Yes, we realize that everything we did in the Rio Grande Valley was an adventure in travel and tourism. But there were places we visited and things we did that don’t fall neatly into any one category of our trip.
Photo Ranches: Wildife in the Viewfinder
When Beto Gutierrez bought 300 acres of South Texas native brushland near Edinburg in 2008, he had no idea what to do with it. A brief attempt at raising 50 steers convinced him that he was not cut out to be a cattleman. However, he loved photographing wildlife on the property, so Gutierrez, guided by biologists and professional photographers and motivated by the increasing popularity in birding and wildlife watching, turned the property into a photo ranch — and found a virtual gold mine.
Gutierrez discovered that his little piece of Texas was not only prime habitat for a large number of South Texas mammals and birds, but also many subtropical species from Mexico, which range north into the Rio Grande Valley. Much of the concentration of wildlife on the property is due to the fact that more than 95 percent of the original South Texas brushland has been lost to agriculture since the 1930s, so the remaining pockets of habitat are magnets for the species that depend on them.
With the assistance of photographers Larry Ditto and Hector Astorga, various types of photo blinds were designed and constructed around water sites, enabling photographers to capture close-up, eye-level images of the variety of creatures that show up to quench their thirst or to just greet the day.
The ranch’s blinds are considered either “morning” blinds or “evening” blinds, depending on the orientation to the rising and setting sun. Strategically placed tree branches provide perches and optimum views of birds. The ground-level blinds have insulated roofs and carpet-lined floors and can accommodate a half-dozen photographers and guides. Gutierrez’s idea did pay off — his Santa Clara Ranch now hosts more than 300 photographers per year.
Other ranches across the state have added additional income streams such as hunting and wildlife watching to the traditional livestock-only business model. Owners have found that plenty of folks will pay to “hunt” with a camera or just binoculars. Some ranches, like the Santa Clara, are restricted to photography and birding; no hunting allowed.
The Rio Grande Valley has become a prime destination for photographers, birders and other wildlife watchers from around the world, not only because of the variety of species to be found but because of the sheer number of public locations for viewing wildlife such as local, state and national sanctuaries.
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center
South Padre Island
Even if the place wasn’t teeming with gorgeous birds and butterflies, there would be only one word to describe the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center — beauty. Blindingly white railings swirl up the three-story tower of the main building and stretch out around a half-mile boardwalk loop that extends over the sparkling Laguna Madre. Shady, inviting bird blinds along the loop offer photographic opportunities that make me and my companions — photographer Cat Groth and artist Clemente Guzman — nearly swoon with excitement.
My birding goal for this Valley trip is to see the roseate spoonbill, that gregarious pink wading bird, and this lovely boardwalk is where I hope to put the red-legged wonder on my life list. But that dream pales in comparison to great blue herons landing on the railing and allowing me to creep ever closer till I can almost reach out to touch them. Stilts and curlews, egrets and gallinules, ibises and pelicans keep our camera shutter clicking all along the route. We hunt for the resident alligators at the Cattail Marsh, spying one asleep in the shade.
We cool off inside the enticing gift shop, where we learn about an upcoming monarch festival that gets the whole island involved each October. Turns out we’ve missed the magnificent butterfly garden while mesmerized by the birds.
We spot a book featuring Clemente’s illustrations, and I can’t resist sharing my pride in my co-worker by showing it around. Clemente obligingly autographs a few, and then we wander through the rest of the facility, enjoying interactive exhibits and the view from the top.
While the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is a premier destination on its own, the opening of the new Sea Turtle Inc. facility next door makes this a must-see area for all wildlife lovers. LB
Gladys Porter Zoo
You may think it unlikely that a nationwide chain of department stores would have much to do with a South Texas zoo, but you’d be wrong. The Gladys Porter Zoo, Brownsville’s 31-acre facility, owes much to former J.C. Penney President Earl Sams. The foundation established by Sams provided initial funding for the zoo, and the dedication and vision of his daughter, Gladys Porter, brought the zoo to life in 1971.
Today the zoo features meandering paths through inventive exhibits housing more than 400 species from around the globe. As visitors stop to admire a preening giraffe, reach out to touch curious cownose rays and laugh at the gamboling of a juvenile orangutan, it is easy to forget that the heart of the zoo is an amazing conservation program.
The zoo participates in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plan, ensuring the continued existence of endangered wildlife species. Currently the zoo is involved in research into the genetic fingerprints of captive Galapagos tortoises, works with the Philippine government to reclaim native habitat for Philippine crocodiles and assists the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with projects relating to ocelot monitoring and preservation in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Almost a half-century after it opened, the Gladys Porter Zoo continues to delight visitors and protect the diverse animal species that inhabit the globe.
Brownsville: On the Trail to Better Health
In a city known as one of the least healthy places in America, Brownsville leaders are embarking on an ambitious plan to get residents up and moving and to get outside.
Three or four times a year, Brownsville closes off several downtown streets and invites residents to ride their bikes in a place normally dominated by cars. Up to 10,000 show up for the CycloBia events.
A popular bike path created from an old rail line takes cyclists from the city center to the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park nine miles away. The city regularly adds bike lanes to streets and has plans for more dedicated bike trails; its goal is to have a trail within a half-mile of every home in the city.
A countywide Active Plan aims to create a 428-mile network of hike-and-bike trails, bike lanes and paddling trails connecting the region’s unique cultural and natural attractions.
“Name one vibrant city that’s filled with sick people,” City Commissioner Rose Gowen says. “There are none. We’re trying to build that place that everyone wants to be — a vibrant hub for the Valley.”
Gowen, who is also a medical doctor, and others in the city got busy after a University of Texas study showed that 80 percent of Brownsville residents were overweight or obese and more than 30 percent were diabetic. Organizers started by creating a farmers market. They initiated an annual citywide weight-loss challenge and started building trails. The 1-mile Belden Trail, a dedicated bike trail built in 2013, connects schools and parks in West Brownsville and provides a route downtown. The trail was a milestone for the city and is intended to serve as a model for other neighborhoods.
For Gowen, bikes are a key to unlocking a better future for her city.
“We see the bike as a tool, not just a toy,” she says. “It’s a tool for better health. It’s a tool for better transportation. It’s a tool for generating new money and new jobs.”
Eva Garcia, who works for the City of Brownsville and runs the Bike Barn, where kids can put in work hours to earn a bike, says she’s seen a difference around town.
“First you saw more cyclists, and then you saw more of everything else,” she says. “Now there are yoga classes, kayak rentals, stand-up paddleboard classes.”
The turning point for her, she says, came when she saw her elderly grandparents doing yoga at the farmers market.
In Brownsville, the trails aren’t just for recreation. In a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, they also provide a much-needed way for low-income workers to get around town without a car.
“In many cities, poor people who don’t have any option but to walk or ride a bike aren’t really recognized,” Gowen says. “We want to make sure they’re included in everything we do. When you empower them to move around the city, you raise their self-esteem and their options. We feel that’s all very important.”
Lower Laguna Madre
Stanford Knowles welcomes us aboard his shallow water flats boat, and before you know it, we’re skimming the surface through the Arroyo Colorado toward the Lower Laguna Madre.
The dredged channel is clearly defined; the original river path veers to the north, where it ends in a mud flat. It’s early morning, and we are heading to Green Island, our first stop, to catch the ideal light for photography.
Leased by the Audubon Society since the early 1920s, Green Island is a sanctuary for many species of nesting birds. The birds nest safely here because of the island’s location between the mainland and South Padre Island. However, coyotes still make their way to the 100-acre island at times, Knowles says.
After taking some photographs, we head south toward South Padre Island, but we stop along the way to view Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge from the water. With the refuge’s popular Bayside Drive closed to vehicles to protect ocelots, our vantage point proves much easier than hiking 8 or 9 miles to the water on a 100-degree day.
In December, a quarter-million redhead ducks will occupy this area — estimates suggest 80 percent of North America’s redheads winter here.
You can’t come to the Lower Laguna Madre and not fish, even if it is only for a few casts. While we were moving about for photographs, we were seeing cruising redfish and speckled trout “slicks” — smooth water spots easily seen on the surface when there are light ripples. (As they consume their prey, trout regurgitate digestive oils, which rise to the surface — forming a slick. The odor coming from the slick smells like watermelon or a recently cut lawn.)
We learn valuable tips for fishing here from Knowles. “You hunt for reds, but you fish for trout.” In other words, you often spot reds in extremely shallow water, only a few inches deep. Trout, on the other hand, may be found 3 feet deep.
The prevailing wind is from the south, and we set to drift with the wind. The boat is pushed along by a mild breeze, and we cover a lot of water while casting out in front of the boat.
The setup is pretty simple: A spinning rod/reel spooled with braid tied to a 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Add a shad or baitfish-shaped artificial plastic on an eighth-ounce open jig head, and you’re ready to catch fish. The eighth-ounce head is heavy enough to get some distance but light enough to fish over the top of the grass without hanging up (much) and to fish slow enough to entice a bite.
Knowles laments that the lure manufacturer’s color scheme we are using isn’t in standard production anymore, so he judiciously allots them. Luckily, we don’t lose any.
We catch both reds and trout on the same gear. We also attempt to catch some flounder on the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway channel by pitching to some abandoned fish shacks in about 10 feet of water. The flounder aren’t responding, however.
The morning goes by way too quickly. After sightseeing, birding, fishing and photographing in the Lower Laguna Madre, we can’t wait to return.