by Dorothea S. Michelman
For someone whose avian expertise has hovered comfortably in the hummingbird, robin, and Canada goose range, a sojourn in Matagorda County, where the 900-mile long Colorado River kisses the Gulf of Mexico. This spot is equally beloved by feathered and non-feathered visitors and certainly expanded my horizons as I eagerly scanned the sky for signs of the 325 species I hadn’t yet met.
Just 80 miles southwest of Houston this outdoor paradise, Matagorda County, beckons with boating, kayaking and year-round fishing. Situated on the Central Flyway, one of four major North American migratory routes here is a birder’s mecca. Since 1997 its Mad Island Marsh has consistently led the country in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, or CBC. The CBC may well represent the ultimate birder’s challenge and reward in one: the excitement of 50,000 observers across the continent engaging in friendly species-counting competition accompanied by the even greater satisfaction of knowing that their endeavors during this all-day census do indeed make a difference for bird conservation. They are heirs to the inspiration of ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, who proposed a new and peaceful holiday tradition for Christmas Day 1900: counting the birds flying overhead as a novel alternative to the then-popular “side hunt.” During this event people chose sides before proceeding to shoot as many birds as possible – the winning group was the one surrounded by the largest number of dead birds at the end of the day.
Most often translated from the Spanish as “thick brush,” Matagorda County’s name recalls the cane and brush which once lined its shores, a view earlier generations of migratory birds would have seen on their tours of the county.
Several centuries before Elias R. Wightman, a surveyor for colonizer Stephen F. Austin, laid out the town of Matagorda in 1827, local Karankawa Indians made what is now Matagorda County their home. They were here when the earliest European settlers arrived in the 1500’s but vanished by the time of the Civil War, victims of both disease and the warfare waged against them.
An early and singularly ill-fated visitor to the area was the famed French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle who sailed in 1684 with 300 crewmen and would-be colonist’s to the New World, seeking to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, part of a French attempt to curtail Spain’s growing hold throughout the region. Poor navigation and unfortunate proximity to pirates en route determined a vastly different outcome, in which one ship fell victim to a pirate attack and the remaining three managed to miss the Mississippi by some 400 miles, landing on the Texas coast instead.
The Aimable, the fleet’s largest ship, while transporting the majority of the travelers’ provisions, sank in Matagorda Bay. Assistance was not to be expected from the Karankawa, who had no reason to feel kindly toward the European intruders. A small fort was established to gain some degree of protection, but in the end the flagship La Belle capsized, La Salle was murdered by a crewman, and Fort Saint Louis was successfully attacked by the Karankawa, with most of the remaining settlers killed.
And yet this seemingly brief episode in the history of Matagorda County does not end in the muddy waters surrounding the sinking La Belle, for not only was a ship’s cannon discovered some 310 years hence, and from there the ship, but that very mud proved an archaeologist’s boon. Mud sealing off the ship protected its contents from decay as well, a most remarkable find: a complete portrait of what a 17th-century French colonizer would have deemed necessary to establish a trading post across the seas.
In all, there will be seven La Salle Odyssey museums selected to tell the story of La Salle’s expedition, each focusing on specific details of the larger story; the Matagorda County Museum’s focus will concentrate on a closer look at the excavation itself.
The picture – at least from a colonist’s point of view – was considerably brighter by the time Elias Wightman completed his survey. In 1828 Wightman returned to his home state of New York, returning the following year with fifty settlers from New York and joined by ten from New Orleans. Thus was the town of Matagorda born, third oldest Anglo town in the state, one of Stephen F. Austin’s original three colonies, and the second busiest port in Texas after Galveston throughout much of the 19th century.
Although the more central Bay City replaced Matagorda as the county seat in 1894, there is much to see and explore here. Whether your interests run to history and heritage sites or to more recreational activities, especially fishing Matagorda’s East and West bays entice all who love to fish, whether outfitted with wings and bills or fishing rods.
Matagorda Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, is the perfect escape for those who prefer to let others – including white pelicans with eight-foot wingspans – search for supper candidates while they savor a stroll along the shoreline dreaming of the marvelous abundance of seashells which just might cross their path today, perhaps a periwinkle or starfish?
Designed primarily for student and adult groups whose schedules permit advance reservations, a fascinating complement to independent exploration of Matagorda County is the Floating Classroom Program, where through a day of excursion and research, children and adults can deepen their acquaintance with the exciting natural world around them on board the R.V. Karma, a fully-equipped teaching and research vessel based in Matagorda and operated by the Texas Marine Advisory Service, which is affiliated with Texas A& M University. The Floating Classroom offers a unique coastal studies adventure, rich in hands-on activities and a rare opportunity to freely explore the Gulf Coast’s environments, natural resources, and enterprises. Students of all ages can learn to use otter trawls, plankton nets, and bottom corers, adding new depth to their understanding of what marine biology, ecology, and environmental impact are all about.
Just outside Bay City is the newly constructed Matagorda County Birding Nature Center (MCBNC), spanning 34 acres on the Colorado River and conveniently situated for visitors and locals to obtain information on all the bird-, wildlife- and nature-watching opportunities around. The site was chosen with an eye to incorporating as many examples as possible of the various habitats to be found in Matagorda County, and the results are impressive. it’s hard to really miss a beach or salt marsh when one is surrounded by such a wealth of interpretive nature trails, prairie, wetlands, and upland and lowland habitats. Everywhere we turned – with or without binoculars – we couldn’t help but be thrilled with the delightful variety of settings in which to do a bit of catching up on ibises, sandhill cranes, and frigate birds – and even a hummingbird garden for a glimpse of the familiar.
Situated at the terminus of the Central Flyway are the coastal marshlands of Mad Island Marsh Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy of Texas, a “local” chapter of the international Nature Conservancy. This area of the county, in one of America’s most biologically diverse states, is even by Texas standards home to an impressively high concentration of both feathered and furred species and a wide range of habitats.
An interesting innovation is the Conservancy’s Rice Field Enhancement Program, designed to improve rice fields as feeding and roosting areas for waterfowl, chiefly by means of winter flooding. With more than 100,000 birds known to gather here, the birds certainly seem quite content with the project, and this program is a clear demonstration of how agriculture and wildlife conservation can work hand in hand to benefit all of us. Mad Island Marsh may be visited by through an appointment made two weeks in advance (there is no charge) or through volunteer work days and participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count.
So…grab those binoculars and head for Matagorda County and its many worlds in one, and perhaps even a species or two still awaiting discovery – by you!
For information about Matagorda County or to receive a free visitor guide, please call the Bay City Chamber of Commerce at 800-806-8333; www.baycity.org
Palacios Chamber of Commerce, 312 Main Street, Palacios, Texas 77465;
Tel.: 800-611-4567; or 361-972-2615; www.palacioschamber.com
LODGINGS (A SELECTION)
Cattlemen’s Motel, 905 Avenue F. Bay City, TX 77414; Tel.: 800-551-6056,
The Main B&B, 208 Main Street, Palacios, TX 77465; Tel.: 361-972-3408.
Best Western, P.O. Box 1949, Bay City, TX 77414; Tel.: 979-244-5400
RESTAURANTS (A SELECTION)
Palacios Mexican Restaurant, 511 Main Street, Palacios, TX 77465; Tel.: 361-972-2766
Victoria’s 2416 Avenue P., Bay City, TX 77424; Tel.: 979-244-1182
K-2 Steakhouse, 1701 8th Street, Bay City, TX 77414; Tel.: 979-246-8939.
SIGHTSEEING ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES
Matagorda County Museum, 2100 Avenue F., Bay City, TX 77414; Tel.: 979-245-7502; www.matagordacountymuseum.org
Floating Classroom Program, Texas Marine Advisory Service, P.O. Box 18, Matagorda, TX 77457; Tel.: 979-863-2940
Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, P.O. Box 2212; Tel.: 979-345-3336; www.mcbnc.org
Mad Island Marsh: The Nature Conservancy of Texas, P.O. Box 163, Collegeport, TX 77428-0163; Tel.: 361-972-2559; www.nature.org/texas