A small East Texas town hopes to become a birders’ paradise.
By Erica H. Brasseux
“If we preserve it, they will come.” This excerpt from the brochure for the Mineola Nature Preserve accurately describes the vision behind the city’s seven-year planning efforts for the preserve. Home to about 5,600 people, this small East Texas town now has big bragging rights. The 3,000-acre preserve, which opened in April 2006, is one of the 25 largest city-owned parks in the nation.
City officials are hopeful that the new preserve will assist Mineola in becoming a destination city for people outside the region and outside the state. Designated the “Birding Capital of East Texas,” it’s destined to become a hotspot for people who enjoy birdwatching, wildlife and nature photography, hiking and walking.
“The preserve gives visitors a chance to experience a type of East Texas habitat that’s disappearing,” says City Business Administrator Dion Miller. “The city had an offer to sell some of the property for development purposes but declined that offer and opted to turn it into a nature preserve.”
With more than four miles of improved and unimproved nature trails (many of which are accessible to people with disabilities), wildlife viewing stations, a canoe rest station and future plans for camp sites and an equestrian/mountain bike trail, there’s something to satisfy a variety of interests and needs. And there’s no shortage of wildlife either. Boasting a list of 189 bird species observed on the preserve, along with deer, wild hogs, beavers, waterfowl, coyotes and more, all that’s needed for a full day of entertainment are some comfortable walking shoes and a pair of binoculars.
“Looking south from the pavilion, you can gaze out over approximately 150 acres with five beautiful wildlife viewing lanes that have been cut and cleared through the wooded area,” explains site manager Butch Wood. “These lanes are food plots that entice deer, wild hogs and other animals to feed. I just love it when people out of Dallas come to visit and see a wild hog for the first time and squeal. You see things here you just don’t see in the city.”
A guided bird walk, scheduled for one Saturday each month, is only a glimpse of what the preserve may one day offer visitors. “Our goal is to eventually provide events, tours, classes and workshops that cater to all skills, abilities and interests,” explains Sandy Tibbs, member of the newly formed organization Friends of the Preserve and co-owner of Lost Creek wild bird and nature store in downtown Mineola. “We want to continue to grow the birding opportunities, but we’re also looking into everything from orienteering classes to basic compass reading. The possibilities are endless.”
An old railroad bed provides the main trail through the property, shrouded by trees all the way. Native hibiscus, trumpet vines and various other wildflowers pop with color amid a lush green backdrop.
“In the spring the wildflowers are gorgeous,” says Wood. “Because of the thick canopy of trees covering the trail, it’s not too hot, even in the summer. Not too hot by a native Texan’s standards, anyway.”
But if you do need a place to cool off, there’s a station where people can launch their canoe or kayak on the Sabine River just a few hundred yards upstream from the preserve on U.S. 69 just south of the city.
Bridge Bob pond, which will be stocked each year with fish from the Inland Fisheries Division of Texas Parks and Wildlife, is also a great place to unwind for anglers 14 and under and 65 and older. Even if you don’t plan to fish, you may get lucky and see a great blue heron doing a little fishing of his own. The pond was named for a real person, Bridge Bob, who worked on the site when trains crossed the property in the early part of the 20th century.
The preserve is open seven days a week; park hours vary depending on the time of year. Admission is free. For more information about the Mineola Nature Preserve and upcoming events, visit <www.mineola.com> or <www.mnpfriends.org>.