The Texas Gulf Coast

Early Spring Seaside Splendor
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In early spring it's raining, windy and raw along much of the Pacific coast. The Atlantic coast north of Virginia isn't much better, and forget about Maine—even the lobstermen are sitting at home by their woodstoves. For a full-on shot of early spring wildlife viewing, the Gulf coast of Texas is hard to beat.

Of course everything is bigger in Texas, and the coastline of this sprawling state is no exception. From the Louisiana border down to Brownsville, located on the Mexican border, it's 367 miles as the crow flies. But crows don't take into account the near-endless bays, bayous, islands, and other natural irregularities where land and water meet; when all the wiggles and jiggles are added in, the actual Texas shoreline spans more than 2,100 miles, with a truly remarkable diversity of natural areas. Even with college spring breaks sending carloads of fun- and sun-seeking youths into the region, there are still opportunities galore to stake out a place in the sun, thanks to a wide array of parks and preserves, from state lands to national seashores and other federally managed lands—wildlife refuges, national preserves, national forests.

Remember, too, that "coastal" natural areas span much more than white beaches, surf, and salt water. The coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico reaches some 60 miles inland. Rivers, lakes, bayous, and other waterways are often linked to the gulf, and bear its influence in terms of the plant and animal communities found there.

The Texas coast features an incredible diversity of natural areas. Rainfall is a critical variable. Up "north," near the Louisiana border, yearly rainfall averages 55 inches, and decreases incrementally as one moves south. At the far end of the spectrum is the Brownsville area, on the Mexico border: just 24 inches of rainfall annually in this region. The wetter, more humid north coast of Texas is classic bayou country, with slow-moving sloughs, forests of cypress and tupelo draped in Spanish moss, along with freshwater bogs, swamps, and other wetlands in close proximity to the gulf. The southern coast and points immediately inland support a mixture of dry, thorny woodlands and brushlands, grasslands, along with subtropical palm groves and other unique plants and animals more representative of Central America.

For a firsthand encounter with the beauty and wildlife of the northern area, Big Thicket National Preserve is an excellent choice. This 86,000-acre site has been called "an American ark" in reference to its incredible diversity of plants and wildlife. Located 30 miles inland from the Gulf, near the city of Beaumont, Big Thicket supports more than 1,000 species of flowering plants—including 20 varieties of orchid—and trees both common and uncommon to the region, such as chestnut swamp oak, black hickory, longleaf pine, and swamp tupelo. Also here are several carnivorous plants, including the sundew and pitcher plant. The Neches River, which cuts through Big Thicket, is a stronghold for paddlefish, a bizarre, prehistoric creature with a fleshy, elongated snout. At least 60 reptile species are here, and 29 varieties of amphibians. Birds cover the gamut from roadrunners to bluebirds, many warblers, and swallow-tailed kites. The swamp rabbit, southern flying squirrel, bobcat, armadillo, and river otter are among the mammals found here.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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