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Formosa-Tejano Wetlands: Where the wild things are

By by Dianna Wray
April 23, 2013 at 8:03 p.m.
Updated April 23, 2013 at 11:24 p.m.

Wildlife photographer Bill Harvey finds a long-billed dowitcher searching for food in the Formosa-Tejano Wetlands in Calhoun County.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Formosa Tejano Wetlands School is about two miles south of La Ward on state Highway 172.

The 245-acre wetlands is open to the public.

For more information, contact Debra Sonsel at 361-552-9728.

LA WARD - Bill Harvey trained his binoculars on a small, slim figure that looked, at first glance, like a bit of wood bobbing on the water.

"That's a baby gator! Look, there's another one," Harvey, public relations director for Formosa Plastics, said, pointing a finger toward the creature.

The Formosa-Tejano Wetlands have been in existence since they were dedicated in 1999. The stretch of land, about 245 acres, was once dedicated to rice farming, but the economic downturn in the 1980s caused a number of people to sell. Formosa owners were buying land for a planned expansion of the Point Comfort plant, and they bought a tract along state Highway 172.

When company representatives were working with Houston-based environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn on a zero-discharge plan for the plant, he suggested they use the water saved by the new plan to create a wetlands with some of the company-owned land that wasn't being used.

The area had been farmed for generations. Turning it into a wetlands required remaking the land so that water from Keller Creek and other sources would circulate between six different cells the way water would in a naturally created wetlands.

By the time Robert Wallace, director of special projects at Formosa, got involved in 2000, the wetlands were up and running.

Once the wetlands were established, it was just a matter of waiting for wildlife to come and start using the place.

Harvey knew about the wetlands, but he didn't really know the kinds of things he could see - not just birds but coyotes, bobcats, snakes, alligators - until he started coming out to take photographs earlier this year.

Harvey, an avid wildlife enthusiast, has spent hours out in the wetlands observing flocks of ducks and geese, red-winged blackbirds, great blue herons, sandhills and all kinds of creatures living in the bulrushes.

"I've been coming out here all the time for the past few months. It's been so interesting because you get all the variations of spring as these different birds fly in," Harvey said.

The wetlands has an educational area for schools to use to give students a hands-on experience in science. The area also is open to bird watchers and those who appreciate wildlife.

Debra Sonsel has been the instructor for the educational center at the wetlands, sponsored in part by Calhoun County Independent School District.

The program is a way to get students to see the science they've read about in the classroom.

"It's a matter of getting the kids out and away from town and teaching them how to look around and really notice things. They're so busy and distracted with all of these electronics that it's hard to get them to really slow down and see things," Sonsel said.

Students can do that at the Formosa-Tejano Wetlands, she said. The instruction is designed to teach the students based on Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills that the STAAR test is based on, but the test is never mentioned out in the field.

The program keeps the structure flexible, too, Sonsel said, because these are seasonal wetlands and as migratory species clear out after the winter, other species will arrive.

"I have lesson plans, but if we see an eagle flying around we're going to stop and look at the eagle. You never know what you're going to see out here. It's always changing," she said.

She always makes a point of telling the students the wetlands are open to the public from sunrise to sunset seven days a week, hoping they'll go home and tell their parents about it and bring them back with them.

About a month ago, Harvey photographed a bald eagle swooping over the lakes, then watched as the bird darted down to the water and snatched up its prey.

The area will remain dedicated as a wetlands as long as Formosa owns it, Harvey said.

Wallace agreed.

"This place has no retail value. The only impact it has is on the wildlife," Wallace said. "But the company owners are aware that they are a part of the community and this is a way to give back."

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