Top Ten Warm-Weather Winter Wildlife Refuges

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A blur of snow geese at dawn in New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
A blur of snow geese at dawn in New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge  (Adam Jones/Digital Vision/Getty)
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In addition to wildlife observation, refuges provide rich opportunities for wildlife photography, hunting, fishing, environmental education, and nature interpretation. For more information about all 551 visit the National Wildlife Refuges web site
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Sure, you could hunker down and endure winter from the warm, cave-like confines of your hot water heater or brave the cold swaddled in Gore-Tex and down insulation. But why not follow the avian species over the ursine and consider migrating south for more temperate climates and locales? More specifically, forego the all-inclusive Caribbean nightmare and visit one (or several) of these top ten warm-weather wildlife refuges, where the animals run free, the mercury hovers in the balmy regions, and the sun shines for hours longer than their northern counterparts.

10. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
The endangered whooping crane calls the tidal salt marsh at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge home. Indeed, it's the sole winter haven for the last wild flock of North America's tallest, rarest birds. The whooping crane stands nearly five feet tall, and boast a seven-foot wingspan. At the refuge you can watch.

Watch the courtship rituals of mature whoopers, complete with flapping, head bowing and giant leaps—elaborate gestures that perhaps speak to the fact that the birds can live for nearly 30 years and mate for life. You can also see pelicans, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, ducks, and geese feed in the refuge's brackish waters. Javelinas and bobcats prowl oak woodlands. Alligators lurk nearby.

See whoopers from the observation tower from mid-October through March. Or, if you have your own boat or kayak, head out to Matagorda Island, a refuge unit accessible only by boat. Fishing, beachcombing, and backpacking are all possible on the former U.S. Air Force bombing range. Before World War II, the coastal barrier island served as a base for nomads, explorers, smugglers, pirates, and Spanish buccaneers.

Also visit the 90-foot-tall Matagorda Lighthouse, first built in 1852. During the Civil War, when it helped enforce a federal blockade, Confederate soldiers dynamited the foundation and removed the lens. After the war's end, the damaged lighthouse was disassembled and rebuilt two miles inland to protect it from erosion. More than a century later, in 2004, a new restoration effort began after the U.S. Coast Guard transferred management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Then fish in the warm shallow waters of San Antonio Bay, known for redfish, speckled trout, black drum, and flounder. Or drive the Aransas Refuge Tour Loop, open daily from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset. The Aransas Refuge visitor center is open daily (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 8:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.

9. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
To Spanish explorers, the name signified the presence of Apaches in a riverside forest. Today, it's grown into one of the most spectacular national wildlife refuges in North America. Here, tens of thousands of birds—including sandhill cranes, snow geese, and an amazing variety of ducks—winter each year. Feeding snow geese erupt in explosions of wings when frightened by predators, and at dusk, wave upon wave of geese and cranes return to roost in roadside marshes.

The annual Festival of the Cranes, around mid-November, is one of the world's premier wildlife festivals, with more than 100 events. But other attractions lure visitors year round. Hike to the top of Chupadera Peak and enjoy the panoramic views of this newly designated wilderness. Fish for catfish, smallmouth bass, white bass, and carp. Hunt big game (mule deer or oryx) and small game (quail, cottontail rabbits, dove, snow geese, and Ross's geese), subject to state and refuge regulations.

The visitor center is open 7:30 A.M. to 4 P.M. Monday through Friday, 8:00 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. weekends. The auto tour loop is open daily from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset.

8 . Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Along the Laguna Madre at the southern tip of Texas, where thorn forest gives way to freshwater wetlands, coastal prairies, mudflats and beaches, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a bird and wildlife paradise. Here, where rare aplomado falcons soar above the grasslands and endangered ocelots hunt silently in the brush, near half of all the bird species found in the continental United States rest, feed, nest, or migrate. Some 413 bird species depend on the refuge's rich blend of temperate, subtropical, coastal, and desert habitat, including some that can't be seen anywhere else in the country.

Pick your habitat, pick your creatures: Ocelot, Texas tortoise, green jays, chachalaca, and javelina prefer the dense thorny brushland; alligator, least grebe, and black-bellied whistling ducks choose the ponds and resacas (oxbow lakes). Desert dwellers such as roadrunners, verdins, and cactus wrens inhabit the scrub areas, while roseate spoonbills, egrets, and herons join black-necked stilts, American avocets, and piping plovers at the shore of the Laguna Madre.

Come in late fall, and see migrating waterfowl and sandhill cranes fly down for the mild winters. Visit later and attend the annual Ocelot Conservation Festival, hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Friends of Laguna Atascosa.

The refuge maintains several hiking trails. Bayside Drive, a 15-mile driving loop for nature viewing, is open daily from after sunrise to before sunset. Open-air tram tours ($4 per adult; $1 per child) are available beginning in late November. Tram tours operate on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in November and December; more days are added January through March.

On refuge-owned portions of South Padre Island, visitors can fish and beachcomb as well as watch wildlife. Learn about efforts here to protect endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles.

7. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada
Need a tonic to Las Vegas? Head 90 miles northwest to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a desert wetland ecosystem that provides habitat for at least 25 bird species found nowhere else in the world.
Most depend on the refuge's seven major warm springs—desert oases now extremely uncommon in the Southwest. Thanks to a geological fault, more than 10,000 gallons of water flow per minute in an otherwise dry region.

One of refuge's rarest species is the endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, an inch-long species most visible in King's Pool at Point of Rocks. Males are an iridescent blue-green color, which intensifies during mating season; females remain olive green year round. Three interpretive boardwalk trails lead visitors through stands of native plants and trees to restored spring pools.

In winter, marshes and reservoirs fill with water birds, including typical Southwestern species such as crissal thrashers and Lucy's warblers. A refuge bird list is available at the visitor center and online. Visitors may also spot coyotes, desert bighorn sheep, and jackrabbits as well as toads, snakes and lizards.

Drive on to Death Valley National Park, nine miles away. But first, see the restored stone cabin of legendary gunslinger Jack Longstreet, who lived around the turn of the 20th century on what is now refuge land.

6. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
About two hours north of Tampa, the warm springs that feed into Crystal River invite swimmers, boaters, and nature-lovers to this coastal area, which includes the last unspoiled and undeveloped habitat in Kings Bay. The springs also provide critical habitat for West Indian Manatees, gentle lumbering marine mammals that take refuge from the cold in these clear waters.

Crystal River Refuge, accessible only by boat, was established to protect the endangered manatees. And December through March is the best time to see them; that's when manatees are the most concentrated around the warm springs. About 550 or so of the animals migrate here each winter; some 50 are year-rounders. Head to the refuge in a tour boat or kayak you rent from a local dive shop or marina. En route, you can paddle alongside the giant creatures—or even snorkel or swim among them.

Before you do so, you'll watch a short U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service video about the manatees and the threats they face. Because manatees often swim just below the surface of the water, they risk serious injury from boat collisions. Many manatees bear scars from such run-ins. Strict boating speed limits are enforced to reduce the chance of collisions. (In winter, boats may not exceed idle speed.) Some posted areas are also for manatee use only.

In addition to manatees, Crystal River Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for many bird and animal species, including alligators, brown pelicans, anhingas, and double-crested cormorants.

Published: 6 Dec 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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