The two historic National Wildlife Refuges in the Rio Grande Valley–Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa- are both birding hotspots that are easy to access. The Visitor Centers at both NWR’s have restrooms and water fountains as well as a selection of nature books, t-shirts and gifts for sale by the Friends of the Refuge. Santa Ana NWR is inland, located along the Rio Grande River. It’s a taste of tropical habitat with Spanish Moss hanging from trees in portions of the Refuge such as along the boardwalk by Willow Lakes. I always love walking the trails that have the hanging moss as it makes me feel like I am in some exotic location. Most of the trails are fairly level with some paved but some are dirt trails so ask if you have mobility issues.
Though much of the Refuge handicap accessible, the hawk viewing tower is not. During summer months visitors can drive the 7 mile Wildlife Drive in their own vehicle and during winter months when it is closed to motor vehicles they offer nature tram tours for a small fee.
Santa Ana NWR has a wonderful photo blind and observation deck shown in the above photos. It overlooks Willow Lake providing nice opportunities to view and photograph birds in the water and on nearby vegetation through viewing ports plus a viewing scope with step up for children and a bench.
The Laguna Atascosa NWR is located alongside the Laguna Madre, a shallow body of water between So. Padre Island and mainland Texas including this NWR that is home to innumerable waterfowl and waterbirds. Visitors can drive their vehicles on the 15 mile Bayside Drive with some restrictions near dusk and dawn to protect the endangered Ocelot that have sadly been run over by cars here in recent years. There are several stops where you can get out of your car to view and photograph flora and fauna.
Around their Visitor Center are gardens with native flowers and other plants that attract not only birds but butterflies. They maintain a number of feeders plus water features that draw in not only Rio Grande Valley specialties such as Great Kiskadees but rare visitors like this Rufous-backed Robin I photographed there last January. I have a special fondness for their feeders as this is where, during my initial visit there in the early 1990’s, I saw my first Green Jay, the bird that got me interested in birding–all thanks to a thoughtful person with binoculars, who saw me wandering around without binoculars, and pointed me towards this neon-brightly colored bird that was big enough to see well at the feeders with my bare eyes.
More information on both at Friends of South Texas Refuges