Green Jay in Laguna Atascosa NWR

In TipoTex ...

Peter & I flew into Brownsville, via Houston, for a long weekend. It was my second visit to the Rio Grande Valley, exactly 10 years since driving down with John, Lori, Kristin, her friend Jill, and the great Humar, on a family vacation in 1998. The main reason for going was to see our Texas family, with secondary motivations: golf for Peter; bird watching for me.

AerialsThe night we arrived we met John, Lori, Kristin, Brian and friends at a picnic table at their South Padre Island hotel. Lori had prepared and brought some great seafood (her specialty), sandwiches and other snacks. It hit the spot after a long day of travel. John says I can't write about the heat on this Texas trip because of the nice breeze and cooler (low 90s) temperatures on the Island. And it was mild and beautiful on the beach that first evening.

But it turned out to be a false sense of moderateness. Walking the shore the next morning, I knew the day was going to be a scorcher ... so all bets are off, John. See Aerials & Beach photos.

Brian, John and Peter left to play golf (off island, there's no course on South Padre). I was going to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, hoping to see birds and other wildlife.

South Padre Island ... the arrow points to ..

... this spot, where we waded in the Gulf.

As I was driving over Laguana Madre on the Queen Isabella Causeway, my phone rang. Peter was calling with a bird alert. The guys were just ahead of me on the same route and John had spotted roseate spoonbills (!!) in a roadside ditch. Spoonbills are still a rare sight for me (they don't like MA, go figure) — I am so in awe of them. John gave me the location ... which was a good thing because when I arrived, they weren't visible, and I wondered if they were still there. But I pulled off, crossed the road and cautiously approached the ditch. It was a pretty ugly spot for these beautiful birds, but as I crept to the edge to look over, I startled them, and off they went! Darn, darn ... I took a few photos as about 10 of them flew off. I'd never seen more than two at once, so it was a thrill to see so many, a flurry of pink in front of me.

Just a few minutes after that, I was stopping along the road again ... a crested caracara was perched on a fence post! So, before I even got to the refuge I'd seen two of my "favorite unusual" birds. And because I was alone, I could watch and take photos as long as I wanted ...

Laguna AtascosaWhen I got to Laguna Atascosa, I found that I was the only visitor in the whole refuge. Great — the birds and animals hadn't been bothered yet, I had the place to myself! I saw a great kiskadee, black-crested titmouse, white-tipped doves and green jays! (beautiful, tropical birds that John had seen, and I had been lusting after). All of these birds are unique to the Rio Grande Valley (in the U.S.).

The woman in the visitor center suggested two routes to take around the refuge. On Bayside Drive, a 15-mile loop that runs along Laguna Madre and coastal prairie, there were beautiful vistas across to South Padre Island and more unique birds. I also saw snakes, rabbits, deer and javelinas (peccaries) ... but no endangered ocelot or jaguarundi, noctural cats. It's a fantastic place ... See Laguna Atascosa photos.

Willet on Laguna Madre

Coastal prairie


Eastern Meadowlark


Around South PadreOn the way back to South Padre, I stopped in Port Isabel to take care of some unfinished business. When we'd been there in 1998, the lighthouse was missing its top ... under repair, I guess. The light was built in 1852 and used as a lookout during the Civil War ... both Union and Conferate troops occupied it. Now it was open so I climbed the winding metal steps to the top for a nice view of Laguna Madre, the bridge and South Padre Island. See Around South Padre photos.

Port Isabel light — headless in 1998 ...

and now.

Kristin & Jill in Port Isabel, June 1998

Peter & I did a little tour of the island, heading north to the uninhabited dunes. We took a walk on the white-hot sand, and enjoyed a quiet area where few people were. Unfortunately, it was an area where vehicles are allowed on the beach, and there was a shocking amount of trash on the beautiful dunes ... pretty depressing.

Later that evening we walked around the west side of the island where sunsets are celebrated each night.

Sunset over Laguna Madre

a Sizzling round ...

The reason John asked us to come was to play in a golf tournament put on by one of his customers. It was at the Fort Brown Golf Course in Brownsville. To get there you literally drive right to the Mexican border and hang a left. Several holes of the course were bordered by a levee, the Rio Grande and Mexico across the narrow river. U.S. border patrol vehicles were constantly driving along the levees and we heard a mariachi band over in Matamoros.

John had promised lots of food on the course, because the sponsor was a grocery chain. But our shotgun start came at an inopportune place for our hungry group — when we got to the food holes it was before the grills were ready with the meat. And I do mean MEAT. On this blistering hot day, the only food out there was blistering hot MEAT: ribs, pork and other unfamiliar cuts. It was good, but hard to hold, because it was HOT off the grill and placed in foil ... and not a plate or scoop of cold potato salad to be found.

Kristin takes a mighty swing.

US Border Patrol makes sure we're not trying to sneak into Mexico.

Another revelation came when we were on a green and the group behind us drove up to within a hundred yards of us, waiting to "tee" off. What's that about? I was told that groups could pay (donate to charity) to get advantageous tee locations, or just putt from spots on certain greens without playing the full hole. And these scores would count in the tournament! So wrong! I suggest this event be called "Meat & Cheat" from here on.

Golf, etc.Despite the weird Texas-ness (which I am kidding about ... sort of), we had a great time with John, Kristin, Ted and Van. It was especially neat riding around with our old cart driver, Kristin, who as a (young) kid would draw smiley faces on our scorecard to keep our spirits up during a tough round. I saw more amazing birds, including groups of John's favorite, those "pain in the ass" green jays.

On our way back to South Padre, we swung by the spoonbill ditch — I'd hoped for one last chance to see one. And yes! one lonely spoony was in that low, mucky water. I was very careful and he let me get a few pictures. See Golf, etc. pictures.

Later we hung out by the poolside/shoreside. I finally had a chance to catch up with Lori, which was nice, and say goodbye to John. But not for long ... they'll be up our way in a few weeks. See you then.

More Summer >

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