Latino Conservation Week: Keeping the RGV Wild and Beautiful

To celebrate Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine’s 75th anniversary in 2017, the magazine staff embedded ourselves in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley to put out a special issue. It was the best week of our “magazine” lives, without a doubt. We were so warmly welcomed by our Estero Llano Grande State Park host Javier de Leon and other Valley colleagues, as well as many old partners and new friends.

December 2017 wrap-around cover art  — click to enlarge
© Clemente Guzman | TPWD  

And by staff, we don't mean just our writers. We brought the business team and interns and artists and designers and, of course, our fabulous photographers. Our buddy Hector Astorga, South Texas imagery guru, took us under his wing and helped the crew capture the images they needed, including a visit to his Santa Clara Ranch and a fajita feast with us at the Estero Bunkhouse.

And just look at that cover art inspired by our journey. Now-retired TPWD fine artist Clemente Guzman spent his days observing and sketching and then created this masterpiece of a wraparound cover. We think it's utterly beautiful, just like the Rio Grande Valley.

Since it's Latino Conservation Week, we knew we wanted to go back in the archives and share stories from some of our favorite RGV conservationists. The Valley is rich in culture and friendly people who love the incredible diversity of animal and plant species that thrive there. We can’t wait to go back one day soon.

The Park Boss, Javier De Leon

Javier de Leon started his career in the outdoors as an intern at the National Butterfly Center in Mission; he later got hired there full time as a naturalist. After that, it was the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. Then came Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

When the superintendent job came open at Estero Llano Grande State Park, he decided to go for it. He’s been superintendent there since 2014.

“I think it’s important to teach as many locals as we can,” he says. “The more people in the Valley who are educated about our nature — the more people know about green jays and chachalacas and kiskadees and how special they are — the more powerful of a voice we can create to keep the Valley green.”

The Valley is growing, and de Leon wants the new development to be responsible development. 

“Development should include green space,” he says. “There has to be a balanced quality of life. They need to think about how it will negatively affect wildlife.”

The Historian, Ruben Reyna

Park guide Ruben Reyna looks so resplendent in his uniform, we just have to catch a shot of him in the morning sun at the Palo Alto Battlefield in Brownsville. Hired for his technological wizardry, Reyna shows us how technology makes the battlefield experience more satisfyingly interactive for park visitors. 

It’s eerie indeed to listen to recounts of the battle while gazing over the huge expanse as the sun rises. The battle between United States and Mexican troops was the first in a two-year long war that changed the map of North America.

The Man Who Took Jimmy Carter Birding, Roy Rodriguez

Roy Rodriguez worked for years as a professional birding guide, leading trips around South Texas and Mexico. He also leads groups of blind birders, who identify birds by their call. 

When Jimmy Carter, a dedicated bird watcher with more than 1,000 birds on his life list, decided to take a bird-watching trip to the Rio Grande Valley in 2004, Rodriguez got tapped to lead him around. 

“I said ‘Jimmy Carter? Like the president Jimmy Carter?’” he recalls.

Rodriguez took Carter to some of his special birding spots such as the McAllen sewage ponds — places the Secret Service had not assessed for security risks. 

“They were not happy with me, but I got him 35 lifers,” he said, referring to bird species Carter had not previously seen.

Resaca Keeper, Pablo de Yturbe

Resaca de la Palma State Park isn’t even open when we show up for a surprise visit, but the staff happily drops their work to lead us on a tour. The heat is building quickly on this September morning at the Rio Grande delta, but there’s a breeze wafting through the tangle of ebony and mesquite and anacua trees, their branches intertwined in a race up to the sunlight.

Superintendent Pablo de Yturbe and colleagues Lauren Acevedo and John Wagman recount the history of the 1,200-acre park that’s also the largest World Birding Center location, opened in 2008. Plants that grow nowhere else in the U.S. are found here in this subtropical habitat. Acevedo points out a hidden ribbon snake in a mesquite tree; Wagman tells us how huisache blooms are used to make perfume in Europe. 

“You’re always watching something different going on,” de Yturbe says of their love for this place. “The forest calms you, gives you a good vibe, good energy.”

Though the park has been open less than a decade, much has been accomplished. Where invasive guinea grass once dominated and choked the landscape, native trees and plants now rise up. Wagman leads native plant tours on the weekends; he has already identified 73 different species in the park.

Our walk leads us to one of four decks that overlook the resaca, and we admire the new interpretive “touch” panels, beautifully illustrated and with Spanish translations. Since the resaca is dry on this day, most of the birds we see are in the trees across the way, but we dream of the common yellowthroat, black-bellied whistling ducks and great kiskadees the water attracts.

If you enjoy articles about people and places in Texas and want to learn more, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.  For a limited time enjoy three months of digital access to 600+ articles and our expanded 2020 Summer issue - all for only $1.99!


Mammal Monday - The Outdoor Housekeeper

Don't let their grimace fool you. In this week's Mammal Monday our Editorial Intern, Landry Allred, tells how those sharp teeth are some of the most beneficial to visit your yard.

It's not to late to get in your photos! Enter In the Wild Hood and your photo may appear in a future Mammal Monday post!

© Robert Silva | #InTheWildHood  

We see them at night, waddling along the roadside seeking their next meal. We see their glowing eyes when we shine a flashlight on them to discover the true identity of the moving shadow. We point them out to our friends when we’re out for an evening stroll.

These opossums are the creatures of the night, and their beady eyes and rat-like tails mean they won’t win any cuteness contests. However, these mammals are actually extremely helpful and quite misunderstood.

Opossums are the only marsupial native to the U.S. and are closely related to kangaroos and koala bears. Texas has only one opossum species — the Virginia opossum. They are commonly found throughout Texas, except in the Trans-Pecos and Llano Estacado of the Panhandle. In urban areas, you can usually find opossums roaming the streets at night alone.

They have a flexible tail that can be used as a fifth hand. Some people have reported seeing them gather grass and material with it. They are the only mammal aside from primates that have opposable thumbs.

Many people believe opossums are destructive, imagining that they dig up soil and destroy property. However, they are quite helpful to landowners, as they eat pests such as ticks, cockroaches, rodents, snakes and even dead animals. Think of it like a natural clean-up crew or an outdoor housekeeper!

© ImagesByOutlaw | #InTheWildHood  

Despite having 50 sharp teeth, which is more than any other mammal in North America, they are quite peaceful (but will sometimes hiss when in danger). Typically, if they feel threatened, they “play dead” and lie down with their eyes closed or open, staring into space. Playing dead is an involuntary response, and they will remain unconscious for some time until the threat is gone. They might even give off a dead animal smell, or foam at the mouth.

One of the most popular myths of opossums is that they carry diseases. In fact, they carry fewer diseases than dogs and cats because their low body temperature doesn’t allow infections to thrive. The rabies virus is very rare in opossums.

Despite the bad reputation opossums have, they are fascinating animals, as they are some of the oldest and most primitive animals of the New World. Scientists have referred to them as “living fossils” because they’ve remained relatively unchanged for at least 50 million years.

So next time you see an opossum, take a moment to remember that they’ve been around for a long time and all the good they’ve done in the world.

To learn more about native Texas wildlife, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.  For a limited time enjoy three months of digital access to 600+ articles and our expanded 2020 Summer issue - all for only $1.99!