I used to chuckle at birders I’d see at parks and preserves, tiptoeing through the brush with a camera in one hand and a pair of binoculars slung around their neck.
Now I’m becoming one of them.
I find myself pulling my car off the side of the road to admire a red-tailed hawk, or easing my canoe along a riverbank to get a better glimpse of a great blue heron. Last weekend I spent a glorious two hours armed with my camera, long lens locked into place, lurking on the wooden boardwalk at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
At the center, visitors can walk more than half a mile along a boardwalk through 43 acres of ponds, marshes and scrub, pausing in five blinds to watch ducks fledge, fish spawn, butterflies flutter by and exotic-looking birds make an appearance. There’s even a five-story observation tower which serves up a birds-eye view of the Laguna Madre.
During my visit, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the roseate spoonbills, big, Pepto-Bismol-colored birds with beaks that look like they’ve been ironed flat. They seemed to be doing some kind of dance, wagging their feathery hips and splashing in the water.
An osprey circled overhead, diving headfirst into the bay now and then and popping up with a fish in its talons. The brown pelicans seemed awkward and uncoordinated, zooming in for splash landings and raising their heads to show off their big pouches. A great blue heron silently stalked its prey, a flock of seagulls made a racket, and a skimmer flitted past, flying low over the shallow water and scooping up its prey.
I’ve got a couple of birding books, but the best is “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” and its companion checklist. I’ve been scribbling notes in it since I got back to Austin.
Birds aren’t all that’s on display at the center, which has expanded to include an alligator sanctuary. About 50 juvenile gators, each measuring between 3 and nearly 6 feet long, are housed in a marshy wetland behind the facility. They’ve been rescued from backyard ponds, pools, piers and other situations where they’ve become nuisances.
A 750-pound, 12-foot 7-inch gator named Big Padre, who was transported here after becoming acclimated to eating fish scraps near a boat ramp in Port Arthur, lives in a separate, adjacent enclosure. (Never feed wild alligators.)
If you go: The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is located at 6801 Padre Boulevard. Admission is $8 for adults; $7 seniors and students ages 13 to 18; $5 ages 4 to 12; and free for ages under 4. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Masks must be worn indoors and whenever you’re within 6 feet of people not in your group. For more information go to www.spibirding.com.