A dry heat with a baking sun. The flat yellow and green hued land stretching to the limits of vision. Thick scrub brush laces with long thorns prohibiting entrance. A dusty road traversing the open fields and trailblazing through thickets. Fourteen foot alligators sunning themselves next to small watering holes evaporating daily. The home of big cats…ocelots, bob cats, mountain lion, and not so long ago, jaguars. Exotic birds flashing their bright colors. The infrequent sound of a gusty wind irreverently breaking the still quiet. Long-legged and billed birds on a shallow lake ever vigilant of the predator movements below the surface…this is Laguna Atoscosa National Wildlife Refuge, at the southernmost point of Texas near South Padre Island…the closest I have ever felt to an Africa safari in the United States.
Laguna Atoscosa NWR The lagoon is a man-made body of freshwater. It lies in the Rio Grande Valley. The term valley is actually a misnomer, as the area is an alluvial delta just like the Nile River. Before man began building up the valley, the river deposited rich sediment through natural flood plains. This productive soil is what drew farmers to the area. Nowadays, the Rio Grande water is regulated by a canal system to water all of the fields. Laguna Atoscosa would have naturally flooded in the past when the Rio Grande was free to complete its natural cycles, but now there is a dam to regulate the water and keep the lagoon full. In severe droughts, like the recent 5-year drought in Texas, the lagoon will dry up. Typically, however, the lagoon’s freshwater beckons birds from both the Mississippi and Central flyways; as well as migratory songbirds and even neo-tropical birds seen no where else in the U.S.
During the pesticide spray where we were staying while volunteering at Flame of Truth, we took the opportunity to visit this refuge. As you can already tell, it exceeded expectations. Let’s take a look at a video of our highlights of the day (you can thank Marty Stouffer and Wild America for my sheer enthusiasm)…
How to plan your visit: We arrived in the morning and checked in at the visitor center, which is where you pay the day use fee and sign up for any programs. They were running a birding tour for free that was a guided walking tour for 1 hour. We chose to do the 3 hour bus tour that was called a habitat tour. They typically run the habitat tour on the prairie side of the refuge, but the roads were under construction during our visit, so our tour took us around Laguna Atoscosa.
Here are our recommendations for your visit:
- Be sure to walk the short, paved paths at the visitor center. They keep feeders and water out to attract the birds, and they even have a bird blind set up for visitors to get the best shots. The below photos of birds only found in the southern tip of Texas for the U.S. were all taken right around the visitor center.
- Drive less than 2 miles from the visitor center to Osprey Overlook for the view of the lagoon – that is where we started our above video footage. From that same parking lot, take the short hike (around 1 mile round-trip) to Gator Pond. If you have extra time, there are plenty of trails in this area for hiking.
- Make sure you do the bus tour. It is more than worth the $4 per person.
- The day use fee for the refuge is $3 per vehicle. The refuge closes at dusk. .
- The three hour tour is $4 per person. You can’t beat it, Gilligan.
- The roads getting to the park are full of potholes, really awful, so give yourself some extra time.
- There is no place to get a meal at the refuge or nearby, just a few junk food snacks and drinks. If you want to spend the day there, make sure you pack a lunch. Eat your lunch at the picnic tables, but expect visitors. Can you count all three green jays who came to our table?
- This is probably the only place in the U.S. for this sign…
- And what in the world is a Nilgai? They were imported from the Pakistan area, but now they are wild in southern Texas. As I mentioned in the video, we saw several, but they were way to wary for a photo. Here is what they look like: Nilgai Is that African safari worthy or what???