Wednesday, January 16, 2019
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20180315 Estero Llano Grande Casey Balvert MOERING 0362One of the major attractions drawing visitors to the Rio Grande Valley is its varieties of birds and butterflies. The migration path of many of the flyers runs right through the Valley and that draws people not just from the U.S. but from many other countries in the world.

Those who come to the Valley’s World Birding Center system with its nine satellites between Roma and South Padre Island, are part of a worldwide hobby with millions of people who enjoy watching birds and recording the sightings.

There’s a lot more to this hobby than just spotting a pretty bird. Those thousands of reported sightings contribute to hundreds of conservation decisions and peer-reviewed papers, fueling thousands of student projects while also helping inform those involved worldwide in bird population research, according to the website.

The number of bird species that have been spotted in the Valley is approximately 535, according to Mary Gustafson, a bird biologist who is a full-time consultant for client companies and individuals. The number of species here is more than any state except for the four southern border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

She is an active birder and at various centers she visits on her own or with clients has racked up an impressive number of sightings. For example, she says there are some interesting birds at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, which is one of the World Birding Center network sites. She’s observed 281 species, which places her high among bird spotters at the park. Currently the park is considered a hotspot for birds, which over the past eight years has had 341 different specie sightings.

Gustafson said recent rare sightings include a blue bunting and green mango hummingbird at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen and a rose-throated becard at the Inn at Chachalaca Bend in Los Fresnos.

20180315 Estero Llano Grande VisitorCenterDeck MOERING 0359“Communications is the key to bringing in birders (to the valley),” Gustafson said, who has been serious about birds since she was five or six.

The same comment was made by Grant Jense, a former wildlife biologist with 35 years of service in the state of Utah. “International phones and the internet have made birding the fastest growing sport in the country,” Jense said. “People sight a rare bird and share it, calling friends and putting it on the internet.”

For example, recent rare sightings have included a long-eared owl at the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, broad-tailed hummingbird, hammond’s flycatcher and wood stork at Estero Llano Grande State Park.

Jense, who had spent most of his career on the hunting and fishing side in Utah, ended with bird studies and it sort of grew on him, he said. He and his first wife began traveling with a fifth wheel when he retired in 2002, and after stays in Arizona, made their way to Texas as they had a son in the Air Force in San Antonio.

“Texas has a reputation about bird migration and the Rio Grande Valley is well known,” Jense said. “People come from Europe, Asia and other places to see certain species.”

He said the spring migration is more concentrated in birds arriving in large numbers and needing to feed after crossing 400 to 450 miles of open water across the Gulf from Mexico.

There are plenty of birds to be found during the winter in the Valley. He noted that Texas state parks cater to birders with guided walks.

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge south of Alamo has bird walks Thursday through Saturday. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Park Ranger Laura de la Garza said they are led by knowledgeable volunteers. There are also nature tram rides offered through March from Thursday through Sunday, which takes visitors to the scrub forest, a stop at the old cemetery and to the Rio Grande River.

The refuge draws approximately 130,000 visitors a year, with the heaviest concentration in February and March, many of them birders, according to de la Garza. Some also come to see the butterfly migration.

20171019 LeastGrebe at Estero Llano Grande Bill SupulskiJense, has been to Santa Ana as he moves about the Valley quite a bit from his place at Cottonwood RV Park in Mission, which is like a stone’s throw away from Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. He visits it often as it’s also headquarters for the World Birding Center network and a popular birders destination. Bentsen recently had a rare sighting of a hook-billed kite.

He also enjoys Anzalduas County Park at the dam south of Mission, Falcon Dam feeding station, as well as Estero Llano Grande. In April and May he works his way up the coast toward Corpus Christi and beyond.

It was natural for Keith Hackland when he came to the Valley in 1997 to get involved with birding, which had been an interest since childhood. He created a tourism business of lodging, tours, guiding, gear and optics within an industry that brings in half a billion dollars annually to the four-county area of Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy, according to a 2011 study by Texas A&M. Most birders average 15 trips to the Valley, he noted.

Nature visitors rank third in the Valley’s economy behind only Mexican visitors and Winter Texans, Hackland said.

The attraction is the 540 bird species and some 330 butterfly types that have been seen in the Valley, which Hackland said accounts for more than half the numbers found in the entire U.S. If the Gulf Coast is included toward Corpus Christi and Galveston Bay, the numbers climb to 75 percent of all species found in the U.S.

“What is so unique is that the Valley is divided into three regions, the coast, the central area and then around Falcon Lake near Roma,” Hackland said, “with different birds in each due to different habitat.”

Working for him is Mary Beth Stowe a professional guide, who he claims is among the top 10 in the U.S. when it comes to recognizing bird calls. Stowe, who served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years based in San Diego, began birding at the age of eight after she and a friend were both wrong about a bird call they heard. Records of bird calls sharpened her knowledge.

She has a blog at that lists 50 columns about Valley birding, written as adventures. The prettiest time for her is at and around the South Padre Island birding center in April.

20161110 WEB Edinburg Scenic Wetlands Across the pond panarama small THUMBHackland is a part of the visitor industry with his Alamo Inn catering to birders from all over the world. He has hosted visitors from 43 countries, and he knows of at least half a dozen other countries represented in the Valley.

Canadians Casey and Karen Balvert from Windsor, Ontario, are here for their seventh season. The couple, who is staying at Tropic Winds Resort in Harlingen, are avid nature photographers, which is another reason many come to the Valley.

They had been to Florida but coming to the Valley has been a bargain as to living costs. “When we landed here, we did not realize how unique it is here,” Karen said. They arrive around Nov. 1 and leave about April 1, spending a month in Tennessee on the way home.

They especially like Estero Llano Grande because of its array of birds and animals found in the varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands and thorn forest.

“It’s a nice park and has everything,” Karen said. “It’s handicap friendly, it’s easy to walk with nice boardwalks or there is the tram to ride. And there are benches in the popular viewing areas so one can rest. You can bike and (electric) scooters can be used. Even dogs are allowed.”

The couple sort of stumbled onto the 230-acre refuge, and quickly acquired a season’s pass so they come about three times a week to shoot photos and get some exercise, plus meet Winter Texans, families, foreign visitors, even brides and graduates, Karen Balvert said. On the trails they have also met the rather reclusive bobcat, coyote, javelina like pigs and seen the alligators.

Casey’s interest lately has been shooting the pair of alligators in the lake with his long and heavy lens. He has photos of the gators in action consuming a turtle and a catfish. His seriousness is evident with all the photo gear contained in a three-wheel cart that he received as a birthday present. “The equipment was getting really heavy,” he said.

For Karen, her main interest is the song birds. Her face lit up when she recalled seeing the parakeets the day before in the volunteers’ RV area, which also included the red crown parrots.

“A lot of people don’t realize it’s here, Karen said, “nor do they know much of the city’s small Hugh Ramsey (Nature Park of 54 acres) that we found in Harlingen.” A couple rare sightings of a northern beardless-tyrannulet and lazuli bunting were spotted there.

Casey, who has been behind a camera for almost five decades, since he was 18, noted the couple loves to share their best shots on Facebook, in addition to sending photos home.

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