For nature and wildlife enthusiasts, South Padre Island provides an alluring blend of land and sea habitats to explore. This 34-mile long barrier reef island along Texas’ Gulf Coast is home to sandy beaches, miles of protected wetlands and nutrient-rich waters that all provide ample opportunity to view wildlife in its natural setting.
One of the first encounters with nature comes upon crossing the Queen Isabella Causeway, which links mainland Texas to the Island. Flashing signs warn motorists of pelican landings on the 2.6-mile long bridge.
South Padre Island’s location along a major migratory route and between the shallows of Laguna Madre Bay and the Gulf of Mexico creates ideal conditions for a variety of birds. More than 300 species of birds call the Island home for part or most of the year. Vast expanses of saltwater flats, lagoons and marshes on the Island’s eastern side provide a home for shorebirds and waterfowl. Spring and fall migrations bring many more species – and birdwatchers – to the Island.
The South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary, situated along the wetlands of the Laguna Madre Bay, features exhibits on the Island’s birds and other natural features, along with a five-story viewing tower, viewing blinds and boardwalk nature trails. The trails are adjacent to the existing Laguna Madre Nature Trail, which features two boardwalks, one extending over marshland and the other to Laguna Madre Bay.
The center is a wing of the World Birding Center, a partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and several South Texas communities.
For other birding experiences, visitors can choose from guided birding tours or visit the Island’s free, dedicated birding sites. The South Padre Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary offers bird viewing in the heart of town. The sanctuary was created when several residential lots were purchased to create a rest stop for migratory birds.
South Padre Island also offers unique opportunities for birding by boat. With easy access to deep waters, the Island offers birding tours that travel into the Gulf to view pelagic species, birds that spend almost their entire lives at sea. The waters off of South Padre Island are one of the only places in the United States where subtropical pelagic birds are regularly viewed.
The Island’s natural, white sands provide a nesting ground to the world’s most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s Ridley, along with other threatened sea turtle species. The turtles, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, spend most of their lives at sea. The females come ashore each spring to nest in the Island’s beaches.
Island residents are dedicated to preserving the turtles. Sea Turtle Inc., a non-profit organization that has been rescuing and protecting marine turtles on the Island for more than 30 years, assists the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in patrolling the Island’s beaches to look for and protect nesting turtles. The group also provides medical and rehabilitative care for injured turtles for their eventual return to the wild. Visitors to the Island can view turtles up-close at the Sea Turtle Inc. facility, which offers tours, presentations, and other educational programs.
The waters surrounding South Padre Island are a year-round, native habitat to bottlenose dolphins. Known for their intelligence and friendly appearance, these dolphins travel in social groups and feed on bottom-dwelling fish, shrimp and squid.
While it’s against the law to feed, touch or swim with the dolphins, several dolphin viewing tours are available on the Island. All of them boast a success rate of nearly 100 percent due to the sheer number of dolphins residing off the Island’s shores.
Across the bay from South Padre Island in Port Isabel, the Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center offers interactive exhibits that educate visitors of all ages about the abundant marine life in the waters surrounding South Padre. The center gives visitors a look at creatures from seahorses to stingrays, and touch tanks allow children to examine starfish, sea urchins, and other sea creatures. Marine ecology tours also give visitors close encounters with the Island’s myriad marine life.
Alligators, deer, javelinas, snakes and other native creatures await visitors at the 45,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a 20-minute drive from South Padre Island. This federal preserve is the largest protected area of natural habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
The land is home to more than 400 documented bird species (more than any other national refuge) and other animals including snakes, bobcats, coyotes – even mountain lions have been spotted there. The refuge offers visitors access into wildlife viewing areas by car and on marked walking trails.
The University of Texas Pan American Coastal Studies Laboratory offers another look at the region’s unique animal and plant life. Displays feature examples of flora and fauna found in the Lower Laguna Madre Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and South Padre Island. The laboratory, which is also home to researchers studying the coastal ecosystems of Southern Texas and Northern Mexico, is open to the public during scheduled viewing hours.