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

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

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

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Royal terns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plain Chachalacas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus

Imagine More Meaningful Birdwatching

Birdwatching is an active hobby that involves getting outdoors and exploring

You can go birding anywhere there are birds! Many birdwatchers like to set up a feeder and see what arrives in their backyards. But if you’re an RVers you can take birding to the next level as you travel. RVers have the opportunity to see gorgeous and unique birds that would never fly into their backyards.  

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you have a motorhome or trailer at your disposal, you can easily journey to other areas where you’ll be able to find those birds you haven’t caught sight of in your own area. Plus, you’ll have a cozy place to return to for a relaxing night after a day of watching the sky. Birding is a great pastime for travelers because it’s so simple.

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem. For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

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

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Nature has provided us with many stunning treats just waiting to be observed and enjoyed.

Here are the 10 of the most beautiful birds I’ve observed and photographed during our RV travels.

For more meaningful birdwatching, travel to amazing destinations across the country. You, too, can imagine more meaningful birdwatching!

Roseate spoonbill © 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 salt water, or flying in small groups overhead.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green heron

A small, squatty bird, the Green heron generally keeps its neck pulled back close to the body, both in flight and while wading. This bird has a greenish-black crown and back, maroon neck and chest, and bright orange to yellow legs and feet. Look for them along the shallow edges of fresh water bodies where cover provided by vegetation is plentiful.

Black-vented oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-vented oriole

In Mexico and Central America, this large oriole lives mostly in dry forest or semi-open woods of the foothills and lower mountain slopes. It has wandered north into Texas and Arizona on only a few occasions. The black-vented oriole has s black hood, upper back, wings, and tail, including vent. Under parts and lower back are bright yellow-orange. Black bill is long and slender. Legs and feet are gray.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anhinga

Anhingas are long necked birds that hunt aquatic prey by swimming underwater or at the surface. At times, they swim with their bodies underwater, leaving only their necks and heads exposed, giving them a snake-like look. For this reason, they are often called snakebirds. They are commonly seen in cypress swamps, perched on a log or in a tree with wings extended to dry their water-logged feathers. They are black bodied with white markings on the upper wings and have long, pointed, yellow bills and fan-shaped tails with white tips. Female anhinga has a lighter brown head and neck.

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill crane

Sandhill cranes are very large, tall birds with a long neck, long legs, and very broad wings. The bulky body tapers into a slender neck; the short tail is covered by drooping feathers that form a “bustle.” The head is small and the bill is straight and longer than the head. Note the red crown. Sandhill cranes form extremely large flocks—into the tens of thousands—on their wintering grounds and during migration. They often migrate very high in the sky.

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.

Great egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great egret

Great egrets are tall, long-legged wading birds with long, S-curved necks, and long, dagger-like bills. In flight, the long neck is tucked in and the legs extend far beyond the tip of the short tail. All feathers on Great egrets are white. Their bills are yellowish-orange, and the legs black. They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their bill.

Western scrub-jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Western scrub-jay

Western scrub-jays have long tails and small bills. The head, wings, and tail are blue, the back is brown, the underside is gray to tan, and the throat is white. Unlike Steller’s jays and blue jays, they do not have a crest. Western scrub-jays include several subspecies that live along the Pacific coast and in the interior West. The Western scrub-jay does not migrate.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus wren

The Cactus wren is a large chunky wren with a long heavy bill, a long, rounded tail, and short, rounded wings. The back is brown with heavy white streaks and the tail is barred white and black. Cactus wrens live in scrubby areas in the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave Deserts. They inhabit areas with cholla, saguaro, and prickly-pear cacti, mesquite, yucca, palo verde, and other desert shrubs. No bird exemplifies Southwestern deserts better than the noisy Cactus wren.

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.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

Photographing Wading Birds

Wading birds are excellent photo subjects; they are large, have striking plumage, and often permit you to approach them, or they may even approach you

Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Arizona are meccas for bird photographers. Not only are the birds numerous, but they are also surprisingly easy to approach.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds are interesting subjects for nature photographers. They have tall spindly legs like stilts that keep their bodies high above the waters in which they fish. They also have pointy beaks that they use like harpoons to impale their dinner prior to eating it.

They bear the names of herons, egrets, ibis, storks, bitterns, and spoonbills. They are attractive birds, big, dramatic as they search for food or take flight; they are stealthy hunters of small animals ranging from fish to crabs, frogs and salamanders, crayfish and tadpoles.

Roseate spoonbills and white ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watching a heron stalk its dinner is an amazing sight. Their searches and hunts provide epic photos for beginners and pros and every nature photographer in between.

In general, wading birds are patient while hunting and may stand motionless for long periods of time waiting for prey to come within reach. When moving, their steps may be slow and deliberate to not scare prey, often appearing frozen in time.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds provide photographers with a variety of colors and body styles with a common interest in shallow water and the foods the shallows provide. They have long legs and long toes, with an elongated neck and bill. You can usually find at least one wading bird in action any time you visit a wetland area, ranging from coastal shores and marshes, to rivers and creeks, lakes, and shallow wetlands.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The size of their spread wings, while gliding, flapping, or landing offer dramatic photo opportunities that test your ability to follow the bird’s wing actions. If you take a continuous series of photos as a wading bird passes, or as it takes off, or lands, you can pick the best of the best or series of three or more images that show the action in stages.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the birds themselves, wading bird photos often include water—water colored varied shades of blue, gray, green, or sunset hues. Calm water permits you to compose photos with a reflected image which can create exceptional photographs. Plants, especially water plants, are common elements in wading bird photography too, and you can compose your photos to include the bird as a part of the greenery, or as the subject next to, among, or surrounded by plants.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like any bird, if you are close enough, you can compose a portrait of a wading bird, which can be especially dramatic when the bird has plumes or colorful facial skin during the nesting season. Some wading birds also feature colorful, if not unusual, eyes that can dominate a portrait.

Redish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Techniques to keep in mind in the heat of wading bird photography include a fast shutter speed for stop-action photos. Because wading birds tend to be tall rather than long, consider turning your camera 90 degrees to utilize a vertical frame while still keeping some space in front of the bird so it has a space to look into comfortably, or wade into, or run into or fly toward. As always, be ready for action, try to predict a dramatic movement, and enjoy the process when you have an active subject like a hunting Snowy Egret or a “dancing” Reddish Egret.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everyone enjoys seeing wading birds, and attempting to photograph storks, herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, and others can be a great way to improve your bird photography and add new drama to your library of nature photography.

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

There is this place that is for the birds and is all about the birds, where you will find some of the best birding while RVing

Good morning. It’s Saturday and you deserve some good news, so we’re pleased to inform you that a Laysan albatross named Wisdom has successively hatched yet another chick at Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian archipelago. Discovered by biologists in 1956, Wisdom is at least 70 years old making her the world’s oldest known wild bird. She still flies as many as 1,000 miles in a single foraging expedition.

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

Wisdom’s latest chick successfully hatched in February, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in the Pacific Islands. Wisdom laid her egg sometime during the last few days of November according to the wildlife agency. Soon after, Wisdom returned to sea to forage and her mate Akeakamai took over incubation duties. The pair have been hatching and raising chicks together since at least 2012, the wildlife agency said.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past decade, Wisdom has been astounding researchers and winning fans with her longevity and devotion to raising her young. She has flown millions of miles in her life but returns to her same nest every year on Midway Atoll, the world’s largest colony of albatrosses. To feed her hatchlings, Wisdom and her mate take turns flying as much as 1,000 miles on a single outing spending days foraging for food along the ocean’s surface.

Ladder-backed wooepecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year, millions of albatrosses which normally have only one mate in their life, all come home to Midway around October. If all goes well couples reunite and then team up to incubate a single egg and feed their new chick. Midway’s two flat islands act as giant landing strips for albatrosses and millions of other seabirds which rely on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to raise their young. This year’s albatross chicks will make their first flights in early summer.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past, biologists have said Wisdom possesses a unique set of skills that have let her have a long and productive life soaring over the Pacific Ocean. When she was first banded, Dwight Eisenhower was in the middle of his two-term presidency.

Her advice to the younger generation? Think before you tweet.

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not fitting the stereotype of the avid birdwatcher that travels to the most exotic corners of the globe, many RVers simply want to be where the birds are. Not wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest scopes, peering through the most expensive binoculars, and checking another bird off the official life list, I carry my mid-priced super-zoom camera and take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color. That’s what draws me and many other snowbirds to South Texas.

Roseate spoonbills and ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this ecowonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S. Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay, black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured above), roseate spoonbill (pictured above), and the Altamira oriole (pictured above)

Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After all, The Valley offers not just one but a total of nine World Birding Centers and is located at the convergence of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi.

Often referred to as The Texas Tropics, this area is very popular, too, with snowbirds from the Midwest and Central Canada. However, these winter tourists are not simply referred to as snowbirds but affectionately dubbed Winter Texans. After all, these birdwatchers and winter visitors are very important to the area’s economy, so they are, indeed, welcomed.

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center. The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 325 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

Plain chachalaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds. As the trolley rounds the bend into the park visitors are frequently greeted by a sizable flock of the loud and raucous plain chachalaca (see above), a brown, chicken-like species that’s found only in this part of the country.

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

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

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

Yellow-breasted great kiskadees swooped down in front of us and drank from the small pool of water. This flycatcher has black and white stripes on its crown and sides, appears to be a kind of cross between a kingfisher and a meadowlark, and attracts attention by its incessant “kis-ka-dee” calls.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green jays (pictured above) postured and fluttered at the feeders. This beautiful bird is, indeed, green-breasted (unlike our blue jay), with green wings, but there’s also some white, yellow, and blue plumage. This bird’s flashy coloring, boisterous nature, dry, throaty rattle, and frequent “cheh-chehcheh-cheh” call make it very easy to spot.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A golden-fronted woodpecker (see above) fed at the peanut butter log. Barred with black and white above and buff below, the male has red restricted to the cap; nape orange; forecrown yellow; the female lacks red but has an orange nape. Its voice is a loud churrrr; the call a burry chuck-chuck-chuck.

Another World Birding Center located in McAllen, is at Quinta Mazatlan, a historic 1930s Spanish Revival adobe hacienda that’s surrounded by 15 acres of lush tropical landscape and several birding trails.

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, and roseate spoonbill.

The warm winter climate and the awesome bird watching attract Winter Texans to The Valley and keep them returning year after year. We’ll be back, Hope to see you there.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

Birds make me happy

Need a new and safe activity that will get you outside and stimulate the mind! How about birding?

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the past year, we were often told to listen to or follow the science. Well, I am happy to report that there is more and more scientific evidence to support the idea that everyone would be better off watching birds. You can watch them in your back yard, from your RV, or you can visit a wildlife area to see them.

Altamira Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Studies from a variety of sources indicate that the closer you live to a park and the more contact you have with nature, the better your mood, psychological well-being, mental health, and cognitive functioning. In short, watching birds is good for you and you don’t even need a prescription from your doctor to do it.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Published scientific studies reveal that birding (or wildlife photography or just being in nature) correlates with improved mental health. This observation is not new: it was introduced and popularized by biologist, theorist, and author, Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book, Biophilia, where he defined the Biophilia Hypothesis as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. More recently, Richard Luov breathed new life into this idea by referring to it as “nature deficit disorder”.

Being part of nature in some meaningful way is an essential element in an emotionally healthy life. And bird watching can be your ticket to the outdoors. Even if you aren’t a bird watcher (I didn’t start out a birder, either), you will find yourself becoming more aware of the birds around you—their sounds and behaviors and relationships—and noticing the positive impact that regular bird watching has on your mental health.

White-crowned Night Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding develops mindfulness. Birding is a meditative practice that immediately appeals to all your senses—listening to bird sounds and songs, looking at their plumage colors and patterns, observing their complex and often subtle behaviors, identifying their habits and habitats.

Royal Tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With coronavirus restrictions dragging on, interest in bird-watching has soared as Americans and Canadians notice a fascinating world just outside their windows wherever their windows might be. Downloads of popular bird identification apps have spiked and sales of bird feeders, nesting boxes, and birdseed have jumped even as demand for other nonessential goods plummets.

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 on the road as you travel in your RV. It’s rewarding to see something new, to be able to name what you see, and to make new discoveries.

Roseate Spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 1,100 different species of birds in the U.S., it’s easy for a beginning bird watcher to feel overwhelmed by possibilities. Field guides seem crammed with similar-looking birds arranged in seemingly haphazard order. I can help you figure out where to begin. First off: where not to start. Many ID tips focus on very specific details of plumage called field marks. While these tips are useful, they assume you’ve already narrowed down your search to just a few similar species.

So start by learning to quickly recognize what group a mystery bird belongs to. You can do this in two ways: by becoming familiar with the general shape, color, and behavior of birds, and by keeping a running tally in your head of the kinds of birds most likely to be seen in your location that time of year.

Great Kisadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course you’ll need to look at field marks—a wing-bar here, an eye-ring there—to clinch some IDs. But these four keys will quickly get you to the right group of species, so you’ll know exactly which field marks to look for. Bird watchers can identify many species from just a quick look. They’re using the four keys to visual identification: size and shape, color pattern, behavior, and habitat.

We’re going back to our roots to reconnect with nature. It really touches our souls. National parks, state parks, regional parks, and wildlife refuges are great places to observe a variety of birds. There is a birding trail near you.

Clay-colored Thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Mission, Texas

South Texas is home to one of top bird watching destinations in the country, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center. Birders know Bentsen as a treasure trove of “Valley Specialties” or tropical birds found nowhere else in the US. Birds to look for include green jays (see feature photo), white-tipped doves, clay-colored thrush (see above photo), long-billed thrasher, great kiskadee (see above photo), and Altamira oriole. Bentsen is one of nine unique World Birding Center locations in the Rio Grande Valley.

Western Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona

Catalina State Park consists of 5,500 acres of high Sonora Desert habitat with eight trails traversing a landscape dominated by ocotillo, cholla, and saguaro cactus. This desert park bustles with birds and other wildlife. Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Greater roadrunners, Gambel’s quail, Western scrub jay (see above photo) Say’s phoebes, and 42 other bird species call the park home.

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache is one of the most spectacular national wildlife refuges in North America. The refuge is well known for the tens of thousands of Sandhill cranes (see above photo), geese, and ducks who winter here each year.

Great White Egret at Corkscrew Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples, Florida

Visitors to Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary will find a gentle, pristine wilderness that dates back more than 500 years. A 2.25-mile boardwalk meanders through pine flatwood, wet prairie, around a marsh, and into a large old growth Bald Cypress forest. A wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, and raptors can be seen throughout the year. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Folkston, Georgia

With more than 350,000 acres, you’ll have no trouble finding birds—or social distancing. It’s famous for a variety of wetland, wading birds. There are a lot of boardwalks and a canoe trail.

Plain Chachalacas at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Alamo, Texas

Step into a rare tropical world at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Spanish moss drips from trees. Noisy Plain chachalacas (see above photo) welcome the morning dawn. Santa Ana is positioned along an east-west and north-south juncture of two major migratory routes for many species of birds. It is also at the northern-most point for many species whose range extends south into Central and South America.

Lesser Grebe at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, McNeal, Arizona

Many people visit Whitewater Draw each winter to experience the memorable sights and sounds of more than 20,000 Sandhill cranes. Whitewater Draw’s waters also attract many kinds of ducks, geese, herons, egrets, shorebirds, gulls, and terns.

Great White Egret at Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cypress Island Nature Preserve at Lake Martin, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Lake Martin is home to a swampy ecosystem that’s full of wildlife and native plants. Unlike the deeper swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin, Lake Martin can be easily reached by car and much of the area can be explored on foot or in a canoe or kayak. Lake Martin is home to a natural rookery where thousands of shore birds and migratory songbirds build their nests each year.

Juvenile Glossy Ibis at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Roswell, New Mexico

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located where the Chihuahuan Desert, short grass prairie, Pecos River, and the Roswell artesian basin come together. Attracted to the area by its abundant water supply at least 357 species of birds have been observed on the refuge including thousands of migrating Sandhill cranes.

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Burroughs

Birds, Birds, and More Birds: Estero Llano Grande State Park

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this eco-wonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.

Estero Llano Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower Rio Grande Valley—the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico—contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands, and forest. Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however.

Estero Llano Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the World Birding Center consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, and Resaca de la Palma.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Together, the parks safeguard nearly 2,200 acres that are home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife—places for visitors to experience nature and the landscape of the Valley close to its original state.

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee (pictured below), Altamira oriole, green jay (pictured above), groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron.

Turtles all in a row © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande State Park, formerly agricultural fields, became a World Birding Center site in 2006. Its 230-plus acres, free of car traffic, take in a shallow lake, woodlands, and thorn forest, along with a wildlife-viewing deck, boardwalks, and five miles of trails.

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park gets its name from the original Spanish land grant for the area known as Llano Grande, which means Large Grassland or Plain. An “estero” is a low-lying area of land often flooded by rain or overflow from a nearby river. So, Estero Llano Grande means “the wet place on the big plain.”

Black bellied whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s amazing what adding a little water to a typically sun-parched environment can do to attract birds and other wildlife. You need look no further for proof than the almost 200 rejuvenated acres of Estero Llano Grande State Park in the Rio Grande Valley.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds and other wildlife love water; this park contains the largest wetlands environment in the World Birding Center. Hundreds of waders and shorebirds flock here, especially in late summer when water becomes scarce in these parts. Reported sightings include threatened wood storks, colorful roseate spoonbills, ibis, and migrating waterfowl such as ducks. The park’s woodland and thorn scrub harbor Altamira orioles and, sometimes, tropical red-crowned parrots and green parakeets.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Visitors Center, follow a trail past Ibis Pond and Dowitcher Pond where turtles sun themselves, onto the Camino de Aves Trail, a 1-mile loop through the brush. At Alligator Lake, spend a few minutes on the observation deck looking for the lake’s namesake reptile (pictured below) before continuing to the top of a levee for a view of the Llano Grande.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next turnoff leads to the Spoonbill Trail, which circles Ibis Pond back to where you started. On the other side of the entrance road, lanes of a former RV park have transitioned into the park’s Tropical Area, which attracts rarities such as the rose-throated becard, white-throated thrush, and crimson-collard grosbeak. The short, narrow Green Jay Nature Trail loops through woods so thick they feel like an enchanted forest.

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This park shelters more than 300 bird species with a record 115 spotted from the deck in one day. Estero Llano Grande offers the best chance to spot the heavily camouflaged common pauraque. Most of the trails accommodate wheelchairs, and tram tours are offered on certain afternoons by reservation. Park staff also offer regularly scheduled guided bird, butterfly, and dragonfly walks.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

What Makes a Good Bird Photo?

Advice for capturing stunning bird photos

A good bird photo records a moment of time shared between photographer and bird. It can be pretty quick, pretty simple, but it may be complex depending on the photo opportunity.

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider why we find certain bird photos attractive. In essence, it’s all “in the eye of the beholder,” and there’s no perfect photo, but many come close.

Any good bird photograph will have a combination of elements that make it good.

Interesting Subject

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any bird can be interesting, but an interesting subject can be improved by any number of additional elements especially if you can record action, behavior, or activity. Larger birds may be easier to fill a photo frame with, colorful birds can catch your attention, and smaller birds can provide a unique quality to any photo.

Action

Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photos that show action are among the most impressive images. What action? Spreading wings, stretching, interacting with another bird, flying, landing, swimming, hunting, preening, feeding, nest building.

Sharpness

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sharpness of a photo is the result of using a fast shutter speed which can illustrate details of wing and tail feathers, eyes and bills, legs, and feet—even when a bird’s in flight, swimming, diving, displaying. A fast shutter speed requires ample lighting, and adds to the level of detail needed to emphasize any good bird photo.

Lighting

Anhingua © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lighting is everything in photography—where the light comes from, how it illuminates your subject, how it creates shadows. Good light should illuminate a bird’s head and intensify colors. When your shadow points at your subject, you’re in just the right position to utilize sunlight at its best.

Color

Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Good light from the right direction creates and reveals beautiful, cryptic, and even iridescent colors in birds, along with contrast and clarity. The background and setting are also integral to a good photo.

Setting

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A bird’s surroundings, whether it’s scenery, landscape, or environment, can improve a photo by including water, trees, mountains, and more. Often, it comes down to the branch, vegetation, water, sky, or perch where a bird is positioned. Sometimes a photo can be improved by taking a step or two to one side to reposition a distracting element in the background out of the photo frame, or to the side of the photo.

Depth of Field

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A bird image can be composed using a wide depth of field to show its position in its habitat—or you can use a narrow depth of field to blur the background and emphasize the bird the bird itself. Both options are good, but you do need more light or a reduced shutter speed to get a wider depth of field.

Timing

Black-vented oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timings may be relative to the moment you take a photo, or related to the time of day you choose to be in the field. It can also be a matter of crossing paths with a given bird—how often does luck enter into timing, even to the point of intercepting the flight path of a flying bird? Sometimes, timing is everything.

Positioning

Whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider the position of the bird or birds within your photo frame. Give the bird space to look into, fly into, or swim into. Even if you center the bird in a photo, you can still alter the position of the bird when you crop a photo during the editing process.

Luck

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is always an element of luck when you take a given photo. Just finding a bird to photograph can be lucky on any given day. Timing and luck enter into a lot of good photos.

Be Prepared

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Assess the scene in advance if possible; adjust your settings with consideration for the conditions you see in mind. Similarly, pre-focus your lens, even when using auto-focus, so there is no lag time in focusing when the action starts. Be Ready for Action!

Be Versatile

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try something new and develop your own style in the process. Taking one good photo can inspire you into a lifetime of bird photography and encourage you to go birding with your camera more often.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Photography is the beauty of life, captured.

—Tara Chisholm

Birding in Arizona

Come along as we take a tour through some of Arizona’s best birding locations and get to know the birds of Arizona

The birds of Arizona are diverse and live in amazingly beautiful areas throughout the state from the deserts of southern Arizona, to the high country.

Locating birds in Arizona is relatively easy if you set afield with the right tools and mindset. Optics are a handy item in the field, some even deem them necessary equipment for birders of all levels. Eight power binoculars are popular and provide users ample magnification and a large field of view.

Scrub jay at Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now, pick a spot and go!

Oh, yes—don’t forget your camera and telephoto lens.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located four miles southwest of the town of McNeal, Whitewater Draw is former ranchland, now managed as a wildlife area. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has set up viewing platforms and built trails for better visitor access.

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

This is one of the best locations in Arizona to observe Sandhill cranes. As many as 15,000 cranes can be present from October into March, though the number varies depending on the amount of water present. More than 280 species of birds have been recorded including the snow goose (with some Ross’s) and more than 15 species of ducks.

Snow geese at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area is also known for wintering raptors including golden eagle, Cooper’s hawk, bald eagle, ferruginous hawk, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, and American kestrel.

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout much of the year visitors can see waders including American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and White-faced Ibis, along with Virginia Rail, Sora, and a variety of shorebirds. Other regulars at Whitewater Draw include scaled quail, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, vermilion flycatcher, curve-billed thrasher, and yellow-headed blackbird.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This “site” actually comprises a riparian corridor around 40 miles long, following the San Pedro River as it flows north from Mexico to join the Gila River. The line of trees creates a lush ribbon of green in an arid environment.

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

Stop first at San Pedro House, seven miles east of Sierra Vista on Highway 90 where trails wind through the riparian corridor. Another popular access point is not far away, east of the town of Hereford.

Gambel’s quail at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nesting birds along the San Pedro River include Gambel’s quail, gray hawk, green kingfisher, Gila woodpecker, black phoebe, vermilion flycatcher, Cassin’s kingbird, curve-billed thrasher, yellow warbler, Abert’s towhee, and lesser goldfinch.

Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park

Pied-billed grebe at Sierra Vista Environmental Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you’re in the area, consider a visit to the Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park, a water-treatment site with wetlands and a wildlife-viewing area. It’s located just north of Highway 90, three miles east of Sierra Vista. This oasis in the desert has attracted more than 240 bird species, including 20 species of ducks, pied-billed grebe, several wading birds including white-faced ibis, Virginia rail, sora, common gallinule, and 24 species of shorebirds. Land birds include black phoebe, vermilion flycatcher, Bell’s vireo, Chihuahuan raven, and Lucy’s warbler.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Regional Park is in a gorgeous Sonoran Desert setting northeast of Mesa. On the south side of the mountain, the word Phoenix with a giant arrow pointing west has been spelled out in enormous letters made of white rocks. It’s visible for miles. For me, Usery Mountain has an iconic status because it’s here I first fell in love with the Sonoran Desert over 40 years ago.

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

The dawn chorus here is raucous with cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers, Gila woodpeckers, guilded flicker, verdin, Gambel’s quail, house finch, rosy-faced lovebirds, and phainopepla, to name just a few.

House finch at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

A Monumental Big Year

643 bird species, 44 states, two trips across the country and back, one pickup camper—all Taylor Páez needed to complete her Big Year on the road

In case you didn’t see the movie The Big Year, a Big Year is a personal quest to find as many species as possible during a calendar year. There are personal variations on this simple definition, but any way you do it, a Big Year is a serious undertaking that takes an absolute dedication, lots of free time, and some extra cash, as most participants do a lot of traveling.

Gambel’s Quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enter an ambitious young birder, Taylor Páez, who planned her Big Year, saved money, and left her office job; then ready, set, go—she was off, with the hope of finding 700 different birds in the lower 48 states.

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

Taylor’s route was a road trip of epic proportions. Starting at her home in northern California, she looped south through Arizona, southern Texas, and around the Gulf of Mexico; then turned north, passing through many eastern states to New Hampshire and Maine. Next: New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan including the Upper Peninsula, and Wisconsin. Then it was back to the West: the Great Plains, Colorado, on to Washington, and back home to California—all by July; traveling solo, living out of her compact truck camper, and experiencing the ultimate bird search day by day.

Green Heron at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As she traveled cross-country, Taylor monitored bird sightings reported on eBird, the American Birding Association’s state by state Birding News, Audubon listserves, and local birding groups’ posts on Facebook. Sometimes she even learned of rare bird sightings on Instagram, or by word-of-mouth from birders she interacted with at popular birding hotspots.

Western Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a month-long break to re-charge at home, Taylor began the “zig-zagging” phase of her Big Year, driving through southern California, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, then zigging and zagging before taking a boat trip off the coast of Maine; on to New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, and back to California to finish the year. Taylor explained her zig-zag pattern: “Toward the end of the year it was pretty crazy because it’s less about the common birds and more about the rare ones;” so when a rare bird showed up cross-country, she might begin a heated chase.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After her sweeping bird quest across the country—twice—Taylor had a tough time picking just one favorite local. The country is filled with amazing biodiversity, and she enjoys it all. But if she had to pick a favorite, Taylor would pick the subtropical region of southern Texas. During one day at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge she identified 35 new birds, the most new species she listed at once.

Roseate Spoonbills along the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Her favorite birds: Green Jays, Roseate Spoonbills, Greater Kiskadees, and Audubon’s Orioles—all found in the above-mentioned wildlife refuge.

Plain Chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After spending a year in the great outdoors and tallying 634 species, Taylor did not go back to her office job. Instead, she turned to opportunities in the natural world: Working as a park naturalist and a stint conducting hummingbird surveys.

Tri-Colored Heron at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I realized I not only wanted to be outside, but I wanted to make a positive impact on people. I wanted to bring them accessibility to nature and the outdoors. We need it now more than ever,” Taylor said. “I never thought I would do what I did—before that I played everything safe. I didn’t take risks, ever.”

Great Kiskadee at Edinburgh Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Such a long trip was a big challenge, but after her Big Year, Taylor knows the risks are well worth the payback.

Black-necked Stilt at Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original article about Taylor Paez’s Big Year appears on the BirdsEye Birding website. BirdsEye’s free photography website is a comprehensive library of photos submitted by nature enthusiasts.

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

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

Important Bird Areas for RV Travel

A driving tour of Important Bird Areas that offer fantastic bird-watching opportunities for RV travel

If you’re an RVer interested in bird watching, Audubon’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) is a great source for planning your next road trip. The IBAs form an impressive network of conservation sites for birds, including expansive lands that support important habitats for birds and other wildlife.

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

To date Audubon has identified 2,832 IBAs covering 417 million acres of public and private lands in the United States. You may be familiar with many of these IBAs, as some are already protected as national parks and national wildlife refuges—some are small and some expansive—but all are significant. Of the 2,832 North American IBAs, 720 are considered of global importance, 113 are listed as continental importance, and 1,999 are of state importance.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following are five of our favorite IBA destinations in the US for bird watching and the enjoyment of the natural environment during our RV travels.

New Mexico: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The annual arrival of the sandhill cranes is celebrated by a 6-day festival each November. The Festival of the Cranes is scheduled for November 20-23, 2019. The cranes and snow geese generally remain on the refuge until mid-February when they return to their breeding grounds in the north.

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

Even with their departure the refuge remains a wonderful place for hiking, biking, and wildlife- and bird-watching year round. You will want to drive the auto Tour Loop to get up close to the wildlife and their habitat.

Florida: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an important National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast of Florida. It is also a ‘gateway site’ for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Recreational opportunities are offered at the Refuge from manatee and bird watching, to fishing and hunting. The Visitor Information Center located 4 miles east of Titusville, Florida, is a great place to start your visit.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. The refuge’s coastal location, tropic-like climate, and wide variety of habitat types contribute to the refuge’s diverse bird population. To date, 358 species have been identified on the refuge.

Arizona: Gilbert Riparian Preserves at Water Ranch

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

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is managed as a part of the City of Gilbert water treatment facility. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch features hiking and equestrian trails. The preserve provides a great opportunity for wildlife and bird watching and is considered the premier bird watching facility in the Phoenix metro region. Approximately 250 species of birds have been sighted here.

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

The preserve also has the only valley astronomy observatory open to the public every Friday and Saturday evening from dusk until 9:30 p.m., subject to weather conditions.

Texas: Laguna Madre

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas coast is bordered by the world’s longest barrier island system. Part of this system forms the Laguna Madre whose mosaic of coastal wetlands, freshwater ponds, and native grasslands provide critical habitat for migratory waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Madre includes privately owned cattle ranches (Kenedy and King Ranches), federally owned conservation areas (Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island National Seashore), and coastal communities.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is host or home to an incredible diversity of migrating birds that funnel through the tip of Texas in an effort to avoid flying too far east, over the Gulf Coast, or too far west, over the desert. In addition, many southern species reach their northernmost range along the Rio Grande.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.The nature center offers more than 3,300 linear feet of boardwalk, five bird blinds, and a five story tower with spectacular views of the Laguna Madre, beaches and dunes of South Padre Island, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana: Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is an epic birding destination near Lake Charles. This is due to the fact that it is at the convergence of the Mississippi and Central flyways. Numerous birds make year-round residences here while millions make their way through this region in the spring and fall during migration.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie is your chance to truly enjoy the Louisiana Outback at its finest. Wildlife is abundant and makes wildlife viewing and photography opportunities endless. The best places to spot wildlife are the Pintail Wildlife Drive, the visitor center, and all along the Creole Nature Trail.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus