Stalking the big birds at South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center

Stalking the big birds at South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center

The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center features a boardwalk over the wetlands of the Laguna Madre. Pam LeBlanc photo


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.

A roseate spoonbill comes in for a landing at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center on Jan. 24, 2021. Pam LeBlanc photo

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.

A great egret hovers just over the water in the Laguna Madre at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center on Jan. 24, 2021. Pam LeBlanc photo

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.)

About 50 rescued alligators also live at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. Pam LeBlanc photo

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


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At Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island, help save an endangered species

At Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island, help save an endangered species

Chris LeBlanc observes a green sea turtle at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

When a cold snap hit the East Coast in December, the frigid temperatures stunned dozens of sea turtles along the Eastern seaboard.

Some of those turtles were transported all the way to South Padre Island, where they’re currently recovering from the chill by basking in tanks of much warmer water at Sea Turtle Inc. I met some of those turtles, plus an array of other four-flippered patients, when I stopped by the non-profit center during a quick trip to the island last weekend.

Ila Loetscher, long known as the Turtle Lady of South Padre Island, started taking in sick and injured sea turtles here in 1977. She also dressed them in frilly dresses and tiny wigs, but we’ll forgive her, because she created an organization that has since saved hundreds of endangered sea turtles. Loetscher died in 2000, but today the center carries on her mission of rehabilitation, conservation and public education.

I watched through a window Saturday as a veterinarian crouched over a foot-long Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, carefully removing bits of tumors from its flippers.

Many of the sea turtles that come into the hospital these days suffer from a type of herpes virus called fibropapillomatosis that causes cauliflower-like tumors that appear both internally and externally, on turtles’ eyes, mouths and flippers.

Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disease, but some researchers believe it’s related to poor water quality.

Dr. Kristi Hill removes tumors from a sea turtle at Sea Turtle Inc. in January 2019. File photo by Pam LeBlanc

Other patients are recovering from prop wounds or injuries sustained after they’ve been entangled in fishing nets, and an exhibit in the facility’s new $6 million education building, which opened in 2018, explains that marine debris, including tiny plastic pellets called nurdles, are trashing the turtles’ habitat.

About 90 percent of turtles treated at Sea Turtle Inc. are eventually released to wild, says chief conservation officer Amy Bonka.

That’s important, because sea turtle populations are struggling.

In 1947, researchers found about 40,000 nests on a beach in Mexico, their primary nesting ground. Poachers decimated the population, and by 1985, fewer than 500 female sea turtles remained. Thanks in part to an agreement between Mexico and the United States, the nesting grounds were protected and the population rebounded — until recently, when numbers dropped again. Experts are unsure whether the downtick is related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or other factors, like cold snaps that “stun” the animals, making them prone to passing boat props.

Sea Turtle Inc. works hard to protect eggs laid on South Padre Island’s beaches between April and August each year. Crews scan the dunes daily, looking for nesting mothers. They then dig up the eggs, load them gently into a Styrofoam ice chest and deliver them to Sea Turtle Inc. headquarters, where they are counted and logged before being re-buried in a protected corral, safe from predators like badgers and coyotes.

When the turtles hatch, they’re released on nearby beaches. An estimated one in 300 survive to adulthood.

The center, located at 6617 Padre Boulevard, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer). Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children during the winter and $10 for adults and $4 for children during the summer. Face masks are required. For more information call 956-761-4511 or got to, and to report nesting, stranded or injured sea turtles, call the hotline at 956-243-4361.

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On National Cook Your Catch Day at South Padre Island, I pulled in a whopper – and ate it for dinner

On National Cook Your Catch Day at South Padre Island, I pulled in a whopper – and ate it for dinner

This 31-inch red fish lived to see another day. We tossed it back because it was too big. Chris LeBlanc photo


When I was 7, I caught a tiny fish at Inks Lake State Park using the corner of a slice of American cheese as a bait. My dad took the fish off the hook, and we tossed it back instead of frying it up for dinner.

Until last weekend, when I was invited to South Padre Island for National Cook Your Catch Day (a designation cleverly invented a few years ago by island promotors), that marked the highlight of my fishing career.

At dawn Saturday, my husband Chris and I headed to Parrot Eyes Watersports and climbed aboard a bay boat helmed by Capt. Hector Torres Jr., a guide who specializes in red fish, trout, snook and flounder. (It was just the three of us, and we wore masks when we were within 6 feet of each other, to lessen the risk of spreading Covid.)

Chris used to fish as a kid, and I like to tease him by telling him it’s all luck. Torres, though, knew we’d likely find fish in the South Bay. We buzzed underneath the causeway, then followed a line of markers until we reached a deserted stretch of water. The tide was coming in, and Torres used a pole to push us into water less than a foot deep. Then he did the messy work for us, baiting our hooks with chunks of fresh mullet.

I had some trouble casting at first, even snagging the seat of Chris’ pants with an errant toss. But with our guide’s help, I settled into a groove, and the red fish started biting.

Captain Hector Torres Jr. took us to the South Bay off of South Padre Island to fish. Pam LeBlanc photo

Early on, we reeled in fish that measured 16 to 18 inches. Under Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations, that’s too small. You can only keep red fish that measure between 20 and 28 inches, so we had to toss the little ones back.

Torres pushed us into even shallower water, and that’s when the big boys started biting. We reached our bag limit of three red fish per person by 9:15 a.m., and even threw back a 31-inch whopper.

But as any fisherman knows, it’s not just about catching fish.

Fog and overcast skies made it seem like we were drifting in a cloud. A flock of ducks flapped past and settled on the surface of the bay, and we watched a seagull tried to snatch a fish from a pelican. We even saw the towering SpaceX buildings, located in Boca Chica, in the distance.

Hector Torrres Jr. cleans our catch at Parrot Eyes Watersports at South Padre Island. Pam LeBlanc photo

Fishing guides Eddie Curry, left, and Hector Torres Jr., right, clean and filet fish. Pam LeBlanc photo

Torres, who was born and raised in nearby Laguna Vista, has been guiding for 27 years and says spending so much time on the water when he was young kept him out of trouble. Today, watching other people catch fish makes him happy.

“It’s kind of like having your own ranch,” he says of the wide open expanse out here on the Laguna Madre.

After four hours of fishing, we turned back toward the marina, where Torres unloaded our catch. We watched appreciatively as he cleaned and fileted the fish for us, tossing scraps to the pelicans, then packed it for the next phase of our adventure – dinner.

At the Painted Marlin Grille, which offers al fresco dining with a view of the bay, the chef will fry, grill or blacken your catch for $10 per person. The cost includes a side and hush puppies, which were the best I’ve ever eaten. (And don’t miss the mango key lime pie.)

And one final note: I’m an animal lover, and a believer in using what you catch. It’s important to know where our food comes from, and important to honor the creatures that wind up on our dinner plates.

I did that on National Cook Your Catch Day, and the next day, too, when Chris whipped up more of our catch Veracruz style, with tomatoes, onions and green olives.

The chef at the Painted Marlin Grill cooked our catch. Pam LeBlanc photo

If you go: A five-hour, private fishing charter booked through Parrot Eyes Watersports costs $450 for two people. For more information go to The Painted Marlin Grille (and other restaurants on South Padre Island) will cook your catch for $10 per person.

About Pam

I’m Pam LeBlanc. Follow my blog to keep up with the best in outdoor travel and adventure. Thanks for visiting my site.

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