From the Panhandle to the coast, Texas is a birders’ paradise—especially in the spring. A guide to sixty spots that will leave you all atwitter.
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 hide in the leaves. Also, there’s something going on all day long, not just in the early morning and the late afternoon. You can wander out anytime and see long-billed dowitchers probing the sand like runaway sewing machines, black skimmers performing their impressive low-altitude flying just above the water’s surface, and plump little sanderlings chasing the waves in and out, in and out, defining the words “perpetual motion.”
And then there are the whooping cranes, snatched from the brink of extinction when their numbers dwindled to 16 in 1940 but now numbering a comparatively healthy 183. If you hurry, you can probably see them this year; they head back to Canada around the middle of April. These big, gangly white birds with the red skullcaps—and their equally gawky brownish youngsters—are in residence at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and can be easily spotted from the observation tower. But it’s much more fun—and you can get closer—if you take one of the boat trips from Rockport. (Captain Ted’s Whooping Crane Tours is a personal favorite.) Besides, there’s nothing quite like being out on the water with that salty wind blowing and gulls shrieking overhead. Another coastal species you’re guaranteed to see is the roseate spoonbill, one of the world’s truly bizarre birds, with cotton-candy-pink plumage, a featherless bony head, and a spoon-shaped bill that looks as if it belongs on a dinosaur.
Day 1:Whooping crane boat trip (call the Rockport Chamber of Commerce at 800-242-0071 for the numbers of Captain Ted and other tour operators) or Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Rockport-Fulton area
Day 2: Port Aransas (especially Port Aransas Birding Center), Mustang Island State Park
Day 3: Corpus Christi parks: Visit Hans A. Suter Wildlife Area at mid-tide during an incoming tide any time of year, and do Blucher Park during spring migration. In seasons other than spring, skip Blucher Park and do Padre Island National Seashore. If you have more time, drive inland to Choke Canyon State Park.
Rio Grande Valley
HERE’S THE REASON TO GO BIRDING IN the Lower Rio Grande Valley: It’s really Mexico, with all that implies about that country’s sultry tropical colors and exotic creatures. You hear a squawk and there’s a green jay, which looks like someone took a blue jay’s head and stuck it on a parrot’s body. You see a flash of Halloween orange and black and there’s an Altamira oriole. One tree over is a great kiskadee flycatcher, with its russet back, harlequinesque face, and flashy yellow vest. The Valley, which in birders’ terms extends from Boca Chica on the Gulf Coast west along the Rio Grande some 150 miles to Falcon Dam, is one of the two most varied and bountiful birding regions of Texas (Big Bend is the other). Certain Central and South American species get this far north, and there are also plants and animals from the Gulf Coast, Great Plains, and Chihuahuan Desert. In addition, many migrating birds funnel up and down the area, converging in spectacular numbers in the spring and fall. More than half the bird species in Texas can be found in this compact area. The Valley is also extremely birder-friendly: The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge has a tram and photo blinds. At Bentsen—Rio Grande Valley State Park, great birding can be done just puttering around the campgrounds. There are also birds galore in the scrubby desert terrain around Falcon State Park and Falcon Reservoir, a few hours’ drive west of the developed, agricultural part of the Valley. Falcon is a memorable place for me because it was there, on one of my first bird outings, that I failed to recognize a house sparrow. (What can I say? I was sure it was some unusual native sparrow.) Ridiculous as it sounds, the experience got me hooked on birdwatching.
First weekend, day 1: Bentsen—Rio Grande Valley State Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Anzalduas County Park
Day 2: Brownsville (for parrots), Sabal Palm Grove Audubon Center and Sanctuary, Boca Chica area if you have time
Second weekend, day 1: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, South Padre Island Convention Center boardwalk (7355 Padre Boulevard)
Day 2: Falcon State Park, Chapeño, Salineño
Central Texas and the Edwards Plateau
SO MUCH OF TEXAS’ INTRINSIC BEAUTY IS austere, even forbidding, but Central Texas is the state’s picture postcard. Springs bubble and seep up to feed creeks that ripple through the countryside. Wildflowers paint the roadsides in the spring. Bird-ing trips here are not just long hauls to get somewhere but can be a pleasure in and of themselves. Although for convenience I’ve lumped several geographic areas into one section, they do have a loose similarity, at least in what they are not: not Piney Woods, not coast, not desert. Species from other areas meet and blend here, but of all the birds that people come to see, two stand out—the rare and endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. Of the two, the warbler is the more threatened because its habitat is more restricted: It nests only on the Edwards Plateau. The vireo is basically just a little gray guy with a black head; the warbler is more striking, with bright yellow cheeks surrounded by a black cap, black throat, and black shoulders. You have a chance of seeing both of them at Lost Maples and Dinosaur Valley state parks and the warbler at Meridian State Park. But I have to tell you that, while these are cute birds, others are just as appealing. Personally, I’d rather see a green kingfisher—a lilliputian kingfisher no bigger than a mockingbird—any day.
Day 1: Neal’s Lodges in the town of Concan, Park Chalk Bluff
Day 2: Kerr Wildlife Management Area, thirteen miles west of Hunt on FM 1340 (visitors are strongly advised to call in advance because some areas are restricted: 830-238-4483); Lost Maples State Park
Day 3: Hornsby Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant, Bastrop State Park, McKinney Roughs (a new nature preserve owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority; from I-35 in Austin, drive 19 miles east on Texas Highway 71 to the main entrance, open Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.; or drive 18.4 miles and turn left on Pope Bend Road, then drive 2.5 miles to the back entrance, open dawn to dusk; it’s a 1.5-mile walk from the main entrance or almost 2 miles from the back entrance to good birding sites along the river; $3 fee; more information at 512-303-5073)
Extra day: Dinosaur Valley State Park, Meridian State Park (these are not close to other sites but are good for golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos)
Trans-Pecos and Big Bend
THERE’S A SAYING THAT APPLIES TO WEST Texas: It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there. The vast canyons and scrubby, arid flatlands define high and lonesome, and yet the area’s widely scattered lakes and rivers and springs provide some of the richest birding in the state. Big Bend in particular is an obligatory destination for birders all over the world. I once sat next to a German doctor on a flight to El Paso; he told me in excellent English that he and his wife had attended a convention in Houston and were now on their way to see the birds of Big Bend. “You’ve heard of Big Bend?” I asked. He said that all of his outdoorsy friends back home knew about Big Bend. Fortunately, he and his wife planned to stay a week, because they would need it: More than 450 species—half the birds in the United States and Canada—have been seen in the park’s 800,000-plus acres. The couple was particularly keen on spotting two Big Bend luminaries: the Lucifer hummingbird, distinguished by its dashing iridescent purple throat feathers, and the Colima warbler, an exceedingly rare (if slightly blah-looking) gray-backed, mustard-yellow-rumped bird that nests in Texas only in the Chisos Mountains from late March to early September.
But Big Bend is, of course, not the only extraordinary birding spot in West Texas. To mention only one other, Guadalupe Mountains National Park abounds in species that you seldom find east of the Rockies and the western United States, such as big, imposing black-and-blue Steller’s jays and acrobatic little mountain chickadees; indeed, the park is less than an hour’s drive southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico. A lot of the really rare birds, like spotted owls, are at the higher elevations and require a tough hike, but McKittrick Canyon is comparatively easy. Peregrine falcons, those feathered dive-bombers, nest on its high cliffs, and—an added bonus—its stands of big-toothed maples turn flame colored every fall.
First weekend: Big Bend National Park (Rio Grande Village, Boquillas Canyon, Chisos Mountains)
Second weekend: Davis Mountains area (starting at Fort Davis, drive the loop formed by Texas highways 166, 118, and 17, including Davis Mountains State Park), Balmorhea State Park, Balmorhea Lake (all these make one full day or two sparse days)
Third weekend, day 1: Guadalupe Mountains National Park (McKittrick Canyon, Pine Springs, Frijole Springs); if you have time, Hueco Tanks State Park (visitors are advised to call in advance because some areas are restricted: 915-857-1135)
Day 2: Franklin Mountains State Park, Fred Hervey Water Reclamation Ponds, Feather Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, and the neighborhoods around the El Paso Country Club (take exit 11 off I-10 North, turn left on Mesa Street, and drive about one mile to Vista del Monte street; park and walk the area)
Panhandle and Western Plains
THE SCENERY IN THE PANHANDLE IS SNEAKY. You’ll be driving along those endless plains and cultivated fields, flat as a rug, when without warning the terrain will begin to rise and fall a bit. Hmmm, you’ll think, this is better. And then—wham—there will be some drop-dead-gorgeous canyon, walls striped in every imaginable shade of russet and ocher, set against a sky as blue as a gas flame. Or you’ll be wondering where the next service station is when you notice that the landscape actually has some green in it, that in fact it’s downright pretty, gently rocking and rolling along. While this doesn’t happen all over the Panhandle and Western Plains, it does occur around Palo Duro and Caprock canyons and way up in the northeast corner of the Panhandle, along the Canadian River.
Panhandle birding is mainly a winter endeavor because that’s when vast numbers of waterfowl and other birds from the northern and western United States camp out on and around the area’s lakes. So you must be prepared for cold weather and winds whipping the pages of your field guide. You must also be prepared to do a lot of traveling, because the better birding areas are scattered all over the place. But you’ll be rewarded with species that simply don’t get any farther south. One Palo Duro Canyon attraction is the northern shrike. A survivalist of the avian world, this gray-and-black bird stocks up for hard times by impaling a stash of grasshoppers and other insects on thorns and barbed wire.
Day 1: Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and if you have time, Caprock Canyons State Park
Day 2: Lake Marvin, Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area
Piney Woods and Northeast Texas
THIS IS THE ANTI-TEXAS—THE WET PART. Whereas the rest of the state has “Old West” written all over it, the Piney Woods has “Deep South.” On perfect April or October days the air here is moist and cool, but come summer, all that humidity will be plastering your hair to your forehead and helping to breed condor-size mosquitoes. Things grow like crazy here: Dark green moss furs the trunks of pines; in a tea-colored marsh, rows of shelf fungus sprout from a log like ranks of turtles basking in the sun; a newborn mushroom, as stubby and pink as a piglet’s snout, pokes up through the dead leaves and pine needles. The area’s lakes—even those that are shallow enough to wade across—look mysterious and deep.
Many of the birds you can find in the Piney Woods live in other parts of Texas too, but some are mostly seen in the eastern United States. If I had to highlight just one, it would be the rare red-cockaded woodpecker, but it’s easier to find a brown-headed nuthatch: Just look for action along the ends of tree branches and twigs as these hyper little gray birds come barreling along, looking for insects. They also can be spotted moving headfirst down the trunks of pines.
First weekend, day 1: Huntsville State Park, Jones State Forest
Day 2: Angelina National Forest (Boykin Springs area), Martin Dies, Jr., State Park
Second weekend, day 1: Cooper Lake State Park, Lake Tawakoni
Day 2: Wright Patman Lake, Lake o’ the Pines, and if you have time, Caddo Lake State Park and Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area
Selected Books and Resources Birder’s Guide to Texas, by Edward Kutac ($18.95, Gulf Publishing Company). Newly revised second edition with information on three hundred sites.
Birding Texas, by Roland Wauer and Mark Elwonger ($22.95, Falcon Publishing). Great new book with detailed maps and birding strategies for two hundred sites.
Field Guide to the Birds of North America ($21, National Geographic Society). Excellent one-volume bird identification guide.
A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America, by Chandler S. Robbins et al. ($15.75, Golden Books). Called the “Golden guide”; compact, good for beginners.
American Birding Association: publishes fine guides to the Texas coast and the Rio Grande Valley. Order from 800-634-7736 or [email protected]
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: offers two excellent free maps of dozens of sites on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Order from 888-892-4737 or www.tpwd.tx.state.us/nature/birding. Also watch for the April issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, which will have a special 42-page section on birding.
Texas birding clubs: For a list, contact Parks and Wildlife, above, or the Texas Audubon Society at 512-306-0225 or www.audubon.org/chapter/tx.
Acknowledgments The following people were very helpful in suggesting sites for this story: Victor Emanuel of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours; Cliff Shackelford and Mark Lockwood at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; Brush Freeman and Petra Hockey, members of the Texas Bird Records Committee of the Texas Ornithological Society; Noreen Damude at the Texas Audubon Society; and Roland Wauer, a co-author of Birding Texas.