Green Jays and many other tropical bird species are found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and nowhere else in the United States. This makes south Texas a popular place for birders. And the warm winters make it a mecca for snowbirds of the non-feathered variety, who flock here to escape frigid winters in their northern hometowns.
Frankly, we much prefer Arizona or Florida or the Texas Gulf Coast to south Texas. The landscape is scrubby mesquite, the towns are lackluster, and the hiking is uninspiring. But the birding is outstanding, and the network of refuges set aside as habitats for birds are wonderful oases for both birds and people.
Nine separate and distinct refuges make up the World Birding Center, a collaborative effort of Texas State Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and communities in the Rio Grande Valley. Here, a narrow ribbon of native riparian vegetation provides respite for more than 500 species of birds, both residents and those who migrate between North and Central or South America. The refuges are the last hold-out in a landscape threatened by strip malls, billboard lined freeways, and fields of citrus and sugar cane.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
We set up camp at Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort and concentrated our explorations on the World Birding sites. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the headquarters for the World Birding Center, is conveniently next door to the RV park. We spent part of every day biking and hiking seven miles of trails in the park in search of birds, and had no problem finding them in abundance. It helps that the park has set up many feeders and water features throughout the park, which the birds (and javelinas) find irresistible.
Click on any photo for a larger view
Estero Llano Grande State Park
One of our favorite World Birding Center sites is Estero Llano Grande State Park, which offers a variety of habitats including a large pond, wetlands, and woods. We returned twice to hike five miles of trails, each time finding new (and some familiar) treasures of the feathered variety.
It’s easy to take birds for granted. But when I really take the time to see birds, I’m in awe of how beautiful they are, even the drabbest little brown sparrow. And their behaviors are fascinating. Walking beside a pond at sunset at Estero Llano Grande, we happened upon dozens of bright yellow kingbirds feeding on insects, in what appeared to be a choreographed aerial ballet.
The Common Pauraque is a tropical bird that can easily be overlooked. A member of the whippoorwill family, it hunts insects at night and sleeps during the day. It’s so well camouflaged it’s often mistaken for a pile of leaves.
Along with wild wetlands and thorn forests, the World Birding Center includes beautiful Quinta Mazatlan, built in 1935 as a luxurious private mansion. The adobe Spanish Revival style home and gardens is now dedicated to environmental stewardship, and is a peaceful haven for birds and people. Wandering the gardens, it’s hard to believe there’s a mall across the street and an airport next door. What a gem.
Edinburg Scenic Wetlands
My heart’s desire on this trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley was to see a Green Kingfisher. The little flying jewel eluded us until our last day when we visited Edinburg Scenic Wetlands with the specific goal of finding the kingfisher. We walked all of the trails for a couple of hours and had almost given up hope. And then, Eric spotted one perched on a branch low above a creek, chattering away.
This is an absolutely adorable bird with a huge personality. The Green Kingfisher is small, about the size of a large house sparrow, with an outsized heron-shaped beak for catching fish. While the other two species of kingfishers found in the U.S. are a dusky blue color, the Green Kingfisher is a brilliant dark emerald.
About the RV Park
Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort is perfectly located for exploring the various sites of the World Birding Center. We loved being able to hop on our bikes to ride into Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. (There is no RV camping within the state park.)
The RV park is immaculate and is truly a resort, with every amenity you can imagine, including free admission to the state park. If your interests run to line dancing, pickle ball, water aerobics, mahjong, and margarita-enhanced potlucks, you will love this park. We were too busy birding and biking and didn’t check out the activities. :-)
What a nice bunch of photos! Those birds we never see in day-to-day life unless someone like you brings us their beauty via the Internet, along with an interesting story about the locality, is much appreciated.
Thanks, Terri! I’m so glad you enjoy the photos of the birds and the stories about them. I like learning about their personalities and unique traits. They’re truly fascinating creatures.
You managed so many truly fabulous bird photos this time, as always. I truly loved the green kingfisher. We haven’t explored this part of Texas, but did get a taste of Texas birdlife when we visited Judy at Anahuac NWR in 2014. What a birding treasure you found. The park next to the mall and the airport reminds me a bit of Catalina State Park near Tucson. It is such a lovely place and so funny that there is a big mall right across the street from the entrance.
Sue, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is not a place we would visit, were it not for the birdlife. But oh, the birdlife makes it SO worth visiting! Seeing and photographing the Green Kingfisher was a special delight for me.
Aren’t we lucky that someone is watching out for these wild, beautiful places so that everything isn’t paved over?
We are thinking of this area as a destination this coming winter. What month were you there? Do you think there is any month that is the best? Did you day trip to all 9 world birding center sites? Aren’t I full of questions!! Thanks for your continuing wonderful posts and pics!
Haha, I love questions, Joan! We were there for 10 days in mid-January. I’d say January and February are the best months weather-wise to be in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the birding is excellent then.
We made day trips to the World Birding Center sites that were within 30 miles of Mission (where we were staying). Although many people visit the Brownsville and Padre Island sites as a day trip, that’s too much driving for us at 60-90 miles each way.
Let me know if you have other questions! We really enjoyed our stay there, and the RV park is beautiful. It’s centrally located for many of the World Birding sites.
Gorgeous birds (and photos!). We’re not big fans of Texas, but you make me want to visit this area just for the birding. I love Kingfishers, but have never seen a Green. Lovely.
Thanks, Les. We’ve found so many things to love about Texas—nature, hiking, birding, kayaking, interesting history, wildflowers, pictographs…and beautiful state parks. If you want to see a Green Kingfisher you have to go to south Texas. Or further south. :-)
How great that you were able to spot some of the species you were most excited to see in the wild! It’s so satisfying to have that kind of success. And you guys obviously have eagle eyes to pick out some of these small and camouflaged birds. If you ever decide to travel down the Florida peninsula, I can offer plenty of great recommendations for birding locations in South Florida.
Shannon, I was thrilled to find the Green Kingfisher this time around. And just as thrilled to see the Green Jays again. And even happier to get photos, which somehow makes it even better.
I’d love to get your recommendations for South Florida birding. I grew up in Miami, but my interest in birds came long after I moved away. We’ve done a lot of birding on Sanibel Island, in the Everglades, and in the Keys, but I’ll bet you have a lot of other good places to share with us!
Beautiful bird pictures! We just spent a few weeks in Murfreesboro and in Bull Shoals AR. Arkansas is beautiful in the spring and so many birds and wild flowers. Bald eagles to hummingbirds. We saw dozens of red headed woodpeckers, they are so vivid. Their state parks are the nicest we have ever seen. I hear Arkansas is really beautiful in the fall also. I don’t work for them, really. We are in Nebraska parked next to a cattle yard and I am yearning for beautiful Arkansas. Anyway, I got some bird feed and threw it around the camp site (cheating) but it was really fun.
Arkansas is on our wish list, Nancy. I’m glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed it so much! It sounds like a gorgeous place to be in the spring—we’ve also heard that it has beautiful fall colors. But those wildflowers and spring birds sound especially appealing.
Parked next to a cattle yard, huh? What are you doing there? (P.S. I think it’s just fine to throw out some bird seed to see who comes to visit. :-))
Wonderful bird photos. Thanks for bringing this part of the world alive for me. Happy travels!
Thanks, Nancy. I hope you’re enjoying a beautiful spring at home in Ashland!
What beauties you’re seeing! Thanks for reminding me to feed our windowsill birds while Rick is away. I forgot! xo
Oh good, glad this reminded you to feed your resident birdies, Kim! Sometimes I miss our feeders and birdbaths at home, but it’s exciting to be seeing so many unique birds in our travels. Hugs to you!
I’m not only amazed at your ability to find these birds, but to take such detailed photographs of them! What kind of a camera/lens set up do you use when birding? These are really SO impressive! Speaking of impressive, these refuges are such a gift and I truly hope they don’t get wrecked by all the activity going on at the border. As I recall, a lot of the environmental reviews that are typically done are being waived right now. I sure hope those waivers don’t impact places like this. Depressing and maddening all at the same time. Finally, I feel like “margarita enhanced potlucks” should be the only kind of potlucks allowed. A law like that would not be depressing or maddening and I think it could really bring the country together. Just a thought….
Laura, I like the way you think. Yes indeed, I believe we should promote margarita enhanced potlucks. We should be focused on bringing people together, right? Maybe that’s the answer.
On a more serious note, some of the refuges on the border really are in trouble because of that ridiculous wall. There are a lot of people working hard to protect the refuges, but it’s still uncertain as to what’s going to happen. We found it very interesting that everyone we talked to in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is vehemently against building the wall.
As far as our cameras, Eric and I both shoot with Canon SX-60s and have been happy with them. We find them easy to use, lightweight, no lenses to change, great zoom for close-up wildlife photography, and easy to carry hiking, biking, and kayaking. We both have had much more complicated cameras and lenses in the past, and much prefer the simplicity of these cameras. Let me know if you want more info. :-)
You know what a bird enthusiast I am…haha!!! But…I do enjoy the very colorful birds. You found some beauties. The green jay is magnificent. I love the Pauraque in that little hidden pile. Someone could walk right on him. Talk about camouflage.
Pam, I wrote this post just for you because I know how much of a bird enthusiast you are, LOL!!
I’m glad you appreciate the colorful beauties, though. I know exactly which birds you enjoy seeing. :-)
(we have just enough gov’t provided internet that I can read and comment!) The green jay!! I remember how excited we were to spot them near Laredo last fall. Of course, we weren’t able to capture them as beautifully as you did. Some birds are so impossibly colorful. A buff-bellied hummingbird? There are more varieties than I’ll ever know! That pauraque is a chubby cutie. And the green kingfisher — adorable indeed.
Another wonderfully engaging birding adventure that makes me miss you both and be eager for when you can be our in-person guides. So many times, I see a bird I need to identify, and I think, “Gee, if only E&L were here!” Soon, my friends💜
Joodie, I’m so happy to hear from you!! I was afraid we would be out of touch for three months while you’re in the wilds of the Gila National Monument. But it sounds like you have the best of all worlds—being in a gorgeous remote place, and having a bit of internet!
We’re looking forward to the day (soon, yes!) when we’ll be able to spend time with you guys hiking, exploring, and birding along the way. So many adventures await us! Hugs and hope you’re loving your new digs! oxox
What a wide variety of birds! We sure do enjoy our travels through Texas, Laurel…it never disappoints!
Diana, we also thoroughly enjoy our Texas adventures. Glad to know you and Jim do, as well. I don’t think we’ll run out of things to discover there!
Glad you braved the scrubby landscape and lackluster towns to bring us these beautiful gems. Your photos are fantastic and your (and Eric’s) eye for birds is a real gift. Lots of people would walk right by most of them without ever noticing.
I loved the little Kingfisher. We have the “ordinary” ones at the lake and the little butch boys are so fun to watch. They entertain us for hours diving and fishing, yammering and rattling as they do so!
We totally agree with you – birds are fascinating to watch. Even the drab little sparrows. But, you often have to just sit still in one place for them to appear. That isn’t something most of us have time for it seems!
Sue, I know that you and Dave share our appreciation of birds. Even our “ordinary” backyard birds, as you said, are entertaining to watch. It’s a good antidote to my tendency to do too much and helps me be more present in the moment. It just makes me happy!
I’m so glad you enjoyed our photos of our south Texas feathered friends. You would have loved seeing them! We’re looking forward to seeing you two and your resident kingfisher in a few weeks. :-)
Truly amazing. Thanks for another great blog. I had never even heard of a Green Jay. What a “looker”as my Dad would say. Stay well and as always thanks for sharing.
Sue, I had never heard of a Green Jay, either, until I happened to see the illustration in Eric’s bird book. And then I wanted to see it in person! In south Texas, they’re prolific, with the same boisterous, inquisitive personality of the Scrub Jays and Stellar’s Jays in your backyard.
I’m always so happy to hear from you and to know that you’re continuing along with us in our travels. Hugs to you and Doug, and hope spring is beautiful in Ashland! :-)
Oh wow! I too had a birding extravaganza while there for a month! Thank you so much for taking me back there and all your beautiful bird photos back to life for me! I was overjoyed the first time I saw the Green Jay! Only in Texas!
MonaLiza, although we visited the Lower Rio Grande Valley 10 years ago, we were ready for a return visit to see all those tropical beauties again! We’re so happy we returned to see the Green Jay, plus we were able to find the Green Kingfisher and the Buff-bellied Hummingbird this time. You just never know what you’re going to find (that’s part of the fun of birding, right?).
It’s such a unique place, as you know. Not so great for hiking, but wonderful for birds!
Yeah! I would have not seen those two too had I not been with a birder friend Nancy whose nickname is “Birdie!”
Did you go to the butterfly place?
We did, but it was too windy for the butterflies. :-( But we liked the beautiful interpretive center! The butterfly center will be lost if the wall goes through there. So sad.
Texas is a treasure. Who knew? I don’t know one from the other but enjoy listening to them as we walk through the trees.
Texas does have a lot of unexpected treasures, Debbie. We’re glad our winter route has taken us through Texas the past few years, otherwise, we may never have discovered how much is there.
I always enjoy listening to the birds when we walk through the woods, too. They definitely have a lot to say!
I HAVE to go here!!! Mike and I love birding and I can’t imagine being in a birding paradise like this one!!! So many of the birds you photographed would be “first time” birds for us!!! Excellent photography!!!
Gerri, if you and Mike enjoy birding, you will love the Lower Rio Grande Valley. It really is a birders paradise! I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. Hope you two are doing well!
Thanks for all the great information!! We do love birding!!! We are doing fine…hard to sit still but we will have to for awhile…we are currently waiting on insurance approval and then a surgery date!!
We’re sending good thoughts your way! You’ll be back to your adventures and enjoying those beautiful birds before you know it.
We did a 5 month workcamp at Bentsen Palm Village back in 2012/2013. Although 5 months was a bit too long, we did enjoy being able to just walk or bike over to the state park. The birds in that area are so much more colorful than what we were used to seeing. We feel like you do about that part of Texas, although many RVers made an annual trek to stay there all winter. We looked at other RV parks in the area and BPV was definitely the best of the bunch. Glad to hear it is still being kept up.
Your bird photos are great, by the way!
Gayle, that’s so interesting that you guys were at Bentsen Palm Village for five months! I’ll bet you had lots of wonderful birding experiences. The RV park really is beautiful and immaculately maintained, and the people are very friendly. The “snowbirds” seem to have a great time and many apparently return year after year. I guess the camaraderie and warm winters make up for the lack of scenery.
Found you again ! Dan and I so enjoyed spending the afternoon birding Brighton with you and Eric. Came home to a pair of sandhill cranes in our front yard. Your pictures are beautiful and we are looking forward to following you on your future adventures😊. Safe travels!!
Dan & Pam, crossing paths with kindred souls is one of the best things about our journeys! We had a great time on the trails with you guys this afternoon—we’re looking forward to meeting up with you again in our travels! So glad you are following along with our blog. :-)
Unbelievable variety and beauty. What a treat to see so many unique birds through your eyes. Thank you so much for sharing them with us! The Green Jays are stunning – what a treat to see them in the wild.
After spending time in other parts of Texas, we were happily surprised with how much we enjoyed the southern part of the state.
Jodee, Texas has held a lot of surprises for us, as well. The best part about far south Texas for us is the birds—it’s so unique to see the Mexican species. I think the Green Jays are stunning, too!
I always look forward to seeing you post bird photos, and although I will never be a birder, I have learned so much by spending time with the two of you and reading your posts. And I get to see photos of birds I have never heard of, like the groove-billed ani.
LuAnn, I never thought I would be a birder, but it’s an addictive hobby. Looking for birds as we hike, bike, and kayak adds a whole other beautiful dimension to our adventures. Of course, it helps that Eric is so knowledgable. It makes it much easier for me. I’ve learned to appreciate birds that I never would have looked twice at—for example, had I not looked closely, the Groove-billed Ani would have seemed like just another blackbird. It’s fun. :-)
Leah, Hugs to you! Hope all is well.