Border Patrol: the Gulf Coast and Rio Grande

Camping on the Beach at Goose Island State Park

When we were planning Odyssey 2.0, a friend who lives in Houston gave me a tip about Goose Island State Park. My original plan was to leave Houston and head south quickly to see our friends in Harlingen, but we are so happy we made the detour to see this coastal gem instead. Where else can you camp on the beach among world class birding and fishing for $22 a night? We are not anglers, but it was still worth it, especially because we were lucky enough to snag a bayfront spot for five nights in the quieter end of the campground away from the fishing pier.

Goose Island is located about 200 miles southwest of Houston, near Rockport, TX on Aransas Bay – a body of water inland of the Gulf of Mexico, formed by the barrier islands. It’s the first landfall many migratory birds make on their journey north. They arrive exhausted and hungry, but there’s plenty of food here – especially for the ones that eat fish. Because the bay is shallow – just a few inches or feet deep for hundreds of feet close to shore – it’s easy pickings for fish and mollusks that grow there. As a result, there is a profusion of bird species living here, especially shorebirds.

We were in luck, because a shorebird walk was scheduled for the day before we had to leave. We showed up at 8:30 that morning, shivering in a howling wind and 45ish degree temperatures (yes, it can get cold in Texas!) Our fearless leader, Tom, and his wife took us on a leisurely stroll along the shore, and helped us identify 36 species in a little over an hour, 21 of which were new for my “lifetime list” (shown with a * below – mostly not exotic birds, but new for me; just goes to show that habitat is everything when it comes to birds). And this was during “off-season” – migration must provide an embarrassment of birding riches.

Early (and cold) birders get the birds

*Gadwall 2
*Northern Shoveler 2
*Northern Pintail 14
*Redhead 53
*Common Goldeneye 4
*Red-breasted Merganser 1
Common Loon 5
Double-crested Cormorant 15
American White Pelican 20
Brown Pelican 8
Great Blue Heron 6
Great Egret 5
Snowy Egret 4
*Little Blue Heron 3
*Tricolored Heron 6
*Roseate Spoonbill 2
Turkey Vulture 4
*Osprey 1
American Coot 35
*Killdeer 3
*Ruddy Turnstone 11
*Sanderling 4
*Spotted Sandpiper 1
*Willet 4
Laughing Gull 27
*Herring Gull 1
*Caspian Tern 2
*Forster’s Tern 1
*Black Skimmer 115
*Crested Caracara 1
Eastern Phoebe 1
*Couch’s Kingbird 1
Savannah Sparrow 4
Northern Cardinal 1
Red-winged Blackbird 1
Great-tailed Grackle 47

Also during the week we went to the nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where I checked off Whooping Cranes and a Merlin from my list – not really that exotic, but new for me.

The wizardly Merlin

We’re not super-serious birders (I’ve only been at this about a year and now have 150 birds on my list; many have been doing it all their lives and have seen many hundreds of species. That probably makes us “birdwatchers” and not birders.), but we really enjoy it. It gives you a reason to get outside, take a nice walk in a beautiful place, meet some interesting people, and learn about the amazing diversity of these creatures (the birds, not the people). Plus there’s a bit of the thrill of the hunt.

On another day while we were at Goose Island we drove down to Padre Island National Seashore (not to be confused with South Padre Island). We scoped out the camping options for a future possible visit (you can park on the beach for free if you’re not afraid of getting swept away by the tide or getting stuck in the sand). It looks like a really cool option, but perhaps a bit too adventurous for us.

Padre Island National Seashore

Goose Island was a real highlight. We’d go back in a heartbeat.

Bayfront sunset

Our next stop was one we had long planned and anticipated: staying with our friends Frank and Susan at their house in Harlingen (we now know that the “gen” in Harlingen is pronounced as in “generator”. Harlingen sits about 30 miles northwest of Brownsville.) Frank is a colleague of Maureen’s from her recent days working at The American College of Psychiatrists. When we made our plans to traverse the Rio Grande Valley (or El Valle as it is called down here), Frank generously insisted that we stay with him and Susan. Initially we had planned to sleep in the RV while it was parked in their driveway, but the low temperatures outside and inviting comfort of long, hot showers and warm company inside swayed us.

The first challenge was landing Sempre Estate in their driveway. I had looked at their house on Google Earth, and parking looked possible, but I didn’t account for the dense vegetation surrounding the driveway (it’s a subtropical climate here, and things like to grow). To make a long story short, I managed to maneuver without scraping the trailer or the trees too badly, but it was at about the limit of what was possible.

Safely landed at Hacienda de Frank y Susan

Frank is quite the cook, especially of Latin-inspired cuisine, and he really pulled out the stops for us, starting out with deconstructed Cuban sandwiches and continuing into delicious salads, ceviche, guacomole, chili, paella, and many other local delicacies. We were well fed, to say the least.

Deconstructed Cuban sandwich

We also ventured with them into downtown Brownsville and had breakfast at a very authentic Mexican restaurant. I was especially fascinated by the telenovelas being shown on TV in the restaurant: not much dialog, lots of intense stares, suspenseful music. The food was good too.


For the big football playoff weekend, Frank and Susan hosted a “Three Kings Day” party, including a “White Camel” gift exchange. Frank played the part of Balthazar and everybody had a great time. The Texans even won!

Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar paying respects to DirecTV

But it was Susan and Frank that treated us like kings! We were so happy to visit with them.

Thanks Susan and Frank!

After Harlingen, we headed to The River. This year I’m continuing to work on my photography project called Border Patrol, so I wanted to make as many stops as possible along the Rio Grande River. With this project I am exploring natural and manmade borders, and the effort and consequences involved in securing them. With that in mind we headed to Falcon State Park, located along the Rio Grande.

Our site at Falcon State Park

We only had two days at Falcon, but I was still able to make a lot of pictures for my project. And we were able to combine that work with – surprise – more birding! Thanks to Maureen chatting up the state park worker at the park office, we learned about the birding center at the nearby little town of Salineno. A volunteer maintains the site, and it attracts some birds that are found almost nowhere else in the U.S., including my new favorites: the Great Kiskadee, Altamira Oriole and Green Jay. These are tropical birds at the very north end of their range. and it was thrill to see them.

Altamira Oriole and Green Jay

Falcon Lake itself was formed by damming up the Rio Grande. It makes for a spot popular for boating and fishing, but we just liked the way it looked.

Sun sets behind Mexican mountains across Falcon Lake

The next stop on our trip up the river was Lake Casa Blanca in Laredo. Laredo is now a good sized city of over 250,000 people which has grown tremendously as the result of cross-border trade between Mexico and the United States. It appears to be doing very well economically.

Lake Casa Blanca campsite

The park was on a lovely lake and is otherwise nothing special, but perfectly adequate for a few days. We caught up on our laundry and did a massive grocery shopping trip (since we were headed into the Wilderness soon), got a haircut, and got more photography done on the border project. It was a largely practical, but nevertheless relaxing stop.

Sunset over Lake Casa Blanca with hundreds of Grackles. Nice shirt BTW.

Continuing north, our next destination was Seminole Canyon State Park (can you tell that we like Texas state parks?) Now we were really getting into remote lands, where food, cell coverage and diesel are scarce commodities. But one thing Seminole Canyon has in abundance is wide open spaces.

That’s Sempre Estate at the top of the frame

The highlight of our stay here was a hike down into the canyon with a docent to see Native American pictographs, which are estimated to be 4500 years old. It’s amazing to see these early works of art that have managed to hold up against the elements for that long, and to try to figure what it is they were trying to express.

Shamans, panthers, and who knows what else is going on here

Lastly, we returned this year to Big Bend National Park. We were so focused on getting home last spring that I didn’t write about our first visit then, but suffice it to say that we were so impressed that it was worth a return trip. Big Bend is not near anything; you have to make a significant effort to get there. There is no cell service and very limited (and expensive) groceries and fuel. It is huge: over 1200 square miles. It’s 88 miles from our campground to the nearest town (Marathon). The campsites have no hookups (not a problem for us with our solar panels, but we did go into extreme water conservation mode to avoid having to hitch up and go to the dump station).

Our Big Bend campsite at Rio Grande Village – note the satellite dish: we were roughing it, but were not going to miss the NFL Conference Championships!

But the tradeoff for these sacrifices is access to some of the most stunning scenery and wildlife in the lower 48.

The Chisos Mountains are completely contained within BBNP

We jumped on the hiking trails, exploring some back country areas that we didn’t have time to get to on first visit. Our car got very dusty and so did our shoes, but we burned off thousands of calories and had a great time.

Pine Canyon hike

Daniels Ranch to Hot Springs hike

Awesome geology

Balanced Rock

Mule Ears hike


Ernst Tinaja hike

These pictures just scratch the surface of the geological wonders contained within the park. An entire mountain range (the Chisos) is here, with Mexican Black Bears, mountain lions, Mexican Jays and many other rare birds living there. The Rio Grande cuts through other mountain ranges at each end of the park, leaving dramatic canyons with vertical walls hundreds of feet high. The vastness of the place reminded me of Yellowstone National Park, but without the bison, geysers and crowds.

Because it’s so remote, it always seemed as if we had the trails practically to ourselves. And as they say here, “half of the park is after dark”, meaning the night skies are about as black they get in the continental United States. Dark skies are an increasingly rare commodity in the U.S., yet here the Milky Way is a bright splash across the middle of the night sky, and many thousands of stars are visible to the naked eye.

There’s so much to see and do that even after this trip, which made for our second full week here, there was much left undone. I was stunned to learn from so many Texans we met along the way that they had never been to Big Bend. We’re midwesterners, and now we’ve been here twice. Some day we may return – it’s worth the effort.

Photographically, I would call our two week journey up the river a success. It wasn’t exactly Heart of Darkness, but the Valley is a unique place, a distinct subculture within the United States, and I made hundreds of pictures for my Border Patrol project as we drove the length of the Rio Grande. Now I have to edit them down, see if I think they’re any good, and get them in front of art critics to see if they pass muster. Some of last year’s pictures from this series are on my website now, and within the next few months I plan to add the new images from this year’s trip.

One last note on security. All along our trip in the border area we never felt unsafe. There was a heavy Border Patrol and police presence everywhere along the river, particularly in the Falcon Lake and Laredo areas, and multiple checkpoints along the highways. While these resources felt a little unfamiliar and intrusive at first, they are needed because of the potential for problems with crime and smuggling, and we were reassured that they were there. Based on my admittedly anecdotal experience, the border area (at least on the U.S. side) has an undeserved reputation as a scary place. Use common sense and you should have no problems if you visit – and you should.

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