It is no secret that Texans are proud of their state. After all, space exploration has deep roots in Houston, Big Bend is an outdoor-enthusiast’s paradise, and of course, you can never forget the Alamo. Yet, there are some lesser known places in Texas that are definitely worth bragging about, such as its stunningly beautiful national wildlife refuges.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Austwell, Texas is unique, partly because it is the wintering home of the only wild flock of whooping cranes left in the world. In 1941, there were only fifteen whooping cranes left on earth. However, thanks to wildlife refuges such as ANWR, the whooping crane’s wild flock population today exceeds 300 birds, although getting an accurate census on migratory wildlife definitely comes with a wide margin of error. ANWR’s Visitor Services Manager Laura Bonneau said while there is still a long way to go before the whooping crane is off of the endangered species list, the whooping crane population is definitely on the rise.
“They are such a beautiful and iconic species, and so many people love them,” Bonneau exclaimed. “We definitely get a lot of support from the community, land owners, and partners. People come from all over the world to see them.”
However, Bonneau is quick to remind people that there are many other reasons to fall in love with ANWR. For example, this refuge is one of the last remnants of coastal prairie in Texas. The sanctuary has also recorded over 400 different bird species, making it an amazing place for birders to visit. The refuge spans over 114,000 acres of coastal prairie, marshes, woodlands, and wetlands, a fact which helps attract a large variety of different species to Aransas each year.
Visitors to ANWR often gush about the amazing views and report sightings of animals such as alligators, deer, javelina, heron, butterflies, hawks, and ducks. Some lucky visitors even get to see the elusive whooping crane. Guests say that the observation tower is a great place to look for them.
Although guests are often surprised by how remote the park is, most visitors say the trip is well worth the effort. Bonneau explained that a little preparation always makes the trip more enjoyable, and suggested that visitors prepare for a visit to ANWR by packing a lunch and mosquito repellent. She also said guests should be ready to spend at least half of the day at the refuge. A wildlife refuge is different from a zoo because the animals are not in cages, but roam and wander, so guests cannot just walk
up and say, “Where are the whooping cranes?” The beauty of this, according to Bonneau, is that visitors can see some very rare species of animals in their natural habitat. Additionally, every trip to the refuge will be different because one never knows which species they might encounter on any given day. Although Bonneau said the best times to observe animals are usually at dawn and dusk, a sighting of a specific animal is never guaranteed. Because seeing a specific species of animal might take more than one visit, some guests choose to look at it as more of a treasure hunt, and thus, frequent and often fall in love with the refuge.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
In addition to Aransas there is another, smaller wildlife refuge whose unique history and undisturbed beauty have gone largely unnoticed. Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge (SAWR) in Alamo, Texas, is a 2,088-acre refuge that is quite literally a living piece of Texas history. Known as “The Jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” Santa Ana has an unusual beginning to say the least.
According to Santa Ana’s historical documents, by the 1820s, after Mexico gained independence from Spain, the new Mexican government encouraged settlers to move to the Lower Rio Grande Valley by offering them huge land grants. Today Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge encompasses what was once a land grant given to Benigno Leal of Reynosa, Mexico in 1834. Originally called El Rancho Del Adentro, or “The Inside Ranch,” the ranch contained its own cemetery, where many of the original workers and descendants of Leal were laid to rest.
The historic graveyard remains on the refuge this day, and refuge staff are a wealth of information on the sights, sounds, and peculiar stories about this historical refuge’s unique history and ownership. One such story, according to a 1972 article by the Rio Grande Herald, is that Leal’s grandson, a man who folks say struggled with mental illness, believed the land was worthless, and actually traded it for nothing more than a new suit of clothes and a fiddle.
Yet, there is more to this sanctuary’s history than just peculiar stories. Santa Ana’s unique vegetation has actually been preserved as is for hundreds of years. Because this is such a rarity in Texas, the land’s historic vegetation and landscape makes visitors feel as if they have actually stepped back in time.
“I think this refuge is unique because it has preserved the natural beauty of our region. It is estimated that 95 percent of the native vegetation in the area has been destroyed,” said Santa Ana’s Wildlife Refuge Manager Gisela Chapa. “Knowing that there is a refuge where the habitat has been preserved gives people the opportunity to see what our area used to look like before any sort of development.”
Although Santa Ana does not have quite as many different animal species as Aransas, being that it is a much smaller refuge, it mainly serves as a birding refuge with over 400 different species of birds. However, visitors to the refuge can also see bobcats, armadillos, raccoons, coyotes, lizards, and snakes. Santa Ana has had sightings of state-listed, threatened species such as the Texas indigo snake, the black spotted newt, and Rio Grande lesser siren, to name a few. Chapa said her favorite animals to see at Santa Ana
are the collared peccaries and the javelinas. While the endangered and stunningly beautiful ocelot has also been known to roam Santa Ana’s reserve in the past, there has not been an actual ocelot sighting on the property for many years, so Santa Ana’s staff are not sure if there are any remaining ocelots on the property today. They say that while an ocelot sighting is unlikely, there are plenty of wonderful things to see at Santa Ana.
The true beauty of Santa Ana, and what really sets it apart from the other reserves, is the unique tropical vegetation, the shaded canopies from the tall trees, and the plethora of hanging Spanish moss.
“Part of our mission is to protect this place because of its natural heritage,” Chapa said. “It is also preserved and protected as a stopping place for migratory birds.”
According to Chapa, some favorite activities for visitors at Santa Ana are spotting birds while walking along the tops of the trees atop the canopy bridge, taking in the view of the entire area from the 40-foot observation tower, and just walking along the trails enjoying native outdoor Texas.
“You don’t have to be a hardcore nature lover or an expert to enjoy Santa Ana,” Chapa said. “Just coming out to the refuge with family can be fun and worth your time. There is a story behind everything in this refuge. That’s also what is really cool about this place.”
Another popular attraction is an open-air tram tour. This is an interpretive tour which traverses a seven-mile wildlife drive through the reserve. The tour, which takes about an hour and a half, is led by knowledgeable guides who are not only well-versed on the history of Santa Ana, but who can
also point out various species of plants and animals and explain what is special about each one. This helps visitors notice and appreciate the unique species around them that they might otherwise miss or overlook.
Peak times to visit the reserve are from November through April when the migratory bird population is the highest. Chapa encouraged Texans to get outdoors and learn about the unique beauty that Santa Ana has to offer.