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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day 6: Padre Island-Corpus Christi

The Tropical Cyclone never came, even though at 6am a severe storm was forecasted in by 9am. When the first rain drops fell right after the morning news, I figured I’d be in for a stormy day, and was prepared to spend the cyclone out on the Navy Base. But the rain stopped after a few pellets fell and nothing else ever came down.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t LOOK like a storm was coming in. As I drove back to Padre Island it was dark on either side, and it was gusty but not as gusty as yesterday. I got to the parking lot of the Malaquite Visitor’s Center and was the first one there at 7:30am. Where were all the people getting ready for the beach clean up? The last three clean-ups I did in New Jersey (along the Seabright National Recreation Site) there were always a few hundred. But today the lot was empty except for a new park rangers getting ready for the day.

I saw one older woman standing on the visitor’s center outdoor deck with a scope. She, I thought, must be one of the birders for the 8am bird walk the park advertises in the winter. I was correct. She was Mary Eggenberger, a park volunteer who does bird walks six days a week at 8am, plus two afternoon classes with her husband George at 2pm Thursdays and Saturdays. I asked if I could join her for the hour between her bird walk start and the 9am start for the beach clean-up. She didn’t mind at all. Together with another novice couple, Bev and Ed, I went with them to the park headquarters where the rangers are monitoring a nest of two barn owls and their white chicks. I learned about owl pellets when Mary grabbed a pellet and tore it apart to discover the remains of an unfortunate mole; its rodent teeth were quite visible in the pile of bones and fur Mary dug open.

I was the apparent bird moron in today’s group, asking silly questions that I’m sure caused the eyes of Mary and George to roll in my absence. But I asked them anyway. I learned patience from these two, and also how to better scan the horizon for birds. Lesson Number One: Get a good pair of binoculars and scan the sky with the thing. No wonder they saw birds in the distance that I couldn’t see with my bare eyes. They spotted an osprey chowing down on one rather large fish by itself. They spotted ruddy ducks, mergansers, ringbill gulls, even a crested caracara, the “Mexican eagle” and the bird on the Mexican flag. Both looked through their binos and rattled off the names of the birds they spotted.
"Redheads!" yelled out George.
"Grebe to your two-o'-clock!" replied Mary.
""Three ring-billed gulls"
"Four egrets on the far island"
On and on they went and the rest of us stood back in silence, wondering how do they know all this stuff?! I can't tell what color a bird's bill is even through the binos.

I was with the foursome for an hour before leaving them at 9:30 to join the beach clean-up crew, which by now I figured was underway.

And when I got back to the visitor’s center where the beach clean-up started, I saw no lines, no major brew-haha, nothing. Just one park ranger standing by an open side door with a table for volunteers to register. No briefing, no nothing. Not even any donuts! New Jersey had me spoiled.
But that didn’t stop my enthusiasm to get started and help clean up the beach. Mike, the park ranger in charge of the volunteers, gave me four garbage bags.

“Can I have a few more?”
He gave me two more. I figured I’d be swamped with a lot of garbage out there screaming to be picked up.
“Go to the beach and take a left” Mike said, and so I traipsed off.

And what did I see? About five volunteers ahead of me looking down at the tidal section. I opted for the pre-dune area and began picking up mostly brittle pieces of plastic, old helium balloons (where were they all coming from?), bottle caps, strings. I didn’t see much big trash like plastic bottles or Styrofoam until a good hour later. I met briefly with one volunteer, Craig, who brought down his son and a few others to help pick up the beach of litter.

“The more plastic you pick up, the less the sea turtles eat” he told his son. The group turned around at 10:30am and I walked on another 90 minutes by myself, determined to get a few hours of “community service” in, doing something I strongly believe in (removing trash from beaches). Yet I also felt neglected. Why weren’t there more people cleaning up this pretty beach? I’m not even from Texas and here I was putting in more hours, picking up more trash, than anyone else I’d seen today.

I made noon my turn-around point but it turned out to be more like 12:44pm because the further I went out, the more big trash there was: rope, oil filters, big Styrofoam, plastic bottles, glasses, lightbulbs and bags of various sorts. Some were tangled up with those pesky Portuguese Man-O-Wars that were all over the beach.

A park ranger came by at noon to pick up the bags of trash we were told to leave along the pre-dune line, where the vehicles can get to them. The park ranger looked disenchanted as he got out to grab the bags. “I picked up 20 bags earlier” he said as he grabbed my bag, gave me a new one, and drove off.

I’m glad he gave me that 7th bag as I found more trash on my return trip, perhaps and hopefully because of the rising tide brining in more garbage from the ocean and not because I overlooked it the first time. By now, approaching 1pm, I was feeling dehydrated and hungry and just wanted to get the clean-up part of today over with, promising myself I’ll never pick up another piece of trash while in the state of Texas. (I wonder how long that promise will last).

I wanted enough time to meet up with George and Mary for their 2pm birding class on the deck. It was 1:20pm when I got back to the visitor’s center, long enough to grab a Diet Pepsi from the van and get some photos organized on my laptop and to rest up. My shoes were covered in sand, my face sticky from the ocean salt, and my eyes tearing from the sand the wind blew into them. My van was my sanctuary for the next 40 minutes.
Two women who parked next to me, one a self-admitted Liberal, told me she liked my bumper sticker as they got back from their beach walk and readied themselves to go home .
“Which one?” I asked. I have three in the back window.
“The one about the conservatives” she replied. She meant my sticker “Annoy a Conservative: Think, Care, Balance the Budget.” We talked briefly about Molly Ivins, the one lone Texas Liberal, and she and her partner mentioned a few other great Texan Liberals: Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards, both who have died in the last three years.
“All of them are women” I added, “and it’s always the women who make changes.” They looked at each other and realized that my observation made sense. Some of this country’s major societal changes took place because of the courage of women: abolition, equal rights, environmental laws. Both also seemed excited about the upcomingTexas primaries on 4 March. "This will be the first time a Texas primary will count. Normally the nominee has already been selected by the time Texas' turn comes." said the Brunette. Ironically both Senators Clinton and Obama were in Texas a few days ago campaigning.

The birding class at 2pm was very informative. I’m convinced that a good pair of binos is a must for a birder. I’m also interested in good scopes, something I can use to mount with a digital camera like my Canons. But George and Mary aren’t so much into cameras as they are in watching and listing birds.

The class lasted an hour. Everyone departed. "You're going to love birding down in the Valley!" said Mary to me before we went our separate ways. I drove back out of the park, stopped at some sites I’ve been to earlier, then drove on to Mustang Island to watch more waders. The sun was coming out now but the winds were still very strong. I finally got to see the island in some color: blue sky and the cordgrass lighted in gold. It looked beautiful.

The sun didn't last long. An hour later, driving into Corpus Christi, the dark clouds came back out of nowhere. "Tornadic clouds" I thought to myself, and was prepared for a deluge. Again that never came.

I ended my evening today exhausted and with a sore back from all the beach bending, in downtown Corpus which was disappointing. Corpus is a town of 270,000 people and the town looked neglected. Ocean Drive was nice, along the bay and lined with palm trees, but where was the restaurant row?

I stopped at La Bahia restaurant, a place I remembered as being a good family-owned restaurant in town I read about on the internet. I brought in my laptop to work on my photographs and one of the employess told me they had free WiFi. After my meal I stayed for another 90 minutes drinking beer and getting this blog updated, something I hadn't originally planned on doing. I hadn't hit a free Hotspot since leaving the Hastings Bookstore in Lake Jackson. The restaurant closed at 8pm, an hour earlier than posted due to slow sales, but I wasn't rushed out.
The people, I learned as I drove around the block to Chaparral Drive, were at Uncle Woody's, a strip joint with an open bay window to the front street. A woman was "dancing" in men's faces, men who surely called their wives from the office to let them know they were "working late again" tonight.

It began to pour at 9pm, intermittently for a few hours. At 10pm the local news said hail the size of golfballs broke windshields in Dallas; dime-size hail closer to the Coastal Bend, which the Corpus area is referred to. Most of the storm stayed on Padre Island, but the temperatures were cooler and had dropped to 59F at 10:30pm.' I dodged a second storm within six days.

I am still a day or two ahead of schedule, so after spending the morning in Corpus I will proceed south along the ocean to explore a few backroads before I head down to Brownsville. I am in no hurry. Now that I have learned a bit about birds, I want to "shoot" as many as I can. If the weather is nice and sunny I would like to ride my bike along Ocean Drive.
Expenses today: $20 for chicken enchiladas and beer at La Bahia in Corpus.
Miles driven: 98. This is the least I've driven on this trip. 40 of it again was out and back to Padre Island.


Anonymous said...

Your blog was a few down from mine...I love your blog! If you like coffee and travel up 281 in the Spring Branch area, come visit my little coffee house. We have tons of "passer bys." We love hearing all the stories. Coffee is on me. God Bless, Jenny

Connie said...

Why thank-you, Jenny, for your kind words. That really made my evening to know someone was reading my words.

You live in a beautiful part of Texas. My drive down to San Anton via Hwy 281 last month will forever stay in my mind. Too bad I didn't stop at your place then! I am at South Padre Island as I write this.