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January 20053 Days in the Field

Texas Tropics

Destination: Port Isabel

By Carol Flake Chapman

For everything from sport fishing to first-class birdwatching, head to the southern tip of Texas.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 6 hours /
  • Brownsville - 0.75 hours /
  • Dallas - 8.75 hours /
  • El Paso - 13.5 hours /
  • Houston - 6 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.75 hours /
  • Lubbock - 11.25 hours

As my dad and I drive south toward Port Isabel, with our fishing gear stashed in the trunk of my car, it feels like old times, when I was a kid and my dad and I were always on our way to some new adventure in the wild, whether a walk in the woods or fishing from a bank or a boat with bait my dad had rounded up. Neither of us, though, has ever been to Port Isabel, and I have tropical visions of palm trees, colorful birds, and plentiful fish. I haven’t done any serious fishing since I was a kid, and I’ve been realizing lately how much I miss it. I’m also hoping to hone my beginning skills as a birder. My dad, a master naturalist who volunteers for Sea Center Texas, knows just about everything that flies, crawls, slithers or grows in Texas, but he has brought along his birding binoculars and a portable library of reference books in case he spots something he hasn’t seen before.

As we head toward the Gulf, the vast ranches of the southern inland prairie give way to the lush farmlands of the Rio Grande Valley. In our enthusiasm to enjoy the landscape, we nearly miss the turn for Los Ebanos, a privately owned preserve now open to the public. We swing off busy Highway 100 onto a quiet, shaded drive, and I can understand why so many birds stop here, too, on their seasonal journeys south or north. Named for the native Texas ebonies, the thorny blossoming evergreens that dot the grounds, Los Ebanos is a haven for native plants, birds and butterflies. Martha Russell, who inherited the place from her parents, has been working with her husband Taylor Blanton to return the 82 acres surrounding the lovely Casa Ebanos to their original semitropical state, the way most of this part of the world used to look. Taylor Blanton points out the difference between the fronds of the native Texas sabal and the Chinese fan palm that has largely displaced the native palms in the local landscape. I learn the difference too, between the lone migrating Monarch we spot fluttering around the butterfly garden and the local Queen butterfly, whose bright orange markings are often mistaken for the Monarch.

We resume the journey eastward toward the unmistakable white spire of the Port Isabel Lighthouse. Renovated four years ago, it gleams so brightly now it’s like a beacon in daytime as well as at night. The afternoon is waning, and we’re just in time to get tickets to climb the stairs of this antebellum landmark that has stood for more than 150 years through wars, hurricanes and modernization. Overlooking the Brazos Santiago Pass, which lies between South Bay and the huge Laguna Madre, we can see South Padre Island to our east, across the Queen Isabella Causeway.

After our long drive, we’re eager to get to the Brown Pelican, the inn on South Padre that caters to birdwatchers. As though on cue, we’re greeted by a little blue heron perching on the rail, standing so still I mistake it at first for part of the décor. But before we get too settled in among the comfortable antiques, soaking in the delightful sunset view of the Laguna Madre from the veranda, we have one more stop before calling it a day. Dusk, I’m learning, is a great time for birding, and so we head north for just a mile or so to the boardwalk adjacent to the South Padre Convention and Visitors Center, where birders can get a quick introduction to the local feathered life in the marshes and to migratory species just passing through.

We meet Scarlet Colley, of Colley’s Fin to Feathers Tours, who is leading a group of students who are budding birders. The winds are too high, she observes, for the migrating warblers who often settle into a stand of trees and bushes planted for their benefit. But along the boardwalk, Scarlet claps her hands, and all sorts of things answer the call. First, there’s Alli the alligator, who comes scooting around the corner, emerging from a small channel under the boardwalk, as though dinner were served. The marsh hens that have been placidly swimming nearby sound a squawking alarm and disappear. Heading back, we hear a rustling and then spy a clapper rail scooting around the shallows. It’s a first for both my dad and me.

The next morning, I continue my birding education at a vacant lot in a residential neighborhood on South Padre that has been transformed into a small sanctuary by the Valley Land Fund. The bushes are rustling with tiny birds, which turn out to be an assortment of warblers and vireos, including a white-eyed vireo, a Philadelphia vireo, and a black-throated blue warbler who darts about so close to us I don’t need binoculars to appreciate its jewel-like beauty.

We make a quick stop at the South Padre Island Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center, run by Scarlet Colley and her husband George, a former fisherman whose father once operated a ferry between South Padre and the mainland. Now the Colleys run the small research center and operate tours for birders and dolphin watchers. Before we head for our tour, Scarlet feeds a wounded cuckoo that she is rehabilitating. Meanwhile, I can’t resist the touch tanks full of small sea life, particularly a baby stingray with surprisingly expressive eyes.

The weather looks perfect for our tour of the Laguna Madre, and we are joined on the pontooned Laguna Skimmer by Scarlet and George’s dogs, Ceta and Angel, who perch on a bench at the back of the boat to scout for dolphins. It’s not long before they bark excitedly, and dolphins surround us. For Scarlet, many of the bottle-nosed dolphins of the Laguna Madre are like an extended family, and she quickly identifies an adult female as Nipper, who appears to be shepherding two young dolphins, Nipette, almost grown, and little Nibbles, the first baby dolphin I’ve seen swimming in the wild. They seem quite comfortable with our presence. Even the roseate spoonbills we spot along the edge of South Bay seem to be part of the Colleys’ extended family.

To end the day, we head for the jetties located in the public park at the bottom of the island. The waves are crashing as I grab a thawed mullet from the bait bucket and secure it on the hook, following my dad’s instructions. My first cast goes out high, then fizzles, like a kid’s first softball throw. But a couple of more tries, and there’s something really fighting on the end of the line. I pull up a glimmering silver fish with a gold stripe and aggressive underslung jaw. It’s a three-pound snook, says my dad, wonderingly. I’ve pulled in a prize sporting fish, and perhaps I can be excused for thinking this is the handsomest fish I’ve ever seen. For the brief second or two before I let it glide back into the surf, I feel as though I’ve found South Padre’s long-lost buried treasure. “Look,” my dad says, and I glance up at the last rays of the sun pouring through a round opening in the clouds, like the visions of heaven we’ve seen on painted domes in Italy.

The next morning, we learn that a storm is heading our way, and the clouds loom menacingly over the Laguna Madre, extending east toward the Laguna Atascosa, where we’re hoping to spend the morning before heading back home. Still, we can’t pass up an opportunity to see a place where ocelots still roam. Cats don’t like water, my dad reminds me, and so our odds of seeing an ocelot in the rain are pretty low. But almost as high on my list of wanna-sees are the Texas tortoise and the caracara, also known as the Mexican eagle. And as the drizzle gives way to dazzling sun, sure enough, there’s a big caracara standing right in the road, ruffling its black and white feathers as we drive slowly on the refuge’s Bayside Drive alongside the Laguna Madre. Already we’ve seen so many ospreys near the water we dub the road Osprey Way. And around the bend, to round off a perfect trip, is a small female Texas Tortoise heading bayward across the road. A few hundred yards later, crossing the road in the opposite direction, is a large male, with the elongated gular scute it uses to overturn competing males. Alas, the two may never meet. But we’re lucky they’ve crossed our path, and I feel as though I’m leaving Port Isabel and the Laguna Madre with a treasure trunk of memories to take back home.

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