It takes about three hours to drive to Port Lavaca from Austin, provided that you don’t get lost when Route 183 winds about in Lockhart. Chris Kelley (a student in my lab.) and I did that drive yesterday with wildflowers blooming all along the route. The flowers were especially abundant around Luling (on Route 183) and along Route 87 after Cuero. As is often the case, the dominant May color was yellow, with daisies (Amblyolepis setigera and Engelmannia peristenia) making way for Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) further south. There were more than a few sunflowers (Helianthus annus) as well as Pink Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) and Texas Prickly Pear (Opuntia lindheimeri), besides dozens of species that were beyond my rather limited plant identification skills. The recent rains have led to a welcome extravagance of wildflowers throughout the region. The rain has brought some relief to the area but no one on the coast seems to think that our drought has finally broken.
We were on our way to work on a project to restore oyster beds in Lavaca Bay—there will be much more on that later. We had to spend the night in Lavaca Bay and chose to stay at the Lighthouse Beach Campground. It was an interesting experience. Chris was driven around in a golf cart to inspect the available sites—it would have fit well into a remake of Patton directed by Andy Warhol. For once, the campground was populated mainly by Latinos though most of our neighbors were out for a barbecue and didn’t stay for the night. After dark, while we were assembling our tents, and aging white prostitute drove in and delighted us with cheerful insults and only departed when neither of us expressed much interest in her other wares. The bathrooms were filthy enough to make a Greek youth hotel jealous. These included one that was allegedly kept clean by requiring a $ 5 deposit to have access to it. All night, traffic drove along Route 35, right next to the campground, and mosquitoes feasted on our blood. The bright light of a Motel 6 sign across the highway made flashlights irrelevant. Over all, it was more of a homeless shelter than a campground. Comparatively, all our other camping trips this year have been unbelievably dreary.
Earlier, we quite impressed the owners of Gordon’s Seafood Grill and Tequila Bay Bar across Route 35. Georgie, the daughter had claims of being an artist—she had huge black-and-white renditions of film stars on the walls. The Lucille Ball and James Dean pieces were quite good but the Marilyn Monroe impression left much to be desired. Her mother was quite ecstatic at meeting us—all her life she had been wanting to meet a biologist. Her husband had suggested that the ones she saw on the National Geographic Channel were enough but, now, for the first time she was laying her eyes on one in flesh and blood (the last due to the mosquitoes). I hadn’t realized that we’re such a rare form of life. Perhaps we are, at least in Port Lavaca.
We woke up today to the sound of Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla) which I, at least, find pleasant. But what had saved last evening—besides the friendliness and good humor of everyone we met—was a bird walk at the campsite. Attached to Lighthouse Beach is a Bird Sanctuary with a three-quarter mile boardwalk over marshy wetlands, and including a pavilion that almost jutted into the bay. The boardwalk, made to look like wood, was actually made of Formosa plastic and donated by the Formosa Corporation. Chris caught a splinter in his arm that bothered him for the rest of the night. Formosa is a local company with operations just across the bay. The pavilion was contributed by Alcoa, also across the bay. I will have much to say on Formosa and Alcoa later, when I get to the degradation of Lavaca Bay and our oyster restoration project.
The finds of the night were Franklin’s Gulls (Larus pipixcan) and the Clapper Rails (Rallus longirostris). There were only a few individuals of the former, with pink legs, among the flocks of Laughing Gulls, otherwise identical but with black legs. These are known for their incredible migrations. They nest primarily along lakes and marshes in the northern prairies in central Canada and north-central US. They then completely molt their feathers and fly south in the Fall, to the Texas coast, and continue south to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (in Mexico). From there they fly overland to the Pacific coast which they then follow to southern Peru and northern Chile. After wintering there, they have another complete feather molt and return to their nesting grounds backtracking along the same route. Most ornithologists believe that the two complete feather molts, unique among gulls, must be an adaptation for their long-distance migration. Strong new feathers are of obvious value during a 5000 mile flight. The species was once threatened due to habitat loss but seems to have increased in abundance lately, probably because of the creation of large wetlands in many refuges along its migratory route. Though the species is not supposed to be uncommon during its migration, I have rarely seen more than a few individuals at a time.
As often happens with rails, we heard the Clapper Rail more often than we saw it though, on one occasion, there was one wandering around a few feet from the boardwalk. It has an uncanny ability to merge with its background. One moment you see it, and the next it’s gone. You never seem to have enough time to focus your lens properly. Some subspecies of Rallus longirostris are endangered but the Atlantic subspecies, which is what we were seeing, is supposed to be fairly abundant. Nevertheless, it rarely seen in Texas, and this cannot be because it is hard to see. In spite of its almost perfect camouflage it routinely gives itself away by its penetrating grating (“kek-kek-kek”) call in the evenings. When you don’t hear it, it probably just isn’t there.
There were also several pairs of White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) foraging around. In flight they were as graceful as any bird I’ve ever seen. Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) were also plentiful close to the bay as also were several large sandpipers that proved impossible to pin down. A few Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoenicus) flitted around along with our ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus). I could have spent a lot more time on that boardwalk. That there were so many birds is not really that surprising, given that we were on the Texas Gulf Coast close to the peak of the Spring migration, and Port Lavaca is a few dozen miles from Aransas. Nevertheless, the Bird Sanctuary made up for what was wanting at the campground.