November 26, 2019-April 13, 2020
We were WARM for winter! Volunteering, exploring and generally chilling. Here’s a bit of what we did.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
This is a beautiful refuge right on the Rio Grande River. There are 2,088 acres of native thorn forest with over twelve miles of hiking trails, a seven mile paved tram loop, a really cool “jiggly” canopy walk suspension bridge (a hundred foot long bridge suspended between two twenty-five foot towers) and a forty foot tall “Hawk Tower” that puts you above the canopy of the trees. You can see 360 degrees around: Mexico, farm fields and acres of trees. You might also see the hawks that like to sit high up on dead snags.
Santa Ana is a birder’s paradise. A north-south flyway intersects with an east-west flyway which means there are birds – lots and lots of birds. Part of our job as visitor services staff was to put out feed each morning. We easily had a dozen or more species chowing down every day. This included birds most people have never seen before: Chachalacas, Great Kiskadees, Golden Fronted Woodpeckers, Altimira Orioles, Clay Colored Thrushes, Green Jays, and more. Some days a rare bird would appear and we’d have people lined up two deep at the viewing windows snapping pictures. As one regular put it “birders are special people.” I would have to concur. After watching their excitement after spotting a bird on their “life list,” you have to smile and enjoy the thrill too.
The refuge is also located at the convergence of four different climates and habitats: subtropical wetlands, Chihuahuan Desert, Gulf Coast and Great Plains. This adds to that diversity and maybe explains the weird weather swings. We’re cycling through each climate about once a week.
The refuge isn’t all about birds. As one of the few remaining unplowed and unpaved parcels along this miles-long section of the Rio Grande, it is a haven for furry critters too. Visitors spotted bobcats and coyotes as well as smaller mammals. Oh, and the beautiful indigo snakes. They shimmer purple, silver and blue in the sunlight if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse before they slip off into the underbrush.
We enjoyed wandering the trails, checking out the critters and helping the visitors enjoy their time at the refuge.
Hidalgo Festival of Lights – December 16, 2019
Our first outing with our new volunteer village neighbors was the Hidalgo Festival of Lights. This is an annual event that draws huge crowds. Very cool and worth the trip. We were lucky enough to catch a bit of the concert put on by local school groups.
La Sal del Rey – December 30, 2019
La Sal del Rey means “The Salt of the King.” There are tons of salt here. Hundreds of years ago, salt was as valuable, maybe more valuable, than gold or silver. You didn’t need gold or silver to survive, but you absolutely needed salt. This salt was important to all the different peoples that have passed through this area. The lake you see today forms over a salt dome that extends miles underground. (See our posts about Avery Island and Jefferson Island – also salt domes.) There are times in the summer that the lake dries up completely and you can see all the glittering salt crystals catching the bright Texas sun.
Today, this is a go-to place for birders and nature lovers. The shallow lake is fed by fresh water springs. So while the lake is very salty, the springs support small fresh water wetlands.
We spotted a dead Nilgai, a large Asian antelope, half submerged in the lake. We later learned that it had died several months earlier. We were surprised that vultures and other animals hadn’t eaten it yet and guessed it was too salty for their tastes.
La Sal del Rey appears as a green spot on the map. It is one small piece of the third refuge in our complex, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge but it is the one most visited. The other properties make up a “string of green pearls” that run along the Rio Grande. The refuge is working to string together those pearls to create a safe corridor for wildlife.
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge –January 27, 2020
Laguna is only a few hours away but is a whole different animal… or animals. Here you find more birds, shore birds, migrating birds, and birds of prey. Guided bird walks are offered at both refuges and are highly recommended.
Santa Ana’s bird walks are free. Laguna Atascosa’s bird tours cover more territory and are done in a van so there is a nominal fee. We visited the refuge several times so we could enjoy the bird tour and hike some of their trails.
Laguna also allows bikes on most of their trails so it is a great way to get out and see wildlife. You might see alligators, turtles, snakes, javelina, Nilgai, bobcats and the endangered ocelot.
South Padre Island – January 28, 2020
As usual we were just not into city type stuff but we gave it a go, wandered the streets, rode the free bus from end to end, viewed some awesome sand sculptures, ate at several restaurants, listened to some music and had cocktails on a patio at sunset. We strolled along the beach and watched shore birds dodging the waves and humans flying in gas-powered hang gliders. NOT a bad way to spend a day.
This was more our style than the beach shops. We loved Sea Turtle Inc. and spent a whole day there checking out resident turtles. This one got its own post.
This battle kicked off the Mexican-American War. Again, we spent the entire day there. This spot also has its own post.
H & J