Everyone is familiar with Texas icons like the Alamo and River Walk but how many of their feathered friends can you identify? Northern Cardinal, Grackle, Northern Mockingbird…those are pretty easy but there are so many more!
Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.
Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:
- Far West Texas
- Upper Texas Coast
- Central Texas Coast
- Lower Texas Coast
- Heart of Texas West
- Heart of Texas East
- Panhandle Plains
- Prairies and Piney Woods West
- Prairies and Piney Woods East
Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?
Learning to identify all of the state’s birds can be a daunting task, so here’s a list that’s been trimmed down to some of the more commonplace and easily seen species.
So, armed with this starter list and a helpful birding guidebook and a pair of binoculars and a camera head out and see how many you can spot and identify. Bring family and friends and turn it into a contest. You’ll find being bird-brained is fun for everyone.
Such a list, of course, has to begin with the state bird of Texas. This gray and white bird makes up for its drab appearance with a voice that could compete in any singing competition. The Latin name (Mimus polyglottos) which translates loosely to “the many-tongued mimic” really sums up this songster. Instead of singing its song, this bird performs like a tribute band playing an original band’s song note for note. A seasoned male Mockingbird can sing the songs of dozens of other species found nearby and make a variety of other vocalizations from frog sounds to car alarms.
No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird having a pink body red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or salt water, or flying in small groups overhead.
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Unmistakably tropical, the brilliantly-colored Green Jay ranges south to Ecuador but enters the U.S. only in southernmost Texas where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Green Jays are colorful birds with a pale green back and underside, a black chest, a blue and blackhead and face, and yellow sides on their tail.
The Great Kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
When it comes to patience, no bird can outdo the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a short, stocky wading bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a thick black bill, and a short neck. It has a slate-gray body, a dark bluish-black head with a white streak along the cheek, and a very pale yellow (sometimes so pale that it appears white) crown that extends back from the head in the form of a few wispy feathers. The wing feathers have a grey and black striped appearance.
Most flycatchers are drab but the male Vermilion Flycatcher is a brilliant exception. It is usually seen perched fairly low in open areas near water making periodic flights to nab insect prey. As if the male’s bright colors were not advertisement enough, he also displays by puffing up his feathers and fluttering high in the air while singing repeatedly. Fairly common in parts of the southwest and Texas, the vermilion flycatcher is also widespread in Central and South America.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
The Black-bellied Whistling Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican Tree Duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas, and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.
Related article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure
The Tricolored Heron is a medium-sized wading bird named for its three main colors: bluish-gray, purple, and white. Its head, back, and wings are a dark bluish-gray. The back of the neck is purple. The belly is white. The tri-color also has a narrow white streak with delicate rust-colored markings down the front of its neck. The tri-colored is more active than the larger herons. This bird does not patiently stand and wait when feeding. It walks through shallow water in a jerky fashion, crouching and darting as it moves along. It lunges and then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect.
The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the U. S. makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. The Altamira has a black back, wings, bib, lores (the region between the eyes and nostril), a bill; orange head, nape, and underparts.
A stripe-backed woodpecker of eastern Mexico and northern Central America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker reaches the U. S. only in the brushlands and woodlands of Texas and southwest Oklahoma. Very noisy and conspicuous, the Golden-fronted has barred black and white back and upper wings, the rump is white, and the tail is usually black.
Related to falcons but very different in shape and habits, the crested caracara reach the U. S. only in Texas and Florida. A large, long-legged raptor, the Crested Caracara has a black cap with a short crest at back, pale sides of back and neck, bare red skin on the face, black body, white tail with wide black tip, white patches at ends of dark wings, and faint barring on upper back and breast.
Related article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds
A conspicuously long-legged, long-necked heron of shallow saltwater, the Reddish Egret is a very active forager. Often draws attention by its feeding behavior: running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings, and abruptly stabbing at fish.
Great Blue Heron
More old-timers refer to this species as a “blue crane” but this heron is not related to cranes. This tall wetland inhabitant will hunt for fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like in just about any creek, pond, lake, or roadside ditch. With an overall grayish color, this bird does have hints of blue-gray here and there. In flight, the Great Blue Heron might conjure up beliefs that pterodactyls still fly in our friendly skies. When waters freeze in winter, don’t expect these birds to chip away at the ice. Instead, watch them switch to dry upland settings in search of rodents. Who knows, maybe a switch from slimy fish to furry rats every now and then breaks the monotony!
The remarkable bill of the black skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large orange and black bill are knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches.
“Long” and “thin” are the best adjectives for describing this elegant black and white shorebird: long neck; thin, needle-like black bill; and long, pink legs. Black-necked Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to the bodies of any bird—only flamingoes are longer. The Black-necked stilt wades in shallow water as it feeds, probing with its long, thin bill for insects and crustaceans on or near the surface of the water. It finds most of its food visually, picking insects, small crustaceans, and tiny fish from the surface of the water or mud.
Great Horned Owl
With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fares such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.
A large, orange-billed tern, the royal tern is found only along ocean beaches. Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the royal tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast. It forages mostly by hovering over the water and plunging to catch prey just below the surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming the water with the bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to the water’s surface to pick up floating refuse.
A resident of dense brushy habitats, the Long-billed Thrasher is found only in southern Texas and eastern Mexico. There it is a common permanent resident of native woodland and thickets, foraging on the ground under dense cover, often singing from a hidden position within the brush. Uses its long bill to flip dead leaves aside as it rummages in the leaf litter for insects; also will use its bill to dig in soil within an inch of the surface. And it’s often seen perching in shrubs and trees to eat berries.
Related article: World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails
Early American settlers from Europe confused this carrion eater with the “buzzard” back home but the two aren’t alike. Though the name “buzzard” is used in other parts of the world for hawks, it refuses to be erased from our vocabulary for vultures. When soaring, this vulture has a silvery tinge to the trailing edge of the entire wing. When they’re feasting on roadkill, notice their milk chocolate coloration and, in adults, a red featherless head. Only a mother could love a face like that. There is another species of vulture in Texas: the black vulture. The black vulture sports a gray featherless head and is dark black. During the flight, black vultures also have a silvery tinge to their wings but only on the outer tips. If we didn’t have vultures, our roadways would soon be overrun with smelly, unsightly roadkill.
How great would it be if every bird were named for its vocalization, like this one? A resounding “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee” can be heard not only in natural settings but also in ball fields and parking lots. In flight, watch for the fiery orange rump and pointy wings and, when perched, watch for two distinctive black bands across the breast resembling wide necklaces. If you approach one and find it limping away with a drooped wing and loud cries, know that you’re being duped. This action — called feigning — is designed to lure you away from a nearby ground nest or nestlings, so tread lightly.
I don’t think it’s a compliment to be called an “old coot,” but it’s OK to spot some on a nearby lake or reservoir. Since this bird needs a running start to take off from the water, it doesn’t hang out in small bodies of water. If you find one there, it’s usually an indication that inclement weather grounded the bird and the runway is too short for it to take off again. Commonly occurring in rafts, or large floating flocks of birds, this all-dark bird has a pale white bill and feeds on aquatic organisms and vegetation. This species, no relation to ducks, pours into Texas during fall to spend the winter months where water doesn’t freeze, but watch for most to head north in spring. Some stick around throughout the year and raise a family. The young look similar in shape but have a whitish head that distinguishes them from mom and dad.
With a long, pointy tail and a small, beady head, this dove enjoys sunflower seeds whether the seeds are at the feeder, on a fresh sunflower stalk, or the ground. The best feeders for a flock of these are rural sunflower fields in late summer or early fall; their Columbidae relatives line up shoulder-to-shoulder on the power lines and fences, assessing the danger before dropping down into the field.
It’s fun to watch this feisty, crested bird feed on sunflower seeds. With one foot, they pin a seed to the limb they’re perched on and begin to hammer away to open it, using head and bill like an all-in-one hammer and chisel. After all that work, they gobble down a tasty seed that’s rich in fat, fiber, protein, several vitamins and minerals, and, most importantly, calories to get them through tough times until Mother Nature can again provide her buffet.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.