Being saved at Sabal Palm Sanctuary

IMG_7618The fan-like leaves of the sabal palms fluttered in the light breeze as if held in the well-manicured hands of a dainty southern lady seeking relief on a hot, humid day.

I looked up at the cluster of leafy fans, hoping that the breeze they were stirred up in would save me in the hot southern Texas sun as we looked for birds. A volunteer at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary was giving our group of 18 a quick history of the plantation in front of the white stately Queen Anne style house that once served as the plantation’s working headquarters. The history rests mainly on an enterprising and visionary man, Frank Rabb, who in the late nineteenth century experimented with irrigation systems and agricultural crops in the Rio Grande Valley, along with vigorously petitioning to get rail lines extended to the area, making large-scale agriculture in the area possible. Rabb also dabbled in politics during the time of the Mexican Revolution, but ultimately, Rabb would find himself back at the plantation.

The plantation originally encompassed 20,535 acres in its prime and after Rabb’s death, it passed hands within the family. Eventually, the acreage around the house was conveyed to the National Audubon Society and established as a sanctuary and breeding habitat for a number of endangered birds as well as a critical source of shelter and food for migrating and wintering species. It’s this sanctuary–a 527-acre tract of land in Brownsville, Texas–that contains one of the last vestiges of original Sabal Palm forest in the U.S.


But let’s get to the birds

We split into two groups, one going left and the other going right. The pathway is a loop and we cross paths at some point, but for now, we thinned out, each group with two leaders who were familiar with the area and its birds.

The following are photos from this trip to Sabal Palm with tips at the end of this post.

The first area we stopped off were the feeders. The Sanctuary has a live feeder cam set up here so if you’re not able to visit in person, you can get good views of the Green Jays…



…a Black-crested Titmouse…


and the always-vocal Plain Chachalaca.

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I also got to see a lifer here–the Least Grebe, a south Texas specialty (you’ll only be able to find this guy in south Texas in the U.S.).


And there were also the Great Kiskadee, another south Texas specialty…


…and the Immature Eastern Phoebe.


Oh, and a Bull Frog on a log.


We also saw some mixed flocks of warblers and a Gray Hawk overhead (full list is below). If we lived in the Rio Grande Valley I’m certain I would be a regular visitor to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary.

What is a sanctuary?

When I think of the word, sanctuary, I don’t think of it just as a place of refuge for the creatures it’s protecting. It means peacestillness. It means someone saved it. It’s a sanctuary for the visitor and sometimes I need saving too and that’s why I do this.

As I walked the paths on this carved-out little section of Frank Rabb’s vision and hard work, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for all that he did and pursued, that industry and preservation can be combined for good. And that all of us can be saved.


  • Give yourself at least a half day to spend here. Arrive in the morning for more bird activity.
  • Walking is fairly flat, but often on uneven surfaces (dirt/natural paths)
  • If you just want to go as far as the feeders, they’re not too far from the plantation home.
  • The plantation home has bathrooms inside to use and also has snacks, water and soft drinks for sale in its gift shop.
  • Put your phone on airplane mode because you’re right next to the U.S./Mexico border, otherwise you’ll pick up the Mexican tel services, which will put you in International roaming and you’ll hate that when you get your phone bill.
  • Be sure to check out the bird / butterfly / wildlife listing on the chalkboard in plantation house. Usually we see these on whiteboards, but I thought the chalkboard was charming.


Birds we saw during our visit to Sabal Palm Sanctuary

  1. Mottled Duck
  2. Blue-winged Teal
  3. Ruddy Duck
  4. Plain Chachalaca
  5. Least Grebe
  6. Pied-billed Grebe
  7. Neotropic Cormorant
  8. Anhinga
  9. Great Blue Heron
  10. Turkey Vulture
  11. Osprey
  12. Cooper’s Hawk
  13. Harris’s Hawk
  14. Gray Hawk
  15. Red-shouldered Hawk
  16. Broad-winged Hawk
  17. Swainson’s Hawk
  18. Common Gallinule
  19. American Coot
  20. Sandhill Crane
  21. White-tipped Dove
  22. Mourning Dove
  23. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  24. Buff-bellied Hummingbird
  25. Green Kingfisher
  26. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  27. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  28. Western/Eastern Wood-Pewee
  29. Pacific-slope Flycatcher
  30. Eastern Phoebe
  31. Great Kiskadee
  32. Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird
  33. White-eyed Vireo
  34. Philadelphia Vireo
  35. Green Jay
  36. Barn Swallow
  37. Black-crested Titmouse
  38. House Wren
  39. Carolina Wren
  40. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  41. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  42. Gray Catbird
  43. Long-billed Thrasher
  44. Northern Mockingbird
  45. European Starling
  46. Black-and-white Warbler
  47. Tennessee Warbler
  48. Orange-crowned Warbler
  49. Nashville Warbler
  50. Common Yellowthroat
  51. Northern Parula
  52. Magnolia Warbler
  53. Bay-breasted Warbler
  54. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  55. Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
  56. Black-throated Green Warbler
  57. Wilson’s Warbler
  58. Olive Sparrow
  59. Northern Cardinal
  60. Red-winged Blackbird
  61. Great-tailed Grackle
  62. Altamira Oriole
  63. House Sparrow