I’ve barely planted myself in front of a feeding station at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park when the show begins.
First a fluttering of Green Jays, with lime-colored bodies and sapphire-colored heads. Next, a fly-by from a pumpkin-colored Altamira Oriole. Then a flash of yellow and brown, in the form of a Great Kiskadee, followed by a splash of red, the brightest Northern Cardinal I’ve ever seen.
I’ve come to this park, which borders the Rio Grande in far South Texas, to check out the birds, and I’m getting an eyeful. In all, 366 species have been recorded in this 797-acre parcel of thorny scrub and woodland at the edge of the bustling city of Mission.
“This is one of the top 10 places in the country for birding,” says Roy Rodriguez, lead interpreter at the park. Rodriguez caught the birding bug a couple of decades ago when he spotted two of the area’s showier birds, an Altamira Oriole and a Painted Bunting, within a few feet of each other.
I spent seven years working at The Monitor, the daily newspaper in nearby McAllen, before moving back to Austin in 1998. In all the time I lived in the Valley, I think I visited the park twice.
Back then, this brushy chunk of land was a traditional state park. You could drive a car along its paved roads or park a motorhome in its campground. Now it’s part of the World Birding Center. Vehicle traffic is no longer permitted, to protect the wildlife. And if you want to camp, you must hike in or hitch a ride on a free shuttle that circulates the grounds.
Crucial habitat for wildlife at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
Today the park provides a glimpse of what this corner of Texas looked like before farmers cleared the land and dammed the river a century ago. Only between 1 and 2 percent of that original habitat remains, and it’s crucial for wildlife.
RELATED: Six Places to Park Your Campervan This Spring
The park’s location at the convergence of two migratory flyways in a semi-tropical zone makes it a hotspot for birding.
More than 20 avian species commonly found here are recorded nowhere else in the United States. The park is also known for receiving an assortment of rare avian visitors from Mexico. The park holds the first and only U.S. records for five species – the Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Stygian Owl, Collared Forest Falcon, Social Flycatcher and Masked Tityra.[Text Wrapping Break]I wouldn’t know any of those birds if I saw them, but a ripple of excitement runs through the handful of birders watching the performance at the feeder when a Rose-throated Becard makes an appearance. I scramble to find it through my camera lens, but never manage to zero in on the light gray bird that looks like it’s wearing a red bandana around its neck.
Before we move on, we walk across the road, where a cluster of noisy, chicken-like Plain Chachalacas are rooting around in the dirt beneath another feeder. I used to see them strolling through my front yard when I lived here.
Touring Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
In all, seven miles of trail, including 3.5 miles of paved road (closed to public vehicles), loop through the park, leading visitors past a series of feeding stations, bird blinds, and water features. Most of the trails are open to bicycles; bring your own or rent one from the park store for just $5 per day. Free trams shuttle visitors from station to station. From May to October, the trams run every hour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. From November to April, trams operate daily.
RELATED: Getting Back to Nature at the Roy E. Larson Sandyland Sanctuary
We spend the next hour puttering along the trails, stopping to admire a Harris’s Hawk perched high in a tree, and watching a dozen or so blue spiny lizards, the size of my hand, run for cover as we approach a picnic pavilion where they’re basking. At the oxbow lake, we spot a couple of Great Blue Herons. Then we hop back on our shuttle and aim for the Hawk Observation Tower.
More than just birds
Besides a huge array of feathered critters, the park is home to armadillos, raccoons, skunks, javelinas, butterflies and snakes. Rodriguez tells me that bobcats are frequently seen here, too.
We roll through what was once the park’s RV campground. Park managers have purposely allowed the brush to take. Instead of motorhomes and trailers, visitors now find thorny bushes and water features that attract birds and other wildlife. A primitive camping area for tents is tucked in the woods.
Rodriguez pulls up near the Hawk Observation Tower, and I hop off and make the 200-yard walk to the start of a wooden ramp, which is accessible by wheelchairs. Each spring and fall, thousands of hawks migrate overhead. From the platform, visitors can see the raptors as they fly above the tree canopy between Mexico and Texas.
Then it’s back to the shuttle.
A farewell sighting
We roll past a construction zone, where workers are putting finishing touches on a section of border wall on federally owned land adjacent to the park. Powerful lights crown the top of the wall, which spans just a few hundred feet and is open at either end.
As I’m contemplating that eyesore, I get one final reminder of the real focus here.
A roadrunner, looking every bit like Wile E. Coyote’s nemesis from the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, struts past. It bobs its head, trots a little farther, then pauses again before dashing off.
I’m pretty sure it’s the one in charge here, not the rest of us trespassers.
If You Go
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is located at 2800 S. Bentsen Palm Drive in Mission. From Austin, it takes a little less than five hours to drive there.
Cars are not permitted in the park, but you can either hike to the park’s primitive campsites or take a shuttle there. Book them here.
Look for birds and other wildlife, hike, or take a tram tour. The park store, Algunas Plumas, rents bikes and binoculars and sells field guides. Check the park’s events calendar for guided bird walks and educational programs.
Eat & Drink:
Stop by the onsite café, Le Chez Bleu, for sandwiches, salads, pastries, coffee and more. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday from November to April, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday May through October.
Pick up a free copy of the Birds of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park field checklist at park headquarters (or download one here), and mark off birds as you spot them.