Happy trails: Discovering the Lone Star State

Wild treasures in Texas go far beyond cattle, cactus and coyotes. Texas is also a resting place for over 600 bird species, more than any other state. Spring 2005 is a banner season for bird lovers, marked by record numbers of endangered whooping cranes on the Gulf Coast and the opening of the World Birding Center for its first spring migration season in the Rio Grande Valley.

Texas as a whole is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 500 species of birds having been documented in the lower Rio Grande Valley; that’s more than any other state’s entire bird list except California and Arizona. Both serious birders and casual tourists will be captivated by the area’s sights and sounds,” said Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife. “After exploring the Valley, visitors can also continue their journey northeast along the Gulf of Mexico to catch a last glimpse of whooping cranes before they migrate to Canada, or northwest along the Rio Grande to view desert species in the Big Bend.”

In addition to a world-class bird-watching experience, adventurers who hike, bike, kayak or even camel trek their way through Texawill find opportunities to chase rare butterflies, spot an endangered ocelot, boat with dolphins, watch sea turtles make their nests or find shade under trees found nowhere else on earth.

Rio Grande Valley: A Canvas of Color
In the southern tip of Texas near the Mexican border, the ecosystem is all about colorful wings – on birds, butterflies and even dragonflies.

The best introduction to the Rio Grande Valley’s wild side is at the World Birding Center (WBC) headquarters housed in the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission. The WBC headquarters opened in October 2004 as a global model for conservation and ecotourism. The park’s 760 acres are home to “Valley specialties” – birds such as Altamira Orioles and plain Chachalacas that can’t be seen anywhere in the U.S. other than deep South Texas – as well as rare Mexican birds who occasionally pop across the border. Bird blinds, observation decks, educational classes, six miles of hike and bike trails and facilities for camping and picnics make the WBC a hotspot for competitive birders who wake at 5 a.m. or families on a leisurely afternoon stroll. www.worldbirdingcenter.org

Right down the road from the WBC is the North American Butterfly Association’s International Butterfly Park, the first facility of its kind in the world. This 85-acre park provides native flora and fauna to attract and conserve the more than 290 species that make their way through the Rio Grande Valley each year. www.naba.org/nababp

The Valley Nature Center in Weslaco has the most diverse botanic garden of Rio Grande Valley native plants in the world. This garden provides a home not only to hundreds of bird and butterfly species but also 23 varieties of dragonflies and damselflies. www.valleynaturecenter.org

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, considered the “jewel” of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System, provides a true melting pot of all the Rio Grande Valley’s natural treasures. The refuge’s 2,088 acres of thorn forest habitat are host to nearly 400 species of birds, half the butterfly species found in North America and endangered animals such as the ocelot and the elusive jaguarundi. With 95 percent of the region’s semitropical thorn forest cleared or altered, Santa Ana is a true conservation haven. Twelve miles of walking trails take visitors through a cross section of the refuge, and a 7-mile tour road is open to both drivers and bicyclists. http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/santana.html

Gulf Coast: Whoopers and Waterfowl
In the winter and early spring, whooping cranes are the star of the Texas Gulf Coast’s already rich birding environment. More than 200 whoopers migrated to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Rockport this year – a record number, and quite a feat considering the population dwindled to just 15 birds in 1941. The refuge is the wintering location for the world’s last natural wild population of whoopers, and the birds can be spotted until late March or early April before they return to their nesting grounds in Canada. Refuge visitors can also view nearly 400 other bird species including pelicans and herons. http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/aransas.html

“Whoopers are the tallest birds in North America, so seeing them flock together, with the realization the species was all but lost just a few decades ago, is enough to take your breath away,” said Charles Holbrook, refuge manager for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s something everyone should experience at least once – and a great conservation lesson for kids.”

Sea Turtle Inc., a rescue center on South Padre Island, provides another conservation lesson for both kids and the young at heart. The center allows visitors to see endangered sea turtles and learn how its staff rescues and rehabilitates the turtles before releasing them back into the wild. Seeing sea turtles make their nests on South Padre Island beaches is a fascinating but increasingly rare sight, and conservationists encourage visitors to enjoy the show but not disrupt nests in any way. (Call 956-761-4511 for more information)

After a day of swimming, wind surfing, kiteboarding or fishing in the warm gulf waters surrounding South Padre Island, visitors can learn about the area’s marine life at the new South Padre Island Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center. The center offers daily presentations by a dolphin research team, and guests can hold and help feed creatures including starfish, octopus and sea horses. Moderately-priced boating tours are also available for those seeking a unique close-up encounter with bottle-nose dolphins.
www.spinaturecenter.com or www.fin2feather.com

Big Bend Region: Rugged Beauty
For the more adventurous at heart, the Texas Big Bend region, anchored by Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, offers visitors rugged activities and dramatic vistas to explore. It is a vast, remote and wildly beautiful natural region offering hiking, camping, river running, horse riding, camel trekking, mountain bicycling, jeep touring, and an abundance of sightseeing opportunities along paved and improved roads. www.nps.gov/bibe

Approximately 450 bird species have been discovered in the Big Bend National Park, more than any other national park. Spring’s mild temperatures make for perfect hiking conditions to look for feathered friends. The park’s 20 trails range from a moderately easy stroll to a serious climb, and hikes vary in length from less than a mile to 20 miles or more. The rocky landscape makes for challenging and exhilarating mountain biking experiences.

The Texas Camel Corps provide a way to see the beautiful Big Bend country that’s a bit different – from the back of a camel rather than a horse. Camel treks combine desert scenery, history and ecology with the colorful part the Camel Corps played in settling the West. www.texascamelcorps.com

For the most laid-back sight-seeing of all, Big Bend visitors can take a relaxing float trip down the lazy Rio Grande River. When the river is flowing after the rainy season, white water rafting is also available.

Other Regions
While exploring along the Rio Grande and Gulf Coast could easily fill several vacations for any birder, adventurous family or other eco-tourists, Texas also offers plenty of wild adventures outside of these areas. In the Hill Country of Central Texas, the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo are on display each spring along with other rare songbirds; and fall brings sandhill cranes to the Panhandle region. For more information about birding and other sports and recreation activities in each Texas region, visit www.TravelTex.com.