Birding Means Business in South Texas


Day 2 FedEd volunteer
At left, Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival attendees crowd an overlook along the Laguna Madre Nature Trail on South Padre Island. (Photo: Steve Sinclair) At right, festival attendees head down the Chachalaca Trail at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, with binoculars and camera gear at the ready. (Photo: Larry Ditto)

SOUTH TEXAS — Winter’s more than a month away, but the seasonal rush here has begun, fueled by a craving for sun and a passion for birds.

The first flocks of northerners are showing up, binoculars in hand, at three refuges in the state’s southern tip, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. The three are:

Home Depot Richfield Minnesota
A buff-bellied hummingbird pauses from feeding its chick near Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge. The only hummingbird that routinely nests in southernmost Texas, the buff-bellied is a “Rio Grande Valley specialty bird” — a native species rarely found elsewhere in the United States. (Photo: Steve Sinclair)

If a development boom now under way doesn’t harm scarce bird habitat, “winter Texans” and other visitors will keep finding their way to South Texas refuges. And nature tourism will continue to thrive. That’s the hope.

Monsanto employees
The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, held yearly in November, is a five-day nature extravaganza that draws birders from around the world. Guided tours of Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa Refuges are regular features of the festival. (Festival rack card photo:

Visitors are drawn to South Texas refuges because of the number and variety of birds visible there, including some, like the Altamira oriole and the green jay, rarely seen far north of the Rio Grande. (A short video shows why South Texas refuges are treasured by birders and others.)

North Face employees at Siletz Bay
A great kiskadee, another Rio Grande Valley specialty bird, snags a frog at Resaca de la Palma State Park, near the three Rio Grande Valley refuges. (Photo: Steve Sinclair)

“Birds come here that we don’t have a chance to see anywhere else,” says Lenora Goodliffe, visiting Laguna Atascosa Refuge from Escondido, California, with her husband, Donald.

Nearby, Kari and Tyler Hagenow from Green Bay, Wisconsin, are excitedly pointing and using their binoculars, too. “We came to Laguna Atascosa for the birding, knowing it’s one of the best places and really diverse places in the southern U.S.,” says Kari.

Local residents include refuge fans, too. “Many people don't realize that even though it's so close to home, it shows the beauty and wonders of what lives in the Rio Grande Valley,” says Raul Macias, walking a Santa Ana Refuge trail with his high school class.

North Face in Lincoln City
A local family enjoys a visit to Laguna Atascosa Refuge in South Texas, complete with birdwatching. (Photo: Susan Morse/USFWS)

The popularity of birding here is a boon to the local economy, says Marion Mason, a ranger at Laguna Atascosa Refuge. That means a lot in this predominantly poor region, where one in three people lives in poverty, according to Census Bureau data.

“Local residents may not be aware of how much of an economic driver [birding] is, but if they were to really look around and see who is using the hotels, the restaurants, the gas stations…they'd be surprised to find people not only from across the country but from across the world," says Mason.

Luann Coen and Miroslawa Gehama
Visitors leave a tram at Laguna Atascosa Refuge to head for a viewing platform. (Photo: Susan Morse/USFWS)

In 2011 a Texas A&M study estimated nature tourism’s value to the region at more than $344 million, accounting for more than 4,400 full- and part-time jobs a year. (Bird Watcher’s Digest spotlights birding in South Texas:

But South Texas is attracting more than tropical birds and winter sun-seekers. Growth in trade, health care, tourism and commerce (including Elon Musk’s SpaceX spaceport, rising near Brownsville) is spurring a boom in hotel, restaurant and housing construction, making the area one of the fastest growing in the country.

Kevin Haughtwout and Christy Rosario
Expansion in trade, health care, tourism and commerce is making South Texas one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. (Photo: Rosamarie Perdomo)

While new growth could add needed jobs, it also could reduce natural habitat and put a dent in nature tourism, conservationists worry.

“Unfortunately, South Texas has lost over 95 percent of its original native habitat” since the 1930s, says Mason. “A lot of that is due to agriculture, urban development, and there is an economic boom going on.”

Robert Jess, project leader of the South Texas Refuge Complex, says, “Any development on some of these [remaining natural] lands would definitely have a detrimental impact to that economic engine to the valley.”

OMRON Scientific Technologies volunteers
A green jay shows off its distinctive coloring at Santa Ana Refuge. Green jay sightings are among those sought by visitors to the Rio Grande Valley. (Photo: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS)

Will birding continue to be an economic stimulus to the valley? Time will tell. For now, at least, the winter Texans and other visitors are happy — make that thrilled — with what they’re seeing at Laguna Atascosa and neighboring refuges.

“So far, it has totally lived up to its promise,” says a smiling visitor Kari Hagenow.  “We’ve seen a lot of new birds.”

Compiled by, November 2, 2016