Birding and More in the Rio Grande Valley of Southern Texas
A breezy day blows the leaves of an olive tree, while Mocking birds peck at the tree's green olives. And, the sound of Kiskadee birds ring out over the flowering gardens of Turk's Cap, Lantana bushes and wild hibiscus. It is here at the Hidalgo World Birding Center and Pumphouse Museum that visitors catch a glimpse of the Rio Grande's rich, natural beauty and how agricultural history was created.
The Rio Grande Valley boasts nine world-birding centers and numerous nature areas where birders and outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe love to visit.
Hidalgo and PharrHidalgo, Texas, located in the Rio Grande Valley, owes it agricultural beginnings to the Pumphouse that was built in 1909 on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The Pumphouse's enormous silver boilers were powered by burning mesquite wood; they provided steam to run the pumps that would provide water to the area for farming. Today, the Pumphouse is a fascinating museum that is open to the public. With videos on the Pumphouse's history and a walking tour of the facilities, visitors garner a comprehensive view of how important the Pumphouse was in the growth of Hidalgo. Especially with the current urbanization that has encroached on the best and fertile farm land. Hidalgo's World Birding Center also surrounds the Pumphouse, as well as the lovely Butterfly Gardens. The gardens are home to over 317 different species of butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds. Visitors can also explore the hiking and biking trails and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Refuge as well. Birders love this area with hundreds of birds that are resident, as well as migratory and the lush foliage that graces the gardens, such as colorful bougainvillea and bright yellow Esperanza trees. For additional information, visit www.hidalgotexas.com. The cities and towns that are home to the nature parks and birding areas also proffer unique local attractions, cuisine and shopping. Located next to Hidalgo is the small town of Pharr. Pharr is a growing community and the hub of the valley with two major expressways, several excellent restaurants, trolley tours, 27 points of interest and William's Wildlife Sanctuary. Located on West Sam Houston, William's Wildlife Sanctuary is situated on the grounds of Allen Williams' home. Williams purchased the home and two-and-one-half acres of property in 1996 with the idea of creating a habitat for migrating and resident birds with observation paths. Trails run through the sanctuary with harmonious water features and are a veritable paradise for birds, numerous bunnies and other small creatures. Within the habitat, Williams and visiting birders have documented Slate-Throated Red Starts, Blue Mocking Birds and the Painted Bunting to name a few.
Mission on the Rio Grande RiverA few miles west of Pharr lies the town of Mission, located on the Rio Grande River. Mission is home to the National Butterfly Park and the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park that serves as the headquarters of the World Birding Center. These two parks are located within minutes of each other and are extremely popular with birders and nature enthusiasts. The butterfly center is located on Schuerbach Road with five acres of gardens filled with native plants of the lower Rio Grande Valley. The plants were chosen specifically to attract butterflies (such as the Mexican Blue Wing & Tawny Emperor) however; the gardens also see vigorous activity from hummingbirds and a variety of different bird species that visit the trees and feeders located on the property. And, don't be surprised if you see a bobcat roaming about the grounds or even cubs traipsing through the nursery. The center is captivating and a great place to photograph the beautiful and colorful species of butterflies while enjoying a peaceful environment. Moreover, the center is dedicated to education, conservation and scientific research on wild butterflies. Best time to visit is late September to October and November.
Harlingen for history and moreFor a different pace in the Rio Grande Area, visit Harlingen, located east of McAllen by about 40 minutes. This cool town boasts its own airport, art museum, the Iwo Jima Memorial, art galleries, incredible art wall murals in the downtown, the best Tex Mex and a main street meant for shopping. Crowned as the antique capital of the valley, Harlingen woos shoppers with its Jackson Street in old town. Here you'll find everything from framed and exquisite Renoir reproductions from the '60s to rare jewelry and fine china, as well as a treasure trove of goodies to peruse. Further down Jackson street, visitors will find numerous art galleries, consignment stores and Old D's Soda Shop, an old fashioned ice cream and soda bar. This 50s and 60's style shop caters to the nostalgia enthusiasts who still insist the only way to eat real ice cream is sitting at an authentic fountain. While still on Jackson Street or in the downtown area, take a stroll or drive and discover the town's marvelous outdoor mural art walk. From contemporary to pop art, the 23 murals are diverse in their artistry and infinitely absorbing. Perhaps the most visually detailed is the Tropical Rio Grande Valley Mural by Valley artists Benjamin P. Varela and Celeste De Luna, located at the corner of Monroe and A Street. This mural is wonderfully complex and intricate. The Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum is also a must-see while in town. City Founder Lon C. Hill's home is located at the outdoor museum with a hospital and additional buildings from the turn of the century. It is a great place to wander through and learn the history of Harlingen; even the secret passage to shelter children during the bandit raids in Hill's house. If war history is your passion, then visit the Iwo Jima Monument and Memorial Museum. The huge outdoor sculpture located on the grounds of Harlingen's Marine Military Academy is the original sculpture used in casting the famous bronzed Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, VA. It is an emotional homage to stand at the base of the sculpture and look up at a piece of America's war history. In addition, inside the memorial museum, visitors will find Marine Corp memorabilia, a veteran's Hall of Fame and a video depicting the battle. For wildlife exploration, visit Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, located just outside of Harlingen. Laguna is home to the rare Ocelot cat (only about 50 survive in the U.S.), deer and numerous birds, such as the Green Jay and noisy but amusing Chachalaca. Visitors can bike, walk or drive around the 15-mile loop.
The Beach at South Padre IslandIn the Rio Grande Valley, it can grow quite hot and a perfect way to cool off and have some fun is to visit South Padre Island, located east of Harlingen by about 30 minutes. South Padre is 31 miles long and 1/2 mile wide with the quintessential beach atmosphere and numerous adventures for the entire family. You know you have always wanted to go parasailing. Now you have the perfect opportunity to experience parasailing that is very safe, yet thrilling with breath-taking views. Contact Breakaway Cruises and head out with their experienced and fun crew who will get you comfortable, explain the process, get you into your harness and then set you sailing. Guests start sailing from the back of the boat and are tethered to a secure line, as they ascend into the air via a large parasail. Once you have attained a specific height, you will be awed by the incredible views and how stable you are in the harness and sail. This is great do as a couple, girlfriends getaway or simply for a fun experience. However, if you wish sea adventures that cater to sea turtles, dolphins or fishing, Breakaway specializes in those excellent cruises as well. Ever watch sand castle building on TV and seen those intricate and unbelievable sculptures? You can build those sand castles yourself with a little help from the Amazin' Walter. Walter McDonald is one of the top world pros in sand castle building and his art has been in competitions that span the globe. His home is South Padre Island, where the sand is especially good for sculpting. If you set up a lesson with Walter, you (friends & family if you wish) can build the sand castle of your dreams in as early as two hours! Walter is a blast and a genuinely nice fellow; a little like a skinnier Santa Claus with a beach look. He will have you sculpting cool castles and make a fun time out of it as well. South Padre Island is the perfect place for a fun and relaxing holiday with numerous activities, shops and excellent restaurants. Whatever floats your boat, this friendly island has it. The Rio Grande Valley is rich with parks, national wildlife refuges, exciting towns and sites you won't see anywhere else. There is so much to do and see and all within a two-hour drive. From nature to art, the Rio Grande Valley is one of the top of the vacation destinations of the U.S. If you go, check out a few of these destinations to add to your travel list: Weslaco with the Estero Llano Grande State Park; the Frontera Audubon Preserve and Visitor's Center; and the Weslaco Museum of local history and cultural art. Edinburg, with its tremendous Museum of South Texas History that's so well-done, it is worth a trip to the town just to see the museum.
Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular guest on Travel radio talk shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure. Photos courtesy of Patrice Raplee.