BACK TO NATURE ON THE TEXAS COAST

by Kathie Farnell

Matagorda County, sixty miles southwest of Houston on the Texas Gulf Coast, is positioning itself as an eco-tourism destination. Birders have flocked to the area for years, especially during the spring and fall migrations. The county has been number one on the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count since 1997 (though in 2003 it shared the honor with Corpus Christi). The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Department of Transportation, runs throughout the county. The Trail’s twelve loops give visitors a prime look at the state’s more than 600 species of birds.

Plans are in the works to make the area even more accessible for nature lovers. The Lower Colorado River Authority is in the process of developing the 1600 acre Matagorda Nature Park at the mouth of the river. Construction will begin in 2004 on fishing piers, boardwalks, a learning center/meeting facility, and wildlife-viewing platforms. When completed, the park will include environmentally-friendly lodgings and nature programs along the lines of those at its successful Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park in the Texas Hill Country.

Near the town of Palacios, the Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve, 7063 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy, includes a remnant coastal prairie as well as 1200 acres of rice fields which attract migrating shorebirds. The facility conducts bird-banding and educational activities and is the site of the Mad Island Marsh Christmas Bird Count each December.

College ornithology students come here for field classes, and each year more than 2000 schoolchildren in grades K through 12 pass through on outings. The preserve’s headquarters, a former hunting lodge, offers a spectacular view over the marshes. The day I visited, an osprey and his lunch had settled on a telephone pole right outside the building.

The Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, located outside the county seat of Bay City, spans 34 acres on the Colorado River including wetlands, a waterfall, woodlands, native prairies and gardens designed to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. One of the jewels in Matagorda County’s birding crown, the Center was conceived by local birding and nature enthusiasts to serve visitors and locals as a convenient location to obtain information regarding bird, wildlife and nature watching opportunities.

The Center borders the Colorado River to the south, offering visitors exceptional views of river birds. Attractions here include interpretive trails, educational kiosks, and a boat dock for river tours.

I began my own birding adventure at the Center in the company of two experienced local birders. Marilyn Sitz and Francine Sanders, both volunteers at the Center, have racked up an impressive list of sightings. When I arrived, early one beautiful morning, they had already scouted out a marshy wooded area where we found black and white warblers, ruby crowned kinglets, and white eyed vireos. The morning’s birding highlight was a surprising run-in with a spotted towhee—the first one ever sighted at the Center. Later in the day, we explored Riverside Park, home of the Rio Colorado Golf Course and a surprising number of birds. We spotted a bald eagle soaring in the midst of hawks, and a pair of yellow crowned night herons nesting on a limb over a pond.

Lodging options in Matagorda County include charming bed and breakfasts in addition to the more conventional motel. I stayed at The Caney House Bed and Breakfast near Bay City. Built in 1907, this two-story plantation style home was moved to its present site by proprietor Kay Roe. Century-old pecan trees shade the house, which sits on one and a half landscaped acres of azaleas and roses. Kay caters receptions onsite for weddings, reunions, showers and business functions. During my visit, she was preparing for two Easter weekend weddings, one of which would include an Easter egg hunt.

Furnishings at The Caney House are Victorian, including clawfoot tubs in the upstairs bathroom. Big porches upstairs and down provide a shady spot to watch the world go by.

Matagorda County restaurants showcase the area’s fresh seafood as well as beef—this is cattle country. The K2 Steakhouse in Bay City, opened in 1981 by the Kubeczka family, serves up chicken fried steak and other Texas fare, including very good local oysters.

El Zarape Café, also in Bay City, recently celebrated sixty years of down-home Mexican food. Another Bay City café, A&A Barbecue, has a loyal following for pecan-smoked barbecue and all the trimmings (including, on my visit, some first-rate fried okra).

In the nearby bayside town of Palacios, The Outrigger offers an old fashioned shrimp boil on the first Saturday of each month, as well as live music on its breezy deck.

Matagorda County is served by William P. Hobby Airport, approximately 78 miles away in Houston with daily flights by Air Tran, American, American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Comair, Delta and Southwest; and by George Bush Intercontinental Airport, approximately 98 miles away with daily service by 23 passenger airlines including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, United and US Airways.

For more information on Matagorda County, call the Bay City Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-806-8333. For information on the Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, visit the website at www.mcbnc.org For reservations at The Caney House Bed and Breakfast, visit the website at www.thecaneyhouse.com

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