Commentary: Protect SPI center habitat

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Regarding the proposed expansion of the South Padre Island Convention Center and its potential impact on the significant migratory bird habitat created years ago, I offer the following information:

This unique space, enjoyed by thousands of visitors and photographers yearly, is of vital importance to the twice-yearly migration of birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico.

I am one of the people who tend to that area, on a volunteer basis. I would like to share with you a brief history of how this magical green dot on the map became such a vital refuge for migratory birds, to the delight of birders from all over the world.

>> It happened in the years 1996-2002, during the term of South Padre Island Mayor Ed Cyganiewicz.

>> SPI residents Will and Gill Carter requested permission to create a habitat for native South Texas plants, at their expense, on the grounds of the convention Center.

>> According to Will Carter, “Mayor Ed” was instrumental in obtaining the support of the city, and the project never would have happened had it not been for the enthusiastic backing of the mayor.

>> The Carters spent $40,000 of their own money (in the 1990s; now, in 2024, some $85,000) to prepare the land, purchase and install native trees and shrubs, and nurture the new plantings into maturity.

>> After a number of years of the Carters acting as caretakers of the new habitat, SPI residents Scarlet and George Colley assumed that role.

>> In 2018 or so, the Colleys moved, and I began to take a hand in the upkeep, particularly in the area adjacent to the outdoor restrooms, where the water feature is.

Map of South Padre Island’s planned expansion of its convention center. (Courtesy Image)

And a few words on the birds to which we play host:

>> The migratory birds that we attract face a twice-yearly crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, a perilous journey they must accomplish in a single non-stop flight, over water, that can take two days or more.

>> In the spring, those birds that survive the crossing arrive exhausted and in need of food, water and shelter. The native plants and insects provide food and shelter, and our water feature provides hydration.

>> In the fall, our “patch” provides the food, water and shelter the birds need before the southward crossing of the gulf.

>> The incomprehensible marvels of avian navigational skills tell us that the convention center is imprinted on the brains of many birds, as a vital stopover destination during migration.

And a few words about the birders who visit this well-known venue:

>> They come from all over the world, and from every state. The RGV is a birding destination, SPI is a top spot, and on the island there are three places that people visit:

>> The Valley Land Fund lots on Sheephead Street, with around 9,000 entries on eBird.

>> The Birding and Nature Center, with some 13,000 entries.

>> And the convention center, with more than 16,000 entries.

These entries represent only those birders who choose to file an online list of their observations. The true number of birding visitors would probably be as many as three to four times those published figures.

The convention center offers the crown jewel of South Padre Island’s birding hotspots, and merits careful consideration in any conversation where expansion would result in destruction.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention my gratitude to the staff of the convention center, who over the years have provided support in the maintenance and enhancement of this tiny, unique wildlife refuge.

Bill Beaty lives in Laguna Vista.