If I have learned anything from living in the northern half of the United States is that in order to survive winter with my sanity in tact is that I need to eat a lot of kale, take a daily 20 minute walk (no matter how cold) and plan a trip some place warm even if it’s only for 48 hours. Typically, my work life takes me to such places…although last winter it back fired because there was a freak ice storm that nailed the usually warm area I visited and I endured winter pretty much from early Novmeber thru the end of May…and technically June if you count the snow pile in the Sears parking lot that didn’t melt until mid June.
But this winter I played it safe and booked a weekend away to a place that should not have a freak ice storm: the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas where I can grab great looks at birds like Crested Caracaras.
I know money is an issue for a lot of people and the thought of just booking a flight to south Texas for a weekend may seem impractical, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the cheapest places to visit. I work part time for the federal government and the rest of the time I’m a freelance contractor, there’s a lot of feast for famine in my budget and when you add to that with being married to a man in the theater, we don’t have a recipe for being a high income family, but we make things work. Some people may spend lots of money on their yards, we don’t have a yard and so that’s money that can be allocated to travel.
I’ve actually wondered why the Rio Grande Valley doesn’t promote in their materials that it’s one of the cheapest places to go birding…well maybe that isn’t the image one wants to be known for. But for anyone with an interest in birds, this must visit birding location is just as desirable to the wallet as it is for the birds you can add to your list. I’ve been there several times for the Rio Grande Valley Festival and even though there aren’t that many birds I “need” for a list in that area, it’s always a pleasure to visit for the sheer difference in habitat, birds and warmth. And really, the day I get tired of seeing Green Jays is the day I need to hang up my binoculars. It can be argued that birding North Dakota is cheap, but there’s not a major airport nearby, you’ll still have quite a drive to the birds once you land.
But consider this, the Rio Grande Valley is not far from South Padre Island, a destination for vacationers and retired people who like to spend the winter anywhere but the Upper Midwest. There are two airports to access the valley that can serve as connections into Central and South America: McAllen and Harlingen. Because of this, if you keep an eye on airlines, you can find cheap flights to the valley. Where I live, Sun Country Airlines has regular and direct flights and if I watch carefully, I can find a direct flight for under $300. And once you grab your bags and your rental car, you can be off to a birding hotspot like Estero Llano Grande in less than hour packing in great South Texas specialties like Common Pauraque, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and once I got a Northern Jacana at Estero on my trip from the airport. The other great thing is that you can visit with some of those warblers we won’t see til spring like the above Black-throated Green Warbler.
I find that hotels outside of South Padre Island in Weslaco, Harlingen or even San Benito are very economical and comfortable. Another big plus is that being so close to the Mexico border, you have access to all sorts of small authentic Mexican cafes at affordable prices. Of course, you can always get a hotel room with a mini fridge and load up on food from the local grocery stores.
And birding wise, there are a ton of grate places to visit like Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley to give you a taste of Plain Chachalacas, Kiskadees and Green Kingfishers or there’s Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge where you can get Hook-billed Kite. The list can go on for great birding spots in RGV (Laguna Atascosa anyone?) so for me, you really can’t beat the birds for your buck in South Texas.
If you plan a trip to the Rio Grande Valley outside of the bird festival and find a friend to share a room and rental car with you, it’s possible to do this trip for just over $400. Still, I know some people say that’s a lot of money for a personal winter break, but consider this: If you divide $500 by 52 (the number of weeks in a year) that’s $9.61. That’s easily one lunch a week at a restaurant. Or one fancy coffee a day for 5 days at your local coffee shop. Start bringing your lunch, brew some shade grown coffee at home and tote around your own mug. And in short time you’ll have a little cache of money to go visit South Texas and spend a few days looking at this:
A Great Kiskadee–isn’t that worth it? But how about you? Do you have a mid winter birding destination that’s affordable and awesome?
Here are some traveler pro tips:
When searching for cheap flights online, use one of the cheap travel sites like Priceline to see which airlines are lowest. Then book with the actual airline. The flights booked with the airline can be another $10 cheaper and you get better options if your flight is cancelled. If you go with Priceline and the flight is cancelled for weather or anything or you miss a connecting flight, the airlines will force you to deal with who you purchased the tickets from.
Try to search and purchase on a Tuesday. Flights are generally cheapest on that day. Not sure why, but it works.
Our family drove to the Rio Grande Valley for 20 Christmases, but I didn’t take up birdwatching until Christmas #21–really bad timing. One of those early years my dad “forced” us to go to the Santa Ana refuge for a walk thru the Spanish moss. I still have my checklist from then, before I really knew what a checklist was. (And I did see a Great Kiskadee!)
Wow, that Caracara shot is outrageous!
This is a terrific post that makes so many excellent points. Birding on the cheap and birding in warm locales in winter are two powerful strategies for sanity and happiness.
Texas is a perfect domestic locale for cheap winter American birding. Florida is too, especially if you fly into a tourist town and drive south. California has killer birding just about everywhere, but isn’t that cheap.
Another option for Americans is the Caribbean or Mexico. Both locales offer tourist trap amenities like cheap flights and all-inclusive lodging. Once you arrive, you can eschew the typical resort action for endemic avifauna. Just about all the nations in the West Indies have at least one bird each to call their own.
Thanks for the tips on finding cheap flights! Although I live in the Neotropical region and have seen Rio Grande birds elsewhere, I would still love to bird those classic birding destinations you mention. Knowing that it can be done cheaply makes it a lot more likely for me to show up at one of the south Texas birding festivals some day.
But flying half-way across the continent for a weekend can hardly be considered good for the climate… I left Aberdeen for Africa, thereby skipping winter permanently!
@Pat — you would (will) love the Rio Grande Valley!
These photos brought a tear to my eye. These are the birds that really spurred my love of birding and nature photography, though I saw them a fair shot south of the Rio Grande. Absolutely beautiful. Thanks Sharon!
I’m so envious of your trip. I love birding in that area. Have fun, eat lots of good Mexican food, and take lots of photos to share! xoxox
I live in Harlingen and birding the valley is inexpensive. You couldn’t address everything, but a trip out to South Padre Island in the middle of the winter is always a plus! Not to mention that this winter has been insane with huge amounts of hawks and western birds. And as I looked out at my feeder this morning, the Golden-fronted woodpeckers were getting romantic, while bobwhite quail, various doves, a kiskadee, curve-billed thrashers, mockingbirds, tufted titmouse, Orange-crowned warbler and I feel like I’m forgetting something….well, this was just one lovely 80 degree January day at my yard feeder!
My husband and I were down in south Texas over Thanksgiving. We went birding each day. They have many places to visit. It is truly a treasure to go down there. Your pictures are awesome and it makes me want to go back very soon. Thanks so much.
Where is the island love? During the winter hotels are $25-30 a night, there is great birding (4 specie of rails being seen, a 1st year Black-legged Kittiwake hanging out one the jetties, Anna’s and Ruby-throated Hummers anytime you put a feeder up). Plenty of good birding and some awesome cheap places to eat as well…
talking about South Padre Island, just to be clear…
I loved your blog, and I gave it a Bean’s Pat on my blog today. Beautiful photos. My favorite birding spot in the valley is Estero Llan State Park in Welasco
Amen! Will be taking my third annual big trip to the valley (where i grew up, as you know) from Feb 12-20. I’m pumped!
Don’t leave out Brownsville. Both American Airlines and Continental will bring you to town and to Sabal Palm Sanctuary and Resaca De Las Palmas State Park. Sabal Palm is the largest remaining track of the only palm native to Texas and is the home for almost all of the Valley specialties and, from time to time, a Mexican rarity (currently a Duscky-capped Flycatcher and Crimson-collared Groabeak are visiting). They even have a covered deck on the Rio Grande River. You can work on your Mexican bird list from there. Check out the live feeder video at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/sabal-palm-sanctuary
You painted a wonderful picture of birding in the Rio Grande Valley. We live in Austin, about 6 hours north of all these beautiful sites, and try to go annually. I always enjoy finding NEW, out of the way birding places like up the Rio Grande to a little town called Roma. I’m so glad you’ve found a good way to enjoy this area economically. Enjoy Texas; we are so glad to have you visit.
Bird watching is really pleasing in the Rio Grande Valley and the Dragon/Butterfly days celebrated during the month of May is also cool. This one is my favorite occasion to connect with the nature.