Destination: South Padre Island
By Robert Macias
Travel time from:
- Austin - 6 hours /
- Brownsville - .75 hours /
- Dallas - 9 hours /
- El Paso - 12.25 hours /
- Houston - 6.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 4.75 hours /
- Lubbock - 11.5 hours /
A trip to deep south Texas in autumn promises lots of birds and butterflies — and very few people.
If you mention South Padre Island and wildlife in the same sentence, most people envision something other than dolphins and butterflies. Yet this spit of land at the southern tip of Texas is home — or rest stop — to an astonishing array of land and sea creatures. And the loud mammal known as the party hog generally migrates north toward the end of April.
As I make the long drive from Austin to South Padre Island, the trees get shorter, rougher-looking, as if hunkering down for a fight. And fight they must — against the heat, the salt, the wind and months-long periods without rain. Everything has to be tough-as-nails to survive in this Tamaulipan thorn scrub — from the mesquite trees and prickly pear to the Texas tortoise and ocelot that hide among the brambles.
While I’m generally not a fan of six-hour drives, you really can’t get a feel for this part of the state by hopping over it in a plane. You can look at a map and see that, yes, there are huge ranches in South Texas, but you really don’t appreciate the scale of it until you drive for a couple of hours straight and realize you’re still humming along next to the same ranch. After passing about ten signs indicating that I’m driving along part of the 150,000-acre Yturria Ranch, I slam headlong into a wall of butterflies. Millions of them. They are mostly drab-looking snout butterflies making their annual pilgrimage to search for mates, but there are also bright-yellow sulphur butterflies, monarchs and various other colorful varieties that help to turn my car into a rainbow of bug carnage. I apologize aloud for the first mile or so: “Sorry, excuse me, ouch, that had to hurt….” After about five miles of nonstop butterflies, I realize the population must still be healthy despite my rampant vehicular slaughter.
As I cross over the Queen Isabella Causeway onto the island, I’m surprised by the lack of cars, the complete absence of human activity. Have the butterflies taken over? It’s the last week in October, and I expected the crowds to be light, but this is downright spooky. There is not a cloud in the sky, the temperature is in the mid-80s, and many hotel signs flash off-season rates as low as $40 per night. I think I could be on to something.
I check into the tidy, no-frills South Padre Island Travelodge, which is about a block away from the beach. On an island that’s only a half-mile wide, everything is close to the water.
Couples in search of a few more frills might prefer the centrally located Casa de Siesta Bed & Breakfast. Owners Ron and Lynn Speier have taken a small piece of land and transformed it into a cozy, cool hideaway. It looks like an old adobe building, but it’s actually made of concrete to withstand hurricanes. Each room has a collection of Southwestern antiques and a huge stained-glass window that bathes the room in a calming glow. The rooms are arranged around a lushly landscaped central courtyard with a pool in the middle. It’s a great spot for the kind of lazy getaway where the routine boils down to: breakfast, beach, pool, naptime.
However, on this trip, I’m eager to explore, but first I need some real food. As I approach the doorway of Dorado’s Baja Bar and Grill, my fears of total butterfly domination appear to be confirmed. A black, winged creature with a wingspan of about 7 inches hovers just above my head. Then it flies, bat-like, in a circle and slowly lumbers away. Since it’s just a few days before Halloween, I begin to wonder if this is somehow part of the holiday décor. A remote-controlled bat? No, silly tourist. Biologist Mike Quinn tells me that the description matches that of a black witch moth, which is known to haunt these parts.
Once inside the colorful restaurant, with bright-orange walls and surfboards hanging from the ceiling, I discover that I am one of only two diners this evening. The waitress says that the winter Texans don’t start arriving until after Christmas, so the period between October and December is deadsville. I order the fish tacos with fried plantains and coconut rice. It’s all delicious, but the aromatic coconut rice is the reason I’ll return here as soon as I’m hungry again.
The next morning, I meet up with Scarlet Colley, proprietor (with husband George) of Fins to Feathers, which offers dolphin viewing and birdwatching excursions. They also provide hands-on educational opportunities for kids through their Sea Life Nature Center in Port Isabel. Her enthusiasm for birds and dolphins is immediately apparent — and infectious. Soon after we leave the dock, she pulls the small boat closer to shore to get a better look at a bird’s feet. “If it’s got yellow feet, it could be a first,” she says. Nope, not this time; it has just ordinary tan-colored feet.
As we proceed across the bay, her dog Rozzi is on the lookout for dolphins. The dog sometimes gets so excited after spotting dolphins that it plunges right off the edge of the boat. Colley always has a large net at the ready to scoop up the errant pooch.
Spotting a pair of dolphins about 50 yards away, Colley yells, “Come here, my babies! You’re beautiful! Come here, my babies!” She refers to this enthusiastic display as “feeding them joy,” and it really seems to work. If you’ve ever seen a dog react to animated banter, you pretty much get the idea. Colley oozes excitement — and encourages her passengers to do the same — and the dolphins respond in kind.
Soon, the two dolphins are joined by 10 more, and before long the boat is surrounded. A dolphin glides by parallel to the side of the boat, angling its head upward to make eye contact with me. Another jumps out of the water, as the others seem to wrestle playfully just a few feet from the boat.
After a few minutes, they appear to get bored with us, and they swim away. Rozzi barks to signal another group of dolphins in the distance. We watch as the two groups briefly merge, do a little more jumping and wrestling, and then head off in separate directions. Colley says this behavior is sort of like two groups of teenagers bumping into each other at the mall. They greet each other, maybe trade a few playful jabs, and move on.
When there are no more dolphins to be seen, Colley directs my gaze skyward. She points out a peregrine falcon — the first I’ve ever seen. Then she notices an osprey soaring overhead. Thanks to her watchful eye — and countless hours on the water — Colley has been the first to spot many new avian visitors to the island. Her firsts include the brown booby, black-headed gull, yellow-billed loon, flame-colored tanager and mangrove warbler. In early 2007, she found the first mangrove warbler nest. These red-headed beauties should be back on the island in the fall, Colley says.
Back on dry land, I while away the day at the beach. The water here varies in color from deep blue to shimmering green. While it may not compare to the crystal-clear blue of the Caribbean, this is as good as it gets in Texas. The beaches are wide, clean and, on this late-October day, nearly deserted. I count 12 people as far as the eye can see in either direction.
The next day, I wander around the island without much of a plan, taking in the sights. At the Laguna Madre Nature Trail next to the South Padre Island Convention Centre, I begin to see why butterfly watching is exploding in popularity: it’s easy and you don’t have to get up early. Hordes of butterflies of every kind flit about from plant to plant in the lush garden. Dozens of monarchs are sipping away at the yellow and red flowers of tropical milkweed plants. I try to snap a few photos, but the wind isn’t cooperating.
Just down the road, I happen upon an educational tour already in progress at Sea Turtle, Inc. Several large tanks on-site hold injured leatherbacks, greens, loggerheads, hawksbills and Kemp’s ridleys. The guide describes how divers’ weights are used to help balance turtles that come into the rehabilitation facility with buoyancy problems. The weights are attached to the turtle’s shell with epoxy glue. According to curator Jeff George, “Buoyancy problems are usually associated with pneumonia, bowel obstructions or neurological problems related to boat strikes.” Other threats to the turtles include entanglement in discarded fishing lines or nets and loss of food due to degradation of habitat — particularly the loss of sea grasses.
At feeding time, I’m surprised to see the green turtles munching on ordinary romaine lettuce. The other species prefer a slightly heavier diet, including fish, shrimp, squid and crabs.
As my own feeding time approaches, I head for Scampi’s Restaurant, which comes highly recommended by locals (yes, South Padre does have locals, almost 2,000 of them). For starters, the chipotle crab cake is a spicy treat, and the pecan redfish entrée induces a happy delirium that has me thinking crazy thoughts like, hey, maybe I could live here. I manage to rationalize this delicious gorging by reminding myself that I’ll be going on a hike the next morning.
Arriving just after sunrise at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, I am immediately transfixed by the bird feeder near the visitor’s center. I know I should be hiking off the calories from the night before, but there’s so much action right here in front of me. Green jays and other colorful birds are chattering and jumping from branch to branch. Clumsy-looking chachalacas are strutting back and forth on low branches near the feeder. And, inexplicably, a javelina is standing silently amid the ruckus, as if posing for a Disney movie promotional photo. A green jay hops onto the back of the javelina, which doesn’t budge or seem startled at all. Maybe they play piggyback like this every day.
I finally pull myself away from the feeder, pick up a map in the visitors center and head for the 15-mile bayside drive. I’m amazed at the number of large raptors I see along the way, including hawks, ospreys, peregrine falcons and crested caracaras. Something on the side of the road catches my eye, so I pull over to investigate. It’s a dead puffer fish. How did that get here? I’m at least 200 yards from the water, on a hill that’s about 30 feet high. Laguna Atascosa wildlife biologist Jody Mays says, “We have seen ospreys regularly carry their meals (fish they have caught) some distance away from the water to feed, perhaps to avoid gulls that try to take their meal from them.”
A little farther down the road, I come upon a trail that leads to an elevated observation deck. The view from the deck underscores just how different this landscape is from the rest of Texas. The bay, and its glistening blue water, seems endless, but if you turn around and look only at the plants, you could easily believe you’re in the middle of a desert.
After one more short drive, I arrive at the Moranco Blanco trailhead. As I begin the 3-mile hike, a strong wind picks up, so strong that I can lean forward and remain standing on wind power alone. I consider turning around, but then there are those crab cake calories still waiting to be burned. While trudging forward at the pace of a tortoise, I spot another animal moving at about the same speed: a Texas tortoise. Unfazed by my presence, the tortoise crosses the trail and pauses to take a bite out of a juicy succulent. It’s a starkly beautiful animal, much like the landscape it inhabits. Wavy, whorled lines on its shell surround small splotches of yellow. Its feet look like those of a tiny elephant but with longer toenails. Once popular as pets, the Texas tortoise was listed as a threatened species in 1977 and is now protected under state law.
At the end of my long, slow walk, I’m rewarded with another panoramic view of the bay. A blue heron stabs its spear-like beak into the shallows and pulls out a shiny, squirming fish snack. As I enjoy a snack of my own, I begin to wonder what it would be like to spend 24 hours at Laguna Atascosa, to watch the sun rise and set, to see the animals that become more active after dark. A part of the refuge is leased by Cameron County, which offers a limited number of RV and tent campsites at Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park. That’s where I’ll be staying next time. With nocturnal residents such as owls, armadillos, bats and ocelots, I’ll bet the nightlife around here is amazing.
- South Padre Island Travelodge (956-761-4744, www.southpadretravelodge.com)
- Casa de Siesta Bed & Breakfast (956-761-5656, www.casadesiesta.com)
- Fins to Feathers (956-299-0629, www.fin2feather.com)
- Dorado’s Baja Bar and Grill (956-772-1930, www.doradosbaja.com)
- Scampi’s Restaurant (956-761-1755, www.scampisspi.com)
- Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (956-748-3607, www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/laguna.html)
- Adolph Thomae Jr. County Park (956-748-2044, www.co.cameron.tx.us/park/thomae.htm)
Some of the state's most pristine and remote areas are found along the Lower Coast. And, for paddle sport enthusiasts, silently gliding along these mangrove-fringed shores, especially while fishing or birdwatching, is one of the best outdoor experiences to be found in the Lone Star State.
Although the Lower Laguna Madre offers miles of shoreline, there are a handful of stretches that are notable for the scenic solitude available to paddlers.
At the southernmost end of the Lower Laguna Madre, just below the Brownsville Ship Channel, lies a shallow, oyster-encrusted estuary known as South Bay, a virtual paddling paradise. A few miles west of the main bay, just above the Ship Channel and State Highway 48, is San Martin Lake, which just may be the state's best-kept paddling secret. And just a short paddle north of the South Padre Island Convention Centre is a stretch of isolated, protected and scenic sand that is an easy paddle even for beginners.
"Both South Bay and San Martin Lake are great for paddling and fishing," says fly shop owner and artist Larry Haines of Port Isabel. "South Bay is probably the better of the two, because it is more consistent, fishing-wise, and is also a little easier paddle.
"San Martin is a little more difficult because it is even shallower than South Bay," Haines says. "It can be really good when there is a high tide, and it can be good when the tide's coming out and the fish are moving out. Because it is so shallow and the water isn't quite as clear, it is easy to get stuck on oysters. The bottom is so mucky you can't get out and it's sometimes hard to get yourself off. But it is a gorgeous paddle, with lots of mangroves, a variety of birds and all kinds of other stuff to see.
"The best way to access South Bay is either from the children's beach at Isla Blanca Park or coming in the back side off Highway 4," Haines continues. "Or, you can go in by boat, anchor and get out and paddle. For San Martin, the Highway 48 boat ramp offers great access."
"South Bay is a wonderful area to paddle, whether you are sightseeing, fishing or birding," agrees Bruce Gillan of Canoesport in Houston.
Besides being the co-owner of one of Texas' premier paddle sport shops, Gillan is an accomplished paddler who has been exploring the Lower Laguna Madre for well over two decades.
"Wind is always a concern when paddling on the Lower Laguna Madre," Gillan says. "When we paddle to South Bay, we leave from the county park (Isla Blanca). It is not an extremely long paddle, but the wind can make it seem that way if you're not prepared for it. To help avoid the strongest winds, we like to leave early and return early.
"One area that is a nice paddle when the wind is up is the stretch of shoreline that runs north from the Convention Centre," says Gillan. "This area isn't heavily developed, and it provides for a really scenic paddle. And the island gives you a nice windbreak."
~ Danno Wise