From the comfort of our RV, my wife, Janie, and I watched as the early morning sun slowly rose from a sea of turquoise-colored waters along the Gulf of Mexico. Twelve hours later and just four miles away, we repeated the ritual, watching as the evening equivalent dipped into another body of water, this time, the Laguna Madre. Such is the spectacular way the day begins and ends on this 70-mile-long spit of elongated land known as Padre Island National Seashore, located along the south Texas coast.
We began our 10-day stay at Padre Island by driving beyond the 10 miles of paved road that serve this narrow but much elongated park. From here, a sand route takes over, moving along the beach, where there’s access to free, primitive camping. We settled in, then returned two miles by bike to the Malaquite visitor center, where we soon learned about the unique role of barrier islands.
In North America there are 295 barrier islands, stretching from Maine to Brownsville, Texas. They protect the mainland from the erosive effects created by the ocean’s powerful winds and currents. At more than 70 miles long, Padre is our nation’s – and the world’s – longest undeveloped barrier island. And that’s just one reason Padre has become such a magnet for campers – because of all the breathing room.
If you’re camped along the beach (as we were) and own kayaks (as we do), you’ll want to explore these waters. On some days waters from the Gulf punch with the kind of force you’d expect from a tsunami, but if you can make it here, you can make it most anywhere. Still, if you flip (almost to be expected), no matter. The water is warm, and it invites practice and experimentation.
When you’ve practiced enough there’s the Laguna Madre (Mother Lagoon) with its tranquil waters made so by the protection of this barrier island. Push off and you can glide for miles, simultaneously taking in the flocks of white pelicans, and if you’re lucky a sighting of the beautiful crested caracara.
Of course, kayaking may not be your cup of tea, and if that is the case, you can stay put at South Beach – opting instead for some four-wheel driving, one of the very best ways of exploring Padre. Begin by driving along South Beach, which stretches 60 miles from the northern barricade to the southern boundary of the park at Mansfield Channel. This channel separates North and South Padre island.
The first five miles of South Beach are composed of packed sand and can be easily driven on with a two-wheel-drive vehicle. The remaining 55 miles, however, contain areas of deep sand and the park recommends using a four-wheel-drive vehicle beyond mile marker five. Even then you should take precautions, for many things could happen. You could get stuck, generally remedied by releasing air from your tires, thereby increasing the surface area of your tires and, so, the traction. You could also get stranded by surging tides, remedied by taking a tide chart – and studying it.
Call the park’s visitor center ahead of time for beach driving conditions, as they change frequently with the weather and tides.
Unfortunately, as you are driving, you’ll see that a considerable amount of marine debris (natural and man-made) has accumulated. Some is from Hurricane Ike and the destruction it caused in 2008 when it struck Houston and Galveston. The debris that arrives at Padre Island can range from treasures to trash, including seashells, seabeans, driftwood, barrels and plastics.
Near the 10-mile marker on South Beach, four-wheel-drive vehicles arrive at Little Shell Beach. The terrain is wild, and it is here that I was finally able to fulfill one of my goals – to photograph the elusive ghost crab.
In this remote section of rippling sand, sprawling shells and towering dunes, Janie and I saw them repeatedly, and we gave chase. Finally, we cornered one that preferred fight over flight, but its orientation was all wrong. Foolishly, I attempted to reposition it, and discovered just how mighty its small pinchers can be. And so I opted to wait, and was eventually rewarded.
At mile 20 we plowed our way onto Big Shell Beach, where the shells were plentiful and slightly larger than those at Little Shell Beach. Once again, birds were numerous and we’d now tallied more than 60 species but hoped to see many more, such as the much-revered caracara. But that night it was not to be, so we returned to our rig, hoping the now-increasing winds might soon abate.
Camping along the beach is compelling as long as the winds don’t howl, but when they grow in strength, it’s time to migrate to Malaquite Campground – or perhaps to Bird Island, where winds are almost universally worshiped.
Bird Island campground is embraced by the Laguna Madre, and it attracts visitors from all over the country. “It’s the consistent winds,” said Don Dennis of Vermont. “And, that’s why I’m here.”
Dennis is a windsurfer, one of a unique breed who attaches sail to board and then allows the wind to propel him over the water’s surface. He works to angle his craft so gusts will accelerate him to speeds of more than 30 mph. Though you might think of windsurfing as a young person’s sport, most people camped at Bird Island were anything but youngsters. Dennis was 60 and many of the other RVers seemed older than that. In fact, everyone kept pointing to one elderly man said to have just celebrated his 85th birthday – by windsurfing. “One day that’s going to be me,” said a 22-year-old man.
During the days we camped at Bird Island, winds were blowing at speeds of about 15 mph, and we watched as men and women who had obviously been surfing together for the past few days strung themselves into a line. Several veered off and tried to “helicopter,” or make complete mid-air 360-degree rotations. Certainly, good windsurfers provide visitors with a grand spectator sport – and we considered the activity one of Padre’s many gifts offered up from the sea.
But persistent convection currents created by the juxtaposition of land and water may at times interfere with the objective of lounging and reading and toe curling in these warm, tantalizing sands. Again, you can migrate, alighting 15 minutes or so later at Malaquite Campground, better protected by towering dunes of sand.
The park asks visitors to stay off the dunes, but it provides a boardwalk linking with the beach. At times you’ll be rewarded, finding tracks of the Ridley sea turtle – yet another of my goals. Sea turtles are endangered and normally don’t begin appearing at Padre until about mid-April. We were several weeks early, but already the National Park Service was directing volunteers to search the sand for tracks. Some of the volunteers were RV enthusiasts.
We met one man who found tracks almost every day, and when he did he’d radio a biologist who’d then move the eggs to an incubation facility at park headquarters. Forty-five to 53 days later biologists would move hatchlings to the edge of the sea, simultaneously protecting them from the ever-present gulls as they scurried to their new, watery home. The effort has been a big success, and in recent years returns from marked turtles have steadily increased.
Though we found tracks (a rare find), we never saw a turtle, but our disappointment was more than offset when we joined George and Mary Eggenberger on one of their bird-watching van tours. Tours are popular because Padre Island is located on the Central Flyway, a major migration route, so there’s much action and birds are plentiful.
One group of aves, the shorebirds, is so abundant that scientists have designated portions of Padre Island National Seashore as being of “International Importance,” and that really carries clout. To qualify, a site must attract more than 100,000 shorebirds annually, and Padre Island serves as a significant resting stop for thousands of birds, some endangered species, as they make their way on their long journey. “It’s a main migration route between North and Central America,” the Eggenbergers said. “Birds find us by flying to the Gulf Coast, and then they follow the shoreline south to Padre. But you’re a little late for the plovers and sandpipers. Come back next February.”
Some species are year-round residents and on almost any outing you might see great blue herons, sanderlings, brown pelicans, various tern species – and maybe even our much sought after crested caracara.
“There’s been a pair hanging at a knoll off the road just this side of Laguna Madre,” George said. “The pair was there yesterday,” said Mary, “and I’ll bet we see them today.”
And so it was we were able to study Mexico’s national bird, marveling at its red-crested crown, its ferocious-looking face, and that evil beak that enables this member of the falcon family to excel as a predator.
Though you are not likely to see the caracara in action, you will see both the white and the brown pelican, our nominees for Padre’s most exciting avian species. Of the two, white pelicans are largest, though you can also differentiate by the manner in which they forage.
White pelicans gather together in large numbers and “herd” fish into large schools, at which time they simply dip their beaks into the water followed by a quick forward swish of their beaks. The action collects fish into their gular pouches, where the food is held for their young or until they themselves are hungry.
Though the technique is effective, it lacks the drama demonstrated by the squadrons of brown pelicans, seen most typically on the Gulf side of the park. They’re searching the waves for schooling baitfish, and when they spot a school, they fold their wings and dive hard into the water. Other times they light onto the ocean’s surface and, then, with beats of wings and thrusts of webbed feet, they pound the waves in a mighty confusion of bodies, gathering fish into their pouches.
Often such drama persists for more than an hour, and whether it was satiation or a dispersal in the schools of fish that caused the frenzy to cease, only the pelicans knew. We knew that we had been privileged to witness a special moment in nature, and although we’d seen many brown pelicans, never before had we seen such a frenzy of feeding.
We wondered what more might a little time here provide?
No matter, it was late, and time now to return to our rig. A full moon was rising, and we could hear the waves crashing against the shore, inviting sleep after a full day of exploring. And in the morrow? Surely some golden hew of an orb would lift from the Gulf, and with it would come more pelican squadrons. Would we follow them; or would we sit beneath our awning, reading and curling our toes in the sand?
Weighty decisions, yes, but we were reveling in the skills required to handle them.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Padre Island National Seashore
South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau