March 14, 2021
I’d deliberate a weekend journey to South Padre Island earlier than the snowpocalypse hit, for an opportunity to stroll on the seashore and see migrating birds and simply benefit from the outdoor (the one form of journey I’m comfy with proper now). As soon as the snow and ice melted and electrical energy and clear ingesting water have been obtainable once more, I used to be extra prepared than ever to get away.
So we packed our masks and flip-flops and drove 6 hours to the southeastern tip of the state, simply 20 miles north of the Mexico border. On the finish of February, earlier than spring-breaking throngs of faculty college students arrived, the island was fairly quiet with largely seniors and younger households. On sandy, brown seashores stretching for miles to the north and south, a cold, cottony fog rolled in throughout the waves every afternoon, reminding us of Oregon seashores in the summertime. A cool seashore beats a sizzling seashore any day. It was pleasant.
I’d by no means been to South Padre (not whilst a Texas faculty scholar), however this 113-mile-long barrier island — the world’s longest — is alleged to have the perfect seashores within the state. It’s additionally well-known for being on the migratory path for every kind of birds touring between Central and South America and their summer season properties within the U.S., in addition to quite a few year-round shorebirds and wetland species.
South Padre Island Birding Heart
One morning we visited the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Heart & Alligator Sanctuary, which overlooks Laguna Madre, the shallow lagoon between the island and the mainland. The hyper-saline water averages simply 3-1/2 ft deep within the lagoon, and we noticed birds and fishermen strolling far out to fish in even shallower water.
Elevated boardwalks on the heart enable passage by dense mangroves and marshy areas, and even out into the lagoon, providing terrific bird-watching alternatives. We didn’t see any wild alligators, however they’re on the market too.
The birds enchanted us, like this nice kiskadee, a yellow-bellied flycatcher with a zebra-striped head that lives in southern Texas, Mexico, and South America.
And a mangrove yellow warbler, a furtive golden chicken with a rusty-red head that was trying to find bugs amid stalk-like mangrove roots.
We noticed numerous herons. I feel this can be a tricolored heron as an alternative of an excellent blue?
Snowy egret with yellow ft and stiletto-like beak, searching within the shallows
Useless fish littered the shallow marsh and lagoon, casualties of the Texas deep freeze, which reached all the way in which right down to South Padre, browning palms and mangroves and killing hundreds of fish. Locals had been working to take away piles of useless fish from canals, and the fish kill appeared largely cleaned up after we arrived. We additionally noticed landscaping crews busily pruning away freeze-bleached palm fronds all over the place we went, making all of it go away.
Birds like these black-necked stilts appeared to disregard the useless fish, in search of brisker meals.
Stilts searching within the shallow water
The mangrove thickets are dense and twisty, with root-clogged “rivers” of brackish water operating by them. They introduced again reminiscences of mangroves we noticed within the Florida Everglades a decade in the past.
These mangroves are freeze-damaged however alive.
Guides have been main birding excursions, however we explored on our personal.
There have been plentiful geese, as you’d anticipate, together with mottled geese. The brand new-to-me widespread gallinule (with crimson invoice and brow defend) seems to be like a duck (and walks like a duck?) however is extra carefully associated to cranes and rails.
Most charming have been flocks of black-bellied whistling geese with neon-pink payments, dusty-pink legs, and inquisitive expressions.
So cute, even when sleepy
My most thrilling chicken sighting was a pair of roseate spoonbills! I noticed their distinctive pink feathers from a distance and hurried alongside the boardwalk for a better look. They have been taking a siesta on a muddy sandbar surrounded by tall marsh grasses, with a few whistling geese and a snowy egret for firm.
Disturbing their slumber, an excellent blue heron stalked towards them…
…nearer and nearer.
One spoonbill, awoken from dreamland, flapped its wings in irritation. The heron ignored him.
However the spoonbill was fairly put out.
Because the heron implacably marched on, the snowy egret awoke too and flew down to affix the irritated spoonbills.
The agitated spoonbill all of the sudden had had sufficient and took an excellent hop away from everybody.
Aaaaaand then he flew proper again as a result of clearly this mud flat is the perfect spot for a nap.
After slightly fussing, as his associate calmly watched, he settled down once more. Additionally, there’s one thing within the water behind them that appears like an alligator head. I don’t keep in mind considering it was one on the time, however now I’m not so certain. It’d simply be a patch of muddy floor although.
Amid a chirping gaggle of companions, one whistling duck seemed bemused by the entire spoonbill routine.
I used to be additionally excited to identify a white ibis, with its distinctive lengthy, curved beak.
A inexperienced heron peeking out of the reeds jogged my memory of the one which fished my stock-tank pond one summer season.
Whereas we didn’t definitively spot any wild gators, we did see fairly just a few “nuisance” or injured animals, now residing in a fenced alligator sanctuary on the birding heart. Large Padre — at 12-1/2 ft by far the largest of the bunch — was introduced right here from Port Arthur, the place he was a well-fed boat-dock common. He discovered straightforward pickings within the fish scraps that fisherman tossed into the water, a apply that habituated him to people and taught him to anticipate meals. The locals didn’t thoughts him, we have been informed, however he scared a boating vacationer when he swam proper up and laid his huge head on the aspect of the boat. The vacationer reported the incident to Texas Parks and Wildlife, which caught and relocated Large Padre. Wild relocation of nuisance alligators isn’t attainable as a result of they’ll journey as much as 100 miles to seek out their approach again.
In a individually fenced pond from Large Padre’s, dozens of juvenile alligators have been utilizing one another as pillows for a mid-morning nap.
Cuddling up with one another, carrying Mona Lisa smiles, they really seemed form of cute.
Grackles are normally both beloved or loathed by Texans, and I form of like them. They’re good-looking and intelligent-looking birds. This one was eyeing our French fries at lunch in the future.
Have a look at these iridescent, blue-black feathers — like an oil slick on an asphalt car parking zone. Ha!
Seashores and sand dunes
We spent a part of each days at varied seashores, simply watching the waves, trying to find seashells, and watching birds and other people go by.
A horse experience on the seashore seemed enjoyable.
Time for the fog to roll in.
It shortly blurred out the solar and turned the distant dunes into an Arrakis panorama.
On the north finish of the island, we adopted a path up a tall dune and have been handled to this otherworldly view of sand and fog.
I’m glad I lastly noticed South Padre in all its wild magnificence.
For extra about birding in South Texas, try my submit about Quinta Mazatlan, a birding heart in McAllen.
I welcome your feedback; please scroll to the top of this submit to go away one. In the event you’re studying this in a subscription e mail, click on right here to go to Digging and discover the remark field on the finish of every submit.
Digging Deeper: Information and Upcoming Occasions
Be a part of the mailing checklist for Backyard Spark! Hungry to study backyard design from the specialists? I’m internet hosting a sequence of talks by inspiring backyard designers, panorama architects, and authors just a few occasions a 12 months in Austin. (Whereas in-person talks are presently on hiatus because of the pandemic, I plan to renew once more as quickly as attainable.) Talks are limited-attendance occasions that promote out shortly, so be a part of the Backyard Spark e mail checklist to be notified upfront. Merely click on this hyperlink and ask to be added.
All materials © 2021 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized copy prohibited.