Laguna Atascosa Refuge
As I scanned pretty Laguna de los Patos, or “Pond of the Ducks,” from the Redhead Ridge Overlook—a stop along the fifteen-mile Bayside Drive—I couldn’t argue with the name. Pintails, coots, green-winged teal, and the namesake redheads formed a kaleidoscope before my eyes, offering proof of why this 97,000-acre wildlife refuge has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. (And yes, I know coots aren’t true ducks.) Over four hundred avian species, more than any other national refuge, have been spotted amid Atascosa’s beaches, thorny thickets, and iconic clay mounds (known as lomas). The hiking and biking trails and seasonal kayak tours let you escape the crowds of birders even at the height of migration, which makes this a hidden paradise year-round.
But the wildlife’s the thing. As I watched, raptors on the wing, including a white-tailed hawk, unsettled the ducks, and I focused next on trying to find one of the refuge’s more seldom-seen residents: the ocelot. But timing is everything. Bayside Drive opens after sunrise and closes before sundown to protect the endangered and notoriously nocturnal wildcats, and despite the fact that ten to twenty ocelots (out of about fifty in Texas) live on the refuge, I struck out. As I left, I did spot a few bobwhite quail crossing the road. Dinner, I thought.
To get there: Laguna Atascosa NWR is open daily from sunrise to sunset. From Harlingen, drive about 25 miles east on Texas Highway 106, take a left at the T, and drive 3 miles to the visitors center (956-748-3607). Entrance fee is $3 per day.