The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a thin strip of green that runs for 100 miles or so along the Rio Grande River through Mission, McAllen, Weslaco, and ending at the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville and South Padre Island. It’s not really a valley – it’s more like the ancient floodplain of the Rio Grande. Of course these days the river has been penned in by a series of levees and water is removed for irrigation, so there aren’t typically seasonal floods anymore.
Still, the Rio Grande provides life-sustaining water to this otherwise dry region, which is one reason why it is so productive for birds (and for agriculture). There are many places along the Lower Valley that you can walk along the Rio Grande, like this spot in Bentsen State Park.
The birds here are a mix of wintering species who spend the breeding season much further north, and also tropical species from Mexico and Central America who reach the very northern edge of their distribution here. Birds like Green-winged Teal and Cooper’s Hawk can be found at various times throughout much of the US and Canada:
But the Valley also holds many species that are rarely or never found further north, like Least Grebe – the smallest grebe in the world:
Weighing in at only 4 oz, you could put the whole thing on a bun and call it the Quarter-Pounder Grebe Sandwich. People would probably complain, though.
My other favorite Valley birds include some colorful and charismatic ones, like Green Parakeets, Green Jays, and Great Kiskadees:
I also love the many great expanses of nature that have been preserved in the Valley, from small spots like the Frontera Audubon Thicket to much larger tracts like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen State Park. Crossing the rope bridge between the hawk towers at Santa Ana with the tropical forest cloaking me on all sides always makes me feel a little like Indiana Jones.
You can hear the Chachalacas screaming their name at dawn, before they venture out of the brush to say hello. Anyone who has seen both the movie Jurassic Park and also real-life Chachalacas can’t help but notice these little critters behave exactly like mini-Velociraptors.
I’m pretty sure these Chacha’s would tear me to shreds and gobble me up if they could. It’s an interesting reminder that birds are basically the living descendants of the dinosaurs.
Other highlights from my first few days in the Valley include ducks that perch in trees (Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks),
A few rare birds, like this Clay-colored Thrush, the tropical cousin of your backyard American Robin,
Sleeping Yellow-crowned Night-Herons,
And a panoply of cool butterflies and other insects, all of which I remain blissfully ignorant about both their identities and life histories.
Hey, one thing at a time, ok?