• Cherie Claire

McAllen, Texas, a birding paradise


Viola travels to McAllen, Texas, in my latest novel, "Ghost Trippin,'" the fourth book in the Viola Valentine paranormal mystery series. John Valentine disappeared years before but recent developments that may explain his mystery point to the town at the bottom of Texas and continue up the coast through Padre Island and Galveston before ending in a remote area of Alabama.

John Valentine is a birder, what we used to call birdwatcher before the term "birder" became cooler. McAllen is a major bucket list for birders, as are the islands of Padre and Galveston, locations where hundreds of migratory birds visit every spring and fall.

Today, I'd like to share my visit to McAllen for a magazine story I wrote a few years ago. Many of the locations mentioned here are in the book!

McAllen — a Birder's Paradise

One minute you’re on a busy street in McAllen, Texas, and the next the modern world disappears as you enter the property of Quinta Mazatlan, a 1930’s country estate with a Spanish Revival adobe hacienda at its center. Many people visit to view the impressive 10,000-square-foot home of publisher, poet and screenwriter Jason Matthews.

But many more come for the birds.

There are nine World Birding Centers in Texas, all located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley which borders Mexico, a bottleneck of sorts for the birds migrating north and south each year. Because the area catches these traveling species heading north, then turning east and west through the land mass between oceans, it’s an ideal site for birders and possibly the best viewing in North America.

Quinta Mazatlan is one of the World Birding Centers and a great place to begin. Its 20 acres of lush tropical grounds spotted with feeders, water sources and exposed fruit attract numerous species every year.

The day I visited the tranquil spot, I was amazed by the sudden burst of avian noise when I traveled down the hiking trail that opened into a feeding area. Chachalacas (above right) scurried among the brush squaking, red-winged blackbirds and kiskadees (right) flitted about and a variety of doves looked down from the treetops. We even spotted a rabbit trying to blend into his surroundings.

Different people will offer different numbers but the Valley boasts of about 526 bird species, partly because the Wild Bird Centers offer feeding stations, protected habitats and restricted visitation.

“More than half of the birds in the United States have been seen right here in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Marisa Oliva, manager of the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands.

Edinburg offers two man-made ponds teeming with waterfowl, including the black-bellied whistling ducks with their pink legs and a kiskadee who seemed to pose for our photographs. We also spotted a red-bellied sapsucker, shoveler, sandpiper, stilt, killdeer, neotropic cormorant and a green kingfisher, to name only a few.

Visitors must park and check in at the entrance to The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park; cars are not allowed inside. Birders may access the 760 acres by foot, on bikes (bring your own and rent through the park) or enjoy the park’s regular shuttle service. About 325 species have been spotted at the park’s many feeding stations, including green jays (above right), the official bird of McAllen. We spotted many green jays, plus couch’s kingbird, Altamira oriole, clay-colored thrush, crested caracara and an eastern screech oil sleeping inside a dead tree. (In "Ghost Trippin,'" this owl plays a significant role.) The highlight of the day, however, was a young bobcat beside the road, pausing on a log as if waiting for his close-up. I happily obliged him.

McAllen proved to be a great home base for our birding expedition. It’s close to South Padre Island, Brownsville and the other Wild Birding Centers. McAllen offers shopping, excellent restaurants and historic museums, such as the Museum of South Texas History which gives an excellent overview of the region’s origins and growth.

For more information on the World Birding Centers, visit http://www.theworldbirdingcenter.com/.

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