Hot Spots of the Rio Grande Valley

by Ruth Hoyt | March 1, 2005

© Ruth HoytA good number of winter Texans and permanent residents of the Rio Grande Valley possess common threads, including their love for the area’s biodiversity and an awareness of the importance of habitat to our native flora and fauna.

The Valley boasts more than 500 bird species, some of which are “winter Texans” that use the area as wintering grounds and others that are year-round residents. However, the Valley is not just “for the birds”—it hosts 300 butterfly species and nearly 150 reptile and 160 mammal species. In addition to the wildlife, many of the cacti, shrubs, trees and other plant species are endemic, or found nowhere else in the world.

Located just north of Mexico in the southern tip of Texas, the Valley is the meeting point of eleven different ecosystems. Various individuals, organizations and agencies have worked to save, improve or restore habitat for plant life and wildlife on both public and privately-owned property. As a result, the Valley has evolved into one of the most attractive destinations in the U.S. for visitors to observe and enjoy nature, whether individually or through one of the Valley’s many nature festivals.

Plain chachalaca © Ruth Hoyt

Plain Chachalacas are year-round residents from the lower Rio Grande Valley to Costa Rica, and can be seen in our parks and refuges. They prefer wooded stream beds with dense woodland vegetation and thick, shrubbery undergrowth.

The World Birding Center (WBC), a joint project by Texas Parks & Wildlife with partners U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services and various cities across the Valley, is a network of nine sites that extends 120 miles from South Padre Island west to Roma. The WBC contains possibly the most diversity of all because of the number and range of locations involved—coastal wetlands, freshwater marshes, riverside thickets and chaparral brushland, to name just a few. Headquarters are conveniently located in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission, where visitors can enjoy nature year-’round. Two of the Valley’s “specialty” birds that make the 760-acre park famous include Green Jays and Plain Chachalacas. The Edinburg Scenic Wetlands serves as a 40-acre oasis to water-loving wildlife and nature lovers alike. Several acres of native plants have been planted to form extensive butterfly gardens around the interpretive center, where you can see state-of-the-art interactive educational exhibits. Other WBC sites include the Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado in Harlingen, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse in Hidalgo, Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville, the Roma Bluffs in Roma and the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center at the SPI Convention and Visitors Bureau on South Padre Island.

The National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) system includes the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR and Santa Ana NWR in Alamo, as well as Laguna Atascosa NWR in Rio Hondo. Activity options for visitors vary from one site to another but include visitors’ center, auto touring, biking, educational programs, hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing and limited hunting. Santa Ana is often referred to as the “gem of the refuge system” because of the vast diversity in its 2,000+ acres. The refuge contains 12 miles of foot trails winding through an unusually diverse array of flora and fauna including 400 species of birds and 450 species of plants. Its upland thorn forest is excellent habitat for Ocelot and Jaguarundi, although sightings are very rare and mostly undocumented. Located toward the opposite and eastern end of the Valley, Laguna Atascosa NWR is home to the rare and endangered Ocelot and employs staff dedicated to conducting research and radio collaring these cats. At more than 45,000 acres, Laguna Atascosa is the largest protected area of natural habitat left in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and is home to Aplomado Falcon, Green Jay, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Javelina, Texas Tortoise and American Alligator.

In earlier discussion, Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) is mentioned as a project manager with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services as a partner for the World Birding Center. TPW also manages numerous Las Palomas Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) across the Valley, many of which are open to the public. In addition, TPW manages Falcon State Park (SP), a property of several hundred acres to the west straddling Starr and Zapata Counties, and Boca Chica SP, a 1,000-acre park located in southeastern Cameron County 22 miles east of Brownsville. Falcon SP is situated at the southern end of the Falcon Reservoir and features camping, swimming, boating and fishing, as well as a one-mile, self-guided nature trail. Uncommon bird species include the Green Kingfisher and Varied Bunting. Fishing is popular, especially for those pursuing black and white bass, catfish and stripers. Boca Chica is a remote location, has no gates and is not patrolled. Visitors are permitted on the adjacent Del Mar and Boca Chica Beach for picnicking, camping, wildlife observation, swimming, surfing and fishing. However, they are not allowed to drive on the roads and public beaches or climb on the delicate sand dunes and trample the vegetation that holds them together.

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle © Ruth Hoyt

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in the sand. For the protection of this endangered species the eggs are collected and incubated, and the hatchlings are released.

You can spend as long as you like on South Padre Island because eco-tourism is considered an island specialty. The grounds of the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, now part of the World Birding Center system, are famous for diversity of birdlife and wildlife species. The Laguna Madre Nature Trail runs behind the building on a 1,500-foot boardwalk covering four acres of wetlands and is always open to the public free of charge. Nearby is the South Padre Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a series of small lots used extensively by birds on their migratory paths. The sanctuary is owned and managed by volunteers of The Valley Land Fund. If you want to learn about sea animals, there are several places to visit, including the Dolphin and Nature Research Center. There you will find hands-on interactive exhibits and plenty to learn about conservation. Sea Turtle, Inc., a non-profit organization, was founded by Ila Loetscher, fondly known as the “turtle lady.” She dedicated her life to saving and rehabilitating sea turtles, especially the endangered Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles. Her home and yard have been converted into a rehabilitation center for turtles, as well as exhibits and an educational center for visitors. Isla Blanca Park at the southern end of the island hosts the University of Texas Pan American Coastal Studies Lab. There you can see aquarium displays of fish and other marine life and a large shell collection.

The Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary near Brownsville is a must-see location and features a spectacular mature Sabal Palm and Texas Ebony jungle. The 527-acre forest property borders the Rio Grande River and much of this attractive sanctuary is wheelchair and handicapped accessible. Some of the “regular” birds include Altamira Orioles, Plain Chachalacas, Long-billed Thrashers, Least Grebes and Green Kingfishers.

The Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy manages the 1,000-plus acre Southmost Preserve, the southernmost point of the continental United States, and the Chihuahua Woods Preserve, a smaller property that contains a spectacular cacti population and diverse plant life. Southmost is open by appointment only, but is worth the effort of planning ahead. It is located along the Rio Grande River and there you will find one of the two remaining large stands of native Mexican Sabal Palms in the U.S. Other rare species in the U.S. include such birds as the Brownsville Common Yellowthroat and Lomita Carolina Wren and mammals such as the Southern Yellow Bat and Coue’s Rice Rat. Rare amphibians include the Sheep Frog, Mexican White-lipped Frog and Rio Grande Lesser Siren. If you visit the Chihuahua Woods property in the Mission area, note that its gates are normally closed but trails are open. Parties of six and fewer are allowed during daylight hours and the property may be dangerous at night. This site is known for its spectacular array of cacti, but endangered plant species are also present, including Runyan’s Huaco. Trees valuable for providing food, cover and nesting sites for birds include Texas Ebony, Huisache, Brasil, Granjeno and Anaqua.

Pitaya cactus © Ruth Hoyt

The Pitaya Cactus, also known as “strawberry cactus,” has a colorful pink bloom and later produces a sweet sought-after fruit.

In Weslaco, the midpoint in the Valley from east to west, you can visit both the Valley Nature Center and Frontera Audubon, two compact but very diverse properties a short distance apart. They are just a few acres each, situated in the heart of Weslaco in urban settings, but don’t let that fool you. Many of the U.S.’s rare bird and butterfly sightings take place on the trails of these locations. Frontera Audubon, staffed mainly by volunteers, has recently drawn birdwatchers from across the country to see a pair of Crimson-collared Grosbeaks and a White-throated Robin. Nearby, Valley Nature Center staff members are kept busy logging records of butterfly sightings and preparing for upcoming nature festivals. The newest festival in the Valley is Spring Fest, which runs February 23-27 and features a film festival, live animal presentations, guided nature tours, activities for children, a rock climbing wall, a 5K run/walk and much more. Later is, yes, the VNC’s Dragonfly Days festival, to be held May 20-22. Birdwatchers and other nature lovers have broadened their repertoires to include “butterflying” and “dragonflying,” and festivals across the Valley have evolved as a result.

This article is limited to only a few of the Valley’s public and government lands’ natural “hot spots.” I recommend that potential visitors make early contact with a specific town’s Chamber of Commerce for more detailed information. No matter where you choose to visit, you can be assured of a pleasant result.

Facility Locations and Contact Information
Facility Location Phone Website
Frontera Audubon Weslaco 956.968.3275
Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR HQ in Alamo with various locations 956.784.7500
Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary Brownsville 956.541.8034
Santa Ana NWR Alamo 956.784.7500
Sea Turtle, Inc. South Padre Island 956.761.1720
South Padre Island Convention & Visitors Bureau South Padre Island 800.SOPADRE
South Padre Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
(c/o The Valley Land Fund-McAllen)
South Padre Island 956.971.8550
Texas Parks & Wildlife/Boca Chica SP (c/o Bentsen) Mission 956.585.1107
Texas Parks & Wildlife/Falcon SP Falcon Heights 956.848.5327
The Nature Conservancy-Chihuahua Woods Mission TN C’s Tamaulipan
Thornscrub Project Director,
The Nature Conservancy-Southmost Preserve Brownsville Donna Berry, 956.548.0547
Valley Nature Center Weslaco 956.969.2475
About the Author

Ruth Hoyt is a full-time nature photographer who specializes in flora and fauna of the Rio Grande Valley. For further information about conservation-oriented events, contact Ruth by email at or phone at (956) 845-6200.

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