Essential Summer Guide '14: Turtles, Birds, And Surf-Kissed Beaches At Padre Island National Seashore

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The dance of the crane, in this case sandhill cranes, plays out at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas/NPS

Turtles and birds are some of the higher profile visitors to the stretch of Texas along the Gulf Coast that's home to Padre Island National Seashore.

Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, the smallest of sea turtle species and the world’s most endangered, arrive, sometimes in waves, to Padre Island National Seashore’s beaches in April, May, June, and early July to lay their eggs. Unlike most sea turtles species, these turtles nest during the day, which makes it relatively easy for researchers to monitor how many come to nest.

Sandhill cranes, meanwhile, arrive in the fall, then spend the winter on the seashore’s coastal prairies. These 3-4 foot tall birds, with their red masks, are attention getters from the start.

Birders also migrate regularly to Padre Island, for more than half of all bird species found in North America have been spotted here. Coastal prairies once covered the coast of Texas. Today, less than 1 percent of those prairies remain, and Padre Island protects a large portion of what remains, drawing both birds and birders.

Anglers also are drawn to Padre Island, most notably in the fall when “Sharkathon,” the United States’ largest surf-fishing catch-and-release event for sharks and sport fish, draws surfcasters. If you’re seeking salt water solitude, Padre Island National Seashore is hard to improve upon. Here 70 miles of coastline – dunes, prairies, and windswept tidal flats – are protected in an undeveloped state. Since beaches are considered highways in Texas, you’re allowed to drive down the coastline, and “primitive camping” is allowed along this stretch, too. Four-wheel drive vehicles are highly recommended. Also, observe the posted speed limits.

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Padre Island's beaches are popular nesting grounds for Kemp's ridley sea turtles/NPS

Diehard windsurfers, meanwhile, know that Bird Island Basin on the bay side of the island is one of the most popular locations in the country for their sport thanks to the reliable breezes.

Campers, both with tents and recreational vehicles, have Malaquite Campground with its 48 semi-private sites. This campground near park headquarters and a short walk to the Gulf offers designated sites for RV or tent camping and six sites for tent camping only. Tent campers also are allowed to pitch their tents on the beach in front of the campground. This campground provides flush toilets, cold-water showers, picnic tables, grills, and shade structures.

If You Go

If you are a bird watcher, driving the beach can be a great way to see a variety of shorebirds. As long as you remain in the vehicle they pay very little attention to passing automobiles.

When you arrive at the visitor center, don’t leave without a trash bag. Unfortunately, the Gulf currents push a lot of marine debris onto the beach, and volunteers who help collect this trash are greatly appreciated.