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Coastal creatures: Live entertainment on the Texas coast

Helen Anders
The blinds and boardwalk of South Padre Island's birding center are good places to spot terns, cranes and egrets.

It was my first visit to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge near Rio Hondo in South Texas, and I was dubious as we drove into the park. Would I really see any wildlife or just get to gaze at a tangle of mesquite trees and brush?

Moments later, a roseate spoonbill flapped into the air right in front of the car. The word "wow" was invented for moments such as this. And the time I spotted a little alligator in a pond at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. And the moment when I successfully captured — oh, heck, I don't know what it was, but it was a big, graceful, long-necked bird of some type — in flight on a deserted stretch of Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula.

Texas has lots of aquariums, zoos and other enclosures in which to view its native coastal wildlife, but there's nothing quite like seeing these things where they live. Typically, you'll find more of the shore's wildlife at dawn or dusk. Park the car and take a hike. If you're in your car and do see something, your best option is often to stay inside the car. You're less likely to scare away whatever it is.

Here, in tribute to the late, great Maurice Sendak, is where the coastal wild things are:

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, near Rockport. This is one of my very favorite places for wildlife, especially if you want to see more than birds. I've seen roseate spoonbills, herons and egrets here, along with the aforementioned little alligator, which I photographed, then left alone (because this being a wildlife refuge, the little reptile was in no way enclosed). This is also the only place I've seen a live armadillo waddling down the road, along with a raccoon fishing in the shallow water. It costs $5 for two or more people in a car. More information at 1.usa.gov/KjyjIx.

This refuge's big star is the whooping crane, which migrates through from about mid-October to March. You can sometimes see a few feeding in the marsh during daylight hours from the refuge's observation tower. Serious whooper-seekers, though, take a boat trip out of Rockport to see them on Matagorda Island. (Call the Rockport Chamber of Commerce at 800-242-0071.)

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, between Rio Hondo and Los Fresnos. A blend of desert, subtropical and temperate habitats, it's home to migrating water birds including sandhill cranes and spoonbills. You might see a Texas tortoise and, if you're really lucky, an ocelot. These little cats are endangered, but several dozen are thought to live in the refuge.

There's a good driving loop, along with numerous short trails (a mile or less) and one three-miler. Find out more, including directions, at 1.usa.gov/J0HtbY. Entry is $3 per carload, or you can buy a $10 yearly pass that also gets you into Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Alamo. (A note for those 62 or older: You can buy a lifetime $10 pass to all national parks at any park or refuge.)

Boy Scout Woods, High Island. People actually sit on bleachers to watch birds at this Houston Audubon Society preserve in the middle of serious nowhere (you really need to want to see birds) east of Houston. I identified an oriole. Serious birders were calling out all sorts of names. Peak migration season just ended, so you might want to try next spring. Admission $7. Learn more at houstonaudubon.org.

Padre Island National Seashore, North Padre Island near Corpus Christi. There are plenty of birds here in the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world (70 miles, though you can't traverse it all), but the big deal here is the annual hatching of Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, and they're hatching right now. The public is invited to attend releases of the little turtles that hatch from eggs that are carefully nurtured at the seashore's incubations facility. Go to the Malaquite Beach Visitor Center, starting about 6:30 a.m.

The release dates now through July 1 are at nps.gov/pais/naturescience/releases.htm and on the hotline, 361-949-7163. Visiting the refuge costs $10 per carload (good for a week). There's no extra charge for the turtle release.

World Birding Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, near Mission: People come from all over the world to see birds here, just across the Rio Grande from Mexico. The place is a haven for green jays, and they are spectacular. Also plentiful at various times: roadrunners, woodpeckers, herons, egrets and something called a plain chachalaca, which, although plain, has a pretty cool call.

Tourist beaches: Development keeps many species away from tourist beaches, but you can still enjoy squadrons of brown pelicans sailing along the shoreline in South Padre Island. An occasional long-legged crane or heron occasionally stands in the surf along any Texas beach early in the day if there are folks out fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, the less developed the beach, the more shore birds you're likely to see. Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula, the far north end of South Padre Island and the far south end of North Padre Island are your best bets. There's also a small birding center on South Padre Island (6801 Padre Blvd.; $5) that usually has some terns, cranes and egrets.

On beaches, of course, jellyfish often wash up, and you need to be careful not to step on those. They can sting you even after they're dead. (The only person I've ever seen get a jellyfish sting was a friend who was showing his kid how not to get stung by a jellyfish. He poked it. That's how you get stung.)

The most common are the moon jelly — we call them speed bumps — and the Portuguese Man o' War. Sometimes they wash up by the hundreds; other days you'll see nary a one. Just watch your step. The sting hurts, but unless you're allergic, a little meat tenderizer will deal with it.

You might even spy a little stingray in the surf as you're walking along. These are small when they're present — which, in my copious experience, isn't often — but you don't want to get stung. I've heard it's pretty painful, probably calling for a visit to a clinic.

Best way to avoid getting stung by a stingray if you're in the surf: Shuffle your feet. Singing "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" is entirely optional.

Contact Helen Anders at 912-2590