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Why settle for marshmallow-candy chicks to celebrate springtime when you can see hundreds of real hawks, warblers, and shorebirds winging home to nest?
If you've never tried your hand (or binoculars) at bird-watching, spring is the perfect season for this fast-growing pastime. Decked out in their most flamboyant courtship feathers and trilling their sweetest mating calls, the shyest of songbirds are now at their most visible. Even beginners won't have to strain to see great clouds of gorgeous birds swirling overhead.
Nearly one in three adult Americans -- 63 million strong -- did some bird-watching last year, whether in their backyard or beyond, according to the U.S. Forest Service. That's up 30 percent from the number recorded in 1995. These enthusiasts are called "birders," and 54 percent of them are women.
Birding has taken flight for many reasons. First, it's safer and less strenuous than some of the outdoor adventures we love to follow on popular nature shows (crocodile hunting, anyone?). It's also a relatively inexpensive, easy, environmentally sensitive, and enjoyable way for families to explore nature together, says John Bianchi of the National Audubon Society.
Many Audubon chapters run nature centers in local parks that can introduce you to birding. Three excellent Web sites to get you started are www.audubon.org, to locate nearby centers and chapters; www.americanbirding.org, the American Birding Association's directory of festivals and events around the U.S., with links to other expert sites; and www.petersononline.com, the home base of the well-known Peterson Field Guides, which has suggestions on when and where to go bird-watching.
When you're ready to make your debut in birdland, experts suggest that you pick a place that's rich in resident species as well as migratory ones, in case the visitors have flown the coop. If you're looking for a place close to home, try the nearby Rio Grande Valley, aka "The Texas Tropics," which stretches along the banks of the Rio Grande River from Roma to South Padre Island.
Several towns in the area are worth a visit. McAllen, Texas, is the place to be at dusk, where you'll see hundreds of green parakeets (larger and louder than the pet shop kind) gathering for their nightly cocktail party, wings flashing chartreuse as they congregate on the telephone lines near a downtown bookstore. Venture across any parking lot in Mission, or Alamo on the Mexican border, and you'll be scolded from the nearby bushes by the yellow-breasted great kiskadee, whose cry sounds just like its name, or the brilliant, blue-cockaded green jay. What the taupe-hued plain chachalaca lacks in color, it makes up in laughs; while squawking its name at the top of its lungs, this pheasant-sized bird is likely to crash right off its perch and tumble near your feet.
Some of the 500 species of birds you'll find can be seen nowhere else in the U.S. Others -- like the hawks and warblers that arrive in the spring -- are winging their way home to nest along the great flyways that converge here from east and west. They are showcased in a splendid series of state and federal preserves, like the 600-acre Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, where signposted walking trails wind through flood-plain forests and fields of wildflowers. (For information, call 956-585-1107.) At the 2,100-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, you can paddle a canoe down the Rio Grande while expert volunteers point out the rusty red-white-and-blue ringed kingfishers dive-bombing for their catch of the day. Walk the nature trails and observe fluffy whistling ducklings from a blind overlooking a lake. Or you can take a seven-mile guided tram ride. (For more information about Santa Ana, call 956-784-7500, or visit www.fws.gov.)
On rainy days, stop by the museums that dot most of these towns. Mission has a restored 1865 mission, La Lomita, and a 1940s cinema, the Border Theater, now restored and showing movies. Pharr boasts two quirky gems: Ye Old Clock Museum and Smitty's Juke Box Museum, which pulsates with working jukeboxes dating back to 1926. For shopping, try the 40 shopping centers near McAllen, or cross the border into Mexico at Reynosa to browse for handicrafts.
Chow down on smoky mesquite-barbecued ribs and brisket or Polish sausage in Mission at Ferrell's Pit, topped off with their famous grapefruit pie, made from the local ruby reds (really, it's good!). Catch a sunset and a burger at Pepe's River Fiesta, also in Mission. Or head for Casa del Taco in McAllen, where President Clinton once dined; the tortillas, pinto beans, and chicken fajitas are fresh and first-rate.
There's a wide range of accommodations, including numerous campgrounds and RV parks. Most major chains are represented. The Hawthorn Suites in Mission provides a soothing retreat from the midday sun with a large, landscaped pool, gym, and spacious one-bedroom suites with kitchens. Near Santa Ana, The Alamo Inn B&B is run by expert birder Keith Hackland. (For more information, call 877-622-5536 or go to www.mcallenchamber.com.)
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2004.