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Wild Texans: A Look at Intriguing Creatures Across the State

See a beautiful collection of wildlife images in the March 2011 print edition.

No longer listed as an endangered species, American alligators are common in the eastern third of Texas. (Photo by Larry Ditto)

By Melissa Gaskill

The deep-blue Texas sky sets off a soaring hawk’s cloud-white belly as it wheels above me. Watching the magnificent bird rise on a thermal, I feel something in me lift as well.

If you’ve never watched a hawk’s graceful aerial ballet, laid eyes on an armadillo snuffling through underbrush, or seen a jackrabbit’s furry ears wave like blades of tall grass, you owe it to yourself to seek out these experiences. Seeing animals in the wild connects us in a tangible way to a region’s landscape and, I believe, to the earth itself.

After decades of crisscrossing the state as a nature writer, I offer the following Texas animals for your must-see list, plus some likely places to find them.

Mexican Free-tailed Bat, Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve

Hold onto your hat—when four million bats emerge at dusk from their roost at The Nature Conservancy’s Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, southwest of Mason, they pass within inches of you, actually creating a breeze. Females give birth and raise their young here, with as many as 500 pups clinging to a single square foot of the cave. Each night, the mothers travel 50 to 100 miles, consuming close to their body weight in insects, including mosquitoes and crop pests such as corn-borer moths. When they return to the cave at dawn, each mother lands within inches of her pup, detecting its unique call and scent.

A short nature trail leads to a natural amphitheater facing the arching cave opening. Near sunset, the trickle of bats emerging from the cave becomes a stream, then a torrent of shapes spiraling into the darkening sky for more than an hour.

The preserve lies 16 miles from Mason. To reach it from FM 2389, take the unpaved James River Road 8.3 miles, fording the James River (call ahead for conditions). Tours offered Thu-Sun, 6 p.m.-9 p.m. (mid-May to early Oct). Bring a flashlight. Call 325/347-5970; www.nature.org/texas (click on Places We Protect, then the preserve’s name).

Nine-banded Armadillo, Palmetto State Park

While most of us have seen armadillos that met their maker on Texas highways, seeing a live one requires going off the beaten path. At Palmetto State Park near Luling, hikers along the River Trail often spot armadillos rooting in the abundant fallen leaves (you’ll likely hear rustling before you see the animal).

Armadillos live throughout most of Texas, wherever soft ground allows them to create burrows and to dig for tasty invertebrates and insects. Females give birth in March to identical quadruplets. The young have soft shells that harden after they reach adulthood. This distinctive bony, scaled shell protects the state’s official small mammal from many predators but not, unfortunately, from cars.

Palmetto State Park, off US 183, about 8 miles from Luling, has campsites and a small lake with canoe and pedal-boat rentals. Call 830/672-3266; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/palmetto.

American Alligator, Brazos Bend State Park

From a viewing platform overlooking one of the lakes in this southeast Texas park, several nearly submerged, sleeping alligators look pretty harmless. For the most part, they are, says park naturalist David Heinicke, although he asks visitors to stay 30 feet away and to not get between them and the water. These reptiles can reach lengths of 14 feet, and they eat fish, birds, deer, and even other alligators. An observation tower at 40-Acre Lake provides a bird’s-eye view of their log-like bodies dotting the water, or you can follow the shaded Spillway Trail to the wooden platform at Elm Lake for a closer look.

Alligators are most active in spring, summer, and fall. In June or July, the females make nests near the water’s edge, where they lay up to 50 three-inch-long eggs. The eggs hatch two months later, and hatchlings may remain with the mother for two years. Alligators live in Texas from the Louisiana border all the way to the Rio Grande, and inland as far as San Antonio.

Brazos Bend State Park, about 28 miles southwest of Houston, offers camping, picnicking, and hiking, plus stargazing in the park’s George Observatory. A nature center features exhibits on ecosystems, snakes, and hatching alligators. Call 979/553-5102; www.brazosbend.org.

Coyote, Fennessey Ranch

Intelligent and resourceful, coyotes figure prominently in Native American legends, but modern opinions about these collie-size canines vary. Coyotes eat mainly rabbits, rodents, and insects, but will settle for lizards, fruit, and even carrion. Mated pairs remain together several years. The female raises five to seven pups, and the father brings her food but isn’t allowed inside the den. Coyotes now range widely across the United States, even in some urban areas. They can lose their natural fear of humans if fed (even inadvertently with pet food or trash).

Get a good look at coyotes at the Fennessey Ranch, which includes nine miles of Mission River frontage, a 200-acre freshwater marsh, and more than 800 acres of natural wetlands. Brien O’Connor Dunn, whose family has owned this land for more than 175 years, installed 10 photography blinds several years ago, and interest from photographers has since transformed coyotes from nuisances into assets.

Fennessey Ranch is on FM 2678, 4 miles south of Refugio. Photo-blind lease rates vary. Call 361/529-6600; www.fennesseyranch.com.

Bottlenose Dolphin, Laguna Madre

About 150 bottlenose dolphins live year round in the Laguna Madre near South Padre Island. Scarlet Colley (aka The Dolphin Whisperer), director of the South Padre Island Dolphin Research Center, has studied them for 15 years. While scientists call groups of these intelligent animals pods, Colley calls them tribes. She never feeds dolphins or allows people to touch them, but they seem to know her boat and often show off for participants on her eco-tours.

Sleek and gray with erect dorsal fins, bottlenose dolphins eat a wide variety of fish, which they find by echolocation—bouncing clicks and whistles off their prey. Mothers have a single calf about every three years, nursing it for a year or more. Other females in the pod, often aunts and grandmothers, help raise the young and teach them how to hunt and avoid hazards such as personal watercraft.

Based at 110 N. Garcia in Port Isabel, SPI Dolphin Research Center offers eco-tours (1-hour boat trips) for groups of up to six. Call 956/299-1957; www.spisealife.org.

Horned Lizard, Weaver Ranch

On the Weaver Ranch, northwest of Harlingen, nature lovers drive slowly, not because of potholes, but because horned lizards like to warm themselves in the sun on the dirt roads here, waiting for a juicy ant or other small insect. Chances of seeing them are best when temperatures reach about 80 degrees or higher, says owner Kent Weaver. The 1,500-acre ranch, owned by the Weaver family for 25 years, offers five blinds and plenty of other wildlife.

Numerous horns on its head and body and a flat, round shape earned this reptile the nickname “horny toad.” Preferring mostly open areas and loose, sandy or loamy soil, horned lizards dig burrows for hibernation, nesting, and temperature control. They once ranged throughout much of Texas, but are now listed as threatened, primarily due to commercial collection, habitat destruction, and the use of pesticide to control imported fire ants, which also kills harvester ants, a major food source of horned lizards. Imported fire ants also threaten the reptile directly, by preying on them and their eggs.

Weaver Ranch is 9 miles northwest of Raymondville, off FM 1761 on Fitch Road. Call 956/689-3823; www.weavercattle.com.

Rio Grande Turkey, South Llano River and Palo Duro Canyon state parks

Rio Grande turkeys prefer brush near streams and rivers, and mesquite or scrub oak forests, which accounts for their year-round presence in South Llano River and Palo Duro Canyon state parks, near Junction and Canyon, respectively.

At South Llano River State Park, wooded bottomland along the spring-fed river is one of the most substantial turkey roosts in Texas, active October through March. The area is closed to humans during this time, but visitors can watch the turkeys go to and from their roosts from strategically placed bird blinds nearby. Other times of the year, flocks can be seen strutting around the main camping loop.

In Palo Duro Canyon, small flocks often stroll through the Chinaberry day-use and Hackberry camping areas, both of which skirt the Red River.

South Llano River State Park is 5 miles south of Junction, off US 377. Call 325/446-3994; www.tpwd.state.tx.us. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is 12 miles east of Canyon, on Texas 217. Call 806/488-2227; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, Padre Island National Seashore

In the soft light of a summer morning, Padre Island National Seashore staff use gloved hands to lift Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings from coolers onto the wide, sandy beach, the last step in a careful, months-long process that involves collecting the turtle eggs and protecting them in a special incubation facility until they hatch. The hatchlings scurry like mad toward the lighter, open sky over the Gulf of Mexico and, front flippers churning, head out to sea. These public releases happen from June until August. Visit the Padre Island National Seashore website below for projected release times, and schedule a few days in the area to increase your odds of seeing the memorable and moving sight.

These endangered seafaring creatures  nest primarily in Texas and northern Mexico. It takes from 10 to 20 years for females to reach maturity and return to nest on the beach where they were born. Watchful Texas beachgoers may spot nesters April to mid-July.

Padre Island National Seashore has five designated camping areas, one of which has a bathhouse (no RV hookups, but water and dump station available). Malaquite Visitor Center also has a bathhouse. For release dates, visit www.nps.gov/pais. As the release date you’re interested in nears, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361/949-7163. For information about the park, call 361/949-8068.

White-tailed Hawk, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

White-tailed hawks live year round in the Rio Grande Valley, eating small mammals such as mice and rabbits, and sometimes other birds or even insects. Adults are burly, with white tails and pointed wings. You can spot them, along with other hawks and raptors, in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, southwest of Mission.

Many hawks migrate northward in spring and southward in fall, and migration peaks late September to early October and late March to early April. During migration periods, hawk watchers may count 10,000 to 12,000 hawks in a single day from the watchtower in the park; the most numerous migratory species here are broadwing and Swainson’s hawks. Throughout the year, observers may also see gray hawks (as well as osprey and several varieties of kites). Hawks become most active between 9 and 11 a.m., when they catch updrafts of warming air to gain altitude.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is 5 miles southwest of Mission, at 2800 FM 2062. Call 956/584-9156; www.worldbirdingcenter.org/Bentsen.html.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, National Ranching Heritage Center

This icon of open grasslands and scrub in West Texas sports buff-colored fur peppered with black, and impressive back feet (four to six inches long) that enable it to run up to 30 miles per hour. Most active at night, jackrabbits spend hot days resting in scratched-out hollows in the ground. They eat grass and other vegetation and range throughout Texas and the western United States.

Reproducing like, well, rabbits, females have up to four litters per year of one to eight babies each. (Actually, despite the name, jackrabbits are hares, not rabbits; hares are born with fur and open eyes, among other differences.) Those five-to six-inch, ever-moving ears help keep them cool and provide constant vigilance against predators. Grazed pastures offer good visi--bility for spotting danger. Look for black-tailed jackrabbits, especially around dusk, on the mowed, flat areas of the 30-acre National Ranching Heritage Center, adjacent to Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

The center, at 3121 Fourth St. in Lubbock, opens seven days a week (closed major holidays). Call 806/742-0498; www.depts.ttu.edu/ranchhc.

Writer Melissa Gaskill, who has a degree in zoology, suspects her father introduced her to watching wildlife early in life as a way to get her to sit still. Full-time nature photographer Larry Ditto found his dream assignment as he pursued images of “wild Texans” across the state.



From the March 2011 issue.

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