Texas is for the Birds!

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Having a hobby is always encouraged and millions of Americans have chosen birding. More than a third of these enthusiasts travel from home to pursue their passion; South Texas is a must see since it is home to the World Birding Center.

Quinta Mazatlan is the most interesting birding center in South Texas to non-birders.

In Spanish, Quinta means “country estate” and Mazatlan translates as “where the deer roam.” However, not just deer roam but 540 different species of birds, an unbelievable number given that less than 1,000 species have been found in North America.

More than 10,000 species of birds fly over and around our globe, but the number of bird migrations over this area where the Rio Grande rolls into the Gulf of Mexico has made the southwest corner of Texas a haven for the birders.

Birders are as far removed from other travelers as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rich: Yes, “they are different from you and me.” What kind of person shows up in remote areas in the United States laden with binoculars, tripods, long-lensed cameras and army-style rations in the possible hope of seeing birds they hadn’t seen before?

According to a 2001 analysis, 18 million Americans travel away from home specifically to see birds! Apparently another 40 million are backyard birders. They’re an interesting group: the better the education, the higher the income and the older, the more likely they are to participate. And females are more common than males although married persons predominate. Birders are not ethnically diverse: The largest groups are whites and Native Americans. The states with the highest participation are Montana, Vermont and Wisconsin and the lowest Hawaii, California and Texas.

Yet, here we are learning about birding in Texas in the legendary Quinta Mazatlan in the city of McAllen. Jason and Marcia Matthews built this large adobe structure in the 1930s, much by their own hands. They lived here for 30 years. They were characters — Jason, a writer and adventurer, was also an eccentric. He had fought in World War I and reputedly had even served with Lawrence of Arabia. Later he traveled the world widely collecting whatever took his fancy including, some would say, his wife who came from a wealthy Philadelphia family.

The Matthews commissioned a Swiss wood carver, Peter Mansbendel, to reproduce the door he had carved for the Spanish Governors Palace in San Antonio — but to place their two children’s faces as the carved cherubs. The ceiling beams of Lebanese cedar were a gift from the King of Lebanon to Jason for fighting with Lawrence in Lebanon’s War of Independence against the Turks.

“We are an urban sanctuary for birds,” says our guide, Colleen Curran Hook, the manager. “We are two minutes from the airport. Imagine you are a bird. You see a lot of grey cement then suddenly this green island. We have 15 acres of gourmet shopping here for birds, a lovely B&B offering both food and shelter. It’s as if we’re telling the birds, ‘You may be heading for Costa Rica but you don’t need to keep going!’ Fifteen acres and last weekend we registered 46 separate species!”

The Quinta Mazatlan Forest Sculpture Trail leads visitors half a mile through the Tamaulipan Thornforest. On display are white-tailed deer and black-tailed jackrabbits and slow Texas Tortoises and faster Mountain Lions. But we are birding and we look farther into the thickets to sculptures of Great Horned Owls with their feather tufts, plumicorns, sticking up from their heads, and Harris’s Hawks “social birds that hunt cooperatively.” And the largest Oriole in the United States, the Altamira Oriole, that also makes the largest nest on North America, a nest that dangles safely away from hungry animals. We find a Great Blue Heron sculpted beside a pond. And we watch a live family of noisy, cheeky Chachalacas patter past us.

The Rio Grande Valley lies along an important bird migration route at the confluence of two major bird flyways. Some of the bird species seen here are found only in the Valley or South America. Because the Quinta Mazatlan estate in McAllen, Texas is so interesting in itself it’s probably the best place to start exploring the nine members of this World Birding Center (WBC) that has evolved in South Texas along the historic 120-mile river road that runs from Roma to South Padre Island. However, the WBC is centered at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley Park, Mission, Texas. Like all members it has park professionals to help the public enjoy birding.

At Bentsen we see close up the city bird of McAllen — the Green Jay — and in real life the hanging nest of the flamboyant Altamira Oriole, a gorgeous bird with its black and orange coloring.

We ask a guide why birding is popular. To the uninitiated, we say, it might be seen as pointless as having children on long car trips compete to collect the largest number of different state license plates. The birding enthusiast frowns at our comment.

“First,” he says, “Birding is very social. You make friends and find you have much in common. You form a network. Second, it’s good exercise out there in the open. Third, those birding tend to be low-key, nice, green people who are very conscious of the environment. So we were practicing eco-tourism long before that buzz word became popular.”

He pauses to pull up his binoculars to survey the sky again then says “So birders are eco-tourists but…” he grins at us, “Number four, we can be ego-tourists also! We even have a 700 Species Club in the United States, but one maker of binoculars has a criticism of that.”

A golf cart-like vehicle takes us around Bentsen, the 762-acre park that is the main visitors center for the WBC. A recent drought has made it difficult for birds, and parks with wetlands are natural magnets for birds in migration. The vehicle takes us to the two-story observation tower where Broad-winged hawks hover above us.

It’s less than 10 miles from Mission, Texas to Edinburg, a different world where the wings beating the skies are butterflies’. The Texas charmer in charge is actually a Southerner, Marianna Trevino Wright, who protests, “Hey! I was born in South Carolina but I got here as fast as I could!”

A former barrel racer whose parents have a ranch, Wright’s world is now butterflies.

Wright’s work space is even colored lime-green the color of the butterfly’s chrysalis transitional stage and she deliberately plants nectar and other food sources that butterflies and their caterpillars love.

All over the National Butterfly Center grow olive trees, hackberry and mulberry bushes and retama shrubs to the apparent delight of neighboring wood peckers. The butterfly center soaks hanging logs with a brown-sugar, banana-brew beer that butterflies love. (“They don’t care for American beer — it’s been pasteurized!” says Wright.)

Each birding center has its own characteristics. The Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco was farmed in the 1750s by Spanish settlers whose practices altered the landscape and allowed streams to become choked with sand and clay. The resulting landscape of shallow ponds has become a lure for migrating birds crossing a state that often has droughts. The 230 acres have more than five miles of easy walking trails and the park has a covered deck with a great view of the wetlands.

The deck has seats for comfort and railings for cameras and telescopes to make life easy for birders. There’s a store and classroom and a recreational hall for visitors also.

There’s a second birding center in Weslaco, the Valley Nature Center, the oldest and smallest in the Valley (covering only six acres).

The small size of the Valley Nature Center is a blessing for beginners; it’s all convenient to hand and easily found behind Gibson City Park.

The Texas State Parks combine with the World Birding Center to sound a warning that is heard today across all countries where developers are active, perhaps too active: Less than 5% of birds’ natural habitat in Texas remains. The resulting state collaboration using native plants and careful water management has revitalized hundreds of Texas acres.

Nancy S. Millar, the long-time director of the McAllen Convention & Visitors' Bureau, hands us a brochure that spotlights the pride this part of Texas has as it restores the land:

“The rhythms, sounds and songs of Nature once again fill parts of the lower Rio Grande Valley landscape… The natural orchestra is in full chorus… These sounds reassure us that restoring habitats renews life.”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.