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The Rio Grande Valley and Birding in the Texas Tropics

What do 40,000 hummingbirds and me have in common? We both weigh about the same - give or take a few hundred hummingbirds. This statistic is according to the World Birding Center Headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park near Mission, Texas which estimates 160 hummingbirds to the pound. And they ought to know.
Birding is serious business in the richly biodiverse Rio Grande Valley, as I found out after arriving at McAllen International Airport the last day of November. My timing was perfect for a visit to balmy South Texas as a powerful winter storm had begun to unleash its fury back in Illinois.

It’s no wonder that so many birds and “Winter Texans” alike flock to the Rio Grande Valley this time of year to escape their icy nests in the North. McAllen, the thriving center of the Valley, is on the same latitude as Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and Brownsville, TX, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico 70 miles to the southeast.

Over 460 species of birds and 250 species of butterflies call the Rio Grande Valley home along with a rapidly increasing number of permanent human residents. In fact, the McAllen Metro Area is the fourth fastest growing region in the country.

What’s the attraction? Besides the warm weather, a thriving international trade business with neighboring Mexico has grown dramatically creating hundreds of new jobs on both sides of the border. The cost of housing is reasonable and the lack of congestion, air pollution and crime also contribute to an appealing lifestyle.

I began my trip that night by walking across the Rio Grande International Bridge to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico just across the border from Weslaco, TX. I had been invited to dine at Arturo’s Restaurant, a fine dining establishment celebrating its 50th year of business. It did not disappoint as I enjoyed pan-fried chicken Mexican style. The savory spices and crispy skin gave it a unique taste and texture that delighted my taste buds.

The next morning I was invited to explore the arts and culture side of McAllen beginning with a tour of the International Museum of Art & Science. This museum features hands on science exhibits for all ages and even offers a live video feed from NASA. The art galleries presented gorgeous still life paintings as well as a rare motorcycle exhibit called “Moving Metal” which includes the “Fastest Indian” of movie fame. This museum is a great place for the entire family to spend time together.

McAllen also has a growing art district and I found Nuevo Santander Gallery to be the crown jewel. I was impressed with the variety of art under one roof - sculpture, paintings, photography, antiques, and Old West collectibles. Owners Che and Becky Guerra created their building from stones collected from their own ranch and the treasures inside have been lovingly hand picked with care from the region as well as old Mexico.

Across the street talented sculptor Douglas Clark has created a number of bronze masterpieces including a jaw dropping lifesize statue called Eagle Woman. He told me the story of how he had encountered the old Mexican woman on the street with her outstretched arm holding an eagle. It was truly one of the most remarkable pieces I had ever seen with intricate detail and inspiring realism.

Lunch was at the popular Republic of Rio Grande Grill and Cantina where a healthy bowl of Chicken Tortilla Soup was the predecessor to a crunchy Cinnamon Taco Dessert Shell filled with white chocolate mousse and strawberries and drizzled with dark chocolate. This good life is killing me!

But back to the main reason I came to South Texas - namely the growing sport of birding - observing not shooting. McAllen’s Wing of the World Birding Center is at the magnificent adobe mansion known as Quinta Mazatlan. Here history, culture, and nature combine to create a perfect setting for the senses and it was on a birding trail here where I met Father Tom, the Birding Priest.

Father Tom, a practicing Catholic priest from Harlingen, was staking out a feeding/watering station on the trail. With binoculars and camera at the ready, he had a reputation of being one of the top birders in the country with over 670 birds on his life list. He patiently pointed out to me the buff bellied hummingbird, the greater kiskadee, and my favorite new bird - the green jay.

Growing up in the Midwest, I had only seen blue jays but this bird had a green body to go with his blue head. As I sat and watched the different birds come and go I could understand how quickly one could get hooked as I started my own count in my head. But for now we had another stop to make before nightfall - the border town of Hidalgo and their Pumphouse Museum.

First established in 1909 to draw irrigation water from the Rio Grande, the Hidalgo Pumphouse and its great engines remains today as a monument to the people who turned the Rio Grande Valley into an agricultural marvel. Their location is also developing a World Birding Center along the canal that connects the Pumphouse with the Rio Grande.

That night I was invited to Una Noche De Arte Y Cultura (Night of Art & Culture), a cooperative effort between the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and the Casa de la Cultura from Reynosa, Mexico. Reynosa is a city of over a million people just across the border from McAllen and tonight it would be showcasing some of its finest young artists’ work.

Of course all the titles were in Spanish and I had to find a translator. One particular piece called “Soledad Desnuda” which featured a lone tree outlined against a brilliant sunset caught my eye but I needed an English translation. Three different translators gave me three different interpretations and when I questioned which one was correct I was told- “Pick the one you like best.”

Thus ended my cultural experience as my host for the evening Keith Hackland of the Alamo Inn had arrived to take me to his Birding B & B. A native of South Africa, Keith is a true lover of the outdoors and he settled in Alamo after having been a foreign exchange student there years ago. Now one of the country’s top birding teachers and guides, he caters to birders who fly to the Rio Grande Valley when rare species drop in. I asked him how a novice like me could begin to understand what makes a serious birder tick.

He went to his well stocked birding store and returned with a copy of Mark Obmascik’s “The Big Year” and handed it to me. “Read this and it will become more clear,” he said.

Before I went to sleep that night I had read the first chapter and couldn’t wait to read more. It is a truly informative and entertaining book about three birders who compete to see who can spot the most bird species in a calendar year. Birder or not, you’ll enjoy it.

Mark H. Bradley is a freelance writer living in the tiny historic village of Maeystown, IL. A former President and CEO of his own advertising/PR company, he chose to check out of the rat race at the beginning of the new millennium and pursue his pent up desire to see the world. A self proclaimed "semi-retired international playboy" he has traveled the world in search of the unique, the unusual, and the undiscovered.