Heading to the south Texas border? Then you have a lot of options for your birding adventures, but if you want to pack a lot of birding into your schedule, there’s one spot that’s well worth your time, with good trails, access, and information. The Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco is a bonanza for birders and other nature lovers who want to experience the avian culture of the gulf coast without having to rough it.
With over 230 acres of wildlife and five miles of trails, Estero Llano Grande has something for everyone, from individuals, to families, to large groups looking for an overnight retreat. But let’s start small. This Texas State Park is such a birding hotspot that it’s not unusual for people to spend their first 45 minutes in the parking lot watching the birds mulling about the area, and that’s before hitting the trails to see the herons and other fishing birds that populate the park, taking advantage of the carefully maintained waters that host a variety of flora and fauna, including alligators! Moving into the park, on the entry trail as you head to the visitor center, you might be surrounded by multitude of butterflies bouncing around the native plantings along the brick-lined trail. It’s an excellent opportunity to practice your close-focusing skills as you try to identify and photograph these colorful inhabitants.
Even if you don’t have the time to do a lot of exploring, Estero Llano Grande is a wonderful place for people of birding abilities from beginner to expert because of their large shade-covered deck overlooking a shallow lake and surrounded by bird feeders, drawing in many species from the area without the expense of a lot of time or walking. And let’s not forget the amenities!
The visitor center not only offers essentials sunscreen and insect repellent for those who want to explore its trails, but also beverages and ice cream for those who want a more casual experience, perhaps while the hard-core birders take advantage of the paths. The deck is a relaxing spot to find ducks and shorebirds, notably the black-bellied whistling ducks. The well-maintained feeders are a reliable spot to find green jays and buff-bellied hummingbirds, giving digiscopers a great opportunity to capture photos and videos of these southern species. The visitor center also offers binoculars and GPS units to rent for $3/day.
Got kids? Great news! The Estero Llano Grande park offers free Junior Ranger Explorer packs, including a Journal to record your child’s experiences by drawing and writing as they travel the park and enjoy its wildlife. The pack also includes:
- A pair of binoculars made for smaller hands
- A magnifying glass for a close-up look at nature
- An animal tracking key and guides to flowers, birds, butterflies, trees, rocks, wildflowers and plants
- Pencil, crayons and watercolors to use with the journal and record the experience
Love the ranger pack? A smaller version is available for sale in the visitor center so you child can continue to record nature on the road and in their own backyard.
As well as the free-form exploration of the park, Estero Llano Grande has a robust schedule of programs, led by experienced interpreters, year-round, ranging from World Bird Center bird walks, to explorations of the insects that call the park home. If you want something more relaxing, the park also offers tours via a quiet electric tram, allowing you to explore the park at a relaxed pace. Make sure to check their routinely-updated schedule of events (https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/estero-llano-grande/park_events) to find one that matches your interest and your time frame. For those looking to take advantage of all the habitat has to offer, following the more than five miles of trails around the shallow ponds of the park will reveal waders and kingfishers that can be found as well as several alligators, often basking in the sun and making for great photo opportunities. Keep a sharp out eye and your camera ready, because native snakes and dragonflies are possible for the quick eye, and if you are really lucky, you might find a bobcat before it runs back into its natural cover.
Once you’re ready to head to your car, a forested trail takes you back to the parking lot, and birders should especially like to check this trail for a national lifer, as Mexican birds often cross the border north, including rose-throated becard, blue bunting and clay-colored thrush to take advantage of the Estero Llano Grande habitat. But let’s say you have a larger group that’s looking to get away from it all for a retreat or birding weekend. Estero Llano Grande has you covered. At “Camp Thicket,” a private area located in the park in the Tamaulipan Thorn Forest, there are two separate compounds that can accommodate groups of up to 80 people, though smaller groups are welcome as well. If you’re looking for a day or overnight retreat, you can take full advantage of the park, as well as kitchen facilities, restrooms and showers, kitchen facilities, meeting rooms, and best of all, large barbeque pits.
Estero Llano Grande State Park is a terrific option for birders of all skill levels, as well as those who have just a few hours to squeeze in, or those who want to spend hours—or a day—taking in the amazing flora and fauna that call this park home. So if you’re traveling to south Texas, make sure to pencil this park on to your list.
Wildlife to Watch
Alligators, bobcats, great kiskadees, ringed-kingfisher, green kingfisher, yellow-crowned night-heron, western screech-owl, common pauraque, vermillion flycatcher, roseate spoonbill, black-bellied whistling-duck, fulvous whistling-duck, scissor-tailed flycatcher, tropical kingbird, clay-colored thrush, altimira oriole.
Check in with park rangers and volunteers at the visitor center to find out what specialties have been reported that day, along with routes to try if you have a specific bird you want to see. If any rarities like a rose-throated becard is around, they will let you know. Also ask where to find the paraques. These well-camouflaged nightjars can be found just off the trails and staff can give detailed instructions for finding these cool insectivores, along with advice about how best to approach them.
During spring and fall migration, warblers, grosbeaks and vireos pass through in good numbers and it’s a great place to grow your life list with the local endemics. The bird feeders along the shaded deck are good for buff-bellied hummingbird, green jays and great kiskadees. The feeders along the tropic trail is great for clay-colored thrush, white-tipped dove and Altimira orioles.
Feeling lucky? If you walk the dike trails along the Rio Grande River you have a shot at groove-billed anis, roseate spoonbills and white-tailed kite.
Basic Written Directions
Take Highway 83 to South International Boulevard and head south for two and a half miles. The parking lot to the park will be on the left.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Association
Wheel-chair accessible, bathrooms, gift shop, picnic areas, trails, ranger programs,
Best Season for Viewing
Year-round, but summer is going to be brutally hot.