By Javier Gonzalez
SPI Birding and Nature Center
Special to the Parade
The warm weather and waters are catalysts for an explosion of life along the boardwalk during the summer months. July is a remarkably interesting month in our wetlands. It brings a peak of productivity in the salt marsh, which is being considered one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth.
Salt marshes act as important nursery grounds for an incredible diversity of species, and the food chain is set at a high gear during the summer. There are countless fish fry living out the first stages of their lives below the water surface. They find food and shelter within the cover of the Black Mangroves and the freshly grown seagrasses that spurt along the shallow edges of the Laguna Madre. Large schools can be seen feeding along the boardwalk when their silvery sides shimmer as they reflect the sunlight. The abundance of fish help to nourish many hungry mouths as other animals higher up the food chain are born through the season.
Fuzzy headed Green Heron and Least Bittern chicks are often seen along the boardwalk eagerly awaiting their parents to return with food while the summer resident, Least Tern, announces his catch with a loud shrill as it flies back to its nest with a small minnow to feed its young. Numbers of colonial waterbirds like Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis, and Snowy Egret increase in our wetlands through the month as adults finish with the responsibilities of raising their young return from rookeries on nesting islands in the middle of the Laguna.
With the returning adults also come a number of juvenile birds that have just started to explore life on their own. It is easy to tell the juveniles as they often look different than the adults and have an inexperienced and dopey look to their faces. Watching them learn the ropes of living on the wetlands is always an interesting and, at times, funny experience. Summertime also brings a burst of flowers and insects to the marsh. Black Mangroves only flower during the summer, and their tiny white flowers can completely envelop the tree. The flowers’ nectar attracts a myriad of freshly emerged Great Southern White butterflies that swarm all over the marsh. Their caterpillars feed on the Saltwort that grows with abundance adjacent to the mangroves.
Brightly colored dragonflies and damselflies like the salt marsh specialty, Seaside Dragonlet, are also seen flying around the wetlands as they finally have acquired their wings after a year or more of living life underwater as larval nymphs. We are forever grateful to them as they can eat large amounts of pesky mosquitoes. Their presence also reassures us that wetlands are healthy, as they are an indicator species of good water quality.
One of the biggest draws to the birding center during the season are our wild alligators and rescued nuisance alligators, which are in full form during the hot summer months. These cold-blooded animals have a peak in activity as the heat raises their metabolism to the max! Their increased activity and hunger are evident, and Big Padre, our 12.6’ 800lb rescued nuisance alligator, lets it be known that he is the boss around here and captivates the attention of all our visitors.
The end of the month brings the early start of fall migration. Shorebird species that breed as far north as the Arctic Tundra begin to arrive in our area as the short summers in far northern latitudes start to give way to cold, making it difficult for birds to thrive. The adults are first to arrive on our wetlands after flying thousands of miles, followed by the young of the summer undertaking their first southward migration.
All these events make July a fascinating month at the South Padre Island Birding Nature & Alligator Sanctuary.