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January - February 2009 Feature Park
Resaca de la Palma State Park

Newest World Birding Center Site Opens in Brownsville

Build it and they will come. In the case of recently opened Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville, "they" refers not only to people, but also to more than 270 species of birds, 89 species of butterflies, dragonflies, snakes and mammals that make the natural sanctuary home.

Earl Nottingham photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
Bicycles can be rented for a spin around the
recently opened Resaca de la Palma State
Park, the eighth wing of the World Birding
Center to open in the Rio Grande Valley.

Texas' newest state park also doubles as one of the eight World Birding Center sites to have opened in the Valley thus far in the past decade. Spreading over 1,200 acres of a former cropland and a hunting preserve, Resaca de la Palma ranks as the largest WBC site. The final WBC site on South Padre Island is slated to open later this year, resulting in more than 10,000 acres of ecologically diverse native Rio Grande Valley habitat being protected for future generations.

Resaca de la Palma represents in microcosm what much of the land along more than 100 miles of the snaking Rio Grande River looked like during the arrival of the Conquistadors in the 1500s. More than eight miles of trails, almost half of those paved, take park visitors into the heart of the park. Most trails lead to four observation decks strategically located on a refilled resaca (an ancient coil of river bed once filled by Rio Grande floodwaters) that winds for six miles through the park.

"In addition to the birds for which we opened this park," says park Superintendent Pablo de Yturbe, "it's the unique plant life here that's most remarkable. To have this kind of subtropical forest is quite unusual compared to the rest of the United States. It's like our own Jurassic Park."

One better understands that observation by taking a short stroll from the park's visitor center to the entrance of the paved, wildlife-rich, quarter-mile Ebony Trail. A chorus of birdsong and the distinct chatter of great kiskadees, a colorful Rio Grande Valley speciality bird, echo through the dense ebony-palm-anacua woodlands - an ancient subtropical forest -- along the banks of the resaca. Butterflies endemic to the borderlands of South Texas, such as the Mexican bluewing and band-celled sister, flutter about blooming flowers and shrubs like common senna, huajillo and granjeno that line the trail.

Interpretive panels erected where the ADA-accessible trail ends at an observation deck and adjoining boardwalk above the wetlands explain the area's unique natural history. An aerial map and accompanying text help visitors better understand how the floodwaters of the Rio Grande once spread out across the delta, sculpting the land, and how native peoples once prepared food from such native flora as prickly pear cactus pads and mesquite beans.

Resaca de la Palma State Park benefits from its great biodiversity reflected in five different habitats: Tamaulipan thornscrub, ebony-anacua forest, sugar hackberry woodlands, resaca wetlands and both natural and revegetated grasslands. As a result of the varied habitat and the park's location along two major American migratory flyways and its proximity to Mexico and Central America, more than 250 species of birds can be found on the park's bird list. Look for the bright plumage of Valley specialty birds such as the green jay and Altamira oriole, as well as the chacalaca, olive sparrow and groove-billed anis.

Visitors have a variety of options for getting around the park. They can hike, bring their own bicycle or rent one, or catch a ride on a tram that departs the visitor center about once an hour and travels a 3.5 mile loop. The tram stops along the way for those who wish to disembark at trailheads of the Mexican Olive, Kiskadee, Flycatcher and Coyote trails to observe waterfowl and other critters up close.

The day-use park offers no overnight camping facilities, but does have a shaded picnic area and spacious visitor center with restrooms, an interpretation hall and well-stocked Texas State Park store. Just outside, a butterfly garden lures squadrons of yellow, blue and multicolored insects that flit about velvet lantana, cenizo, shrubby blue sage, salvia and other native plants.

Earl Nottingham photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
A young birder gets advice on spotting a blue-winged
teal on an oxbow lake recreated at recently opened
Resaca de la Palma State Park near Brownsville.

Katherine Miller, the park's natural resource specialist, along with other park interpretive staff, work with schools, nature clubs and other groups to introduce them to the myriad wonders of the state park expected to enjoy considerable visitation due to its proximity to the Texas-Mexico border. The combined population of the sister cities of Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico is about 500,000. As a result, Spanish and English are used on all interpretive signage in the park.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had the foresight to purchase the Rio Grande Valley property for the future state park in the 1970s, a period when urban developers and agricultural interests were converting much of the unique borderland habitat into farmland and citrus plantations, and diverting the waters of the Rio Grande for irrigating crops, golf courses and the like.

Today, Resaca de la Palma preserves a small chunk of vast swaths of the now mostly disappeared native Rio Grande Valley habitat that supports a population of endangered native plant and animal species such as the sabal palm, Texas tortoise, ocelot and Rio Grande lesser siren. Much of the parkland was revegetated in the 1980s for dove habitat, and the old, desiccated riverbeds cleared in recent months of overgrown brush and trees in preparation for flooding. Working with local authorities, TPWD now has access to Rio Grande waters diverted through canals to keep the park's resaca supplied with water throughout the year.

Brownsville's temperate climate makes winter one of the most popular times of the year to visit. With olive trees and other native flora blooming and butterflies and birds quite active, nature lovers from most other parts of Texas will find the park a soothing respite from more inclement weather elsewhere.

And, while you're in the Brownsville area enjoying Resaca de la Palma, you may want to visit the nearby Audubon Sabal Palm Sanctuary, the renowned Gladys Porter Zoo and remaining historic buildings of Fort Brown, now part of two college campuses.

Resaca de la Palma State Park is located on New Carmen Boulevard a few miles south of FM 1732 west of U. S. Highway 77/83. It is one of 93 state parks and historic sites that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information visit the Resaca de la Palma State Park web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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