December 2006 Park of the Month
Estero Llano Grande State Park
Valley World Birding Center Site Newest Texas State Park
It's amazing what adding a little water to a typically sun-parched environment can do to attract birds and other wildlife. You need look no further for proof than the almost 200 rejuvenated acres of Estero Llano Grande State Park in the Rio Grande Valley.
A recent Indian Summer day visit to the recently opened World Birding Center site in Weslaco revealed a six-foot alligator taking in the last rays of the afternoon; monarch butterflies flitting in search of scant nectar; and scads of birds soaring over sunflower patches, perched in snags and wading in ankle-deep waters.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Ducks Unlimited and others spent six years and more than $3 million re-vegetating a sorghum field and dry lakebed with native trees and shrubs, creating wetlands habitat once commonly found throughout the Rio Grande Valley and building boardwalks, picnic facilities and an environmentally friendly Visitor Center.
Estero Llano Grande is the buckle on a belt of nine WBC sites strung along 120 miles of river road from the historic city of Roma on the west to South Padre Island. It is the latest of seven sites to welcome the public. South Padre Island and Resaca de la Palma (Brownsville) are expected to open within the next year or so, bringing to a total more than 10,000 acres of preserved native South Texas, or Tamaulipan, brushlands and riparian woodlands as a model of conservation and ecotourism development.
What distinguishes Estero Llano Grande State Park from other WBC sites is its extensive wetlands environment, anchored by a section of the Arroyo Colorado on the south and southeast edge of the park, according to Marcy Martinez, park superintendent.
"We have a good variety of wetlands habitat varying in depth from six inches to two feet that we control, as well as Alligator Lake that is about eight feet deep," Martinez 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."
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. The thick-trunked sabal palm, which is Texas' only native palm tree, helps give the park a jungle-like feel. Sadly, only 100 acres of the original 40,000 acres of the Rio Grande Valley’s sabal palm forest survive today.
A stroll along the brick walkway at the park entrance through a thickly planted thorn forest to the Visitor Center helps acquaint visitors with dozens of native flora, including desert lantana, whitebrush, anachuita and huisache.
It was in the brushy thorn scrub right in front of the center that Canadians Don and Nettie Market spotted a black-chinned hummingbird. This was the fourth bird watching trip to Texas to add to their life list.
Estero Llano Grande is the equivalent of Disneyland for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Park developers have done an excellent job of erecting observation decks, boardwalks, wheelchair-accessible trails and primitive trails to provide an up-close view of avifauna and other wildlife. By year’s end, 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.
Martinez, a Valley native, calls Alligator Lake and the surrounding woodlands her favorite part of the park. A visit to the area reveals why. A short woodland trail skirting the lake provides shade and good views of kingfishers, herons, egrets and other birds on the way to a spacious viewing platform overlooking prime gator habitat.
The new birding mecca is being discovered by avid birders from throughout the U.S., Canada and even overseas. The sighting of the rare northern jacana, a colorful bird with large feet, during late summer and fall was still creating a buzz. Valley residents, too, are being drawn to the park by special holiday events, Saturday morning guided bird walks and other activities. The Kids Nature Club meets the first Saturday of the month for short bus trips to area nature preserves.
Estero Llano Grande shares some of the same speciality birds as the WBC headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in 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 like 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 provides an ideal place to pick up a gift for that hard-to-please friend or family member. Many items are site-specific, such as binoculars, birding books, bird feeders and hand-painted bird Christmas ornaments.
The park gets 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. For more information visit the Estero Llano Grande State Park web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle