Estero Llano Drawing More Birders & New Local Fans
Coping with COVID-19 has brought restrictions with it in terms of gathering in public places and the amount of contact allowed with non-family members.
One area that has been uninhibited and free from restrictions is enjoying time in the great outdoors – and there’s no better place in the Rio Grande Valley to enjoy time in native habitat than the Estero Llano Grande State Park on the Mercedes side of FM 1015.
The 230-acre Mid-Valley state park is a favorite with birders from across the state and nation. Over the last year, Estero Llano has also become a family favorite as local residents have sought refuge from the worries of a pandemic. Going to the movies or restaurants may not have been possible due to COVID, but a natural setting as found at Estero Llano has not been subject to such limitations.
“Folks have been looking for places to get away from other people, and state parks are a good place to do it,’’ said Javier De Leon, the superintendent at Estero Llano. “We’ve seen a lot of new visitors to the park, with most of them being local folks.’’
De Leon points to a well over 20 percent gain in park visitors in going from 2100 in 2019 to just over 3000 visitors in 2020. Estero Llano is well known in birder circles as about 340 species have been seen and documented at the park. On a recent visit, poster boards by the visitor’s center listed hundreds of birds that were cited as being seen at the park.
Excitement has run high in birder circles as of late with the spotting of an elegant trogon at Estero Llano. The bird is brilliantly colored with an orange/red belly, green back and head and is normally found in Guatemala, Mexico and can range as far north as Arizona and New Mexico. At least for this year, it has also been found – and documented – at Estero Llano.
The sighting of the elegant trogon immediately drew birders from the Houston area, who De Leon said came to the state park the day after confirmation of the sighting became official. It’s a testament to the role eco-tourism can play in the Valley and the contributions made by the Mercedes-area park to that part of the regional economy.
The rare find of the elegant trogon has hardly been the only bright spot at Estero Llano in recent months. De Leon said the winter months of 2020-2021 have provided some of the best birding months the Valley has seen in over a decade. There have been “Mexican rarities,’’ as he refers to the elegant trogon and other birds from south of the Rio Grande that have drawn the birder community.
There has also been a usually high number of robins that have flown south this year due to what De Leon said are colder temperatures from northern areas of the United States. The rarities from the south and the U.S. birds have attracted groups of birding tourists, and the park superintendent is happy to have them.
De Leon, a Harlingen native, is just as delighted in welcoming more local visitors over the last year. He hopes Valley residents will find a redeeming value in enjoying the native habitat at the state park and return even after the COVID-19 situation passes.
“I think some folks here are not use to visiting parks like this one,’’ he said. “Now that we’ve had more come out, I hope they find that getting out into nature like this is enjoyable and is time well spent.’’
Estero Llano has a number of well-defined walking trails in addition to blinds where visitors can look out into marshes and ponds and spot many different species of birds. The park opens at 7 a.m. daily, seven days a week, and the admission fee is $5 for visitors who are 12 years old and older.
-Ricardo D. Cavazos