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Birds and the Trees

Sabal Palm Sanctuary’s lesson in South Texas
Written by Matt Joyce.

Green jays live year-round at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, which is home to Texas’ last remaining stand of original Sabal palm forest. Click on the image for a peek at the sanctuary's live bird cam. (Photo © Larry Ditto)

To see south Texas in its natural state and how the Rio Grande Valley looked before it was cut into farms and cities, you’ve got to travel to the state’s southernmost tip. Here, on the bank of the once-mighty river, you’ll find the last remaining stand of original Texas Sabal palm trees, one of only two palm species native to Texas.

The 30 verdant acres of old-growth forest are the cornerstone of the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a 527-acre reserve on the outskirts of Brownsville. The sanctuary provides an opportunity to explore a vestige of the palm forest ecosystem that once flourished on 90 square miles along the meandering Rio Grande.

Along with four miles of hiking trails, the sanctuary is home to the 1892 Rabb Plantation home, and most famously, a remarkable population of birds. About 85 percent of the sanctuary’s 6,000 annual human visitors come during the non-summer months, when northern bird species also flock to the Valley and its moderate climate (the only subtropical environment in Texas). The sanctuary offers birding and history tours on Saturdays from November to April.

“Different species move through and utilize the sanctuary for different reasons. Some are stopping by to refuel here; some are nesting here,” says naturalist Seth Patterson, an employee of the Brownsville-based Gorgas Science Foundation, which operates the sanctuary. “We get rarities here pretty commonly.”

The sanctuary is home to birds that venture no farther north than extreme South Texas, such as the green jay, the chachalaca, the buff-bellied hummingbird, and the groove-billed ani. It also attracts northern birds that make their winter habitat among the palms, including various warblers, red-shouldered hawks, northern harriers, and redhead ducks.

'Different species move through and utilize the sanctuary for different reasons. Some are stopping by to refuel here; some are nesting here. We get rarities here pretty commonly.'

During a visit in August, the feeders and water basins at the mouth of the forest hopped with activity. In the span of a few minutes, callers included a green jay, a black-crested titmouse, a long-billed thrasher, olive sparrows, doves, and an eastern cottontail rabbit.

The Rabb Plantation home, a brick-and-wood, Queen Anne-style home at the sanctuary’s entrance, once served as headquarters for a sprawling agricultural operation. The Gorgas Science Foundation reopens the home as a visitor center on November 17, 2013, following a $250,000 restoration project. Here you’ll find knowledgeable staff members, educational displays about local birds and wildlife, and mosquito repellent to keep the ubiquitous insects at bay.

Foundation CEO Larry Lof says the house helps tell the story of agriculture in the region, and its influence on the natural environment. Frank Rabb was one of the first businessmen to pump water out of the Rio Grande for irrigated farming in the 1890s, finding that the riverbank’s alluvial soils were well-suited for crops like corn, cotton, sorghum, and sugarcane. While Rabb and other farmers cleared much of the original palm forest, the remaining stand of old-growth Sabal palms survived, most likely because the ground was uneven and tough to clear. Within Rabb’s lifetime, the “palm jungle” had become a local tourist destination—and marked for preservation.

“Frank Rabb was on one hand part of the instrument of the forest’s loss, but on the other hand, he was instrumental in keeping the last piece,” Lof says. “For us, the house is such an integral part of telling this bigger story.”

The newly re-stored 1892 Rabb Plantation home reopens as the Sabal Palm Sanctuary visitor center in November. (Photo © Erich Schlegel)

The sanctuary’s hiking trails branch to the east and west of the entry road. Wide, flat trails, wooden benches spaced along the route, map posters, and placards identifying flora and fauna make for an educational walk that’s as easy as you wish to make it.

On the west side, the Forest Trail bisects the old-growth forest, where the Sabal palms tower over a thick understory made up of Texas ebony, huisache, and other plants. When walking the path, one of the first things you’ll notice is the ring of the cicada’s song, which is interrupted only by chirping birds. The undergrowth is a swarm of rustling activity as cicadas, birds, and hispid cotton rats flit about the vegetation and racerunner lizards skitter off the trail. Patches of sunlight peek through the canopy, but it’s hard to imagine navigating the forest without a trail.

The Forest Trail intersects the Resaca Loop Trail, which circles a small lake that was once part of the Rio Grande before the river changed course more than a century ago. During these days of drought, the sanctuary pumps river water into the resaca to enhance wildlife habitat. A wooden, octagonal bird-blind on the resaca provides a shady spot to sit and watch as birds fish and sun.

On the eastern half of the sanctuary, the trails are more exposed, passing through native trees that were planted in 1990 as part of a reforestation effort. The trail joins a dirt road—patrolled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection SUVs—and crosses a levee, dropping down to the Rio Grande. A wooden deck overlooks the olive-green waters of the river—about 30 yards wide here—and the steep bank on the Mexican side. On this day, a fat Texas indigo snake wound its way through the murky water.

Along with the occasional Border Patrol sighting, the biggest reminder of international politics is the 20-foot-tall border fence just north of the sanctuary. The caliche road that enters the sanctuary passes through an opening in the fence, and sometimes, would-be visitors simply turn around in trepidation, Patterson says. The construction of the fence was part of the reason the National Audubon Society, the owner of the property, decided to close the sanctuary in 2009. After 18 months closed to the public, the sanctuary reopened in 2011 under management of the Gorgas Science Foundation.

“A lot of people drive up to the border fence, and they’re hesitant to drive through it,” Patterson says. “We get a lot of calls from people who are stopped at the fence. Public perception has been tough. We’re trying to help that out and put up more signage to curb that hesitation.”

It’s certainly safe to visit the sanctuary, and well worth the trip south. After all, the border fence has no bearing on the birds.

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