Remarkable Region....A Year in the South Texas Wildlands

Deep South Texas is a magical place that is home to a fascinating diversity of wildlife from tropical birds and colorful butterflies to majestic whitetail deer. Every season has its special attractions from spring blooms thru the winter rut. Each year is an adventure in this land of abundant wildlife.

The Rio Grande Valley is perhaps the most biologically diverse region in the nation. The area's vanishing wildlands provide haven for seven endangered and six threatened plants and animals, such as the elusive ocelot and rare aplomado falcon.

This southernmost corner of Texas, nestled along the border just across the Rio Grande from Mexico, is flanked to the east by the Gulf of Mexico and to the west and north by vast swaths of ranch land once known as the "Wild Horse Desert."

Long before the first Englishmen walked ashore at Jamestown and Plymouth, intrepid Spaniards roamed the lower reaches of the Rio Grande. This isolated realm is where cattle ranching in the United States was born. Home to historic ranches such as the King and Yturria, this wild country was the origin of the great cattle drives.

The tip of Texas landscape is a unique blend of subtropical, temperate, coastal and arid habitats encompassing eleven different biological communities from Chihuahuan thorn forest to riparian river woodlands.

There are an astonishing 1200 types of plants, 700 plus vertebrate creatures including 510 species of birds and 308 kinds of butterflies and counting. Situated at the juncture of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi, thousands of birds funnel thru the critically important area on their journeys to and from the northern United States and Central and South America. The Valley is host to more than half the bird species that breed or migrate in the continental United States, and home to dozens of tropical species that rarely roam farther north.

The Valley is the nation's number one destination for bird and butterfly watchers, and home to the World Birding Center in Mission and the International Butterfly Park near the banks of the Rio Grande. According the Rio Grande Valley Chamber of Commerce, more than 125,000 ecotourists visit the Valley annually sustaining some 2,500 permanent jobs and boosting the area economy by more than 125 million dollars.

More than 95 percent of the native habitat in the Rio Grande Valley has been cleared for agriculture and development, but despite this staggering loss of habitat an astounding array of creatures clings precariously to the remnants.

In addition to the birdwatchers and butterfly enthusiasts that travel to local wildlife refuges, adjacent private lands host thousands of hunters that pursue whitetail deer, quail and other wild game providing vital income for ranchers. Hunters and the monies they pay to access private property helps ranchers maintain their land and keep it intact which benefits all wildlife. A growing source of income for area landowners are wildlife photographers who pay for the privilege to access private property.

While the value of native wildlands represents an important impact to the local economy there is an intrinsic worth to our natural heritage that exceeds any monetary quantification. How do you put a price on a South Texas sunrise in undisturbed ranch country, or the thrilling glimpse of a rare ocelot disappearing into the shadowy realm of a tropical sabal palm forest along banks of the Rio Grande?

A year in the South Texas wildlands is always full of surprises, but one thing is for certain, the Valley is well ahead of the rest of the nation when it comes to welcoming spring. Before the majority of the country begins to thaw, the signs of spring from blooming plants to nesting birds will abound in the land of the yucca.

Each year, the pitas as they are known in Spanish, herald in the spring. Depending on the year, some will begin raising their bloom spikes as early as January, but by March most will have opened their creamy white petals.

The flowering yuccas, also known as Spanish dagger for their sword like leaves, may provide a scenic perch for a rare aplomado falcon. While the endangered falcon will not nest until late spring; other birds of prey will be well advanced in rearing young.

The great horned owls are the earliest nesters, and red tailed hawks and Harris's Hawks are usually not far behind. Birds of prey get an early start as it takes a couple of months to incubate and fledge their young.

Another sign of spring in south Texas in addition to early nesting raptors and blooming yuccas is the gobbling of wild turkeys. Echoing thru the oak mottes, the spirited gobbling of Rio Grande turkeys is a sure signal that seasons are changing. The lengthening day's signal one of the most colorful courtship rituals in nature, as the gaudy gobblers strut with their impressive tail feathers spread wide.

It is also a time of transition for whitetail deer. In late February and early March the bucks being shedding their antlers and almost immediately begin growing new ones.

As the native owls fledge their young and the last of the bucks drop their antlers, splashes of color begin flitting thru the handful of wooded lots on South Padre Island. The annual spring migration of colorful songbirds is in full swing by late March and early April.

Once the spring migration begins to taper off, nesting season in Deep South Texas begins in earnest. Throughout the spring and early summer a fascinating variety of native birds build nests and raise young from common pauraques that simply lay their eggs on the ground to Altamira orioles that construct elaborate swaying nests in the uppermost branches of tall trees.

The creatures that crawl are also active and the Valley has some of the rarest snakes in the country such as the elusive cat-eyed snake with its distinctive yellow-gold eyes.

During the heat of summer, secluded ranch country ponds become magnets for all manner of wildlife from secretive bobcats and coyotes to playful armadillos out for a cooling wallow in the water.

The first week in July is prime time for fawns to be born, and the spotted rascals will be laying low for several days until they are strong enough to scamper away form predators.

As summer fades to fall, the bucks will begin shedding the velvet from their newly formed racks and by early October most will be sporting hardened antlers. In November they will begin making scrapes and checking rubs as they mark territory in preparation for the annual dance of doe and buck.

When the first northers begin to blow thru and the haunting calls of migrating geese fills the chilly air, another year will be close to coming full circle in the wildlands of Deep South Texas.

There are myriad opportunities for enjoying wildlife in South Texas throughout the seasons, and late December has a special allure. The two weeks on either side of Christmas are the peak of the annual rut for whitetail deer. The bucks will be out pursuing does, and this is the best time of year to get a glimpse of those wily old bucks as they let their guard down to chase the girls.

Soon the pitas will be blooming once again in the land of the yucca, but these final weeks of the year promise to be some of the most exciting times on the outdoor calendar.


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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore