HARLINGEN — The number of birders has slightly dropped but local residents are closing the gap as the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival prepares to hold the Harlingen Convention Center’s biggest event yet.
Yesterday, about 550 birders were registered for the 26th annual festival running Wednesday through Sunday, down from about 600 last year, said Tamie Bulow, who oversees the festival’s registrations.
Hotels are filling up across town for the city’s biggest tourist draw.
“The economic impact of a birding convention is significant,” Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said. “It brings in people from several countries to Harlingen. It brings a lot of visitors who stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants.”
For the convention center, the festival marks the biggest event since the facility opened in May.
“We’re moving in,” Sue Griffin, the festival’s chairwoman, said. “It’s gorgeous here. It’s a new venue. I think they’ll enjoy it.”
At the door, General Manager Jeff Hamel was welcoming the festival for which his meeting rooms bear names like the Great Kiskadee.
“Things are so awesome — the synergy, the set up,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an awesome event and the best one yet.”
This year, news reports warning of violence along the U.S.-Mexico border are apparently keeping some birders home, Bulow said.
“They just don’t think it’s safe down here,” Bulow said, noting the area ranks as one of the safest in the state. “It’s kind of disappointing.”
Now, organizers are counting on drawing more local residents to the festival.
For locals, it’s the first time organizers are waiving the festival’s $25 registration fee.
As part of the program, they’ve also expanded the popular field trip “Birding with Locals,” which gives residents a chance to follow expert birding guides into acclaimed habitats.
“It allows people to see parts of the Rio Grande Valley they might not have even known about and gives them intimate birding opportunities with someone who really knows the area,” Griffin said.
Since it opened in 1994, the festival has grown into one of the largest birding events in the United States, drawing visitors from around the world.
Nestled along a main migratory flyway, the Valley’s unique ecosystem lures about 500 species of birds, the largest number documented in the United States.
“There’s so many species of birds down here that people come to see,” Gonzalez said.
Some sightings make the record books.
On Nov. 9, 2013, birders got a chance to spot an Amazon kingfisher near a San Benito resaca — the species’ second recorded sighting in the United States.
Often, birders just gaze into the trees to spot birds to add to their life lists.
“Harlingen is one of the few places in the United States where you can see parrots and parakeets out in the wild,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of people come down to see that.”
Like many hotels, Courtyard by Marriott was booked.
“It’s a great thing to have people come to our area for a festival,” said Michelle Lopez, the hotel’s sales director who serves on the Harlingen Convention & Visitors Bureau’s advisory board.
“They’ve returned and we enjoy having them here,” she said. “We see people from Australia and from the north. The (festival) can highlight our area and what it has to offer. It gives us a chance to give them some education on our area. It gives us a chance to advertise the area.”
Bigger trade show
This year, the 44,000-square-foot convention center is giving organizers a chance to expand the festival’s trade show to 82 vendors, Griffin said.
For years, she said, organizers limited the number of vendors to 60 because the festival’s old home at Casa de Amistad lacked room for more.
In previous years, vendors have sold about $30,000 worth of merchandise, including optical equipment with $2,000 price tags.
“It can be an expensive hobby,” Gonzalez said. “Some of the equipment they use is pretty pricey.”
Near Interstate 69, the convention center offers birders easy access to birding sites across the Rio Grande Valley.
“Being close to the freeway is going to be very helpful,” Griffin said. “It’s just one exit off the freeway so it’s easy to find and we’ve got more room to load into the vans.”