Urban Bird Sanctuary: Go Chachalaca!

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    The McAllen area attracts birdwatchers from around the world. Photo by Rob Tierney

    Since the railroad’s arrival in 1904 sparked development in McAllen, the Texas town’s economy has been tied to agriculture, oil strikes and an international bridge to Mexico. But McAllen and its neighboring border towns are staking their future on a greener, loftier activity that research indicates is the fastest-growing hobby: birdwatching.

    Located in the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen’s subtropical climate attracts an incredible diversity of birds. But these winged beauties cannot be taken for granted. Development along the U.S.-Mexico border for housing, industries and roads has led to fragmentation and loss of habitat vital to nesting and migratory birds and other animals. In response, citizens, government and business leaders, who realize the ecotourism potential, have taken action to conserve and restore wildlife habitat. Coalitions have formed, from Friends of the Wildlife Corridor to Our Texas Wild.

    Green Parakeets nesting at The Bird’s Nest B&B. Photo by Rhonda Gomez

    A huge accomplishment is the creation of the World Birding Center network of nine distinctive birding sites along a 120-mile historic river road from Roma to South Padre Island. Habitats range from dry chaparral brush to lush riverside thickets to freshwater marshes and coastal wetlands. Headquartered at Bentsen/Rio Grande State Park in Mission, just west of McAllen, the WBC boosts the Rio Grande Valley’s appeal as a worldwide birding destination while providing a global model for conservation.

    Meandering trails at Quinta Mazatlan. Photo by Rob Tierney

    To reduce my carbon footprint and experience the region’s natural wonders windshield-free, I secured a bike from Wally’s Bike Shop, Wally Alaniz’s contribution to deepening McAllen’s green commitment. I stayed at the Bird’s Nest, home and backyard bird paradise of dedicated avian advocates Rhonda and Oscar Gomez in the center of McAllen. Right after unpacking I spotted three Yellow-crowned Night herons.

    My several days of birding by bike included pedaling an hour southwest to Bentsen. State park volunteer Del Zander pointed out Broad-winged Hawks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Green Jays and Altamira Orioles, which make odd hanging nests resembling droopy bags. Another day, I pedaled a round-about 90-minute route southeast to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

    But right in McAllen on the south side of town is Quinta Mazatlan, one of the nine World Birding Centers. It’s a wonderful example of creative adaptive reuse as well as natural landscaping that attracts and nourishes birds, butterflies and other animals native to the region.

    “Caterpillar Caretaker” Mary Thorne at Quinta Mazatlan. Photo by Rob Tierney

    Located next to a green-lawned golf course, Quinta Mazatlan’s 15 acres ribboned with trails began as a 1930s country estate that McAllen’s government bought at auction. The handsome Spanish Revival adobe hacienda houses displays and offices. A new sustainable indoor-outdoor space, the Discovery Center, recently opened for educational activities and events (LEEDcertification pending).

    You can easily forget this urban oasis is in a bustling city; its wild Tamaulipan thorn forest is supplemented by a water garden designed by local hero Allen Williams, whose company Williams Wildscapes specializes in natural landscaping that attracts migrating and native birds. Between its grounds, guidance in how to attract birds to backyards, and events such as Vida Verde in April, the biggest green festival in South Texas, Quinta Mazatlan demonstrates the rewards of working with nature.

    Red-winged Blackbirds are among the area’s migrators. Photo by Rhonda Gomez

    Quinta Mazatlan attracts “Valley specialties” seen only in this area: Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, Great Kiskadees and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds. It also attracts butterflies which I saw in abundance while meandering the trails with “Caterpillar Caregiver” Mary Thorne. People, she says, are beginning to realize the cascade of death triggered by pesticides – and the need to protect bees, birds, bats and other pollinators so vital to our food supply.

    We pass brilliant red Turks Cap blooms that attract hummingbirds, the native Sabal palms and Ehretia anacua, trees whose sandpaper-like leaves grip rainwater. Dead palms are recycled condos; woodpeckers drill holes, and when they vacate, opportunistic cavity nesters move in. Along the walkway, Mexican blue-wings flutter by and sculptures of native animals, including ocelot and nearly extinct jaguarundi invite passersby to touch.

    Quinta Mazatlan’s peaceful life-filled beauty clearly beats manicured grounds that need to be mowed and blown. “Why choose oleanders, which are poisonous to our wildlife?” says director Colleen Hooker, who suggests home landscapers to go local, go native and go to independent landscape specialists for plants instead of chain stores. She points to a demo landscape at the center. “Why not fiddlewood bushes that attract and support wildlife, form a natural hedge and are just as pretty?”

    Wildscape expert Allen Williams is helping the McAllen region restore bird habitat. Photo by R. Tierney

    This urban wildlife sanctuary filled with glorious native flora and fauna is achieving its mission: to inspire visitors to restore native habitat one backyard at a time. Want to go nature-spotting in a small town transformed into a world-class birdwatching haven? Check out information at Explore McAllen and McAllen’s Texas Tropics website.

    Approaching Quinta Mazatlan, an estate turned into an urban bird sanctuary. Photo by R. Tierney