Ecotourism, World-Class Birding, Butterfly Festivals

World-Class Birding, Butterfly Festivals and Nature Habitats Fuel a Thriving Ecotourism Industry

In the peace of early morning, avid birdwatcher Tim Hicks finds enjoyment in the little things, like sighting the illusive Golden-crowned Warbler. Birding is a passion for this retired postal worker – one of thousands of nature enthusiasts who have helped make Deep South Texas one of two top birding destinations in North America.

The World Birding Centers – a network of nine public bird sanctuaries under the Texas Department of Wildlife – along with similar birding attractions, like Frontera Audubon Center and other public and private bird sanctuaries, have helped ecotourism thrive in the Rio Grande Valley. “The sighting of rare and hard-to-find species help drive tourism,” said Sarah Williams, marketing director for the Frontera Audubon Center in Weslaco, a 15-acre tract purchased from private land owners.

“This year has been a perfect storm for Frontera Audubon because we have had two rare bird species sightings this winter,” she said.

Williams said the Golden-crowned Warbler and the female Crimson-collared Grosbeak were both spotted in November 2011. The Crimson-collard Grosbeak is primarily found in northeastern Mexico from central Nuevo Le—n and central Tamaulipas south to northern Veracruz; however, it occasionally strays into the Rio Grande Valley. The Golden-crowned Warbler breeds from Mexico south to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The number of visitors to the Center increases exponentially as rare birds are sighted. A Twitter- and Web-based alert system allows birders across the country to be notified when a rare bird is sighted. Serious birders will hop on a plane in hopes of adding a rare bird to their list of lifetime or annual bird sightings, William says. In 2005, for example, when the Elegant Trogan, Crimson Collared Grosbeak and White Throated Robin were sighted, Frontera Audubon saw attendance rise from just over 1,100 to nearly 6,000 visitors.

The Rio Grande Valley is also home to more than 300 butterfly and 150 dragonfly species.

The Valley hosts numerous annual nature festivals, including several birding festivals, a dragonfly festival and a butterfly festival that attract tourists and locals alike. Area bed and breakfasts, ranches, hotels, tour operators and restaurants derive much of their business from ecotourists. Bed and breakfasts cater specifically to wildlife enthusiasts, advertising birding, butterfly watching and fishing. Some bed and breakfasts, such as the Brown Pelican Inn and The Inn at Chachalaca Bend, cater to birders and offer birding packages with boat tours and photo safaris. The Inn at Chachalaca Bend even includes birding checklists for their property. The Brown Pelican Inn’s birding package includes time for visits to state parks and wilderness preserves in the surrounding area.

University studies show that the nature tourism has been steadily growing. As a result, it’s helping to ensure that natural resources are preserved and well managed. As ranches, cities and other entities learn how to make birding and other nature tourism recreation viable business, it encourages land and resources to be reserved for nature. Government grants and other social funding also help local nature tourism efforts preserve and secure habitat. Car rentals, room rentals, meal purchases and other ecotourism-related expenditures total more than $300 million annually, according to a 2011 report from Texas A&M University.

With dozens of public and private organizations supporting local ecotourism – and wildlife spanning ocelots, bobcats and green jays – the Rio Grande Valley has earned its place as a world class nature tourism destination.