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April 19, 2004
South Padre World Birding Center Offers Deep Sea Trips
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — Offshore here, the shallow continental shelf gives way to deep water and there are sights and sounds few nature lovers have a chance to experience.
Along with the sea turtles and dolphins, the schools of game fish, perhaps even an impressive whale shark, there are birds: "pelagic" birds rarely if ever seen on land, that spend almost their entire lives on, in and over the deep water.
South Padre Island, with its wing of the World Birding Center (WBC), is one of the best and easiest places on the Gulf Coast from which to launch a pelagic birding expedition, says WBC guide John Arvin. Terns, Storm-Petrels, Albatrosses, and Shearwaters are among the pelagic birds that may be spotted off the South Texas coast, and the relative closeness of deep water makes it quicker and easier to get to them.
The WBC is sponsoring three pelagic trips for the 2004 season, all aboard the 65-foot Osprey II excursion boat based here. These popular 12-hour expeditions are scheduled for May 21, July 16 (in conjunction with the Brownsville International Birding Festival,) and Sept. 24.
"If you live in Texas or near the Gulf of Mexico, this is about as good as it gets," says Arvin. "The continental shelf happens to be relatively narrow just off our area, so that we can reach the deepest waters where we’re most likely to find the highest numbers and variety of pelagic birds."
Arvin explains that an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water from the deeper regions of the Gulf occurs at the edge of the continental shelf and at other topographical features like undersea mountains or canyons. This upwelling attracts the fish and other sea creatures that in turn attract birds. Using maps of the Gulf bottom, guides seek out these areas for the best bird-viewing.
Tropical pelagic birds like the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel are a specialty off South Padre Island, adds Arvin. On a good trip, watchers might spot as many as 10 different species, from the Magnificent Frigatebird and Cory’s Shearwater, to the rarer Yellow-nosed Albatross and Red-billed Tropicbird.
While the West Coast also offers a relatively narrow continental shelf and rich pelagic bird life, the only other area in the United States where tropical pelagic birds are reliably viewed is off the coast of North Carolina.
Arvin urges interested birders to sign up as soon as possible, since the trips are popular as well as infrequent. The Osprey II comfortably holds about 30-35 people, with an enclosed, air-conditioned cabin, booth seats and tables inside and bench seating outside.
Meanwhile, new developments concerning South Padre Island’s wing of the WBC promise to make the island an even more attractive destination for birds — and birders. A new 7-acre acquisition of wetlands and uplands property south of the island Convention Center will protect more crucial habitat as well as open up exciting new possibilities for a planned visitors’ complex, say island officials.
Headquartered in Mission, the WBC is a partnership between nine local communities, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Along with being a convenient launch-site for deep sea birding trips, South Padre Island provides an important refuge for the colorful warblers, tanagers and buntings that migrate through each spring. Its expansive saltwater flats, lagoons and marshes attract hundreds of species of shorebirds and winter residents as well.
WBC property near the convention center adjoins the Laguna Madre Nature Trail, with 1,500 feet of boardwalk over four acres of sea grass habitat. Visitors will have additional areas to explore once the new acquisition ties in, says Darla Lapeyre, executive vice president of the South Padre Island Economic Development Corporation.
"We’re very excited because we’re at the point where we’re working on the site plan for the visitors’ complex, which includes boardwalks, viewing blinds and the visitors’ center itself," says Lapeyre. "With the new property, there’s more we can do with the site, more wetlands and more viewing opportunities."
Richter Architects of Corpus Christi is working on the site plan, as well as the visitors’ center design. "We just want to make it a better birding center," says Lapeyre.
For reservations and information about the WBC pelagic trips, please call (956) 584-9156, extension 21. For information online, visit the Web (http://www.worldbirdingcenter.org/).
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