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Laguna Atascosa: I Thought I Saw an Ocelot

As we bumped over potholes on our way toward the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a cluster of roadrunners welcomed us. Living in New Mexico, we’ve seen our state bird before, but they usually skitter away before you can blink. Their Texan cousins seemed much more laid back – maybe it was the balmy weather and the proximity to the beach, or perhaps the roadrunners understood that we were on their turf now. In fact, almost half of all bird species in the contiguous United States pause here to regroup, chow down, nest, or migrate.

Beep!  Beep!

And birds are not the only creatures lurking in the refuge. Signs posted throughout the area read: ‘ocelot crossing.’

Wonder how much kitty litter the refuge goes through?

Ocelots are protected in the United States and are considered endangered in Texas. Given that the average ocelot weighs twice as much as Bambi, she made a convincing argument that she was the one currently in danger. As it was a bird haven, we’d fully intended that she would remain in the car, but that wasn’t sufficient. She wedged herself under the passenger seat, with only her butt visible, until the ordeal was over. Although we were renting a perfectly adequate Hyundai Elantra, its seats did not double as invisibility cloaks, but Bambi was not to be deterred. Death was imminent and Laguna Atascosa had the signs to back her up.

Ocelots are generally nocturnal and, although two thirds of the car would have been thrilled at a sighting, we were out of luck. However, as we crawled along the fifteen-mile long, Bayside Drive Loop, we did spy rabbits, lizards, deer, and plenty of birds. Large birds lurked under tree roots, green specimens with yellow tail feathers zipped by and we think we found a Plain Chachalaca, a bird that is not remotely threatened but should win a prize for having an awesome name.

Bambi refers to this as a ‘gang’

The first half-mile of Bayside Drive Loop had the worst road surface, but conditions improved as we passed through the marshy grasslands. On either side of the car, birds perched on cactus and Franken-dragonflies the size of my palm danced across the windshield. The land was a mixture of sand and scrub, of softness and spikes.

There are frequent pullouts along this route and several viewing stations. We paused at Plover Point, a wooden walkway out to an observation deck, overlooking the Gulf.

Sea salt tinged the air, strongly enough that you could taste it in the back of your mouth. Far below, sandpipers dipped their feet into the water. It was so peaceful that we imagined we could hear the wing beats of the cranes, which swooped overhead – it felt like a scene from The Pelican Brief.

Stover Point afforded views of the South Padre Island skyline, which was separated from Laguna Atascosa by an ocean freckled with patches of sunlight. In the distance, a pair of dolphins arced through the waves.

There is a second road in the refuge, Lakeside Drive, which is two miles long. It is not a loop, ending instead at Osprey Overlook. The latter is an observation point for an inlet, offering sightings of sandpipers, seagulls, ducks, and sometimes cranes. Keep an eye out for falcons – two flew right in front of our car in this section of Laguna Atascosa.

From Osprey Overlook, it’s a short walk to the alligator pond. Bambi heard the word ‘gater,’ wiggled so far under the seat that we needed a stick of butter to extract her, and promised to wreak a Corelone-style vengeance upon us. Thankfully she’s never even caught an ant, because I’d hate to find an ocelot head in my bed!

  • The address for Laguna Atascosa is 22817 Ocelot Road, Los Fresnos, Texas, 78566. However, you might be better off using GPS coordinates: N 26 degrees 13.745 minutes, W 97 degrees 20.831 minutes.
  • To reach the refuge from South Padre Island, cross the Queen Isabella Causeway and, when the road splits on the outskirts of Port Isabel, stay on E. Ocean Boulevard/TX-100 W. Make a slight right onto Farm to Market 510 W. Make another slight right onto Buena Vista Drive. Turn left onto Laguna Atascosa Refuge and follow signs to the Visitor Center.
  • Pay a $3 per vehicle fee at the Visitor Center – it was closed when we went, but there is a self-pay station.
  • As there were no staff members to be found, we couldn’t verify whether or not dogs were allowed. However, we never let Bambi exit the vehicle and wouldn’t recommend taking your pet here.
  • There is a clean but basic pit toilet at Redhead Ridge. Say ‘hi’ to the teeny tiny lizard that calls this shelter home.

Three paws!  I would’ve given four paws except for something called on Ocelot.




Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.

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