There is a small wooded area, really just a patch of Live Oaks, that grows between the main highway out of Rockport, Texas and the waterfront. We’d passed it many times, and hadn’t noticed, until friends pointed it out.
It’s a rookery: the place herons and egrets come to build nests and nurse their young. I’ve never seen anything like it.
A viewing area allows us to watch the comings and goings of Great Blue Heron, Great Egrets, and others, all sporting their full breeding regalia.
We observe birds collecting twigs for nests, and pairs working together to arrange them.
Some birds, no doubt due to the close proximity of their neighbours, protest loudly, and we witness a few scuffles, but the birds soon settle down to the task at hand.
We will return here often in our last days, honoured to share in such a miracle, our cameras loaded with images to process for sometime to come.
Port Aransas has a birding centre that was damaged during hurricane Harvey. The new facility opened this week and it’s incredible!
A flock of sandpipers fly in just as we arrive. I search across the marsh to see where they’ve landed, now camouflaged among the reeds, mud, and shallow waters. I follow the sidewalk to the newly opened section – a boardwalk that extends far across the waterway with a high overlook built at the central point.
Birds are everywhere and it’s difficult to know where to aim first.
“Are there alligators?” I ask a couple.
He points out where to see the largest one. I head that way. A huge beast of a gator lies on the grass just below the lookout tower. To the right, where the land juts out another gator is basking in the sun, surrounded by long grass, not far from a flock of Roseate Spoonbills.
A Black-Necked Stilt flies by and I decide to start with him. I love the elegance of these birds. Avocet, more spoonbills, some gulls, and moorhen swim nearby.
I head back toward the beginning, where Ric has stopped. Overhead a Purple Martin swoops in close.
“Hello gorgeous,” I coo. ” Any chance you’ll land for me?”
The bird flies low to my right and that’s when I see it. The third alligator. He sees me too and our eyes lock. I take a few pics and note that he is still fixed on me.
“Hey,” I say calmly. “I don’t mean you any harm. Go about your business.”
He starts to back up and that’s when it hits me: Do alligators back up before they jump? Can they jump?
I back up too, and take more photos.
He turns and disappears into the tall grass, but not before giving me another look.
I have that effect on people too.
“Did you see the alligators?” I ask Ric. He goes off in search of them.
I note a heron sitting on a small island. It’s a Black-Crowned.
Something startles the flock of spoonbills and they rise up all at once – a wave of pink wings. Spectacular.
Moments later, four startled bitterns fly off, and then a half a dozen more.
“Something has scared them off,” the man beside me says.
“Must be the alligator that was resting over there.”
“Have you ever heard their mating call?” the man asks. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. The sound echoes for miles. Makes you feel like you’re at the bottom of the food chain.”
I think about the staring contest. I can believe it. These are formidable beasts.
One of the spoonbills has flown back and landed on the same small island as the heron. He is in full breeding regalia.
Ric catches back up to me just as the first drop of rain hits.
Time for lunch.
What a day! I check my camera for number of photos shot: 349.
Warmer weather encourages us to get out. We take the short ferry ride across to Port Aransas on Mustang Island. Paradise Pond is our destination.
Many others have had the same idea and gather around the opening to the boardwalk. I look for what has caught their attention and spot a bird rapidly flitting about some fallen logs.
“Acts like a nuthatch,” Ric says, but I know what this is. I saw one last year, but was unable to get its photo. A Black and White Warbler!
Isn’t his pattern outstanding! If you look closer, there is a smorgasbord of small flies that he is feasting on.
I break from the crowd and spot several groupings of turtles, amongst them many small ones. A sure sign of spring.
Two ibises float in and land within the thick tangle of fallen branches. The closest one to me is sporting his breeding colours. It’s exciting to be here at this time of year.
I also spot Blue-Winged Teals, a Pied-Billed Grebe, the local Yellow-Rumped Warbler and many grackles. Then Ric flags me over. People have gathered around him and he points to a low branch near the slimy water.
A bright yellow-orange bird lights up the area.
“What is it?” I ask raising my lens.
“A Prothonotary Warbler,” someone responds.
Definitely a first for me!
Before we leave the Whistling Ducks show up, and the Great Egret makes a show of grooming himself, flaunting his breeding allure.
What a great outing, and this is only the first stop!
“Have you been to Tule Marsh yet?” our new neighbours ask the moment we tell them we like birds. “The Whistling Ducks are there.”
I’ve been wanting to see the Whistling Ducks!
The Tule Marsh spans both sides of Highway 35 in Rockport, although apart from some small signs, it is hard to spot, which explains how we’ve missed it up until now.
A semi-circle drive is the parking area and then a walkway leads into an area thick with tall bushes and on the other side a boardwalk extends out and across the marsh. In the middle is a large pond teeming with Whistling Ducks.
They really are spectacular with their neon orange beaks and multi-coloured plumage.
A white ibis is also wading in the pond and the sound of songbirds fills the air, although catching a glimpse of the little ones is difficult as the trees here are quite lush already.
I do manage to capture an image of this catbird (a first for me), and I also spot a little yellow bird with a dark hood-like head, but he ducks out of sight faster than I can focus.
Across the road is another parking area with further boardwalks also spanning a pond, as well as a hiking/ biking trail through a wooded area. I get a picture of a mockingbird singing joyfully. Something rustles in the bushes nearby and not sure whether to be frightened or excited, I ready my camera. A furry orange head peeks out – a tabby cat. Seems we aren’t the only ones looking for birds.
More Whistling Ducks line up along the water’s edge here. A Tricolored Heron joins the group at the top. Notice how much greener everything is looking, a sure sign that Spring is here.
My favourite shot of the day is this one. If I wasn’t so tired from our outing, I’d think of something witty to say about it:
The heavy cloud cover of yesterday is breaking up allowing for small pockets of sunshine. The temperature is hot, almost muggy. We are headed back to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge.
“Better get my camera ready,” I tell Ric. “Last time we saw that coyote just before the entrance.”
“Yes, and it was motoring! Not a chance you would have got a picture of it.”
Still, better ready than not.
It’s spring break, so there some families here, and as we pull up to the first lookout after checking in, a small girl announces that there is an alligator just below the deck. She isn’t kidding.
“Must be ten feet long.”
“Is it real?” I tease her.
She nods seriously. The alligator moves. No question here.
The proximity of the alligator to the parking area with no barriers in between is a little disconcerting. No one else seems worried.
We move on to the next pull-in area. Just beside the entrance to the short bridge over the water is a small alligator.
“Look, a baby!” I tell the kids approaching. “Do you think there will be more around?”
“Not a baby; a juvenile,” the dad says. “He’s old enough to leave Mom, so he could be alone.”
The man then proceeds to show me a video of a baby and explains that alligators have ten to twelve offspring, and the mother is never far from the little ones. I’m enjoying the science lesson.
Then we spot a bullfrog and by now there are two families plus me crowded around. The bullfrog doesn’t flinch.
“Cool,” I say and we all head for the next viewing area which is an inland lake.
Three Blue-Winged Teals fly in as we arrive, and then take off just as I set up for a shot. Otherwise, the area is home to many coots making their comical noises.
“No wonder they call old people ‘old coots'”, I joke; “’cause they’re noisy like these birds.”
“They sure are noisy!” a Dad agrees.
“No we’re not!” his kids protest, and we all laugh at the confusion.
At the observation tower, the kids offer to race me. When I explain that I’m slow, they say: “That’s okay”, and walk with me. Sweet kids. They share what they’ve seen so far – both have scavenger hunt sheets provided by the park.
“Where’s your paper?” the youngest asks.
Oh, I am missing my grandchildren.
From the top we can see a Great Egret, and in the far distance, viewable only through the scopes provided, two Whooping Cranes. We chatter our way back down.
The rest of the tour is by car, and as we slowly make our way through the refuge, Ric stops, looks in the rearview mirror, and reverses.
“What is it?”
“I think it’s a snake.”
I can see it in my side mirror – a distinct diamond pattern. Stretched out across the road, the rattler is soaking up the warmth of the pavement.
“Slowly!” I warn.
Just as I roll my window down, the snake slithers away and disappears in the thick brush.
At least I got to see one!
There are few birds on this outing, and apart from a beautiful kestrel, I don’t get any feathered images. But I do find wings – Black Swallowtails are everywhere!
Every time we’ve come to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge we see something different. Our time here is almost up. I hope we will find another chance to return.
In Port Aransas, just off one of the main roads, is a driveway that cuts through a Mexican restaurant. Behind the restaurant are high fences and a boardwalk leading into a secluded area. This is Paradise Pond.
On our first visit, we met locals who described the importance of the area environmentally, and alerted us to what we might expect to see. We also encountered a couple who told us that prior to the hurricane, this was a lush, canopied area that merited the name. Now it is a dark, swamp-like pond surrounded by a tangle of fallen trees.
Still the area is alive with wildlife. The boardwalk spans the breadth of the pond and has three viewing areas built out over the water. As the weather is still cold, Ric decides to stay in the car, while I explore.
A flock of noisy grackles accompany my approach. An eerie, odd call echoes and I stop in my tracks for a moment trying to get a sense of where the sound is coming from. Another, unfamiliar trill rings out. Am I safe here, I wonder? There are no other people in sight.
Between the grackles, and the red-winged blackbirds also claiming a stake, the place is humming with dark wings. A thick, soupy green algae covers much of the water. Not far from where I’m standing I note a turtle, head held high. As I raise my lens, I see another one, closer to me, also with its head held up. Are they listening for something?
The long, ghoulish sound emanates again from across the way. Barren bushes block my view of what is there. I creep along the deck hoping for a closer look. A sudden uprising of the blacks, calls my attention away. A predator surveying the area flies by and then circles back. It’s just the two of us. He moves along.
The chirp of a small bird draws my attention back to the water. A Yellow-Rumped Warbler, common in this area. From behind the bushes, two Pied-Billed Grebes emerge. Did these cute birds make that racket?
A gull circles and joins the party, as the bully birds return. I linger a bit longer, capturing some close-ups of the grebes. Despite the cold biting my exposed fingers, there are signs of spring all around – buds on trees, and a few plants just about to burst. Soon thousands of birds will arrive in the area as migration begins.
I can’t wait. As I turn to leave, I hear that unfamiliar trill again. It’s coming from somewhere beyond where the trail leads. I think about going off the path, and then think better of it, and turn back towards the car.