South Bay, South Padre Island, Texas: A boat trip can get you close to the thousands of birds in the 'Rio Grande estuary', including the recently discovered Mangrove Warbler (photo: Liz Hall).
This final article covers some of the main sites from Weslaco to South Padre Island and includes some recommendations for places to stay.
Frontera Audubon Center, Weslaco
This site offers 14 acres of woods including a small pond. A verandah at the back of the reserve center overlooks an attractive stream and several feeders, and there is a productive feeding site inside the reserve. This site is said to be good for both species of parrot, especially in the evening when birds come to roost. However, the reserve is closed in the evenings (except Sunday). We tried looking at the reserve from its perimeter one evening but failed to see parrots. Plenty of Chachalacas though!
From Highway 83, turn south in Weslaco on FM-88 (Texas Boulevard). Frontera Audubon Center is on the left, just after the intersection with 12th St.
Open Sunday to Friday 8am to 4pm and Saturday 7am 7pm. Admission: $2. Details.
Estero Llano Grande World Birding Center, Weslaco
Perhaps the most exciting of the new World Birding Centers, the highlight of this site is a group of shallow ponds that can be terrific for waders, though there are also a number of trails through open arid areas and woodland. In September 2006 the water levels were exceptionally high so we were unable to enjoy the expected feast of waders but a vagrant Northern Jacana on Ibis Pond was some compensation.
Northern Jacana: (photo: Derek Moore).
From Highway 83, just east of Weslaco, turn south down FM 1015. After a few kilometres, take a left turn down Lakeview Drive and look for the car park on the right. From here, cross Lakeview Drive to find two tracks which lead east to the reserve down either side of a drainage canal. The one on the far side of the canal takes you to the Center, after about 100 metres. There's another good birding site nearby: return to route 1015 and turn left, until you reach a bridge over the main lake. Park here, scan the lake on both sides of the road and look out for Cave Swallows and Black Phoebe nesting under the bridge
Open from sunrise to sunset but the visitor center is closed on Mondays and most evenings after 5pm. From May-October the center also closes on Tuesdays but stays open until 7pm on Thursdays. Admission: $3. Details.
Laguna Atascosa, Laguna Vista
Laguna Atascosa, Texas: This is Pelican Lake, with no lake, never mind pelicans! (photo: Liz Hall).
A vast reserve of over 45,000 acres including a large lake (Laguna Atascosa) and extensive shoreline (Laguna Madre). Around the Center are water features and feeders that attract loads of Green Jays, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and Chachalacas and there's also a photo-blind which gives fantastic views of Olive Sparrow, White-tipped Dove, Green Jay, etc. Most visitors take the 15-mile loop around Bayview Drive, which gives views over Pelican Lake and Laguna Madre and passes through dense thickets of thorn-brush, where you are warned of the dangers of jaguars crossing the road! These tracks are said to be good for Pauraque at dusk. One of the most sought-after species is Aplomado Falcon; apparently the best bet is to check all wires, posts and bush-tops as you drive into the reserve along Buena Vista Road or along FM 106. At the fourth attempt I succeeded here, finding one on wires by the turn-off to Cameron County Airport.
Buff-bellied Hummingbird: (photo: Tony Stewart).
Turn north from route 100 at Laguna Vista signposted to Bayview. After a few kilometres, look for a right turn, signposted to Cameron County Airport. Follow this road north, pass the airport on your right, and continue all the way to the reserve where the car parks and drives are clearly signposted.
Open from sunrise to sunset but the Center is only open from 9am to 5pm (7 days a week). Admission: $3 per car. Details.
Los Ebanos Preserve
Casa Los Ebanos, a magnificent 'old' colonial style house set in 82 acres of grounds, is the private home of Martha and Taylor Blanton, but they invite birdwatchers to come and enjoy the wild habitats on their land, including a lake (with a blind) and trails through ancient scrub and woodland. Altamira Oriole is easily seen at the feeders by the house (e.g. from 'the pavilion'). The woodland has the typical Valley birds such as Chachalacas and Kiskadees and the lake might have ducks, grebes, herons, kingfishers or even pelicans. Anyone driving from Harlingen to South Padre Island will pass the entrance to the grounds, so it makes a very convenient stop-off.
Take Highway 77/83 south from Harlingen and turn off at Highway 100 for Port Isabel and South Padre Island. Once you're on Highway 100, look for signs to Los Ebanos, on the left after only 100 yards.
Open 8am to 5pm, every day except Thursdays and major holidays but they also use the grounds for 'events' (weddings etc.) so it's worth calling in advance (956 399 9097) to make sure your visit doesn't clash with other activities there. Details.
Brownsville Landfill Site
A large-scale refuse tip (rubbish dump), famous for being about the only site in the USA where you might see Tamaulipas or Mexican Crow. However, even here you are so unlikely to see this species that it's hardly worth going out of your way for. However, another crow, Chihuahuan Raven, is unmissable here, so if you fail to see it elsewhere (e.g. around Falcon Dam or Laguna Atascosa) you can always get it at the dump.
From route 48 (the Brownsville-Port Isabel road), look for a turn off south to Port of Brownsville (route 511/3088). Ignore the road leading directly into the port and continue south a little further to where the landfill site is clearly signposted. This road takes you to the weighing station where you need to sign the visitors' book. The staff will give you a map showing where you are allowed to drive to look for the crows.
Open Monday to Saturday during working hours (usually 7am-3:45pm).
Brownsville Landfill Site, Texas: Chihuahuan Raven is guaranteed here, even if the famous Tamaulipas Crow is now rarely seen (photo: Liz Hall).
Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary, Brownsville
This is a delightful place to visit. The 527-acre site includes the best surviving example of Sabal Palm forest in the Valley and there is a similar range of species to those at Santa Ana. The center has many bird feeders and a small pond which attracts migrants. The hummingbirds come to the feeders while the warden is still carrying them to their hangers! As you drive into the reserve, check the bushes on your right for Groove-billed Ani.
From within Brownsville, look for a turning East on route 1419 (Southmost Road). Follow this road for a couple of miles, looking for the reserve signposted on your right. Alternatively, from the Brownsville/Port Isabel road (route 48), turn south down route 511 and follow this till it makes a T-junction with road 1419 (Southmost Road). Route 511 may become 3068 in places just continue due south to the T-junction, then turn right and look for the Sanctuary on the left after a mile.
Open from 9 am to 5 pm daily; admission $5. Details.
As you cross the causeway from Port Isabel to South Padre Island you see a hyper-saline tidal bay and islands to your right. This area is officially called South Bay. As the tide rises, the areas around the islands become exceptionally good for birds. In addition to the thousands of gulls and waders, there are also herons, skimmers, terns, Roseate Spoonbills and pelicans. Some of these birds are chased by predators: we watched a Peregrine take a sandpiper and two coyotes trying to creep up on the feeding shorebirds. It has only recently been discovered that the mangroves of some of the islands have a breeding population of Mangrove Warblers. This is a distinctive red-headed race of Yellow Warbler which breeds nowhere else in the US and will surely be soon recognized as a separate species. Seaside Sparrow is found in the same habitat.
A bit of habitat is accessible on either side of the causeway just as you reach South Padre island but really this area can only be viewed by taking a boat trip. We can recommend those taken by Scarlet and George Colley (Fins2feathers) as they will almost invariably be able to show you the Mangrove Warblers as well as the feast of shorebirds. They've also befriended the local dolphins so you'll get great views of those too. Prices start at $50 per person.
To arrange a boat trip call either 956 761-7178 (office) or 956 299-0629 (mobile). Details.
Birding and Nature Center World Birding Center, South Padre Island
Three main attractions here: firstly, there's the bay of the Laguna Madre, with lots of gulls, herons and waders along its shoreline; secondly there's a couple of boardwalks through a cattail marsh that is great for rails (Clappers and King Rails) and thirdly there's a 'migrant rest-stop' right outside the ladies' toilets of the Convention Center. This 'rest-stop' consists of the only tall bushes for miles around, complete with feeders and drinking pools which pull in birds such as warblers, hummingbirds, vireos and flycatchers during the migration seasons. A Peregrine roosts on the nearby water tower and there's a tame (but no less dangerous) alligator that can be easily seen from the blind in the center of the marsh. There are plans for a spectacularly lavish World Birding Center to be built on the shore side of the water tower.
Clapper Rail: (photo: Tony Stewart).
If you drive north along South Padre island, you can't miss the Convention Center on your left. Drive into there and park near the left-hand end of the building. This is where the bushes are for the migrants and where the boardwalk begins. You can watch one of the drinking pools by sitting on the bench outside the ladies toilet but it's worth also walking around the bushes looking for other birds. The next turning after the Convention Center leads to a beach from where you can get close to some of the shorebirds. Others are best viewed from the platform at the end of the main boardwalk, especially in the evening when the light is behind you.
The office is open from 9am to 5pm every day but there's free access to the boardwalk and rest-stop at any time in daylight hours. Indeed it's worth staying until dusk for the rails. Details.
Other sites around South Padre island
South Padre island can be fantastic for migrants, especially in the spring when the diversity can rival that to be found further north in Texas at the more famous High Island. The best place to see these birds is at the 'migrant rest-stop' in the bushes at the south side of the Convention Center. But any bushes on the island can pull in migrants, especially if water and food are also provided. This is why many birders and photographers also visit Barbara Kennet's place at 117 E Ling (just drive north up the island and look for the street name 'Ling' on the right - hers is the house with the front yard festooned with feeders). Barbara is an elderly ex-police officer who isn't as fit and healthy as she used to be but she welcomes birders into her home to watch and film the migrants at close quarters. Please call her in advance (761 5752) to check she is able to receive guests. Also check the Valley Land Fund lots on west Sheepshead St, and any vacant wooded lots.
A site for Tropical Kingbird
Tropical Kingbird is one of those birds that is easily missed because it so closely resembles the commoner Couch's Kingbird. It's therefore useful to know a specific site for this species. As you reach Port Isabel from South Padre island, turn left at the first set of traffic lights onto S. Garcia Street. Look for the Kingbirds on or near the area of open ground at the junction with Madison Street. To avoid being accused of stringing, listen for their call, more stuttering than the 'breeer' of Couch's Kingbird.
Recommended accommodation in the Rio Grande Valley
I can thoroughly recommend all the places we stayed at in September 2006.
The Alamo Inn, Alamo
Run for birdwatchers by a birdwatcher, Keith Hackland. There's a birder's shop, a decent set of bird books to refer to and a regime that not only lets you raid the larder for breakfast and packed lunch, it even provides a cool-box to help you carry it all and keep it cool all day. And the rooms are utterly delightful; really homely and an antidote to all that you'd expect from the big faceless hotel chains. Details.
The Brown Pelican Inn, South Padre Island
Probably the most beautiful building on the island, an old colonial-style home, overlooking the Laguna Madre. You'll want to sit on the verandah watching the sunset over the bay or enjoying the most sumptuous home-cooked breakfasts while the wintering Peregrines fly around their roost site on the balcony of a nearby apartment. You'll want to talk for ages with Chris, the delightful English innkeeper, or Yves, her kite-boarding French husband, but you're supposed to be birdwatching. Details.
The Renaissance Casa de Palmas. McAllen
A rather swanky place with a beautiful pool (very useful outside the winter months when the temperature rarely dips below 90), luxuriously soft bedding and excellent food in the attached restaurant. Details.