Matagorda Getaway

The long Christmas holiday weekend took us south to Matagorda Bay, a large estuary on the Texas coast about halfway between Galveston and Corpus Christi. We stayed at the Matagorda Bay Nature Park, located at the mouth of the Colorado River on the Matagorda Peninsula. (FYI, the 862-mile-long Texas river was named by Spanish explorers in the late 17th century, some 200 years before the state of Colorado was admitted to the union, and about 225 years before Congress officially named the 1,450-mile-long river that courses through seven Western states.) A popular destination for birding and fishing, the park has about two miles of Gulf of Mexico beach front and two miles of river frontage along 1,300 acres of marshes and dunes.

We arrived late on Friday afternoon, just in time to enjoy both the spectacular sunset and the moonrise. Our pull-through site was situated facing west, which enabled us to observe the sunset through the front window and the moonrise through the back. But with temperatures in the low 70s, we opted to take our observations outdoors. It wasn’t long before Chef Cliff fired up the BGE (Big Green Egg) and commenced with preparing our traditional Date Night dinner of grilled steak and asparagus, baked potato and shishito peppers.

The night also presented a winter trifecta, of sorts, as the “Cold Moon” coincided with the longest night of the year (the winter solstice) and the peak of the Ursids meteor shower. Unfortunately, the full moon’s brilliant light made for less than favorable viewing conditions, so we instead focused on our campfire before heading inside to watch a holiday favorite, “Rick Steves’ European Christmas.”

Following Saturday morning’s coffee and biscotti, New York Times and bloody Mary’s, chores and brunch, we took a long walk down the Jetty Park pier to the beach, where we kicked off our shoes and dipped our toes into the chilly Gulf waters lapping ashore. Although we have traveled from California to North Carolina and from South Dakota to South Texas, this trip marked the first time we touched the ocean since we began our camping adventures more than five years ago.

A bird-watcher’s paradise

Matagorda Bay is considered one of the best birding areas in the nation, and we can understand why.

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, hunters engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” They would choose sides and go afield with their guns — whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won. In December 1900, the U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore (which became Audubon magazine), proposed counting birds on Christmas rather than killing them.

That year, 27 observers took part in the first count in 25 places in the U.S. and Canada. Since then, the Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) have been held every winter, usually with increasing numbers of observers. During the 117th count, for example, 73,153 people participated in 2,536 locations. So what makes this relevant to our trip? Well, as it turns out, the greatest number of bird species ever reported by any U.S. location in a single CBC was 250, observed on December 19, 2005 in the Matagorda area.

While we didn’t see nearly as many species, we did see a fair number of loons, pelicans, herons and egrets, as well as a few storks, gulls and geese. One brave boat-tailed grackle even perched itself atop our flagpole’s eagle finial — a little bird-on-bird action to show who’s boss.

After Saturday cocktails, we attended the Natural Science Center’s stargazing party, in hopes of catching sight of a few Ursids, but we were again thwarted in our efforts. The moon’s brightness prevented us from seeing even so much as the Milky Way galaxy. So we returned to Cloud 9 to prepare and enjoy a fine dinner of grilled lemon chicken, broccolini, and a Mexican-style corn, before ending the evening with our annual viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

On Sunday, we watched “CBS Sunday Morning,” spent time with the Times, surfed the ‘net, and brunched al fresco. Following a long afternoon nap, we enjoyed cocktails while watching the sunset from the park’s observation deck before a dinner of a slow-cooked pork rack of ribs with root vegetables and Italian pole green beans. The evening’s holiday entertainment included Patrick Stewart’s version of “A Christmas Carol” and Chevy Chase’s “Christmas Vacation.”

Pelican peculiarities

Monday found us relaxing with the doggies, enjoying the warm temperatures, and observing pelican activity on the Colorado. While soaring above the water, pelicans scan for any fish that may wander close to the surface. The moment they spot one, the birds hurl their large body (weighing eight pounds, with a wingspan approaching seven feet) straight down into the water. The birds will dive from as high as 60 feet, making a huge splash and hitting the water with such force that fish may be stunned by the impact. 

Pelicans have air sacks just below their skin to help protect them from serious injury upon impact with the water. They also twist their body to the left just before they hit the water to protect the right side of their neck, which contains the trachea and esophagus.

Once below the surface, pelicans open their huge mouth, scooping up not only a fish or two but also up to three gallons of water. Because three gallons is two more than their mouth can hold, they have to dump all that water before they can eat their catch. Pelicans rid their pouch of water by keeping their head down, and slowly letting the water drain out of the sides of their bill. Once the water has drained out, the birds flip their head back, and down the hatch go the fish. We observed this pattern repeatedly as dozens of pelicans swooped and soared over the water.

We also observed that nearly every pelican was accompanied by a smaller bird. At first we thought maybe they were baby pelicans learning to fish, because they would often take the fish out of the pelicans’ mouths. As it turns out, they were gulls, waiting for the pelican to fumble a fish during the water removal/head flipping process. Before you feel sorry for the pelicans, it’s important to know that pelicans are also fish thieves. They steal fish from other birds, such as herons and storks, and occasionally from local anglers.

We ended our day by observing other water fowl, but this time on the BGE. Cliff prepared a Christmas eve feast of duck à l’orange, heirloom carrots, French green beans and cauliflower couscous, and we followed it with a glass of eggnog and a binge-watch of “Christmas Through the Decades.”

Christmas Day found us packing up and heading for home under cloudy skies, leaving behind the sounds of screeching seagulls, the near-constant roar of ocean waves, and the buzz of mosquitoes. Our Christmas on the coast was one we won’t soon forget, and can’t wait to repeat.