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Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas

November 9, 2010

When my plane lands in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas on November 10, I think I’ll pause at the cabin door, wave my hat in the air, and skip down the ramp. This will be my second year attending the Rio Grande Valley Birding & Nature Festival, a celebration of the unique birds and wildlife in the southernmost counties of Texas. Last year’s festival provided a fantastic—though brief—taste of the region’s subtropical specialties, so I am eager to tour the area a second time.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is located at an ecological crossroads, where subtropical climate, Gulf Coast, Great Plains and Chihuahuan desert meet. As such, the habitat is like nowhere else in the United States. The valley was once covered with expansive tracts of mesquite-grasslands and subtropical, semi-arid Tamaulipan thornscrub. Sadly, only 5% of that original habitat remains, but the festival provides an opportunity to visit critical remnants scattered throughout numerous preserves, state parks, and refuges.

Besides being home to unique animals such the endangered ocelot, jaguarundi, and the Texas indigo snake, the area also attracts more than 400 species of birds—including thirty species found nowhere else in the United States. Birders comb the grasslands, thornscrub, and riparian wetlands hoping to encounter birds such as Great Kiskadee, Plain Chachalaca, Ringed Kingfisher, Aplomado Falcon, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Least Grebe, Hook-billed Kite, Common Pauraque, Altamira Oriole, Audubon’s Oriole, Black-crested Titmouse, Olive Sparrow, and Masked Duck. Even the more widespread birds such as Vermilion Flycatcher and Reddish Egret make the valley interesting. Migration is quite the spectacle as birds from the Central and Mississippi flyways funnel through the area on their way to and from Central and South America.

A visit to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (pictured above) is in order for any visit to the valley. The refuge is a premier wildlife destination where it’s possible to see not only 400 species of birds, ocelots, and indigo snakes—but half of all butterfly species found in North America!

Santa Ana is where I saw my life Vermilion Flycatcher, Audubon’s Oriole, Least Grebe, and a well-camouflaged pauraque last fall. And though Aplomado falcon proved itself especially difficult to find, as it often does, that bird and all the other possibilities in the valley give me plenty of reason to return to this slice of subtropical heaven just north of the border.

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