Roseate Spoonbills at the
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center
South Padre Island is hardly the sort of place we typically prefer to travel. Situated on the Gulf Coast of Texas less than 10 miles from the Mexico border, SPI is a tourist-driven resort town best known for raucous Spring Break celebrations and crowded summer vacations.
The fact that we were sent there on a freelance assignment DURING Spring Break did not help matters any: College students partying loudly until 2 AM and drunkenly knocking on our hotel room door at all hours of the morning is not our idea of a good time. Especially when we had to be up at 8AM to explore the eco-friendly side of South Padre Island.
We’ve always prided ourselves on “finding green” options even in the most unlikely places, and this trip was no exception. From kayaking the Laguna Madre and taking a dolphin-watching cruise to rescuing injured sea turtles with Sea Turtle Inc, getting back to nature on SPI proved surprisingly easy. But our day at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center was easily among our favorite experiences there.
The Center is one of nine established by the World Birding Center, which was created by Texas Parks & Wildlife and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services to showcase the Rio Grande Valley as a world-class birdwatching destination. As a barrier island, South Padre Island’s coastal wetlands are a crucial first landfall for birds, providing a safe haven for migratory species making their way north from Central and South America.
The SPI Birding and Nature Center is situated on a slender stretch of land dividing the Laguna Madre from the Gulf of Mexico. But its 50 acres provide an impressive array of habitats and biodiversity (including alligators, turtles, fish and more). Dune meadows, salt marsh and intertidal flats are dotted with thick grasses, native shrubs and trees that provide safe nesting grounds, as well as plentiful food sources.
We saw statuesque Great Blue Herons and various Ducks wading in the shallow pond right off the deck. Red Wing Blackbirds and a Ringed Kingfisher sat atop the railing, with the former chattering noisily as the latter hunted for a quick bite to eat. Huge flocks of White Ibis and Brown Pelicans soared directly overhead, crossing from the bay side to the gulf, and a lone osprey hovered in search of fish.
Sitting quietly in one of their five bird blinds provided opportunities to photograph a wide range of wildlife up close. Blind #3, overlooking lovely Laguna Madre Bay, brought views of Cormorants, Skimmers, Brown Boobies and Little Blue Herons grabbing their morning meal.
But my favorite sighting of the day was a flock of 8-10 Roseate Spoonbills we found resting nearby. These beautiful birds are easily identified by their pink color and spoon-shaped bills that allow them to sift through mud for crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs and newts. And though we’ve seen them many times in Costa Rica and Sanibel Island, Florida, we’ve never gotten so close as we did in SPI.
We enjoyed our morning visit to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center so much that we returned that night, and were treated to a spectacular sunset reflected in the center’s still waters. It felt like a world away from the chaos and cacophony of Spring Break, serving as a reminder that EVERY destination offers off-the-beaten-path adventures… if you know where to find them. –Bret Love; photo by Mary Gabbett
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