Travelers to the South Texas coastal areas of the Rio Grande Valley frequently spot people wearing unseasonably warm, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. To top it off they have pairs of binoculars dangling around their necks and are toting bottles of water, bug spray, sunscreen, and ear-marked copies of The Sibley Guide to Birds. South Texas is a hot-spot for bird watching in Texas. The Rio Grande Valley is home to the World Birding Center, which offers nine bird-spotting locations across a 120-mile portion of Texas known for its landscape diversity. The World Birding Center is just one of many places that birders from around the country head, checking off their lists of birds to watch.
According to Mark W. Lockwood, author of Learn About Texas Birds:
“More kinds of birds have been found in Texas than any other state in the United States: just over 600 species. One of the main reasons Texas has so many birds is its location. Texas is in the southern part of the United States, and it is also in the center of the continent. This central location means that birds from both the eastern and western U.S. can be seen in Texas. Texas also shares a long border with Mexico and as a result we have many species of birds that are found primarily in Mexico.”
Lockwood suggests the novice birder begin by grouping Texas birds into the following categories: summer residents, winter residents, permanent residents, migrants, and accidentals. Typically, Texas bird watchers are tracking summer and winter residents. Many birding locations commonly host traveling species that are only in the state temporarily on their migratory paths. To see an accidental bird which, according to Lockwood, are “far from where they naturally occur,” would be unusual. Shirley and Dan Wilkerson, long-time birders from Bryan, Texas, learned of this phenomenon. The Wilkersons said, “A Common Crane from Asia, wintered [in Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge,] and hundreds of birders came from all over the [n]ation to see it.”
Texas Birding Locations
Many birders enjoy spring migration in High Island, Padre Island Convention Center and the Land Lot, Rockport, Corpus Christi, Freeport, Laffite’s Cove in Galveston, and Big Bend, and Balmorhea. For fall migration, Hazel Bazemore Park in Corpus Christi and Smith Point near Galveston offer hawk watching as a primary feature, along with other bird species. Hazel Bazemore and Smith Point are favorites of the Wilkersons, “where as many as 300,000 Broad-Winged Hawks have been recorded in a single day. [The hawks] form ‘kettles,’ and lift off in the mornings when the heat allows for good thermals, which they ride, very high, and head south for the winter.” According to the Wilkersons, a good winter watching spot is Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in West Texas, which hosts geese and Sandhill Cranes.
Devoted birders watch year round, but spring and fall migration are the two major bird watching seasons. The Wilkersons said, “In spring, you will see migrating warblers, such as Nashville, Kentucky, Canada, Hooded, Cerulean, Mourning, MacGillivray’s, and Chestnut-sided. You may also expect to see Lincoln’s Sparrows, Clay-colored Sparrows, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Waterthrushes, Ovenbirds, Blue-headed, Philadelphia, and Red-eyed Vireos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and an assortment of thrushes and flycatchers.”
Fall migration frequently contains only small groups of birds making their way south, but hawks, geese, and ducks do typically migrate in large groups around that time. To spot Eastern hawks, the Wilkersons suggested areas around Houston and Corpus Christi, where the Broad Wing Hawk has reached counts of more than 750,000 in a single fall season. “Hawks follow the coast as their heavy bodies require them to rest periodically, and they cannot fly over the Gulf as a hummingbird does.” The Wilkersons also advised, “The playa lakes of the Panhandle host tens of thousands of geese and ducks in the fall and winter. Central Texas has Swainson’s Hawks by the tens of thousands in a day.”
The Wilkersons added, “Winter is also an excellent bird watching season. While many birds travel all the way south to Mexico and South America to winter, birds also stop to winter in Texas. It is an excellent season for waterfowl (ducks and shorebirds), some sparrows, hummingbirds, and hawks. The waterfowl winter on lakes such as Richland Chambers, or on the coast.”
If you miss the traditional spring and fall migrations, regional birding is still available. Texas has eight different regions that are detailed on expert birder Bert Frenz’s website, www.bafrenz.com. Many birders utilize his detailed lists by region. Bird watchers take this opportunity for regional travel to see nesting birds not native to their home areas. For example, at the World Birding Center in Edinburg, the Green Kingfisher, the Ringed Kingfisher, the Least Grebe, and the Guava Skipper are examples of some of the unique sightings.
If you are going on a bird watching excursion, it is important to be prepared for the elements. Optimal bird watching conditions often occur after a big storm when bird activity and flight can be of a higher volume. This usually involves wearing boots, rain gear, and insect repellent.
To see or best capture the bird through a lens, a birder often has to get into atypical positions or go off of the trail. It is good to keep a backup set of clothes in the car as well as replacement batteries for the camera.
It is also important to observe proper birding etiquette when bird watching with a large group of people. Speaking in low tones can be important as not to frighten the birds away. Also, being mindful of your camera’s shutter click is important. There is an official birding code of ethics published by the American Birding Association, which has many good reminders when observing natural bird habitats.
Additionally, it is important to be prepared to wait. Many birds reward your patience by presenting interesting behaviors that are fun to observe, especially in mass quantities. On average, a birding excursion can take from three to five hours. If you are traveling long distances to see or capture a specific bird, plan a two-day trip to gain optimal viewing time.
Helpful Birding Tools
Many birders turn to TexBirds as a helpful tool. This is a free list for posting “Ornithological observations in Texas.” The Wilkersons said, “Many of the small birds such as Warbler, Oriole, or Hummingbird migrate from the Yucatan to mainland U.S. across the Gulf at night. They fly in flocks of tens of thousands that can be tracked on weather radar. One coastal birder does this and updates the bird traffic each night by sending a post to TexBirds.”
There are many resources available to begin your bird watching experience, including membership in the Texas Ornithological Society, TexBirds or e-Bird (databases where local birders can report their sightings), and the local Audubon Society. These organizations offer common community, excursions, discussions, and information sharing. Ultimately, you also will likely be geared up with binoculars, cameras, and birding field guides! Happy bird watching!