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With a chill still hanging in air and the morning sunlight filtering through the trees, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center naturalist Roy Rodriguez looks around for stragglers to a bi-weekly guided tour.
As a couple walks by the group that has already settled into the electric tram at the park entrance, Rodriguez, dressed in his olive green uniform, cups his hands over his mouth and hollers, “Are you all going on a bird walk?”
Yes, but they pass on the ride. They’ve got their dog with them, and it’s a short walk to the first birding station anyway.
Satisfied that all are aboard, Rodriguez kicks the vehicle into drive. The bird walk will take visitors once around the park’s circular trail with a stop at the nature center, a lake and a hawk tower.
“I will be pointing out every bird we see,” he promises, starting with a nearby gray-tailed grackle.
Located a few miles south of Mission, the calm nature scenery seems worlds away from the bustle of Expressway 83 and rows of strip malls just beyond.
The park’s patronage was almost exclusively tourists 10 years ago, but things like school groups that visit for field trips and offering bilingual and Spanish programs has helped attract more Valleyites, Rodriguez said. That’s good for the community and the park.
“The locals are coming out, the family, the kids, the raza, grandma,” he said. “Kids and families coming has changed the perception of the value of wildlife. We’ve seen the change.”
The park hopes to get more of the public out when it celebrates its 50th anniversary tomorrow. Admission will be free from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
At the first stop on the bird walk, outside the park’s nature center that once served as its headquarters, Rodriguez sets up a telescope. Feeding stations on either side of a covered picnic area are alive with a flurry of fowl.
Green jays dominate a platform feeder, their blue heads bobbing up and down as they peck at seeds. Golden-fronted woodpecker and others compete for a spot on a peanut butter-smeared log, which swings slightly as birds hop on nibble on its treat before flitting away.
“Because this feeding station has been active for over 14 years, the birds here are rather tame,” Rodriguez explains. “They don’t mind the traffic, the bicycles, the dogs, the noise. They’ll come from far and wide to take advantage of this and not fight so much about territory as they do in the springtime.”
Birders keep their binoculars at the ready for an Altamira oriole, known by its bright orange and black plumage, that flew off just before the group parked. Rodriguez points out white-tipped doves and several chachalacas that have gathered at the feeders, easily transitioning between facts about the park’s 50-year history and the 527 bird species the Rio Grande Valley attracts.
“On the copper feeder on the right, you see a little bird on there? It came and it hit and it split,” he said. “This is black-crested titmouse. You see a little gray guy sneaking in, focus on the feeder because he’s just going to land there for a second and take a seed.”
He points out a chocolate-colored white-tipped dove, one that has too much brown pigment.
“If it’s a male, I don’t think the chicks dig it,” Rodriguez said. “Remember, in nature the females choose which characteristics get handed down. They say this is the way I want him to look, this is how I want him to dance, that’s the song I want him to sing.
“In nature, females are rather strict, and guys have to be perfect. Thank God female humans are much more forgiving,” he said, earning a round of laughter from the birders.
If cardinals or horn larks seem to be brighter in the Valley, that’s because they are, Rodriguez said. There are around 30 species of birds that are special to South Texas because they’re different races of fowl found elsewhere.
“They’re races of birds that are not only more colorful, they’re a little different. They start breeding earlier or they have a different repertoire,” he said.” You’ll hear it (sing) and you’ll say no way, that’s not what I thought it was. Not just because they’re out of place and you’re away from home. They truly are different.”
As Rodriguez prepares to move the group to a nearby lake, a bird sighting turns all attention back to the trees.
“There it comes, above the feeder,” he says excitedly. “Clay-colored thrush. This is a good one. This is some money right here, guys.”
More Than Just Birds
Back in the visitors center – where patrons can pay their entry fee, pick up a map or peruse souvenirs – David Rodriguez sees new faces every day from his position behind the counter.
Despite Bentsen State Park’s half-century in operation as home to a wide array of flora, fauna and fowl, Rodriguez said he routinely meets first-time visitors who say they have lived in the Valley their entire lives – some only a few miles away – but never knew the park existed.
While tourists flock to Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park for butterflies and bird watching, he said locals typically come out for the hiking, biking trails, getting a view of the river and to see large mammals like bobcats and javelinas. The park has two bird blinds, which can be used for those who want to stay put for a glimpse or snapping photos of wildlife. Some parts of the trails are also currently being resurfaced to meet ADA standards, which will make them accessible to people with wheelchairs and strollers.
For his part, Rodriguez said his favorite thing about the park is the hiking trails.
“You get to go out there and see the thick brush of the Valley, what it was like before all the agriculture, all the big fields,” he said. “It’s peaceful out there. If you want to hear the sounds of nature or if you have a Walkman and want to listen to your own music, it’s peaceful going out there.”
The visitors center can give park patrons information about the wildlife that has been recently spotted in the area, check in campers and let fishers know what they can expect to find in the lake. Rodriguez said people often want to know whether the park is safe, especially given its proximity to the border.
“We’ve never had any trouble,” he said. “Going on 11 years that I’ve worked here, there’s never been any problems with illegals. People leave their bikes unchained at the Rio Grande hiking trail … At the camp ground, they leave their binoculars and everything unattended, and nothing’s ever been stolen here, from the parking lot to the Rio Grande Trail.”
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