Home GardeningGarden Diary Birds and native thorn forest at Quinta Mazatlan

Birds and native thorn forest at Quinta Mazatlan


December 19, 2023

In early November, I drove 5 hours south to the Rio Grande Valley, land of citrus orchards and skinny-trunked palm trees. I was there for the final photo shoot for my upcoming book on Texas gardens (due out in 2025 with Timber Press). But I couldn’t leave without visiting Quinta Mazatlan again, located in McAllen just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Quinta Mazatlan is a city-owned nature center and World Birding Center on the 15-acre grounds of a romantic 1930s Spanish Revival-style mansion. Work has begun on an expansion of the grounds, and I learned that Austin’s own Ten Eyck Landscape Architects is involved, so I am sure the new design will be wonderful.

Before exploring the grounds, I stopped in at the mansion, admiring its Spanish-style grandeur and the almost tropical landscaping of bananas, birds of paradise, and palms.

Cantera stone urns hold agaves that look like green flames.

Carved wooden doors bear the faces of the original owner’s family.

Fossilized shell imprints in the stone are a reminder of an ancient seabed.

World Birding Center grounds

Time to explore the grounds! An upright stone-turned-cactus planter greets visitors near the entrance.

Feather-leaved sago palms line the path…

…and one of Quinta Mazatlan’s many animal sculptures, a roadrunner tending her nest in a prickly pear bower, appears here too.

Along the drive, a rainbow-hued bike sculpture stands out against the greenery. I tried to find info online about this artwork but no luck.

Quinta Mazatlan describes its grounds as a thorn forest, the preferred habitat of many species of birds.

In addition to agaves and a thicket of night-blooming cereus, I saw many spiny and spiky plants, which offer protection for small creatures. Other plants in the thorn forest include the following:

“Granjeno, fiddlewood, kidneywood, and guayacan provide berries or seeds as a meal. Native plants that provide nectar to the animals are the Turk’s cap, Scarlet sage, and Texas lantana. Prickly pear, tasajillo, and Night-blooming cereus, though they are cactus, provide nectar, food, and shelter for many animals.”


Another bird sculpture

And another — a weaver and its nest — near an outdoor classroom

One more

Hollow tree trunks are left standing for habitat.

Woodpecker holes?

A gauntlet of painted sticks brightens one path — another mystery art installation.

Other animal sculptures include a tree-resting ocelot…

…a stalking mountain lion…

…a horned lizard…

…and a Texas indigo snake. Funny story: I was listening for birds along an old irrigation canal near this sculpture when I heard a rustling of leaves beside me. I looked into the canal to see what it was. A 5- or 6-foot length of girthy black snake was sliding into the canal’s culvert. Its head was already in the culvert, so its total length may have been 6 or 7 feet. I find snakes intriguing rather than scary, but this one was so big — and so close — that I stood motionless in surprise. It disappeared. “Whoa,” I said.

A few steps further along the trail, I saw this sculpture, and — aha! — I knew that I’d just encountered the real thing. What a lucky sighting!

Texas indigo snakes are good guys. They dine on rattlesnakes (impressive!), and they lack venom, so they’re good to have around. Think of them as the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi of South Texas.

Mansion and courtyard

Behind the Quinta Mazatlan mansion, a white stucco wall encloses a large courtyard. At one entrance, an enormous live oak supports a scrolled-metal swing.

On the opposite side, another huge live oak extends its shade over a gravel patio.

Fire pit bowls and stump stools indicate this area sees use as a casual gathering place after dark.

A covered terrace offers welcome shade.

Bees were enjoying late-season flowers.

Quinta Mazatlan is a World Birding Center, and many of the visitors that day were birders toting binoculars and megaphone-sized telephoto lenses. With only a cell phone camera myself, I didn’t capture any bird images worth sharing, but I sure saw some interesting birds, including chicken-like chachalacas and a flock of gorgeous green jays.

Inside the courtyard, palms tower over curved ponds where a swimming pool once was.

Agave in bloom

Stepping into the house, I poked around its main rooms, including this sun porch…

…with seashell fireplace.

Tile art…

…and tapestries adorn the walls.

I found an original bathroom with a Roman tiled tub and carved stone spigot basin.

And at the entrance, a painting of a green jay — one of the beautiful birds in the thorn forest that day.

Charming folk art in a hallway

Folk Art Room

In fact, there’s an entire room devoted to Mexican folk art, part of the private collection of McAllen artist and collector Ann Maddox Moore.

Fourteen hundred pieces of rainbow-bright folk art are on dazzling display.

Gift shop

In Quinta Mazatlan’s gift shop, I was happy to see my book The Water-Saving Garden for sale!

Lunch in the garden

Colleen Hook and Betty Perez

Most enjoyable of all, I was treated to an al fresco lunch by executive director Colleen Hook, and had a wonderful conversation with her and native-plant advocate, grower, and rancher Betty Perez. These two women are doing important conservation work in the Rio Grande Valley by promoting native plants and encouraging people to make room for native wildlife habitat in their own yards. I’m honored to know them!

To read about my previous visit to Quinta Mazatlan: Visit to Quinta Mazatlan, birding, and Planta Nativa Festival

And for more about birding in South Texas: Birding and beaches at South Padre Island

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Digging Deeper

Hey, Austin-area gardeners, come learn about making a waterwise, Texas-hardy crevice garden! Register for my next Garden Spark talk with Coleson Bruce on January 18th. He’s created one of the most interesting and beautiful xeriscape gardens I’ve seen in Austin. Learn all about it and hang out with fellow gardeners who are interested in good design. Hope to see you there!

Come learn about garden design from the experts at Garden Spark! I organize in-person talks by inspiring designers, landscape architects, and authors a few times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance; simply click this link and ask to be added. The Season 7 lineup can be found here.

All material © 2023 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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