January 31 – February 5, 2013
With the calming of the winds, we returned to the barrier islands, this time to Padre Island National Seashore. I steered us to the Bird Island Campground because it is possible to kayak there and because the name suggests good birding. It is on the bay side of the island, on the Laguna Madre, a 130 mile stretch of water between the barrier islands and the mainland. It is one of the few hypersaline bodies of water left undiluted by regular seawater. It is saltier than the Gulf of Mexico, saltier than the Great Salt Lake. It is also one of the premier wind-surfing spots in the country.
But it is a less than ideal campground, basically a parking lot of RVs, the other vehicles dwarfing our little truck and camper. There were no hook-ups which meant generators ran somewhere most of the day, spewing noise and fumes. We wished that Padre Island, like Big Bend National Park, had a no-generator section. In this day and age, generators are antiquated since solar power is easy to install. Free (once set up), quiet and clean. The good news about this campsite was we were right on the bay and I could put my kayak in easily.
During our first night, a pack of coyotes howled loud and extremely close. We looked for them but only saw darkness. They must have been just yards away. Their outburst set off a barking frenzy from all the dogs holed up in RVs. During both day and night, a loud rich honking emanated from the dunes a few hundred yards inland. Eventually, I realized we were hearing Sandhill Cranes. We watched them fly overhead and could see the flock at a distance, feeding, heads down in the sand hills, looking like a flock of sheep until they popped up their long necks to survey the environment. Sandhill Cranes, unlike the Whooping Cranes, are plentiful. However, they are similarly impressive. Alike in shape and size to the Whoopers, they are tan in color with red and white on their faces.
My new favorite bird is the Reddish Egret. From my kayak and from standing on shore, I got to witness several displays of their unique behavior and hunting style. In the U.S. the Reddish Egret is only found on the Texas and Florida coastlines and is considered endangered. They are a small egret with a mane of dark reddish feathers covering their head and neck and bluish slate gray on the rest of their body.
The egrets I was previously familiar with, hunt using stillness and stealth, walking slowly with precision, or waiting motionless until darting their sharp beaks at prey. In contrast, the Reddish Egret is an “ADHD” hunter, never remaining static, instead dancing, prancing, running, hopping, turning one way and then making a quick U-turn. Sometimes it stopped briefly as if it forgot what it was doing and then suddenly would run off in hot pursuit of a fish. It actually chases fish down in the shallow water. The egret periodically spreads and snaps shut its wings, aiding in the beauty of its dance and allowing “canopy hunting” that is, creating a shadow on the water’s surface to reveal the fish below. Visual hunters, they often lean their long extended necks to one side giving them an off-center, off-balance comical look. I’ve discovered that others are enchanted by their “dance” and have posted videos on YouTube. They are fun to photograph since they strike so many odd and dramatic poses. Mostly it was entertaining to just sit and watch their delightful performance.
GUIDED BIRD TRIP
Twice a day the park offers free guided birding trips on Padre Island. A married couple led the tour. We were given binoculars if we needed them and a bird list to check off our sightings. Most of the people went with the woman, making a caravan of cars with walkie-talkies. We and another couple, joined the man in a government car and went off in a different direction. They knew what birds we were likely to see and where they might be found. For those of you who like lists, here’s some of what we saw: redheads, widgeon, northern shoveler, pintail, gadwall, northern harrier, peregrine falcon, white-tailed hawk, long-billed curlew, willets, crested carcaras, snow geese, sandhill cranes, white pelicans, savannah sparrow, yellow-rumped warbler, reddish egret, ruddy turnstone, snowy plover, sandwich tern, royal tern, laughing gull, ring-billed gulls, herring gull.
PORTUGUESE MAN O’ WAR
After going to Corpus Christi for a night in town we returned to the free beach on Mustang Island. The sand was newly strewn with beached Portuguese Man O’ Wars and I walked the waterline with camera in hand to see them all. Their most visible part, the bladder, is a pretty blue and they ranged in size from one inch to up to about 9 inches. Many had floated ashore tangled in seaweed so that the piles of plants appeared to be decorated in blue baubles. It was if an evil clown had thrown pretty blue balloons around the beach with toxic, stinging streamers attached. Instead of barefoot as before, I walked with beach with shoes.
When young I had an illustrated children’s encyclopedia. For entertainment I would repeatedly flip the pages and inspect the pictures. I was particularly attracted to exotic creatures or events of nature, things foreign to my suburban Pittsburgh life. Staring at my favorite images, they would become compelling and mythic in my imagination. The drawing of the Portuguese Man O’ War was one of these. Their colorful wind-blown bodies, sailing in far-away seas, trawling the water for prey with the long deadly tentacles. So finding the beach littered with them was something I didn’t want to miss.
Although, when in water, the tentacles average about 30 feet in length, most were gathered up in a dark green-blue pile with the bladder sitting on top, like a nest holding a misshapen blue egg. As they sparkled in the late afternoon sun, they glowed pale aquamarine and cerulean blues, teals, turquoise, lavender and sometimes a hint of pink. They reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on, something familiar and attractive. Finally, I realized they appeared to me as carved and polished masses of fluorite, one of my favorite minerals, even though the Man O’ Wars were soft and hollow and fluorite is hard and solid. They glowed with the same beautiful transparent colors.
I had a child’s impulse to pop the blue blobs but didn’t want to harm them further nor be harmed by them. When I accidently stepped on a small one, it burst with a loud pop, like a packaging bubble.
As the floats sat on dry sand in the hot sun, they became swollen and dull, the ridged sails falling over like a shipwreck. They sometimes looked like large blue slugs or sea cucumbers. When I showed Chris a photo of one he said it looked like an elephant seal. And strangely, it did.
Sometimes when I got close to one it would move slightly. The bladder has no muscles but can change its inflation, whereas the tentacles have a rudimentary ability contract and release. Man O’ Wars are not jellyfish but a siphonophore, a colonial organism, made up of four types of individuals called zooids. There are 1) the polyp that is the gas-filled bladder, 2) the tentacle zooids, 3) the digestive zooids, 4) and the reproductive zooids. It was sad to realize many Man O’ Wars were still alive and in the process of dying, all four parts of them.
NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at email@example.com.
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