Snowbirds Head to South Texas for Warm Weather, Bountiful Wildlife and a Little Taste of Mexico
They call it “El Magico Valle del Rio Grande” (The Magical Valley of the Rio Grande) and thousands of RVers who flock here every year for warm weather, bargain-priced living and loads of wildlife, agree.
For years, we’d heard about “Winter Texans,” intrepid RVers from the Midwest and East Coast who trade icy, cold winters in their home states for the tropical climate of the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. We wanted to discover the magic of this valley for ourselves so we headed to the Lone Star State.
We started our adventure in Mission, a little town in the upper Rio Grande Valley (RGV), what locals call “The Valley.” The RGV is an area in the southernmost tip of South Texas along the northern bank of the Rio Grande that separates the United States from Mexico. It’s not really a valley, but rather a delta or floodplain. The area’s woodlands and dry thorny landscape are dotted with oxbow lakes or resacas, U-shaped bodies of water formed by pinched-off meanders of the Rio Grande. These waterways, the subtropical latitude (the same as Miami, Fla.), and the Valley’s location at the confluence of two major flyways between North America and South America, make it a hot birding spot.
Birding is Big
With more than 500 documented species, the Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth, and it attracts RVing bird enthusiasts like John Kaye, a retired computer programmer formerly from Menasha, Wisc. Fifteen years ago, Kaye and his wife discovered the Rio Grande Valley and became RVing Winter Texans. Now they’ve moved full-time to the Valley. “We’re bird-watchers and this is one of the best bird-watching places in the United States,” he says. “We just fell in love and found it’s an ideal place for nature lovers to retire.”
The RGV’s World Birding Center (WBC) – a joint partnership between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Rio Grande Valley communities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – is a network of nine distinctly different birding sites set along a 120-mile historic river road. We’re at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the WBC’s headquarters.
It’s also where RVers Jack and Peggy Halpin volunteer. Each fall, they drive from Maine and volunteer for two months at Bentsen. They lead bird walks and teach a Birding 101 class a few hours a week and, in exchange, pay nothing to park their motorhome here.
“We come for the birds,” says Peggy. She and Jack are guiding a group of a dozen visitors on one of the park’s daily bird walks and they’ve stopped at a feeding station where several chachalacas, large brown birds that are second cousins to wild turkeys, have gathered. As we watch, three bright green jays with dramatically marked blue and black heads fly in, causing several smaller kiskadees and sparrows to take flight. “With so many colorful birds, I feel like I’m living in a tropical paradise.”
In addition to 8 miles of birding trails, bike rentals and free tram shuttles, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park boasts a two-story hawk observation
tower with a 210-foot-long wheelchair-accessible ramp that gives visitors a bird’s-eye view of the tree canopy. In addition, two enclosed bird blinds and a birding wall allow visitors to see birds up close and watch their behaviors.
Just a mile up the road is the National Butterfly Center (NBC), the only such site dedicated to protecting butterflies and the largest native plant propagation garden in the country. As we stroll through the raised beds, flashes of color – black, orange, red, blue – dart around the plants. Max Munoz, our guide, points out the tiny red-bordered pixie and the Mexican silverspot. Forty percent of the nation’s 700 butterflies come to the Rio Grande Valley and more than 200, many rare breeds, are seen here at the National Butterfly Center.
“Until recently, people haven’t thought of butterflies as wildlife,” Executive Director Marianna Wright tells us. “But they are an indicator species, even more so than honey bees, and they’re wonderful pollinators. Our goal is to get people to plant native gardens in their own backyards to attract butterflies.”
The NBC’s 100-acre property features a bright-green exhibit building, gardens with native plants alive with butterflies, a wooded area with trails and butterfly feeding stations, and a birding area with a water feature and picnic tables. Munoz regularly fills the butterfly feeders with a mixture of ripe banana, brown sugar, and dark, non-pasteurized beer – and judging from the dozens of butterflies flitting about, they love the stuff.
We pull into Bentsen Palms RV Resort, a motorhome park popular with nature lovers. Most RVers here come for the season, but we find a rare empty site for a few nights. This RV park attracts a lot of bird-watchers who walk or ride free bikes into Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which is next door. They also like the full hookups, swimming pool and spa, fitness center, wood shop, dog runs and organic garden. As the sun sets, a live Western band begins playing and we can’t resist joining other RVers for a bit of West Texas line dancing.
While Bentsen Palms RV Resort is usually full during winter’s high season, the Valley has hundreds of RV parks where you can stay for a day, a week, a season, or a lifetime. Some are modest and inexpensive; others are quite elegant and charge higher rates. A number cater to the 55-and-older crowd and, in many, people return year after year and create close-knit communities. In all the parks, we find people are incredibly friendly and welcoming.
History, Grapefruit, Tamales
Nothing in the Rio Grande Valley is far away. Towns like Pharr, Edinburg, Harlingen, Hidalgo, McAllen, and Weslaco are strung like pearls connected by Highway 83, a modern freeway that runs the length of the Valley. We motor north just off 83 to Edinburg, home to the Museum of South Texas History. Located in a beautiful Mexican-style building decorated with colorful tile and wrought iron, this museum traces the history of the area from its origins as an ancient sea through original peoples, Spanish exploration, the Mexican War, cattle ranching and the expansion of the railroads, and how irrigation and farming shaped the Valley.
We head over to McAllen, one of the Valley’s largest towns, to Quinta Mazatlan, a historic adobe home built in the 1930s and now owned by the City of McAllen. It’s a 20-acre urban birding preserve and part of the World Birding Center. As we walk along Quinta Mazatlan’s winding paths, chacalacas scurry underfoot and a screech owl pokes its head out of a hole in a palm tree. Despite a busy street and the McAllen International Airport just across the road, Quinta Mazatlan feels quiet, protected and natural.
“Even though we’re an urban sanctuary, you’ll see 20 different species of birds that don’t migrate north of the Valley,” says Colleen Hook, public relations director for the site.
We pass a recently added pond area and a belted kingfisher swoops in and scoops up a small fish. Next door is a green-built education building where homeowners learn how to transform their own backyards into wildlife sanctuaries. “We’re changing the world one backyard at a time,” Hook says.
Another piece of Rio Grande history can be found at the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse Museum and World Birding Center a few minutes away in the little town of Hidalgo. Irrigation has played a huge part in the development of the Valley, and this old pump house is where it all started in 1909. The Hidalgo Pumphouse, once run by giant steam engines, delivered 25,000-acre-feet of water to grow citrus and vegetables, and much of the old machinery, pipes and pumps are still intact.
Downstairs, there’s a fascinatingly detailed model rail exhibit documenting the railroad’s influence on the Valley. Built with countless hours by model rail enthusiast Arthur Nemes and valued at more than $100,000, the rail cars and tiny towns on display are accurate miniatures of railroading in South Texas in the 1950s and ’60s.
Hidalgo Pumphouse has spurred our interest in the Valley’s agricultural past, so we go in search of Texas Reds, the area’s super-sweet red grapefruit. They’re in season and we want to buy them from the source, so we drive a few miles of out of McAllen to Klement Grove & Country Store. This family-owned farm sells 20 different varieties of citrus fruit, including grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, tangelos, kumquats, limes and lemons. While the Valley’s agricultural land is threatened by development, farmers like the Klements are hanging on. We buy a half-bushel of Rio Star grapefruit at the bargain price of $7.50.
Another unique characteristic of the Rio Grande Valley is that it’s a country-within-a-country. Nearly 80 percent of the RGV’s population is Hispanic, so you’ll find plenty of beautiful Mexican architecture and Talavera tile, lively Tejano music and deliciously authentic Mexican food. Twice we stop at Delia’s, a small local chain selling handmade tamales by the dozen, to load up our motorhome’s freezer. We also stock our refrigerator with handmade
tortillas and super-melty Oaxaca cheese.
We shop downtown McAllen with stores catering to Mexican tastes, including elaborate, sparkly dresses for girl’s sweet-15 parties (QuinceaÃ±eras). Even grocery stores in the RGV are fun to shop, with plenty of Mexican and international foods and goods you don’t usually find.
Our time in the RGV is nearly over and we want one last chance to see the area’s birds. We drive to Estero Llano Grande State Park and World Birding
Center, at 230-acres, home to the largest wetland network in the WBC. Because of the many shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest, this park attracts a spectacular array of water birds. We join a group of 40 or so birders and six volunteer leaders and, before we travel 10 feet, we spot green-, blue-, and yellow-crowned herons in the shallow ponds. Then there are neo-tropic cormorants, American coots, stilts, white pelicans, laughing gulls and more.
It’s hard to imagine that this area was once cultivated farm fields. Through a cooperative effort by several agencies and nonprofits, including the Texas Parks Department and Ducks Unlimited, and countless hours put in by RVing volunteers like Mary Elder and her husband, Dave, of Ontario, Estero Llano has become the crown jewel of the World Birding Center.
“This is the best little park in Texas,” Dave says, peering through his binoculars at a blue heron dressed in elegant mating plumage. “We have a lot of water here and a concentration of birds that makes it really easy and fun for anyone to see.”
Those birds are just one of many great reasons we’ll be flying back to the Rio Grande Valley again and again.
For More Information
Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort
Klement Grove & Country Store
956-682-2980 | www.klementsgrove.com
Museum of South Texas History
956-383-6911 | www.mosthistory.org
National Butterfly Center
956-583-5400 | www.nationalbutterflycenter.org
956-681-3370 | www.quintamazatlan.com
World Birding Center