Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Heron Flats Trail

Something about the trail seemed different even though it was broad and easy. It was crisscrossed with a series of wide flattened paths that intersected our intended route. I scanned ahead and to each side for rattlesnakes as Renita chased an armadillo, trying to get an image, no snakes yet, but Val and George had seen a five foot western diamondback on their hike. Suddenly, Renita said look at that, isn't that a gator?
It had been a year since we had gone to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and so Renita packed a lunch and I got the binoculars and camera ready for a nice day of birding. Our goal for the day was to hopefully see a whooper, or at least some roseate. Looking up the refuge on mapquest, and of course seeing it wanted us to go down a closed road, we loaded up ad took off for the short drive.
Along the way we spotted a large flock of sandhill cranes, feeding on something in the middle of the stubble of a cotton field. There were a couple of hundred birds but no whoopers so we drove on. Hopper Landing soon passed and we turned into the parking lot of the Refuge headquarters. The counter person greeted us, asked us to register, and told us current whooper and refuge news.
It seemed the refuge was under a prolonged drought, and that most of the lakes were dry, with only alligator wallows left. All the birds were having a difficult time finding their food and the blue crab numbers were down, a bad sign for the whoopers,(current count 270). She told us of an errant young whooper that had been along the one way road and warned us to watch our speed,(She had the arrogance of a really good birder so we figured she must be pretty knowledgeable). We asked her about purple galinules, but she told us it was a few months early as they had migrated.
Leaving the visitor center we stopped first at Jones Lake. It was all dried up! Deer and feral pigs feed and rooted on the lake bottom. Renita spotted a northern harrier and we both glassed the magnolia warblers that flitted in the brush.
Our next stop was the observation tower, where we climbed the stairs and scoped the salt marsh and intercoastal. No whoopers or roseate. The trail at the base took us to the waters edge where a couple of white ibises fed, unconcerned with winter Texans.
The drought had dried up the waters along the one way eleven mile road. We weren't treated to a sight of the lone lost whooper. The same old northern mockingbirds, turkey and black vultures, and warblers, birds we already had on the list. We did spot several American kestrils and the drive was enjoyable, but the wildlife had retreated from the road along with the water.
Rejoining the main road we stopped at Bay View, The Fishing Pier, and Heron Flats
After glassing some herons, including a lessor blue heron, we decided to walk down the Heron Flats Trail. We walked for a short hike where we encountered a long narrow pond and with lots of wide animal trails. As you have already guessed we also encountered two very very large gators, which Renita spotted first,(I think I will start calling her Gator Girl)!
Hiking further and not having a trail map, we decided to return to the truck. I was pretty uncomfortable as it was obvious that the gators often used the hiking trail as a sunning spot,(did I say they were big gators?). Nothing lunged out and grabbed our legs, dragging us into the gator wallow so we arrived back at the truck safe and whole.. It was a good thing we didn't bring the little gator bait, aka Molly.
We did stop at the gator viewing turnoff. no gators, but a turtle and duck shared a small island. We told several other winter Texans of the gators,watching their eyes get big....... The drive home was short, as we totaled our count for the day, 27 different bird species, feral pigs, deer, gators, and lots of armadillos. A good day, but maybe we should take the skimmer tour. like we did last year. Clear skies.

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