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Texas’ World Birding Center Taking Wing
MISSION, Texas — Ten years after planning began to launch the World Birding Center in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, the ambitious project to restore wildlife habitat and promote birding and nature tourism has taken off and is gaining altitude.
Comprised of nine sites strung along 120 miles of the Rio Grande corridor from Roma to South Padre Island, the WBC encompasses everything from saltwater flats and riparian woodlands to thick Tamaulipan thornscrub and palm-fringed resacas that attract an incomparable diversity of bird species.
As the WBC Web site notes: “The Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. More than 500 species have been documented in this unique place.”
And, some of the best places to see specialty birds of the Valley, such as the green jay, great kiskadee and Altamira oriole, are the two state parks run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department that are currently open and six locally operated WBC sites.
Only TPWD’s Resaca de la Palma State Park near Brownsville has yet to open, but is expected to welcome visitors sometime this fall as the final link in the WBC chain. Resaca de la Palma will feature 1,700 semitropical acres etched by ancient curves of the Rio Grande that will nicely complement the other WBC sites, according to Russell Fishbeck, the South Texas region’s state parks director.
“The managers of the various World Birding Center sites have worked pretty well together when they’ve needed to share staff and other resources,” Fishbeck said. “It’s hard to pinpoint the visitation numbers throughout the network, but the sites are really starting to connect with the local customer base through school programs and family nature events.”
TPWD’s executive director, Robert L. Cook believes, too, in the WBC’s educational mission and the Valley’s unique natural heritage.
“The World Birding Center,” he explained, “is important for wildlife conservation and sustainable economic development, but its lasting impact may come through youth involvement and education.
“The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the most biologically diverse ecological regions in North America and a critical migratory stopover point for birds that move between the Americas. Yet, more than three-quarters of the region’s original wildlife habitat has been replaced by human development. The WBC showcases ways to restore and protect habitat while providing a tourism destination that puts people directly in touch with nature and wildlife.”
TPWD operates both the headquarters of the far-flung World Birding Center at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park near Mission and the recently opened Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. Estero Llano Grande features almost 200 acres of reclaimed wetlands that teem with birds and other wildlife. Six other WBC sites have been built and are operated by local communities in Edinburg, Harlingen, Hidalgo, McAllen, Roma, and South Padre Island.
The $7 million WBC headquarters includes an exhibit hall, lecture hall, gift shop, coffee bar and administrative offices on a former 60-acre farm field that has been replanted with native South Texas vegetation. Other elements include the hawk viewing tower, two bird viewing blinds with water features to attract birds, a flooded habitat courtyard that draws butterflies and birds, tram service to transport visitors within the park, and miles of hiking trails. More than 300 bird and almost 200 butterfly species have been documented at the 760-acre sanctuary only minutes from fast-growing Valley communities.
The advent of the WBC has been an economic boon to the Valley economy, which has suffered agricultural setbacks in recent years. Wildlife watchers from outside the region are estimated to generate more than $100 million annually in new tourism dollars for the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Economic development motives, as well as the drive to conserve rapidly disappearing habitat, help explain the involvement of six major Rio Grande Valley municipalities in the World Birding Center.
Edinburg Scenic Wetlands provides an oasis for birds and other wildlife in an urban landscape that draws visitors to 40 acres of shallow ponds to view waterbirds, shorebirds, butterflies, dragonflies and other critters from waterside observation platforms and trails. An interpretive center features educational exhibits on fish and aquatic life, and state-of-the-art interactive computer programs highlighting birds and butterflies.
Harlingen’s Arroyo Colorado and hike-and-bike trails connect the Texas ebony woodlands of 55-acre Hugh Ramsey Park on Harlingen’s east side to a 40-acre upland thorn forest on the west side. Harlingen’s wing of the WBC provides breeding grounds for numerous “Valley specialties” and the endangered red-crowned parrot.
The Old Hidalgo Pumphouse combines preservation of a key part of the Valley’s agricultural history with nature conservation through the creation of butterfly and hummingbird gardens, hike and bike paths and birding trails. The site’s museum depicts how steam-driven irrigation pumps turned Hidalgo County into a year-round farming Mecca.
Quinta Mazatlán, a Spanish-style, 1930s adobe home just across from McAllen’s international airport, serves as headquarters for the bustling city’s wing of the WBC that opened in spring 2006. The 6,700-square-foot showplace anchors an eight-acre estate filled with more than 100 species of exotic and native trees, shrubs and flowers that attract scores of birds and other wildlife. Since it opened, more than 20,000 people have visited, many of them attending weddings and other special functions.
Roma Bluffs, the westernmost WBC location, occupies the old plaza of a once-thriving steamboat port sitting above the Rio Grande. The site includes a narrow band of river woodlands dominated by black willow, Texas sugarberry and stands of Texas ebony. An interpretive overlook offers a great view of the river, island and woodlands below, as well as views of the Mexican border town of Miguel Aleman.
South Padre Island and Nature Center bookends the string of WBC sites at the southern tip of the world’s longest barrier island. A boardwalk nature trail adjacent to the city’s convention center spans a marsh all the way to wildlife-rich Laguna Madre. Interpretive panels and bird blinds enhance the experience. A 10,000-square-foot visitor center, lengthening of the boardwalk and addition of two more bird blinds are on the drawing board.
For details on the World Birding Center, see the Web site or phone (956) 584-9156. Photos, maps and graphics are available for news media use on the TPWD Web site.
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