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Visiting with Big Mama
by Keith Hackland (alamoinn@aol.com)
photo credits: Keith Hackland
published May 2015

Creeping up behind a reclining bright green spring mesquite, I raised binoculars and stared into the brown, scaly face of Big Mama, a huge alligator, reclined at the edge of the pond. Its steely eyes appeared to be doing the math, estimating my caloric value. Its stomach was rotund and its paws relaxed. Today it would not chase me because it was full of waterfowl. Waterfowl are easier to catch than humans. None-the-less, in my nervous state I imagined alligators discussing different foods -- waterfowl, feathery and barely a mouthful; humans, soft on the outside and crunchy on the inside, like a big candy bar, and quite satisfying.

It was one of those warm spring days and I had heard rumors of alligators living in Weslaco, at a pond on the lower edge of a pasture, near the floodway. I had discovered one, so it was true. I turned back and sauntered across a waving grass plain, following the tracks of trucks from the past, back to the fence line and Old Blue, my battered transport.

When I roamed its abandoned farmland in 1998, who could have predicted the future of this area? Today it supports mesquite and retama woodland, several extensive wading ponds and duck ponds, an impressive shaded visitor center deck with wide views, water, grebes and coots at its feet. Due to enlightened design and management, this land is today a premier Texas birding site. It is visited by thousands of birders and other nature tourists weekly, Monday through Sunday. Walking from the parking lot, folks are impressed by the thoughtful plantings of native trees and bushes, and big bird's feet leading the way to a path of large soft Mexican brick. The path runs to a visitor center. It leads folks through prime Valley butterfly habitat. Native plumbago bushes with their delicate white blooms line the path. Butterflies flit ahead while others work nectar out of flowers. Overhead mesquite, retama and anacua shade the path. Brilliant red bougainvilla blooms poke through the green backdrop. Kiskadadee calls ring out above and somewhere inside the brush something stirs. It is probably a chachalaca.

Round a bend in the path and ahead is the magnificent visitor center, a deck spread with great vistas, picnic tables, shade, and a cooling southerly breeze loaded with scents of water and blossoms, a welcome experience on a warm day. Estero Llano Grande State Park is its official name. It is famous for great birding every day of the year. It also attracts those rare vagrants that bring birders flying in from across the U.S. This past fall and winter a Greycrowned Yellowthroat was a co-operative resident for many weeks. Other habitat has been added to Estero. There is the Tropical Area, where tropical trees, bougainvilla, and bright bushes survive from its former life as a residential mobile home park. Then there is Camp Thicket, with bungalows for special events, reminding us that it was once a Methodist church camp. The Thicket has woodland that has never been cleared, providing insight into the Valley habitat one hundred and fifty years ago, and providing a great protected reservoir for nesting birds.

Estero offers many different habitats in its 230 acres, resulting in its supporting many different families of birds, and Estero is small enough to comfortably walk its length and breadth. One can see raptors, flycatchers, waders, ducks, doves, and migrants. Behind the visitor center there are hummingbird feeders that attract great hummers, and more native butterfly plants popular with butterflies. Estero is well known as the go-to place for spotting Common Paraque, a night flyer that roosts in leaf litter during the day, and forages for insects at dusk and dawn. Walks lead by Estero's knowledgeable and popular naturalists are offered throughout the year, and are highly recommended by visitors.

Oh, by the way, during Estero's development, the original pond with its alligators was enhanced, and is a popular destination in the park, its resident alligators happily on site, with posted warning signs to watch out for alligators, especially Big Mama. This great destination is aptly named Alligator Pond.