Hi. My name is Pat, and I’m a birdaholic.
I haven’t yet blacked out and woken up two days later in a strange place with a pair of binoculars in my hand, but birding has cost me more time and money than I care to think about. I once made a 2,500-mile round trip to Mexico to see a rare jay. I have a long shelf of bird books, and birding Web pages are bookmarked on my computer. Like everyone in my little circle of birding friends, I have a personal “bird name”—I’m the Brown-backed Solitaire, a cute Mexican thrush. And every December for years, the same item has been at the top of my Christmas list: a pair of thousand-dollar Leica binoculars. (I think I know who’s going to end up buying them for herself.) Despite this obsession, though, sometimes I get lazy—serious types don’t plan to go birding and then change their mind when the alarm goes off at five in the morning, and they take the time to learn their flycatchers and sparrows. Notwithstanding such lapses, I’m hooked. It may sound absurd, but seeing some fantastic bird that I’ve never seen before gives me, well, a rush.
Texas is a good place to be addicted to birds. It is the number one birding destination in the United States, with more birds than any other state—613 species, in fact; that’s more than two thirds of the 912 species in the United States and Canada. Its geographic location in the middle of the central flyway (one of four North American avian highways) brings in birds from the Rockies, the eastern United States, Canada, and Mexico. Depending on the season, you can see dazzling tropical species, gemlike migratory songbirds, and millions of wintering waterfowl and shorebirds, all without crossing a state line or national border. Because of this abundance, birding here can be overwhelming—so many birds, so little time. It can also be oddly repetitious, because the top sites pull you back again and again. When I realized the other day that I had been to the Rio Grande Valley and the Gulf Coast a zillion times but had never really explored the Panhandle or the Piney Woods, I wondered if other birders were in the same rut.
So, with help from the experts whose names are mentioned at the end of this story, I came up with a list of the best publicly accessible birding sites across the state. There are sixty altogether, eight of them must-sees. (Do not die without visiting those listed in boldface type.) My target audience is enthusiastic amateurs, but I hope that even seasoned birders will discover a few places they don’t know. For convenience, I’ve divided the places into eleven two- or three-day birding weekends; each day consists of at least a pair of sites located within reasonable driving distance of each other (less than an hour and a half). Good single sites in the middle of nowhere are usually omitted. Be warned that occasionally there’s a long haul (more than two hours) between day 1 and day 2, but that goes with living in Texas.
The equipment you’ll need is a pair of binoculars, a field guide for identifying what you see, and a site guide—sort of a birding Baedeker—with maps and directions to tell you where to look and what species to expect. (A copy of Birding Texas is essential for finding the places listed here; see “Selected Books and Resources,” page 143.) Whatever you do, even if it’s for just one gorgeous early morning, don’t let spring go by without getting out into the country. Migration is at its height; the air is filled with the movement of wings. Go forth and bird.
IF ANY ONE AREA OF TEXAS COULD BE singled out for fantastic birding during spring migration, it would probably be the stretch of coast between Galveston and the Louisiana state line. All the birds that went south for the winter are coming back now along the central flyway. This is the time of year when birders pray for a norther. When the weather turns nasty, they become positively gleeful. Vast migrating flocks of warblers and tanagers and orioles—struggling to make land as they fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico—scan the coastal marshes and flatlands for any little clump of trees; when they spot one, they fall into it by the hundreds, even thousands. Almost any greenery or tall object can get such a fallout (offshore oil rigs have occasionally experienced a rain of frazzled warblers), but the motte of live oaks and other trees in the town of High Island is legendary for them; so is the Sabine Woods bird sanctuary. Sometimes the birds are so goofy they don’t even bother to hide; you can bird from a lawn chair. Fallouts don’t happen every year, but even when the weather is beautiful, birds are everywhere. Whatever the conditions, you might want to keep an eye out for a couple of striking specimens—the wonderfully gaudy male painted bunting with its patchwork of bright red, green, and indigo feathers, and the summer tanager, which is a vibrant rose-red from beak to tail. When you’ve seen all the songbirds you want to, switch to waterbirds; this part of the coast is great for them too.
Day 1: High Island, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Day 2: Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Woods bird sanctuary, Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (at mid-tide during an incoming tide, if possible)
TO ME, COASTAL BIRDWATCHING IS A viscerally different experience from woodland birdwatching. Finding birds in trees can be like a computer game—quick, intricate, and full of twists and turns. Watching birds on the shore and over the water, however, is deliberate, meditative, almost mesmerizing. On a purely Zen level, I like coastal birding because I love being near the ocean and feeling that spiritual connection to earth, water, and sky. On a practical level, it’s great because the birds can’t