South Texas 2014

This was an impromptu trip; we had a Delta companion certificate to use, and I only had to take off Monday December 22 to get a whole week off work. Hawaii wasn’t an option with this certificate, and anywhere too cold was out. Visiting the Everglades in Florida was considered, but no flights were available. Big Bend National Park was an 8 hour drive from the nearest Delta airport. Frustration was setting in when I remembered Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR), in southeastern Texas in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. LANWR is the last place in the US with a breeding population of wild ocelot, and while we knew we weren't likely to see one we wanted to support them nonetheless. While the nearest Delta airport Austin was a 5 hour drive away, we decided that was doable. Lodging was next – no real towns with hotels nearby, the closest being Port Isabel (across from South Padre island). I checked and found a 2BR/2BA condo in Laguna Vista, wuite close to Laguna Atascosa. We booked that, and were set to go. We contacted the rangers in charge of the ocelot monitoring program but they wouldn’t be in town the week we were there.

We headed out early and actually saw a bobcat crossing the road south of the reserve, but too fast to get a picture. We were at the visitor center near opening Sunday the 21st and booked the 9 am tram ride and bought a bunch of ocelot related stuff. Imagine my surprise when Eric noticed that their sign displaying cougar/ocelot/jaguarundi pictures included my photo of a jaguarundi! I’m used to my photos fro the cathouse website being used without permission on the internet, but I certainly didn’t mind this sort of use. We checked out the taxidermy displays of jaguar, ocelot, and bobcat, and I remembered how much smaller and lighter in color these ocelots were than the South American ones we were used to at EFBC/FCC. We knew from internet research that one loops road, Bayview Drive, was closed to private vehicle traffic due to two ocelots being hit by cars. With only 12-15 on this part of LANWR, and another 12-15 in a other part making up nearly the entire US population of this cat, no deaths were acceptable. They are redesigning the roadway to avoid the thornscrub areas used by the ocelots and hope to reopen the road in 2016. They are also working on underpasses on local freeways and wildlife corridors all the way to Mexico. Another 1000 strong population lives 100 miles south of the border. A plan is in work to relocate some of these cats to Texas to introduce new bloodlines; a practice run with a bobcat is about to take place.

The thornscrub area is made up of a variety of plants that form a nearly impenetrable barrier, except close to the ground there is a canopy allowing the cats to pass underneath easily. While no cats cooperated by crossing near their signs, many cat food (rabbits) were seen. We also visited the bird feeding stations at the visitor center, and I loved the colors on the green jay.

On the 3 hour, 15 mile tram tour, a docent gives a lot of information on the history, flora, and fauna of LANWR. A lot of birders come here, and we were amazed by the huge numbers of raptors. Colorful or large birds are all we really care about I’m afraid, sorry birders! Crested caracara are a member of the falcon family and usually seen in pairs, we saw a lot this week. There were also colorful butterflies, this queen butterfly ios the only one I got a picture of. Spiders and spider-egg berries were seen at one of the tour stops. In addition to whitetail deer, this part of Texas has 30000 wild nilgai running around, and antelope native to Asia – they escaped from a local game ranch many years ago. There are also many feral pigs (wild boar), another non-native species. We did see some native javelinas, but no pictures. Seeing a pair of aplomado falcons twice was a highlight, they were reintroduced here and a specialty of LANWR. We saw lots of other birds, but the overcast day was not conducive to good photos. We saw great blue heron, little blue heron, reddish egret, white phase reddish egret, great egret, snowy egret, snow geese, roseate spoonbill, a few kinds of ibis, lots of ducks, white & brown pelican, curlews, osprey, and lots more boring little birds. The reserve has had a lot of rain in the preceding weeks and repeat visitors were amazed at the amount of water in the freshwater lakes, which had been dry for years. There were even alligators, but we never saw one.

After the tour we drove out to Ospey Overlook, which we decided whould be renamed Coot Corner. Nearby is a puma sign, supposedly one was sited here recently. There certainly are enough white tail deer to support a population of puma, too bad the nilgai and wild boar are probably too big for them. There are plenty of small predators (coyote and bobcat in addition of ocelot), there was tons of scat along the roads and trails. Harris’ hawks are also very common here.

Monday there were no tours scheduled, but we talked the ranger into letting a willing volunteer take us out anyways. 3 more people joined us. It was still partly cloudy, but a bit better than yesterday. Both black and turkey vultures are found here, but I only got one picture of a black vulture. A low cactus is nicknameed the horse-crippler, Eric called it a landmine cactus. The sun came out for a meadowlark on an old yucca and a yucca in bloom. From RedHead Ridge I scoped a squadron of birds between us and South Padre island, and they were headed our way – it was a large number of redhead ducks, joining another several thousand already at the lakes. They feed in the saltwater Laguna Madre and then return to the freshwater. A large jumping spider earned quite a few pictures as well. One brave great egret posed for pictures, unafraid of the vehicle. In the forest area, two large whitetail bucks crossed the road. More feral pigs were seen in the fields south of LANWR, while driving after dark we also saw deer and nilgai in these fields. Plus lots of raptors flying around. We checked out a road near the county airport and found a caracara gathering twigs for a nest, and our first Texas indigo snake. Monday afternoon found us checking out South Padre Island, so Eric could touch the Gulf of Mexico, and we watched kitesurfers (with LANWR in the background across the bay).

Tuesday we checked out some other wildlife refuges, starting with Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The border patrol vehicles were out in force in this area! Despite a swarm of mosquitoes, we saw the Rio Grande (and were unimpressed). Once the sun came out, I got pictures of a posing Harris’s hawk and a yellow fronted woodpecker and greater kiskadee. Next stop was the Sabal Palm preserve in Brownsville, which is located south of the ugly border fence. A pond with a blind had more ducks, 3 (no 4) turtles on a log, anhinga, belted kingfisher, and green heron.

Wednesday we had chosen as hike day, based on weather forecasts and the lack of tram tours that day. We set out at 7:30 am, the cool breezy weather eliminating the mosquitoes, yay! The bike did not last long, a flat tire in about a mile – THORNscrub forest, remember? We did the whole 15 mile loop in under 6 hours including stops, the strong wind discouraged stops. We saw a LOT of wildlife that day, excuse the realative lack of pictures. The highlight of course being a bobcat crossing the road a hundred feet or so in front of us. This is why I carry my long zoom point and shoot on hikes! We also saw two nilgai bulls quite close to us, and a far away herd of them , and more whitetail deer, and the usual assortment of raptors (lots of osprey) and waterbirds. On the drive home I got a picture of a white tailed kite.

That evening in reviewing pictures I realized I had never gotten a good osprey pic, luckily there were always a few on the power lines right outside the condo complex. These two cooperated Thursday morning, even having fish for us. An American kestrel hung out nearby, and another in the reserve. A Harris’s hawk posed nicely, and a NIlgai family was spotted on a side road. More kiskadess were seen, with the related kingbird nearby. We expected to be sore this day from the long hike yesterday, so the plan was to bring chirs with us and stake out the raod in the thornscrub and hope to get luck and see an ocelot. Other than birds, only two more snales were seen, But it was a pleasant way to spend Christmas day. A turkey buzzard posed on the way home.

Friday we planned to hike some more, but the mosquitoes were out in force in the early morning so we drove a few local roads instead, and were rewarded with a third bobcat sighting. Hiking didn’t turn up much (more birds of course), and this neat purple dragonfly. After talking to the intern tracking ocelots for the rangers, we stumbled upon one more snake, another indigo just beginning to shed its skin. Neat stuff! One last walk around the visitor center showed lots more bunnies, 4 green jays (so colorful!), a male cardinal posing, and my favorite, an Altamira oriole – love that orange!

We had set up a motion activated camera trap earlier that week, we gots lots of rat and mouse pictures, plus bunnies and one deer and a long bill thrasher. One last evening drive was rewarded with a new species, tarantula – not one but 3 separate sightings! One final pose by an ocelot sign, and that was the end of our LANWR adventure.

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