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

Great Spots for Birding in Louisiana

Louisiana’s subtropical climate, forests, and position within the corridor of a major North American migratory flyway make the state a haven for a huge variety of birds and RVers who want to see them in their natural habitat

There’s no city in the United States like New Orleans and there’s no culture more distinctive than that of the Cajuns of southern Louisiana. For an RVing bird-watching enthusiast those rewards add to the appeal of a state full of productive national wildlife refuges, pinewoods, barrier islands, and wetlands. Who doesn’t enjoy great food and music after a day of birding?

Many of Louisiana’s best birding sites are within 50 miles or so of the Gulf Coast—and some are on the coast such as famed spring fallout spots Grand Isle and Peveto Woods. Wildlife refuges in the southwestern part of the state including Lacassine and Cameron Prairie provide at least some dry-land access to Louisiana’s truly vast expanse of wetlands. (Some estimates assert that Louisiana’s wetlands comprise 40 percent of those of the entire continental United States.)

Birds that could be considered target species in Louisiana would include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Anhinga, Roseate Spoonbill, Swallow-tailed Kite, Yellow Rail (there’s an annual festival in the town of Jennings dedicated to this elusive species), Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Painted Bunting.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana birding hotspots

Grand Isle

On Louisiana’s southern coast lies a barrier island about seven miles long that holds a legendary place in the minds of the state’s birders. The woodlands here comprise one of the best fallout sites for spring migration where northbound birds that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico stop to rest and feed. Add that to the long list of vagrant birds that end up here and to the shorebirds and seabirds found along the coast and you have a species list that tops 300.

The peak for spring migration occurs around mid-April and it’s then that it seems every tree has a birder peering up into its branches. He or she may be looking at a limb loaded with Gray Catbirds Scarlet Tanagers or mixed warblers. The list of possible birds at Grand Isle in spring is essentially the list of all the migrant land birds of eastern North America and a substantial number of sea- and shorebirds.

Hardcore birders also know Grand Isle as a place where seeing a rarity is hardly rare. A Fork-tailed Flycatcher or Black-whiskered Vireo or Varied Thrush might appear anywhere. (While spring is the top time at Grand Isle, many rarities show up during fall migration.) Of course, Grand Isle is also a fine place to see shorebirds along the beaches and mudflats and wading birds in the marshes, and these birds aren’t so seasonal-dependent.

Various nature organizations have purchased land around the island as bird sanctuaries and a state park occupies the eastern end. As is usual with fallout sites, the day after bad weather is usually the best time to be out birding.

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

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

Although this expansive refuge suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it still offers excellent birding near New Orleans. In total, more than 270 species have been observed here from waterbirds to migrant songbirds. Much of the refuge is wetland that’s not accessible to the public, but the Ridge Trail allows excellent wildlife viewing.

Parking for the Ridge Trail is on the north side of Highway 90 about four miles east of I-510. From here, a boardwalk leads through wetlands and scrub. The levee here can also be walked for additional viewpoints.

Another access area is located on the south side of Highway 90 just east of the Ridge Trail. More marsh viewing is possible by taking Highway 11 north from Highway 90 and stopping carefully along the roadside.

Some of the notable species seen often at Bayou Sauvage include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Anhinga, Brown Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, Gull-billed Tern (spring through summer), Black Skimmer (most common in late summer), and Painted Bunting (spring through summer).

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park / Barataria Preserve

A wonderful natural area just a short drive south of downtown New Orleans, the Barataria Preserve tract of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park protects around 23,000 acres of woods and wetlands. It’s not known for any particular rarity but for a rewarding day of birding in beautiful surroundings, it can hardly be topped.

Since it’s a unit of the National Park Service, Barataria Preserve has a fine visitor center on Highway 45 where you can get trail maps, a bird list, and advice. Many miles of trails wind through the preserve accessing live-oak woods, bald-cypress swamp, and marsh.

The woodland vistas here are truly sublime with the spreading limbs of live oaks covered in Spanish moss and dwarf palmettos in the understory. Some of the bald cypresses here are hundreds of years old. The Bayou Coquille Trail is a favorite of local birders. Parts of some preserve trails are wheelchair-accessible.

The preserve’s list of more than 200 species includes breeding birds such as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting. Spring songbird migration can be good, too, although the birds aren’t as concentrated in this expansive forest as they are in small coastal woodlands.

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

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

New Orleans, on the south side of Lake Pontchartrain, gets all the publicity but the north shore is home to several appealing communities as well as worthwhile destinations for birders. One such site is Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.

A tour here might start with the refuge visitor center in Lacombe, for maps and local advice. From there it’s only about three miles to the boardwalk trail and hiking paths on Boy Scout Road. Other primitive roads are located off Paquet Road to the east.

The main attraction at Big Branch Marsh is a small population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, an endangered species that depends on old-growth pinewoods. This refuge is one of many around the southeastern United States with a program to restore the species’s population. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers can be hard to locate so it helps to know their raspy call.

The refuge is also home to two other species associated with pinewoods: Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow. Once again, it’s important to know the squeaky call of the nuthatch and the whistled song of the sparrow. Other species nesting around the refuge include Mottled Duck, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pine Warbler, and Blue Grosbeak.

On Lake Pontchartrain just five miles west of Lacombe, Fontainebleau State Park boasts a bird list of more than 220 species and makes a good birding destination (though it can be crowded on weekends). Waterfowl, wading birds, and Bald Eagle can be seen from shore and Brown-headed Nuthatch is sometimes seen in pines here.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Martin

Located just east of the city of Lafayette, Lake Martin and the associated Cypress Island Preserve host one of Louisiana’s greatest bird spectacles in breeding season.

Hundreds of wading birds—herons, egrets, night herons, ibises, and Roseate Spoonbills—nest here, easily visible from boardwalks, a road the hugs the eastern shore of the lake and a walking trail around the north end of the lake.

Peak season is about March through May although there’s always something to see at Lake Martin. The Nature Conservancy operates a visitor center on Highway 353 (open seasonally) where first-time visitors can get advice.

With a large protected area of bald-cypress and tupelo swamp as well as bottomland hardwood forest, Lake Martin hosts much more than wading birds. Some of the other species found here include Black-bellied whistling duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered hawks, and Common Gallinule in wetlands. Land birds include Barred Owl, abundant woodpeckers, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge

Southwestern Louisiana is home to vast areas of marsh and other wetlands but access to most of the region is difficult without a boat and local knowledge. Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge offers an easy way to enjoy typical wetland birds. With a list of more than 250 species, it’s one of the birding hotspots of southern Louisiana.

The refuge is reached from Highway 14. Once inside the area, the usual strategy is simply to drive the several miles of gravel roads stopping wherever the birds are to scan the open water and vegetation. An elevated viewing platform on the loop drive allows slightly wider coverage.

Possible birds here comprise practically every regional species of waterfowl and wader. A few notable species found year-round are Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, many waders including Roseate Spoonbill, Common Gallinule, Forster’s Tern, and Marsh Wren. Present in nesting season are Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule, and Painted Bunting. In winter, many thousands of geese and ducks are present at Lacasssine.

Although the waters of the refuge are the main focus be sure to stop at patches of willows and other shrubs and vegetation for songbirds in migration and take time to quietly stand and watch marshy areas for shy species such as bitterns and rails.

Pintail Wildlife Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Located on Highway 27 just north of the Intracoastal Waterway, Cameron Prairie Wildlife Refuge provides birders with a great way to experience Louisiana wetlands on its 3-mile Pintail Wildlife Drive loop.

Before beginning the route, stop at the visitor center on the highway to see exhibits and pick up a map and bird list. Then drive south two miles to the entrance to the wildlife drive on the east side of the highway. It can be tempting to stop along Highway 27 to enjoy birds in roadside wetlands but there are very few safe places to pull over.

More than 230 species have been observed on the Pintail Wildlife Drive with (as is usual in southern Louisiana) waterfowl and wading birds the most conspicuous. The drive passes more than wetlands. Especially in migration, take time to scan grassy areas and search roadside trees and shrubs. There’s a boardwalk path along the drive allowing a closer inspection of the marsh habitat.

Both species of whistling-duck breed in the area and in winter Ross’s Goose is regular among the masses of Snow Geese. The shallow water means mostly dabbling ducks here with relatively fewer divers. Roseate Spoonbill is one of many common species of long-legged waders. Purple Gallinule nests here and Black-necked Stilt and Marsh Wren are present year-round.

In recent years, Crested Caracara has boomed in numbers in southwestern Louisiana and is seen regularly at Cameron Prairie. Note that this area is one of many places now where both Boat-tailed Grackle and Great-tailed Grackle are found in proximity as the latter continues its range expansion.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge

Not much of the expansive Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is easily accessible to the public but one exception is found on Highway 27 about seven miles north of the coastal community of Holly Beach or about 14 miles south of Hackberry.

The refuge’s Wetland Walkway is simply an elevated path through a marshy area west of the highway, adjacent to a canal. Yet more than 200 species have been observed in this immediate area, testimony both to the richness of wetlands habitats and to the ability of the scattered trees and shrubs here to attract migrant songbirds, especially in spring.

The 1.5-mile path is handicapped-accessible and has an elevated viewing platform. Insects, heat, and humidity make a mid-summer visit inadvisable but the walkway is a delightful stroll in other seasons. The third week of April is the peak time for spotting migrant vireos, warblers, and other songbirds.
This is a good spot to look for Least Bittern in spring, among the many more-conspicuous waders. Roseate Spoonbill is present often.

While you’re in the area, it can be productive (from late summer through spring) to drive southeast to the town of Cameron. Though it’s less than 20 miles, you must cross the Calcasieu River on a ferry, which adds to the time. In town, turn south on Davis Road and drive about 2.5 miles to the end of the road. When the tide is right, very large numbers of waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns can be present here.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peveto Woods Sanctuary

Like Grand Isle 200 miles to the east, Peveto Woods Sanctuary is a famed fallout site during spring migration where northbound birds that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico stop to rest and feed. This 40-acre woodland of live oak and hackberry trees on the Gulf Coast was saved from development and has long been a favorite birding location with more than 300 species recorded.

The spring rush begins about mid-March increasing to a peak in late April with some songbird migration continuing through May. The ideal time to visit is just after a front has moved through with north winds that tire trans-Gulf migrants and cause them to flock to the first coastal woods they see. At times a tree can be a temporary home to a half-dozen Cerulean Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, or Orchard Orioles.

Some birders wander through the sanctuary’s trails looking for flocks of birds in the trees. Others prefer to pick a spot and let the birds come to them. Often there’s a small pond in the center of the sanctuary with a water drip and nearby seating and spending time here is a favorite birding technique for some visitors.
Although dawn can be a good time for birding, the timing of waves of cross-Gulf migrants varies with conditions so it’s not unusual for a section of woods to come alive with recent arrivals in midday or mid-afternoon.

Fall doesn’t have the thrills of spring at Peveto but many rarities have shown up at that season such as Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Townsend’s Warbler.

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge

In north-central Louisiana, Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent all-around birding destination with more than 210 species on its list. Although a major focus of the refuge is water management to attract wintering waterfowl it’s also managed to provide habitat for migrant shorebirds in late summe, and its habitats include extensive bottomland hardwood forest.

The most common way to explore Catahoula is to drive its 9-mile Duck Lake Wildlife route which encircles an impoundment where waterfowl hunting is not allowed. It’s easy to stop along this road and bird open water or woodland. The route also provides access to an observation tower and hiking trails. It’s a good idea to stop at the refuge headquarters just off Highway 84 to get a map and ask about trail conditions. Brochures are available if the office is closed. Keep in mind that hunting for deer and other species is allowed on the refuge seasonally.

Catahoula is a fine place to enjoy songbird migration in spring and its nesting species include Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting. August may be the peak time for shorebird-watching with 15 or more species present. In late summer, too, look for Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill among the many herons, egrets, and ibises.

Winter is the time for waterfowl at Catahoula, when common species include Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Ring-necked Duck. Wood Ducks is common year-round.

Birding trail

Wetland Birding Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s Wetland Birding Trail, Louisiana  

Louisiana’s Gulf Coast region forms a generous jambalaya of all the ways that water and land can meet: lakes and rivers, cypress swamps, gum and tupelo bayous, flooded rice fields, freshwater marshes, salt marshes, mudflats, and sandy beaches. When locals say this birding trail crosses America’s wetland it’s no idle boast. But don’t take my word for it; find out for yourself by visiting any of the 115 sites along the trail’s 12 loops.

On the outer coast, brown pelicans have recovered from their population crash of decades past, and passing flocks can be seen constantly. Shallow lakes and swamps support a wealth of waders including snowy egrets, little blue herons, and tricolored herons. Elusive marsh birds are easier to see here than practically anywhere else, and you may get your best looks ever at buffy little least bitterns, rusty-red king rails, and other skulkers.

Easier to spot are the flocks of ducks and geese that arrive for the winter including major populations of greater white-fronted geese and snow geese. If you can tear yourself away from the water, the trail also offers concentrations of warblers, vireos, thrushes, and other migrating songbirds during spring and fall. 

Whether you are interested in spotting rare species or simply immersing yourself in the tranquil world of birds, Louisiana has something to offer for every birdwatching enthusiast.

Birding along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

FAQs:

Q: When is the best time to go birdwatching in Louisiana?

A: The best time for birdwatching in Louisiana is during the spring and fall migration seasons when a wide variety of bird species pass through the state. However, Louisiana’s mild climate makes birdwatching possible year-round, with different species present in each season.

Q: Do I need any special equipment for birdwatching in Louisiana?

A: While not necessary, a pair of binoculars and a field guide can greatly enhance your birdwatching experience. These tools allow you to observe birds from a distance and identify different species based on their physical characteristics and behaviors.

Q: Are there any birdwatching tours or guides available in Louisiana?

A: Yes, several birdwatching tours and guides operate in Louisiana, offering expert knowledge and guidance to enhance your birdwatching experience. These tours can take you to the best birding spots and help you identify various species.

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Close Focus Bird Portraits

Just like when you are photographing humans, your focus is on your subject and the background is for framing it. Your goal is to make the bird stand out from the background.

When photographing birds, it’s usually a matter of trying to get close enough to get a quality photo—and that’s even with the aid of a lens that provides ample magnification. Too often we get documentary photos of a distant avian subject but once in a while we get lucky and encounter a trusting bird, sometimes even a bird that walks, swims, or flies closer.

Having photographed extensively in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, I must say that wintering birds that get familiar with people walking by or photographing at birding hotspots are more common in these states with high human populations than anywhere else.

Roseate Spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From my experience, there is no question that Florida and Texas birds—some resident birds even more than wintering birds—lead the way in the trust department to the point where it’s possible to get especially close photos of some individuals. This is especially true at some of the well-visited birding hotspots like the Venice Audubon Rookery and the World Birding Centers in South Texas but it can happen anytime, anywhere.

And with many species taking advantage of wetlands and impoundments created to hold water in low-lying housing developments in many suburbs, the birds get very accustomed to people who generally are excited or uninterested in seeing them in their yards or near their property.

Great White Egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avian portraits

When I refer to the idea of close-up photos, I mean portraits of just the head, neck, and shoulders of the bird like your high school graduation photo so taking that kind of photo is usually going to be a larger bird to manage that level of close photos. The simple trick to taking advantage of such a trusting bird is to make the most of the opportunity.

Stay with it, don’t cause any level of alarm, and move slowly if you move. Focus on the bird’s eye and watch your background. In most cases, take some initial photos; then, if you have a chance to adjust it’s best to try to dial the aperture to f5 or a similar setting to reduce the area in focus. That technique will keep the bird in focus while blurring the background and it will increase the shutter speed to ensure the photos you take are sharper.

However, if your background is a uniform color, say a sky or water background, the aperture is less of a concern. The idea is to try to pop the bird apart from the background even beyond color differences. The bottom line is always “take what you can get and improve if possible.” In the moment it’s thrilling to be so close and to get optically closer yet with a telephoto or zoom lens zeroing in on the bird’s face, focusing on the eye.

Whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The key to sharing close photos of birds is that you need to have a photo of a bird with a sharp eye. That’s true if you are using a photo as is or if you are cropping the photo which is a secondary way to create a close-up of a bird’s face and neck, or face, neck, and shoulders—a portrait.

I must share that it’s especially fulfilling to take portrait photos like the images that illustrate this article. You feel close to the birds, in company with them as they permit you into their inner sanctum; and if you can just walk away without disturbing them or let them walk away as they wish, it’s especially gratifying.

The idea for this article came to mind after reviewing the photos of birds I had taken in various locations over our many years of RV travel. I noted the many large birds—the Wood Stork, Sandhill Cranes, Great White Egret, Great Blue Heron, Ibis, and a couple of others.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, we were casually driving along Lake Okeechobee when I spied a pair of wood storks resting in the meadow near the lake. We quickly pulled off the road and suddenly sighted more storks on the edge of a pond closer to the large lake.

Quickly parking, I checked my camera settings and walked cautiously from the car for a closer view of the birds. I was immediately surprised by how close I was to the storks, so quickly zoomed down from my 400mm magnification to 200mm and took a couple of initial photos.

Then I quickly zoomed out to get a full-sized view and photos of the impressive Wood Stork as it waded a couple of steps in my direction. The grand bird was surrounded by sky blue water with barely a ripple on it which made for an especially pleasing background that was emphasized by the beautiful late afternoon light.

Wood Stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chance opportunity to photograph the very trusting wood storks provided the best photos I’ve taken of the species to date of a bird on water or land.

Using a zoom lens was key to taking full-frame photos of the stork as well as being able to get portrait photos of the bird that show a lot of detail of the dinosaur-looking face of the big wading bird. Even I am impressed with the quality of sharp images produced during the few minutes I had in the stork’s company but you will find that the closer you are to a bird the better your lens seems to work. And if you are close, you don’t need to do any cropping to zero-in on the bird a bit more.

Before I sign off, I feel somewhat compelled to share with you that although the photos I selected to illustrate this feature are super-sharp on my big-screen laptop computer sometimes there seems to be a bit of a loss of image sharpness in the translation between my digital photos as viewed on my computer compared to when the same photos are published in a magazine publication.

That said, the birds’ eyes in each of these photos are remarkably sharp; if they don’t look absolutely sharp, it’s because of a difference between my original digital image and the online image but hopefully that won’t be a factor in the photos illustrating this article.

Sandhill Crane © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then too, maybe it’s because over the years of photographing birds, I have developed a fine-tuned eye for photo sharpness and that’s an important point to keep in mind; be sure that you don’t over-enlarge a given photo. Share sharp, clear photos that don’t show a grainy background or body lines which is a sure sign of over-enlarging a photo.

I find taking photos of birds entertaining partly because of the many variables. From dealing with awkward lighting conditions to creating blurs and flight shots the photography opportunities are endless. And any time we get close enough to take a head and shoulders portrait of a bird, it’s a great breakthrough that we will likely remember forever especially when you have a quality photo to share and display as one of your favorites.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although this niche is fun, it requires technical knowledge from every photographer. Go out and practice. Get familiar with your camera and play with the camera settings for bird photography.

Good luck as you search out photo opportunities and if you’re not in Florida or Arizona, stay warm!

Worth Pondering…

In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.

—Emile Zola

Now is the Absolute Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park and Here Is Why

This National Park floods in winter and that’s when you should visit. Trust me.

The US has 63 national parks stretching north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and south to the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. While some of these parks are massively popular (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.

The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world with the average canopy reaching 100 feet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t sound all that tall but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it.

Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022 (2023 data was not available at the time of writing), about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park.

More people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds.

As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. It’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows.

The rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. Although the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird so it is hoped the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients which in turn help produce the park’s high number of champion-size trees—the largest documented specimen of their species. One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.

Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged) as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.

Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters which are less out and about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.

A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet.

Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.

When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood water level rises and the creek rises and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain.

Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.

And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market.

Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that reservations are required.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park isn’t flooded during your visit your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.

In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes but if a blazed tree falls you could be in danger of getting lost. That is even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.

If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail but lucky for you it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the knees of the cypress trees (knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots). Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.

Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness.

Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. Much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.

As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park this is when you’ll also find the most activities such as twilight hikes and owl prowls which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions but be sure to check the park’s calendar which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.

This water trail begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end which costs about $175.

Paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.

While it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging).

While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Most paddlers do this as an overnight trip which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

By the way, I have a series of posts on South Carolina:

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

Experience the Great Migration of the Sandhill Cranes as They Return to New Mexico

Southward migration: underway! Sandhill cranes, ducks, and geese are arriving at Bosque del Apache! It is likely you will view them during your visit soon.

The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things. 

—Excerpt from the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located in San Antonio, Socorro County, New Mexico. Situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the 57,331 acre Bosque del Apache was established in 1939 to provide a critical stopover site for migrating waterfowl. The refuge is well known for the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks who winter here each year. Over 30,000 acres of Bosque del Apache are designated wilderness.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seasons of wildlife

While there is always something interesting to observe, you will find the greatest numbers of birds at the refuge from early November to late January. In the spring and fall, migratory bird species are moving through the refuge resulting in high numbers of species. 

Each season, the Bosque del Apache offers unique bird and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak visitation occurs in winter when bald eagles and thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese flock to the fields and marshes. Plan to visit the first week of December during the annual Festival of the Cranes. This world-famous event includes speakers, special tours, and arts and wildlife displays. More on the festival later

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter (mid-November through late January) 

Thousands of snow geese, Ross’s geese, and sandhill cranes spend the night in water to protect themselves from predators. Near dawn, the geese take off in a group in search of fields throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley to feed in for the day. Smaller groups of sandhill cranes then leave the safety of the water for the same reason. Check the sunrise time and stop in the visitor center to learn the most recent roosting and feeding sites as they can change through the winter. 

In addition to viewing cranes and geese and many species of ducks, you can drive the auto tour loop or hike the trails and see hawks, eagles, blackbirds, ravens, coots, and other birds along with occasional mammals such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Check in with the visitor center staff for recent sightings. 

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring (mid-February through mid-May) 

The wetlands that were home to thousands of ducks, geese, and cranes all winter are slowly emptied of water in the spring providing prime feeding grounds for migrating sandpipers, stilts, plovers, dunlins, curlews, avocets, and twenty other shorebird species. Spring wildflowers add a bit more color to the landscape and greater roadrunners dart across and alongside the auto tour loop and Highway 1 in search of sluggish lizards and snakes.  

Spring is also when flycatchers, vireos, and a dozen species of warblers filter through either as a rest stop on migration or as they determine the best locations for their nesting territories on the refuge.  

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer (mid-May through mid-September) 

Summer is the time to see the colorful antics of black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds. The flowers of spring transition to the fruits of summer especially in the desert arboretum. Also look for the many young birds moving around the refuge. Some, like the quail, scurry around in long lines of a dozen or more. 

Mornings and evenings are good times to view wildlife in the heat of the summer—most creatures will seek shade in the middle of the day. Near waterways are good places to search for wildlife and signs of wildlife (such as tracks).  

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall (mid-September through mid-November) 

Late season sunflowers are a colorful contrast to the red-winged blackbirds that swoop and dart through the grasses. The first cranes and geese typically show up at the end of October during which time coyotes, mule deer, and javelina are moving through open fields as well. Wild turkeys begin moving to the northern part of the refuge to join up with other family groups in separate male and female roosting flocks.  

The Dabbler Deck or Willow Deck are good places to take a break and search for ducks dabbling in the water for food especially the northern shovelers and northern pintails.  

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Featured species

Because National Wildlife Refuges like Bosque del Apache are protected and managed lands, they can make ideal locations for the recovery of plant and animal species that are endangered, threatened, or have another special status through the Endangered Species Act. Bosque del Apache is a seasonal home to the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. Bosque del Apache is a year-round home to the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and Rio Grande silvery minnow.  

The waters, trees, and skies of Bosque del Apache yield a changing mix of birds throughout the seasons. Over 20 species of ducks and geese regularly spend part of their winters at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Seeds of grasses and sedges that have been growing all summer are the reward after migrating south for large numbers of northern pintail, northern shoveler, gadwall, and American wigeon. In summer, smaller numbers of Mexican duck, wood duck, and cinnamon teal may be found in the wetlands and ditches. Sandhill cranes are a winter visitor—typically from late October through late January. 

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023

Celebrate the return of the sandhill cranes at the 34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023 in Socorro. Join birding experts from near and far for a chance to learn about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and many of New Mexico’s overwintering birds. The Festival offers over seventy creative workshops in the field at Bosque del Apache and indoor workshops at New Mexico Tech.

The Festival celebrates the survival and yearly migration of the enigmatic sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is an ancient species of waterfowl that migrates from Canada and the northern U.S. to winter in the Rio Grande Valley. The oldest fossil on record is 1.7 million years old. Both cranes and snow geese begin arriving in smaller numbers at the refuge in late October. By early December, tens of thousands of cranes and snow geese make the Middle Rio Grande Valley their home until they migrate back north in mid-February. 

Snow geese and Ross’s geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular presenters will return to offer education and up-close viewings of wildlife. Festival workshops focus on photography, birding, and environmental education as well as offering hikes and historical tours of the area. Registration for the general public opened Wednesday, October 11. Workshops are filling up quickly but many still have plenty of space available. To register and learn more about this year’s Festival, click here (https://friendsofbosquedelapache.ticketspice.com/2023-festival-of-the-cranes-registration).

Field workshops will be outdoors at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with buses taking registrants to various locations. Additionally, there will be three nighttime photography workshops at the Very Large Array on the San Agustin plains, one hour west of Socorro. Indoor workshops will meet in classrooms at Macey Center on the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Expo Room located in the downstairs and upstairs lobbies at NM Tech’s Macey Center for the opportunity to meet and explore unique offerings from several vendors including camera and optics companies, eco-tourism partners, and this year’s art contest winner, Lisa Benham. The Expo Room is free to enter and open to the public. Anyone coming to the Expo Room on the first day of Festival will receive a welcome packet with great coupons and other goodies.

What do people love about Festival of the Cranes? Guests who attended the 2022 Festival shared that they loved the sense of community the festival provided. “Being able to gather with people from around the world and of all ages in a unique environment was an unforgettable experience,” said one attendee. Other guests were amazed by the educational quality of the workshops and the new skills they learned. Many attendees appreciated the opportunity to be outdoors and experience the amazing sites, wildlife, and healing energy of nature.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Festival Facts

Why: We gather to celebrate the annual return of sandhill cranes and the delicate oasis ecosystem that supports them at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Festival is an opportunity for people who care about New Mexico’s wildlife and wild places to have fun outside, meet like-minded people, and learn how to sharpen their birding and photography skills.

What: 34th Annual Festival of the Cranes

When: Wednesday, December 6-Saturday, December 9, 2023

Where: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (outdoor workshops) and New Mexico Tech (indoor seminars)

Sandhill cranes Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost: Varies with some events and activities cost-free.

Who’s Invited: EVERYONE! Visit the fragile oasis in the high desert—a rare jewel that has been cherished by New Mexicans from all walks of life for generations.

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

Outdoor Activities Bucket List: 18 Fun Things to do Outdoors

From chasing fireflies to floating down a river, this list can break you out of a summer rut

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Not only can heading outside inject excitement into a blah-feeling day, but it can also deliver serious health benefits: Exposure to greenspace is linked to a whole slew of physical perks including reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 143 studies published in the journal, Environmental Research

Separate research supports the outdoors for your mental health too. Time in nature can decrease mental distress while boosting happiness, subjective well-being, cognitive functioning, memory, attention, imagination, and creativity, a 2019 review in Science Advances concluded.

In short, there’s a lot to gain from stepping out of doors. And with a handy list of outdoor activities at your fingertips, you can soak up all the awesomeness of nature.

From chasing fireflies to birdwatching, here are some pretty amazing things to do outside. Let this article be your outdoor activities inspiration guide.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Lace up for a mindful nature walk

Feeling on edge or unfocused? Slip on your sneakers, head outside, and get in some steps. Not only is walking an excellent form of exercise but intentionally strolling through a natural setting can help you chill out.

When people with chronic stress walked outdoors for 40 minutes, they decreased their cortisol levels more than those who did likewise on a treadmill or who watched nature programming on TV for the same amount of time, a 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior found. They also experienced more a mood improvement afterward. 

To make the most of your stroll, tune into the present moment including what you see and hear around you. Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel. For more on mindful hiking you can read these two articles:

2. Gaze at the night sky

Stargazing, one of the most underrated outdoor activities has much to offer: It’s free, accessible, and can be incredibly calming. For an optimal experience, try to get as far away from city lights as possible and turn off all sources of manmade light.

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

For more on stargazing and Dark Sky Parks check out these posts:

3. Chase fireflies

Remember how magical the outdoors felt when you were little? Recreate some of that wonder on a summer night by catching fireflies in a jar and briefly observing them before setting them free. 

There are a number of different species of fireflies, none of which are actually flies—they’re beetles. They get the names firefly and lightning bug because of the flashes of light they naturally produce. This phenomenon is called bioluminescence and the bioluminescent organs in fireflies are found on the underside of the abdomen.

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term glowworm can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult females—some of which are not in the firefly family lampyridae.

Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent. The important distinction is that fireflies have wings and glowworms do not. Fireflies can reach up to one inch in length.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Dust off your bike and go for a ride

Cycling is a healthy exercise that can be enjoyed by people of all ages from young children to older adults. Cycling strengthens your heart muscles, lowers resting pulse, and reduces blood fat levels. A Danish study conducted over 14 years with 30,000 people aged 20 to 93 years found that regular cycling protected people from heart disease.

If you want to blend low-impact exercise with quality time outdoors, make biking one of your go-to outdoor activities.

5. Be a tourist in your town

Can you confidently say that you know your city in and out? Take the time to visit more than just your usual hangout places. 

Be a tourist in your city, go someplace new and you may be surprised by just how wonderful that old town can be. Most cities have free tours too. You could discover streets, shops, and landmarks that you never knew existed. 

Camping in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go camping

Camping could mean different things to different people. It can be a chance to bond with family or friends, rediscover yourself, or take a break from regular routines and away from distractions. Nevertheless, it is one of those outdoor activities that could spark that adventurous spirit within you.

You may be wondering, “What are the best places to camp near me?” One of the greatest things about traveling around the U.S. and Canada is that from coast to coast there’s no shortage of beautiful places to camp. Nature lovers can enjoy fresh air, glorious mountains, and clear lakes and streams during a weekend (or longer) camping trip.

Not only can you set up an RV or tent at these picturesque locations, but they also come with plenty of picnic areas, hiking trails, and ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. From scenic forests in New Hampshire to peaceful beaches in Florida and majestic Rocky Mountains in Alberta, there amazing places to camp in the U.S. and Canada.

For more on camping, check out my other posts:

Exploring Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Explore a state park

If you are interested in the outdoors, being active, or exploring something new, or the combination of all three, perhaps it’s time to take your day exploring the nearest state park. Whether you are looking to explore the mountains, woodlands, or prairies, hike, mountain bike, or horse ride there’s a state park for you. 

From my many articles on state parks here are a few to get you started:

Birdwatching at Bisque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go Birdwatching

You could go birding right now—this very moment—no matter who you are, where you are, or what stuff you do or don’t own. The most important thing—and really the only thing—you must have as a birder is yourself and your awareness.

There are certain tools that you’re going to want to enhance the experience although the list is short. You don’t need to start out birding by splurging on binoculars that run well above $2,000. Quality binoculars for birding cost between $100 and $400. You’ll also need a bird book (it can be an app as well) and a good amount of patience. You can also connect with any local birders in your area for tips and more.

Here’s more on birding:

9. Float down a river

For super-adventurous folks, whitewater rafting may make the list of ideal outdoor activities. But for people seeking chill time on the water, a gentle river float may be just the ticket. And don’t forget to grab life jackets and tie a whole bunch of inner tubes together and then float on them down a river.  

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

I have an entire article on river trails. You can read it at National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

You’re bringing sunscreen, right? Okay, good. Just checking! Additionally, you should bring a hat. And although you may feel tempted to leave your shirt back in the car, take it. At some point, you may want to cover up.

Canoeing Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Go Kayaking

Kayaking, as well as canoeing, is a physical outdoor activity you can do in any type of space with water, from a river to the sea. It’s a great way to exercise and improve your body’s strength, all the while being a low impact activity that can offer a whole lot of peace of mind. 

Kayaking can be a great way to get out on the water whether for a leisurely morning paddle or a more rigorous overnight adventure. When kayaking, it’s good to have clothing that you can easily move around in, dries quickly, and will help protect you from the sun. Since you’ll likely be getting wet, you want to stay away from anything cotton which will leave you dripping and soggy all day (and could cause chafing).

Zip line in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Go Ziplining

No outdoor activity bucket list is complete without zip lining included on it! This is an extreme sport where you are attached to cords that zip you from one tree to the next. It has grown so popular over the years it seems to be possible to do just about anywhere! And while it can get your nerves on overdrive before setting off, it’s usually totally safe to do.

Fishing Parker Canyon Lake, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go fishing

Another outdoor recreation idea is fishing. Regardless of whether you catch anything, it can be a fun and relaxing experience. There’s something about just being out there in nature and the feel of the cold water rushing by you and the sound of the river. Fishing can also be a great way to find a sliver of solitude especially if you go in the early morning when few other folks are out. 

Hiking Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hike a new trail

Each season of the year offers something different for your hiking experiences from the nature around you to the trails that are best to be taken. Hiking offers amazing landscapes with the flowers and the returning greenery! This is your sign to hike a trail you’ve never tried before.

Check these out to learn more:

14. Journal

Journaling allows you to express your innermost feelings and ideas without fear of being criticized or seen by others. It may also assist you in better organizing and comprehending those items. It’s similar to maintaining a diary, except with more freedom. You are free to write (or even draw) whatever you like, so just scribble down any thoughts or emotions as they occur to you!

15. Take a bike ride

Biking is such a great outdoor activity, no wonder it’s so popular. Not only can the bike actually take you to the same places you might otherwise go by public transportation or a car but it’ll keep you fit as you do so. On top of which you might also get some great scenery to enjoy during your bike ride!

For many people, bicycling never stops and continues right into their 80s and 90s and has been an intricate part of their entire life.

Horseback riding Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Go horseback riding

Whether it’s a forested trail or along the beach, horseback riding is another amazing way to enjoy time outdoors and in nature. Horseback riding has an inherent relaxing effect. According to Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Rheta D. Connor, “The natural rhythm of the horse aids in circulation and relaxation while gently exercising and massaging the rider’s joints, muscles and spine”. These physical motions bring about feelings of relaxation naturally without any thought on behalf of the rider.

Wildlife World Zoo, Litchfield Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Visit a zoo

What is your earliest recollection of going to the zoo? It’s likely that you were on a field trip with your class or your family, being fascinated by the many different creatures that make the place their home.

From thrilling encounters with lions to petting rabbits to holding a snake and more, a trip to the local zoo is an entertaining, educational experience for people of all ages.

Sunset Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Watch a sunrise or sunset

Whether you’re catching it from a mountain top, the beach, or someplace else, sunsets and sunrises are the days at their most beautiful. So find a spot from where you can clearly see it, preferably against nature’s beautiful backdrop, and perhaps bring along a picnic basket and a mat to fully immerse in enjoying the sight.

Worth Pondering…

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

The Ultimate Guide to the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail

Birds of a feather flock together

Whether you’re a serious or beginner birder, you’ll get caught up in the excitement of birding on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Gulf Shores and Foley are a popular home base for those who like to get out, explore, and see a wide variety of bird species year round.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama’s Gulf Coast is a paradise not only for birders but for visitors with many different outdoor interests. The Coastal Birding Trail features six birding loops in Baldwin and Mobile counties totaling over 200 miles. Each loop covers different ecological regions representative of the northern Gulf Coast and enables birders to experience different assemblages of bird species within each region.

The beauty of the Alabama Gulf Coast is no secret. Residents and visitors alike enjoy the natural elements Alabama’s beaches offer. However, humans aren’t the only ones who love to explore the Gulf Coast as you can find plenty of stunning coastal birds here. When you’re on the hunt for the perfect piece of paradise to watch these beautiful birds, consider these 15 places perfect for birders.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing and Education Pier

For those looking to watch seabirds, Gulf State Park’s Fishing and Education Pier is the place for you. Located on the Gulf of Mexico in Gulf Shores, this pier offers a prime viewing spot for gulls and terns as well as ruddy turnstone, sanderlings, and herons. For $2, guests can walk along the pier and enjoy the incredible view. You may also spot a variety of sea life as the pier is a popular fishing spot.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park

There is something for everyone at Gulf State Park. The beach pavilion provides picnic tables as an escape from the beach, the nature center is a great place for the kids to learn, the swimming pool provides refreshment for guests, and the Lake Shelby day use area offers kayaking and canoeing. For a change of pace while visiting check out the fishing and education pier, miles of biking on the Backcountry trail, beautiful flowers in the butterfly garden, and additional education at the interpretive center.

>> Related article: Experience the Alabama Gulf Coast along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

Gulf State Park offers a diversity of habitat for residential and migrating birds. Osprey, herons, rails, owls, woodpeckers and much more frequent the Park. Look up in the sky for a nesting bald eagles souring above. When storms occur in the Gulf of Mexico, the wind pushes a water column of the open ocean to the shoreline, look for rarities such as Magnificent Frigatebirds and Northern Gannets.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher State Park

The Mobile Delta wetlands in Spanish Fort are where you’ll discover Meaher State Park. This 1,327-acre park is situated in the wetlands of the Mobile Delta and is a day-use, picnicking, and scenic park with modern camping hook-ups for overnight visitors.

There are two nature trails with a lovely view of the Mobile Delta. Birders can expect to see herons, red-tailed hawks, egrets, and even bald eagles. It’s a great place to bring the kids and get them hooked on birding.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher’s boat ramp and fishing pier will appeal to every fisherman. The park offers a 300-foot pier with a 200-foot “T” for your fishing pleasure. Access to the pier is included in the park admission fee. Enjoy a self-guided walk on two nature trails including a boardwalk with an up-close view of the beautiful Mobile Delta.

5 Rivers Delta Resource Center

5 Rivers Delta Resource Center’s name recognizes the five rivers of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta which include the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee, and Blakeley Rivers (from west to east) that flow into Mobile Bay. The Center itself sits on the banks of one of the canals of this vast delta. These drainages encompass over 250,000 acres of meandering waterways, floodplain forests, and extensive wetlands. The center features an exhibit hall, theater, gift shop, Delta boat tours, canoe and kayak rentals, hiking trails, and picnic areas.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The decks of the Delta Hall and the perimeter trail around the facility provide excellent vantage points to observe birds of the surrounding marsh and waterways. In spring and summer, look for Brown Pelican, Osprey, King Rail, Marsh Wren, and several species of herons and egrets. Occasionally, Least Bittern and Purple Gallinule may be encountered along the margins of the emergent marsh. Painted Bunting may also be possible in the thickets near the buildings. Check here for migrants in spring and fall.

Battleship Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Battleship Park

Battleship Park is a military history park and museum on the western shore of Mobile Bay. Battleship Park presents the birder with a diversity of habitat to explore and a great variety of birds to observe. Pinto Pass and the mudflats of Mobile Bay filled with waterfowl in winter and shorebirds during migration, short grass lawns for dowitchers and Black-bellied Plover, salt water marsh with herons and egrets. During low tide this area is filled with herons, egrets, and occasionally ibis, especially in late summer. Black-necked Stilt may be around any time of the year and in summer, Gull-billed Tern is present.

Grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile Bay Mudflats

The Mobile Bay Mudflats are a good place to look for herons, egrets, and Boat-tailed Grackles any time of year. An assortment of sandpipers and plovers are regular during spring and fall migration. During high tide in winter, American Coot and waterfowl are regular. Mudflats or mud flats, also known as tidal flats, are coastal wetlands that form when mud is deposited by tides or rivers. They are found in sheltered areas such as bays, bayous, lagoons, and estuaries. The best viewing at the Mobile Bay Mudflats is during low tide when the mudflats are exposed. 

>> Related article: The Underrated Coast

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wade Ward Nature Park

Wade Ward Nature Park is a 12 acre natural area, a rarity in the midst of such a vibrant resort city (Gulf Shores). It offers the birder scenic boardwalks overlooking canals and coastal salt marsh. It features a pavilion, benches, and scenic boardwalks. The Nature Park provides ideal habitat for bitterns and rails. Even in close proximity to the downtown commercial bustle, wildlife such otters, pelicans, and the occasional alligator can be seen hunting and fishing in its shallow water and wetlands.

Wade Ward Nature Park is located just two blocks north of Gulf Place, the main public beach. It is a public pedestrian access to a pocket of natural wetlands and waterways found in between the beach condominiums and commercial buildings in Gulf Shores.

From a comfortably dry, elevated boardwalk, you may enjoy beautiful views of the wetlands that connect Little Lagoon and Lake Shelby. Wildlife such otters, pelicans, and the occasional alligator can be seen hunting and fishing in its shallow water and wetlands.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

In nearby Fairhope, the Weeks Bay Estuarine Research Reserve public research and education facility includes some 9,000 acres of protected habitats bordering Weeks Bay and Fish and Magnolia Rivers. Complete with an interpretive center, indoor displays, live animals, and forested boardwalk nature trails, the Reserve is part of a national network of coastal reserves established as living laboratories for long-term research projects. Well-known for birdwatching, Weeks Bay also participates in the Alabama Coastal BirdFest held each year during early fall (September 27-30, 2023). This event is a great way to see and learn about the area’s birds and their habitats and no previous birding experience is required.

Historic Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama Coastal BirdFest takes attendees into the Mobile Delta, to the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary, historic Fort Morgan, and the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, among other locations. The four-day event also includes workshops on subjects such as hummingbirds, the basics of birding, monarch butterflies, and, new this year, workshops on how to use common birding apps, such as eBird and Merlin Bird ID, and understanding bird box design for specific species. 

Fairhope Municipal Pier © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope Municipal Pier and Beach

Fairhope Municipal Pier is a good location for winter ducks, loons, gulls, and terns. Check the pilings in all seasons for loafing gulls, terns, and pelicans. A scan or walk along the beach can yield wading birds, peeps, and other shorebirds. Designed for both strolling and fishing, the pier features benches, covered areas, restrooms, a marina, and a restaurant. There is no cost to walk but a saltwater license is required for fishing.

>> Related article: Mobile Bay: Gateway to the Gulf

The park is home to a lovely rose garden and fountain, plus picnic tables, pavilion, duck pond, tree trail, and a large sandy beach. Non-residents are charged park admission during the summer season. In addition to the waterfront park, numerous bluff top parks extend along the bay front.

Foley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Graham Creek Nature Preserve

Home to boundless plant and wildlife species, the 500-acre Graham Creek Nature Preserve in Foley offers many recreational opportunities and educational programs. Pine savanna habitat features wild flowers and pitcher plants. See endangered plants up close while exploring 10 miles of trail, two handicap-accessible boardwalks, a kayak launch, and four disc golf courses. 

Graham Creek also offers other leisure activities such as an archery park made for all sizes and a playground with an outdoor classroom perfect for kids. There are many pet-friendly areas. Enjoy the interpretive center and don’t miss the chance for birdwatching. Bring your gear and hit the water from the kayak launch. The preserve also hosts events throughout the year including Feathered Friends Day and eco-educational activities.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge encompasses some of Alabama’s last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitat. The name Bon Secour comes from the French meaning safe harbor, very appropriate considering the sanctuary for native flora and fauna the refuge provides.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge consists of approximately 7,000 acres of coastal lands ranging from constantly changing beach dunes to rolling pine-oak woodlands. There is something for everyone at the refuge from a quiet stroll among the dunes to world-class birding opportunities and trail.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bon Secour represents an important stopover and staging habitat for neotropical migratory songbirds during the fall and spring migration along the Alabama coastline. Migratory birds utilize this area for resting and building fat reserves critical to successful migration.

The Jeff Friend Trail is a one-mile loop to Little Lagoon. Habitats along the trail include maritime forest, freshwater marsh, and open water along the north shore of Little Lagoon. A small observation deck, accessible to those with disabilities, midway down the trail at Little Lagoon provides a great place to set up a spotting scope and scan the water.

In winter, look for Bufflehead, Common Loon, and Horned Grebe. And, in spring, Osprey, Sandwich Tern, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow are regularly seen. Expect to see Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Summer Tanager, and Northern Parula during the summer. Chuck-will’s-widow and Great Horned Owl are commonly heard at dusk and dawn.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Morgan

Fort Morgan is a Third System masonry fort built between 1819 and 1833. The fort was named after Revolutionary War Hero Daniel Morgan. Standing guard where the bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, the fort played a significant role in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. Used intermittently through the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II, the site showcases the evolution of seacoast fortifications and adaptations. 

During spring and fall migration, dozens of migrant species flock to Fort Morgan on their journeys to escape the cold. One of Fort Morgan’s best spots to view birds is the Stables located near the eastern sea wall. Here you’ll find a variety of passerine migrants enjoying the comfortable coastal weather. During spring and fall, The Audubon Birding Society hosts a banding station event that visitors are welcome to attend. 

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lillian Swamp Forever Wild Tract

Lillian Swamp encompasses nearly 3,000 acres managed for conservation by the ADCNR State Lands Division and hosts a variety of habitats representative of the lower Coastal Plain. At any time of year, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, and other resident species are common in the piney uplands and adjacent thickets.

In spring and fall, varying assemblages of migrants can be seen depending on weather conditions. Continuing north on the road, the piney uplands transition to forested swamplands and open pitcher plant bogs. These areas are good for wintering sparrows, migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, and an assortment of waders. Recent notable winter sightings include Rusty Blackbird, a species of high conservation concern. Osprey and Bald Eagle are seen regularly year around particularly along the Perdido River to the east.

Dauphin Island Sea Lab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayfront Park

Bayfront Park on Dauphin Island has many species of local and migratory birds that visit in the spring and fall to take advantage of its fresh water and to shelter themselves among the trees and reeds. Brown Pelicans are ever-present soaring on the wind-wave formed as bay breezes blow up against and over dense stands of pines. Gulls, terns, and Double-crested Cormorants roost on the pilings.

>> Related article: Marvelous Mobile Bay: Dauphin Island

From the parking area, walk the boardwalk to an inland marsh. Look closely for Least Bittern and Clapper Rail. During fall and winter, Virginia Rail and Sora are regular but secretive. Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and Boat-tailed Grackle are also common.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

This lush sanctuary on Dauphin Island consists of approximately 164 acres of maritime forest, marshes, dunes, a lake, swamp, and beach. Multiple walking trails, some handicapped accessible, allow the avid birder miles of habitat for spotting neo-tropical migrants in the spring and fall as well as native species all year long.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Island has been named one of the top four locations in North America for viewing spring migrations and the sanctuary has gained it recognition from the National Audubon Society as “globally important.”

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Camping Activities Guide

Fun things to do while camping

It doesn’t matter how you camp—in a tent or an RV. Camping is an opportunity for serious fun and activities. Moreover, it’s an experience that you can customize for your family’s interests based on the season and where you’re camping.

You don’t have to pack to the hilt to stay entertained. In fact, there are plenty of simple activities for your next family vacation by the lake or in the mountains. 

Here’s my super RVing with Rex Checklist of Camping Activities.

Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Water-based activities

There are tons of exciting things you can do in the water if your campsite is near a lake, seashore, river, pool, or other body of water. Some are very active; others are for lazy relaxing days. Slip on your bathing suit and have some fun in the water—here’s how:

  • Fishing
  • Swimming
  • Floating or lounging
  • Canoeing or kayaking
  • Boating
  • Water skiing
  • Tubing
  • Water volleyball or basketball
  • Diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Water balloon fight
Hiking is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Sports-related activities

Not all camping and RV resorts have a full list of amenities. If you’re rustic camping in the wild or you’re somewhere with limited amenities—or maybe just want some more variety—here are some great ideas to stay active with your family:

  • Disc golf (Frisbee golf)
  • Horseshoes
  • Ringtoss
  • Corn Hole
  • Lawn bowling
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Kickball
  • Baseball
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Nature walks
  • Spelunking/caving (make sure you have an experienced guide with you)
  • Capture the Flag
  • Hide and Seek
  • Tag (there are dozens of variations)
  • Red Rover
Combining photography with birdwatching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Nature-related activities

Part of the joy of camping is being closer to nature. Explore the great outdoors more with these activities. Be sure to respect the area where you are. Don’t disturb or damage the wildlife.

  • Birding (bird watching)
  • Animal watching
  • Photography
  • Sketching
  • Catching fireflies
  • Collecting leaves
  • Cataloging rocks
  • Fossil hunting
  • Exploring
  • Search for wild berries, nuts, and other edible plants
  • Watch the sunrise/sunset
  • Camping scavenger hunt
  • Geocaching
Canoeing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Winding down activities

Staying active and enjoying the day is an important part of every camping trip. But you also need to embrace the down time and give your mind and body a rest. Camping to relax and get away from daily stress? Here are some great ways to relax and enjoy the family camping trip:

  • Swing in a hammock
  • Watch the trees blowing in the breeze
  • Listen to nature
  • Take lots of naps
  • Daydream and let your mind wander
  • Float on the water
  • Stargaze
Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Downtime activities

Maybe the kids need some downtime in the tent. Or perhaps someone isn’t feeling well. There could be some unexpected weather that is keeping you indoors.  Of course, you could just be relaxing under the protection of your tent to escape the bugs. There are plenty of things you can do inside the tent or RV either alone or with friends and family:

  • Read books and magazines
  • Read aloud to each other
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Crafting (knitting, sewing, drawing)
  • Watch movies on portable devices
  • Play on other electronic devices (iPods, iPads, Gameboys, etc.)
  • Make up stories to tell each other
  • Snuggle
Enjoying nature is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Evening activities

The camping trip doesn’t end when the sun sets. A whole slew of activities become available when evening comes and dark settles on the campground. The darkness is a thrilling time while family camping because you’re not dealing with the lights and commotion of the city. Check out these awesome evening activities:

  • Sit around the campfire
  • Sing campfire songs
  • Play a guitar or other instrument
  • Dance around the fire
  • Try out new varieties of s’mores
  • Make colored fire (packages of colored fire crystals or pine cones are sold at many camping supply stores)
  • Make shadow puppets
  • Go for a nighttime walk (with a flashlight, of course)
  • Stargaze
  • Play flashlight tag
  • Play hide and seek in the dark
  • Go for a midnight swim
  • Play glow in the dark bowling. Put glow sticks in 2-liter bottles filled with water. Use a ball to knock them down.
  • Tell ghost stories
  • Play Truth or Dare

Now that you have great ideas for things to do while camping, it’s time to get out there and try them.

Enjoying nature while camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related Posts:

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Why Birdwatching Is Good for You

Birdwatching for peace of mind and better health

A sudden rise in birdwatching around the world was one of the rare heartening consequences of pandemic lockdowns. The same restrictions that shut down so many pastimes created space for this one nudging the delightful creatures that had always been present—chipping and singing, sand bathing, and nesting—into the foreground.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Businesses that sell birdfeed and backyard bird feeders reported sales increases of 45 and 50 percent. Novice birders contributed to a new record for spotting bird species on Global Big Day, an annual bird-watching event run by the eBird program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in mid-May (May 13, 2023). 

Now that economies have opened up, it’d be reasonable to expect that birds would lose their newfound fans. However, data from Wikipedia and Audubon suggests that although interest in birds dropped off in 2021 compared to the northern hemisphere’s summer of 2020, it remains much higher than in years gone by. Our new passion for birds may have staying power as interest in the pastime shows no signs of slowing.

Researchers who have been investigating the science behind the hobby have discovered that it has numerous proven benefits to mental health and well-being.

Broad-tailed hummingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to a recent study published in Scientific Reports, birdwatching and its positive effect on mental health is becoming clearer as research continues. The team used the “Urban Mind smartphone application to examine the impact of seeing or hearing birds on self-reported mental well-being in real-life contexts” on 1,292 participants between April 2018 and October 2021, the study explains. It found that “everyday encounters with birdlife were associated with time-lasting improvements in mental well-being. These improvements were evident not only in healthy people but also in those with a diagnosis of depression, the most common mental illness across the world.” 

>> Related article: Imagine More Meaningful Birdwatching

Curved billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This further confirms a growing body of evidence that listening to birds can reduce anxiety and benefit those with depression. Simply hearing the chirps and trills can lessen feelings of paranoia which could potentially lead to researching its effectiveness in psychiatric wards, according to a separate study also published by Scientific Reports

Other research supports the notion that birds are good for the brain. A 2017 study published in BioScience for example found that bird abundance in urban neighborhoods was associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress. Another study, published in 2020 in Ecological Economics showed a correlation between happiness and the number of bird species around people’s homes and towns.

Ring-necked duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What exactly is so soothing about birds? Andrea Mechelli, a professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London and author of the recent birdsong study theorizes that multiple factors are at play. Nature helps improve concentration by decreasing mental fatigue, he says, and reduces stress by lowering blood pressure and levels of stress-inducing hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Plus, birds tend to lure people outside and outdoor activity improves mood through exercise and socialization. “It’s likely that birds make people feel better through all these mechanisms,” he says.

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birdwatching, or birding, as the National Audubon Society affectionately calls it, continues to be a fast-growing outdoor recreational activity and citizen science project.

>> Related article: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

While many mental health benefits of birdwatching have been—and are continuing to be—established, one question lingers: Why the fascination with avian wildlife? Tina Phillips, assistant director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Engagement in Science and Nature, told Time magazine, “There’s a lot about birds in terms of their charisma, their behavior, and their accessibility that makes them this perfect group of animals that people can really relate to and resonate with.”

Northern cardinal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The mental health benefits are profound,” she added. “Sitting outside and listening to the birds and getting to know their songs is really calming. And to me, the special thing about birds is that they can leave—they don’t have to be there but they have chosen to be where you are and at some point they’ll move on.”

>> Related article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Those interested in birding are in good company: Audubon estimates that there are 47 million birders in the United States. So grab your binoculars, get outside, and indulge in an increasingly popular avocation while immersing yourself in a free form of therapy. 

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Bird?

If you’re curious about nature and want to learn more about what’s around you, birding is a great skill and a fun hobby. When you start to take note of the birds around you, you might find yourself more perceptive of other things. You might notice sounds you previously overlooked. You might start to notice small details in your surroundings like individual trees, insects, fruits, and flowers. You might find yourself more in tune with the passing of the seasons. Birding can be a gateway into recognizing and appreciating a wider world that was there all along.

>> Related article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are four great reasons to get into birding today:

  • Birding is very low-cost. After the initial investment on a pair of binoculars and an ID guide, the only costs are what you spend on travel and entrance fees.
  • You can bird anywhere, anytime. It’s a hobby you can do in your back yard or take with you around the world.
  • It’s very rewarding to see something new, to be able to name what you see, and to make discoveries. It’s also only as much work as you want it to be.
  • Birding can also be a social activity (or not). Beyond being a fun family activity, birding clubs and park rangers offer programs where you can meet other people and look for birds together pooling knowledge and providing more pairs of eyes and ears.

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

Go Birdwatching for the Annual Great Backyard Bird Count: February 17-20, 2023

Every February people all over the world come together for the love of birds and participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count

It’s time to prepare for The Great Backyard Bird Count! As its name implies, this grand event grew from simpler beginnings that included feeder counts but over the past quarter century the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) has expanded into a worldwide birding celebration that takes place over four days in February each year.

Birdwatching at Whitewater Draw in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year you can participate in the 26th annual GBBC anytime over President’s Day Weekend—birding as often and as long as you wish from February 17 to 20. It’s free, enjoyable, and easy for people from all walks of life to participate in identifying and counting birds to create a real time mid-winter snapshot of bird populations that provides valuable information for biologists, conservation leaders, and anyone interested in birds.

Birdwatching at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

>> Read Next: What Is Birding?

Last year, birders from 192 countries reported approximately ¾ of the world’s bird species including 7,099 species of birds identified by 384,641 estimated global participants in 192 participating countries who submitted 359,479 eBird checklists and shared 141,990 photos.

Of course, everyone is invited to get involved ranging from first-timers to expert birders. You can provide information about the birds you see at your feeding station or yard and it’s a great opportunity to join together with others including members of your household or a birding club. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds Canada, and the National Audubon Society, along with the founding sponsor, Wild Birds Unlimited.

Great kiskadee at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a global four day event that is easy ands fun—you can participate for 15 minutes or as many hours and days you prefer. By birding during the GBBC you join the other birders worldwide with the common goal of documenting and better understanding winter bird populations, winter ranges, and changes over years.

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

Great horned owl at Estero Llano Grande State Park in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to participate

Participating is easy, fun to do alone or with others, and can be done anywhere you find birds.

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more at least once over the four days, February 17-20, 2023.

Step 3: Identify all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and use the best tool for sharing your bird sightings:

Cactus wren at Usery Mountain Regional Park near Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are a beginning bird admirer and new to bird identification, use the Merlin Bird ID app to document the birds you see or hear

If you have participated in the count before and want to record numbers of birds, try the eBird Mobile app or enter your bird list on the eBird website (desktop/laptop)

If you already contribute to Merlin or eBird, continue what you are doing. All entries over the four-days count towards GBBC

>> Read Next: Birding in Arizona

Roseate spoonbills at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in central Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three ways to enter data: Options and step-by-step instructions

Merlin Bird ID

If you are NEW to bird watching and bird identification and have a smartphone, GBBC recommends you use the Merlin Bird ID app to enter your first bird. It is FREE and easy to use.

Using Merlin Bird ID: www.birdcount.org/merlin-bird-id-app

Merlin covers bird species from 7 continents and is available in 18 languages.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

eBird Mobile

If you are already using eBird to track your birding activity or an experienced bird watcher, the FREE eBird Mobile app is a fast way to enter your bird lists right from the palm of your hand.

Using eBird Mobile: www.birdcount.org/ebird-mobile-app

Broad-tailed hummingbird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desktop or laptop

If you prefer to enter your sightings on a computer, perhaps after making a list while on a hike or watching your feeders, the app will walk you through how.

Using eBird on a Computer: www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer

Black-necked stilt at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

FAQs

Why is the count in February?

Originally the Great Backyard Bird Count was held in the U.S. and Canada each February to create a snapshot of the distribution of birds just before spring migrations ramped up in March. Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, Birds Canada, and elsewhere can combine this information with data from surveys conducted at different times of the year. In 2013, the count went global, creating snapshots of birds wherever they are in February, regardless of seasons across the hemispheres.

Yellow-crowned night heron at Valley Nature Center in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where should I count birds?

You can count birds anywhere in the world from any location. Count in your backyard, at a local park, or wildlife refuge or wherever you like to watch birds.

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Mourning dove at Catalina State Park in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can I include photos with my checklist/bird list?

Yes, both images and sound recordings can be included with your checklist. They will also be entered into the Macaulay Library archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Adding photos is especially helpful if you are reporting a rare or unusual species.

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