An Osprey (Pandeon halieatus) skimmed the water, captured a fish, clutched it fiercely in its talons, and flew off beyond a bush to devour it on a post while we watched. There was power there, if not much grace. A pair of Roseate Spoonbills (Ajaia ajaja) flew by the watchtower off Laguna Madre, brilliant pink in the evening sun, with their spoon-shaped bills occasionally silhouetted against the darkening sky. Later we saw another three of them. There is probably no better end to a long tired afternoon than to see these birds fly by. A Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus) flew ahead of us with its prey, completely ignoring our presence. If only all raptors looked as unique, instead of being unconscionably difficult to identify in flight. Black-bellied Whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) were omnipresent—I had seen these earlier this year at Stengl where they were an unexpected rarity. Here they are as common as grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) in Austin. Great and Snowy Egrets (Ardea alba and Egretta thula) fed along the shore. Great Blue and Tricolored Herons (Ardea herodias and Egretta tricolor) were equally common. There were birds everywhere, both exotic and common. And there was virtually no human presence—throughout Friday evening we saw no one else.
We were at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR), once a part of the Rio Grande delta. I doubt that even the river remembers when it had enough water left to flow through this area. Texas has had an unfortunately impressive history of destroying its rivers by excessive unthinking consumption upstream—I’ll have more to say of this later. Even LANWR suffers from chemically contaminated water flowing into it, and from water loss due to flood control upstream. The Refuge was to be our introduction to the birdlife that makes the lower Rio Grande valley the premier birding region in the US. One of our recent philosophy graduates, Antonio Madrid, was with me and we had driven all the way down—almost 400 miles—from Austin last Friday afternoon. It was not a particularly interesting drive, with the landscape strangely bereft of wildflowers. On I-37 south of San Antonio, we had to navigate rainstorms, and south of Corpus Christi, while we drove through eerie mesquite brushland, the road was often flooded in what was often typically semi-desert landscape.
It rained on us periodically throughout the weekend though, mercifully, the nights were dry and cool, at least cool compared to the stifling heat of central Texas. For all the rain in recent days, it has been an extremely dry year in the lower Rio Grande valley—as elsewhere in Texas—and the ponds and marshes at LANWR were mostly dry. Alligator Pond, for instance, consisted of a few small puddles and we saw no sign of the American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) that are supposed to be plentiful in the Refuge. But the trees around Alligator Pond contained Brown Jays (Cyanocorax morio), Long-billed Thrashers (Toxostoma longirostre), and Kiskadees (Pitangus sulphuratus)—and so even the long trudge there from the Refuge Headquarters was not wasted.
For birders, LANWR is about as diverse as it gets in North America. The Refuge birdlist includes 411 species, and this may well be an underestimate given the continued northward shift of Mexican species presumably because of climate change. 411 bird species is supposed to be the highest number for any protected area in the US. Even in June, in about an hour on Friday evening, we spotted over thirty species along the fifteen-mile Bayside Drive. Much of that route is along the peaceful seagrass-filled hypersaline water of the Laguna Madre, with thornscrub and habitat inland from the road. Laguna Madre has very high productivity, and so it is not surprising that it hosts a high number of birds. We got fifteen more bird species early Saturday morning. The area around the Refuge Headquarters abounds in Green Jays (Cyanocoraz yncas), with their blend of green and blue plumage making them perhaps the most beautiful of the birds we found there. But birds are only a small part of the diversity found at LANWR. Giant tarantulas crawled across the trails in the evenings—you had to be careful not to run them over. Cotton-tailed rabbits and white-tailed deer were ubiquitous. American tortoises were common.
Endangered ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) still live in the Refuge. There may be as many as forty of them. This is one of only two places in the US where they are known to have denned though, not surprisingly, we saw no sign of these excessively secretive canines. (The only time I’ve encountered an ocelot is at Monteverde in Costa Rica in 1994—but that is a story for a different occasion.) Besides the ocelot, the rare, threatened, or endangered taxa present in LANWT include the Gulf Coast Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi cacomitli), the Northern Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis septentrionalis), the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), the Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempi), the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), the American Alligator, the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), and the Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta).
At 65 096 acres, the LANWR is large, the biggest protected area in the lower Rio Grande valley. The Refuge exists mainly because the federal government acquired several large sites along the Gulf of Mexico Coast to serve as air force bases and gunnery ranges during World War II. This is not surprising: military bases are better for nature than urban sprawl. After the war, on 29 March 1946, Laguna Atascosa became part of the National Wildlife Refuge system to protect dwindling numbers of once-abundant game species. LANWR extends along the shoreline of Laguna Madre and gets its name from the freshwater Laguna Atascosa in its middle. This lake almost disappeared during the droughts of the 1990s and is in scarcely better health today. Ducks are supposed to abound in the lake in winter but we were there on a morning in June. Only egrets and herons disturbed its shimmering placid surface. Even when water is plentiful, the lake is at most only four to five feet deep. The biodiversity of LANWR is due to its peculiar configuration of habitats: coastal prairies mingling with Tamaulipan thornscrub interspersed with brackish and freshwater wetlands. Each habitat has its own association of species. Needle Island is at the center of Laguna Atascosa and Cayo Atascoso connects it to Laguna Madre. The southern part of Laguna Atascosa is surrounded by the city of Laguna Vista which is an obvious reason for concern about the future health of the protected area. However, recent efforts by several NGOs and governmental agencies are leading to significant land acquisition that will apparently reverse the ceaseless destruction of wetlands during the last fifty years. This is at least one area of the Texas Gulf Coast in which restoration efforts seem to be on track .
There is a moral to this story: if you haven’t been to Laguna Atascosa, it is more than worth a visit even in June. It seems to be a common belief that the area should not be visited in summer because it is too hot and there isn’t much to see. Well, it probably is the case that at least bird diversity is much higher when wintering birds are present. But the animal diversity we saw last weekend is difficult to replicate north of the border. And it was cool and breezy by the water, a far cry from the mid-Texas coast. The staff at Headquarters were welcoming and knowledgeable but there’s little printed information around. Laguna Atascosa needs keen historians and naturalists initiating newcomers to this Refuge’s rather incredible resources. Not everyone finds the Refuge beautiful. Dick Phelan, for instance, writes: “The place isn’t pretty or scenic. It is all mud flats amd brush and ponds. It is the only really big place in the [Rio Grande] Valley which remains in its natural state [2, 212].” But even he acknowledges the extraordinary biodiversity is wrong. And I, for one, don’t see how Phelan could have found the place less than scenic. There are few places in South Texas where I would rather spend an evening than at the shores of Laguna Madre or Laguna Atacosta. The serenity more than makes up for what the scene may lack in visual excitement.
Unfortunately it isn’t easy to camp around there. We pitched our tents at the Adolph Thomae County Park at the northwest edge of LANWR on the bank of the Arroyo Colorado which enters the ocean through the reserve. However, even though the Park abuts the Reserve, you can’t enter it from the Park. The drive around the perimeter to the LANWR entrance is fifteen miles. The Park has very friendly and helpful staff but, other than that, there isn’t much to recommend it. A lighted fishing pier generates yelps of delight from successful anglers and keeps the night at bay from those who would prefer a quiet evening listening to sounds of the river and the bush. The light and noise continued throughout the night. It did make some sense, though, to fish in that water—the river was overflowing, at least with leaping sunfish. The trails at the Park itself are at best of limited interest.
And it rained insects of a bewildering variety all night long. In the evening mosquitoes feasted on our skin even through denim. A liberal dose of 60 % DEET was of limited use. June bugs were all over us and it is probably pure luck that we didn’t eat a few. But most of the insects were beautiful, and different ones visited us at different times of the night. There was a particularly delicate small white moth that emerged only after midnight, and only for a few hours.
 Blackburn, J. 2004. The Book of Texas Bays. College Station: Texas A&M Press.
 Phelan, R. 1976. Texas Wild: The Land Plants, and Animals of the Lone Star State. Excalibur Books.