Bird Watching In Texas
Egrets, Herons, Alligators, Oh My!
No matter where you live, you can’t escape them, those feathery, winged creatures of flight descended from dinosaurs that we call birds. They are everywhere, soaring from tree to tree, tree to telephone line, telephone line to the hood of your car. And they like to leave their "mark" everywhere they go. But how much do you really appreciate birds? Chances are you are like a lot of people who recognize their existence but don’t think too much about them. However, if you are in that small group of avian advocates, often called birders or bird watchers, who shoulder a pair of binoculars and carry a field guide to birding in your back pocket every where you go, you really should travel down to the tip of Mustang Island on the Texas Gulf Coast and experience the highest bird count on the Gulf of Mexico.
Birding enthusiasts should flock to the little known Leona Belle Turnbull Birding Center on the outskirts of Port Aransas, Texas. From State Highway 361, take Cut-Off Road to Ross Avenue and follow signs from there. The refuge sits behind the town’s water treatment plant. There is a small parking lot and admission is free.
The flora-lined trail in to the birding center is wheel chair accessible and offers a nice introduction to the native plants of the area. A few picnic tables beneath a canopy of lush shade trees provide a beautiful, relaxing setting for lunch or a tasty snack.
Venturing further in to the refuge, you are met with a rather ominous sign, one that makes you think about what you are getting yourself in to. Above a picture of an open mouthed toothy alligator, the sign reads, "80 Reasons To Stay Away From The Alligators." Yes, there are alligators in the refuge, two of them to be exact. One is named Boots and the other Bags. But thoughts of alligators and warnings of being eaten are quickly lost within only a few more steps. Soon you enter a boardwalk where you begin to feel like you are walking on water and then the tree canopy and cattails give way to open skies and wetlands.
Immediately, I was met by a little blue heron fishing alongside the boardwalk. Oblivious to my stalking, the little blue (true to his name) was focused and apparently hungry as he flicked fish after fish in to the back of his gullet. As I peered over to the other side of the boardwalk, I saw a common moorhen with bright yellow legs, dark brown body, and searing red eyes also fishing but not having as much luck.
The boardwalk stretches for nearly a mile and thankfully, conveniently placed interpretive wayside exhibits describe many of the native avian inhabitants with illustrations for help in identification. Continuing along the boardwalk, you’ll reach a set of stairs that lead to an observation platform which offers a broader view of the surrounding wetlands. From here, I spied a flock of roseate spoonbills fishing in a distant inlet that I never would have seen without the platform.
Beyond the observation platform, the boardwalk continues deeper out in to the water where it eventually ends with a small sitting area. While I lingered in this area, I was rewarded by a roseate spoonbill soaring directly over me in a splash of pink and red against a baby blue sky, wings outstretched, spoon shaped bill leading the way. It was very exciting to watch as it disappeared behind a screen of cattails. Reveling from the flight of the spoonbill, I decided it was time to leave the boardwalk. I strolled along in no hurry looking from side to side and spotting sea turtles and crabs frolicking in the shallow water below when suddenly a little blue heron landed on the railing beside me. "Here I am," he seemed to say or maybe it was, "What do you have to eat?" The further I walked, the closer he followed before eventually jumping up in to the wind and flying in to the wetlands.
I continued to scan the shallow water below me when I saw something that looked like a rock poking out of the water. Curiosity made me look a little closer and I quickly realized I was looking at the head of an alligator. I had forgotten all about Boots and Bags. But who was this? Excited I stared at the head wondering if he would show more of himself. Time went on, the sun was beating down, and I decided to let the gator win this staring contest. And just as I started to walk away, the alligator moved. Then, he began to swim, slowly, stealthy but moving and moving toward something feathery lying limp on some mud. It was a headless pelican that I am assuming the gator had been feeding on and when he saw me moving, he feared that I was going to steal his snack. I watched as he inched toward the dead bird and then without warning, without hesitation, he lifted his huge body from the water and snatched his treat. I snapped photo after photo thrilled about this Wild Kingdom moment I was witnessing. The gator pulled the bird into the water and effortlessly dragged it to his perch beneath the boardwalk where I had found him.
The Leona Belle Turnbull Birding Center is a bird watcher’s paradise. I highly recommend visiting this refuge to any birder or nature enthusiast. From egrets, to herons, to songbirds and waterfowl, these wetlands offer so many opportunities to see birds you never knew existed not to mention an alligator or two.
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