Birdwatching at Allen Williams's property, near McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas
How a homeowner in the Lower Rio Grande Valley used native plantings and landscaping know-how to turn his property into a birdwatching hotspot
Published: October 21, 2005
|Texan Allen Williams uses no traditional bird feeders in his two-and-a-half-acre yard. Yet over the past few years, he has attracted a delightful array of tropical rarities: Blue Mockingbird, Slate-throated Redstart, Rose-throated Becard, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Clay-colored Robin. |
Perhaps most astonishing, a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, a bird that resides in humid tropical forests from nearby Tamaulipas, Mexico, south to western Panama, showed up in May 2004 and stayed until late October. It was the first time the thrush, an olive-backed bird with a distinctive orange eye ring and orange legs, had been recorded in the United States. As many as 900 birders from 38 states visited Williams's yard in the five months the thrush filled the air with its tantalizing vireo-like song.
How does Williams attract such rarities? Part of the answer has to be that he lives about as close to Mexico as you can get while still residing in the United States. Pharr is a suburb of McAllen, host of the annual Texas Tropics Nature Festival and a city that has long served as base camp for birders' explorations of hotspots in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the only place in the U.S. where the super-rare Stygian Owl has been spotted, is 14 miles to the southwest. Two-thousand-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge sprawls a mere 10 miles to the southeast. And the magical thicket maintained by the Frontera Audubon Society in Weslaco, where not one, but three rarities turned up last winter - Elegant Trogon, White-throated Robin, and Crimson-collared Grosbeak - lies 17 miles east.
But location explains only part of Williams's success. The rest of the credit has to go to the great bird habitat he has created in his yard. When he and his wife Kellie purchased the property in 1996 (the same year the Stygian Owl was discovered), the yard was hardly an oasis. It consisted of grassy lawn with scattered mesquite, huasache, hackberry, and live oak trees. Williams enjoys watching Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, so he hung nectar feeders to attract them. But in the Valley's searing heat, nectar soured quickly and cleaning the feeders became tedious. He also set up songbird feeders, but non-native House Sparrows flocked to spilled birdseed. Something was wrong with that scenario.
Williams has always admired the way trees and shrubs in natural areas such as Santa Ana attract birds. A visit a decade ago with John and Audrey Martin, founders of the popular Valley Land Fund wildlife photography contest, also inspired him. The Martins had transformed their ranch in Edinburg, just north of Pharr, from 40 acres of former cropland into a haven for all types of wildlife by reintroducing shrubs and cacti.
|Landscaping's avian rewards|
According to the Rio Grande Valley Bird Observatory in Weslaco, more than 90 percent of natural brush and forest habitat in the Valley has been cleared for large-scale agriculture or homes. "Developers in South Texas are not seeing the value in keeping native brush, thus desirable habitat is disappearing," Williams explained. In an effort to demonstrate environmental stewardship, he began landscaping around his home with favorite plants - mostly natives - that attract birds.
Williams, who owns a landscaping business, knew "if the soil is in good condition, everything else takes care of itself." Fortunately, McAllen has a great recycling program that turns grass clippings and shredded tree limbs into compost. Williams worked this black gold into the soil to add organic matter and spread it liberally as mulch to conserve moisture during hot, dry weather. A byproduct of his former charter fishing business became his ace-in-the-hole growing agent. Whenever he planted a new tree or shrub, he buried the remains of a filleted redfish or speckled trout with the roots. "It's the best fertilizer in the world," he confided. "It never burned any of the plants."
Among Williams's floral choices to attract hummingbirds are Turks' cap (Malvaviscus arboreus), a shade-loving shrub with bright red flowers; aromatic verbena (Lantana horrida, L. camara), a low shrub that also provides nectar for butterflies; and Dicliptera suberecta, which produces red-orange tubular flowers for hummers and seeds that Painted Buntings flock to. A small tree known as coral bean (Erythrina herbacea) bears stunning red flowers from which hummingbirds also drink.
|Rare birds galore|
During spring and fall migration, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Ovenbirds, and Black-and-White and Magnolia Warblers flit through the branches of Texas ebony (Pithecellobium flexicaule), anacua (Ehretia anacua), and sugar hackberry (Celtis laevigata) -- trees now reaching 40 to 50 feet in Williams's backyard. Beneath them, the rare Blue Mockingbird, ubiquitous Northern Mockingbirds, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, and Gray Catbirds feast on the juicy berries of brush-holly (Xylosma flexuosa) and brasil (Condalia hookeri). Barbados cherry (Malpighia glabra), which also produces sweet berries, can be trimmed low to serve as a groundcover, sheared higher to form a hedge, or grown to its full potential as a small tree.
"I think the continuity of plants -- from ground covers to understory shrubs to canopy trees -- is a big part of the success of this yard," Williams commented. "Many people want a long view, so they cut the shrubs low and limb up the tree branches, which creates a void in the middle. Many birds and mammals don't like to go through open areas. In this yard, fruits and insects are available in an unbroken vertical corridor from the ground to the treetops. It's not just about food; the entire habitat is continuous."
Birders can use rare birds as a barometer of Williams's landscaping success. The Blue Mockingbird, a black-masked, blue-gray bird that occurs with regularity as close as 150 miles south of the Rio Grande Valley and is observed commonly in Mexican cage-bird markets just across the border, arrived in spring 2002 and became a regular yard resident for the next two and a half years.
A Slate-throated Redstart, an orange-breasted wood-warbler that normally inhabits mountain forests of Central and South America, dropped by for two days last year. Since multitudes of listers had previously traveled to Pharr to see the mockingbird and thrush, news of the out-of-range redstart spread rapidly among them. Nearly a hundred onlookers arrived in time to catch a glimpse before it disappeared.
Clay-colored Robins, Crimson-collared Grosbeaks, and Rose-throated Becards, all on Valley birders' most-wanted lists, have also frequented Williams's yard recently. So far all of the grosbeaks and becards have been female or immature birds. A male Blue Bunting also stopped by briefly.
Williams was not a serious birder before the Blue Mockingbird arrived, but he recognized that notoriety might change his family's quiet lifestyle. Before revealing the Blue Mockingbird's presence on a rare bird hotline, he consulted with World Birding Center staff and Valley Land Fund participants. On their advice, he built a self-guiding trail to a shady area frequented by the mockingbird and placed a donation box and a photo of his family at the trailhead. A sign explains that all proceeds are returned to yard-improvement projects. Williams believes about 80 percent of his visitors contribute the suggested $10. So far he has welcomed nearly 2,000 birders.
Even if record birds are not present, the yard bustles with Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and many Rio Grande Valley specialties. Large live oaks near the driveway have sections of hollow palm trunks suspended in them to provide nesting spaces for Red-crowned Parrots. When parrots don't occupy the holes, screech-owls move in. Great Kiskadees nest among the oak branches and feed at a beautiful backyard pool Williams designed for them. It is stocked with native minnows. Traditional nest boxes with various-size openings are attached to many tree trunks. Once a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck delighted Allen and Kellie's young sons by laying eggs in a box, then walking the ducklings to the family's swimming pool.
|No feeders, but plenty to eat|
Aware of how reliably water attracts birds in the hot Rio Grande climate, Allen has installed several birdbaths with drip attachments. Lesser Goldfinches love to hang out near the water, and while the Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush was visiting, this was a common place to encounter it. Plain Chachalacas and Greater Roadrunners also stop by regularly for refreshment. Although Williams does not maintain traditional bird feeders, he offers fruits such as bananas, papayas, grapes, and pieces of apple to bring shy avian guests into view.
For nearly 10 years the Williams family has entertained Valley Land Fund photographers during biennial competitions. The contest pairs expert photographers with Rio Grande landowners willing to enhance their property to attract wildlife. Eye-catching native flowers including Lantana and Pavonia attract a multitude of colorful butterflies to the yard. Williams has developed several charmingly landscaped bird photography sets and is currently working on a sunken photo blind with shallow water trickling over a magnificent textured rock. It's a great spot for birds to drink and bathe, lizards to sun, and dragonflies to cruise.
Williams loves the moments he can relax and observe this wealth of wildlife on his property. Sometimes pests such as leaf cutter ants defoliate many of his favorite plants and raid the fruits on his prized brush-hollies, but he resists using insecticides. He employs herbicides only in extreme situations, such as controlling exotic Bermuda grass. "I don't like tinkering with or eliminating certain species," he stated. "The fantastic number and diversity of birds and butterflies in this yard shows the benefit of having a fully diversified habitat."
That's certainly true. Recently a birding friend of mine told me about his plans to visit the Rio Grande Valley in search of birds normally found in Mexico. Of course he wanted to scope out Santa Ana and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, but No. 3 on his must-see list was a hotspot rapidly gaining national prominence - Allen and Kellie Williams's yard. That's quite a compliment for a 2.5-acre suburban tract, and powerful testament to the attractive potential of quality native landscaping.
Connie Toops is a master gardener, freelance writer, and nature photographer who has documented natural and human-history topics for the past quarter-century. She is the author and principal photographer of nine books, including Bluebirds Forever and Hummingbirds: Jewels in Flight. She and her husband live on a mountainside farm in western North Carolina.
|The Lower Rio Grande Valley's newest birding hotspot|
The Williams Wildlife Sanctuary welcomes birders and butterflywatchers. It is located at 750 W. Sam Houston Street in Pharr, Texas, (956) 460-9864.
To find it from Pharr, exit U.S. Highway 83 at Jackson Road. Drive south on Jackson a quarter mile to West Sam Houston Street. Turn left (east). The Williams Wildlife Sanctuary is on the north side of the road, half a mile from the intersection. Look for a green and white sign near the parking area.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset, every day from October through May. During the off-season, call ahead to make sure the sanctuary is open.
Parking: Street Parking is available in a designated area that parallels Sam Houston Street. Do not park in the driveway. Tour groups and buses can be accommodated, but please call ahead.
|Specialty birds of the Williams Sanctuary|