Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is the largest protected area of natural habitat remaining in the lower Rio Grande Valley. This 98,000 acre refuge is a mix of wildlife and birds like no other place in North America. It’s also a battleground. Currently, 2 very endangered species are hopefully being brought back from extinction here.
Laguna Atascosa is best approached from the town of Los Fresnos east of Harlingen. It takes a while to get there, and the road towards the end can be difficult, but it’s ultimately worthwhile and drivable. Those on their way there will pass onion and corn fields but no orchards. Only vegetables are commonly grown in this area, and it’s a bit of a shock to see so many commercial growing ventures so close to totally wild natural habitat.
Laguna Atascosa is so large that part of it is on South Padre Island, but only boats carrying fishing persons hoping to catch redfish, grouper, and 2 species of sharks can take you to it. There is no usable road. An amazing 414 bird species have been seen here, but the truly endangered one is the Aplomado Falcon just above. The most beautiful bird you’re likely to see in abundance here, however, is the green jay seen below and the often spotted and appropriately named plain chachalaca. Those who take trails and spend some time can have diamondback and turtle experiences too. Four species of sea turtles nest here. This National Wildlife Refuge is also home to coyotes, bobcats, and jaguarundis; but the cat species hopefully being brought back from total elimination is the Texas ocelot. This is, plainly, a paradise for those seeking wildlife adventures.
The visitor center staff is very knowledgable and willing to talk about their rescue mission. The Texas Ocelot handout that Ranger Chris gave me said that there are only 50 of them remaining in the thorn forests of South Texas, but then he spoke of the 80 of them around. He had seem some. Laguna Atascosa’s website has a featured story currently about the discovery of a new ocelot den, and visitors are being asked to report any sightings. The ocelot has suffered from habitat depletion caused by agriculture, timber gathering, and the fashion industry. More than 95% of the ocelot’s habitat has disappeared. Vehicle strikes and inbreeding have reduced their numbers too as has their very nature. The most common word the literature uses to describe them is secretive. Who knows their eventual fate? The panda, the Yellowstone grizzly bear, and the gray wolf have moved off the endangered list.
Laguna Atascosa is a marvel. It has recorded more species of birds than any other national wildlife refuge and is definitely the place in the Rio Grande Valley to best discover the birds, plants, and wildlife found exclusively in South Texas. Ruth and I didn’t visit it on our first trip to the area, but we luckily went there on our 2nd visit and are better for it.