For my September 2015 column, I headed to Texas’ southernmost county for a lot of birding, some barbacoa, and a little beach time. Like the whole of the Rio Grande Valley, Los Fresnos and its neighboring towns are ideally situated in the middle of the central flyway. Millions of winged creatures, including a number of rare species, flock here, as do the obsessive, binoculared birders they attract, and it’s great fun to observe both amid the winding resacas and lush coastal prairies that dot the region.
SEE + DO
Where the wild things are . . .
A whopping 95 percent of the Rio Grande Valley’s native habitat is long gone, having been cleared for farming and development. But pockets of unspoiled land remain, most notably the nearly 100,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (22817 Ocelot Rd, 956-748-3607), a lush haven for a variety of fauna and flora, which graciously allows humans to do a little poking around too. Here’s how to do just that:
Hiking and biking: There are a variety of paths to explore either on foot or on bike, like the Prairie Island Trail (1/8th of a mile, crushed gravel), along which you’ll spot many a bird and butterfly and can rest in the shaded gazebo; the Alligator Pond Trail (1/3rd of a mile, paved), which is perfect for bikes and leads to a viewing platform overlooking a pond frequented by gators; and the Lakeside Drive Trail (1.5 miles, partially paved), which will take you to the refuge’s namesake lake for a view of the many shorebirds and wintering waterfowl that flock here. If you’re up for a 15-minute walk or bike ride, don’t pass up Bayside Drive, a 15-mile loop through a number of the refuge’s habitats (from thornscrub to wetlands) that edges the Laguna Madre and has two elevated overlooks, the Plover Point Boardwalk and Redhead Ridge. Note: The visitors’ center is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but there is a self-pay kiosk, so you can still access the refuge’s trails from sunrise to sunset.
Kayaking: You don’t need your own gear or even any prior paddling experience to sign up for a watery tour of the Laguna Madre, one of the most hypersaline lagoons in the world. After learning the basics of self-propulsion, you’ll get an up-close-and-personal view of the abundant fish and all-important seagrasses that thrive in this salty incubator. Tip: Reservations are required, and tours—held on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings—can fill up fast, so call well in advance of your visit. And be sure to pack a snack or light lunch to enjoy at Redhead Ridge post paddling.
Touring: Bayside Drive, one of the refuge’s most scenic routes, was closed to private vehicles in 2013, but if you don’t want to hike or bike the 15-mile loop, just sign up for one of the refuge’s guided tours to see the sights from the comforts of an air-conditioned passenger van (in the summer) or an open-air tram (at twilight in cooler months). Tip: Bring your binoculars so you can get a closer look at the birds and beasts that will inevitably cross your path; if you don’t have a pair, you can borrow one from the visitors’ center.
Tweeting: More than four hundred species of winged creatures have been spotted at the refuge, making it one of the best birding spots in the Rio Grande Valley (which is one of the best birding spots in the world). What to keep your eyes peeled for? Green jays, kiskadees, plain chachalacas, mottled ducks, neotropic cormorants, roseate spoonbills, Harris’s hawks, black skimmers, greater roadrunners, and least grebes, are all frequently sighted; if you’re lucky, you’ll also get to scratch “aplomado falcon” and “yellow-green vireo” off your birding bucket list. Tip: Hire a local site guide like Michael Marsden ([email protected]), a resident of nearby San Benito who’s a trip leader for the annual (and very popular) Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. (For much more about Texas’s rich birding scene, read “Wing Tips,” Patricia Sharpe’s informative guide, and “The Birdman of Texas,” Katy Vine’s profile of birder to the stars Victor Emanuel.
Roadside attractions . . .
You know you’re getting closer to the island (that’d be South Padre Island, of course) when you see the giant gorilla rising on the horizon. The enormous ape—along with his equally enormous dinosaur friends and a very wide-mouthed shark head—hovers over Bobz World, a mega mall of entertainment (bowling, arcade games, animatronic pirates, a “jungle” of dinos), kitschy souvenirs (seashell wind chimes, Hawaiian shirts), and kid-friendly, if not heart-friendly, food (pizza, ice cream, foot-long corn dogs for $2.49). 36451 TX Hwy 100, 956-233-2350.
A replica of the wrought-iron gates adorned with musical notes that stand outside Graceland are what lead you into Little Graceland, a small but earnest shrine of Elvis memorabilia that Simon Vega has lovingly arranged on the second floor of his home. Vega, who met the crooner in an Army chow line when they were stationed in Germany, also throws his old buddy a big birthday party every January, complete with performances by tribute artists and hundreds of fellow fans. Note: Call ahead to arrange your visit. 701 W. Ocean Blvd, 956-233-5482.
While you’re in the area, head to . . .
. . . Brownsville (14 miles south):
- Stand on sacred ground at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park (7200 Paredes Line Rd, Brownsville; 956-541-2785), the 3,400-acre prairie that was the site of the first skirmish of the Mexican War.
- Continue your South Texas birding tour along eight miles of trails at Resaca de la Palma State Park, one of the Valley’s nine World Birding Center locations (1000 New Carmen Ave, 956-350-2920).
- Roam the 28-acre Gladys Porter Zoo and say hello to some of its 1,600 animal residents (500 Ringgold, 956-546-2177).
- Enjoy a real barbacoa taco at Vera’s, a local institution known for its traditional hole-in-the-ground cooking methods (2405 Southmost Rd, 956-546-4159).
. . . Harlingen (18 miles northwest):
- Brush up on local history as you explore the three historical buildings (the home of the town’s founder, the first hospital, and an old stagecoach inn) on the grounds of the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum (2425 Boxwood, 956-216-4901).
- Head downtown to peruse the shops and patronize the restaurants along Jackson Street.
. . . South Padre Island (23 miles east):
- Follow my lead and head straight for the shoreline to baptize your toes in the cool Gulf water.
- Feast on fried shrimp and sip piña coladas seaside at Clayton’s (6900 Padre Blvd, 956-761-5900), Wanna Wanna (5100 Gulf Blvd, 956-761-7677), or the bayside Dirty Al’s (33396 State Park Rd 100, 956-761-4901).
- Scan the horizon for shorebirds (and the water for alligators) at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center (6801 Padre Blvd, 956-243-8179) then head next door to Sea Turtle Inc. (6617 Padre Blvd, 956-761-4511), an open-air rescue center that nurses endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles back to health.
- Book a Fins2Feathers dolphin cruise, led by George and Scarlet Colley (and, often, their dog!), who know the Laguna Madre like the backs of their hands (956-299-0629).
EAT + DRINK
After a long day of craning your neck skyward looking for birds, a cold Mexican coke and a hot enchilada suizas plate are in order at Julia’s Restaurant, which seems to hang its hat on its surf and turf botanas (splittable platters of beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, and oysters) and comfort food daily specials, like meatloaf (Mondays) and chicken fried chicken (Thursdays). 220 W. Ocean Blvd, 956-233-5653.
I was advised to get the taquitos, which come six to order at Taqueria y Antojiotos Mario, but I couldn’t resist the siren call of the nearly foot-long flour tacos, settling for the bistek, which came stuffed with avocado, cheese, and cilantro. There’s a drive-up window if you’d prefer your Nachos Panchos or sopes to go. 116 Ocean Blvd, 956-233-6004.
The Inn at Chachalaca Bend is a semi-secluded six-room retreat that sits on a curve of the Resaca de las Antonias (a former channel of the Rio Grande) and is, indeed, home to a number of roaming chachalacas, brown chicken-like birds known for the raucous chattering that inspired their name (“cha-cha-lac-aaaaaa”). The grounds are lush and shaded with palm and olive trees, and a hiking trail will lead you even further into the dense greenery brimming with birds and other wildlife. Each of the rooms includes a large soaking tub, and even though there was no maid service during my stay, the innkeepers were good about asking if I needed more towels or toiletries. Breakfast, served each morning, was always a more-than-I-could-eat affair, though I’d save my grapes to roll to the chachalacas nesting in the trees just outside the dining room windows. My room, the Kingfisher, was roomy and quiet (I was the only guest on two of my three nights), but next time I’ll request one of the four second-story rooms that open onto a wrap-around balcony. That is, if I don’t spring for the lodge, a separate building popular with honeymooners that President Carter and his wife once stayed in. Note: Unsurprisingly, given the natural beauty here, the inn is a popular wedding venue, so it’s often closed to other guests on Saturday nights, which is certainly an inconvenience. Also, the inn was purchased, in 2013, by a religious organization called To Every Tribe, though there was no proselytizing during my visit beyond a pamphlet on the nightstand (“We believe in the resurrection of the body, the final judgment, the eternal felicity of the righteous, and the endless suffering of the wicked”). 36298 Chachalaca Bend, 956-233-1180.
BEFORE YOU GO
A few tips:
- Los Fresnos is a notorious speed trap (as is most of US Highway 77, south of Kingsville). You’ve been warned.
- Be sure to bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, binoculars, and other necessary gear for being outdoorsy. Oh, you’ll want serious bug spray too.
- If you’re pressing on farther to South Padre, be forewarned that traffic can get thick on weekends, particularly in the summer months when everyone’s heading for the causeway.
Read up . . . on the plight of the endangered ocelots and learn how you can donate to conservation efforts via the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Download . . . the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s hefty 274-page PDF outlining the refuge’s comprehensive conservation plan for a very detailed look at this state—and national—treasure.
Follow . . . the official Laguna Atascosa NWR Facebook page for timely updates about upcoming events and animal sightings.
Texas Monthly writers on South Texas . . .
“Hidden Coast: Redhead Ridge” and “Boca Chica” by Dan Oko (May 2013)
“The Birding Drive” by Patricia Sharpe (June 2012)
“Hecho en Brownsville” by Oscar Casares (August 2012)
“Bentsen–Rio Grande” by Charlie Llewellin (June 2011)
“Hidden Valley” by Joe Nick Patoski (October 1992)
“Phantom Cat of the Valley” by Suzanne Winckler (June 1983)