Nestled in an eco wonderland, McAllen is paradise for expert, amateur or first-time birders.
It’s a phrase tossed around a lot: Everything’s bigger in Texas. And while the sheer enormity of its geographical area—close to the size of Europe—may be one reason why Texans take great pride in what their state offers, there are many things that just are bigger in the Lone Star State.
At the southern tip of Texas, in the Rio Grand Valley, lies McAllen—a bustling metropolis on the Rio Grande that offers much in the way of its heritage for visitors to enjoy—arts, food and history. But McAllen is also known as a birding mecca, where even amateur birders can score sightings that might include everything from the Great Kiskadee, a boisterous bird with a distinctive kis-ka-dee call, to all varieties of herons, egrets and hawks.
In fact, even the most casual bird-watching enthusiast can spot any number of feathered creatures that swoop, call and dive in a region that attracts nearly 540 species annually. Gorgeous metallic olive-green buff-bellied hummingbirds? Check. Plain chachalacas, large chicken-like birds that nest in palm trees and emit a raucous cha-cha-lac call? You bet. Costa Rica’s national bird, the clay-colored thrush with its low-pitched song? Add that one to your Life List—that is, if you’re keeping track of all the bird species you’ve identified during birding.
People who haven’t been introduced to the pleasures of birding often find that the bug bites them when visiting McAllen. Identifying look-alike species and subspecies, myriad plumage states and becoming intimately familiar with calls and habits is part of building a Life List—and if you start that list while in McAllen, you’re guaranteed to spy dozens and dozens in native woodlands and reserves.
Ecotourism is big business in McAllen—also known as the Texas Tropics—where each year more than 125,000 eco-tourists migrate in and out of the area, binoculars and guidebooks in hand, visiting one of the unique nine branches of the World Birding Center in the Rio Grande Valley. The Center is a collaboration of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and nine Rio Grande Valley communities and comprises approximately 100,000 acres stretching from Roma, through McAllen to South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico.
Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, the first arm of the World Birding Center, opened in March 2003. A lush 40-acre oasis in the middle of a busy urban landscape, you can view birds such as the Vermillion flycatcher, yellow-crowned night heron and loggerhead shrike and butterflies and other water-loving creatures. Explore winding paths, observe from waterside platforms and learn why wetlands are an environmental necessity, have economic value and add natural beauty to the area.
Or the 760-acre Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (headquarters of the World Birding Center) where more than 325 species have been seen from birding blinds. The Quinta Mazatlan, a 1930s estate in the Spanish Revival style, is an urban oasis with serene trails winding through more than 15 acres of rich birding habitat. The quaint Old Hildalgo Pump House, another wing of the World Birding Center, boasts hummingbird gardens and counts among its visitors hundreds of species, such as the bright yellow-orange Altamira oriole, green and ringed tropical kingfishers and the clay-colored robin.
There’s the 2,088-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, characterized not only by its biological diversity but also by its concentration of bird specifies. Marvel at the Spanish moss dripping from trees in addition to the natural inhabitants of the refuge managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
McAllen offers more than natural adventures—add to an itinerary stops at the Museum of South Texas History, the International Museum of Art and History, a Smithsonian affiliate, or Nuevo Santander Gallery in Olde Town that provides an intimate overview of art of the Spanish Colonial and Old West periods in the Rio Grande Valley.
There’s a generous serving of culinary exploration to satisfy a McAllen visitor’s palate, too, from authentic tamales at Delia’s to the modern, locally sourced menu at Salt New American Table where award-winning Texas Chef Larry Delgado (he and his wife, Jessica, also own House. Wine. & Bistro) has developed a cult following for his innovative cuisine.
Shopping abounds in McAllen—from the sprawling 1.2 million-square-foot La Plaza Mall that has upscale and mainstream retailers to the historic Main Street Shopping District lined with an eclectic mix of stores and boutiques.
But one thing is certain about a visit to McAllen, Texas, and the beautiful Rio Grande Valley: Even if you don’t come for the birds, they’re bound to find you.
For more information and tips on planning your trip to McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley, visit McAllenCVB.com.