World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Texas has an extensive series of birding and wildlife trails covering scores of sites over the entire state

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. In celebration of World Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday of May (May 14, 2022), here is a look at the nine eco-regions and birding trails in Texas which hosts more bird-watching festivals than any other state.

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, and Lower Rio Grande Valley. The list could go on and on.

With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. 

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of whooping cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed reddish egrets, blazing pink roseate spoonbills, and beautifully patterned white-tailed hawks.

Ibis rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico, enlivening the landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy ringed kingfishers like belted kingfishers on steroids, great kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family, and green jays which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue and gray tones.

Related Article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:

  • Far West Texas
  • Upper Texas Coast
  • Central Texas Coast
  • Lower Texas Coast
  • Heart of Texas West
  • Heart of Texas East
  • Panhandle Plains
  • Prairies and Piney Woods West
  • Prairies and Piney Woods East

Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Far West Texas: Encompassing an area from El Paso to Midland-Odessa and down to the Rio Grande’s border with Mexico, the Far West Texas interactive map helps visitors discover a blend of natural and cultural resources such as historic structures, forts, and ancient pictographs as well as a chance to trek through the rugged outdoors. Watch for Montezuma quail, curved-bill thrasher, greater roadrunner, and ladder-backed woodpecker.

Recommended birding site: Big Bend National Park

Curv-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations and if offers endless opportunities for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, and people who enjoy rugged landscapes.

Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods and willows. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds of the Chisos include acorn woodpecker, cordilleran flycatcher, Mexican jay, and painted redstart. More likely in lower elevations are such species as scaled quail, greater roadrunner, elf owl, vermilion flycatcher, cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher, pyrrhuloxia, and varied bunting.

Egret rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Texas Coast: The Upper Texas Coast region takes you close to the Louisiana border to Beaumont and Houston then along the coast from the birding hotspots of High Island and Bolivar Peninsula continuing down to Galveston and the Brazosport Area. Visit heron rookeries and be wowed by the number of egrets, herons, and Roseate Spoonbills visible from viewing platforms. You may even get a glimpse of an alligator (from a safe distance, of course!).

Recommended birding site: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the must-visit sites of Texas, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes black-bellied whistling duck, fulvous whistling duck, wood stork (post-breeding visitor), neotropic cormorant, least bittern, roseate spoonbill, clapper rail, purple gallinule, and black-necked stilt. 

Related Article: What Is Birding?

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Central Texas Coast: Explore well-known birding sites and hidden gems throughout the Coastal Bend from Kingsville and Corpus Christi up to Goliad and continuing through the coastal communities of Port Aransas, Rockport-Fulton, and on to Bay City. Observe vibrant migratory birds during spring and fall migration as well as over-wintering whooping cranes, all while enjoying year-round birding opportunities and events.

Recommended birding site: Brazos Bend State Park

Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods ensure a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look on park lakes and wetlands for black-bellied whistling duck, pied-billed grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and roseate spoonbill and Purple Gallinule. Some of the breeding birds here are least bittern, Mississippi kite, black-necked stilt, yellow-billed cuckoo, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Texas Coast: Spend some time getting to know the diverse landscapes of the Valley from Brownsville and South Padre Island to Weslace, McAllen, all the way up to Rio Grande City and inland to Raymondville and more. See some of the south Texas specialties such as the green jay, great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, and plain chachalaca in addition to the occasional Mexican rarity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Recommended birding site: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the region’s specialties are seen here including plain chachalaca, white-tipped dove, common pauraque, buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee, green jay, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, and Altamira oriole, to name only a few of the most regular species.

Related Article: Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas West: Covering an area from San Angelo and Sonora east to Junction and then over to Fredericksburg and Uvalde and down to Del Rio, this region offers the well-known central Texas while learning about cave formations.

Recommended birding site: Lost Maples State Natural Area

The beautiful Texas Hill Country is worth visiting for its scenery and rivers and it holds great rewards for birders. Lost Maples State Natural Area is one place that combines beauty and birds. Named for the bigtooth maples, it’s especially popular and crowded when the trees change color in fall.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nesting birds here include wild turkey, greater roadrunner, ruby-throated hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, Hutton’s vireo, western scrub jay, black-crested Titmouse, Louisiana water thrush, Rufous-crowned sparrow, painted bunting, Scott’s oriole, and lesser goldfinch.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas East: This region runs from Brownwood near the Panhandle down through Marble Falls and Johnson City before heading east to Austin and Bastrop and south to San Marcos and San Antonio. Tour native nature centers, private ranches, and state parks or go right into the heart of Austin, the state capitol to see the largest urban population of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. Head down to the South Texas brush country near Laredo for a more rugged terrain.

Recommended birding site: Mitchell Lake Audubon Center

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An all-around birding site just south of downtown San Antonio, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center includes woodland, wetlands, and a 600-acre lake. At the center of the area are former wastewater-treatment ponds, now renowned for shorebirds from late summer through spring.

Some of the birds often seen on the lake and wetlands include black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, American white pelican, and many species of wading birds.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among nesting, birds are greater roadrunner, black-chinned hummingbird, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, crested caracara, scissor-tailed flycatcher, cave swallow, verdin, long-billed thrasher, painted bunting, orchard oriole, and Bullock’s oriole.

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Panhandle Plains: Enjoy the expansive views available in the northern part of the state including Amarillo, Lubbock, and south to Abilene. Here, get a glimpse of scenic canyons, mesas, and river corridors and keep an eye out for coyote, pronghorn antelope, sandhill cranes, black-tailed prairie dogs, meadow larks, burrowing owls and more in the wide open spaces of Texas.

Recommended birding site: Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From fall through spring many species of ducks use these wetlands and some such as cinnamon teal and redhead remain to nest. Some of the nesting birds here are wild turkey, Mississippi kite, greater roadrunner, burrowing owl, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, Say’s phoebe, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Chihuahuan raven, rock wren, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Burrowing owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods West: Extending from Wichita Falls in the north, down through the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, and into Waco and Temple before continuing to College Station. View some of the few remaining Blackland Prairies and experience the native habitat that once covered most of north Texas. Watch for grazing bison, caracaras, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and more. Also, reconnect with urban nature at a variety of Dallas and Fort Worth parks, zoos and nature centers.

Recommended birding site: Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Five species of geese winter on this refuge, at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma on the route of the Central Flyway so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter. A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands. Nesting birds at Hagerman include wood duck, Northern bobwhite, wild turkey, pied-billed grebe, tricolored Heron, common gallinule, black-necked stilt, least tern, greater roadrunner, red-headed woodpecker, loggerhead shrike, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

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

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods East: Travel through a region that goes from Paris to Texarkana and down through Tyler, Nacogdoches, Lufkin, and Huntsville. Spend time in east Texas to explore the Big Thicket and hardwood forest for a variety of raptors, warblers, woodpeckers, and other woodland species. Or, take time to fish one of the many lakes, rivers and streams and maybe spot an eagle soaring above.

Recommended birding site: Lake Tawakoni

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This reservoir northeast of Dallas is a favorite destination for local birders. On the west side, 376-acre Lake Tawakoni State Park is one spot from which to scan the lake for wintering waterfowl, loons, grebes, American white pelican, and bald eagle. Osprey is seen in migration. Neotropic cormorant is seen year round, and crested caracara is found regularly. Nesting birds include Cooper’s hawk, blue grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.
A few miles southeast, Highway 47 crosses the dam for the lake. The woods below the dam along the Sabine River can be excellent for spring migrants. Nesting birds include wood duck, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary Warbler, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.

Texas Spoken Friendly

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

Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

In bird photography, the camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds

Photographing birds often encourages us to spend more time with them, study the birds closer, and appreciate the importance of watching and waiting to see what might happen next—or what different birds might slip into view. Photographing birds make birding more enjoyable in the field—and as you review and edit photos after your close encounters of an avian kind.

Cerulean warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capturing great bird photographs has its own set of challenges. Many beginners wanting to try their hand in bird photography may have a perception that they need to buy an expensive camera and lenses to match. While it is true that the top-of-the-line cameras and premium lenses produce superior results in challenging conditions, still don’t expect it to be the end-all-be-all. And a lens alone can set you back over $10,000.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For successfully photographing wild birds in the wild, you need a camera, a long focal length lens, and a good tripod. Once you are confident about handling your camera and lens, you may wish to use them free-hand. But in the beginning, a tripod can benefit your photography especially with the composition and low-light situations.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Inca dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you feel carrying a tripod around is too cumbersome, you can also try handheld photography. But you need to maintain optimal body stability and posture to minimize the associated camera shake. Another option is to carry a monopod which would give you excellent results.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Personally, I have not used a tripod for 99.9 percent of the pictures that I have taken. They are not perfect but are reasonably sharp and focused. This is because I have developed hand and body posture stability through years of experience and practice.

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are a few things to remember about the camera requirements when aiming for bird photography. The camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds. Anything upward of 8 frames per second is good.

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With few exceptions, most common birds move around quickly. Their pictures can be blurry by the subject movement if the shutter speed is not high. A 1/2000 of a second shutter speed is a safe starting point. A camera with good ISO performance can achieve that. So aim for the one giving low noise results at ISO 1600–3200 range.

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When considering the sensor resolution in megapixels, most cameras now offer plenty. A high megapixel count is beneficial when you want to crop the picture in post-processing. Look for cameras with more than 15-megapixels. Be mindful that large megapixel cameras produce large image files. You will need a powerful computer to process those images. A camera with an inbuilt GPS is an option to consider. GPS enables the camera to tag the location where each photo is taken. It also sets the time automatically.

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

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep in mind that a camera is only one of the ingredients of photography. To make your photo stand out, you need good soft light. Soft ambient light conditions are available when most birds are active, mornings and evenings. So be prepared to wake up early.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next ingredient in the recipe is a long focal lens. Wild birds can be very skittish and are hard to approach. A lens of at least 400mm focal length is a good start. That way you also have the flexibility to approach the birds from a reasonably good distance.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually, when we have smaller focal length lenses we tend to go overboard and approach the bird too close for their comfort. You don’t need to spend a fortune to buy a prime wide aperture lens. Most camera manufacturers offer budget options in the popular focus length ranges.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shooting technique becomes paramount in the field. By carefully selecting the shooting angle, it’s possible to separate the bird from the cluttering background. You can try to move slowly to find the best possible background. I have observed that abrupt lateral movements alert the birds to take off immediately. Thus, a patient and calm approach is necessary to obtain the best results under the given conditions.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

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

A background blur can be created even with narrow aperture lenses. A word of caution here; you don’t want to stress a bird or an animal in the process of getting your best photo. If the bird or animal shows any sign of discomfort, back-off or leave the area.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with a good camera and a lens, an incorrect exposure can ruin the picture.

Mirrorless technology is the latest in advanced cameras. You can also try these models as they are light to carry and offer great results and quality.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs

There are many elements that go into a given photo. The position of the bird or birds, the location of the sun in the sky; positioning yourself between the bird and sun; composing your photos with respect to the surrounding landscape, and the technical aspects of using your camera and lens.

Photographing birds on a sunny day usually result in a pleasing contrast between the sky and the bird, in this case, a colorful Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With time, many of these elements become second nature and there are also a number of things you can prepare in advance of encountering the next bird. There are a host of things to consider while photographing and a few more to keep in mind when you review and edit your images and pick out the best of the best.

Take a few initial photos, then wait for the action, like this Tri-colored heron hunting for food © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I like to think of the following information as a standard for bird photography, especially for beginners but I think anyone can gain a number of tips and ideas that will simplify some of the mechanics and thoughts that factor into a given photo opportunity. Some of these techniques I learned during my first years of photographing wildlife, others I learned from other photographers either in person or by reading their magazine articles or online.

Of course, it is really just an outline of good photo practices that I’ve learned over the years which can be adjusted to your interests and conditions. Well, here goes:

Focus on a bird’s eye whenever possible, in this case, a pair of Mourning doves © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning and preparation

Even before I begin photographing, I work within a simple framework of planning.

Use a fast shutter speed (1/1200) to stop the action with a focus on the bird’s eye, in this case, a Roseate spoonbill in a natural setting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s important to watch the weather and try to plan your photography for when there is plenty of sunlight. I watch the weather reports to make sure I will have quality sunlight. Bird photography is always best when there is adequate sunshine from the optimum direction and angle.

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

Sunny mornings and early afternoons are best for photographing. However, during the winter months, when the sun is positioned farther south in the sky, you can often photograph with good sunlight angles throughout the day.

I preset my camera so I’m ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. Then, when I’m in a position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if warranted.

Be aware of the background and any distracting elements as you position yourself for the photograph, in this case, a Guilded flicker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You should never use the automatic setting on a camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to the Aperture-preference (Av) setting. Then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.

During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400 with an aperture of f7 or f8 and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 and 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion.

It’s always exciting when everything works in your favor, but advanced preparation always improves your luck when photographing birds, in this case, a Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lighting

Keep the sun at your back so the sunlight illuminates your subject as directly as possible.

Your shadow is a good indicator of the direction of the sunlight; try to keep your shadow pointing at your subject as best you can.

Consider the possibilities of photographing birds during sunsets and sunrises, in this case, a flock of ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing caused by the angle of the sun when you’re not in the optimum position. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more obvious in photos, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Keep the sun at your back so the sunlight illuminates your subject as directly as possible, in this case, a House finch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird Photo Ethics

Try not to disturb birds, especially if they are feeding, nesting, or are caring for young—the birds’ well-being always comes first.

Related Article: Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

The color of a sunrise or sunset adds an interesting element when photographing birds, in this case, a group of Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t get too close; allow birds to behave naturally. If you see a bird become aware of your approach, stop and wait to see if it will relax after a few minutes. In fact, when you stop short of alarming birds, they may actually move closer in your direction on their own.

Photographing a bird in silhouette works in some situations, in this case, an anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly at the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer, slowly zig-zagging if necessary while keeping the sun at your back as best you can. Don’t look at the bird for long; give it the impression you are interested in something else.

A fast shutter speed stopped this Willet in its tracts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing and be prepared to photograph that action.

When you find a trusting bird, spend a little extra time with it. You may get another perspective on the species’ behavior and you may be able to photograph another of the bird’s activities.

Photographing birds in blue-sky water usually result in a pleasing contrast between the water and the bird, in this case, a green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Moment

Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is in the middle of the bird. If the eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

If the bird is swimming, wading, or walking consider repositioning yourself lower to the level of the bird by kneeling or even lying down in some cases.

A fast shutter speed is required to stop the action, in this case, a black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that could be transferred as you hold your camera. Lean your lens against a tree, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest as you handhold your camera and lens.

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens, but for many of us, using a tripod is cumbersome at best, especially when photographing flying birds. For me, dealing with a tripod takes much the fun out of bird photography. But if you use a tripod, consider using a shutter release cable to optimize the stability the tripod provides.

Using a blind provided closer access to a location that attracts birds including this green jay and then wait for the action © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Field Settings

Keep aware of the background of your photo. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may be a simple matter of taking a step right or left in some cases to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases, a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a pleasing natural element to a bird photograph.

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area of focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus, in this case, a Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area of focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. The blurred effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f6. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background (and foreground). Be aware that this technique works best if there is some space between the bird and the background elements.

Preset your camera so you’re ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice (this pair of Royal terns won’t keep this pose forever) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using a narrow f4 or f6 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which is helpful in stopping the motion of fast-moving songbirds and birds in flight while creating sharper images overall.

It’s fine to have plants or other natural elements show in the background and in some cases, you will want to embrace the background. Then, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14 as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work

Burst photos are perfect because they allow you to capture multiple shots as your subject moves, in this case, a Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composition and design

Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, or fly into.

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, consider the “rule of thirds” which artists often use when composing their works. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design, although it is just a guide to be aware of when composing photos.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Sometimes you can position a bird within the frame while initially taking a photo.

Stay with the bird and wait for an interesting pose, as in this case, a Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple Editing

When using photo editing software, I edit a photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve some photos immensely. Cropping extraneous areas of a photo can also increase the size of the bird in a photo frame—effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo reviews and editing, preferably after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly and easy to access.

Your patience may be rewarded by the sighting of a rare bird sighting, in this case, a clay robin, also known as a clay thrust © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy to keep your photos on external hard drives, separate from your computer, although it’s always convenient to have a file of favorite photographs saved on your computer.

Keep two copies of all photos—preferably in different locations to ensure you never “lose” any of your valuable photos.

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

World-Class Birding in Arizona

Arizona excels in natural areas and bird-watching locations

No matter if you’re new to bird watching or are an avid birder looking to check rare species off your life list, Arizona is your place.

Lesser goldfinch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items, snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, and a birding field guide. Bring enough gear to ensure your stay in the field is as comfortable as possible.

The last piece of the birding equation is totally up to you. Just get out there and enjoy nature. Hike around while peering into the brush, on the water, or in trees for Arizona’s diverse bird species.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Botanical Garden 

Located near Papago Park and Phoenix Zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden offers an excellent opportunity to view desert birdlife up close. These gardens provide excellent habitats for a variety of desert species. The birds may be observed throughout the five informative trails that exhibit different desert habitats and settings. Since each trail has a theme, the birdlife may vary on each trail. 

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds commonly seen include Gambel’s quail, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, white-winged and Inca doves, greater roadrunner, Western screech-owl, Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds, Gila and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, gilded flicker, Ash-throated flycatcher, verdin, cactus and rock wrens, black-tailed gnatcatcher, Northern mockingbird, curve-billed thrasher, Abert’s towhee, and Northern cardinal. 

Related Article: Birding in Arizona

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Ramsey Canyon is renowned for its beauty and serenity. It is also an ecological crossroads where plants and wildlife from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts mingle with those from the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre. The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” that harbor amazing habitat diversity.

Mexican jay at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The diverse wildlife and habitats of Ramsey Canyon may be viewed from the Hamburg Trail. This open-ended route parallels Ramsey Creek through the preserve before climbing 500 feet in a half-mile series of steep switchbacks.

Other wildlife can be seen at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon has been famous among birders and other nature enthusiasts for over a century. Though best known for its diversity of hummingbirds—as many as fifteen species of hummingbirds migrate through Ramsey Canyon—the canyon offers much more. Residents of the canyon include Arizona woodpecker, Mexican jay, canyon wren, bridled titmouse, elegant Trojan, Montezuma quail, and spotted towhee.

Broad-tailed hummingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people. The riparian, upland and marsh habitats in the monument are used by a large number of bird species.

Related Article: Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To the north and east of the Tuzigoot Pueblo in the Monument is the Tavasci Marsh, an oasis for birds and other wildlife. The Marsh is a spring-fed freshwater wetland that occupies an abandoned oxbow of the Verde River. Named an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, the Marsh feeds into the Verde River, and over 245 species of birds have been documented within the Monument, many of them found in the riparian corridor of the Verde River and the Marsh.

Say’s phoebe at Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird species common to the Monument include Abert’s towhee, ruby-crowned kinglet, curve-billed thrasher, Western kingbird, cactus wren, sora, Gila, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern flicker, Say’s phoebe (pictured above), and lesser goldfinch.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

A 1,500-acre wildlife habitat, Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is famous for the large population of sandhill cranes during the winter season of October through February. Whitewater Draw lies in the Chiricahua desert grassland habitat of the Sulphur Springs Valley. The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for bird watching.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the southwestern part of the valley, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area lies within a desert grassland habitat. Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat.

Related Article: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Pied-billed Grebe at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw has a one-mile boardwalk trail that takes you around cattail marshes, shallow ponds, and eventually to several viewing platforms. Here you can use permanently-mounted spotting scopes to observe the wintering sandhill cranes, and the flocks of snow geese and tundra swan that share the sky with the cranes.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The number of waterbirds wintering here has also increased in recent years, and thousands of ducks, grebes, cinnamon teals, Northern shoveler, Northern pintail, and other waterbirds are usually present all winter. This is also a great place to see avocets, stilts, and yellowlegs. Wetland birds include egrets, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, ibis, soras, terns, and other shorebirds.

Great Horned owl at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The small stand of riparian woodland attracts many migratory birds including warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, and buntings. You may see mourning dove, white-winged dove, Gambel’s quail, and scaled quail. Several species of sparrows can be found, including lark, vesper, white-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Cassin’s. Members of the flycatcher family including vermilion flycatcher, Say’s phoebe, and black phoebe are common here.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma

It’s not just snowbirds that flock to Yuma—nearly 400 species of birds make this a seasonal stop or year-round home because of the area’s diverse habitat.

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s great birding right in the middle of town, thanks to West Wetlands and Gateway parks and the East Wetlands park and trail system. Birds commonly seen include cinnamon teal, common moorhen, white-faced ibis, least bittern, clapper rail, black-necked stilt, ladder-backed, and Gila woodpeckers, verdin, blue grosbeak, lesser goldfinch, greater roadrunner, and numerous flycatchers and warblers.

Related Article: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Curve-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Farther afield, Imperial, Kofa, and Cibola national wildlife refuges and Betty’s Kitchen Interpretive Area at Mittry Lake provide thousands of acres of diverse desert, mountain, and riparian habitat.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Great Backyard Bird Count this Weekend

25 years of coming together to watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds

A plain chachalaca strolls the grounds while a green jay stops for a drink and an Altamira oriole takes a bite of an orange at the feeding station. Three different species of hummingbirds zoom in and out.

Plain chachalaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So what’s the big deal about birdwatching? The variety and wonderment of birds! Well to some, it may seem dull watching birds gather seed from a bird feeder or fly and hop within the trees but to others, it’s rather cool!

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is fascinating about birdwatching is how different the birds are. From sizes, colors, patterns, beak shapes to songs, and with over 10,000 species of birds worldwide, you are bound to see a diversity of birds.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Friday through Sunday (February 18 through 21) will mark the 25th edition of the event Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Everyone is invited to take part in the GBBC so your birds become part of the birders’ database used by biologists to track changes in bird populations over time.

Eastern phoebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a bit of a misnomer in that you can count birds at any location, at any time of the day, for any length of time (but for at least 15 minutes), and enter a new checklist for each new count you make during the 4-day event which is being conducted by birders like you worldwide.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy for people of all birding skill levels to participate and there are ample tools and information on the GBBC website to help new and returning birders get involved this weekend. Last year, an estimated 300,000 people worldwide submitted checklists reporting a total of 6,436 species and they submitted 151,393 photographs in the process. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the National Audubon Society, Birds Canada, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The GBBC is about the birds but it’s also about the people. It’s clear from research studies that getting outdoors or connecting with nature—even watching or listening to birds from home—does people a lot of good,” said David Bonter, the Cornell Lab’s co-director at the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Sometimes people feel intimidated about jumping into the world of birds if they have no previous experience,” said Patrick Nadeau, president of Birds Canada. “The Great Backyard Bird Count is a wonderful way to get your feet wet, feel the warmth of the community, and start to realize the wonders in your own neighborhood. The tools and resources are free and you are helping birds when you get involved.”

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Birds tell us how our environment and climate are changing,” added Chad Wilsey, chief scientist at the National Audubon Society. “By joining the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants can contribute valuable data that help scientists better understand our surroundings. Together we can use this information to better protect birds and the places they need.”

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some GBBC participants discovered a fascination with birds for the first time during the pandemic and found participating in the GBBC to be a welcome distraction as a new birder from Maryland explained: “Like many others, I found solace in the natural world, especially in birds,” said participant Anna Anders about birding during the pandemic. “I had extra time to observe and learn more about them. I began going birding, put out more feeders and a birdbath, took birding classes, and started my life list. I can’t wait to participate in the GBBC and continue my birding journey!”

Gilded flicker © 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 18-21, 2022.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

  • If you are a beginning bird admirer and new to the count, try using the Merlin Bird ID app (www.birdcount.org/merlin-bird-id-app)
  • If you have participated in the count before, try the eBird Mobile app (www.birdcount.org/ebird-mobile-app), or on your desktop or laptop enter your bird list on the eBird website (www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer).
  • If you are participating as a group, see instructions for Group Counting (www.birdcount.org/group-counts)
Curve-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird Photos from the Weekend

Upload your favorite bird images when you enter your Great Backyard Bird Count list in eBird. Your photo will become a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library (www.macaulaylibrary.org), the world’s premier scientific archive of natural history.

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Images for the Macaulay Library can be uploaded directly from your eBird/GBBC list.

All Great Backyard Bird Count participants are urged to observe birds safely.

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

Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

A significant percentage of American birders, if asked to choose their single favorite regional destination, would pick southeastern Arizona

Arizona is known as one of the top birding destinations in the United States. The diverse range of ecosystems—from desert lowlands to mountainous “sky islands”—provides habitat for 566 species of birds. Arizona has 48 designated Important Bird Areas spread across over 3 million acres. These are areas of a habitat that are critical to the conservation of bird biodiversity. If you are interested in seeing some of these birds for yourself, grab a pair of binoculars and a camera, and head out to some of these prime birding destinations around the state.

Curve-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Go Birding in Southeastern Arizona

Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together. The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” that harbor tremendous habitat diversity and form stepping stones to the tropics.

Acorn woodpecker in Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon’s unique interplay of geology, biology, topography, and climate make it a haven for more than 170 varieties of birds including 14 species of hummingbirds. Thanks to a spring-fed creek that nourishes the area, you may spot birds like Painted Redstarts, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Bridled Titmice, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Mexican Jays.

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

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

Chiricahua National Monument, about 35 miles southeast of Willcox is another place where you can find sky islands. Over 200 species have been documented in this area including the sought-after elegant trogon. While this bird is rare, you are more likely to spot hairy woodpeckers, turkey vultures, and Mexican jays.

Lesser goldfinch at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most important riparian (streamside) areas, the San Pedro River runs through the Chihuahuan Desert and the Sonoran Desert in southeastern Arizona. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area contains nearly 57,000 acres of public land stretching some 40 miles in a narrow band south from St. David. The river’s stretch is home to more than 100 species of breeding birds and 250 species of migrant and wintering birds.

Vermillion flycatcher at Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure, Patagonia Lake State Park. Hikers can stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Related: Birding in Arizona

Lesser grege at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a verdant floodplain valley between Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains within the watershed of Sonoita Creek, lies some of the richest of the remaining riparian habitat in the region. This site contains the first two miles of the permanent flow of Sonoita Creek and the floodplains adjacent to the stream. More than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in this riparian habitat. Possible sightings include everything from gray hawks to vermillion flycatchers, thick-billed kingbirds, and the wonderfully named black-bellied whistling duck.

Hummingbird at Paton Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Paton Center for Hummingbirds is a place to explore and experience the special birds of southeast Arizona. It is dedicated to the celebration and conservation of hummingbirds—and all of southeast Arizona’s astounding biodiversity. 212 bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of Patagonia including Violet-crowned hummingbirds, gray hawks, varied buntings, thick-billed kingbirds, and many more local specialties.

Madera Canyon in Coronado National Forest is a popular spot for birders who want a chance to see the elegant trogon or an elf owl among many other more common species like the painted redstart and warblers. Madera Canyon is also a good place to see multiple species of hummingbirds in the summer—15 different species have been spotted there.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is a wetland near the town of McNeal with almost 300 species of birds to spot, but in the winter it becomes a roosting site for over 20,000 sandhill cranes that fly south from other Western states.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to go Birding around Phoenix

There are plenty of places around the Phoenix metro area to go birding. The Tres Rios Wetlands is a 700-acre wetland created by reclaimed water from a wastewater treatment plant. The lush and scenic Tres Rios is now home to more than 150 different species of birds including black-necked stilt, double-crested cormorant, and American white pelican. The beautiful cottonwood groves, willows, mesquites, and other desert shrubs around the reed-lined ponds and along the trail attract many migratory and wintering songbirds.

Related: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is the home of the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center. Over 200 species of birds have been spotted in this wetland restoration area that is only 2 miles south of downtown.

American avocet at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Town of Gilbert, The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch provides a great opportunity for bird watching. The Preserve is organized into various vegetative zones ranging from marshlands to native riparian and upland vegetation areas. Approximately 298 species of birds have been identified on the site. Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park. Viewing blinds have been established at various locations near the edge of several ponds.

Great Blue heron at Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to go birding in northern Arizona

Sedona and the Verde Valley are great destinations for birding. The area has a mix of desert habitats and water features that support a diverse community of birds from cedar waxwings to black hawks. Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood and the Sedona Wetlands Preserve off State Route 89A is easy-access birding destinations in this region.

Related: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Watson Lake near Prescott is an important refuge for birds in the winter and is a good place to see multiple species of ducks like mallards and wood ducks.

Great horned owl at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to identify birds

Besides traditional books and paper guides, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology manages eBird, a free citizen science portal where birders can log what birds they see while out in the field. You can search the website for birding hot spots and checklists so you know what species have been spotted recently. Cornell also offers a bird identification app called Merlin ID that can be used to identify birds based on characteristics such as color and size. 

Northern shovelers at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus

Explore the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area

From upland forests, to Cypress/Tupelo swamps, to an active land-building river delta, the Atchafalaya has lots to see

The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, known as “America’s Foreign Country,” is full of opportunities to take advantage of the great outdoors. Whether it’s paddling on the sparkling waters, hiking through the lush greenery, biking on winding paths, or keeping an eye out for that elusive bird you’ve been looking for­—the Atchafalaya National Heritage area has everything to offer. 

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An American-Indian word, “Atchafalaya” (Think of a sneeze: uh-CHA-fuh-lie-uh) means long river. Established in 2006, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area (NHA) stretches across 14 parishes in south-central Louisiana. It is among the most culturally rich and ecologically varied regions in the United States, home to the Cajun culture as well as a diverse population of European, African, Caribbean, and Native-American descent.

With a story around every bend in the river and music from every corner, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is an ever-changing landscape.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atchafalaya Paddle Trails

Head out for a day of paddling under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss through cypress tree forests in the swamp. Watch graceful egrets take wing or glimpse an alligator slide into the water.

Related Article: ‘Pass a Good Time’ on the Bayou Teche Byway

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Teche/Lower Atchafalaya River Paddling Trail: This trail offers up to 10 miles of paddling if you begin at the Calumet Cut. From there you’ll glide through Patterson to the mouth of the Bayou Teche at the Atchafalaya River. 

Lake Fausse Pointe State Park & Canoe Trail: Located in the Atchafalaya Basin near St. Martinville, Lake Fausse Pointe State Park offers miles of canoeing and kayaking trails in a labyrinth of waterways. You’ll also find hiking trails, cabins and campsites, a boat launch, and a playground. 

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Avoille Cove Paddling Trail: Lake Fausse Pointe and Grand Avoille Cove lie adjacent to the Atchafalaya Basin swamp. The Atchafalaya River runs through the basin, which extends north from Morgan City past Lafayette in a maze of bayous, lakes, ponds, and cypress swamps. The area is a great place for birding, as the cove is lined with cypress trees.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atchafalaya Birding Trails

Enjoy some of the best birding in the country in the diverse parts of the Atchafalaya Heritage Area which are home to almost 400 bird species including waders like herons, egrets, ibises, and roseate spoonbills.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iberia Parish Birding Trail: Louisiana’s coast in Iberia Parish has the perfect combination of wetlands and soil to welcome rare and beautiful birds into its shoreland. The warm temperatures and location within the southern migratory flyway make this an attractive destination for birds—more than 240 species have been documented here. Birding areas of interest include Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, Jungle Gardens/Avery Island, New Iberia City Park, Jefferson Island Rip’s Rookery, and Spanish Lake.

Related Article: I’m going to Cajun Country!

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iberville Parish Birding Trail: Uniquely located between two major migratory routes, the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Flyways, Iberville offers an excellent opportunity to observe unique bird species including neotropical migratory songbirds, migratory hummingbirds, migratory wading birds, and raptors.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atchafalaya Biking Trails

Cycling the back roads is a great way to get to know the Atchafalaya Heritage Area.

Atchafalaya Basin Wilderness Trail: The Atchafalaya Wilderness Trail is a remote gravel trail that runs on top of the levee for about 55 miles from Henderson (next to Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf) through three parishes to Franklin. It’s open for bike riders, walkers, and hikers to enjoy.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old River Control Structure to Natchez Trace Link: You can begin this route at the Old River Lock which allows boats to enter the Atchafalaya River from the Mississippi River. The route from here travels alongside and sometimes on top of the levee bordering the Mississippi River. Several wildlife preserves along the way offer opportunities for camping, fishing, hunting, or exploring.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simmesport, Marksville, Washington Loop: This is a pleasant ride that travels through small towns including Hamburg, Moreauville, Mansura, and Marksville. As you leave Moreauville, you will follow Bayou des Glaises northward through Mansura, a community settled by Frenchmen in the 1700s and now home to the popular Cochon de Lait Festival.

Related Article: Cultural Interplay along the Bayou Teche: Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Martinville to Fausse Pointe Loop: This ride begins in historic St. Martinville and loops eastward past Lake Dauterieve to Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, an area once home to the Chitimacha Indians. The park, at the edge of a beautiful water wilderness, is a perfect point from which to explore the natural and cultural heritage of South Louisiana. Combine your wilderness adventure with a tour of nearby historic areas such as the city of St. Martinville and Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site which interprets the history of French-speaking cultures along Bayou Teche by comparing life on an 1800s French Creole Plantation to typical Acadian farmsteads.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Franklin to Morgan City: Nature and history offer the main attractions and points of interest along this route which tracks Bayou Teche for much of the way. Keep an eye out for wildlife.

A stop at Brownell Memorial Park offers a view of the palmettos, elephant ears, cattails, and ferns that grow wild in the area.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Morgan City to White Castle: As you leave Morgan City, you’ll cycle along beautiful Lake Palourde, one of the largest natural lakes in Louisiana. Veer off and ride to the top of the levee occasionally for a look at one of the most beautiful swampland wilderness areas in the nation, the Atchafalaya Basin. In Pierre Part, stop for a photo of the bayou running through the main street—you might even see one of the locals paddling a pirogue.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Wildlife Refuge Trails

The National Wildlife Refuges’ mix of scenic bayous, oxbow lakes, swamps, and bottomland hardwood forest are great places to fish, bird watch, paddle, or just plain enjoy the scenery.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge: The primary mission of this refuge in the lower part of the Atchafalaya Basin is to preserve and manage habitat for the threatened Louisiana black bear so there is potential for bear sightings along with the system of interconnected trails. Other wildlife you are likely to spot include wading birds, neotropical songbirds, waterfowl, and various reptiles and amphibians Within the refuge, you can take your pick of four trails: Wood Duck Trail (approximately 10 miles); Black Bear Trail (12 miles); Alligator Trail (10 miles); and Yellow Bayou Trail (6 miles).

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indian Bayou National Wildlife Refuge: The Indian Bayou area is a 28,000-acre paradise for hunters, fishermen, bird watchers, boaters, nature photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts located in the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin. It is a haven for wading birds like the great blue heron and the great egret. Mallards and wood ducks are abundant as are reptiles and amphibians including the American alligator and western cottonmouth. Reflective white-on-blue directional signs mark the trails at major turning points allowing paddlers to navigate without a guide.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And for an added bonus: Check out the many outdoorsy and cultural stops along the Bayou Teche Byway. Immerse yourself in Acadian culture in cafés and dance halls that serve up Cajun and zydeco music along with boiled crawfish and étouffée.

Read Next: Cool-As-Hell Louisiana Towns You Need to Visit (Besides New Orleans)

Worth Pondering…

Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou.

—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954

Experience the Journey Within

How the forest can change your life

Who could have imagined that being confined to our homes would bring so many people closer to nature?

As we wrap up the first month of 2022, let’s remind ourselves to hit the “reset” button. America offers RV travelers the opportunity to do just that and tap into true joy and fully relax and reset. Improving your health and well-being can be as simple as getting outdoors to enjoy parks and forests and trails. The health benefits of outdoor recreation inspire healthy, active lifestyles, and a connection with nature.

Enjoying nature at Lackawanna State Park (Pennsylvania) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Humans are custom-designed for nature awareness. Before there were computers, smartphones, and televisions, most of our time was spent outside in the fresh air, tuning in with birds, plants, trees, and all the aspects of nature.

This deep level of knowledge and understanding about edible plants or how to move quietly in the forest and get closer to wildlife was developed out of a need for survival.

Enjoying nature at Roosevelt State Park (Mississippi) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But beyond the surface appearance of a basic need to find food, shelter, and navigate without getting lost, using our sensory awareness in nature also brings significant benefits to our health and wellness.

Related Article: Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Just check out some of these nature awareness quotes by famous people.

“If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor; if you live according to what others think, you will never be rich.”
—Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher (4 BC-AD 65)

Enjoying nature in Custer State Park (South Dakota) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

 “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even
spiritual satisfaction.”
—E.O. Wilson (1929-2021)

Enjoying nature at the Coachella Valley Preserve (California) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”
—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
—John Muir (1838-1914)

Enjoying nature on the Creole Nature Trail (Louisiana) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a reason why history’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and leaders tend to have close relationships with nature!

Yet today things are quite different.

Related Article: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

Most people today have barely any awareness of the natural world.

Enjoying nature at Bernheim Forest (Kentucky) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve become preoccupied with technology, video games, and how to fit into an expanding world. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, they simply don’t stimulate the human brain in the same way that nature does.

That is why so many people around the world are now coming back to the wilderness and intentionally rebuilding practices of nature awareness into their daily life.

Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Enchanted Rock (Texas) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country have received the designation.

Francis Beider Forest (South Carolina) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

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

With national and state parks, millions of acres of national and state forest, and thousands of miles of trails, America offers a lot of opportunity and free access to the outdoors with numerous options for outdoor recreation including hiking, biking, birding, photography, canoeing, rafting, skiing, and simply taking a walk in the woods. Activities such as these have proven major benefits for human health and wellness due to their ability to clear the mind, engage our senses, and get our bodies moving.

Related Article: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Birding (Little blue heron) at Corkscrew Sanctuary (Florida) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending time in the outdoors is something we need at any age. Spending time in nature is inherently calming. The patience that birding requires only serves to enhance this meditative effect. As birders learn to appreciate nature’s slower pace, it inspires reflection, relaxation, and perspective. The exercise benefits that come from walking outdoors also contribute to increased happiness and energy levels.

Birding (Sandhill cranes) at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for a fun hobby you can do anywhere, anytime, without spending much cash upfront? You can’t go wrong with birding, commonly known as bird watching.

Birding (Black skimmer) at South Padre Island Birding Center (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can do it purely for fun or keep a life list—a birding term for the running list that bird enthusiasts keep of all the different species of birds they see. Whatever your goal, you’ll be rewarded by the sights and sounds of beautiful and interesting feathered creatures.

Birding (Great kiskadee) at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been considering joining the ranks of the 47 million birders in the United States, there’s no better time than the present to take the plunge—or at least dip your toes in. 

Related Article: Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Anyone who spends time birdwatching knows intuitively why they keep going back: It just feels good. Being in nature—pausing in it, sitting with it, discovering its wonders—brings a sense of calm and renewal. 

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Winter Listicle: Experience Winter Wonderlands in National Parks

The days are shorter, but the possibilities are endless to enjoy national parks in the winter season

Winter is the perfect time for some creatures to hibernate and RVers to explore a magical season in the national parks. The serenity of fresh powder sprinkled over pine trees and the silence of the winter air are just a few of the wonders of winter.
So pack a canteen of hot cocoa, put on your coziest mittens, and get ready to explore the parks during this season in a variety of favorite ways. Be sure to do some trip planning before you embark on your journey—be prepared and be safe.

Winter Play

A little cold only adds to the fun outdoor adventures you can have during winter. Grab your ice skates, snowshoes, or cross country skis and feel like you’re gliding through a snow globe.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

The stark white of freshly fallen snow, red rocks, blue sky, and evergreen trees—some say Bryce Canyon is even more beautiful in winter! Here at 8,000 feet, the scenery changes dramatically in the colder months, providing unique opportunities to see the park and requiring a very different packing list.

Related Article: Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

In addition to daily activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter hiking the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival (February 19-21, 2022) is a popular annual event.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Vehicle access is limited to one mile from the Southwest and Northwest Entrances approximately November through May. Beyond the plowed roads to the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and Loomis Plaza, the entire park is snow-covered.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Southwest Area (6,700-10,457 feet) offers steep slopes and sweeping vistas just beyond the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center which offers the only services between November and early May.

The Manzanita Lake Area (5,800-7,200 feet) consists of gentle slopes and scenic lakes. It offers the easiest routes for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the park.

Wildlife watching: Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter Wildlife Watching

Winter provides an amazing opportunity to see new seasons of animals and enjoy the wonders of animal life at every part of the year.

Wildlife watching: Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, animals react to your presence when you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe safely from a distance.

Related Article: National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

Wildlife watching: Rocky Mountain sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Enjoy one of the world’s most famous national parks enveloped in winter magic. See the dramatic beauty of the canyon, dusted with snow, and maybe even mule deer, bald eagles, elk, condors, or ravens as an extra treat.
Colder temperatures, shorter days, and snow bring a slower pace to one of the nation’s most visited national parks. Winter visitors find paths less traveled throughout the park. Those prepared for ice and snow will find the Bright Angel Trail a bit quieter and scenic drives less congested.

Pack your jacket and winter gloves, avoid the crowds, and experience a Grand Canyon winter wonderland,

Bird watching: Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas

Birds are on the move this winter. Located on the Central Flyway, a major bird migration route, Padre Island National Seashore provides a chance to spot flying feathered travelers from more than 380 species of birds.

Bird watching: Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You never know what you may see when you join a volunteer-led birding guide on a tour of the park—the magnificent grasslands, the beach filled with shorebirds, and the long, shallow, hypersaline lagoon of the Laguna Madre. Each habitat abounds with a rich variety of birds. Your guide will take you to some significant birding locations within these habitats including one that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.

Carlsbad National Park

Winter Escape

Not a fan of the wintery blues? Head south as a snowbird and enjoy warm weather year-round.

Related Article: National Parks that are Beautiful & Empty in Winter

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes. Regardless of the snow and cold temps above, the cave is always a temperate 56-57 degrees.

The most popular route, the Big Room, is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. This 1.25-mile trail is relatively flat and will take about 1.5 hours (on average) to walk.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Tucson, Arizona is home to America’s largest cacti. The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park’s two districts offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails. A hike at Saguaro National Park can be a stroll on a short interpretive nature trail or a day-long wilderness trek. Both districts of Saguaro National Park offer a variety of hiking trails. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t wait for the snow to melt. Plan an incredible trip to a national park. Always be sure to check specific parks websites for safety tips, road closure information, and general advice before planning your trip.

Read Next: 7 National Parks You Should Have on Your Radar This Winter

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

There are plenty of lovely avian contenders for my top 10 list

Whoever came up with the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was quite a diplomat but I had to throw diplomacy out the window when selecting my 10 favorite and most beautiful birds. Just think, Texas has nearly 640 species, and only 10 of them, or less than 2 percent, could make the cut!

As a photographer and lover of nature, I enjoy all birds. If diplomacy was my only consideration, I’d give the honor to all Texas birds and call it a 639-way tie.

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

Of course, there are lots of lovely avian contenders for the most beautiful list. The “beauty” of it is that every year we winter in Texas I see things differently and have new favorites. After all, Mother Nature has provided us with many stunning treats just waiting to be observed and enjoyed.

Related: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Without further ado, here are my 10 favorite—in my opinion—most beautiful birds in Texas.

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill first. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird, having a pink body with red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or saltwater, or flying in small groups overhead.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green jay

Unmistakably tropical, the brilliantly-colored green jay ranges south all the way to Ecuador but enters the U.S. only in southern-most Texas, where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Green jays are colorful birds with a pale green back and underside, a black chest, a blue and blackhead and face, and yellow sides on their tail.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great kiskadee

The great kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.

Related: What Is Birding?

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

Yellow-crowned night heron

When it comes to patience, no bird can outdo the yellow-crowned night heron. The yellow-crowned night heron is a short, stocky wading bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a thick black bill, and a short neck. It has a slate-gray body, a dark bluish-black head with a white streak along the cheek, and a very pale yellow (sometimes so pale that it appears white) crown that extends back from the head in the form of a few wispy feathers. The wing feathers have a grey and black striped appearance.

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

Black-bellied whistling duck

The black-bellied whistling duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican tree duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas, and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.

Tricolored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tricolored heron

The tricolored heron is a medium-sized wading bird named for its three main colors: bluish-gray, purple, and white. Its head, back, and wings are a dark bluish-gray. The back of the neck is purple. The belly is white. The tri-color also has a narrow white streak with delicate rust-colored markings down the front of its neck. The tri-colored is more active than the larger herons. This bird does not patiently stand and wait when feeding. It walks through shallow water in a jerky fashion, crouching and darting as it moves along. It lunges then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect. 

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

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Altamira oriole

The Altamira oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the U. S. makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. The Altamira has a black back, wings, bib, lores (the region between the eyes and nostril), bill; orange head, nape, and under-parts.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

A stripe-backed woodpecker of eastern Mexico and northern Central America, the Golden-fronted woodpecker reaches the U. S. only in the brushlands and woodlands of Texas and southwest Oklahoma. Very noisy and conspicuous, the Golden-fronted has barred black and white back and upper wings, the rump is white, and the tail is usually black.

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crested caracara

Related to falcons but very different in shape and habits, the crested caracara reach the U. S. only in Texas and Florida. A large, long-legged raptor, the crested caracara has a black cap with a short crest at back, pale sides of back and neck, bare red skin on the face, black body, white tail with wide black tip, white patches at ends of dark wings, and faint barring on upper back and breast.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reddish egret

A conspicuously long-legged, long-necked heron of shallow saltwater, the reddish egret is a very active forager. Often draws attention by its feeding behavior: running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings, and abruptly stabbing at fish.

Related: Photographing Wading Birds

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb