Springtime in the RGV: Spring Chirp
The Rio Grande Valley (the Valley) is a legendary birding hotspot for birders across the world. You can easily become jaded with the Great Kiskadees, Green Jays, and Altamira Orioles after only a few days of exploring the parks because, at times, they are abundant and in your face. The tastes, smells, sights, sounds (but not touch…because most of the plants are pokey) of the Valley fills your senses as you jump off the tiny plane at Valley International Airport and puts you in the vacation mindset. The Valley is an incredible place to explore on your own, with a guide, or by attending a festival. Most birders will have heard of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival before, which takes place each November, but few may have heard of the more intimate Spring Chirp.
Based from Weslaco’s Valley Nature Center, the Spring Chirp is a boutique festival that creates a guided tour feel without the hassle of moving from lodge to lodge. Weslaco is an ideal homebase for this festival as it is about halfway between the far reaches of east and west birding destinations and close enough to Nana’s Taqueria for afternoon lonches (essentially a fried bread taco with your choice of meat) and Mexican coke.
I have been to many birding festivals, but none that would be considered ‘boutique’. Most festivals that I have been to have over 250 birders in attendance and focus on their vendor expo, field trips, and speaking events. Food is either find-it-on-your-own or à la carte from a food truck. Personal interaction with other participants is usually limited to field trips with few after hours social events.
And that is where the Spring Chirp is different. Each day, festival participants would go off on one of several field trip options (my recommendation is to choose the King Ranch experience for Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls or Upper Rio for a drier habitat and chances at Red-billed Pigeons) and are out birding till the afternoon when the birds take a siesta. Bag lunches are included with several different options - I wish I would have chosen the vegetarian option after getting a look at the tomato, mozzarella, and pesto sandwich - yum! Then after the morning and afternoon spent out somewhere in the Valley, you return to the hotel for a couple of hours, perfect timing for a quick nap, reviewing the birds you saw, or vegging out. After some downtime, it is back in the vans for a quick trip over to the Valley Nature Center for dinner in which the entirety of festival participants can comfortably fit in the conference room.
Upon reaching the Valley Nature Center, it is a tough decision to eat right away or explore the grounds. This 6-acre park is small, but mighty. As the oldest nature center in the Valley, it has a long history of providing habitat for a number of species of birds, insects, and more. Many of the plants found at the site were relocated from areas that were slated for development. The trails wind around through dense vegetation with Plain Chachalacas climbing the vines and migrating warblers psst-ing past.
The Spring Chirp coordinator and Valley Nature Center Executive Director, Hollie Johnston, took great care in all aspects of the festival, including catering. We enjoyed delicious burgers and fries, spaghetti-and-lasagna night, and the grand finale was a fajita night with freshly made tortillas, elote en vaso, and agua frescas with enough local beer and wine to rehydrate and ease the joints after a long day of birding. After dinner, we were treated to speakers covering diverse topics from conservation to deep dives into Valley specialty species. Our exit from the Valley Nature Center to return back to the hotel for the night, coincided with the arrival of Red-crowned Parrots showing off outside the front door with fly-by’s and even perching in a tree right above the entrance path. Sleep comes easy and morning comes quick after a long day of birding the beautiful Texas landscapes and then stuffed full of tasty food. The next day is early – but not too early – to start the search for lifers and better views of others.
You may know some of the key places to bird in the Valley, but if you are anything like me, they keep drawing you back for more. On this trip to the Valley, I was able to visit a few of my favorites, including:
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – which boasts the most recorded species of birds than any other refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Laguna is known for their wintering waterfowl, like Redheads whose numbers fill the laguna, which had departed before this festival – but the refuge offers much more than that and we were able to find Valley specialties like: Olive Sparrow, Plain Chachalaca, and Green Jays.
South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary – In my humble opinion, there really is not a better spot for migration than the deck of the SPI Birding Center. There is a deck with comfortable chairs overlooking a small, forested area that is a magnet for migrating warblers and passerines. You never know what is going to pass on through in that spot!
Estero Llano Grande State Park – this park, lovingly known as ‘Estero’, is one of the stars in the Texas State Parks system. With miles of trails which snake along through the ponds and the Tropical Zone, there is something new around every corner. You could easily spend a few hours, or the whole day at this incredible spot.
Much like the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, the Spring Chirp takes you some of the prime locations around the Valley. But it capitalizes on spring migration, so you get the chance to see warblers and shorebirds as they are moving through, local breeders carrying nesting material, and the beauty of the Valley as it prepares for the summer. It is amazing how there is something to do and see all year-round in the Valley and the spring is definitely one of the best seasons to experience with the Retama blossoms dotting the trees, early butterflies and dragonflies, and the occasional rainstorm.