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Prior to the mid-1990s, when I first noticed advertisements extolling its virtues as a birding hotspot, I had never heard of Harlingen, Texas. At that time, Brownsville to the southeast and McAllen to the west, were the towns that came to mind when one talked about birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV). Over time, Harlingen has become known to many as the gateway to RGV birding. How and why did this come to be?
If you drive northwest from Brownsville on Hwy 77 and then west on Hwy 83 to McAllen/Mission, you'll pass through Harlingen at about the halfway point. Through the windshield there is nothing that might cause you to think that it's different from the many other communities along this corridor. Its regional airport, one of three in the Lower RGV, has several incoming and outgoing flights daily, most connecting with either Houston or San Antonio. Otherwise, its only discernible advantage is that it lies at the intersection of the region's two main highways. If you are coming to the Valley from Corpus Christi or points farther north, Harlingen offers a welcome break after a long drive through mostly unpopulated farm and ranch lands. Lodging options and places to eat are plentiful. More importantly, many of the Valley's premier birding sites are less than an hour away. Turn left (southeast) and you're on your way to South Padre Island, Laguna Atascosa NWR, and Brownsville. Turn right (upriver) and Estero Llano Grande State Park, Santa Ana NWR, Bentsten-Rio Grande Valley State Park, along with various other upstream sites await exploration. It would be easy to conclude that Harlingen benefits mostly from the advantages that come with being the town at the crossroads. However, a closer look reveals that Harlingen's rise is the result of a concerted effort by civic leaders, the chamber of commerce, and local birders.
Over the past two decades, the increasingly popular Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) has cemented Harlingen's status as the hub for birding activities in the Valley. When the festival started in 1994, the notion of eco-tourism as an economic engine was relatively new, but the concept was gaining traction world-wide. Forward-thinking Harlingen civic leaders, most notably Nancy Millar, who headed the Harlingen Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and Janice Wyrick, who sat on the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce executive committee in the early 90s, recognized that birders already represented a significant portion of the Valley's visitors and came to understand that the Valley offered some unique avian attractions. Upon returning from a CVB conference where there had been a major buzz about "eco-tourism," Millar was anxious to find a way to put Harlingen on the eco-tourism map.
When Millar first presented the idea of sponsoring a birding festival to the Chamber of Commerce executive committee, only Wyrick, the committee's lone female member, was intrigued. Through her long-time friendship with local birder/bird artist Tony Bennett and his wife Liz (now Liz DeLuna Gordon) Wyrick had been made aware of the Valley's birdlife and the need for habitat conservation. As early as 1988, the Bennetts had written letters to community leaders in hopes starting a birding festival. Their enthusiasm helped inspire Wyrick's confidence in Millar's efforts to create such an event. So she volunteered to chair the organizing effort so long as they could find a local bird expert to help out.
That expert would be Tom Pincelli, a Catholic priest who has been a fixture in RGV birding community since arriving in south Texas in 1980. In birding circles, all you need to say is "Father Tom" or "Father Bird," and many in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond will know exactly who you are talking about. Pincell is a Connecticut native, who started birding in 1972. By the time the church offered him a congregation in Harlingen in 1980, he was well acquainted with the special birding opportunities in south Texas. For a birding priest, this assignment must have been like winning the lottery. Ever since, Father Tom has tirelessly promoted birding and bird habitat conservation in the Valley. When the festival organizers came calling, he was arguably the region's most well-known birder, thus his involvement brought the fledgling event instant credibility.
After clearing the initial hurdle and gaining the support of the Chamber, the five-member founding group, which included Pincelli, Jan Wyrick, Terri Bortness, Nancy Millar, and Liz DeLuna Gordon (then Liz Bennett), formed a 501-3c non-profit organization, picked a name for the festival, and elected Pincelli president and Wyrick as vice president of the event. Pincelli and DeLuna Gordon would organize the birders and work on the schedule of field trips and other activities, while Wyrick and Millar worked their connections in an effort to secure corporate sponsorships and support from the business community. Bortness, who worked under Nancy Millar, was the Chamber of Commerce liason to the festival and perhaps best described as the dotter of all I's and crosser of all T's when it cames to things involving money. She managed event tickets, name tags, filed all the required financial reports and generally assisted Millar in maintaining the Chamber "umbrella" over the event. In addition to this core group, Tony Bennett was the festival's first artist in residence so to speak. He illustrated the first t-shirt and created the festival's logo.
Liz DeLuna Gordon, then a 27-year-old hairdresser and self-proclaimed "big mouth," was just getting started on a career as the "Jill" of all trades. She worked to line up vendors for the trade show and pushed for a kids program that remains one of the centerpieces of the festival. She also helped coordinate field trips, and was involved in procuring festival souvenirs. As she tells it, "I was running all over town telling people this thing was cool!" Even though she hasn't lived in Texas for several years–first moving to Lewes, Delaware and then to Colorado Springs, Colorado with her current husband (and ABA President) Jeff Gordon–Liz returns to the festival each year to don her red "volunteer staff" t-shirt and lend a hand where needed. More often than not, you'll find her surrounded by school-age children who are drawing birds, painting birds on their faces, and creating bird-related crafts in the kids area.
Support from the City of Harlingen would be vital in staging the festival. Without free use of the city event buildings, okays to place signage around town, and other infrastructure considerations it would have been near impossible to pull it off. Father Tom arranged a meeting with the mayor and took along a stack of Roger Tory Peterson's books in an effort to demonstrate that having Peterson as the festival's first keynote speaker would be a major draw. Peterson's involvement probably did little to sway the mayor, as he didn't know who Peterson was. What the mayor did recognize was the overwhelming passion and enthusiasm of the local organizers. Taking what might be considered a leap of faith, he 'green lighted' virtually all of their requests. In hindsight, his decision to endorse the inaugural event might be among the most important choices of his days in office and after that first year, the mayor became one of festival's staunchest advocates.
The initial Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (1994) drew a remarkable 750 attendees (http://www.rgvbf.org/about/). With many of the festival goers coming from outside the area, there was an appreciable economic boon to Harlingen-area motels and restaurants. This grabbed the attention of local politicians and business leaders. Although the RGVBF has been organized and run entirely by volunteers (no paid staff) from the start, it continues to thrive in large measure due to the financial support of the Harlingen Convention and Visitors Bureau and the City of Harlingen (http://www.rgvbf.org/about/). The success of the RGVBF has been used as a model by similar events that have sprouted up all over North America and elsewhere in the world. The earliest birding festivals were often the brainchild of a birding club or conservation organization. Nowadays, these events are mostly started by non-birder community and business leaders who are anxious to tap into the economic benefits of eco-tourism.
Beyond the obvious economic impacts, the RGVBF has helped local residents recognize that they live amid a unique (to the United States) and diverse collection of birds, butterflies and habitats that merit protection and "stewardship" (Texas Legacy Project, Pincelli interview 2000). The festival has became a source of civic pride, even among those who are not birders. Community members who come to the daily exhibits and trade show at the Harlingen Auditorium now make up a big chunk of the festival's overall attendance. Civic pride, combined with the realization that "birds equal dollars," has driven the political and business support needed to keep the festival going strong for nearly two decades.
The festival remains vibrant by offering an ever-evolving slate of field trips designed to introduce participants to the specialty species of the region, many of which can be found no where else in the U.S. In addition to highly specialized explorations for target species, like the evening "parrot trips," there are "big day" tours where one can expect to see in excess of 140 species during ten hours in the field. There are hawk-banding workshops, butterfly walks, and even "easy" trips that are a popular alternative for those whose physical condition necessitates bird outings that don't involve much walking or physical exertion.
Most of the field trips are half-day, which leaves the afternoon open for participants to take in programs, a wonderful exhibition of bird art by kids from local schools, and the trade show. All of these events are held inside the air-conditioned Harlingen Auditorium. Even in November, daytime temps in the Valley often climb to well in excess of 80F.
Those hoping to take full advantage of their time in the Valley often use the afternoons and early evenings to further explore some of the 86 U.S. locations that appear on the Rio Grande Valley Birding and Butterfly Map. More than half of these sites are within 45 minutes (driving) of Harlingen. All nine of the nearby World Birding Centers are manned by knowledgeable and friendly staff and volunteers who will not only help you find your way around, but more importantly assist you in locating sought-after birds.
As an out of town leader at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival over the past three years, I have come to associate the festival with two things. First, there is a sense of family and belonging that is bestowed upon everyone who lends their efforts to making this a first-class event. From my first day in the Valley, I was welcomed like an old friend. Each year I make new friends and strengthen the bonds I've created since that first year. Further, I never cease to be amazed by the undeniable pride that blazes across the faces of the festival's volunteer staff and a community that has clearly claimed this festival as their own.
My words don't begin to capture the civic pride that this festival brings to those who call the Valley home, so I will defer to Jan Wyrick, who sent me lengthy answers to a series of questions that I posed to her about the early days of the festival. The paragraph below is excerpted from her answer to my question about how the community views the festival and the number of birders visiting the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
One of the most rewarding things about having been a part of the "birthing" of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, aside from being in on the ground floor of something so powerful and so life changing, is knowing that those untried and untrue hunches of ours way back when were SPOT ON! I was 4o years old when we embarked on the road to our first Festival. I knew in my heart that we had struck major pay dirt, not only for the City of Harlingen, but for the Valley overall and most importantly for our Valley birds and efforts to conserve their habitats. For me, life really did "begin at 40." When I look around today, as opposed to what I saw when we started in 1994, I see a community that has wholly bought into the Festival and one that is fully invested in supporting it. We have become a household word. By the looks of things today, we can't foresee the community losing interest or abandoning the festival anytime soon. We touted two things when we initially reached out to the City, the community, and the media in the early stages. One was quite simply, "birds=$$$. Secondly, we adopted a quote, "In a world where money talks, our land needs value to give it a voice." We've proven both of these premises to be SPOT ON! By investing our money where the birds are, we have created both tangible and intangible returns to the City and community coffers. In doing so, we've also inspired a growing community of local birders (like me) who are excited by the chance to get behind the most successful community-based endeavor to hit Harlingen and the Valley over the past 20 years.
Prior to the volunteer party at the end of this year's festival (November 2012), I had never met Jan Wyrick. After a quick introduction from current RGVBF president Marci Madsen-Fuller, I told Jan that I was working on this article, which I'd started before I left for Texas. I asked if she might answer a few questions about the festival's early days if I sent them to her in an email. My request was met with a gush of enthusiasm. We chatted for a couple of minutes, then I excused myself so that Jan could get back to enjoying the many long-time festival friends who were waiting to talk to her. Despite the brevity of our initial exchange, she closed her first email response to me with the following:
Until Next We Meet, Be Well My Friend!! Jan
Jan's spirit and the spirit of the festival and all of the volunteers who live up and down the Lower Rio Grande Valley, is truly captured in these eight words. When you come to the Valley, expect to be treated as a friend. They know you'll be back.
The answer to "Why Harlingen" has little to do with the birds one might see in Harlingen proper. The answer lies in the choices made by a small group of dedicated and enthusiastic people (some of whom are not even birders) who saw an opportunity and seized it. It was folks from Harlingen who creatively marketed their town as a birding mecca, when in reality it was not at the time. They claimed the name "Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival" and then created an event that lives up to the billing. They inspired the City of Harlingen and its leaders to believe in their unproven idea, and then convinced them to donate the use of buildings and provide the vital support that allowed them to pull if off...and pull it off they did! Collectively, these folks embodied the notion of "fake it til you make it."
Why Harlingen? Because a few dared to ask, "Why not Harlingen?"
Author's Note: While this is not my story, my association with the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival over the past three years has enriched my life in ways that have given me cause to want to share the magic of this event with others. It's a story that could not have been told without the contributions of Jan Wyrick and Liz DeLuna Gordon, who patiently answered questions and set me straight when my narrative strayed from their recollection of events. Father Tom Pincelli also reviewed this account and thankfully found only one factoid that needed attention. I also want to thank current RGVBF Chairperson Marci Madsen-Fuller, who introduced me to Jan Wyrick and who continues to be a stalwart steward of the culture and spirit that has accompanied this event from the very beginning. Finally, I have to acknowledge Mary Gustafson, who took a leap of faith of her own back in 2010, when she took on a new leader for the festival who had never before birded in the Rio Grande Valley, or anywhere in south Texas for that matter. That new leader was me. I had never seen a Green Jay, nor had I heard my first Great Kiskadee, and I spent that first trip to Harlingen being utterly confounded by the Hwy 77/Hwy 83 interchange and the spiderweb of associated frontage roads. Thanks Mary, for letting me fake it til I figured it out and for all the subsequent joys that have come from my association with this festival and the fine folks who make it so special.