with this area from the sky. Inside, visitors will find remarkable attention to detail in the tile, flooring, carved doors, archways, fireplace surrounds and other elements, plus a handful of early history exhibits, an art gallery and bookstore.
Over the years, the property has grown to encompass 20 acres of birding habitats, unique south Texas native woodlands, serene walking trails, wetlands, private reflection areas, a sculpture trail featuring 30 beautiful bronze sculptures and an outdoor patio and pool area for special events.
Environmental education is also a major focus here, as a “Mansion with a Mission” designed to restore one backyard at a time by encouraging the valley community to grow native plants that support the natural environment.
Quinta Mazatlan and the valley are also home to two large, nocturnal, secretive, people-shy wild cats. The Jaguarundi is a beautiful black, brownish-grey or red cat (it looks like a large weasel) weighing up to 20 pounds and growing up to 14 inches tall and 35 to 55 inches long. The ocelot, a South American cat resembling a leopard or cheetah, is an endangered species due to poaching for its spectacular fur, and in the U.S. there are only 50 known ocelots, all of which are believed to live here.
BENTSEN-RIO GRANDE VALLEY STATE PARK
Encompassing 760 acres and adjoining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge tracts, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is one of the top birding destinations in the country, so much so that it is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week!
Part of the serene beauty and experience here is that no motorized vehicles are allowed, only the quiet electric shuttles that stop at several picturesque feeding and viewing spots to view the cornucopia of bird species, including green jays, chachalacas and other resident winged creatures.
There is also an abundance of hiking trails, a primitive campground, a fishing spot and the Hawk Tower. The tower is unique in that, unlike most observation towers, it has a graduated, wheelchair accessible ramp that winds its way up two stories high, offering spectacular vistas of the area and across the Rio Grande River into Mexico.
ESTERO LLANO GRANDE
In nearby Weslaco you’ll encounter the spectacular Estero Llano Grande. Representing the largest wetlands environment in the World Birding Center network, the expansive property here encompasses a secure nesting bird island and a lake populated by marsh cane and other native plants and shrubs where literally hundreds of birds—some of them endangered species—migrate through or make their home.
Estero Llano Grande is also home to an astounding 300 species of butterflies, half of which are on only found in South Texas, and 111 species of dragonflies.
Among the native animals here are owls, bobcats, nutria, turtles and alligators, the latter found in Alligator Lake, so called because its shape resembles the reptile.
Rounding out the World Birding Network is the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, Resaca de la Palma, Roma Bluffs and the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.