Island refuge weathers twin storms of COVID-19, Hanna

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — If one takes a cue from the egrets, pelicans and alligators, little appears amiss on the breezy shores of the Laguna Madre here at the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary.

Avifauna and reptilians, unlike we humans, have been untouched by the disruption caused by coronavirus, or even Hurricane Hanna’s quick hit-and-run visit over the weekend.

The nature center was shut down for six weeks in April and May due to COVID-19, reopening late in the latter month.

And although the facility isn’t anticipating its usual 7,000 annual visitors in the “annus horribilis” that 2020 has become, the wildlife refuge is making progress as it navigates a new COVID-19 world.

“Inside the building, all the masks are required, obviously, like everywhere, and outside if people aren’t able to stay six feet apart, we make them put their masks back on,” said Britney Marchan, assistant manager at the nature center. “We’ve canceled our gator talks and bird walks and anything like that, not encouraging groups of any kind, and have people stay with their own groups.

“Our visitation’s been pretty down,” Marchan added. “We haven’t been at capacity this year. … Last summer at this time of year we were seeing over 400 people a day. Now we’re lucky to even get 75.”

Understandably, revenue for nonprofits like the nature center have taken hits just as Valley businesses due to shutdowns, stay-at-home directives and anxieties of people afraid to resume their former activities.

“As a nonprofit, we’re always taking donations and are truly grateful for donations, especially right now,” Marchan said. “We’ve cut a lot of employees’ hours and the salaried people are really picking up the slack.

“We have an Instagram that we’ve kind of been more proactive posting videos and trying to do some more live birding tours, so if they follow us on Facebook or Instagram, that’s a good way to stay in touch with us and what we’re doing,” she added.

In addition to donations, people supportive of the nature center can go online to www.spibirding.com and sign up for an annual membership, which runs a year from the purchase date and costs $60 for adults, and $50 for seniors 55 and up and for teens ages 13 to 18. For kids between 4 and 12, an annual pass can be had for $30.

“We’d like to think it’s pretty safe but obviously, right now, everything is so uncertain,” Marchan said.

“We don’t have people come through the vestibule, we direct them around the building, and if they don’t want to come in at all, they don’t have to,” she added. “And we’ve had the building sprayed with the electrostatic spraying with a company that just got their COVID-19 certification that their product works on killing the virus.”

Marchan said the sanitizing spray is being applied monthly, both inside the nature center and along the boardwalk all the way out to Bird Blind No. 1.

Hurricane Hanna left debris, downed limbs and a couple of bent trees that had to be propped up, but Marchan said the nature center was “really lucky” damage was so limited.

The birds and the gators, she reminded, are all still making themselves visible and available to visitors.

“Oh, yeah!” she said. “They’re definitely still here.”

rkelley@valleystar.com