A birder since 2007 and full-time RVer, I was thrilled to find a short-term workcamping job listed on the Escapees job board for the World Birding Center at Roma Bluffs, TX. There are nine World Birding Centers located in the lower Rio Grande Valley:
Edinburg Scenic Wetlands
Estero Llano Grande
Harlingen Arroyo Colorado
Old Hidalgo Pumphouse
Resaca de la Palma
South Padre Island Birding & Natu re Center
In January I had already enjoyed exploring the Birding & Nature Center at South Padre Island National Seashore and tried out 3 of the 5 available camping areas. Admission to the park was free by using my America the Beautiful Pass, and camping fees ranged from free to $8 per night (no hookups but a common water and dump station). My favorite spot was boondocking along the beach in the South Beach section, where I stayed for several nights.
Birding tours were scheduled twice per day with reservations limited to 8 participants. My first guided tour with Ken & Bobbie, a retired workcamping couple, started at 9:30 am. Riding in a passenger van, the group toured different habitats of the island, mainly prairie, Gulf shoreline, and bay.
More than 380 bird species have been sighted at this location near the Mexican border. South Padre Island is also the U.S. home of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, a critically endangered species. I vowed to return some March for the two day training required to rescue turtle eggs that hatch in April or May. Hatchlings are returned to the Gulf of Mexico after incubating in a protected lab on the premises. They travel as far as Mexico and Florida for food, but must return to the same beach where they hatched in order to lay eggs.
During the afternoon bird tour a few days later, a young biologist couple, Sarah & Rick, took us to an additional hotspot behind a locked gate where freshwater ponds are located. Here I viewed another life bird, the Mottled duck. We were treated to a glimpse of mating Crested caracaras by the boat ramp on Laguna Bay.
In February I returned to the Rio Grande valley for the workcamping job at Roma Bluffs. In return for a free campsite at Falcon State Park and use of a city car, I worked at the historical city owned building which is home to Roma Bluffs World Birding Center.
Hours are from 8 am to 4 pm seven days a week between October and March. A dozen or so visitors happened into the center daily, some via tour groups. Imagine my surprise when Paul & Emily wandered in, birders from a Tennessee birding club I used to belong to. We shared remembrances of birding events in TN before I showed them literature and displays inside the center, then led them out to the traditional Spanish courtyard.
Only a short walk from the bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande and Mexico, this area has been a hotspot for birds that land on the bluffs and make it over to the courtyard which is restocked daily with various types of bird seed, suet and halved oranges. A water feature provides liquid refreshment and native plants have been added to attract birds and butterflies.
Student volunteers from the biology club at South Texas College helped out one day and are featured on the center’s Facebook page. The young people, their professor and his spouse pitched in to clean up the landscape, remove invasive plants and plant more suitable shrubs. After a water break, they borrowed binoculars and took a short walk to the bluff overlook to see what was visiting. That day we spied the Altamira Oriole feasting on oranges.
Visitors are pointed towards other World Birding Centers and hotspots in the vicinity, including nearby Salineño, TX. Here, two workcamping couples/singles in RVs park in a fenced in area adjacent to the Rio Grande. This 2 acre property was privately owned by bird lovers who started daily feedings during the winter season then bequeathed the property to a land conservancy.
As in town, volunteers take turns feeding a variety of bird food, drawing a colorful bevy of species. We had good looks at Altamira, Audubon’s and Hooded orioles in the same view which made comparing field marks a breeze. Tour groups and Rvers strolled in between 8 am and 4 pm, settling with cameras, scopes and binoculars into chairs for a front row look at the show.
My best looks at several Bob-white quail happened at Salineño, as well sightings of life birds like Bewick’s wren, Olive sparrow and Roadrunner, to name a few. A short walk to the riverfront produced the squawks and skirmishes between rival groups of Plain Chachalaca, and an osprey crossing the international divide, a fish in its talons.
With 24 life birds to add to my list, my first trip to the Gulf and valley was hugely successful and enjoyable. Plus I met so many like-minded folks, lovers of birds and the RV lifestyle, from around the world. No wonder they call it the World Birding Center!