Thursday, January 07, 2010

Tourist tram at Texas refuge provides glimpse of ocelots, other wildlife

Tourist tram at Laguna Atascosa provides glimpse of wide variety of wildlife

By JAZMINE ULLOA, The Brownsville Herald
2010-01-03 23:07:26

For 15 miles Bayside Drive at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge winds through grasslands interspersed with brush, a waterside confection for nature lovers.

And the panorama is even better atop the refuge’s 60-passenger, open-air tourist tram now open for business this season.

"It is just really nice when someone else is driving, so you can enjoy the view," said Ricardo Ruiz, an elementary schoolteacher from Houston aboard the bus Saturday with friends.

Only $4 for adults and $1 for children 12 and under, the tour lasts about two hours, covering the history of the land and facts about wildlife. Passengers can catch a glimpse of a wide variety of birds and animals, from caracaras to ocelots and on warmer days, even alligators.

"You can drive it yourself, but the narrative, the tour, is fantastic," said John A. Nechman, an attorney from Houston who was riding the tram with Ruiz and his mother. "We noticed so many things, we would not have looked for ourselves."

The forest green tram was donated to the park by the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and has been in operation now for more than two years.

It travels through "one of the most biologically diverse areas in the United States," said Geri Hamilton, who developed the Bayside Wildlife Drive tour and has worked as a guide for 25 years throughout the country and abroad.

Passengers get a feel for four climate zones, including desert, coastal, subtropical and temperate. The refuge has about 275 identified species of butterflies, and more than 110 identified species of birds — that’s more than half of the identified species of birds in the country, says Hamilton.

From Winter Texans to Rio Grande Valley natives, the refuge tram tour draws crowds from across the country, with one ride departing at 10 a.m. and the next at 2 p.m.

On Saturday, Judy Bowen, who lives at Palm Dale RV Park in Los Fresnos, was hoping to catch the afternoon ride with her husband and friends visiting from Arkansas.

"We have four binoculars and four pairs of eyes ready," she said. "We want to see some deer and ocelots, big alligators and lots of birds."


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