Popular tram tours back at wildlife refuges

Popular tram tours at wildlife refuges take riders to hard-to-reach spots in the nature preserves. This one at Laguna Atascosa traverses several ecosystems such as Tamaulipan thorn scrub and coastal prairies.

HARLINGEN — Rides into the wild are back.

Both Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana national wildlife refuges are resuming their popular winter tram tours, which not only provide access to hard-to-reach areas of the sanctuaries but also give riders guided nature narratives along the way.

The interpretive, open-air tram tours already have started at Santa Ana, running Friday through Monday beginning at 9:30 a.m., and they will debut at Laguna Atascosa on Saturday. Future tram tours there will take place on Saturdays and Sundays, and bus tours will be available Thursdays and Fridays.

Laguna Atascosa charges fees of $4 ($3 for seniors) and kids under 14 are free. At Santa Ana, tram rides are $4 and $3.50 for seniors, $2 for kids between 3 to 12 and free for kids under 2.

At Laguna, the trams motor along the 15-mile Wildlife Drive and take riders to areas of the refuge which currently are available only to hikers and bicyclists.

“The guides provide really important information about what people are seeing and really allow people to connect to the wildlife in the refuge in a more personal way,” said Melissa Robell, a VISTA AmeriCorps intern at the refuge working with the Friends of the Laguna Atascosa. “They all add their own special touch to the tour which is much appreciated. They are mostly volunteers … but they are really dedicated to Laguna Atascosa and are super-important to promoting wildlife and really giving us an opportunity to build our program.”

The Laguna backcountry consists of several environments, ranging from Tamaulipan thorn scrub to wetlands to coastal prairie, with a correspondingly high number of bird species. Among the possible sightings is the rare aplomado falcon which nests in the refuge.

“We have several different tours available and each guide, or tour guide, is trained with a specific information and spiel,” Robell noted. “For example, we have birding tours that are every day 8 a.m. to noon, and those tour guides are specialized in identifying bird species in a variety of different habitats by sight and by sound.”

Laguna tram riders also will likely view numerous white-tailed deer as well as nilgai antelope. A few years ago, a mountain lion was seen sitting in the middle of the tram’s path.

The refuge is home to about 15 ocelots, but the chance of sighting one of the wary, nocturnal cats is not particularly high. The more numerous bobcats, however, are much more likely sightings.

At Santa Ana, the ride through the Spanish moss-draped woods right on the Rio Grande is all about birds. Species such as the groove-billed ani might be seen, along with rare raptors like the gray hawk and the hook-billed kite.

Once spring migration is in swing in March and April, riders might expect to see up to 35 warbler species. Santa Ana also contains large ponds which attract numerous species of water birds.

The seven-mile loop at Santa Ana includes a stop at a historic cemetery and a view of the Rio Grande. The tram runs on a first-come, first-served basis.

Tram tours at Santa Ana are available Friday through Sunday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. They will continue through April.