David & Marianne Book have been volunteers, supporters & contributors on many levels for Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. His children's book, "Lancelot the Ocelot," is a popular item at the Nature Store, and his 75th Anniversary history of the Refuge, "LANWR: A Place Like No Other," is a anecdotal overview of the rich and fascinating place we all love. The Books reside in Vermont most of the year, but admit to being Winter Texans.
David & Marianne Book have been volunteers, supporters & contributors on many levels for Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. His children's books are a popular item at the Nature Store, and his history book on the Refuge was a particularly challenging puzzle to pull together. I look forward to his blog for bits and pieces to be brought to life among other topics regarding the habitat and conservation efforts of Laguna Atascosa.

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  • Sun, April 28, 2024 3:50 PM | David Book (Administrator)

    Eighty years ago the area that is now Laguna Atascosa NWR was much busier and more congested than it is today. The United States was involved in a military conflict known as World War II. Every facet of our economy and society was geared toward stopping Germany and Japan from world dominance. Southern Texas was no exception. The nearby airfield, now called Cameron County Airport, was geared for training pilots and gunners to use of 30- and 50- caliber machine guns. More than 45,000 men were trained in the firing of the big artillery at this Harlingen Army Air Force Gunnery sub-base between 1942 and 1946. By 1944, this unit had developed to the point that several thousand men could be housed and fed within several miles of the current visitor center. It was a complete facility, eventually consisting of 20 buildings, able to support training, flying and recreation. It is hard to imagine today the hustle and bustle, the noise of aircraft and rapid gunfire, dust flying from military vehicles on the roads that still crisscross the Refuge.

    Dorothy Gilbert, wife of the resident construction superintendent, became the best known personality on the sub-base. This very special lady simply adopted all the men who were learning the craft of warfare to the extent that she earned the nickname, "Mom." It is not difficult to understand how she earned this respect. Here are just a few of the tasks she personally took on: she mended their clothes, wrote letters to their mothers, brought a chaplain to the camp, played the piano for religious services and taught piano lessons, started monthly birthday parties, organized amateur shows, took boys to the seacoast for outings and melon feasts. She was instrumental in staging the first wedding on the base on July 25,1943. She arranged for the attendants, the refreshments, and reception and altar decorations. When the bride arrived without the traditional white satin dress, which the groom wished to see her wear, she worked until 3:30 AM to complete the wedding gown. She endeared herself to the soldiers by standing in mess line with them, delivering delicacies and gifts to those hospitalized in Harlingen, attending mail call and participating in KP duty. She was a one person USO.

    There is no monument to celebrate her memory anywhere that I know of, and little trace of the bustling army base [with the exception of six underground bunkers just northeast of the airfield,  now used for storage by the Refuge, and 13 man-made circles that were used for target practice just off of STW Drive]. But, nevertheless, the warmth she brought to thousands of men, many of whom had never been away from home, is worthy of memory, tribute and a medal. Happy Mother's Day!


  • Thu, March 28, 2024 1:38 PM | David Book (Administrator)

    Railroad Robbery on the Rio Grande Part 2

    So if you are just joining us, you need to go back and read last month's tale regarding the actual train robbery which occurred in January, 1891 on the Rio Grande Railroad Line between Brownsville and Port Isabel. Remember, this is 1891. This is still the "Wild West." Men wore their guns to town. The tavern was the gathering place. The sheriff and his deputies rode horses and the science of forensics and evidence-gathering was in its infancy stage. In Brownsville, within a few hours of receiving the news of the robbery, a posse was organized, boarded a flatcar and headed toward the site of the heist. The posse was led by a former Brownsville sheriff, Santiago Brito, who was then serving as City Marshall. He was well-known for his prowess in catching bad guys. At the scene before nightfall, the posse began a search for clues. It was obvious to Brito that the desperados had taken cover behind a cleaved hill located on a curve. They had successfully removed rail spikes holding the tracks, attaching  ropes to the rails which, with their horses, were pulled apart as the train approached causing it to plunge from the rails onto the roadbed. The posse soon found a tool which had been utilized to remove the spikes. Brito recognized the craftsmanship of a Mexican blacksmith who served various ranches located along "Old Alice Road."  After questioning, the blacksmith described a specific individual who had made the order, recognized by Brito as being one, Jose Mosquedo. Meanwhile, a citizen came forward to report the fact that several characters in town were spending great amounts of money and were men "of no visible means." One of the rail passengers recognized one of the robbers when wind (prone to be tempest-like across the Bahia) blew off the mask he was weary. A member of the train crew recognized the voice of the leader. In a short time, one of the robber-gang had confessed and identified the seven others involved. Three escaped, two were given long sentences in a Federal prison in Detroit, and three others received lesser sentences.

    Marhall Brito was celebrated for the quick resolution of the crime. Unfortunately, he did not have much time to enjoy his growing fame. Within a year he was assassinated as the result of a reported long-held grudge. His assassin was never identified. All but $20,000 taken in the train robbery was recovered and it is said to be buried somewhere out on the prairie. Who knows, maybe, even on the Bahia Grande!  

  • Wed, February 28, 2024 9:22 AM | David Book (Administrator)

    Railroad Robbery on the Bahia Grande

    Some of you may know that there use to be a railroad that carried both freight and passengers between Port Isabel and Brownsville. Completed in 1873, this 22.5 mile stretch of narrow gauge track traversed the wetlands requiring fifteen bridges, including a 15,550 foot trestle across Bahia Grande. Much of the line passed across the current refuge unit by that name off State Route 48. Some of the old mesquite pilings and ties are still evident there today.

    As Port Isabel was the only viable port of entry with access to Brownsville at that time, cargo and merchandise of all kinds were moved between the Port and Brownsville, and then on to valley ranches by steamboat. Large shipments of silver and gold were often shipped by ranchers and businesses to New Orleans. Such was the case on January 11, 1891, when two valley businessmen delivered $10,500 in Mexican Eagle dollars and a package of gold valued at $9,110 to the railroad depot bound for Port Isabel. A niece of a long time conductor, Ana Cora Petz, wrote an account of what transpired in an essay published in 1927. Her vivid description makes for good reading.

    It was a beautiful, sunshiny day but a slight wind was blowing from the east. All went well until the "Green Bug" reached Loma Trosada, a point about twelve miles from Point Isabel. Here by the carefully laid plan of a famous bandit gang, the rails had been loosened and then carefully laid back in place. Wires were attached to the rails so that, at a given signal, these might be drawn apart. The engineer saw all this too late to stop the train, and the engine ran off the track, catching fire as it fell. The passengers got down to see what had happened and as they did so, eight masked bandits sprang out of the tall sacahuiste (prairie grass). The four men in front, who had Winchesters, advanced toward the terrified passengers, pointed their guns at them, and said "Hands Up!" The other four men, also armed, stood in the rear. They asked them for their handkerchiefs so that they might blindfold them. Mr. Robert Kingsbury, who was at that time conductor of the Rio Grande train, realized that the robbers were after the $60,000 in Mexican silver that the train carried. He made a quick movement toward his hip pocket but before he could reach his weapon, one of the men jammed a pistol into his chest. They blindfolded all the passengers except Mrs. Frank Thielen, Jr., the only lady passenger. One by one they robbed the passengers and led them up on a small hill. Reverend Hall, the Presbyterian minister, who was on his way to Cuba on a church mission, threw up his hands and said, "0, por Dios! No me quiten mi reloj porque es de mi esposa." Then he threw his money ($500 in "greenbacks") into the grass. He afterwards found every dollar of it. By the time all the passengers had been relieved of their valuables and the train money stolen, the fireman, who had been badly burned when the engine caught fire, strayed away from the rest. One of the robbers went after him and tapping him on the shoulder said to him, "Ven para aqui, amigo." ("Come over here, friend.") The fireman recognized the robber's voice and groaned, "Hay que ingrato, mi compadre Mosqueda." ("Oh, what an ungrateful comrade.") Mrs. Frank Thielen, Jr., had not been blindfolded and consequently she saw all that the robbers did. She saw one of the men climb up the telegraph pole and cut the wire. Since the wind was blowing rather strongly by this time, the mask fell off the robber and she recognized him as a man she had seen that very morning in the store of Mrs. Dreyfus, a Brownsville merchant. While doing some shopping there, she noticed this man standing at the door and looking in a suspicious manner toward the Rio Grande Railroad office.

    The robbers now put all the passengers into a box car and locked them up. The passengers stayed there about two hours. After that time, hearing no sound and tiring of their cramped position, they took off their handkerchiefs and peeked out of the cracks. They saw a lonely man way out on the hills. Although they knew not whether he was a friend or foe, they called to him. The man turned out to be Pomposo, a youth from Point Isabel. He took one of the rails and knocked in the door. The passengers came out, and Mr. Martin Kingsbury, who knew telegraphy, telegraphed to Point Isabel for a rescue train. But while he was thus engaged, one of the crew, who was still very much excited, began crawling on all-fours through the tall prairie grass. The poor man crawled on until five miles from the scene of the wreck he met the hand car that was coming to the rescue. The hand car took the passengers to Point Isabel. The robbers had made off not only with the passengers' valuables, but had relieved the train of $60,000 in Mexican silver, which was destined for New Orleans.

    Of the eight men who were the desperadoes in this robbery, five of them were eventually captured and spent a long time in jail. The two leaders were sentenced to life in a federal prison in Detroit. Although about a third of the loot was recovered, three of the eight escaped with their share into Mexico and never received the justice they deserved. The story about how these men were rounded up by the law is an interesting back story which will be related next month.   

  • Sun, January 28, 2024 1:56 PM | David Book (Administrator)

    The Rare Jewels of South Texas

    If you love to watch birds as I do, as well as 35% of the country's population, you already know that South Texas has more than its share of extraordinary avian species. It really should not be too surprising. The Rio Grande Valley is important habitat for birds from the Central and Mississippi flyways that funnel through on their way to and from Central and South America. Other bird species, like the Groove-billed Ani, the Green Jay. and Plain Chachalaca, reach the northern limit of their range in South Texas. At an ecological crossroad, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is strategically located where subtropical climate, gulf coast, great plains, and Chihuahuan desert meet. That's why this refuge has the most extensive bird list of any refuge in the United States, 417 species.

    The impact bird watching has had on South Texas is immeasurable with at least 18 identifiable sites focusing on nature. And it is amazing to me to see how new species turn up at these sites from one year to another. This year Resaca de la Palma State Park is hosting several rarities:  Roadside Hawk and both the Rose-collared and Gray-collared Becard. The Fan-tailed Warbler has certainly had hundreds, maybe even thousands, of visitors at the UTRGV campus in Brownsville. And who has not seen the darling Burrowing Owl just off the road near San Benito or taken a picture of the most photographed bird in America, the Common Pauraque, the odd-looking nocturnal nightjar always found at Estero Grande State Park. In 2021-22 it was the Bat Falcon at Santa Ana that drew them in. Social media, especially access to e-bird, provides instant gratification for those wanting to add a species to their list, if that is their goal.

    American Flamingo @ Lake Atascosa Photo Credit Steve Franklin

    LANWR has had its share of such rarities. The American Flamingo has had several visits in the past few years including 2023. As early as 1978 a duck that did not appear in any of the bird books appeared in a marsh near the south part of Bayside. Numerous attempts at identification were made by local experts and staff before the Bahama Pintail was added to the Refuge List. For about a month, birders flocked in from all points. A Sooty Tern brought more observers in 1980. On October 24, 1981, an estimated 500 Wood Storks stopped over briefly. Not only was there a historic "fallout" in 1982, but refuge staff also observed a Swainson's Warbler and twelve Bobolinks, all during migration season. The appearance of a Gray Silky Flycatcher, the first authenticated record of this Mexican species in the United States, stirred up the birding community. The male species was very cooperative, seen around the visitor's center for more than a week. It is estimated that 250 people came out specifically to see this bird. One birder made two trips from New Jersey before he spotted the bird. A Mangrove Cuckoo and two Black Rails were identified on the refuge in the 1990s. On April 8, 1996, an Orange-billed Nightingale was captured in one of the mist nets being used for a survey. This was the first documentation of this species in the United States,

    So, one never knows what may be seen while birding in South Texas. With ranges changing due to climate change, that little orange bird you are watching may be a visitor from far away. Get a picture, if you can, and do all you can to protect this incredibly important habitat for wildlife from a growing number of interlopers.   

  • Fri, December 29, 2023 6:10 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Credits: David & Marianne Book

    Did you get all your packages delivered and holiday greetings mailed in time? Did you lose anything to porch pirates? You think you have trouble with mail delivery? Check this out.

    In December, 2002, new Refuge manager, John Wallace, checked mileage from the refuge to several rural route mail boxes on nearby Ted Hunt and Buena Vista roads. There needed to be some resolution to a prolonged problem getting personal mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service directly to the refuge. The major problem: the refuge had a post office box seventeen miles away in Rio Hondo but no "physical address." Without a physical address, it is nearly impossible to get anyone to believe that you even exist.

    In an interview several years ago, Manager Wallace imagined this scenario: "Help, my husband is having a heart attack, and the house is on fire! What? Where am I? Oh, just drive 14 miles east of Rio Hondo, Texas on Route 106 until you get to Buena Vista Road. Turn north on Buena Vista Road and drive three miles north. Look for the burning house and I will be outside in my blue nightgown waving my arms wildly." To exacerbate the problem, the refuge got its mail at the Rio Hondo Post Office, and it was against USFW regulations to have personal mail coming to the same post office. However, the refuge is located within the rural route zone of the Los Fresnos Post Office. Past contacts with the two postmasters resulting in pointing at the other as the solution to the problem. The Los Fresnos postmaster would not agree to deliver mail to the refuge office because it would extend his route one tenth of a mile from the five mile limit from the last existing mailbox on the route. Regulations are regulations, after all. The matter was resolved when Wallace presented the Los Fresnos postmaster with all documentation required, adding these words. "We families and multiple voters were being treated as second-class citizens and that I would have to contact my elected representatives if they wanted U.S. citizens, U.S. government employees, and voters deprived of mail delivery over one-tenth of a mile." Within two weeks, mail delivery to the refuge began. Sometimes a little threat goes a long way.

  • Sat, December 02, 2023 8:43 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    author: David Book

    LANWR has hosted many of the elite of the birding world since its inception in 1946; people like Roger Tory Peterson (six visits), David Sibley (two), and a handful of noted photographers. None created the stir, however, more than did two avid birders who visited in early April, 2004, the late Rosalynn Carter and her husband, none other than the 39th President of the United States. Jimmy and Rosalynn had been fascinated with birds since a trip to Africa in 1988 and had begun their bird list on that trip. They embarked on their first "dedicated to birding" adventure with a whirlwind, four-day tour of the Rio Grande Valley covering 12 stops from Falcon Lake to South Padre Island, a distance of only 60 miles. The couple visited our refuge on Tuesday afternoon, April 6, with a retinue of Secret Service agents, Texas Parks and Wildlife and Department of Public Safety officials, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, Fish and Wildlife Staff and two guides! During their six-hour visit, the Carters observed six life birds: White-tailed Hawk, Reddish Egret, Wilson's Plover, Verdin, Bewick's Wren and Olive Sparrow, as well as 92 other species. They also adopted an ocelot through the Friends program.

    Father Tom Pincilli, a local priest who served as a volunteer guide for LAWWR, had the privilege of guiding the Carters some of the time. In an interview with this blogger several years ago, he fondly recalled his impressions. "Jimmy and Rosalynn were an endearing couple. Often in our time together he would take her by the hand. You could tell quickly that they were a devoted pair. I made one mistake, however. I ask the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner if he would tell me something about peanut farming. Big mistake!"

    The Carters had a very successful trip. The four-day total was 151 species, 57 new American birds and 41 worldwide lifers. Writing in an article for Birder's Digest about his trip, President Carter praised local efforts to preserve areas for bird life and welcome birders like himself to visit the area.

  • Wed, October 25, 2023 11:28 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Author:David Book

    I would seldom call the refuge a spooky place. But when you stop and think about it, there does exist a certain creepiness about it, especially when the rattlesnakes and tarantulas are out and about. And, certainly, one should be wary of those alligators. But there is more. What about the "Grey Ghost of Laguna?" At least that is what one newspaper reporter called him.

    It appears that in 1940 an old hermit was wandering around way under the radar on the northern end of what is now called Horse Island. According to the news article, the census taker, Bill King, was bound and determined to find him. He described the encounter after searching for several days "at the beginning of nowhere" having spotted the "local legend" squatting by "a lean-to made of the skins of goat, coyote, and bobcat, surrounded by 20-25 lean, scraggly goats." The elderly man approached the census official with a 10 gauge shotgun cocked under his right arm. He did not threaten King, but was obviously not happy to see him. He did not know his birth date or birthplace, but appeared to be in his 80's. King described him as being "about six feet tall, heavy set with a tangled mass of graying hair, and a snarled growth of hair that forms a beard about eight inches long that looks like steel wool." His one room hovel had no running water or electricity. He spoke in broken Spanish, and King wasted no time in heading back across the extensive salt flats when he had successfully added the hermit to his census list. A somewhat spooky tale, but that is not all.

    At the northern end of the Mesquite Trail, which begins at the Visitors Center, is a cemetery containing five grave markers used by the old Granjeno Ranch in the late 19th century. Only two of the stones have discernible engravings. One of the two was a twelve year-old boy who accidentally shot himself with a rifle in 1913 while hunting rabbits. The cemetery is maintained by the refuge staff during the daylight hours. If you happen to be there at night, especially during the full moon, you may hear a hair-raising screech. Is it someone calling from the grave or the barn owl that nests nearby? You can be the judge.

  • Fri, September 29, 2023 8:28 PM | David Book (Administrator)

    We know it is Fall in Vermont where we live when the leaves start to color and flutter to the ground. It is a spectacle. There are two interesting seasonal signs that effect LANWR and South Texas. Both have an impact on the economy and the culture. Beginning in October a hundred thousand or more, mostly retired, folks from Minnesota, Iowa and other states north of the Rio Grande Valley, descend upon the Valley to escape their harsh winter climate. These "Winter Texans" give the economy a boost, bring a throng of visitors to the abundant nature preserves, and also boost the pool of volunteers that are available to serve at these places. In April most of them head back North to clean the snow out of driveways and get ready for the summer. Some of them eventually become permanent residents of the Valley.

    That is not the case with another animal species that make an annual trek south in the Fall and reverse in the Spring. More than 350 species of birds make the roundtrip in North America alone; 4,000 plus, worldwide. Those migrations vary greatly in distance. Oftentimes by pure numbers they bring some excitement and challenge to those who enjoy seeing their beauty. A Spring "fallout" is an experience to be long remembered by those fortunate enough to observe one. Thousands of songbirds and warblers weary from crossing the Gulf of Mexico seem to rain from the sky as they reach the first land mass, often South Texas, which just happens to be at the juncture of the Mississippi and Central Flyways. These migrations often bring vagrant species that are off-course for reasons usually related to the weather. The citizens of Wisconsin recently were astonished to see a group of five Flamingoes wading in Lake Michigan just north of Milwaukee, blown off course by a hurricane. LANWR has had its share of such visitors, even a Flamingo or two usually only seen in Florida. In 1978 a very rare species from the Bahamas, a White-cheeked Pintail, spent a few days at the Refuge. In 1985 a Gray Silky Flycatcher, a resident of the mountain region of Mexico, appeared near the Visitors Center. The first confirmed sighting of this species in the United States, he stayed around for more than a week, being observed by hundreds of birders, including one avid observer who flew down from New Jersey twice before spotting the bird. Another first record for the United States was caught in a mist net on the Refuge in 1996. The Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush is normally a resident of the tropical foothills of Central and South America.

    All of these species were observed in the fall migration season. Be a keen observer of the avian species for the next few months. You never know what rare and exotic species you may discover. And be thankful for those out-of-state license plates bringing some spice to the melting pot. You may even see some plates from Delaware, Hawaii or Vermont.  
  • Sat, July 01, 2023 4:09 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    watch this site!!!!

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Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. 
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