The Texas 20
Celebrate the National Wildlife Refuge system’s 100th anniversary by visiting some of the 20 national wildlife refuges spread throughout Texas.
By Mary-Love Bigony
The eerie rattle of sandhill cranes rings out across the High Plains in Bailey County each winter. Some 400 miles to the southeast, springtime brings the buzz of golden-cheeked warblers and the chatter of black-capped vireos to the oak and juniper woodlands of the Hill Country. And on the coastal prairie, where a tiny fraction of the 1 million Attwater’s prairie chickens of a century ago cling to existence, the male Attwater’s dance and leap to attract a mate. Their courting site is called their booming ground, but the sound a male chicken makes sounds more like air blown across the top of an empty bottle than a boom.
This is the soundtrack of Texas’ national wildlife refuges. With 20 refuges in Texas and more than 500 nationwide, the National Wildlife Refuge system is the world’s largest and most diverse network of land and water set aside for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants. Refuges across the nation have celebrated the system’s 100th anniversary during 2003.
The nation’s first national wildlife refuge was established to protect the herons, egrets and other birds whose elegant feathers were in great demand for ladies’ hats in the early 20th century. Plume hunters had killed thousands of birds to supply feathers for the millinery industry by the time word of a slaughter of birds in Florida reached the White House in 1903. On March 14 of that year, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an order creating the Pelican Island Bird Reservation on Florida’s Atlantic coast to be protected forever as a “preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” Two years later, Roosevelt established refuges for big game animals in Oklahoma and Wyoming. By the time he left office in 1909, Roosevelt had established 51 bird reservations and four big-game preserves.
Many refuges were established to provide resting and feeding stops at crucial points along the four migratory bird flyways in the United States. This is the case with Texas’ first refuge, Muleshoe, established in 1935 as a wintering area for waterfowl and sandhill cranes.
In addition to providing refuge for wildlife, many of the areas welcome human visitors. Some have enhanced wildlife-watching facilities such a boardwalks and interpretive signs. More than half the refuges offer hunting or recreational fishing. Texas refuges vary with the terrain and the season, offering an ever-changing opportunity to enjoy Texas’ wild lands and the animals that live on and visit them.
The other President Roosevelt — President Franklin D. Roosevelt — established Texas’ first national wildlife refuge by executive order on Oct. 24, 1935. Muleshoe NWR sits on the shortgrass plains of Bailey County in the western Texas Panhandle. Playa lakes — shallow basins that fill with water — provide wetland habitat for ducks, geese and sandhill cranes.
Tens of thousands of sandhill cranes visit Muleshoe each winter; in February 1981, a quarter of a million cranes visited the refuge in a single day. The lanky, raucous birds arrive from their Alaskan, Canadian and Siberian breeding grounds around the end of September and settle in for a six-month stay, roosting on the playa lakes and feeding in the surrounding agricultural lands. Waterfowl begin arriving in August, including pintails, teal, wigeon, mallards, redheads, canvasbacks, snow geese and Canada geese.
In 1958, Buffalo Lake NWR joined Muleshoe as a refuge for migrating waterfowl and cranes. Located northwest of Muleshoe, in Randall County, the refuge is named for the thousands of buffalo that once grazed these shortgrass prairies. Prairie dogs still live in these grasslands, along with burrowing owls, which use the prairie dogs’ burrows for their homes. Refuge visitors can take an interpretive trail to the prairie dog town.
Red River Valley
Birds change with the seasons at Hagerman NWR, located on the Big Mineral Arm of Lake Texoma, between Texas and Oklahoma. This 11,320-acre refuge was established in 1946, two years after Texoma was impounded, to protect and enhance the habitat around this area of the huge reservoir.
Canada, white-fronted, snow and Ross’s geese, as well as mallards, pintails, teal and scaup, arrive at Hagerman each fall. Some stay for the winter while others continue southward. Summer brings shorebird migration — terns, plovers, sandpipers and phalaropes might be seen along the refuge’s wetlands. Pelicans delight observers in April and September, and long-legged wading birds spend the summer at Hagerman. Elegant scissor-tailed flycatchers gather here in the fall, preparing for their southward migration.
A two-mile, self-guided automobile tour offers a look at the various habitats within the refuge: marshes, prairies, woodlands and cultivated fields, where grains are planted to provide food for the wintering waterfowl. Or hike the one-mile Crow Hill Trail, which traverses a native prairie and ends at a scenic overlook.
Shadowy cypress thickets and serpentine sloughs give Caddo Lake a mysterious, even spooky atmosphere. On the lake and the adjoining Big Cypress Bayou, you almost expect to see a 19th-century steamboat carrying passengers between Jefferson and New Orleans. Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2000 to protect and manage 7,172 acres of forested wetlands and cypress swamps surrounding the waterways. These wetlands are one of only 17 in the United States designated a “Wetland of International Significance” by the Ramsar Convention.
Caddo Lake NWR overlays parts of the U.S. Army’s Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant, and the Army currently is cleaning up environmental contaminants. The refuge is closed to the public during the cleanup, but visitors can enjoy this unique region of Texas at the adjoining state park and wildlife management area.
Little Sandy NWR, a 3,208-acre refuge on the Sabine River north of Tyler, protects bottomland forests that provide habitat for waterfowl and dozens of other species. The Little Sandy Hunting and Fishing Club donated a conservation easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which created the refuge in 1986. It is currently closed to the public.
Two species of rare birds — the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo — nest in Balcones Canyonlands NWR. Located northwest of Austin, this refuge’s limestone hills and spring-fed canyons represent the Texas Hill Country at its finest.
Other breeding birds fill the hills with a concert of song in the spring: vermilion flycatchers, canyon towhees, black-throated sparrows, bushtits and others. Red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks nest there, too; peregrine falcons and Mississippi kites pass through on northward and southward migrations.
Most people visit this refuge to see birds, but be alert to other occurrences, as well. On an October afternoon a couple of years ago, I stood in amazement on one of the refuge’s trails and watched thousands of monarch butterflies float by. More than 500 plants have been identified there, and at least one-third of the state’s threatened and endangered species live or migrate through this area, according to the Friends of Balcones Canyonlands.
Visitor facilities include an observation deck and two scenic nature/hiking trails. The deck is closed during the vireos’ arrival and reopened after nesting begins.
One of the newest national wildlife refuges in the state protects a remnant of a diverse and critically endangered ecosystem. The bottomland hardwood forests of Trinity River NWR support a variety of wildlife and are used extensively by migrating and nesting birds. Plant life is diverse, too; biologists estimate the refuge contains more than 620 species.
Texas has experienced a steady decline in bottomland hardwood forests because of reservoir construction, development, agriculture and the demand for hardwood pulp for paper products. In addition to providing habitat, these forests are important in maintaining water quality. This refuge, located between Houston and Beaumont, protects a portion of the Trinity River floodplain and contains a variety of habitats, including forested swamps, open water, pine forests and mixed pine-hardwood forests.
Visitors can sample this unique habitat at the 800-acre Champion Lake public use area. Cypress trees stand in the shallow parts of the lake, their knobby knees poking up through the water. Launch a canoe or kayak for a quiet float, or spend some time on the observation/fishing pier, opened in March 2003 in celebration of the national wildlife refuge system’s anniversary. Depending on the time of year you visit, you may see wood storks, songbirds, kites, ospreys or even a bald eagle.
More than 1 million Attwater’s prairie chickens once lived in a 6-million-acre band of coastal prairie stretching from Corpus Christi, up the Texas Coast and across Louisiana. But by the early 20th century, development and agriculture had extirpated the chicken from Louisiana and left the remaining birds in Texas clinging to the tiniest remnants of habitat. Less than 1 percent of them remain.
Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR got its start in the mid-1960s, when the World Wildlife Fund bought some acreage, which was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972. During the last 30 years more land has been acquired and refuge managers have restored the prairie chickens’ habitat by planting native grasses, performing prescribed burns and creating a mosaic of grasslands.
Spring and fall are good times to visit the refuge, when the prairies overflow with wildflowers. Take a five-mile auto tour or cross the prairie on foot on one of two hiking trails. Each spring, Eagle Lake and the refuge host the annual Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival.
Will you see the critically endangered prairie chickens? Probably not. Last May only 40 birds were counted. But you can see a virgin prairie that has never been plowed, a rarity itself. And you can see a wealth of other birds, ranging from scissor-tailed flycatchers and crested caracaras, to anhingas and whistling ducks.
Tens of thousands of ducks and geese arrive on the upper Texas Coast each winter, and there’s no better place to see this amazing phenomenon than Texas Point, McFaddin and Anahuac national wildlife refuges.
These three refuges preserve almost 100,000 acres of coastal marshland, critical habitat not only for waterfowl but for fish, shrimp and crabs, as well. McFaddin contains the largest remaining freshwater marsh on the Texas Coast. Texas Point and Anahuac have wooded uplands that attract warblers and other songbirds during spring migration. Anahuac has six species of rails, though try as I might one fall morning I could not spot even one of the secretive birds in the refuge’s Yellow Rail Prairie.
Be on the lookout for the once-endangered American alligator at all three refuges. McFaddin has the distinction of containing one of the densest populations of the huge reptiles in Texas.
Driving tours are available at Anahuac and McFaddin. Visitors to Texas Point can hike into the marsh and wooded areas. The best way to explore the shallow waters of McFaddin and Texas Point is by canoe or other shallow-draft boat.
At Moody NWR on Galveston Bay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers a perpetual conservation easement on a privately owned cattle ranch. This 3,517-acre refuge consists of coastal marsh and prairie, which provides habitat for wintering and migrating birds. It is currently closed to the public.
Texas’ three midcoast refuges — Brazoria, San Bernard and Big Boggy — protect the woodlands, sloughs, ponds, prairies and marshes that provide habitat for this area’s rich and diverse wildlife.
Texas’ midcoast is one of the sites of a spectacular springtime phenomenon called a fallout: tiny songbirds, exhausted after flying nonstop from the Yucatan Peninsula over the Gulf of Mexico, drop into the first trees they see when they reach the coast. Hundreds of birds can fill a single tree. Some neotropical birds — prothonotary warblers, red-eyed vireo, summer tanager and others — stay in the area to breed.
The refuges’ rookery islands host colonial nesting birds such as ibises, black skimmers and roseate spoonbills. Bald eagles build nests high in the branches of some of the oldest trees. Snow geese, Canada geese, pintails, shovelers, gadwalls and others fill ponds and sloughs in the winter.
Big Boggy, smallest of the midcoast refuges, is open to the public by permission only. Contact the refuge office to arrange access. Less than half of San Bernard is open to the public; the open section has a three-mile auto tour and three hiking trails. Visitors to Brazoria can take a six-mile auto tour and stop at various observation platforms and interpretive exhibits. The refuges will host their annual Migration Celebration April 16-18, 2004.
Like the other coastal refuges, Aransas and Matagorda Island national wildlife refuges host waterfowl in the winter, migrating songbirds in the spring and breeding birds in the summer. But these two refuges have one bird the other ones don’t — the endangered whooping crane. From late October through April the majestic white birds, standing 5 feet tall, feed on clams, crabs and fish in the tidal flats surrounding the refuges.
Located about an hour’s drive up the coast from Corpus Christi, Aransas covers more than 70,000 acres on the Blackjack Peninsula — named for the numerous blackjack oaks. Habitat consists of woodlands, grasslands and tidal marshes. Visitors can expect to see a satisfying array of wildlife: white-tailed deer, turkeys, javelinas, feral hogs and various birds, depending on the season. Egrets, herons and roseate spoonbills are seen year-round.
Aransas is a visitor-friendly refuge. Stop by the wildlife interpretive center on your way in to learn about the habitats on the refuge and the wildlife you might see there. A 16-mile driving loop takes you to grasslands, oak thickets, a freshwater pond and marshes. Climb to the top of the 40-foot observation tower for the best chance of seeing a whooping crane in the refuge. If you don’t see one, or you want a closer look, check with the refuge staff or local chambers of commerce about whooping crane boat tours available in the area. A boardwalk across tidal flats offers additional chances for seeing wildlife, and the refuge has several nature/hiking trails.
Across San Antonio Bay from Aransas, Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge and State Park also hosts whooping cranes in the winter and is one of the sites of the migratory bird fallout each April. Refuge biologists are working to reintroduce the rare aplomado falcon, a bird that once ranged from South Texas to Tierra del Fuego. The first documented nesting took place in 1999 and today the island is home to more than 20 aplomados, which visitors sometimes spot over the coastal prairies and beaches.
Rio Grande Valley
On my first visit to Santa Ana NWR in 1999, I raised my binoculars, peered into a thicket and saw a bright green bird with a blue head. I recognized it immediately: a green jay. I had seen so many pictures of green jays, in this magazine and others, that seeing one “in person” was like seeing a celebrity. I was as thrilled as I would have been if I’d seen Al Pacino.
Surprises like this are common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a four-county area of South Texas that contains, at various times of the year, more than 400 bird species, more than 300 butterfly species and enough mammals, lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, dragonflies and plants to keep visitors coming back again and again. Why such diversity? Subtropical, temperate, coastal and desert climates meet here, and this is the northernmost range of many Mexican and Central American species.
This region has suffered extensive and intense development, and less than 5 percent of the native habitat remains. Three national wildlife refuges protect a significant amount of the remaining habitat of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Laguna Atascosa NWR, at 45,000 acres, is the largest protected area of natural habitat remaining in the area. Santa Ana NWR, established in 1943, is a protected island of thorn forest habitat. And Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR connects tracts of habitat along the Rio Grande.
Various visitor services are available at the three refuges. Volunteers and rangers lead birding tours at Laguna Atascosa on weekends between November and April. This refuge also has two driving trails and six hiking/nature trails. Santa Ana also has foot trails and driving trails, as well as an interpretive tram that operates in the winter and spring.
Perhaps the best way to gain an appreciation of this unique region is on a full-day or half-day canoe trip offered by the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. Paddle down the historic Rio Grande, past the refuges teeming with wildlife, and imagine how astonished early settlers to South Texas must have been when they first encountered this rich and exotic land.
Wildlife Viewing Tips from the National Wildlife Refuges
- Dawn and dusk are the best times to see wildlife. Little is moving on hot summer afternoons or on windy or rainy days.
- Leave young animals alone. A parent is probably close by.
- Do not feed wildlife.
- Your car makes a good observation blind. Use binoculars or a scope for a closer look.
- Sit quietly in one location. Let wildlife get used to your presence. Be aware of sounds and smells.
- Teach children quiet observation.
- Look for animal signs. Tracks, scat, feathers and nests can tell interesting stories.
Visiting the National Wildlife Refuges
National wildlife refuges offer some of the best places in the state to enjoy wildlife. But keep in mind that the refuges were established for animals, not for people. They are not parks, and do not have the amenities commonly found in a park. It’s always a good idea to take your own drinking water. Pack some insect repellent, too.
Most refuges have areas that are open to visitors. Some have enhanced wildlife-viewing facilities such as boardwalks and observation decks. Refuge employees are happy to recommend good areas for wildlife viewing and photography.
Contact the refuges to find out about hunting and fishing opportunities. State hunting and fishing licenses are required.
For more information go to <http://refuges. fws.gov> or call the refuge you’re interested in at the telephone number below. To request a visitor guide call (800) 344-WILD.
- (409) 267-3337
- (361) 286-3559
- Attwater Prairie Chicken
- (979) 234-3021
- Balcones Canyonlands
- (512) 339-9432
- Big Boggy
- (979) 849-6062
- (979) 849-6062
- Buffalo Lake
- (806) 499-3382
- Caddo Lake
- (580) 584-6211
- Caddo Lake State Park
- (903) 679-3351
- (903) 786-2826
- Laguna Atascosa
- (956) 748-3607
- Little Sandy
- (580) 584-6211
- Lower Rio Grande Valley
- (956) 787-3079
- Friends of the Wildlife Corridor (canoe trips)
- (956) 783-6117
- Matagorda Island
- (361) 983-2215
- (409) 971-2909
- (409) 267-3337
- (806) 946-3341
- San Bernard
- (979) 849-6062
- Santa Ana
- (956) 784-7500
- Texas Point
- (409) 267-3337
- Trinity River
- (936) 336-9786
Conservation Grants Benefit Texas Wildlife
Bat Conservation International, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and ranchers Douglas and Janet Hardie were honored at an Oct. 18 celebration of the National Wildlife Refuge system’s centennial at the Fort Worth Zoo.
BCI and Fossil Rim each received a $10,000 grant from the Arthur A. Seeligson Conservation Fund, which funds conservation partnerships that benefit native Texas species and habitats. The Hardies received the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, which encourages innovation and collaboration between private landowners, private conservation groups and public agencies.
BCI will use the grant money to build artificial roosts at Trinity River NWR for Rafinesque’s big-eared bat and the southeastern myotis bat. “These two bat species live in large, hollow trees, and because their habitat has been encroached upon, their populations have declined,” says Mark Kiser of BCI. “To replace this lost habitat, artificial roosts will be constructed from concrete to mimic the large, hollow trees, and help protect the second largest existing colony of big-eared bats in Texas.”
Fossil Rim’s grant will be used to build pre-release areas in the wildlife center’s Attwater’s prairie chicken breeding facility, which breeds and raises the highly endangered birds. The chickens are then released into the wild on the Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR. “The pre-release areas will provide the Attwater’s prairie chickens an opportunity to develop the foraging and behavioral skills they will need once they are released into the wild,” says Bruce Williams, operations director for Fossil Rim. “By learning these skills, the birds can more easily make the transition from life in captivity to life in the wild. Increasing this survival rate is a critical link in the recovery of the species.”
Douglas and Janet Hardie, owners of a South Texas ranch in Rio Hondo, were selected for the award because of their collaborative property management with neighboring Laguna Atascosa NWR. They have maintained the brushland, grassland and wetlands on their property, which provide habitat for two endangered Texas species, the ocelot and the aplomado falcon.
“As a private landowner, I understand that I have a responsibility to actively manage my land for the conservation of wildlife and their habitat,” says Douglas Hardie. “Ninety-seven percent of Texas is privately owned and, as stewards of the land, we are the key to successful wildlife and habitat conservation.”