The Texas Gulf Coast

Southern Texas
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Southern Texas is a world apart. In this region, rare tropical species—cats such as the ocelot and jaguarundi, birds like the green jay, groove-billed ani, and red-crowned parrot, and reptiles/amphibians such as the Central American racer, Texas tortoise, and giant toad—reach the northern limits of their ranges. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and the beautiful Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary, offer tremendous opportunities to sample this unique region and its wildlife. Both preserves are in close proximity to the city of Brownsville.

Gulf waters and wildlife, too, are affected by annual levels of rainfall, which infuse the salty waters of the gulf with fresh water. The state's world-famous chain of barrier islands—Padre, Mustang, Matagorda, among many others—mitigate the encroachment of salt water into lagoons and bays along the mainland. Where a river like the Brazos or the San Antonio enters the Gulf, the water grows "fresher" yet. This is why the upper and middle reaches of the coast support extensive salt marshes, oyster reefs, clams, and crabs, and serve as nursery grounds for three species of those famously delectable gulf shrimp and such fish as flounder, red drum, and speckled sea trout. Visitors who enjoy mixing a little fishing in with their wildlife viewing probably won't be disappointed.

There is nothing as splendid as a barrier island. At the town of Port O'Conner, visitors can take an eight-mile ferry ride (or charter a boat) to explore 55,000-acre Matagorda Island. On the boat ride out, watch for Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, and such birds as the brown pelican, black-shouldered kite, and the lovely black skimmer, with its rakish wings and strange, unmistakable downturned bill. Matagorda is a haven for several threatened and endangered species, including the white-tailed hawk, wood stork, and four species of sea turtles. Mammals are abundant as well; they're elusive, but the sandy terrain offers the perfect chance to practice track identification: black-tailed jackrabbit, badger, white-tailed deer, raccoon, and coyote inhabit the island.

On the seaward side, Matagorda is rolling surf on open beaches. The island interior is a blend of shifting dunes, grasslands, and low, wind-sculpted stands of live oak. A few freshwater ponds dot the island. Alligators are also seen here; following heavy rains or at other times when the bay is infused with fresh water, they have no qualms about making the eight-mile swim.

Down south in Laguna Madre, a long, narrow embayment of 360 square miles, it's a very different story. The bay receives minimal fresh water and supports what ecologists call a "hypersaline" community of plants and wildlife. Black mangrove, a salt-tolerant shrub, grows along the shores. An aquatic prairie of sea grass flourishes in the water. What makes Laguna Madre truly unique—and a magnet for water-associated birds—is its tidal action. The bay is so utterly flat, and isolated from the Gulf, that wind exerts a tremendous influence on water movement, even more than the daily lunar tides. A modest wind will induce a few inches of water to move, tidelike, toward shore; and on this table-flat landscape, that's enough water to flood great expanses of mudflats. Algae blooms in the warm, shallow water, sheepshead minnows move in, and the table is set for the birds.

How many birds? Eighty percent of North America's redhead duck population winters in Laguna Madre. Present year-round is a magnificent contingent of wading birds: reddish egret, little blue heron, roseate spoonbill, black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons, tricolored heron, and white-faced ibis, among others. And from late March through April, the diversity of shorebirds is overwhelming. Wintering species are still hanging around, and migrants are stopping over. Visitors at this time may see the American avocet, whimbrel, black-bellied and snowy plover, long-billed curlew, dowitcher, red knot, ruddy turnstone, stilt sandpiper, yellowlegs, willets . . . the list goes on. Remember that shorebirds don't discriminate: They feed in mixed-species flocks, and a group of six or seven birds may include several different species. Excellent sites for exploring Laguna Madre include Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, along with some tracts of the lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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