In southern Texas it was very easy to be bitten by the bird watching bug, particularly at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. We’ve always enjoyed watching birds at our feeders in our backyard but during our stay we had an opportunity to see birds that we’ve never seen before making this activity so much more exciting and fun.
It was easy spotting the real die hard birders by the powerful binoculars, long zoom cameras, tripods and log books, or by hearing them referring to a bird by their scientific names. A common joke at the park was that if you don’t wear binoculars to bed then you are not a true bird watcher. Will that ever be us? Most likely not but even for us amateurs it was awesome seeing several species of birds for the first time that are only found in Texas. Now our bucket list includes visiting the other nine unique World Birding Center migration locations in Southern Texas.
With the free pass to the State Park we picked up at the office, and after stopping at the Visitor Center to get our wristbands, we took the free shuttle tram which runs daily between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. every hour on the half hour. Hop on and off or do what we did on our first visit, stay on and ride the entire route just to get familiar with the lay of the land.
It is also well worth visiting the World Birding Center buildings next to the Visitor Center where numerous informative displays and exhibits about the birds in the park and their migratory paths are on display. We learned that Texas is a critical crossroads for many bird species as they wing south to wintering grounds and then back north again via the central migratory flyway. And we didn’t know that “the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth with more than 525 species documented in this unique place. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park alone has an impressive list of 358 species recorded within the park’s boundaries.”
In addition the free shuttle tram, the park also offers a free 1-1/2 hour guided shuttle tour (check the Park’s website for dates/times) which is very interesting, providing information about the history of the park and the area, pointing out the various birds and reptiles that are indigenous to the area. Roy, one of the park’s Naturalists was our tour guide – he was wonderful, very friendly and so eager to share his knowledge. Don’t worry if you don’t have binoculars to view the reptiles and birds, they are provided during the tour. Since we were in the area before the arrival of peak season, we were the only people on the tour the day we took it.
To attract a variety of birds, numerous feeding stations are located around the park and are filled each morning starting at 8:30 a.m. by volunteers. Several times during our stay we rode our bikes to the park before 8:30 a.m., stopping at the various stations to watch the strikingly colored green jays, the raucus chachalacas, the boisterous bright yellow and black kiskadees and other birds enjoying their morning breakfast. Although we never saw them, the Altamire Oriole and the Buff-bellied Hummingbird are also frequent visitord here. At one of the several bird blinds, we quietly observed not only the birds but several javalinas foraging for leftover seeds on the ground. That was so cool!!
A two-story high Hawk Observation Tower, which is described on the State Park website as a “210-foot-long wheelchair-accessible ramp that gives visitors a bird’s-eye view of the canopy as well as a peek into Mexico” was a must see. From the park road (there is a tram stop at the tower), it is about a tenth of a mile walk to the tower. Nice structure and a great view, but darn, we only saw a turkey buzzard or two soaring in the skies. No hawks in sight. We learned from one of the park naturalists that the best time to see them is during the spring and the fall.
How can you love birds and not love butterflies? When we arrived here, we didn’t know that nearly 150 species of North American butterflies can be seen only in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) of Texas or by traveling to Mexico. And one of the best ways to see them is to visit the Butterfly Center located less than a mile from the resort and the State Park.
Now we’ve been to butterfly conservatories in our travels over the years but the butterflies were always enclosed in the facilities and were not naturally occurring in the area. Not so here – they are totally free roaming, attracted to the center only by the plants and shrubs planted in the gardens.
Although the resort usually offers free passes to the Butterfly Center, they weren’t available during our visit so we had to pay the $10 entrance fee. As we paid the fee and obtained a map, the gentleman at the desk gave us a verbal overview of the gardens explaining what types of butterflies we would see during this time of year. He also warned that repellent would be needed because of the skeeters (they sell insect repellent there) to walk along the Hackberry Trail. Numerous displays explained the anatomy of butterflies, their behavior, mating habits, feeding as well as their life cycle.
Besides the nourishment provided to the butterflies by the plants, log feeders are smeared with a Banana Brew made up of liquefied bananas, brown sugar and dark beer. Yummy! Wonder if the beer makes them fly in a drunken zig zag!
Oh my, as soon as we walked out the door near the first garden, butterflies were everywhere. Big, tiny. Yellow, orange, blue, pinkish, brown, black. Spotted, speckled, plain. You name it, they were there. “Hold still! Hold still! I want to take your picture!!” I thought silently as I frantically snapped photos on my phone. Of course, they didn’t, they just continued to flit from one plant to another. Tough capturing their beauty and even tougher figuring out what photos to post.
Butterflies are not the only creatures living at the Center. Spike, an 11 year old, 100 pound giant African Spurred Tortoise, is also a resident. He’s pretty young – these tortoises can live to be 100 years old. Why does he reside at the Butterfly Center? Apparently he was abandoned after 10 years because his owner, a young boy, went to college. Spike was picked up by Animal Control and eventually was given to the Center where he is living happily ever after. Guess he thought we were going to feed him, he followed us as we walked along the edge of his cage. Pretty cute!
Despite the fact that many of the flowers and shrubs were not in bloom, the number of butterflies that we saw was remarkable. I can only imagine what it must be like when all the flowers and shrubs are in bloom. Hopefully someday we’ll return.
We had one more sightseeing trip, one that doesn’t involve nature, planned before our departure. Coming soon!