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Birdwatch in Texas Pt. 1: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Early morning in South Texas. Photo by Brendan McGarry

Back in April, I had an amazing, and typically tiring trip to South Texas.  The following is my tardy beginning to a series on that trip.  

I wasn’t entirely sure why I was doing this. Then again, finding yourself in the Houston Airport at 6 AM after a red-eye from Seattle, isn’t exactly a happy thing.  Having a bevy of overexcited teenager birders under your wing makes it slightly better, but builds on the exhaustion.  What we do for birding.

When I was in high school I was extremely fortunate. Unlike most young naturalists around the country, specifically those growing up in urban cities, I had a way to meet peers and explore without constantly having to rely on my generous parents to drive us places. Seattle Audubon had a high school program called Birdwatch and I’m still so grateful for it that I volunteer with the program today.

Last year, we had an excellent trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a break from the normal schedule of annual trips to more distant locales. This year we got back on track with a trip to South Texas. To birders this means a paydirt of species, normally well South of the border where tracts of subtropical forest linger. To the uninitiated however, my trip brought blank stares. I can’t really blame them, because as much as I love birding in the Rio Grande Valley, I couldn’t fathom living there. I don’t mean to sound rude, I’m just not a fan of insufferable heat and urban sprawl.

A crested caracara atop a yucca flower.  Photo by Brendan McGarry

By midday on day one, we were all starting to feel travel weary, and we hadn’t made it to our first stop. Most of the students were too excited to sleep, mindful that every passing bird could be a lifer. When we’d stopped at (forgive us) Walmart to stock up on food, they’d spent their time birding from the parking lot. As we sped south through the dusty coastal plains of the Texas Gulf Coast, we started to see Crested Caracaras and White-tailed Hawks fly by. Crested Caracaras are restricted in the US and White-tailed Hawks are only found in South Texas. Not bad.

Now I’ve been to Texas three times before this, but that means nothing in terms of my ability to navigate by memory. As a result of too much technological reliance, we discovered that we had no paper maps and that Google maps wasn’t doing it’s job. With a minor meltdown involving not having eaten lunch, we finally made it to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The great benefit of having visited a place multiple times is that you only partially lust after certain species. I still carry a portion of the enthusiasm of the students, rushing out of the car before we could explain the timeline, but I’ve matured to the point where a missed species doesn’t ruin my trip. The birds wouldn’t become any more observable with frantic speedwalking.

A Green Jay at Laguna Atascosa.  Photo by Brendan McGarry

When described by those who live in the region, Laguna Atascosa is called the last remaining wilderness in the Lower Rio Grande. In truth it’s the largest spread of protected natural land in South Texas. Driving through you get a feel for what it must have been like before the cows and the water sucking cities and agricultural land. This is a refuge famous for aplomado falcons, once extripated, reintroduced by the peregrine fund in 1985. Ocelot crossing signs dot the entrance road, despite the almost zero possiblity you’d see one there. The great clearing of coastal prairie began in the 1750s and colonists likely saw only empty land, not a vast, unique ecosystem.

The Lagoon of Laguna Atascosa.  Photo by Brendan McGarry

The refuge was dry and the ephemeral wetlands were low. Most of the birds at the refuge we’d see elsewhere and later in the trip. I got the impression that many of our party felt the refuge was a bit of waste. What’s funny is that driving the slow circuit around the refuge, along the saltwater bay lined with yucca and the windblown thornforest topping the lomas (sand and clay dunes), was what I was most excited about. I’m always chasing wilderness, trying to grasp the ecology of the places I visit and was getting a small peephole into just that.  As we drove the loop round the refuge, I longed to get out and explore, despite being away of how dusty, spiky, and tick infested the scrub would be.  It’s best to not yearn for things that are out of reach, but I couldn’t help myself.  There were secrets in there.

An Osprey being harassed by Laughing Gulls. Photo by Brendan McGarry

We ended our day of birding by driving away from a muted sunset, filtered through the seemingly permanent overcast miasma of South Texas. Pausing to view feral pigs in a corn field outside the refuge, I was reminded that this was just an island of habitat. The sprawling mess of strip malls, Brownsville, was where we’d lay our heads that night, but our minds were far from it, meditating on the remnants of wild South Texas. My slumber was a blank, heavy sleep of deprivation and a long day of travel.  And this was just day one.

Stay tuned for part two soon!

Wild Pigs in a corn field outside Laguna Atascosa.  Photo by Brendan McGarry


  1. Pingback: A 2013 (Photographic) Year in Review | Wingtrip

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