A COUPLE OF PELICANS CIRCLE in the air over Baffin Bay as the roar of a Chevy 454 engine fills the morning. Bart Ballard, a research scientist at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, at Texas A&M-Kingsville, hands me a pair of noise-reducing earmuffs as I step aboard his airboat. Wrapped in a fleece sweater, a jacket, and a waterproof shell against the December chill, I am taking a tour led by Ballard and his boss, institute director Fred Bryant, of the coastline that surrounds Baffin Bay, the antler-shaped inlet off the Laguna Madre whose network of estuaries and mudflats reach deep into Kleberg and Kenedy counties in South Texas. It’s an area that Bryant calls “the last great habitat” in the state.
Even with the sun beginning to rise over the water, the greatness of this region isn’t immediately apparent. The Laguna Madre is flanked by an enormous coastal plain offering fewer topographical highlights than the Panhandle. What is stunning is what you don’t see. While fragmentation and urbanization rapidly envelop so many other parts of Texas, the south coast remains nearly untouched, an ecosystem home to more biological diversity than the Everglades. Baffin Bay is the heart of what has become the largest swath of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States. From the new subdivisions north of Port Isabel to the southern outskirts of Corpus Christi, there are still 476 miles of pristine shore down here. And thanks to giant private holdings, including the King Ranch, hundreds of thousands of inland acres along this stretch are also protected. If you’re willing to make an effort to get down here and tour the Laguna Madre and its inland plains—via a hunting or birding tour on the King or the Kenedy ranch—you’ll find that this deserted, flat-as-a-mouse-pad landscape happens to contain one of the greatest wildlife-viewing regions in North America.
Which is precisely what I’ve come to see. His left hand on the steering stick, Ballard maneuvers the airboat across the base of Cayo del Grullo and up into Alazan Bay, a long crooked finger of water that pokes up toward the Nueces County border, where we hope to encounter waterfowl, wading birds, and whatever animals are roaming the shoreline. High winds are forecast for later, which will make the flat-bottomed airboat tough to maneuver, and my guides discuss our route with wrinkled foreheads, hoping to steer us out of trouble. As we round the tip of land at the mouth of Alazan, a whitetail buck trots away, its head held high. Mudflats, inlets, and back bays break up the few feet of sandy bank that surrounds us, while small rises are thick with huisache, mesquite, and myriad other plants.
We will see more deer and a couple of coyotes on this trip, but it’s waterfowl that are everywhere. Three fourths of the entire North American population of redhead ducks winters on Baffin Bay and the Laguna Madre. All morning, these, together with pintails, scaups, buffleheads, and teals, float in great congregations all around us. Ballard later estimates that on our two-and-a-half-hour trip, we have seen at least seven thousand pintails alone, as well as three species of geese and, of course, avocets, egrets, caracaras, and herons. At one point we stop the boat and walk along a beach to watch close to a hundred white pelicans floating on a back bay. Standing on the shore gazing over the prairie, Bryant stretches his arm toward the horizon and says, “This view probably hasn’t changed since the Karankawa Indians lived here.”
Founded in 1981 and dependent on donations for a large part of its funding, the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute directs studies of wildlife and habitat ecology and management. Bryant hopes the work of the institute will provide answers to the conservation challenges that landowners will increasingly face in coming decades. There are already many. Currently, dredging spoil from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the ship channel that extends from Brownsville to Tallahassee, is being dumped into the lower Laguna Madre and onto unstable spoil islands, a practice that is slowly killing off the area’s sea grass beds. According to a long-term management plan released by state and federal agencies in 2003, alternative methods of disposing of the spoil are being discussed, but no new plans have emerged. And recently there have been attempts to build both a Navy bombing range and a private spaceport in Kenedy County. So far the coastal prairies have resisted development, but as private lands are passed down through generations, the temptation to sell to developers will inevitably become harder to resist.
The good news is that outdoor recreation could become a lucrative alternative to farming or urban development in South Texas. The Laguna Madre has long been a favorite destination of the thousands of Texas anglers who converge on the coast looking for redfish, speckled sea trout, and black drum, which depend on the abundant native shoalgrass. Statewide, fishing alone pumps an estimated $180 million into the Texas economy each year. Local ranchers and landowners in the region are starting to test out other means to use the land’s wildlife to turn a profit. Most of the coastal prairie from Baffin Bay to Port Mansfield, for example, is part of the King and Kenedy ranches, and although hunting leases on these ranches are hard to come by, a few outfitters have at least semi-official access, and the King Ranch does offer some guided hunts of its own. The King Ranch also operates tours for birdwatching, which is now second in popularity only to gardening as a leisure activity in North America.
A few weeks before my airboat tour, I took a trip with a friend around the Santa Gertrudis division of the King Ranch, west of Kingsville, for one of these tours. In five hours, cruising slowly through thorny scrub and bright green pastures full of inquisitive ruddy-brown cattle and past rain-swollen ponds lined with drowned mesquites—haunts of not only coots and grebes but also anhingas, bitterns, cormorants, and alligators—we saw 57 species of birds. The oaks and sugar hackberries were full of phoebes, kiskadees, kinglets, gnatcatchers, and my favorite, the vermilion flycatcher, whose red and black plumage provides a bright flash of color in the drab winter brush.
But spring is the time to visit, especially the brightest ecological jewel of the ranch—the Norias division—which lies deep in Kenedy County on the largest remaining prairie in Texas. Birders descend on this area from around the world, toting their lists of rare summer residents such as the tropical parula, Botteri’s sparrow, and the northern beardless-tyrannulet. Rare indigenous residents include the largest population of ferruginous pygmy owls in North America. If you say you have no interest in birds, well, I say you should go anyway. Your guide will gladly accommodate your wish to see big whitetail deer or possibly even an ocelot or a bobcat. Besides, the drive south from Sarita along U.S. 77 will prove that, if you’re willing to look for it, there is variety to the South Texas landscape. Groves of oak trees, called motts, provide a vital source of food and shelter to migrating birds and local wildlife and rise out of the thorny scrub like a scene from The Lord of the Rings. A little farther, keep an eye out to your left for sand dunes. Active, shifting sand dunes account for about 5 percent of the coastal sand plain, which stretches as far west as Starr and Jim Hogg counties. The slower you travel this part of the world, the more its diversity begins to reveal itself.
Unfortunately, slowing the pace isn’t an option on Ballard’s airboat. Out on Baffin Bay, though it is only nine in the morning, the wind is quickly getting stronger. Ballard quiets the motor and looks at the whitecaps dotting the bay. “When they say small-craft advisory, do they mean us?” asks Bryant dryly. To get back, we will have to hug the east side of Cayo del Grullo until it becomes narrow enough to cross safely, then zip down the western shore and take our chances as we head into the southerly wind back to the put-in. Ballard decides that our best bet is to open up the throttle, causing the airboat’s flat bottom to hit each wave with a huge spine-jarring jolt. For fifteen minutes Bryant and I hang on grimly; I run through a list of silent imprecations as we slam into each solid ridge of water. Driving back into Riviera to get some breakfast, we stare at palm trees turned inside out like umbrellas by the wind. “We probably shouldn’t have done that,” says Bryant. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean it.
No one in the area offers regular airboat tours as of yet; however, tours at the King Ranch (king-ranch.com or call 361-592-8055) include trips to the coast to see shorebirds along the Laguna Madre, and in Sarita, the Kenedy Ranch Museum of South Texas (kenedymuseum.org or call 361-294-5751) is another birding destination, thanks to native plant landscaping, which attracts a wide variety of birds.