(That’s Mexican lingo for “How cool!”)
Chasing the sun, we opted to drive south from Austin to Padre Island National Seashore (not on our original list of parks) instead of heading north to Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma in order to avoid a predicted nasty storm. And we were very glad we did.
We set up camp at the Malaquite Campground at the north end of the park, which protects 70 miles of coastline and in fact is the world’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island, with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Laguna Madre sitting between Padre Island and mainland Texas. You can explore almost all of the barrier island if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and are not afraid to drive on the beach. Driving a Prius, we were afraid to leave the pavement but found plenty to explore on foot during our three-day stay in the park.
Padre Island National Seashore is the quieter cousin of South Padre Island, which is famed for spring break shenanigans and wild life of a different sort. In the north, the park is a designated Important Bird Area and hosts Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles that nest here each summer. Park staff have been working with Mexican officials to recover this highly endangered species, collecting and incubating eggs and releasing the adorable little hatchlings back into the sea when they’re ready.
When we stopped in our first afternoon, the park’s enormous visitors center parking lot had all of four cars, which confirmed that we were there off-season. It was just as well, because we felt like we had the place nearly to ourselves. Back near camp, we walked for a bit on the beach before sunset and spied lots of shorebirds, including two long-billed curlews, one of which sported a leg band and GPS antenna.
Batten Down the Hatches
We managed to cook dinner despite the increasingly strong winds and settled in for the night, hoping the tent would hold up with the array of ropes and lines we had used to secure it to the picnic shelter and the car. In the middle of the night the rain fly flapped uncontrollably and the tent bowed nearly to the breaking point. We thought for sure it would collapse on our heads. Initially thinking we were so smart to get a big tent in which we could stand fully upright, we now regretted the height and thought we should have brought our low-slung backpacker tent that the car could have buffered. Eventually, the breeze died down after a few hours and we could get some sleep.
By the time a cloudy dawn rolled around, the wind was back, but not enough to deter us from going on the morning birding tour we had signed up for. This free, two-hour outing led by a park van driver and volunteer guide and was excellent. Right out of the parking lot we saw a small group of sandhill cranes, and our guide gave us a great introduction to the park and its history as well as to the birds we would likely see. In all, with nine pairs of eyes scouting for birds, we saw 28 species.
Blue skies emerged as we finished the tour, so we spent an afternoon tucked in among the dunes near camp to minimize some of the sand-blasting while we read and relaxed. But upon reading in the park materials that poisonous snakes hang out in the dunes, we moved closer to the water’s edge to enjoy the sound of the surf with less apprehension.
The sand here was very fine and powdery, like hourglass sand when dry and like cookie dough when wet. It was ideal for sculpting, so we made a sand sea turtle laying eggs, much to the admiration of passers-by. I guess it’s the kid in me. I can’t sit still for very long when I’m at the beach and inevitably feel the urge to dig in the sand.
Later on towards sunset we strolled up the beach. As we walked back to camp we saw one of the other perilous animals the park materials had warned about — stingrays that lurk below the sand in shallow water — flopping on the beach as the waves rolled in. The stingray made its way safely into the surf, but we were glad it was too cold for us to consider swimming in the chocolate-milk waves near shore and risk stepping on one of these winged water creatures.
The next day being sunny but chilly and still breezy, we caught up on some reading and writing in the tent in the morning. In the afternoon we ventured out to South Beach for a picnic in the company of many terns, gulls, willets and sanderlings having their own lunch along the shoreline. We then drove on for some additional birding at freshwater ponds for ducks and at Bird Island Basin on the inner lagoon side for pelicans and other species. The lagoon’s water is five times saltier than that on the gulf side because water comes in through the Mansfield Channel to the south faster than it goes out.
The Jobless Wonder Learns About Spineless Wonders
After an early dinner, I attended an evening program on “Spineless Wonders” at the campground amphitheater given by Ranger Buzz. Like the previous day’s birding tour, this was an excellent free gift of the National Park Service. Buzz presented a fascinating slideshow and talk on some of the park’s smallest creatures — snails, clams, sand dollars, sea stars, lightning whelk (Texas’ state shell) and other animals that are all too easy to overlook but are important components of the food web. He ended by enlightening us (so to speak) on sea sparkles, which are dinoflagellates that glow when stirred up in the water. I had experienced these several years ago while swimming at night in Mexico’s other gulf — the Gulf of California — and thought I was hallucinating.
We were delighted with this addition to our parks list and our detour farther south in Texas. On a side note about southern Texas, even here you can’t escape the U.S. Border Patrol. Border agents drive up and down the beaches and a barrage of clicking cameras greets you as you enter and exit the park. Heat-sensitive cameras detect the number of people in vehicles to determine whether you’re leaving with more people than you drove in with. At least we didn’t pass a formal checkpoint like we had a half-dozen other times during our trip thus far.
Next up — we head back to the city for a quick trip to Memphis, an essential pilgrimage for any serious lover of the blues and rock-and-roll.