Sunday, December 16 was a good day to drive from Goliad to South Padre Island. South on US-183 to US-77 south. After Harlingen, US-77 turns into I-69E/US-77. Then east on TX-100 to South Padre Island.
The weather was excellent for the three hour drive. Little wind. Not too sunny. Light traffic to the RGV. RGV? Rio Grande Valley, a Winter Texan paradise. Years ago, the visual clue for entering the Rio Grande Valley was all the palm trees planted along the highways (and everywhere else). Now, in modern times, the gateway to the RGV is marked by palm trees and windmills. Windmills everywhere.
The route to the South Padre Island KOA was familiar. TX-100 over the Queen Isabella Causeway (bridge). Once on the island, take the first two rights. Early after noon check in. A porter in a golf cart led us 100 feet to our site. After hooking up water, electric, sewer and cable it was time to eat. We were given a coupon for The Pier 19 Restaurant. The restaurant is within a five minute walk from our site. Simple decision.
Pier 19 was bustling. We were seated at a window table right away.
Since all the seats are window seats, early or late, diners can always get a view.
Normally appetizers aren’t our thing. However we were both starving and I noticed an interesting house specialty. Chips and Guacamole where the guacamole is mixed with cream cheese.
The appetizer was a much larger portion than expected. Cream cheese mixed into guacamole is an excellent taste combination. The included fresh pico de gallo and salsa were also good. The chips tasted like fresh baked although they probably weren’t. Excellent.
For lunch, I ordered another house specialty.
The menu has it as Chicken Fry Chicken. The chicken had a light traditional type breading. I took the gravy on the side, dipping the chicken in the gravy to savor each bite. The mashed potatoes were to my liking and the vegetables weren’t over cooked. Excellent meal, good value.
After the late lunch it was time to finish setting up camp by putting out portable dog fencing and zero-gravity folding chairs.
This campsite is typically for motorhomes. Rigs are expected to pull in forward so the hookups end up on the street or driver’s side. This is the second site from the KOA office.
We were blessed that evening with the first of many amazing sunsets.
Monday morning we drove for 40 minutes to grocery shop in Brownsville. In the afternoon, it was time to figure out what activities to do this week. Federally funded attractions were scheduled for the first week because of the threat of a government shutdown Friday at midnight. At the end of the week, midnight Friday, parts of the federal government did shutdown.
Early Tuesday we drove out to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center to sign up for a Habitat or Bird Tour. Good thing too. The web shows the tours Thursday through Sunday. However, the wildlife refuge was only doing tours Friday through Sunday. We signed up for the Bird Tour Friday morning.
The pretty bird above is found at the Visitor Center entrance.
In the afternoon, we took the dogs over to Isla Blanca Park, a Cameron County Park. The park has hundreds of full hookup RV sites surrounded by nice beaches. Visitors must either have a pass (requires paying a fee) or pay a fee at the entrance gate. As an RV park, the place is a dump but overnight camping is inexpensive compared to other campgrounds in the area and the location can’t be beat. In season, expect the RV sites to be already taken/reserved.
We wanted to walk the dogs on the beach. We found a parking spot and trudged over the dune to get to the ocean. Behind me is the Gulf of Mexico.
The young man pictured above on the left was an accomplished pilot. He made his RC plane do all kinds of stunts including tail spin recovery. Over the ocean!
From this park, it is possible to hike up the beach past all of the island’s ocean side developments.
We did not stop in at the UTRGV (University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley) Coastal Studies Laboratory Aquarium and Museum. On their website, it says they are open afternoons for self guided tours. No mention of what one might be touring. Next week, if we get bored, we might pay another $10 to get into Isla Blanca Park so we can visit the aquarium and museum.
The southern end of Isla Blanca Park provides good views of the channel that allows ships to go from the Gulf into Laguna Madre, the Brownsville Ship Canal and South Bay. The US Coast Guard has a station on South Padre Island between the KOA and Isla Blanca Park on the Laguna Madre side of the island.
Wednesday morning, I walked the dogs from the KOA to the Queen Isabella Causeway and back. There is a boardwalk that goes around the base of the causeway on the South Padre Island end. The bridge view makes an interesting picture. People often fish under the bridge. At best, parking in the area under the bridge is tricky even on low traffic days. Not recommended but people often do it.
Wednesday afternoon, we drove 80 miles to Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuges. We headed to the Visitor Center. Based on information on their website, we were expecting to ride the Nature Tram around the wildlife refuge. According to the ranger on duty at the Visitor Center, the tram has been discontinued. Instead, visitors are now allowed to ride bicycles in the refuge. No, they don’t rent bicycles.
It was too warm and windy that afternoon to do any serious hiking. While walking around, we ran into a couple who were park hosting for the season. The couple told us where to find birds. Unfortunately, those locations were out of range. The couple also pointed out that wildlife viewing was much better early in the morning.
The wildlife refuge has one interesting feature within our walking range. To enable visitors to experience the tree canopy ecological zone, there are towers to climb. Wildlife up high in the trees is different than wildlife down low on or near the ground.
Two towers (above) have a sky bridge connecting them. I climbed up the circular stairway to the top of the first tower.
When I got to the top, I looked over the bouncy sky bridge. Not feeling safe, I turned around to descend the claustrophobic circular stairway I had just come up. I chickened out. Besides, it was hot and windy.
I had been up the standalone tower before. It has nice wide staircases with landings in between. At the top, there is a stable platform with good strong railings to lean on. I didn’t go up there either. Wrong time of day for wildlife viewing.
We went back to the Visitor Center the way we came. We crossed over a dike protecting the RGV (Rio Grande Valley) from flooding.
Then we crossed over an irrigation ditch that delivers irrigation water to the surrounding area farms. Back at the Visitor Center parking lot, we got into the Jeep and drove 80 miles back to South Padre Island.
Wednesday, after dinner, another stellar sunset. It was nice to finally see some wildlife. There is an abundance of wildlife around South Padre Island.
Egrets are commonly found in wetlands areas. This guy above was found near the KOA boat ramp. The one below was seen on the other side of Pier 19 in the mud flats.
Thursday morning started with a wonderful sunrise.
A Blimp has been in place at the Coast Guard Station since early October. Most nights, the blimp is lowered. It has been raised everyday we have been here. We heard locals talking about this being the second blimp. The first one was destroyed in mid November during a cold windstorm.
These things cost in the millions. You would think they would be better made to withstand winter weather.
Thursday was clear and beautiful. We headed out to the National Butterfly Center outside Mission Texas. The 90 mile trip took an 1½ hours to drive.
We paid the admission fee inside the center. Even though the color green might be a little overdone, it has clean bathrooms, a good gift shop and informative displays.
The middle of December may not be the best time to visit the center. We saw only a single species of butterfly. The number and types of birds was also limited.
They had an interesting way to bait butterflies (and other insects) so they would congregate along the walking trails. Some sticky substance attractive to butterflies was applied to logs. Not sure what they used.
After an hour, we had seen enough of the National Butterfly Center. Out the main gate, we turned right toward the main road. On the way back, we stopped for lunch at Luby’s in Harlingen. After lunch, we stopped in at the Harlingen PetSmart to buy dog food.
Friday we got up at 5:00 and out the door just before 7:00. The Bird Tour started at 8:00 AM sharp. Even with the 10 plus mile road construction detour, we arrived early at 7:30. Nobody else was around.
By 8:00 AM, everyone except the Canadians had arrived and were ready to go. Being polite, the Canadians called to say they couldn’t make it. Our volunteer tour guide couple loaded us up and we headed out.
The above map is just to give a sense of where we went. The red path through Bahia Grande Unit is by no means accurate.
Instead of doing the usual tour through Laguna Atascosa, the tour guides decided to mix things up a bit and go through the Bahia Grande Unit. They drove south through Laguna Vista, turning right on TX-100 toward Port Isabel. Just before Port Isabel, at the HEB grocery store, they turned right onto TX-48 toward Brownsville. Some miles down the road was a locked red gate on the right. That was the path into National Wildlife Refuge Bahia Grande Unit. After driving through the wildlife refuge, we exited on East Ocean Boulevard (TX-100). Turning east, we turned into the nearest Stripes gas station so people could snack up and visit restrooms. Turning right out of the Stripes parking lot, we headed east and turned north at the Laguna Vista turn. Soon we were back at the Visitor Center where we said our good byes.
This is our first tour where we were the only non-birders. The others on the tour knew so much more about the birds and were good at spotting them. Also, I wasn’t carrying the biggest or baddest camera either. This is one of those instances where I wished I had brought my largest and most expensive telephoto lens. The big lens is heavier than I wanted to carry that day.
During the tour, everyone, including the driver, would be scanning the environment for birds. When a bird was seen, folks would call out the name of the bird and then try to describe where the bird could be found. If the bird were flying, the would say the name of the bird followed by “on the wing.” Some were better than others at describing where the bird could be found. Once a suitably stable and interesting bird was sighted, the van would stop. As soon as the door opened, we would all stumble out with our gear. Gear like cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes. The tour guides shared their excellent spotting scopes with all of us.
I saw a few birds I had never seen before. The Crested Caracara above is one of these birds. Apparently, a few of the others had never seen Crested Caracara before as well. This bird is considered both interesting and rare.
The Caracara wasn’t the only bird I hadn’t seen before.
Everyone on the bus saw the bird above. However, it was too far and fast for anyone to really be able to tell what kind of bird it was. It is clear from the picture that it is a bird of prey as it is holding prey in its talons.
We also saw birds that are commonly seen around South Padre Island KOA.
We also saw birds that are common in South Texas.
We had to ask the guides what these were.
These are sensors used to measure changes in sea levels. Sea level changes are expected with global warming so these types of sensors could become extremely important over time.
On one of the bus stops I was looking in the opposite direction from the others and saw this Nilgai off in the distance. Nilgai are native to India and Pakistan. Here they are considered a pest. In Texas, nilgai can be hunted year round without limits. The Wildlife Refuge is currently hosting hunts targeting deer (limit 2 does per hunter), feral hogs (no limits) and nilgai (no limits).
Great day for bird watching!
After the tour was over we all thanked the tour guides. So many wonderful people volunteer in parks and wildlife refuges. On the way back to South Padre Island, we stopped at Pirates Landing, a restaurant run by the same firm as Pier 19. Pirates Landing is located in Port Isabel where the mainland side of Queen Isabella Causeway (bridge) to South Padre Island is. We parked on the street near the Port Isabel Lighthouse.
Finding the door to the restaurant was a bit of a challenge. There were pirates posted everywhere.
Although the picture above doesn’t show it, the pirate theme extends to inside the restaurant. Without asking, we were seated at the window. The restaurant wasn’t very busy. We had arrived around 1:00 PM.
We both ordered the Lunch Seafood Basket with fish (Pollock).
Lunch was a little heavy but good.
After lunch, we walked down their pier to look at the pirate ship. The Queen Isabella Causeway is in the background. Argghh Matey!
Friday afternoon a crowd gathered on the patio to listen to live music. They were still going strong as the sun set behind them. Another beautiful day in paradise.
Saturday, we were up early to beat the rush to the grocery store. The winds picked up in the morning. Not exactly gale force but strong enough to make driving difficult. We decided to stay put.
We walked the dogs until it was too dark to see. Then we sat on our campsite patio to enjoy the evening. The moon rose over our campsite.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!