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Rio Grande Valley State Park New World Birding Center Site
WESLACO, Texas — Build it and the birds will come. That could well be the mantra of the newest wing of the World Birding Center — Estero Llano Grande State Park — that officially opened this past June.
Texas’ newest state park covers almost 200 acres of former farmland and a dry lakebed that have been resurrected as desirable wildlife habitat by the creation of ponds, marshes and South Texas thorn scrub once commonly found throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Since it opened, the state park has attracted not only a healthy variety of resident and migratory birdlife, but also more than 2,800 bird watchers and other outdoors enthusiasts.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Ducks Unlimited and others spent six years and more than $3 million planting native trees and shrubs, creating wetlands habitat like that once commonly found throughout the Rio Grande Valley and building boardwalks, picnic facilities and an environmentally friendly Visitor Center.
What distinguishes Estero Llano Grande State Park from other WBC sites is its extensive wetlands environment, anchored by a section of the Arroyo Colorado that flows along the park’s south and southeastern boundaries, according to Marcy Martinez, park superintendent.
“We have a good variety of wetlands habitat varying in depth from six inches to two feet whose levels we control, as well as Alligator Lake that is about eight feet deep,” Martinez, a Valley native, said. “We have a marsh in the back and some canals in the middle of the park, so there’s plenty of water to draw lots of birds.”
When a rare species shows up as happened recently when a northern jacana took up residence near the Visitor Center, the word spreads like a rifle shot through the world’s birding community. Such sightings have helped fuel a multimillion-dollar nature tourism industry in the Rio Grande Valley, one of North America’s most popular birding areas.
Estero Llano Grande is the buckle on a belt of nine WBC sites strung along 120 miles of river road from historic Roma on the west to South Padre Island. It is the latest of seven sites to welcome the public. The South Padre Island and Resaca de la Palma (Brownsville) sites are expected to open within the next year or so, adding up to thousands of acres of preserved native South Texas, or Tamaulipan, brushlands and riparian woodlands as a model of conservation and ecotourism development.
Martinez says that in addition to creating six impoundments, workers replaced old plumbing, and created habitat for wildlife by planting 3,000 native trees and shrubs, such as Texas ebony, acacia, anaqua, Montezuma bald cypress, cedar elm and sabal palm.
Visitors enter the park along a brick walkway lined with native flora. Markers describe many of the exotic-looking shrubs, wildflowers and trees. A short, wooden boardwalk leads to the Visitor Center, where a $3 per person entry fee is collected. Children 12 and under get in free. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Park developers have done an excellent job of erecting observation decks, boardwalks and more than three miles of wheelchair-accessible trails and primitive trails to provide an up-close view of avifauna and other wildlife. By year’s end, Martinez said, two new footbridges should be in place to allow easier access from the heart of the park to Alligator Lake and an adjacent 46-acre U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service tract along the Llano Grande.
Estero Llano Grande State Park shares many of the same speciality birds with the WBC headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in nearby Mission. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, plain chacalaca, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula and three different kinds of kingfishers. Grebes, coots, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds such as the great blue heron, roseate spoonbill and long-billed dowitcher, also are plentiful. Rabbits, frogs, toads, turtles, snakes, raccoons and the occasional bobcat are just some of wildlife that may be spotted.
The well-stocked State Park Store carries a number of educational items and site-specific merchandise, such as binoculars, birding books, bird feeders and hand-painted bird Christmas ornaments.
The park derives its name from the original Spanish land grant for the area known as Llano Grande, which means Large Grassland or Plain. An estero is a low-lying area of land often flooded by rain or overflow from a nearby river. So, Estero Llano Grande means “the wet place on the big plain.”
Estero Llano Grande State Park is located in Weslaco just off FM 1015 about two miles south of U.S. Highway 83. It is one of 113 state parks, historic sites and state natural areas that make up the Texas State Park System.
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