Before Brownsville, there was Rockport, Texas

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When people think of Texas, they think flat prairie and cattle ranches, or cactus and cowboys, they usually don’t think of beautiful shorelines and beaches for miles and miles.

Before arriving in Brownsville, we were at Goose Island State Park in Rockport, Texas, for a week. Rockport is 45 minutes north of Corpus Christi (hometown of Farrah Fawcet and Selena). This is one of the most popular saltwater fishing areas in the United States and the local economy is based on tourism. In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall here with 130 mph winds leaving 35% of the buildings either destroyed or heavily damaged. Another third of the buildings received minor damage. I looked at photos of the damage online, and it was horrible. To drive around now, you wouldn’t believe it. They’ve done an incredible job of rebuilding.

The state park that we were camped in has about 40 campsites right on the water with a beautiful sunrise view over the Gulf of Mexico. As you can imagine, those sites book up very quickly. We were camped in a wooded area of trees gnarled and bent from the wind. They not only have campground hosts, but also a bird host who tends to two quiet areas with multiple feeders and water features where bird watchers can discover species they’ve never seen before. Across the bay from the state park is Aransas National Wildlife Preserve.

Cool tree on a walking path in Goose Island State Park campground.

Aransas Bay is the winter home of the only 100% wild Whooping Crane population in the world. A couple hundred years ago, there were an estimated 15,000-20,000 Whooping Cranes in North America (which is the only place in the world they’re found). That was before humans began hunting them and developing their habitat. By 1941, there were only 15 Whooping Cranes left in the wild, all of which summered in Wood Buffalo National Park on the Alberta/Northwest Territories border in Canada and wintered at Aransas Bay, Texas. Whooping Cranes were among the first on the Endangered Species Act list when it was signed in 1973, and for years the cranes’ recovery was slow but steady. By 2005 there were 214 “Whoopers.” Today, this flock numbers around 500. Conservationists also raised a few chicks in Florida and reintroduced them to the wild, teaching them how to migrate by using an ultralight plane (just like in the movie “Fly Away Home,” although that was about geese). That flock now numbers around 80, summers in Wisconsin and winters in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. A handful of Whoopers live year-round in Kissimmee, Florida, and another handful in Louisiana, also year round.

We took a boat excursion to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see the Whooping Cranes and other shore birds. It was a great trip. Our guide was born and raised in the area and knows all the birds on sight. I can’t recall how many birds he pointed out to us, but it had to number in the dozens.

Bird watching boat trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Adult Whoopers stand up to 5’ tall with a wingspan up to 8 feet. They lay one or two eggs on the ground, but generally only one chick survives. The family will travel back to Canada around March where the parents will chase the chick away. The chicks end up flocking together, and in September their instincts will tell them to fly back to Texas, a 2,400 mile trip that lasts 4-6 weeks. The juvenile cohort will flock together until they are mature and ready to mate, about 4 or 5 years old. We were lucky to see an entire family together.

Family of Whooping Cranes, chick is to the right changing from tan to white.
Whooper family in flight.

Just off shore is the longest chain of barrier islands in the world: Galveston Island, Follett’s Island, Matagorda Island, San Jose Island, Mustang Island, Padre Island and Brazos Island. Together, they provide 230 miles of protection and beautiful beaches. Padre Island is the longest and most well known at 113 miles long. The sand on Padre Island is so hard-packed and the beaches so wide that you can drive the largest RV onto the beach and camp right on the beach for free. We did that two years ago and it was amazing! It’s the longest stretch of drivable beach in America.

Padre Island.
Portuguese Man-o-War is NOT a jellyfish. It is not even a single animal. It is a siphonophore, a group of zooids that each have a separate function, but all work together to survive. They do not swim, they float wherever the current takes them. And they are VERY venomous. We spotted at least 8 on the beach.
Happy dog.

Since we were so close to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, I decided to take a drive over there. Just the drive was pretty amazing, because once I turned off the main road I found myself on the flattest earth I have ever seen. The road ran straight as an arrow with a speed limit of 70. Beyond that, nothing but the blackest dirt I’ve ever seen. For miles and miles. About every mile, there would be one or two arrows to let you know about the 90 degree turns (where they advised you slow it down to 50). Thankfully, I was all alone on this road and could drive at my own speed!

Seventy miles per hour on this narrow road … yikes!

The Refuge was beautiful, but I didn’t really see much wildlife that I had not already seen. I was pretty proud of myself, though, because I climbed the 40’ high treetop tower! Anyone who knows me understands this is a huge accomplishment, because I get weak knees when I get to the 3rd rung on a step ladder!

Climbing the tower!
The view from the top.
Clockwise from top left: Four immature White Ibis, a flock of Roseate Spoonbiills, a Tri-colored Heron, an American Oystercatcher, and a juvenile Great Blue Heron.

Another day, we walked through the park down to the water and passed a fish cleaning station where several men were cleaning their catch. They had an audience of a couple dozen pelicans hoping for a handout. I asked one of the men if they minded the pelicans begging for scraps. He must have sized me up pretty quickly as a northerner as he replied, “Nah, they’re democrats, this is how they get their meals.” Okee dokie, then!

From Rockport, we headed further south to Brownsville, Texas, which is tied with Miami as the southernmost city in the United States not counting the Florida keys. It’s a darn good thing we did, too. While we weren’t spared the arctic blast and punishing winds of the current storm, we didn’t have snow like towns just an hour or so north of us. But, that’s news for another day.

Be warm and be safe, everyone!

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