Memories of South Padre Island

The Sheepshead Sanctuary is owned and operated by the Valley Land Trust. I usually stop here before continuing north to the SPI Convention Centre and/or the Birding and Nature Center.
The SPI Birding and Nature Center and the SPI Convention Centre are next-door neighbors. Both sites are “must-see” destinations. Each has a separate boardwalk over the wetlands area.

Of all my experiences in south Texas, no other destination produced as many great birding memories as did South Padre Island. There are three locations on the island that should not be neglected. Just one mile north from the Queen Isabella Causeway is a humble sanctuary informally called “Sheepshead”, so named for the little street where it resides. A short drive three more miles to the north will bring you to the other two destinations that no right-minded birder will want to miss. Both sites are next-door neighbors. One is the SPI Birding and Nature Center, and the other is the SPI Convention Centre.

I visited South Padre Island twice during my first stay in Brownsville in 2020. I returned to south Texas in 2021, intent on milking the last drop of birding out of South Padre I could manage. I visited here perhaps a dozen times during the spring, and I experienced some of the most memorable “fallout” events, with thousands of birds carpeting the lawns, recuperating from the exhaustion that comes with a long journey, and seeking solace and nourishment or perching unabashedly in nearly every bush, shrub, or tree, all the while thrilling every birder in attendance.

There are four basic zones for birders to explore at the South Padre Island Convention Centre

  • First there are the grounds around the main building, which has lawns and trees where warblers and other interesting passerines can be found. This section wraps 360° around the Convention Centre’s building, but the best birding is usually on the southern perimeter. Winter birding is worthwhile here, but during migration it can be amazing.
  • The second zone is the boardwalk that penetrates the Black Mangroves and leads east to the sheltered waterway called Laguna Madre. South Padre Island acts as a barrier from the pounding waves of the Gulf of Mexico. The mangroves offer more potential bird encounters and the shallow waters at the end of the boardwalk hold the promise of gulls, herons, egrets, ducks and terns. During the height of spring migration, sharp-eyed birders might be rewarded by meetings with warblers, vireos, flycatchers and cuckoos.
  • One arm of the boardwalk leads past the third zone worth exploring, where you can find a shallow pond frequented by rails, waders, waterfowl, and shorebirds. 
  • To the north of the Convention Centre is an expansive sandy flat where shorebirds, terns, and gulls often loaf. It can sometimes prove rewarding to investigate here.

Next to the Convention Centre is the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. I found the no-cost birding at the Convention Centre so rewarding, I first believed there was no good reason to spend money ($8/day) to see the same birds. I was mistaken. There are differences that should make the SPIB&NC in indispensable destination in its own right:

  • The boardwalk here does not connect with the one at the Convention Centre, and provides access to a wider variety of microhabitats, and with species not often seen, or seen so intimately, than from those next door.
  • The wetlands shared by both properties is supplied with fresh water by a waste treatment plant, which creates a perfect nursery for spawning fish. The fish are sought after by some of the most spectacular egrets and herons one could hope to meet.
  • If alligators are of interest, this facility provides a wealth of specimens to observe.
  • Like the Convention Centre, the trees and grassy zones near the parking areas and the main building can provide encounters with a variety of warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and cuckoos. White Ibis and Mottled Ducks regularly patrol the lawns, and hummingbird feeders attract migrant and resident hummers.

Sheepshead Preserve, or South Padre Island Bird Sanctuary

I first became acquainted with this location during the earliest phases of the Covid pandemic in the spring of 2020. I was at once charmed by the informal nature of the operation and quietly put a double sawbuck into their donation box. The morning I first visited, this place was not overrun with either birds or people, but there were volunteers filling feeders and placing orange hemispheres on the trees for the orioles and others to enjoy. Wearing a mask, as most of us were during these times, put a damper on our ability to deliver a friendly smile, so when a volunteer walked past, I spoke up “You can’t see it, but I’m smiling!” She laughed and responded, “I know, I can see it in your eyes!” How could I not smile? The place emulates all things beautiful and peaceful. It is an oasis amid the crush of over-development. With so many alterations to the natural habitat to accommodate humanity and their desire for vacation destinations, it’s lovely to see a little foresight at work in preserving a small piece of what once was.

When spring migration is at its peak, this small piece of habitat can come alive with the bustle of tired and hungry birds and birders looking to meet them. Even in the off-season, and only winter visitors forage in the low grass or shrubbery, there may lurk some surprises for the careful observer.

There are other locations on South Padre where interesting encounters are possible. Certainly the beaches and jetties might host gulls, terns or shorebirds. I’ve never driven on the beaches, but those who have, sometimes report worthwhile encounters. Keeping an eye in the sky might reward you with a wayward booby or frigatebird. 

If your spring visit to south Texas must be limited to one stop, South Padre Island would not disappoint.

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