The Valley Nature Center
Text Copyright Gary Clark
The logo for the Valley Nature Center reads, "A Secret Garden in the Heart of the Rio Grande Valley." I want to let the secret out. I want people to visit this oasis of wildlife in the bustling South Texas town of Weslaco.
It's not a big nature preserve, covering only five and one half acres with a half mile of interpretive nature trails. But it teems with birds, butterflies, wildlife, and plants that typify the native landscape of the Rio Grande Valley.
My wife and I spent most of a day in late October enjoying the sights and sounds of nature in the Valley Nature Center, better known to naturalists as the VNC.
A stand of three Texas sabal palms greeted us just beyond the courtyard behind the Visitor's Center. We sat on a park bench beside the trees and watched four buff-bellied hummingbirds move in and out from the hummingbird feeders that hung from the palm branches. The green and bronze colored Mexican hummers nest in the VNC, and their range in North America is restricted to the slip of land that forms the Rio Grande Valley.
The palms are monuments to the natural history of the Rio Grande Valley. A grand forest of Texas sabal palms once stretched upriver from the mouth of the Rio Grande into Hidalgo County. In tribute to the palms, the 16th Century Spanish explorer, Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda, named the Rio Grande, Rio de las Palmas. The last grove of Texas sabal palms is at the Audubon Society's Sabal Palm Grove near Brownsville.
However, we enjoyed the small group of mighty sabal palms at the VNC. Harvester ants had covered the base of one of the trees with a huge mound. The ants attract horned lizards---commonly called, horned toads---a threatened species that is gaining a foothold for survival in the VNC. We didn't see the spiny little lizards because they've usually hibernated by October, even in the Rio Grande Valley.
As we stood under the palms, we heard the awk-awk-awk call of red-crowned parrots. However, we couldnít find them in the dense canopy of cedar elm and Rio Grande ash. We knew that a wild population of red-crowned parrots had been present near the VNC for 14 years, so we were convinced our ears did not deceive us.
Next, we heard the raucous call of a great kiskadee. It's a signature bird for the Rio Grande Valley, always delightful to see. Turns out, there were several of these brightly colored birds with coconut brown backs and lemon yellow breasts.
Another characteristic bird of the Rio Grande Valley is the flamboyant green jay, whose plumage would make a fine design for a tropical T-shirt. We saw these birds splashing their colors throughout the preserve.
There's no shortage of spectacular birds in the VNC. Chachalaca, black-chinned hummingbirds, golden-fronted and ladder-backed woodpeckers are common. A sharp eye may spot South Texas specialties such as olive sparrows and Altamira orioles. Lesser goldfinches have nested in the preserve. In addition to seeing all these birds, we saw several migratory warblers such as a Nashville warbler and two orange-crowned warblers that may spend the winter in the preserve.
The colorful birds competed for our attention with a super abundance of colorful butterflies. We've rarely seen a more extensive butterfly garden than the one at the VNC. Volunteers have planted a diverse array of native flowering plants like Turk's cap and mistflower. The plants draw hundreds of butterflies.
Butterflies welled up in front of us. Dozens of queens, soldiers, pipevine swallowtails, cloudless sulfurs, white peacocks, and common checkered-skippers---to name only a few---swirled around us. The multitude of black and orange phaon crescents was a delight to watch. We found a rare guava skipper, a gorgeous butterfly with dramatic blackish-blue wings dotted with crimson red spots.
At one point, we simply sat on a park bench to watch and listen. We felt we had escaped into a tropical paradise. Nature's splendor at the preserve was as exciting as it was relaxing.
Ann Hall, Executive Director of the VNC, said, "You're not even aware of being in the middle of a city when you're in this preserve. We had someone become a volunteer just so he could walk in the park. He said he could feel the stress fall off him."
It amazed us that volunteers like Cindy Chapman, Jean Lauder, Carrie Cate and Richard Layman had transformed a former petting zoo into a gem of Rio Grande Valley native shrub forest. It took 17 years of persistent effort to make the transformation. The work has proven the value of creating native wild space in the middle of a thriving urban area.
The value comes in two forms. First, original native wildlife return for people to enjoy. Second, tourists come to see an example of the original landscape and its original wildlife.
The City of Weslaco and the volunteers for the VNC envisioned wild space as an important component to the economic development and beauty of the city.
Hall said, "I have to compliment the City of Weslaco. Had it not been for their forward thinking, we would not have this gem."
The Visitor's Center houses a gift shop as well as an exhibit hall packed with educational displays. Volunteer Richard Layman told us of the hard work it took to restore an old abandoned building into a showcase of nature education. We thought it was work well done.
We hope you'll get down to Weslaco and see the Valley Nature Centerís unique "secret garden" of wild plants and wild creatures. Youíll feel life's stress falling off you. The preserve is located at 301 S. Border Street in Gibson Park, one block south of Business Highway 83. Call 956-969-2475 for more information.
Gary Clark and Kathy Adams Clark - NPN 134
Gary Clark is a writer and professor. Kathy Adams Clark is a professional nature photographer who teaches photography and is on the Board of NANPA. They make their home in The Woodlands, Texas. Visit their web site at www.kathyadamsclark.com.
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