Laguna Atascosa Habitat Expansion Project Underway


The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge's proposal for RESTORE Act funding to acquire land to create conservation easements between the main unit and the Bahia Grande unit has been approved. This project will help create new habitat for wildlife and connect existing habitats for wildlife travel.

Sand Castle Trail on South Padre Island



There’s something new at South Padre Island. Visitors and residents can travel the island and discover about 30 different sand castles on display.

Some of them are very big and others are not so big. They’re all different and easy to find along the sand castle trail.

“The sand castle trail gives people visiting the island the opportunity to see our brand of local art,” South Padre Island City Manager Bill Dilibero said.

The sand castles can be found in front of various businesses, and a map is available to show the exact locations of the art.

Lucinda Wierenga is a world class master sand sculptor. Everyone knows her by her nickname Sandy Feet.

She has been building sand sculptures on the beach for over 30 years. “It was a team effort between the city and private businesses,” she said. “This was a fantasy that I’ve long had, building sand sculptures all over South Padre Island. So everybody that comes to the island, no matter what time of year it is, will be able to see amazing sand sculptures.”

Part of the fun of exploring the trail is looking for those hidden details in the sculptures.

“The one at the Paragraphs bookstore has scenes from seven or eight different books,” Wierenga said.

Some of the sand sculptures were damaged, during the never ending rains of May and June. However, they will be touched up. After all, this is a job where they get to play in the sand all day.

“Most recently, I did a big project in Kuwait for six weeks with about 70 other sculptors. I’ll be going to the American championship in Fort Myers Beach in November. And of course, we have sand castle days coming up here in October,” Wierenga said.

“The thing is to take the time to look at them and enjoy the unique art that we have on the island,” Dilibero said.

There is a free app people can download to check out the sand castle trail. Maps for the trail are available at the visitor’s center or most businesses.

“Oh man, I could not have asked for a better life. I feel so fortunate,” Wierenga said. “You know the sand here on South Padre Island is so good for sand castle building. We are truly blessed.”

Home Prices and Sales Up in the Rio Grande Valley

Home in Laguna Vista, TX. 

Home in Laguna Vista, TX. 


Home prices and sales have gone up over the past year across the Rio Grande Valley.

The median price for a single family home in the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metro area is $122,500. That’s a 3.8 percent jump compared to 2014 prices, according to the second quarter Texas Housing Report compiled by the Texas Association of Realtors and Texas A&M Real Estate Center, which came out this week.

The median price for a single family home the Brownsville-Harlingen metro area is $123,000 — a 6 percent increase since last year during the second quarter.

Across Texas, home sales have increased 4.7 percent overall and median home prices went up 8.1 percent to $200,000.

Cameron County also saw home sales jump 7.1 percent in 2015 while in Hidalgo County, those sales grew only 4 percent since last year.

But there were fewer physical houses sold in the Brownsville-Harlingen market overall — only 577 compared to 697 in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission real estate market.

As a veteran, Romero is eligible for the GI bill, which helps pay for a university education and offers a direct path for home ownership.

“Many new home buyers are in a transition for relocation or they changed jobs and got a raise and are looking to increase,” said Miki McCarthy, an agent with Cadence Real Estate in McAllen.

While the housing market in Cameron County saw a greater percentage increase, that doesn’t mean the Hidalgo County market is falling behind.

“Each one is a reflection of its own market and not in comparison to the other market,” said Mickey Furcron, president of the Brownsville-South Padre Island Board of Realtors about the report. “We’ve got some great weather here, the beach attraction, SpaceX coming into Brownsville and the port has some LNG companies interested.”

Overall though, the biggest challenge is lack of new homes on the marketplace.

“We don’t have enough new home construction going on in Texas to meet the demand and that’s part of financing too, because a developer needs a lot of credit and that’s been sluggish for the past five years,” he said.

In a quick search for available homes in the $115,000 to $125,000 price range within city limits there were only 31 that popped up on Tuesday, he said.

Hidalgo County real estate agents concurred with that assessment.

“All real estate is a local market, there is no national real estate market,” said Lee Jinks, executive director for the Greater McAllen Association of Realtors. Home sales tend to pick up from January to April then climb to a peak in August — right before school starts again — then tapers off, he said.

In Brownsville-Harlingen during the second quarter of 2015 there are 11.5 months of housing stock before the market would sell out, down from 13.4 months during 2014.

Some builders are skittish to invest in Brownsville because of the high price tag for impact fees levied by the Brownsville public utility board, Jinks said. The current impact fee for the smallest meter is $2,600 for water and wastewater, according to the agency’s website.

In the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metro area there is about 10.6 months worth of inventory, down from 11 months from last year during the same quarter.

In May, out of 236 residential home sales, there were six homes sold for $30,000 and below, 34 that sold between $120,000 and $140,000, and 24 sales for houses with prices between $140,000 and $160,000.

Only 22 homes sold for the $160,000 to $180,000 price range and two sold for more than $400,000, but that’s a very small snapshot, he said.

“This may be one of the best markets we’ve seen in Hidalgo County,” Jinks said. “I think it’s just a matter of the market bouncing back.”

Learn About Sea Turtles, Birds and Fish on Eco-Trip to South Padre Island

A sea turtle rehabilitating at Sea Turtle Inc.

A sea turtle rehabilitating at Sea Turtle Inc.


I feel like I'm planting a beach-side garden.

The white, ping-pong-ball-shaped orbs I'm placing in a hole in the sand aren't flower bulbs, though. They're sea turtle eggs, laid just a few hours ago.

"You're holding the eggs of one of the rarest reptiles on earth," says Jeff George, executive director of Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit organization on South Padre Island that rescues injured sea turtles and works to protect the endangered creatures.

Kemp's Ridley turtles lay their eggs here between April and August, and crews from Sea Turtle Inc. set out on foot and all-terrain vehicles to look for nesting mothers. They spotted one this morning, and when she headed back out to sea, they dug up her 98 eggs and loaded them gently into a Styrofoam ice chest. At Sea Turtle Inc. headquarters, the eggs were counted and recorded.

Now, we're burying them inside a protected corral on the beach, where 30 other egg clusters have been carefully transplanted away from the prying teeth of the island's resident badgers and coyotes. An estimated one in 300 will make it to adulthood.

It's just one highlight of an eco-themed trip to South Padre Island, where you can also explore a birding center, take an ecotour boat ride or learn about the impact of pollution at a marine research lab. And, in between all that, you can play in the waves, build a sand castle, fly high over the water on a parasail, watch the sailboats and windsurfers and dine on local seafood.

For a vacation that's more about nature and the environment than bikinis and beer, hit up these spots.

1 . Sea Turtle Inc.

Ila Loetscher, the Turtle Lady of South Padre Island, started taking in sick and injured sea turtles in 1977. She also decked them out in costume, but we'll forgive her because she launched a movement that over the years has saved hundreds of turtles. Loetscher is gone, but the center carries on her mission of rehabilitation, conservation and public education. The star resident is Allison, who lost three flippers in a predator attack as a baby. You can watch her zip around her tank with the help of a prosthetic rudder.

You can also learn about the broader plight the Kemp's Ridley turtles face. In 1947, researchers found about 40,000 nests on a beach in Mexico, their primary nesting ground. Poachers decimated the population, and by 1985, fewer than 500 female sea turtles remained. Thanks in part to an agreement between Mexico and the United States, the nesting grounds were protected and the population rebounded - until recently, when numbers dropped again. Experts are unsure whether the downtick is related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or other factors, like cold snaps that "stun" the animals, making them prone to passing boat props.

The takeaway message? "Be good to the environment, don't trash the beach, look out for turtles and let us know if you see one," says Kat Lillie, assistant curator.

And, if you feel like it, help foot the bill for the center's upcoming $5.2-million expansion, which calls for a face-lift of the existing facility, a new boardwalk over the lagoon, an education center, veterinary clinic, amphitheater, displays and tanks for permanent turtle residents.

Vitals: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 6617 Padre Blvd., 956-761-4511; Suggested donation of $4 adults, $3 seniors and $2 children.

2. South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center

Walk more than half a mile along a boardwalk over the wetlands, watching ducks fledge, fish spawn, butterflies flutter by and exotic-looking birds make an appearance. Then climb the five-story observation tower for a birds-eye view of the bay.

Vitals: Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 6801 Padre Blvd., 956-761-6801; Admission $5 adults, $4 seniors, $2 children ages 4 to 12.

3. Breakaway Cruises

Board the Getaway at Sea Ranch Marina and head out to the bay, where the crew drags a net behind the boat. The booty during our trip included a squid, a small butterfly ray, an annoyed-looking blue crab, a trio of starfish, a flounder and a fist-size, slimy-looking sea slug called a Spanish dancer.

Oh, and the dolphins. We saw so many and they came so close a friend accidentally tossed her cellphone overboard. (Don't do that.) In all, about 200 dolphins call this bay home. "We've got a very healthy ecosystem," says deck hand William Zavala. "That's why the dolphins stick around."

Vitals: Eco-tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily. 33384 State Park Road 100 (Padre Blvd.), 956-761-2212; Cost is $18 for adults, $16 for children.

4. Coastal Studies Laboratory

At the southern tip of the island, don't miss the humble Coastal Studies Laboratory, part of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. You can peer into a bank of aquariums holding native fish and invertebrates, or inspect a huge whale skull. The lab serves as headquarters for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Researchers here whirl into action when critters wash ashore. They also educate the public about keeping beaches clean and healthy.

"We've got a problem with people leaving trash on the beach," says Brigette Goza, senior program coordinator. "We educate the public about how marine life is harmed by that."

Vitals: Open 1:30-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. 100 Marine Lab Drive, 956-761-2644; Admission is free.

5. Coconuts Water Sports

When your brain is packed, take to the skies for an overview of the island from a parasail. Several companies offer rides, including Coconuts Water Sports. Passengers strap on harnesses and are slowly reeled up, up and away from the boat. From what seems like outer space, they can peer down on the island and boats far below.

Vitals: Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. 2301 Laguna Blvd., 956-761-4218; Cost is $75 per person.