The Bottom Line
One of the largest and most diverse birding destinations in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a must-see for visiting birders. Unfortunately, the poor access road and general isolation of this refuge makes it often overlooked, but birders who do drop by will be amazed and delighted at the range of habitats and number of bird species they can enjoy in just this one spot, including many target bird species for the south Texas region.
- Wide range of habitats provides excellent opportunity to see many different birds, from raptors and shorebirds to waterfowl and songbirds.
- Visitor center exhibits provide a generous overview of wildlife on the refuge, including birds.
- Auto tour loops allow easy birding across distant parts of the refuge.
- Access road is in poor condition and only minimally marked, but low traffic allows visitors to slow down and maneuver around potholes easily.
- In low water conditions, there may be very little birding productivity accessible beyond the visitor center.
- Name: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
- Location: 22817 Ocelot Road, Los Fresnos, Texas
- Size: 97,000 acres (some areas closed to public)
- Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset; visitor center 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Fees: $3 per vehicle; annual and lifetime passes are available
- Suggested Birding Time: 3-8 hours depending on local water levels
Review - Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – “muddy lagoon” – was founded in 1946 when funds from the Federal Duck Stamp Program were used to buy the first land for the refuge. Today, the refuge extends across more than 97,000 acres (152 square miles), and while all of that acreage is not accessible to the public, visiting birders can explore a wide range of habitats, from thorn forest and scrub dunes to wetlands, mudflats, coastal prairies and beaches. This diversity of habitat supports an equally diverse avifauna, and more than 415 bird species have been recorded on the refuge.
Reaching Laguna Atascosa can be a challenge, as the refuge is relatively isolated and its principle access road is pitted with deep potholes. Traffic is minimal, however, and visitors can easily maneuver around poor sections of the road, though it is recommended not to travel the road in poor light or limited visibility.
A visit to Laguna Atascosa must start at the visitor center. Multiple interpretive exhibits at the center divulge the refuge’s rich ecological diversity and its importance to native wildlife, including a historical timeline of the refuge’s growth and changes. Restrooms are available at the visitor center, as well as refuge maps and an eBird Trail Tracker kiosk with listings of recent bird sightings. The Laguna Atascosa Nature Store is run by the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and has a wide range of souvenirs and more practical supplies available for purchase.
A key attraction at the visitor center is the water feature adjacent to the parking area, with a small running stream and shallow pools. This feature can attract a wide range of bird species, particularly in the summer or during times of drought, and visitors should take a few minutes to watch for drinking or bathing birds before heading out into the wilds of the refuge.
Auto tour roads are either paved or gravel depending on the loop chosen, and they are level and easy to drive even with a smaller car. Speed limit signs are posted and must be obeyed, and loops that travel through key habitats for protected species may have speed bumps or other enforcement measures. Pull outs and small parking areas are available near overlooks and observation decks, giving birders the opportunity to easily access and explore different habitats. There are few hiking trails on the refuge, but they can provide a more intimate experience for interested birders.
There is little or no shade along the auto tour roads, and birders should come equipped with insect repellent, adequate water, sunscreen and broad-brimmed hats. Care should be taken to watch for rattlesnakes, and visitors should always stay on marked trails and be on the lookout for other wildlife. The refuge is home to more than 40 species of mammals and reptiles, including alligators, ocelots, coyotes, white-tailed deer, feral hogs and sea turtles.
A spotting scope is recommended for birding at Laguna Atascosa, and it will be especially helpful along the shores and mudflat areas of Laguna Madre, where shorebirds and waterfowl congregate in huge numbers, particularly in winter. Depending on the season and the water levels at the refuge, birds that may be seen include:
- Aplomado falcon
- Crested caracara
- Green jay
- Great kiskadee
- Greater roadrunner
- Groove-billed ani
- Ladder-backed woodpecker
- Least grebe
- Long-billed thrasher
- Mottled duck
- Plain chachalaca
- Ringed kingfisher
- Tricolored heron
- White-tipped dove
Birders interested in a more guided experience at the refuge can investigate regular tram, van and kayak tours that are offered, though fees may apply. School groups regularly visit the refuge and teachers can take advantage of classroom resources related to the refuge and its wildlife.
The American Bird Conservancy has designated Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge as a globally important bird area, and with good reason. Not only is the refuge a seasonal haven for both resident birds and migrants, but the more than 415 bird species that have been recorded on this isolated refuge make it a haven for birders as well, and well worth a visit for diverse south Texas birding.