Estero Llano Grande – Weslaco, TX
In an area with a ton of wildlife refuges, like the Rio Grande Valley, it is tough for an outdoor destination to stand apart from the rest. That being said, Estero Llamo Grande is quite simply the best wildlife refuge we’ve been to thus far with its 3 distinct landscapes that we’ll discuss further.
Upon arrival Allison and I saw many cars from out of town which always tends to be a good sign and, actually, a good number of the cars even had Canadian plates! As we walked into the refuge along with our fellow visitors we marveled at the equipment these nature aficionados carried with them, in awe of huge tripods and cameras with long extended lenses proving this definitely is a destination for the serious birder.
As we entered via a cobblestone path leading to the Visitor’s Center we almost immediately spotted several Red Winged Black Birds (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched on fresh citrus attached to trees and raised seed feeders. Beyond the entry filled with birds and their pretty chirps, the main building is kind of a work of art in itself. This entry featuring a huge deck overlooking a wetland and small but comfortable tables dotting the space is just your first clue that this park will be nothing short of breathtaking.
Peering out at this stunning initial view, you instantly notice that the water is filled with ducks of all different shapes, sizes, and colors including the American Coot (Fulica americana), one of the many ducks Allison and I saw. They all seem happy to mix with each other like a large family while the park guests are happy to sit and gaze out onto the water either as they prepare to head out or take a break after their day of walking trails and bird spotting is done.
And boy did we manage to spot quite a few birds! Often we leave our birding expeditions having seen just a few of the more easy to lay eyes on feathered finds like the kind of silly, always seeming to hang out in gangs of 3, Chachalacas (Ortalis canicollis). And let’s not forget the ever present in just about every part of the U.S. we’ve visited, Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) or, as we call them, Fry Birds (hardly a scientific term, we just noticed that they seem to be constantly eating French fries in parking lots).
Spied high in the trees we found a White-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica), a relative of the commonly seen pigeon that prettily coos.
We also had the opportunity to view the Texas State Bird, the Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).
And then we came upon our favorite, because he looked Gru from Despicable Me, the Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). He sat perched in a tree, quite possibly judging us or planning world domination from above 🙂
Birds aside, one of the more interesting aspects of this park that make it stand out from others in the area are the many “boardwalk trails”. Many nature centers have small bridges extending a path over water, but here we were able to really interact with the environment as we walked along these wood decked paths. By crossing large bodies of water we were able to peer down into the sandy bottom of a shallow lake, not a usual sight unless you are in a boat. The rippling reflective water was absolutely beautiful as it surrounded us!
The boardwalks can also help to get you even closer to the birds you aim to watch. Allison quickly spotted an Egret searching for food not too far from where we stood and were able to easily view by the sheer proximity allowed by the path.
After passing over the wetlands you come upon woodland trails to meander down on your way to the Alligator pond. And if you’re wondering, yes, there really are alligators in “Alligator Pond”!
As we headed toward the path to visit the pond, hoping we might catch a quick glimpse of one of the scary creatures, we actually managed to spy one before we even were heading in the right direction! Sunning itself on a log with a bevy of Red Eared Slider turtles, was a baby alligator around 3-4 feet in length, who seemed to enjoy just hanging out with his shelled company.
This quick and unexpected find had us realizing how amazingly awesome this opportunity to experience wildlife actually in the wild to be. This isn’t a zoo and there are no fences or pens holding the alligators a safe distance away from visitors. In fact, once you begin paying attention you notice the paths these creatures wend from the shallow shores through the nearby reeds as they literally cross the very trails we walk on.
Heading on the right path we spied a gigantic alligator hanging out in the reeds of a marsh. Two gators and we hadn’t even made it to “Alligator Pond” yet! Partially covered with a green moss-like material we almost didn’t spot this guy even as large as he is. This almost missed encounter helped us to realize the value in stopping and staying to have a close look around the different watery areas. You literally never know what you might unknowingly be walking directly by!
Finally reaching “Alligator Pond: we found the biggest gator of all, out in the open and visible, plain as day. We don’t know if it’s intentions were good or not, it barely moved but looked menacing due to its sheer size. Tallying up 3 different alligators all within a moments walk of one another we noticed that we were keeping a close eye on any water or alligator paths nearby. And it’s smart to be safe. In fact the park has some alligator safety tips on the deck of the visitor’s center you’ll do well to have a quick read over before setting out.
On the same path as Alligator Pond you’ll notice piles of brush along the side of the trail. Fellow nature lovers, a nice couple who frequented the refuge, were kind enough to point out to us a Nighthawk or Common Paraque as it sat just a foot from the trail, eyes closed, deep in sleep. The Paraque blends into it’s environment particularly well and we have no doubt that we would have walked right by this sleeping fellow had we not had the help of kind strangers in spotting him. We also were informed that brush we mentioned along this path is built up along the edge specifically to draw these birds. So keep a close eye as they are likely around waiting to be found.
Easily spotted in the close up photo, we bet you’ll have a more difficult time placing him from a distance. Many an adventurer must walk past these beautiful birds without noticing them. Also called the “Nighthawk” the bird we saw wasn’t bothered by us at all, or perhaps it was just fast asleep during the day hours as they tend to hunt at night giving them their common moniker. Speaking in normal voices and getting near, we were able to walk right up to this almost invisible bird to get a picture without so much getting the creature to slit open a sleeping eye to check us out.
Heading deeper into the park we began walking the Camino de Aves trail through the third, desert-like thorny landscape. Although we would have liked a bit of shade, we immensely enjoyed spotting the variety of cacti including many heavy with blossoms that will soon make each prickly plant bursting with blooms.
Though we arrived early in the morning, after grabbing lunch in town at Nana’s Taqueria in Weslaco, we found ourselves in this portion of the park during the hottest time of the day and that lack of shade became pretty profound halfway through the almost mile long trail. Feeling accomplished at having walked the entire park and sunburn setting in we decided to make our way through the park and back to the A/C of our car.
At the end of the day we saw many birds and wildlife at Estero Llamo Grande and we deemed it a highly successful outing in every respect. When it’s all said and done the landscape alone is enough to bring us back to this refuge with its great variety of foliage and scenery. The area is large, the trails well cared for and despite it’s many visitors, a quiet and peaceful bit of serenity can be had here.
During your stay you’ll have a lot of direct sunlight hitting your face. As such we’d strongly recommend bringing sunblock and plenty of hydration. Leashed pets are welcome but remember they also can suffer from the sun and heat so plan accordingly. Also remember that this part does have a fair share of gators and a dog can be an enticing meal and easy to grab for 6-8 feet of reptile. Keep your wits about you and remember your camera or binoculars because you will find so many things you’ll want to capture or view up close.
There is a quiet and clean on-site RV facility for any of our fellow travelers lucky enough to pull their vacation accommodations behind them on their journey. There are also a good number of well reviewed restaurants to grab a quick bite for lunch.
We are so confident that you will enjoy Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco just as much as we did, that we’re giving this Texas State Park our highest rating, five out of five stars!