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.
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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. :-)