Following the River

By: Ally Wood and Eric Rios-Bretado

This blog tells the story of two strangers turned friends and the first leg of their journey through Texas and New Mexico. Here, they encounter people from all over the world, beautiful birds, striking sunsets, and a brief stint as a FWS mascot. We started off in snowy Fort Collins, Colorado and soon after left for South Texas, a birder’s winter paradise!

Eric is a recent grad from Texas A&M-Commerce eager to learn more about the wildlife refuge system. Ally is a New Yorker exploring the southern and western USA for the first time! Photo by Ally Wood.

Santa Ana NWR

It seemed the cold followed us, as our first day in Texas we had snow fall over night and well into the next morning. Undeterred by what Eric’s people call a “snowstorm”, we moved on. We stopped briefly in historic San Antonio, just minutes away from the Alamo! Our ultimate destination was Santa Ana NWR, which some people consider the jewel of the whole Wildlife Refuge System.

We had a most excellent orientation of the refuge where we were given a personal tour by the refuge manager and one of the park rangers. Santa Ana has an impressive 40 foot observation tower, a swing bridge situated 25 feet above the ground, a graveyard that has the remains of Santa Ana’s original land grant owners, and a view of the mighty Rio Grande. The refuge manager explained how refuge biologists recreate flooding events on the refuge to mimic what the Rio Grande once did before it was managed by people. Wildlife depends on the wetlands here for food and habitat, which is important since several major bird flyways meet at Santa Ana. Javelinas, bobcats, elusive indigo snakes, chatty green jays, and dazzling Altamira orioles where some of the most impressive wildlife here.

The forty-foot observation tour was often busy with birders hoping to see the elusive hook billed kite. Photo by Ally Wood.

As there is only one point of entry into the refuge, we were able to work the fee booth and sample from there! On one rather slow day and an eventful conversation with a certain park ranger, we decided dressing up as Puddles the Blue Goose would get people to come by the refuge instead of just passing through. It didn’t bring more people in, but it sure did get some laughs at the visitor center and a few pictures of Puddles getting up to some shenanigans! Another highlight of our time there was going out with the refuge manager to an elementary school where we helped students plant native flora for their school garden. The kids had fun planting and playing in the dirt while also learning about the importance of pollination. Sadly, we had to leave this jewel called Santa Ana. Though we would miss the colorful birds and friendly staff, our next destination was close to the beach and home to a few endangered species we were eager to encounter!

Puddles the Blue Goose (AKA Eric) radios Santa Ana dispatch to tell them we’re in the Fee Booth. Photo by Ally Wood.

Laguna Atascosa NWR

At Santa Ana NWR, the powerful Rio Grande was the backdrop of our surveying efforts. Our second refuge, Laguna Atascosa, took us to the River’s outflow – the Gulf of Mexico. Laguna Atascosa NWR is situated on Laguna Madre, which, in combination with South Padre Island, protects the coast line from the ocean’s powerful waves. Laguna Atascosa, like Santa Ana, is a birder’s dream and a popular destination for Winter Texans. The intersection of several habitat types, such as temperate, coastal, and desert, draws in migrating birds who need some TLC before continuing their journeys. We often surveyed visitors next to one of the refuge’s bird feeders and enjoyed the familiar calls of green jays, Altamira orioles, chachalacas, and the ever-present great tailed grackles as we worked.

One morning, we managed to snag seats on Laguna’s coveted tram ride, a 3 hour habitat tour that takes passengers from the thorn scrub to the Laguna Madre and back again. Wanda, one of the refuge’s volunteers, narrated the trip. Although she promised that she wasn’t a birder, she succeeded in pointing out white tailed hawks, caracaras, Caspian turns, and a long billed curlew, among many others. We also saw Nilgai, an invasive but impressive antelope originally from Asia, and a flotilla of ducks. Like many visitors, we had hoped to see evidence of ocelots, a medium sized wild cat with a sleek, dappled fur coat. Laguna Atascosa’s abundance of thorn scrub makes a desirable habitat for the endangered cat and is home to some of the remaining North American population. Although we didn’t spot the elusive ocelot on our tram tour, we did get to help the refuge with Ocelot Conservation Day!

Renee’s Overlook was one of the few stops we made on the tram tour. Photo by Ally Wood.

Ocelot Conservation Day, which took place at nearby Gladys Porter Zoo, featured a very special guest: Clyde the ocelot! Clyde was visiting from The Texas Zoo in Victoria, TX. We helped refuge staff and volunteers set up and break down the event and provided extra crowd control for Clyde. Ocelot Conservation Day was a purr-fect way to wrap up our time at Laguna Atascosa (yes, ocelots purr!) before heading to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

Clyde waits patiently for his daily meal. Photo by Ally Wood.

Bosque del Apache NWR

Although we were sad to leave south Texas, it was exciting to visit New Mexico since neither of us had spent much time there before. We were treated to stunning mountain vistas for the last leg of the drive, a big contrast to the picturesque plains of southern Texas. Although many things changed between our Texan refuges and Bosque del Apache, one thing stayed the same: the importance of the Rio Grande.

Like Santa Ana, Bosque del Apache staff manipulate water levels in the refuge’s wetlands to mimic historic cycles of the River. This repetitive filling and draining of the wetlands allows vital waterfowl food sources to grow on the refuge each year. On one of our first mornings at the refuge, we took a break from contacting visitors and hopped in a truck with Susan, the wildlife refuge specialist, to help with wetland monitoring. We used binoculars to read the water depth on a measuring stick in the wetland and recorded the data. It was awesome to be included in one of the most important jobs on the refuge!

One of Bosque Del Apache’s many wetlands aglow at sunset. Photo by Eric Rios-Bretado.

Due to Covid-19, we suspended our visitor sampling a week after arriving at Bosque and cut the rest of our journey short. Although we wish we could keep working on the survey, this change has allowed us to work with the refuge on several different projects. We spent one day prepping an authentic Adobe-style bunkhouse for future refuge visitors and imagining what it would be like to live in such a cool place. The next morning, we set out with two refuge volunteers, Wendy and Pam, to do trail maintenance in the Chupadera Peak Wilderness Unit. Wendy and Pam have been working on the 9.5 mile round trip Chupadera trail over several seasons and are almost done! We helped by trimming back prickly pear cactus, abundant grasses, and some four wing saltbush in the canyon portion of the trail to make it safer. It was amazing to see the Chihuahuan desert and the refuge wetlands spread out below us as we gained altitude on the mountain.

Ally, Pam, and Wendy head down Chupadera after a day of trail work. Photo by Eric Rios-Bretado.

Although our journey will end sooner than expected, we had an incredible experience exploring and sampling the southwest. We surveyed and met people from across the globe, learned their stories, and shared in their joy of nature and the wild world. This internship took us to new places and helped us grow into more confident and experienced stewards of the environment.We are so thankful for the excellent USFWS staff and volunteers and ACE employees who made this the most amazing internship imaginable.

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