The Birding Drive
By Patricia Sharpe
ROUTE: Mission to South Padre Island
DISTANCE: 89 miles
NUMBER OF COUNTIES: 2
WHAT TO READ: David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Guide to Birds
Hugging the U.S.-Mexico border in far South Texas, the sultry stretch of land known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley is the Casablanca of the bird world. Sooner or later all of the usual—and some very unusual—suspects end up here. Want to see a green jay, which looks as though it has been dunked in a bucket of chartreuse paint? No problem. What about a black-and-orange Altamira oriole, which wears a Halloween costume year-round? Easy. Species from Mexico and Central America find the Valley’s subtropical climate very much to their liking, and U.S. and Canadian birds take time out here for R&R during their marathon migrations.
Happily, seeing some of the five hundred species that live or visit here is a breeze because many top sites lie just off U.S. 83. And though I saw my fair share of fast-food joints and trailer parks, what I remember most about the scenery are the palm trees and bougainvillea that dot the route.
Begin your trek near Mission at the sprawling Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park. This oasis is part of the World Birding Center, a fantastic group of nine government-sponsored sites spread across the area. Right off the bat, I saw a great kiskadee, a flycatcher with a black-and-white mask and bright-yellow vest. As it turns out, the mammal-watching isn’t too shabby either. I joined forces with a couple from Wisconsin, and the three of us waited patiently for a bobcat, javelina, or coyote to cross the trail as daylight faded.
Just a mile away is the National Butterfly Center, where more than two hundred species of butterflies have been sighted. Kids love the green ravine called the Hackberry Trail that forms a sort of leafy secret tunnel. At the end of it is a clearing where multiple bird feeders and slices of fresh orange guarantee you’ll see something fun, like a flock of red-winged blackbirds or maybe some zebra butterflies. For a change of pace, from there I headed eleven miles east to a WBC site in McAllen called Quinta Mazatlan, a lovely Mexican colonial–style house encircled with walking paths and well-kept lawns. There I was startled by a whole flock of chachalacas, big,