Birder Heaven: South Padre Island

great-egret_padreis-tx_lah_0511

South Padre Island is full of hotels, restaurants, condos, fishermen,  and tourists. Since my husband and I were accompanied by some older, non-birding friends, we weren’t able to arrive until midday, definitely not the best time to go birding. Then, when I discovered that the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center now charges admission, I almost turned back. I’m glad I didn’t.

It had been years since our last visit, and things have changed. There is now a large nature center housing some excellent interpretive displays plus the usual nature-related souvenirs. You now have to go through the building (and pay your $5, less for children) to reach the boardwalks that extend out over the bay.

long-billed-curlew_padreis-tx_lah_0305-1At first the boardwalks follow some tidal channels that separate islands of low scrub, grasses, and reeds. Sandpipers patrolled the muddy edges, probing for dinner. Since it was winter, the Spotted Sandpiper didn’t have spots, but the bobbing tail and white extending up around the front of the wing made identification easy. Several Long-billed Curlews (above) explored slightly higher ground.

Excited tourists pointed out easy-to-spot Great and Snowy Egrets and snapped photos on their iPhones. My camera got a bit closer; you can see my portrait at the top of the page.

redhead_padreis-tx_lah_0387As we reached the shoreline, deeper water provided a slightly different habitat. Hundreds of Redheads floated on the bay, accompanied by a variety of other ducks, American Coots and Common Moorhens. Brown Pelicans dove for fish, coming up with their prodigious beaks full of dinner.

padreis-tx_plh_4114Pete nabbed a picture of this greedy grebe, who had clearly bitten off more than he could swallow. He flipped the fish until he had it pointed in the right direction, but he would have needed a snake’s unhingeable jaw to get it any further. We gave him points for ambition, but the fish eventually got away.

tricolored-heron_padreis-tx_lah_0405

This Tricolored Heron got quite worked up about a fish he was chasing, darting back and forth and appearing to dance on the water. In this case, the bird won, downing the fish with a single gulp. What a show!

Our friends tired long before I was ready to leave, and it was time to head back to the car. We were walking along, discussing the birds, when I spotted what looked like an old tire stuck in the shallow water.

alligator_padreis-tx_lah_0446-1I was commenting on what a shame it was to have trash in such a lovely place when the “tire” moved—and a large head emerged from the water, grinning at me! I’ve seen plenty of alligators, but that was the first time I got a good view of the teeth. Yikes!

In addition to the boardwalk, a butterfly garden has been planted next to the visitor center. If the warm, sunny day wasn’t enough, flowers blooming in December and colorful butterflies reminded us that Brownsville is at the same latitude as Key West, and quite tropical.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Birding and Nature Center. Of course, going earlier would have been better, but it’s worth a stop no matter what time of day it is, or how long you can afford to stay.

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