February 14, 2013

Entering Tropical Texas

South Padre Island, near Brownsville, Texas, might be best known as a popular spring break destination for midwestern college students. The beaches along the Gulf of Mexico are beautiful (although I've seen them littered with Portuguese Men-o-War) and the Laguna Madre side of this barrier island is lovely in its own way. Indeed, having been there during March many years ago, we can confirm that the place definitely rocks at that time of year. The main road is lined with beach shops, tattoo parlors, bars, hotels, restaurants, and wierd giant critters:

But when you get to the end of the developed part of the main road, the scene changes dramatically. Two fairly new facilities along the Laguna Madre offer access to some excellent birding and great scenery. These include the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center with its viewing tower:

And the South Padre Island Convention Center:

These facilities are adjacent to each other, and have interconnecting boardwalks that allow visitors access to vast marshes and the Laguna Madre. 

The Laguna Madre is a very shallow and hypersaline (saltier than the ocean) bay that is an ecologically important and relatively unspoiled lagoon ecosystem. Thanks to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Padre Island National Seashore, 75% of its shores are protected. Fish, shrimp and crabs feed on the lagoon's abundant seagrass beds, which in turn support a vast array of birds including 75% of the continent's wintering Redhead ducks. 

For a week before we left Columbus we had been reading internet posts about a very rare bird that was being seen at the convention center property: the tiny Flammulated Owl, so named because of some orange-ish feathers around its face. Typically it inhabits mountainous terrain with coniferous forest.

You never know how long these "lost" rare birds will hang around (or survive), but we knew it was worth a try to find it since we were planning to visit this spot anyway. As luck would have it, when we walked up to the convention center several birders had the owl in their spotting scopes!

Actually, I should say that they had "parts" of the owl in their scopes. It was buried deep in dense vegetation and was extremely difficult to see. The next morning we got a somewhat better view.

This tiny owl is still being seen as of mid-February and may indeed spend the winter on South Padre Island.

Near the owl was this gorgeous plant called a Mexican Love Vine (Senecio confusum). 

It was full of Queen butterflies, which are similar to the familiar Monarchs but, among other differences, they have less prominent black veining on the upper side. 

After our owl excitement and butterfly viewing we went out on the boardwalks and had a wonderful time in the balmy air checking out the birds in the marshes and open waters of the Laguna Madre. Here are a few of the "waders" that generally stay in the marshy areas:

The boardwalks provide covered viewing platforms out by the lagoon:

The Black Skimmers put on quite a show:

And a variety of shorebirds looked for a final meal before sunset. Here is a Marbled Godwit:

and some aptly named Black-necked Stilts:

It is hard for us to leave a place like this because the longer we stay the more we see. Finally, though, the light was just about gone, leaving a lovely sunset.

1 comment:

  1. What a great series of bird photos! Bob and I lived in Round Rock, Texas years ago (our daughter is a native Texan!), but we really didn't do much touring of the state. I'm regretting that now.