with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Address: P.O. Box 100
Austwell, Texas 77950

Phone: 361/286-3559

Fax: 361/286-3722

Tour Information: For tour information call the Rockport Chamber of Commerce at 800-242-0071

Email:fw2_rw_aransas @fws.gov

Web Page:FWS Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

How to get there: On the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, the refuge is located 35 miles northeast of Rockport, Texas. From Rockport, take State Highway 35 North to F.M. 744 East, then follow F.M. 2040 South to the refuge entrance.

Hours: The Refuge Public Use Area is open from sunrise to sunset.
The Wildlife Interpretive Center is open daily 8:30 am – 4:30 pm.

Best Time: Winter is the best time for migrating birds. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see wildlife

Famous for: Whooping cranes.

How to visit: Making a comeback from 15 birds in 1941, hundreds of Whooping cranes can be seen from the 40 foot Observation Tower from late October to mid-April. There are commercial boat tours for viewing cranes and other birds. A 16-mile paved tour road offers viewing from the car. There are several miles of walking trails, too. Watch for poisonous snakes and wear insect repellent. Visit the Wildlife Interpretive Center for more information and extensive natural history displays.

Habitat: This 70,504-acre refuge is made up of the Blackjack Peninsula, named for its scattered blackjack oaks, and three satellite units. Grasslands, live oaks, and redbay thickets cover deep, sandy soils, ringed by tidal marshes and broken by long, narrow ponds. Brackish tidal marshes are found among the short, salt-tolerant vegetation. It is an ever-changing land and is still being shaped by the waters and storms of the Gulf of Mexico.

Wildlife: A stopping point for many migrating birds traveling between North and Central America, warblers arrive from mid-April to early May. The mild winters and abundant food supplies attract over 392 species of birds including pelicans, herons, egrets, spoonbills, shorebirds, ducks, and geese. The endangered whooping crane makes this its winter feeding grounds. The dense thicket cover provides shelter for deer, javelina, and feral hogs escaping predators like coyote, bobcat, and raccoon. The salt flats and freshwater ponds are a haven for alligators, turtles, frogs, snakes, and birds.

NOTE: There are no facilities on the refuge to provide food or fuel. Hopper’s Landing (3 miles) and Tivoli (14 miles) have the closest gas stations. Food, motels, and campgrounds can be found 35 miles away in Rockport, Port Lavaca, and Refugio.

Friday, January 24, 1997
Aransas NWR, TX

On the way to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge today, we saw many Black and Turkey Vultures flying and perched on fence posts along the road. We saw about as many American Kestrels perched on power wires. We saw one Great Horned Owl on a power pole, and several Red-Tailed Hawks. A bit closer to the refuge, in the plowed fields, was a flock of Snow Geese, about 500 or so. I stopped and was able to count 50 blue phase Snow Geese mixed in, and 20 or 30 Canada Geese at the back of the group.

I saw a flock of thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds in the grasses along the road, all making their distinctive wild call at the same time. I stopped to photograph them, and spooked them so that they all flew at once and landed down the road, out of camera range. Tomorrow, I will do better.

Inside the refuge, I watched and photographed an American Alligator in the pond just across from the Wildlife Interpretive Center (WIC). Alligator, photo by Brent VanFossenThe alligator was about a 6 footer, and was lying in the sun, unmoving. When I was ready to photograph, I would scrape my foot across the ground to make a little noise, and his eye would open for about 5 seconds. I was able to get good alligator and habitat shots including the pond, grasses, far trees and just a little blue sky. Because the day was so bright, I used fill flash set at -1.7 stops, which I have found to give good results at bringing the light and shadows to a range that the film can handle, without making a completely flat photo.

Farther down the road, I noticed a medium-sized animal in the grass immediately to the right of the pavement. Slowing to see, I came close to running over an armadillo when he nonchalantly walked right in front of the car. I braked and swerved, and by the time I looked back, he was in the grass again. There were two, each with a nose rooting around the base of the grass clumps. They allowed me to approach as close as I wanted; totally fearless. Using fill flash again, I got one or two clear shots before they wandered away.

Marbled Godwit, photo by Brent VanFossenAt the end of the boardwalk near the observation tower, I found a group of birds including about a dozen Long-billed Curlews and other shorebirds. The light was awful, and when I came back an hour or so later, the Curlews were gone, but I was able to photograph several Marbled Godwits in perfect late afternoon light with their mirrored reflections below them in the glassy surface of the sky blue water. They were a bit out of range for my 700mm, but had I had a 2X (giving 1000mm) or an 800 prime lens, I could have had great photos. I will try again tomorrow with rubber waders to allow me to move closer. As long as I moved slowly, they did not seem too concerned that I was there.

Saturday, January 25, 1997
Aransas NWR, TX

I started the morning early with a hike along the Rail Trail in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This is a short trail just inside the entrance gate and across from the Wildlife Interpretive Center. The trail skirts the edges of freshwater ponds, mostly full of reeds and grasses in hummocks 4 or 5 feet in diameter and about as tall. In some places, the pond itself is obscured by the vegetation, which is tan in color this time of year.

I had barely rounded the first turn when I saw a green and reddish bird fly out of the grasses and water close to me, and disappear behind the vegetation at the far side of the pond. I waited about 10 minutes, and was rewarded when the bird flew and perched in one of the lower branches of a live oak at the edge of the pond. A Green Heron, formerly the Green-backed Heron, is unmistakable. They are shy and easily spooked, and he flew again when I tried to approach. I was told later when talking to one of the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife “rangers” that he had heard that the Green Heron was there, but he hadn’t seen him in 5 or 6 months of birding and working there. Not bad for the first bird of the day.

A little later, I found a long line of leaf-cutter ants carrying their unbelievably large cargo across the hiking trail and into the grasses. I set up the 200mm macro lens with the 52mm extension tube, 1.4X converter, and flash and gold reflector and shot close-ups of the ants coming over a small ridge. The ants themselves are about 3/8 of an inch long, but the pieces of leaves and forest litter they were carrying were two to three times that big. I then set up for a straight down shot at about 1/4 life-size and waited until the frame was packed with lots of ants and greenery, and made a few additional photos.

From the viewpoint at the Jones Lake trail, I viewed a large alligator across the water soaking up the sunshine on the far bank. Several hours later, he had moved a bit, but was still in the general area. I overheard the woman at the visitor center desk saying that he is frequently there, and is about 15 feet long.

At the end of the day, I took a short hike down Bird Trail #2, which heads toward the salt beach. Part way in, there is a photo blind overlooking a muddy pool. 1996 was a dry year for Texas, as they were 12 inches under their normal 30, and the pool would normally be a small pond. The blind has three view ports for binoculars or camera lenses, but would probably only accommodate a 300mm f4, nothing larger. At the beach, I ended the day by watching first one, then three more feral hogs come toward me on the beach, sticking a nose into the water every 10 feet or so. They got within 75 feet before they noticed me, and the largest gave an ungraceful grunt, and they all turned and went the other way.

Sunday, January 26, 1997
Aransas NWR, TX

Again I started the morning with an early walk along the Rail Trail to see if I could find again the Green Heron I saw yesterday. I was distracted almost immediately by a small bird hopping in the reeds and sedges and I stopped to see what it was. Through the binoculars, I was able to get a glimpse of bright yellow. When he came into the open, I could see that he was about 4 inches long, and his entire throat was yellow, with a black mask across the face and a narrow white line above that. Checking the field guide, I had spotted a Common Yellowthroat, a bird which spends most of the year here, but is listed as uncommon in the winter.

American Bittern, photo by Brent VanFossenContinuing my hike, I again startled the Green Heron, and he flew from one hidden part of the pond to another. I waited a bit, but he did not reappear. The Rail Trail connects to the Heron Flats Trail, and I took the cutoff. I wanted to get to the boardwalk area to photograph a typical freshwater marsh habitat in early light. When I arrived, I began to set up the shot that I had chosen yesterday. For some reason, I turned and looked behind me, and saw an American Bittern hunting in the reeds of the wetland. I switched to the 300mm lens and 1.4X (the landscape shot could wait) and made a series of photos of the bittern in wonderful light amongst the grasses, full frame.

Returning to my scenic, I shot verticals and horizontals of the marsh, and turned to watch the bittern again. This bird moves as slow as molasses, and I knew he had to be within 10 feet of where I last saw him. He was. But his camouflage was so good, it took me 20 minutes to find him, even though I knew where to look. This bird is a small heron, colored in shades of brown and white, with stripes running the length of its neck to the middle of its belly. Its bill has alternating stripes of green and yellow, and its long legs and feet are the color of green reeds. He is a master of disguise, and will stand motionless with neck extended and vertical, bill pointed in the air, watching and waiting for something edible to pass within reach. Then he will sloooooowly look down, take a 10 second step forward, making not even a ripple in the water, and grab his dinner with a quick jab of the bill. His vertical stripes blend with the vertical reeds and the shadows break up the outline of his body. I photographed some more, trying to emphasize the camouflage and the balance between the bird and its environment.

Armadillo, photo by Brent VanFossenIn the afternoon, I returned to the refuge (midday is the time for lunch, a quick nap, checking of the field guide, and a few chores). I discovered an armadillo plowing the lawn of the visitor center, looking for edibles just below the surface. Using the 300mm, I was able to get a few shots until he waddled across the parking lot and into the brush. I moved to the other side of the bushes for full front lighting, and waited. Since I could see the bushes move and I could hear him digging, I knew where he was. I was rewarded when he came out and gave me a few good views of his rooting and some full body portraits with the brush in the background. The light was nice, as it was almost 4:00 (sunset is 6:00), and the photos should be good activity and habitat shots of a common southern mammal.

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