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Photos of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

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The easiest way to reach Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge from the Expressway-77/83 in Harlingen, is to take the Ed Carey Dr./Loop 499 exit towards the Valley International Airport (set your odometer).  Go east on Ed Carey/Loop 499 for ~2.5 mi., crossing Bus-77, passing Valley Baptist Medical Center, across the Arroyo Colorado, passing Hugh Ramsey Park/Harlingen Arroyo Colorado-World Birding Center, to the traffic light at E. Harrison Ave./FM-106 (the Airport is just a couple of miles north of this intersection). Turn right (east) on FM-106 and it will take you ~22 miles to the turn to the Refuge Visitor Center, which is 3 more miles to the north.

On FM-106 after you left Harlingen, you will go through the town of Rio Hondo.  Rio Hondo is a notorious Cameron County speed trap, so watch your speed (you are 6.5 miles east of the Expessway).  Just past Rio Hondo at the FM-106/FM-345 intersection are convenience stores and their snacks, restrooms, and your last chance for fuel, until you return. 

After 14 miles from the Expressway, you will cross FM-1847, which goes from Arroyo City to the north, and Brownsville to the south.  You can turn left (north) on FM-1847 and go to Adolph Thomae County Park, just 10 miles away.  Adolph Thomae Park sits on the Arroyo Colorado.  The Park and the Arroyo can be excellent for birding.  The only available tent camping in Cameron Co. (except in Brownsville and South Padre Island) is at this county park, and RV sites are available, also.

If you did not turn to the county park, continue east on FM-106.  The road will become narrower and much more rough (be careful of pot holes).  From this point (where FM-106 is also named Gen. Brant Rd.), watch for raptors and Chihuahuan Ravens (you will not see Tamaulipan Crows), as well as Aplomado Falcon.  After 17 miles from the Expressway, you enter Refuge property.

After 18 miles from the Expressway (4.0 miles from the intersection of FM-1847 and FM-106/Gen.Brant Rd.), you will come to signs pointing to Unit-2 to the north and Unit-1 to the south.  Unit-1, with its large parking area on the right (south) is the start of Whitetail Trail.

After 22 miles from the Expressway, FM-106 "tees" into an intersection.  Turn left (north) and go 3 miles to the Refuge Visitor Center.  If you turn to the right (south) this road is also FM-106 and will go south to FM-510, which will take you through the community of Laguna Vista and the intersection of FM-510 and FM-100.  Going left (east) on FM-100 will take you a short distance to Port Isabel and South Padre Island.  Going right (west) on FM-100 will take you through the community of Los Fresnos and then to its intersection with US-77, where you are halfway between Brownsville and San Benito.  Turn right (north) on US-77 and it will take you back to Harlingen and become the Expressway when it joins US-83.

Laguna Atascosa NWR is now 90,000 acres with the addition of South Padre Island units and the Bahia Grande. It is one of the oldest NWR's in the Nation, and it has a bird list of 413 species, the highest bird list of any National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S.  It can be good for butterflies, also.  Javelina, White-tailed Deer, Coyote and Nine-banded Armadillo are seen here, often.  The Refuge has an estimated <30 Ocelots, so your chance of seeing one is very slim. 

If you can, bring your bicycles; this is a great park for bikes.

The Refuge is open daily from sunrise to sunset.  The Visitor Center is open from 8:00 am-4:00 pm, daily except major holidays (remember the only available restrooms are at the Visitor Center).

For more information, contact: Laguna Atascosa NWR, 22817 Ocelot Road, Los Fresnos, TX 78566 or call 956-748-3607.


Again, after 18 miles from the Expressway (4.0 miles from the intersection of FM-1847 and FM-106/Gen.Brant Rd.), you will come to signs pointing to Unit-2 to the north and Unit-1 to the south.  Unit-1, with its large parking area on the right (south) is the start of Whitetail Trail.

You must continue to the Refuge Visitor Station (~5.7 more miles) and pay your entrance fee and return back, before going onto Whitetail Trail.

Xami Hairstreaks have been reported on Whitetail Trail.  This hairstreak is restricted in the U.S. to the upland marshes of Cameron Co.  Its caterpillar food plant is Stonecrop - Sedum texanum, a succulent that can be found along Whitetail Trail.


Unfortunately, even though the Refuge maps and brochures show and refer to Whitetail Trail, it is not signed as such, anywhere on the highway or parking area.  It is only signed as Unit-1. 

Park in the parking lot, and the 4.3 mile long service road, known as Whitetail Trail, begins at the gate. 

 Whitetail deer, javelina, roadrunners, and a variety of other birds can usually be found throughout the year along this service road which loops through native thorn brush and coastal prairie.


You may occassionally see hunting blinds such as this on some parts of the Refuge.  Limited numbers of Refuge permits are issued for archery and firearm hunts of White-tailed Deer, Feral Hogs, and Nilgai (huge, exotic Indian antelope species), which can be destructive to the Refuge habitats.

Fishing is only allowed on the Gulf of Mexico side of the South Padre Island unit.


Plenty of parking is available both here at the Visitor Center and near the Picnic Tables.


From the Parking Lot, take the sidewalk to the Visitor Center on your right.  You pay your nominal entrance fee, here.  Restrooms are just beside and to the left of the Visitor Center.


Sign in at the Desk, pay your entrance fee, and be sure to pick up a map of the Refuge.  The volunteers that work at the Desk are a great source of information on recent wildlife sightings.


The Friends of Laguna Atascosa NWR take care of the Front Desk and operate the well-stocked Gift Shop.  On your right is an Interpretive Display.  A gorgeous, stuffed Jaguar is found in one of the cases.  If you forgot to bring water, cold water is available at the Gift Shop.

Water, hat, sun screen, and insect repellent are a must, if you go on any trails at any time of the year--especially water.


Just before the Visitor Center is the Information Kiosk, where you can pay your fee on off/days or hours.  Check out the info, and sit a while to check out the Bird Feeding Station.


The Kiosk Water Feature is a good place to watch for birds.  Fresh water sources on the Refuge are scarce, so when you see a Water Feature, pause for a bit for the birds and animals you can see.


I wish I had a dollar for every Green Jay that was photographed at the Kiosk Feeding Station.  Javelina can be seen feeding on the spilled grain.  Plain Chachalaca, Green Jay, Ground, Inca, White-tipped, White-winged and Mourning Dove are always here.  In the darker areas, watch for Long-billed Thrasher (the LRGV does not have Brown Thrasher) and, occasionally a Clay-colored Robin.  An Altamira Oriole may wander in, if citrus fruit has been placed.  Plenty of Bronzed Cowbird and Great-tailed Grackle (the LRGV does not have Common or Boat-tailed Grackle) will be seen, also.


Just south of the Kiosk is the Visitor Center Butterfly Garden.  The once well-maintained Garden has, in years past, been the site for numerous butterfly sightings.  Due to lack of maintenance in the past three or four years, the Garden has been allowed to become over-grown, causing the loss of many of the diverse plants (which you paid for), and the reduction of butterfly sightings.  Still, it is very much worth your time to search this relatively large Garden for butterflies and for birds.


The southern-most path in the Visitor Center Butterfly Garden will take you towards the Photography Blind.


Many bird species have been photographed from the Visitor Center Photography Blind, which looks out on a small Feeding Station with a Water Feature.


The stagnant Water Feature at the Visitor Center Photography Blind is a testament to the neglect that has been allowed to take place around the entire Visitor Center area.


Trees have been allowed to shade out much of the Visitor Center Butterfly Garden, which was once extremely productive for butterflies as well as birds.  Now, you see more and more Great-tailed Grackles, European Starlings, Brown-headed and Bronzed Cowbirds than any other bird species around the Visitor Center area.

A great deal of tax payer dollars and lots of work went into what once was one of the most attractive wildlife watching locations on the Refuge.  One can't but help wonder why this type of neglect would be tolerated at the most visited area of the entire Laguna Atascosa NWR, their own Visitor Center.


The Refuge Headquarters is to the southwest of the Visitor Center.  What was once another well-planted Butterfly Garden has been neglected and is now choked with grass.  Several of the plants have been lost.


If the path on the left side of the so-called Butterfly Garden has been mowed, search for birds and butterflies in the shrubs and trees. 

Stay on the trails and paths at the Refuge in order to avoid chiggers, ticks and rattlesnakes.  Getting off the paths destroys the plants and compacts the soil.  Not all of the Trails at Laguna Atascosa are maintained on a regular basis and/or mowed with much frequency, so it is best to avoid those Trails if they appear over-grown.


Kiskadee Trail, just north of the Visitor Center is only 1/8 mile long, but can be excellent for birds and dragonfliles.  Sidewalks make the majority of the paths at the Visitor Center to be handicap-accessible.  Birders, in their zest to get out on the Refuge, often fail to take KiskadeeTrail, and that is a mistake. 


  Look into the shady area off the short foot-bridge that is on the north side of the Visitor Center and leads onto the Kiskadee Trail.  Several species of birds can be found here.


Kiskadee Trail meanders around a large, wooded, shaded pool.  This is an excellent trail for not only butterflies, but for odonates as well.  Carmine Skimmers - Orthemis discolor have been found here, along with numerous other dragonfly and damselfly species. 


Be sure to use the Kiskadee Trail's Observation Deck.  The pond is dependent on rain water runoff.  Along with all the birds, butterflies and dragonflies that are found on this Trail, ocassionally an American Alligator can be seen from the Observation Deck.


Shade is a precious commodity on the Refuge, and many bird species seek it and can be seen on the Kiskadee Trail.


Near the Parking Lot at the end of Kiskadee Trail is a covered Pavillion that is infrequently used for outdoor programs.


Mesquite Trail can be very productive for birds and butterfllies.  The 1 1/2mile loop Trail is goes past some ponds and by an old cemetery as it winds through brush and savannah.  Watch for rattlesnakes on this often over-grown Trail. 


Across the Parking Lot from the Visitor Center is a large (and, again, neglected and over-grown) Butterfly Garden.  Although poorly maintained as a Butterfly Garden, it is one of the better areas near the Visitor Center for birds.  Woodpeckers, orioles, thrushes and the ever-present Green Jays are easily found, here.  Watch for the many chachalacas that will be searching for food and water along the paths.


When water has been pumped into the small, low area near the Gazebo, dragonflies and damselflies will be found.


Wander slowly down the mostly shaded paths of the Butterfly Garden and listen and watch for the birds.


The Butterfly Garden's Gazebo is a cool place to rest and check your photos.


Another stagnant Water Feature is just beside the Gazebo.  When clean, birds will often be seen using the Water Feature.


Benches are spaced around so you can take a break and sit and watch.


The Picnic Area is just off the Parking Lot and is a good place to have lunch with the birds.

Since the entire Visitor Center area is so poorly maintained and overgrown, one can't help but wonder if Refuge Staff cares at all about the initial impression visitors first get of such a fantastic wildlife watching location. 


When you leave the Visitor Center and turn left onto Lakeside Drive, you will be headed towards Osprey Overlook and Alligator Pond.  Drive slowly and watch for birds and mammals along the road.


After Lakeview Drive makes a sharp bend to the west, it will cross over a large Pond (dry, now, due to the drought).  The northern side can be fantastic for ducks, waders and shorebirds.


The south side of the Pond can be just as good for birds.  It is well worth the time to stop, get out the scopes and check out either side.  Watch for Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kites, Harris' and White-tailed Hawks, overhead.


On the south side of Lakeview Drive, just west of the Pond, is the trailhead to Kidney Pond Trail, a 3.5 mile, round-trip hike through savannah and Mesquite.  This can be a great birding trek, but be sure to take plenty of water with you.


Osprey Overlook looks west into the huge Laguna Atascosa, from which the Refuge gets its name (atascosa is Spanish for muddy).  Numerous species of birds can be seen here.  In winter, vast numbers of ducks will take refuge in the lake.  On hot days or at the end of a hike, the shaded Pavillion is a welcomed spot.


Your view towards the north from Osprey Overlook.  At the base of Osprey Overlook is the start of Lakeside Trail.  This 1 1/2 mile long trail is one of our favorites on the Refuge.  You get great views of the Lake as you wander down through the thorn scrub.  Many, many birds and butterflies can be seen along this round-trip hike.  Benches are spaced for you to rest.  Watch for snakes.


The 0.4 mile trail to Alligator Pond is now paved and handicap accessible.  Watch for the many butterfly and dragonfly species that can be found on this short hike.

Take a scope, if you have one.


Alligator Trail will, also, offer great views into Laguna Atascosa.


The handicap-accessible Observation Deck overlooking Alligator Pond will give you great views.  Don't forget to check the nearby trees for warblers, vireos and other birds.


All ponds on Laguna Atascosa NWR are dependent on fresh water runoff.  It is Oct. 2009, and the LRGV has been under extreme drought for the entire year.  When there is water in the Pond, you can indeed find alligators lurking around.  Least Grebes, waders, and ducks will be here.  Last winter Masked Ducks were seen, often.


The 15 mile loop Bayside Drive begins just south of the Visitor Center.  Take this drive very slowly and you will be rewarded with birds, butterflies, and mammals.  Bayside Dr. will start out heading east to the Laguna Madre, then turn south for quite a ways before turning back north towards this location.

You will drive through thorn forests, coastal prairies and marshes, past lakes and the bayshore.  Numerous species of birds will be seen.  Watch for coyote, bobcat, deer, raccoon, armadillo and the occasional Nilgai.  There are plenty of places to pull off the road and observe the wildlife, just remember to drive slowly.

From the start of Bayside Drive and down to the Paisano Trail parking area, watch for butterflies in the flowering shrubs.  This is the best place in the LRGV to see Blue Metalmarks, especially when the Coma and Fiddlewood are in bloom.  You will also see many species of butterflies along the entire rest of the drive.


Throughout the coastal prairies and marshes of the LRGV are lomas.  The lomas are former sand dunes.  Some are low, but some can be quite high and large--even large enough for houses and barns.  The lomas are important, as they offer refuge to all sorts of animals when tropical storms or hurricanes flood the marshes and prairies.


As Bayside Wildlife Drive contiunes east towards the Laguna Madre, it passes by the huge Pelican Lake.  The Lake can be great for shorebirds.  When it contains lots of water, numerous duck species and waders will be seen, also.  American Osprey are in abundance at Laguna Atascosa NWR.


The Plover Point Observation Deck, where Bayside Wildlife Drive turns south to border the Laguna Madre for ~4 miles, provides great views of the Laguna Madre. 

Laguna Madre is one of just 5 hypersaline bays in the World.  It hosts numerous species of ducks during the winter.  80% of the world's population of Redhead Duck spend the winter in the Laguna Madre.


The marshes as seen from Plover Point host many species of birds.  Listen for Clapper Rails calling in the Spring.  During the entire drive south beside the Laguna Madre shoreline, watch for American Oystercatcher, Roseate Spoonbill, large numbers of American Osprey and the many species of egrets and herons that can be seen.  Look for Reddish Egret and remember that a huge portion of these will be white-fazed.  Large rafts of ducks will be seen in the Winter.  Check the many blooming wildflowers and low shrubs for butterflies.


Visitors to the Refuge are often surprised to see so many Spanish Dagger - Yucca treculeana in the marshes and prairies.  These plants are important to the ecosytem, here.  Not only do the blossoms provide food for birds and attract butterflies, the plants are used as nest sites for many bird species.  Raptors will often be seen using them as hunting perches.  Several other species of cacti and succulents will be found here, also, with Texas Prickly Pear - Opuntia engelmannii being the most abundant.  Prickly Pear provides food to many species of birds and mammals and offers nesting and denning protection to them, also.


On part of the Bayside Wildlife Drive, going south beside the Laguna Madre, you will come on a high ridge on your right.  At the top of the ridge is Redhead Ridge Overlook, giving you a fantastic view of the prairie and marsh to the west, and the Laguna Madre and South Padre Island to the east.


The trail to the Overlook is not handicap-accessible.  Look for birds in the thorn scrub and for butterflies on your way up and back.  There is a chemical toilet at the base of the trail.


The shady area below the Deck can be a cooler place to search for birds. 


Your "pishing" skills can be put to good use as you attract the many birds out of the trees and scrub, below.


Your chances of seeing one of the few remaining Ocelots in the U.S. are slim.

If you return back via Gen. Brant Rd./FM-106, you can stop at Unit-1/Whitetail Trail (~5.7 miles from the Visitor Center and 4.0 miles from FM-1427), if you are up to a long walk for the Xami Hairstreak.  Then continue on west on FM-106 towards Harlingen.

Despite the criticism about trail and garden conditions at the Visitor Center/Headquarters area, the Refuge Staff do tremendous work. 

Reintroducing Aplomado Falcons, preserving and restoring shorelines, beaches and bays, saving the seagrass beds in the Laguna Madre--so important to the Redhead Ducks, helping with the survival of Kemp Ridley, Loggerhead, Leatherback and Green Sea Turtles--all endangered--that nest on the Refuge, and protecting the Hawksbill Sea Turtle from boat traffic and polution, working to restore fresh-water flows into the ponds, and much, much more.  Working to protect and rebuild the Ocelot and Jaguarundi populations, and protecting all of the flora and fauna on this huge Refuge takes a lot of work. 

The Refuge Staff deserve our thanks for their dedication and committment in working under often very harsh conditions and getting little funds in the past several years.  Thank them when you see them, and be sure to write your Congressmen and Senators and ask them to support with funds, this fantastic National Wildlife Refuge.