Legendarily vast, Texas spans habitats from southern bald-cypress swamps to the Chihuahuan Desert and from the subtropical lower Rio Grande Valley to the windswept plains of the Llano Estacado. Little wonder, then, that Texas’s bird list of nearly 650 ranks second among the states (behind only California).
The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Big Bend National Park. The list could go on and on.
In celebration of World Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday of May (May 13, 2023), here is a look at a dozen of my favorite birding sites in Texas which hosts more bird-watching festivals than any other state.
World Birding Center
Not just one, but nine unique birding locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Each site of the World Birding Center has its own attractions. From a historic adobe hacienda to scenic bluffs high above the Rio Grande and pristine wilderness to teeming wetlands, the World Birding Center network offers visitors an array of birding adventures. These Rio Grande Valley locations coordinate more than 500 bird species between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Rio Grande Valley Communities, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center is a great place to begin a south Texas nature adventure. As a large remnant tract of Rio Grande floodplain forest, Bentsen is a magnet for the many regional bird species that make south Texas famous. Green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas congregate regularly at the bird feeding stations. Other birds to look for include gray hawk, white-tipped dove, groove-billed ani, northern beardless-tyrannulet, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, and green heron.
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
More species of birds have been recorded at Laguna Atascosa (417) than at any other national wildlife refuge in the nation. Laguna Atascosa covers 97,000 acres near the southern tip of Texas comprising thornscrub forest, freshwater wetlands, prairies, beaches, and mudflats. A quarter-million ducks winter in the area including Redhead, Grebes, American White Pelican, and Sandhill Crane also winter here. Around 30 species of shorebirds can be found here throughout much of the year.
Many birders visit the refuge to see some of the specialties of southern Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley such as Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Curve-billed Thrasher, Long-billed Thrasher, Botteri’s Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, Bronzed Cowbird, and Altamira Oriole.
Guadalupe River State Park
A paradise for bird watchers in the Hill Country with 240 documented bird species, Guadalupe River State Park is located 30 miles north of San Antonio at the north end of Park Road 31, northwest of Bulverde. You’ll find the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, the goldfinch of Texas, and the only bird species with a breeding range limited to Texas. Thirteen miles of hiking trails include the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to spot one of these colorful birds.
Pro Tip: Reserve one of 85 hookup campsites here. Purchase an annual Texas State Park Pass for free entry to more than 80 state parks.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations and if offers endless fascination for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, botanists, and people who enjoy dramatic, rugged landscapes. Situated on the Rio Grande in western Texas, the park doesn’t receive nearly the visitation its rewards truly merit.
Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods, willows, and other wetland vegetation. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.
The park’s most sought-after species is Colima Warbler which nests in the Chisos Mountains, usually requiring a several-mile hike to find. More likely in lower elevations are such species as Scaled Quail, Gray Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Common Poorwill, Vermilion Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, Varied Bunting, and Scott’s Oriole.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world with its woodlands and wetlands. Santa Ana has a fine visitor center with a log of recent bird sightings. From here, many trails wind into the woods. From November through April, the refuge operates a tram (fee) along the auto tour route which is closed to vehicles in that season, though it can be walked.
Many of the region’s specialties are seen here including Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole to name only a few of the most regular species.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
A superb all-around birding destination, Aransas occupies a large peninsula surrounded by coastal bays separated from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands. It boasts an astoundingly lengthy bird list of more than 400 species yet the refuge is known best for one bird—the Whooping Crane. Standing nearly five feet tall Whooping Cranes are sometimes seen from the observation tower located along the refuge’s 16-mile auto tour route. The best way to see them is to take a commercial tour from Rockport or Port Aransas in the season from November to April.
Waterfowl, grebes, and rails are present in wetlands from fall through spring. Ponds, marshes, and bays are home year round to cormorants, pelicans, 14 or more species of wading birds including Roseate Spoonbill and around eight species of terns. The refuge’s location makes it possible to see a great diversity of migrant birds following the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.
High Island has a salt dome and mineral spring at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and rises 32 feet above the surrounding marshes. For a few weeks each spring, this small town less than a mile from the Texas coast becomes a busy gathering place for birds and birders. Northbound migrant birds having crossed the Gulf of Mexico fly down to the woodland tracts here to rest and feed in the proper conditions creating a “fallout” with birds seemingly crowding every limb of every tree: flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and more.
The action starts in March and peaks in late April and early May. There’s no guarantee that any particular day will be a great one but the day after a storm or front with north winds is often the best. But in spring at High Island even an average day is really good.
Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge
Five species of geese winter on this refuge at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma on the route of the Central Flyway so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter.
Geese—Greater White-fronted, Snow, Ross’s, Cackling, and Canada—make up part of the waterfowl numbers with 15 or more species of ducks added. Bald Eagles winters here ready to make a meal of any injured birds. American White Pelican is present year round and Roseate Spoonbill can arrive as a post-breeding visitor.
Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands.
A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.
An amazing congregation of shorebirds and wading birds is often on display at Bolivar Flats, a coastal spot on the Bolivar Peninsula across the channel from Galveston. It’s reached by turning south on Rettilon Road about 3.6 miles east of the ferry landing in Port Bolivar. (A town parking permit obtainable locally is required.)
Practically every species of cormorant, pelican, heron, egret, ibis, plover, sandpiper, gull, tern, and similar bird that ever ventured near the Texas coast has appeared here. Many other species stop in or pass overhead, too, which explains the bird list of more than 320 for this one small spot on the coast.
Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
One of the must-visit sites of American birding, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. Its richness of bird life makes it a place that can be explored over and over with something new seen every time.
Flocks of waterfowl from fall through spring, fifteen or more species of wading birds, rails and other marsh birds—these are just a few of the highlights of Anahuac. Roads lead from the visitor information station at the main entrance to East Bay, an arm of Galveston Bay accessing ponds, marshes, observation platforms, and trails. Though waterbirds are the highlight here, an area called The Willows, an isolated tract of trees just west of the entrance, can be a songbird magnet in migration.
A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork (post-breeding visitor), Neotropic Cormorant, Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Rail, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Seaside Sparrow, and Dickcissel.
Brazos Bend State Park
Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods such as elm, hackberry, sycamore, pecan, and cottonwood create a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.
Look on park lakes and wetlands for Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and Roseate Spoonbill, and Purple Gallinule. Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Least Grebe are seen occasionally.
Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.
The lake for which the refuge was named has dried up because of overuse of the local aquifer. However, the refuge manages other wetlands that act as a virtual magnet for birds in this arid region. From fall through spring, many ducks use these wetlands; some such as Cinnamon Teal and Redhead remain to nest.
Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet breed here and more than 25 species of shorebirds have been recorded in migration. Some of the nesting birds here are Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Chihuahuan Raven, and Rock Wren.
Great Texas Wildlife Trail
This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.
Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of Whooping Cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed Reddish Egrets, blazing pink Roseate Spoonbills, and beautifully patterned White-tailed Hawks.
The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico enlivening the American landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy Ringed Kingfishers like Belted Kingfishers on steroids, Great Kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family, and Green Jays which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue tones.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.