Free-Wheeling Flight: Bird Viewing in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley

Bird watchers will rejoice at the bird viewing opportunities.
The Green Jay is the official bird of McAllen, Texas.

As an avid birder and the chair of the 2005 Texas Tropics Nature Festival, Ron Smith is quick to sing the praises of the McAllen region, in Texas’ Rio Grand Valley. In fact, I had a hard time keeping up with him as he rattled off accessible birding sites, boardwalks, trails, blinds and even a hawk-viewing tower in the area. Ron is a true expert on local access, as he’s been rolling along South Texas birding trails for many years.

But the Rio Grande Valley wasn’t always as accessible as it is today. Enter the World Birding Center (WBC), a network of nine birding sites dotted along 120 miles (193 km) of south Texas river roads.

As the sites were developed, accessible trails, viewing platforms, blinds, boardwalks and interpretive centers were added. As a result, the Rio Grande Valley is an excellent vacation destination for wheelchair users and slow walkers who enjoy nature, wildlife and the great outdoors.

Because of its central location, McAllen, population 106,000, makes an ideal home base for a south Texas birding tour. As the largest city in the area, it has the biggest airport and a wide variety of lodging options; plus it’s just a short drive away from all the WBC sites.

McAllen is also home to Quinta Mazatlan, the newest WBC site. The centerpiece of this urban oasis is a 10,000-square-foot (929 km²) hacienda that has been lovingly restored to its former grandeur.

Built in 1935, the mansion features adobe walls, beamed ceilings and tile murals. Wide doorways and good pathway access made the building a good candidate for access retrofits, so ramp access was added to the front entrance during the renovation. The mansion is now used as a conference center.

The real charm of this site, however, lies in the 15 acres (0.06 km²) of woodland surrounding the estate. Level pathways lead around the property, where black-bellied whistling ducks and plain chachalacas, medium-sized, turkey-like birds, are frequent visitors, while food and water stations attract more than 100 bird species.

The official headquarters for the WBC is located just 7 miles (11 km) northwest of McAllen, at Bentsen State Park. Private vehicles are not allowed in the park, however a wheelchair-accessible tram makes a loop through the park every half hour. The tram features ramp access in the back, and although there are no tie downs, it can accommodate a large number of wheelchair users.

Highlights of the park include the Green Jay blind (where you’ll find javelinas, small wild hogs, at dusk) and the Hawk observation tower. The Green Jay blind features ramp access with wheelchair-height viewing slots, while the 210-foot-high (64 m) Hawk observation tower has ramped access to the top, level areas every 30 feet (9 m) and unobstructed wheelchair-height sight lines. They’re both very nicely done.

For a look at a different type of habitat, head on over to Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, the first WBC to open its doors, in March 2003. The accessible interpretive center features floor-to-ceiling windows with wheelchair-height scopes aimed at the adjacent wetlands.

Outside there are level, crushed-gravel trails to the boardwalk overlook and Dragon Pond, both only a short distance away. From the boardwalk overlook you can spot a variety of ducks on the lake, and probably a few snakes and turtles, too.

The hawk viewing tower is the perfect place to bird watch.
Visitors can enjoy the view from the wheelchair-accessible hawk viewing tower at Bensten State Park.

The 2 1/2 miles (4 km) of trails around the complex are doable for most wheelchair users in dry weather, however they can be problematic after a rain. If you’d like to tour the whole complex but don’t think you can manage the distance, call ahead and make arrangements for a golf-cart tour. There’s no charge for this service, and it’s a very accessible way to get a look at the entire site.

Finally, if you want to get a good look at a wide variety of shorebirds, plus some colorful migrants, head to the Laguna Madre Nature Trail on South Padre Island. Located about 75 miles (120 km) east of McAllen, the island is the first landfall for birds making the difficult cross-Gulf migration.

The 1,500-foot (457 m) trail, a boardwalk, overlooks 4 acres (0.016 km²) of wetlands near the South Padre Island Convention Center. With level access, it’s a good choice for wheelchair users or slow walkers. A covered shelter at the end of the boardwalk is a good place to enjoy the sunset. Plans for expansion of this WBC site are in the works.

A butterfly garden next to the convention center attracts some colorful migrants. I was thrilled to spot an indigo bunting and a summer tanager after spending just a few minutes in this small garden. It was a great way to top off my south Texas birding tour.

If You Go

World Birding Center


McAllen Chamber of Commerce


South Padre Island Tourism