Birding On The Cheap: Rio Grande Valley
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.