Birding festival to offer first tours of San Benito wetlands

·4 min read

Aug. 28—SAN BENITO — One of the Rio Grande Valley's biggest birding secrets is about to land on the map.

For about 12 years, local and state officials have been working to turn the city's old sewer ponds into a wetland habitat stretching across 165 acres near the banks of the Arroyo Colorado.

Now, as the project enters its fourth phase of development, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is planning to take birders on tours of the nature sanctuary.

"Anything to put us on the map," Mayor Rick Guerra said, referring to the site's development as an eco-tourist destination. "We're trying to get it ready for the people — for the tourists."

City launching fourth phase

At City Hall, officials are gearing up to welcome one of the country's biggest birding festivals in November.

"I want to make sure we make it attractive for people," City Commissioner Rene Garcia said. "By November, I want to showcase what we have in San Benito as far as wetlands. We welcome birders to San Benito. We'll continue to improve it."

Earlier this month, commissioners set aside $30,667 to rebuild an observation pier, install water monitoring gauges and fund the area's maintenance.

"We're cleaning it up, and we're continuing to rebuild," Commissioner Pete Galvan said. "That was one of my goals — to utilize the wetlands project to be able to capitalize on environmental tourism, especially since we have a very large birding community."

For years, city leaders have closed off the area as state officials continue working on the wetlands' development.

Still, birders keep coming in search of rare species, setting up their scopes and binoculars along Line 20 Road to capture birds in their sights.

Birding festival planning first tours

This year, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is planning to offer the wetlands' first tours when it opens in November.

In the Valley, the wetlands are still a secret to most local birders.

But across the country, the sanctuary's rare species sightings have led many birders to the area for years, Sue Griffin, the festival's chairwoman, said.

"A lot of birders outside of our Valley know about it," she said. "Anytime you have a wetland, it brings birds from the surrounding area because you have water and vegetation. These places become little islands around all the farmland we have around here. We've been doing bird surveys there so we have knowledge of the birds using the sanctuary."

Conducting species' survey

At the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society, the group's leaders are taking steps to turn the nature sanctuary into a birding haven.

"It's going to be a jewel," Alicia Cavazos, a Texas Master Naturalist, said.

Since January, she has been working with acclaimed birding experts to document the species flocking to the wetlands along their migratory journeys.

"We're going there once a month to see what kind of birds are out there," she said. "We want a whole year of what we're seeing as far as birds."

Landing on the map

Across the country's network of birders, rare sightings are landing the wetlands on the map.

During last year's birding festival, birders flocked to the wetlands to catch a glimpse of the rare fork-tailed flycatcher, Cavazos said.

"People find out from all over," she said. "When they find something so rare like that, the birders come from all over to see some of these birds."

Sightings of species such as the grooved-bill ani and the least grebe are also drawing birders to the wetlands, she said.

As fall approaches, the wetlands lure more birders.

"Birds follow the water, especially this time of year when the ducks are migrating," Cavazos said. "There are a lot of different fowl. They need these wetlands to refresh on their journeys to their wintering grounds."

Model project

For environmentalists, the wetlands spawned out of a model project developed through agencies such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Coastal Management Program and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service's Texas Water Resource Institute.

In 2005, city officials entered into an agreement with the Commission on Environmental Quality to turn the city's old sewer plant's 14 ponds into a wetlands habitat in exchange for the waiver of a $3 million fine for discharging poorly treated sewer water into the Arroyo Colorado.

Now, the area is being reborn.

Across 165 areas of wetlands, the native habitat is teeming with wildlife.

"We see javelina, bobcats," Cavazos said. "It's coming back to life. It's coming into the park."