Anita’s Blog – Walking the Lake Bottom
At the far west reaches of Starr County, South Texas Border Chapter Texas Master Naturalists met up for their first in-person field trip since 2020. Most often overheard remark: “It’s so good to see you other than on Zoom!”
Many of us gathered at the park’s butterfly garden across from the recreation building where the tour would begin and enjoyed some of the not-so-familiar thorn-scrub, like blackbrush acacia (Vachellia rigidula) and a gentler bush, the thornless narrowleaf forestiera (Forestiera angustifolia) that iNaturalist confused us about as we may be more familiar with the local common name: elbow bush.
Thanks to a special invitation from Texas Parks and Wildlife's Falcon State Park Superintendent Jose Uribe, Texas Master Naturalist and interpretive guide extraordinaire, we spent a good part of the day learning about some of our Valley's more westerly nature. Historically, the state leased the land for the park from the International Boundary and Water Commission in 1949 and later acquired ownership of the park land in 1974; the park opened in 1965.
We were allowed to caravan in vehicles to points of interest. The lake is at 23.3 percent capacity, which explains some of the features and signs that, at first glance, seem incongruous, like the major boat ramps leading to nowhere and a swimming caution over what appears to be a canyon.
With a recent land acquisition, Falcon State Park is a 900 acre preserve some 70 miles west of McAllen along U.S. 83 highway. It is at the southern end of the Falcon International Reservoir in Starr and Zapata counties. The reservoir, which straddles the border of Texas and Mexico, at full capacity is an 84,000-surface-acre lake.
“The lake has been experiencing periods of drought for a long time,” said Jose, “and this year doesn’t look good so far. I believe the last time the lake reached full capacity was 2017. Water continues to flow daily to supply this liquid to both U.S. and Mexico hydro power plants, communities and farmers in the Valley. Mexico also is experiencing extensive drought periods, and their reservoirs are extremely low.”
The lake is at the mercy of the elements, according to Jose, like snow in New Mexico and Colorado and major rain-producing events from the Gulf, like hurricanes and tropical storms.
The lake is open to the public for recreational use: anglers have access to alternate boat ramps as the lake level changes and can hope for anything from largemouth bass, white bass, catfish, crappie, perch, grass carp, Rio Grande cichlid, bluegill, tilapia, plecostomus (suckermouth catfish), several minnow species and the alligator gar – a local favorite challenge fish. “There are big alligator gars in the lake,” Jose said. “Lots of fishermen come to reel one in, if they can.”
This link is about Rio Grande cichlid: https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/cichlid/
I asked what the lake alligator gar record is; Jose had a ready answer: “So far, our lake alligator gar record dates back from 2014, and it weighed 249 pounds and measured 94 inches (7.8 feet long). This fish was taken with bow and arrow,” Jose said. “About two years ago, that record was almost broken; the fish was a few inches short and weighed less.”
Because the lake level is currently so low, we were able to drive to the lake’s edge. I hesitate to call it shore because we were actually on the lake bottom. We stopped for a group shot.
We drove to another bottom stop to look at fossilized oyster shells.
About 15 feet opposite the shoreline with the shells, the habitat changes. Due to the drought, many nonnative vegetation like the saltcedar (also salt cedar and tamarisk) (Tamarix spp) and buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) will thrive, according to Jose.
If you’re unfamiliar with saltcedar, once you see it blooming, it’s easy to imagine why it was introduced from Eurasia in the 1800s as an ornamental landscaping plant – I’m not excusing it, mind, but the blooms are beautiful, and they were alive with big bristle flies, colorful ailanthus webworm moths, huge seven-spotted Lady Beetles and numerous other insects that fled from my invading camera.
Do note, saltcedar is not only on the Texas invasive plant list, but also on the National U. S. Department of Agriculture invasive species list. More about this invasive species is at the pdf data sheet link here:
Other flora were beginning their spring emergence from the sandy soil. We were enthusiastically taking photos and uploading to various sites to get identifications.