It was nothing short of genius when the Valley Land Fund made the monumental decision to obtain six residential lots on Sheepshead in South Padre Island and turn then into a permanent bird sanctuary.

The McAllen-based conservation group had a vision and acted on it. The VLF saved the lots from development and turned them into a birding oasis. There’s no telling how many thousands of birders and birds owe the group a big thanks. I attended the grand opening ceremony some 15 years ago, but never knew how important the event really was at the time. As the years go by, my appreciation has deepened each year and I’m certain others feel the same way. Officially, the lots are called the South Padre Island Bird Sanctuary, but most people refer to them as the Valley Land Fund lots, or just Sheepshead.

The lots are subdivided into a couple of habitats. Land on the south side of Sheepshead feature a thick stand of trees, brush and tall grass, along with three water features. On the north side of the street is more open territory. Each habitat attracts many of the same birds, but also a few different ones. For example, the north lots feature more flycatchers and birds that like open spaces. The wooded south lots are magnets for birds that like lots of trees and cover, including warblers.

During the spring and fall neo-tropical bird migrations, a visit to South Padre Island isn’t complete without a stop at the Sheepshead lots. It’s a good place to view painted buntings, indigo buntings, greater nighthawks, black-and-white warblers, inca doves, hooded warblers, northern parulas and, well, the list is almost endless. Each year a few rarities always seem to show up, such as the black-throated blue warbler, golden-winged warbler, Bullock’s oriole, western tanager and others. I’ve even seen green herons, which seem somewhat out of place.

According to the VLF, the lots are “for the feeding and resting of neotropicals.” But I stop by the lots during the summer and winter when migrants are no longer coming through. It’s possible to see common yellowthroats, Couch’s kingbirds, Eurasian collared doves and even scissor-tailed flycatchers perched on utility wires. On one fall day, I saw about 75 eastern kingbirds at the lots or flying over them.

There’s no admission fee at the VLF lots, but donations are welcome. Some birders bring seed, citrus and hummingbird feeders during the spring migration.

Imagine the relief a migrating painted bunting feels after flying 600 miles over the Gulf of Mexico. It’s exhausted, hungry and thirsty. It finally sights land and the invisible welcome sign at the Valley Land Fund lots where it can refuel and rest up before continuing its journey to summer nesting areas. That’s what the lots are all about. I’m just thankful there is a Valley Land Fund around to preserve this and other habitats for birds.

Steve Clark