I relish memories of a recent visit to San Ygnacio, Texas and their bird sanctuary. An upriver, arid, hilly brushland, or chaparral country as referred by some, which covers most of the coastal plains south of the Edwards Plateau, San Ygnacio has a quiet and peaceful aura as if separated from time and modern civilization.

Nestled right along the Rio Grande, the lush, two-acre bird sanctuary was deeded to Zapata County by a benefactor who recognized the value of protecting the historic town’s natural resources. Raul Delgado of Laredo was the organizer and birding guide for this trip. Raul is a board member of the Laredo Birding Festival and a member of the Monte Mucho Audubon Society.

Roma WBC’s visitor information center housed in a historic downtown building.

Just a few minutes upon our arrival, the White Collared Seedeater made an appearance. This tiny bird attracts hundreds of birders to the town each year. Scaled Quail, Crested Caracara, Cave Swallows, Verdin and Cactus Wren are only some of the region’s specialty bird species. Both the Laredo Birding Festival in February and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in November offer guided birding tours to San Ygnacio and Zapata.

During my visit, I met County Commissioner Olga Elizondo who kindly showed us around and talked about plans to make this sanctuary even more visitor friendly. Olga has a special energy, and a sincere dedication to serving the people of Zapata County. “You will not find me in the office, but you can always find me out here in the field,” she told me. San Ygnacio is experiencing a renaissance with the current restoration of buildings in its Historic District (listed on the National Register of Historic Places 1973) thanks to the River Pierce Foundation under the direction of Christopher Rincon whom I also met during this visit. Thanks to the foundation, lodging is now available for those interested in an overnight stay.

Chris Rincon, me and Zapata County Commissioner Olga Elizondo
San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary – view of the Rio Grande

The region attracts birding and nature enthusiasts from our state, our country and even northern Europe like Tony and Paul; avid birders I met at the Roma Bluffs’ observation deck. They are on their third trip from England. When I asked them why they keep coming back, they replied; “It is the best birding spot in the world!” And I could not agree more. With binoculars and scopes ready, the duo waited patiently to catch a glimpse of the Ringed Kingfisher. While they waited they delighted on the sounds of music and laughter coming from a crowd on the Mexican side of the river enjoying the “semana santa” national holiday. They noted how different this was from what they hear in the news. To me, the river looked robust as it stretched between rows of woodlands, almost defiant boasting its fresh new growth.

The Rio Grande River from La Loma picnic table 2 miles west from San Ygnacio

Roma is one of the most historic cities in Texas and it is being restored to reflect its glory days as a steamboat port. It is also the westernmost site of the of the World Birding Center complex. The scenic Roma Bluffs offer a fine vista over the woodlands along the Rio Grande. The WBC Roma Bluffs includes a riparian nature area of three acres, containing an observation deck, feeding stations, native plant gardens, outdoor amphitheater, and a one-quarter-mile nature trail below the bluffs along the river. Great birding, combined with 19th century architecture, is an unexpected and enjoyable experience worthy of consideration.

Seedeater spotted on that day. Photo by Raul Delgado
My husband Lupe at the Roma observation deck overlooking the Rio Grande

 Zapata County Chamber of Commerce Director and County Commissioner Paco Mendoza welcomed me in his office to talk about nature tourism. He cannot be prouder of the county’s continuing popularity among nature loving visitors. As things progress, I see more and more enthusiasm about nature tourism. In 2011, South Texas Nature – the organization I am proud to direct – worked with the department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University to produce a report on the economic impact of nature tourism in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties. The report states that nature tourism contributed $463.0 million to the region’s economy generating 6,613 full and part-time jobs annually in addition to a $163.0 million contribution to labor income across the region and $7.512.900 from hotel taxes. These numbers do not reflect the economic impact from local visitors. Since the report was produced, we have seen visitor numbers increase significantly.

View of the Mexican side of the border. The international bridge can be seen on the left.
Historic San Ygnacio buildings.

Are you looking for something to do during this summer and don’t want to spend too much money? Give birdwatching a try, and plan a visit to Starr and Zapata Counties. Because of our hot summers, visits to this area are cooler in the spring, fall or winter, but if you compare San Antonio’s ( a popular vacation destination) summer temperatures to that of Zapata County you will discover they are basically the same. Plan your road trip with a combination of historic and nature sites plus the fun at Zapata State Park. Don’t forget a picnic basket…remember those? for there will be plenty of spots for a family or even a romantic picnic. If traveling with children, engage them in searching for information on the area’s native birds and historic architecture.

A vacation by the Rio Grande will prove to be an enjoyable and memorable experience.

To plan your trip I highly recommend the book; “A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley” by Mark W. Lockwood, William B. McKinney, James N. Paton and Barry R. Zimmer. Rio Grande Valley residents can find this book at the Alamo Inn Bed & Breakfast shop in Alamo, Texas.

Featured photo for this article taken by Lupe Gonzales of Nydia and Raul Delgado

 Lockwood Mark W., Mckinney William B., Paton James N., Zimmer Barry R. “Upriver to San Ygnacio” “Roma Bluffs.” A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley. Asheville, NC: American Birding Association Inc. 2008. 86-90. Print