Salt Flats Recovery

 

We’ve now made it through Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and some of eastern Texas, and are stopping at the north end of Padre Island for a few days of communing with the Gulf of Mexico waters. If you are headed this way and need an RV park, go out to the Malaquite Visitor Center just inside the gates of the North Padre Island National Seashore. There are numerous opportunities on the coastline for camping with access to restrooms, water and showers. Awesome spots to spend a few days getting to know life on the barrier islands. We wish we could have stayed there, as our research on the park did not reveal that this was possible at this point in the season. It’s first come, first served.

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Instead, we stayed at the first RV park outside the park, and enjoyed a couple of mainland hikes and attractions, including the Oso Bay Wetlands Trails, and the SW Texas (Corpus Christi) Botanical Gardens.

The botanical gardens had just been frosted by a rare cold spell, but were still very interesting as we saw a mass butterfly mating on a mimosa tree in bloom. Queen, Admiral and Blue Swallowtail butterflies mating in prolific numbers – apparently, the temperature and wind speed were perfect that day, as well as the maturity of the bright red blooms. Quite rare, explained an entomologist who just happened to be visiting that day. What a thrill!

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The Oso Bay Wetlands Preserve was reclaimed from a sorry state by a private family, and what a great spot it is now for hiking and learning the purposes and difference between the grassy uplands, mud flats, estuary and intracoastal waterways. What looks dry and lifeless is now a raingarden waiting to be activated by high tides, storm surges or flooding from rainfall. This area is critical habitat and acts as an important filter between inhabited areas and the coastal marshes/ocean. It’s beautiful, once you come to understand what you are seeing.

We took a Birding Tour several days later. Birding as a hobby has always seemed a little too arcane to us, but now that we’ve seen it up close, we think differently. It’s a great way to learn how to differentiate among different landscapes, looking for birds in the habitats where they’re most likely to be. It is a rush to find something “hiding” in plain daylight, especially if you can avoid disturbing it long enough to study its behavior. We saw Northern Harrier hawks, Crested Caracara (huge!), Long Beak Curlews, Piping Plovers, a rare Aplomado Falcon, snow geese (once again!), Peregrine Falcons, a Red Egret and a Royal Tern (along with 30 other bird species). Still learning to optimize my camera and lens settings, and I was stuck shooting most photos from inside a very crowded tour bus, will do better next time!

The currents that meet along the Padre Island are those from the Mississippi River and South America. Where they come together, a powerful riptide occurs which causes the currents to drop their loads of flotsam and jetsam. Sadly, a tremendous amount of garbage is cast upon St. Padre’s shores. Visitors are encouraged to take trash bags available at the Visitors Center and pick up some of the plastic (isn’t it always plastic?!) that litters the otherwise gorgeous strand. We packed two large bags and could only clean a small strip about 3,000 ft. long. 59.5 miles to go.

So much fun to sit and observe the shore birds dancing in the shallows of the beach. Good to know where our Lake Michigan Plovers go in the wintertime! The waves here are not great for board surfing, but just inland in Laguna Madre (accessible in the park) is the second-best wind-surfing spot in North America, second only to the Columbia River in Washington state. And the windsurfers were out in numbers. Laguna Madre is considerably more saline than the ocean, so a swimmer’s buoyancy is greatly enhanced there.

The greatest claim to fame of North Padre Island is none of these things, though. It’s the NPS-aided recovery of the Kemp’s Ridley Turtle population. The most visible sign of this activity occurs in June and July, when the artificially incubated and hatched baby turtles are released back into the ocean. This is done to protect all the eggs laid by the mothers coming out of the sea from predators, so that their numbers can rise. Releases are done before sunrise, and the babies are shielded from seeing any humans so that they do not attach and can grow up as naturally as possible. The recovery is a stunning success so far. Fingers crossed that the effort’s funding is not cut! The ranger at the Visitor’s Center brought out a recovered adult turtle shell so that we could see the size of the Kemp’s Ridley. At least 36” long. And at that, they are the SMALLEST ocean turtle species!

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