Building an urban forest at Quinta Mazatlán

The pavilion features a solar panel to provide the power for the pond pump at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen. (Courtesy)

By John Brush, Center for Urban Ecology

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron stopped, only the slightest quiver of its feathers counteractingits otherwise motionless state. One lightning-fast strike later and a large Gulf Coast Toad became dinner, a dinner watched and photographed by visitors on the trails of Quinta Mazatlán. Thispredator-prey and observer interaction is happening regularly in the urban nature center, but one you wouldn’t have seen in Ebony Grove a mere five years ago.

Ebony Grove is an expansion of the forest at Quinta Mazatlán, and, on a larger scale, part of McAllen’s urban forest. Years have been spent working towards the goal of increasing the value of this plot of land for wildlife and people thanks to many wonderful donors and volunteers. It started in 2015 with the planting of over 40 Texas Ebony trees (chosen for their value to biodiversity) to augment the open grass and mesquite habitat. It continued with the installation of a creek and a pond, along with a shaded pavilion and palapas for visitors.

The pavilion features a solar panel to provide the power for the pond pump at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen. (Courtesy)

Benefits to Wildlife

Now, it looks remarkably different; a watering regime has kept it lush and green while the plants establish their roots. But what of its success for wildlife? Tree canopy cover has increased significantly. A variety of nesting birds now use the area. Tropical Kingbirds raised four nestlings in one of the new ebony trees, an abundant insect community serving as the protein rich diet for the baby birds. Lesser Goldfinches come to dine on sunflower seeds, hanging upside down and singing sweetly, while Groove-billed Anis run and skip in pursuit of insect prey. Butterflies flit from flower to flower, and dragonflies and damselflies patrol a pond filled with aquatic insects and tadpoles.

Benefits to People

However, urban forests (the sum of plant and animal communities in an urban area) provide more than just benefits to wildlife. They also provide a plethora of benefits for humans, a concept known as ecosystem services. Some of their ecosystem services include: shading/cooling services, air pollutant removal, increased property values and aesthetics, stormwater mitigation, reduced noise pollution, and better physical and mental health. Here in the sunny and hot Lower Rio Grande Valley that shading service sounds particularly appealing (parking lot shade is at a premium!).

Yellow-crowned night herons eat crustaceans at the pond edge at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen. (Courtesy)

The Future

These services are vital in the face of an increasingly urban world. With that in mind, the focus of the Center for Urban Ecology (CUE) will be on fostering these ecosystem services. Through environmental education, community partnerships, and science-based actions, the CUE will strive to enhance our urban forests for both humans and wildlife.

Long-term monitoring will give us further insight into the effect of the restoration project at Ebony Grove and how it affects plants, animals, and humans on a small plot of urban land. Butfor now, we can already see the ripples of habitat change in the concentric circles spreading from a night-heron’s legs, and the splashes of frogs in retreat. May similar ripples of positive change follow the Center for Urban Ecology for the health of the region. Quinta Mazatlán is open to enjoy the trails, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 to 5 and Thursday nights. Follow the Quinta Mazatlán YouTube Channel, Facebook and other social media platforms to learn more about our natural heritage in South Texas.