Eleven in the morning is not the best time of day to start birding. But when my plane landed at that hour in the Rio Grande Valley, reputedly one of the best places for bird-watching in the country, I just couldn't wait.

Driving 15 minutes from the McAllen airport to Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, I scored immediately, notching ringed kingfishers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, black-necked stilts, several varieties of herons, circling ospreys and ducks by the dozens before noon.

"I can easily get 50 to 60 species in a day," Gabe De Jong, a park naturalist, told me inside Edinburg's glass-walled interpretive center. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is perhaps the last place where you might consider communing with nature. Where it isn't plotted into RV parks serving northern retirees who come for the warmth and proximity to cheap prescription drugs in Mexico, the valley is sectioned into shopping malls or grapefruit and onion fields. Nonetheless, this narrow green hem has become one of the nation's top spots for bird-watching. A strip of native riparian vegetation (only 5 percent of the original woodlands remains) is a vital flyway for an estimated 500 bird species, both resident varieties and those migrating between North and Central or South America.

A getaway that's for the birds

In September the last of nine valley parks that comprise the World Birding Center opened on South Padre Island near the mouth of the Rio Grande. The center preserves more than 10,000 acres for animals -- from ocelots to orioles -- via sites strung along the 120 miles of river between the town of Roma and South Padre. A partnership among Texas Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the nine valley communities aims to promote eco-tourism.

With a rental car, some binoculars and the tenacity to look beyond the billboards advertising surgical weight-loss procedures, I staged a four-day road trip along the south Texas border in March, stopping at all nine of the World Birding Center sites -- easily accessible along Interstate 83 -- with another wildlife preserve thrown in.

Though I traveled solo, I rarely bird watched alone. Birders are always eager to share their finds. At Estero Llano Grande State Park, the second World Birding Center I visited after Edinburg, I bumped into Colin Downey and Kharli Rose of Sarasota, Fla., staking out a hummingbird feeder. "We think it's a buff-bellied," whispered Rose, training her two-foot-long camera lens on the bird.

A safe, wild place

The U.S. Border Patrol is a constant presence along the river, and in light of the recent drug-related violence on the Mexican side, a welcome, if disquieting sight. Lunch for the chachalacas, vibrant green jays and orange-hooded Altamira orioles consisted of peanut butter smeared on feeders at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, about 47 miles back downriver from Roma. The 760-acre state park is off-limits to cars, but trams ferry visitors to various trailheads, bird blinds and sites like the two-story hawk viewing tower. On my circuit a baby javelina suckled its mother as she scavenged birdseed, and several cyclists reported seeing a mother bobcat and cub streaking across the road.

As rewarding as the World Birding Centers are, one of the wildest places in the valley remains the unaffiliated Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,088-acre riverfront reserve in nearby Alamo, where I stopped one evening to catch the sunset from the levee. Like the Rio Grande canoe trip, there's more to admire here than birds. The riparian forest, for one, with Spanish moss draping cedar elm, Texas ebony and Mexican ash trees. The moss tendrils give the forest a magical quality, compounded by the collie-size bobcat that I glimpsed 20 yards up a trail.

Spreading the message

The newest center, the South Padre Island World Birding Center, straddles the developed world and the wild. It faces the expansive Laguna Madre Bay, the inland waterway that separates the barrier island from the mainland, but neighbors the island's waste water treatment plant. The utility discharges fresh water into the center's wetlands, drawing waterfowl and migrants coming and going over the Gulf of Mexico.

Famous for its spring break scene, South Padre thrives on tourism, but the eco-minded view the outpost as a way to reach broader audiences. "We're trying to capture the interest of the general population, get them hooked on birding and be a gateway to other centers," said the manager, Cate Ball, whose facilities include a mile-long boardwalk over the marshes and along the bay. "Aside from the learning aspect, the boardwalk provides a spiritual place to be, to get away and think."