Saturday, March 18, 2017

Visit report: Laguna Atascosa NWR

Hello, everyone.

As promised, a few notes about Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

This fascinating place is in Cameron County, Texas, and is reached by way of Route 100 (the highway that goes to Padre Island) or possibly by cutting off at San Benito from the expressway and winding around cross country. Either way it's a fair bit of tiny farm roads through flat country and you should really use a map. If you have Google Maps on your phone that will do fine. Part of the way is on roads that--well, they're paved, but there are some chuck holes and a bit of road construction is in the area. You should keep going anyway. It is worth it.

The visitor's center has maps which are marked with trails. (Also a nice little gift shop with books and things. They use it to fund research into ocelots.) There are quite a few routes that can be walked. There is also, at some times of the year, a tram tour of the loop around Pelican Lake and along the Laguna Madre, which takes 3 hours. It's 15 miles long, which if you were going to take snacks and water and walk it would make a good day's hike. No shade to speak of, but there is a tiny toilet hut at the halfway point. (Bring hand sanitizer!) We took the tram tour as it was just loading up when we got there.

The Laguna is beautiful and the place is loaded with various birds. We also saw a good amount of deer and more nilgai than I thought I'd ever see. Great and Lesser Blue Herons, Red Egrets (can you tell the tram was largely populated with birders checking off their lists?) and Ospreys and so on and so forth.

Pelican Lake, unusually dry at this time. The tree is a mesquite.

 It has been quite dry for some months and the recent rains in the area haven't even come close to filling up Pelican Lake. A number of the water areas were dry and empty when we were there. In a wetter year they would have been full of loads of ducks, pelicans and so on. The views are still impressive. There were curlews (a brown bird that isn't huge but has longish legs) flying and walking around. And the kind of birds I have always called "little birds that run on the beach."

The second tram stop was at a point with a wooden viewing deck. Padre Island, just on the opposite side of the Laguna, was clear to be seen, as were various spoil islands created by dredging over the years. (Laguna Madre is connected to the Intracoastal waterway, which IIRC was developed as a freight transport route that German torpedoes couldn't threaten during World War II.)
I've never seen so many cormorants in one place together.
 The cormorants were resting next to the salty water of Laguna Madre. A seagull was with them.
Bull nilgai
There were loads and loads of nilgai. These are a large antelope-like grazing animal that can get to 500 pounds and is good eating. Native to India, the guide said, but they have made themselves at home in southern Texas.