TAKING FLIGHT IN SOUTH TEXAS
By Chris McBeath

There were, perhaps, 150 of them, swirling around our heads like a scene out of Hitchock’s movie, The Birds, and still we couldn’t get enough.  Every few minutes, another group of five or six Green Parakeets would join the squawking social gathering that had taken temporary residence on the telephone lines above. With our binoculars trained skyward, we could see the intimate antics of each bird as they preened each other’s feathers with affection, jostled for position to chatter about their day, compete for the attention of a potential mate or simply to enjoy time out as a couple, observing the feathery bustle of their surrounds.

“This is like their cocktail hour” explains Keith Hackland, a naturalist and wildlife guide with Birding Trails. “Every evening just before dusk, they gather together from all around the area to share their day, before flying off to their roosting destination for the night”.  Five more parakeets arrive mid explanation, and the volume of the flock crescendos. Binoculars spring back into action.  There seems to be great kafuffle and the raucous chattering climbs decibels high. “They’re about to go”, calls Keith above the noise.  It’s as if the group were waiting, albeit with boisterous impatience, for these last stragglers, because within minutes they all start to depart. Twenty here. Forty there. Ten more follow.  Until there were none.

“We don’t know where they roost” Keith says, breaking the sudden silence. “We can’t even be sure where their gathering spot will be because the parakeets will party at a certain location for a few days and then suddenly change. They keep us on our toes”

This seems to be the understatement in the Rio Grande Valley. And therein lies the real story.

Widely regarded as one of the finest and most diverse bird-watching areas in North America, the RGV lies as the natural flyway between North and South America. With almost 500 species of indigenous and migrating birds, drawn here for the moderate, year-round temperatures, the Valley has become a year round twitcher’s paradise. 

“There are species of birds here that virtually appear nowhere else in the country – White-collared Seedeaters, Clay-colored Robins, Ringed Kingfishers, Brown Jays, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, Chihauhuan Ravens, and Tamaulipas Crows” Keith continues, adding that we should also watch for tropical birds of the Texas-Mexico border such as Great Kiskadees, Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, Altamira Orioles, and Red-crown Parrots. The list is impressive.

But you don’t have to be avid ornithologist to appreciate what the Valley has to offer. Novice birders, and nature photography enthusiasts, are also finding their way here: to canoe down the Rio Grande River itself through one of the State run national wildlife refuges, explore locations along The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, discover one of the new World Birding Centers dotted along 120 miles of river road between Roma to South Padre Island or to find themselves in a trend-setting, ‘back-to-nature’ South Texan backyard.

For a region that has lost 95 per cent of its natural habitat, all this is somewhat of a miracle.

Since the early 1920s, ranching, aggressive agriculture of cotton, sugarcane and sorghum, alongside heavy industrialization, has laid waste to much of the Valley’s landscape, marking The Rio Grande as one of the State’s most polluted rivers.  The 90-mile long Arroyo Colorado, one of the Rio Grande’s most important fresh water channels, has seen 26 million fish die in the last 15 years alone. Yet, despite continued lack of controls on the Mexican side of the River, and the ongoing pressures of an exploding population, naturalists and conservationists are holding their own. Through perseverance and education, they may even be turning the tide in reclaiming the region’s natural heritage. Increasingly, there are pockets of thick thorn forests (chaparral), and sub tropical woodlands as well as rsacas, freshwater ponds, and wetlands - vital habitats for many endangered species of plants, animals and birds.

Because 97% of Texas is privately owned, restoring the Valley’s habitat has become somewhat of a community effort where local groups, private ranchers and individuals are taking in upon themselves to turn their acreages into nature sanctuaries.

One example is Casa Los Ebanos, a gracious, southern colonial-style home facing a lovely lake and surrounded by spacious lawns and gardens with tropical and native landscaping, all set within an 82 acre private park known as Los Ebanos Preserve. While the home offers an elegant location for weddings, and other events, the garden has become a labour of love for owners Martha and Frank Russell. Open as a sanctuary since 1992, this special property boasts butterfly-friendly gardens, self-guided trails through rare riparian river woodlands and ebony thorn forests.

At the Martin Refuge, there’s something more.  John and Audrey Martin have not only turned their 300 acres into a property lush with mesquite, huisache and other South Texas foliage, they have created a nature photographer’s paradise. As the brains behind the Valley Land Fund Photo Contest, which links up photographers from all over the world to a group of lens-minded ranches, the Martins provide professionally designed photo blinds throughout the refuge. Each is set back from small water holes and close to feeding areas, so that photographers are able film all manner of wildlife as they wander in for refreshments. These include Javelina, Eastern Cottontail, Bobcats, Mexican Ground Squirrels, White-tailed Deer, and diamond-back rattlesnakes, as well as Yellow-rumped Warblers, Thrashers, Cardinals, Green Jay, Scaled Quail, Pyrrhuloxia and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. Three of the camouflaged blinds have been “sunken” underground for photographing close-up and at eye level. For nature photographers, it truly can’t get any better than this!

Whether motivated by altruism or by the realization that eco tourism makes for good business, the accumulative results are growing exponentially. Nature tourism contributes at least $100 million into the local economy – a conservative figure, and is expected to double in two years.  Annual visitors are estimated at 200,000, and that excludes the seasonal snowbirds who are affectionately known in these parts as Winter Texans.

The Valley’s soaring popularity for birding and other wildlife is also fuelling a number of specialty festivals. The oldest and best known is the Birding Festival (November) which, when introduced in 1994, attracted some 750 participants. Today, that number is nearer to 10,000 of experienced and enthuser birders from all over the world.  Another favourite is the Butterfly Festival (October) with Dragonfly Days (May), a Texas Tropics Nature Festival (April) and other celebrations helping to boost business year round.

As for the Green Parakeets? “In the last twenty years, Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots have become well established throughout the Valley from Brownsville to Mission” notes Keith. “And while there is some debate as to just how they got here, there is no question that their numbers are expanding so at last, I think we must be doing something right”.

We agree. Dusk was settling and already Keith was stalking the dawn with plans that had many birders back on their toes with excitement.  After an absence of decades, a Blue Mockingbird had been sighted a few days before; proof, indeed, that the Rio Grande is cultivating its own renaissance.


If You Go:
Useful websites to browse before you go:
www.southtexasnature.com – a co-operative sight of the regions main visitor
www.texasbutterfly.com
www.worldbirdingcenter.org
www.tpwd.state.tx.us (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)
www.lensandland.com (especially for nature photographers)
alamoinnsuites.com, a birder-friendly B&B close to Santa Ana wildlife Refuge

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