The Complete Guide to Bird Watching in South Texas

Birders come to South Texas to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country

In the next few weeks, the South Texas countryside will come alive with the arrival of the spring migration made up of many colorful bird species. South Texas is an awesome birding area all year long but spring is one of the best times to go birding.

Not only will the summer birds start returning but many species of waterfowl, warblers, and other seldom seen birds can be spotted as they work their way to their breeding grounds in the northern latitudes.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past, birding was a pastime for just a select group of people. It has gained so much popularity that it is a major tourism draw to many areas of the country with South Texas being a top destination.

Texas is one of the top three birding states in the country based on species. Up to 250 different species can be found along the Gulf Coast areas. Several businesses offer guided birding tours from Houston through the Coastal Bend region to the Rio Grande Valley.

Birding is a simple and enjoyable activity that ranges from passively hiking or driving through the countryside to attracting birds with feeders.

Several area guides use an interesting technique to lure in birds by concocting a peanut butter spread and applying it to a log or tree trunk. The spread is made with a mixture of lard, cornmeal, and peanut butter and it works great at drawing in a variety of birds.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding doesn’t require a huge investment as a beginner. To start, beginners will need an inexpensive pair of binoculars and a birding field guide book.

Experienced birders will usually invest in better optics or even a good camera with a telephoto lens. Some experts with years of experience can tell a species just by the sounds the birds make.

Whether you are a novice or an expert birder, you’ll want to have a bird checklist to keep track of how many species you have seen. A great place to find a checklist is any local state park or national wildlife refuge. They’ll have a list of species native to that particular area.

Local residents and Winter Texans that are used to seeing strikingly colored, year round birds such as Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Cardinals, Altimira Orioles, and Pyrrhuloxias can expect many more migrating birds over the next month or two.

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Black-chinned Hummingbird is a summer resident of South Texas, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will soon be passing through on their way north and you might get a glimpse of rare visitors to the area such as Rufous, or Buff-bellied Hummingbirds.

Like the hummingbirds, orioles will be arriving soon. A few will spend the summer but five different species can be seen in the area: Orchard Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Audubon’s Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole. Use oranges or grape jelly at your feeders to increase the odds of attracting them.

Many species of waterfowl can be found as they migrate through the area. Watch around water holes, area lakes, ponds, and coastal marshes for colorful teals, redheads, canvasbacks, and many others in doning their spring breeding plumage.

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorful and beautiful sounding warblers are commonly sighted as they rest up for a few days along their journey north. Some are year round residents but most are migrating through.

There are many species of warblers and it can be challenging to spot them. Some will forage on the ground in thick brush but most prefer trees. Watch for warblers high in the treetops as they glean for insects. Some warblers can have varying colors such as blue, green, and orange but the predominant color in warbler species is yellow.

Several species of sparrows also migrate through the area this time of the year. They are perhaps the most difficult to identify. To make it easier sparrows are usually found in groups of the same species. A good bird book is a helpful tool for identification.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last but not least and perhaps the most colorful bird that actually nests in South Texas is the Painted Bunting. These beauties can be found along woodland edges and brushy roads but will come to backyard feeders. Millet is a great seed for attracting Painted Buntings to a feeder.

Expect to see many other species of shore birds, wading birds, birds of prey, woodpeckers, and upland birds in the region as spring arrives.

April and May allow birders to see South Texas specialties and neotropical migrants at the same time. It’s possible to tally up over 100 species along the coast in a single day.

Spring migration here peaks approximately April 15th through May 10th. Bird diversity in the Valley is at its annual peak during this three week window.

The closer you get to the coast, the more neotropical migrants you see like kites, hummingbirds, thrushes, vireos, grosbeaks, and warblers.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending a day birding at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (right on the coast) along with South Padre Island could easily net over 100 species. You’ll get plenty of classic south Texas specialties along with all the migrating songbirds hugging the coast on their way north.

April 19 to May 7 is historically the busiest window for spring passage among a group of Neotropical migratory songbird species including American Redstarts, Cana­da and Cape May Warblers, and Balti­more and Bullock’s Orioles.

In addition, early April also marks the peak of wildflower season in Texas with fields and roadsides often blanketed with bluebonnets, phlox, paintbrush, and Gaillardia.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the coast near Rockport target specialties such as Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbills, majestic Whooping Cranes, up to 30 species of shorebirds, and eight species of terns. Under certain weather conditions, this area can host sizable fallouts of migrant land birds as well though this is a more common sight further up the coast. In addition, you’ll likely find White-tailed Hawks, Crested Caracara, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers by the dozens, and possibly Audubon’s Oriole.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas with its numerous refuges, state parks, and birding centers, harbors most of the Valley specialties including Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Common Pauraque, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Aplomado Falcon, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole. Many accidentals have appeared over the years here as well. In the vicinity of Falcon Dam, seek out Red-billed Pigeon.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Birding has become a popular activity during the pandemic because it is easy to socially distance from birds

People find their way to birding for all different reasons. But this past year, interest in the hobby exploded rivaling maybe only sourdough bread baking in the pandemic-stricken hearts of Americans and Canadians. Chances are you know someone who, pre-2020, had never given birds a second thought; now they rattle off the differences between towhees and finches, get starry-eyed about roseate spoonbills, and spend weekends stalking the elusive Kirtland’s Warbler.

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A means of escape from pandemic routine, birding offered a reprieve from heavy thoughts and anxieties with time spent outdoors simply observing, say, an epic tug-of-war between a robin and a worm (RIP worm). And for many, it became a sport, metered by the number of birds on one’s life list.

To keep track of their conquests, birders favor lists, like the basic “life list” of birds they’ve personally identified. Each bird listed is associated with a place and a time and a memory! Some of the birds are like ‘oh yeah, that was that trip!

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are yard lists, year lists, state lists, even national park lists. With almost 10,000 species in the world to encounter, there’s always more to be spotted. Run out of birds to identify in your neighborhood? Drive a couple of hundred miles and it’s a whole new demographic, a new lens through which to observe your surroundings. Pack up the RV and drive across America and it could very well be the crux of your travels.

I remember the first green jay (see photo above) and great kiskadee (see photo below) I saw (and photographed) was in South Texas. It was this moment of “WOW! Oh my gosh! What amazing colors!”

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only can birdwatching take you out of your head (and out of doors) it can add depth to an RV trip. But it can be intimidating to know where to start. I’ve gathered some useful tips to help you on your journey to becoming a birder. But be warned: after that first one, you might need to catch them all.

To get started, just look out the window. Unless what you seek is, like, a greater flamingo, you don’t need to go somewhere exotic to see interesting birds. Some of my life birds have been sighted at home or out the window of my motorhome when I’m not expecting to see them. 

Clay-colored thrasher (robin) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want the birds to come to you? Get a bird feeder whether at home or for your RV. It’s a great way to get to know the birds around you—wherever you might be. You can also try different types of bird feeders such as platform feeders, birdseed socks, suet feeders, window feeders (attached with suction cups), fruit feeders, and tube feeders.

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What kind of bird feeder should you get? Unfortunately, there isn’t any ‘feeder X’ that will work for all birds in all situations so there’s an important question that we need to ask ourselves before choosing one. That question is: What kind of birds do I want to attract? The reason that this question is so important is that different birds eat different types of foods in different ways. Without getting too specific here, we can break this down into three broad categories:

  • Seed eaters
  • Fruit eaters
  • Insect eaters
Golden-fronted woodpecker at feeder © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember, the more bird feeders you have out the more birds you can attract so don’t limit yourself to just one. Enjoy your feathered visitors!

When you’re ready to venture further afield, seek out parks and other green spaces. A pro-tip for the adventurous: water treatment plants and sewage ponds are very rich in life and organisms. Waterfowl and waders will come because they’re a really reliable source of water. Big, open, ponds of water!

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose some binoculars. You don’t need any gear to get into birding—just your eyes and ears. But as your interest grows and you start desiring a clearer view you may want to invest in a pair of binoculars. Try out several models as each person’s hands are different. It’s all personal preference. When you test them, feel for the focal knob and make sure it’s easy to reach. 

Many birders prefer something in the 7-power or 8-power range for their wide field of view. Choose a pair with adjustable cups and diopters (which compensate for the space differences between the eyes) especially if you wear glasses. But don’t worry about spending too much. There are definitely usable binoculars that will make your birding experience great in every price range.

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pick an app, or physical field guide—or both. Say the name Sibley to any bird enthusiast and not only will they know who you’re talking about, but they’ll also probably have one or more of his books. David Sibley’s illustrated field guides are the go-to references to help you identify species within the continental US and Canada. (The birders are also very excited about his latest, What It’s Like to Be a Bird.)

Royal terns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An app like Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell Lab (free) can give you customized information based on your specific location. ID a bird from a photo or a short description and it provides you with photo guides, maps, and sounds—an advantage over a physical field guide.

And here’s where all those birding lists come in. For layman users, the free eBird app lets you create and store your own lists—a powerful conservation tool as it provides scientists at the Cornell Ornithology Lab with useful location data. You can also utilize their map database to check out what other users are spotting and where.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Practice, practice, practice! If your goal is to identify birds, there’s only one way to get good at it: practice. Go on bird walks, compare what you see to similar birds in your guide, and take note of the five ID categories: size, shape, color, sound, and behavior.

It’s a pretty good bet that you know the ins and outs of what birders do: They wander across fields, along shorelines, and through woods, peering through an optical device, and—increasingly—tapping away on their phones to record sightings.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So don’t bird photographers do pretty much the same thing?  Except, of course, their “optical device”, is a camera, often with a long lens? Surprisingly, while both activities occur in the same sorts of places and both involve birds they are quite different and not entirely compatible with each other. As I’ve discovered, birders can be downright hostile to photographers wanting to capture the perfect image.

Yellow-crowned night herons © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The differences stem from the different objectives of the participants. Birders typically are interested in hearing and seeing birds, getting as good a look as possible, and moving on down the trail to look for the next bird. Bird photographers, by contrast, typically want to capture a definitive photograph of an individual bird as a representative of its species.  If it’s an Altamira oriole, say, I want a photo that captures the essence of what it means to be that species, and I like to hone in closer than birders much to their distain.

Or just sit back and observe. If you don’t feel like pulling out the field guide or hitting the trails, it’s okay to just sit back and watch, too.

Plain Chachalacas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds are funny. Some more than others resemble their dinosaur ancestors (think: Chachalacas or wild turkey). Some will snatch your sandwich. Some have spectacular colors that don’t look like they should occur in nature and some just want to blend into the trees and be left alone (I can relate). Some build nests in precarious locations that seem, frankly, irrational. They’re just fun to observe. They are cute, they are round, and they are colorful. They do fascinating things. Every time you watch them you’re like ‘what are you doing?’”

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus