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Aransas National Wildlife Refuge


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Aransas National Wildlife Refuge - Texas

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For many years, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has been instrumental in saving the whooping crane population. The refuge was established when, in the 1940s, the population of whoopers dropped to as few as 16. Gradually, the numbers of whooping cranes has risen.

In October and November 1995, 132 cranes arrived after spending the summer months in their northern Canada nesting grounds. The cranes leave the refuge in April. The other crane native to North America, the sandhill, also lives in the refuge during winter months, but the two species occupy different habitats. Whoopers stay in the marshy areas close to the gulf, while the sandhill cranes prefer the grain fields of the open prairie lands.

Aransas covers 115,000 acres, and is located 85 miles north of Corpus Christi, on Aransas Bay. In addition to whooping cranes, the refuge is home to deer, javelinas, armadillos, feral hogs, cougars, raccoons, bobcats, and alligators. This is about the farthest west habitat of this dominant amphibian.

A 16-mile trail loops through a portion of the refuge, although the great majority of the area is closed to the public and is totally devoted to wildlife preservation. A visitor center is located at the north end of the preserve. Picnic tables and restrooms are available, but there are no camping facilities.

This page also covers nearby Matagorda Island, also a wildlife refuge and an equally wonderful place to visit.

How to Get There

The drive from Corpus Christi to the Aransas Refuge takes you along the coastal plain, through an agricultural area with small towns and occasional petrochemical plants. From the downtown area of the city, take the causeway route to Portland (U.S. Highway 181) and then turn onto Texas Highway 35. This route will lead you west, along the coast and the Intracoastal Waterway, beside Aransas Pass, and through the small towns of Rockport and Fulton. The highway then moves inland, skirting the north side of the refuge. Turn south onto FM 774 and drive on this road until you meet FM 2040. Turn right and drive to the refuge entrance. If you're arriving from the Galveston area, take Texas Highway 35 and turn onto FM 239, two miles west of Tivoli. Drive along FM 239 until you get to FM 2040. The refuge gate is seven miles from this intersection, via FM 2040.

The Refuge

The refuge is composed of five units. The Main Unit occupies Blackjack Peninsula, a 16-mile long piece of land between St. Charles Bay and San Antonio Bay. The width of the unit ranges from two to seven miles. This is the original part of the refuge, the location of the visitor center, and most of the public area. The Lamar Unit is a 7,500-acre stretch of grassland along the coast between the west shore of St. Charles Bay and Highway 35. The Lamar Unit is a separate 734-acre tract of live-oak upland and salt marsh on the west shore of St. Charles Bay, adjacent to Goose Island State Park at the tip of the Lamar Peninsula. The Myrtle Foester Whitmire Unit (the latest addition) is 22 miles north of Blackjack Peninsula, on Powderhorn Lake. Together, these units comprise 60,000 acres of varied habitat. The fourth part of the refuge is located on Matagorda Island, the federal lands on the island taken over from other federal departments in 1971. This area has been combined with state lands within the wildlife management area, providing a total of 586,500 acres of barrier island landscape&emdash;the entire island.

The major public area of the reserve is the 5,000 acres at the north end of Blackjack Peninsula, which is designated a wildlife interpretive area. Most visitors come from the two major urban areas in the region on weekends, making weekdays a quiet, reflective time on this beautiful, serene peninsula. Facilities in this interpretive area include a headquarters office, the Wildlife Interpretive Center, with an information desk, wildlife displays including stuffed birds of the refuge, slide and film presentations, and a bookstore. A boardwalk crosses the nearby tidal flat, next to a 40-foot high observation tower. Other high observation platforms are located at Dagger Point and Heron Flats, and ground-level observation decks are found at Hog and Jones lakes. A picnic area is available, along with eight self-guided nature trails, with scenic overlooks and stopping areas for wildlife viewing and looking at the special habitats. A loop driving tour leads along a 16-mile route with six stopping places that have exhibit panels.

The gates are open from sunrise to sunset, year-round. The interpretive center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. There is no entrance fee, but visitors are required to register at the center, or before and after open hours at a station outside the center entrance. The remainder of the mainland areas are not open to the public, but there is access to Matagorda Island and we deal with this unit later in this chapter. Hunting for deer and hogs is permitted each fall in the Blackjack Unit, and fishing is permitted in designated areas from mid-April to mid-October.

Refuge Ecosystems

Much of the reserve has been affected by the rising and falling of the sea level over millions of years. About 100 million years ago, the refuge lands lay under the ocean, with the shoreline 130 miles to the north, under the Balcones Escarpment. The sea and gulf covered the region until about 120,000 years ago, when intermittent sea level changes revealed and then covered the region on an intermittent basis. The ocean made its last retreat 18,000 years ago, but the landscape continued to change for many thousand years after, with the shoreline holding at its current place only 4,000 years ago. At this point, the barrier islands were created by wave and wind action, protecting the marshes. While the mainland units have remained in a static state for 3,000 years, the islands are constantly influenced by weather and the effects of storms, and are ever changing. While hurricanes have less effect on the Blackjack Peninsula, the most severe cyclonic storms have affected parts of the area open to the public including damaging several trails. However, storms also provide benefits to the refuge environment, flushing out brackish water, bringing more nutrients including additional marine life to the bays, eventually increasing the food supply in the inland areas.

There are six major ecosystems at work in the mainland Aransas Refuge. The Shell Ridge biotic zone is most easily found along the Heron Flats trail. This is one of the interpretive trails in the Blackjack Peninsula Unit, and a brochure is available to provide keys to the ecology of the trail. This area has a base of crushed oyster shells. You'll find live oak dominating this habitat, with other plants including tanglewood, Mexican buckeye, Texas persimmon, and two types of hackberries (spiny and netleaf). On the ground, you'll find many creeping vines, such as trumpet creeper, mustang grape, Alamo pine, pepper vine, milkweed vine, greenbriar, and pearl milkweed, as well as poison ivy. Spanish moss, lichen, and fungi are found on the oak trees.

The Heron Trail continues over Cattail Slough, onto a ridge covered with lime prickly ash, tanglewood and torchwood. It's obvious that this is a more arid region, with its plant population of mesquite and prickly pear cactus. In the shellridge area that borders the bay, you'll find more grassy than treed areas, as cordgrass works its way up from the tidal flats and shoreline. Through this grassy area are scattered mesquite and marsh elder trees, plus Spanish daggers and snapdragon vine.

There are significant freshwater area in the reserve, with freshwater sloughs found along the Heron Flats and Rail trails. Jones Lake and Hog Lake are in this area, plus a temporary pond located on the Big Tree Trail, with a second at the end of the Wood Duck Pond Trail. The year-round water supply to some of these areas is chancy. Walk along the Rail Trail, and you're sure to see water in Thomas Slough, with a good chance of seeing alligators. There are many temporary pools on the peninsula, full in winter and waning by summer. While the alligator is master of this freshwater habitat, you'll also see Gulf Coast ribbon snakes, southern leopard frogs, bullfrogs, and green frogs. This is an area occupied by wading birds, including roseate spoonbills and wood storks, plus rails and several varieties of swimmers, including dabbling ducks, American coots, common snipes, and common moorhens. You'll also encounter belted kingfishers, red-winged blackbirds, great-tailed grackles, and killdeer.

Early in the day and at dusk, at the freshwater pools, you have a good chance of observing the larger wildlife, including deer, javalina, feral hogs, and raccoons.

The salt marsh community is not as extensive as the tidal flat biotic zone, although there is a thin strip of salt marsh with cordgrass between the tidal flats and the freshwater zones. You can see it from the observation tower, an area of brackish water along San Antonio Bay. At best, this community is only a few feet wide, and in only a few patches is it extensive enough to accommodate alligators, and marsh birds such as least bitterns and clapper rails.

The tidal flats are found along the edges of the refuge, seen from the observation tower and other vantage points, including the boardwalk that runs from the tower to the bay, particularly Heron Flats. The major plants along the flats are sea ox-eye, standing about two-feet high, chargers, shoregrass, saltgrass, saltwort, glasswort, common reed, and saltmarsh bullrush. Other plants in this prolific zone are the groundsel, marsh fleabane, golden and saline aster, saltmarsh morning glory, and sea lavender, among others. Crabs crawl across the flats, as do many insects including saltmarsh grasshoppers, tiger beetles, wolf spiders, and snails. You may see raccoons and feral hogs, although you have a better chance of seeing their tracks, and several snakes inhabit the zone: cottonmouth moccasins and gulf saltmarsh snake. The extremely rare Texas diamondback terrapin is a resident of the tidal flats.

The higher ground, and the largest habitat in the area of the Blackjack Peninsula is the ridge and swale biotic zone. Sandy ridges run through this region, with troughs or swales in between. The swales flood at times, with the water staying up to a few weeks, providing enough moisture for native grasses and some water-tolerant perennials. On the ridges are found trees and shrubs, including vast groves of live oaks, the predominant vegetation of the reserve. The best way to observe the plant systems in this zone is to take the refuge driving tour. The live oaks are found in extremely dense thickets as well as well-spaced groves. The oaks are interspersed with the lower-growing red bays and laurel oaks.

The ridge and swale zone is habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, from deer, bobcat, cougar, jaguarundi, cottontail rabbits, and feral hogs, to weasels, gray foxes, and armadillos. Songbirds are here in great numbers: mocking birds, cardinals, long-billed thrashers, plus other birds including raptors (American kestrels and red-tailed hawks). The grassland swales offer South Texas' finest collection of native grasses. Bluestems are abundant: big, seacoast, broomsedge, bushy, splitbeard, and silver, among others. Other grasses not normally seen together elsewhere include sprangletops, Indian grass, switch grass, paspalums, dropseeds, and gulf muhly. The wetter areas offer a home to California bullrushes, cattails, palmettos (the dwarf species), sawgrass and other sedges. Raptors, including harriers, soar overhead while coyotes and bobwhite quail patrol the ground. And myriad insects rattle and buzz deep in the thick grass.

Matagorda Island

The barrier island is separated from the mainland by Esperitu Santo and San Antonio bays. The land is owned by the federal and state governments, and is operated as a wildlife sanctuary by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Only the southwestern tip of the island, about 11,500 acres, is privately owned. The island is about 5,000 years old, slightly older than most of the other barrier islands in the gulf. There are slight signs that the Karankawa came to the island, and it was visited by Cabeza de Vaca, Robert Sueir de La Salle, and the notorious Jean Lafitte. The island was heavily used, with a lighthouse having been built in 1852 and with an air base operating for awhile. Fort Esperanza was an early Spanish fort that was destroyed and submerged by storms of the 1800s and early 1900s.

The headquarters of the park is on the mainland, in Port O'Connor, where 16th Street meets the Intracoastal Canal. The only access to the park is by boat. The Matagorda Ferry transports 49 passengers at a time from Port O'Connor, operating Thursday through Sunday. Private boats may be taken to the island by the ferry and a shuttle fee is charged for visitors who bring their own boat. The island is situated 11 miles across the bay from Port O'Connor.

Park activities include camping, hiking, cycling, swimming and other beach activities, bird watching, fishing, and surfing. Camping facilities include a primitive area with covered picnic tables on a two-mile stretch of gulf beach, located 3.5 miles from the boat dock. This area is one of several serviced by the park shuttle. Army Hole Campground is on the bayside, close to the dock. This more organized camping area has shaded picnic tables, fire rings, pit toilets, and an outdoor cold shower. Two group barracks are available, containing dormitories with bunks and kitchen facilities. Both barracks can be reserved for Friday or Saturday nights only.

For those who wish to take their own boats across the bay to the island, three boat ramps are conveniently located in Port O'Connor. if you have a boat, you can easily access the many miles of beaches. Hikers, walkers, and cyclists will enjoy the paved and mowed pathways on the island. There is no electricity, drinking water, telephone, nor a concession on the island. A Texas Park Store is located at the headquarters in Port O'Connor.

The island environment includes those wide sandy beaches, marshes, and dunes areas. Over 30 species of reptiles live on the island, including the American alligator. Nineteen species of snake are found here, including the western coachwhip, western diamondback rattler, and the speckled kingsnake. Like most barrier islands, Matagorda has few mammals, except for white-tailed deer, coyote, raccoon, badger, and the ever-present jackrabbit. The most frequently seen amphibians are the leopard frog, bullfrog, and Gulf Coast toad. The island is a refuge for at least 19 threatened or endangered species, including the whooping crane, brown pelican, peregrine falcon, Ridley sea turtle, and horned lizard.

For information on park facilities and ferry operations, call the park office at ( 361) 389-8900. For campsite reservations, call 800-792-1112. For information on the refuge and its programs, call (361) 286-3559.


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