Bird Spring Migration: Where to Go

Spring means migrating birds are on the move! Find a bird spring migration hotspot near you to see them in all their glory.

The words bird spring migration is enough to bring a gleam to any birder’s eye. Spring birding is legendary. Birds are flaunting their very best and brightest feather colors as they prepare for mating season. Their journeys take them across hundreds and even thousands of miles giving birders a chance to see a wider variety of birds. Though migratory birds can (and do) show up anywhere some spots are better than others.

Things that make an outstanding bird spring migration hotspot include:

  • Resting places before or after water crossings: Areas on the edges of large lakes, gulfs, bays, or oceans draw migrants as they rest in anticipation of their crossing or recover from their extended efforts. Some examples include Magee Marsh and Point Pelee on the shores of Lake Erie.
  • Stands of trees or water in otherwise open spaces: When birds journey across places like the Great Plains, trees or bodies of water become an immediate draw. The same goes for parks in urban places.
  • Food and fresh water: When you’re crossing a desert or a large body of salt water, there’s little food and fresh drinking water to be had. That makes places like the Dry Tortugas a real attraction for migrating birds.

I’ve gathered a list of some of the best bird spring migration hotspots across the United States. Before you go, be sure to research any fees or restrictions. Review recent eBird sightings to see what’s been showing up recently. Once you’re there, chat with other birders and find out where the action is. Finally, remember to be considerate to other birders, natural areas, and the birds.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird migration hotspots can be divided into the following five regions:

  • Gulf Coast and Southeast Bird Migration Hotspots
  • West Coast and Southwest Bird Migration Hotspots
  • Rocky Mountains and Great Plains Migratory Birds Hotspots
  • Great Lakes and Midwest Bird Migration Hotspots
  • Northeast and Atlantic Coast Bird Migration Hotspots

Since our travels that coincide with spring migrations center mostly on the Gulf Coast and the Southwest, I will focus on these two regions.

Roseate spoonbills at South Padre Island Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Coast and Southeast Bird Migration Hotspots

High Island, Texas

High Island is one of the most active spring bird migration hotspots on the Gulf coast. The whole High Island area is designed to be birder-friendly and is full of different hotspots.

Nearby: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Smith Point, Sabine Woods

If you need ideas, check out: World Migratory Bird Day: My 12 Favorite Birding Sites in Texas

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Dauphin Island sits just off the the coast of Alabama. It’s one of the first places that migrants make landfall after flying over the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Nearby: Fort Morgan, Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Gulf Island National Seashore

I have a helpful article on Dauphin Island: Marvelous Mobile Bay: Dauphin Island

More on birding the Alabama Gulf Coast: The Ultimate Guide to the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail

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

South Padre Island, Texas

This is the place to go for early migrants, since it’s so far south. The best site on the island is the South Padre Island Convention Center trails.

Nearby: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Hugh Ramsey Park, Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge

Check this out to learn more: Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

I have an article on a Texas birding trails: World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Remote Fort Jefferson is an amazing place to be when a fallout occurs. The only fresh water on the entire island is a small well and since all of the birds need water the well is the place to be!

Nearby: Fort Zachary Taylor (Key West), Bill Baggs Cape State Park, Everglades National Park

Little blue heron at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort De Soto County Park, Florida

The special secret that brings all the birds to this park in spring is the Mulberry bushes! The sweet fruit provides the sugar kick migratory birds need after crossing the Gulf of Mexico. The best spot is the fountain and bushes behind the Ranger’s House at East Beach.

Nearby: Sawgrass Lake Park, Lettuce Lake County Park, Circle B Bar Reserve

Here is another great birding site in Florida: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Land of the Giants

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

West Coast and Southwest Bird Migration Hotspots

Point Reyes National Seashore, California

This national seashore is large and you’ll need several days to really do it justice. It’s a renowned place to see Pacific Flyway migrants, especially on the outer peninsula that projects 10 miles into the ocean.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, Arizona

Arizona is known as a birder’s paradise and the San Pedro valley in spring helps prove that point. In addition to migrants keep an eye out for area specialties like the elegant trogon.

Nearby: Patagonia Lake State Park, Whitewater Draw, Madera Canyon

Here are some additional resources:

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

In winter, the thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes are the draw for birders here. In the spring, as the water dries up, migrating shorebirds take their place, joined by warblers, vireos, and flycatchers.

Nearby: Rio Grande Nature Center, La Joya Wildlife Management Area, Caballo Lake State Park

Here are some helpful resources:

Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Migrating shorebirds pass through Grays Harbor in enormous numbers each spring. Look for species like red knots which spend the winter in southern South America then fly all the way north to the Arctic Circle to breed each year.

Nearby: Ocean Shores, Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Pt. Brown Jetty

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

Butterbredt Spring, California

This is the place to go for warbler fans with more than 20 species regularly spotted during migration in late April to early June.

Nearby: Kern River County Park, California City Central Park, Kern River Preserve

With all the diversity to be seen among spring migrators, you might worry about how to make the most of your bird watching travels. My advice is to not stress out by trying to see everything at once but instead focus on one or two areas of travel.

Also, concentrate on several species and see if you can identify them. By comparing the birds you’re seeing to the ones you already know, you can start piecing everything together by color or size and develop birding skills that way.

The great thing about birding is that there’s no governing body to the enjoyment of bird watching.

Great kiskadee at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park/World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gather inspiration for birding and bird photography with these resources: 

Worth Pondering…

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence―that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.

―Lynn Thomson, Birding with Yeats: A Mother’s Memoir

Great Spots for Birding in Louisiana

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

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

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

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

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana birding hotspots

Grand Isle

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

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

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

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

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

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park / Barataria Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Martin

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

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

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

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

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Pintail Wildlife Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peveto Woods Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Birding trail

Wetland Birding Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s Wetland Birding Trail, Louisiana  

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

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

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

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

Birding along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

FAQs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

World Migratory Bird Day: My 12 Favorite Birding Sites in Texas

World Migratory Bird Day is officially celebrated on the second Saturday of May. However, every day is Bird Day and you can celebrate birds and host events any day of the year!

Legendarily vast, Texas spans habitats from southern bald-cypress swamps to the Chihuahuan Desert and from the subtropical lower Rio Grande Valley to the windswept plains of the Llano Estacado. Little wonder, then, that Texas’s bird list of nearly 650 ranks second among the states (behind only California).

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

In celebration of World Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday of May (May 13, 2023), here is a look at a dozen of my favorite birding sites in Texas which hosts more bird-watching festivals than any other state.

Plain chachalaca at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

World Birding Center

Not just one, but nine unique birding locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Each site of the World Birding Center has its own attractions. From a historic adobe hacienda to scenic bluffs high above the Rio Grande and pristine wilderness to teeming wetlands, the World Birding Center network offers visitors an array of birding adventures. These Rio Grande Valley locations coordinate more than 500 bird species between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Rio Grande Valley Communities, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center is a great place to begin a south Texas nature adventure. As a large remnant tract of Rio Grande floodplain forest, Bentsen is a magnet for the many regional bird species that make south Texas famous. Green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas congregate regularly at the bird feeding stations.  Other birds to look for include gray hawk, white-tipped dove, groove-billed ani, northern beardless-tyrannulet, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, and green heron.

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

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

More species of birds have been recorded at Laguna Atascosa (417) than at any other national wildlife refuge in the nation. Laguna Atascosa covers 97,000 acres near the southern tip of Texas comprising thornscrub forest, freshwater wetlands, prairies, beaches, and mudflats. A quarter-million ducks winter in the area including Redhead, Grebes, American White Pelican, and Sandhill Crane also winter here. Around 30 species of shorebirds can be found here throughout much of the year.

Many birders visit the refuge to see some of the specialties of southern Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley such as Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Curve-billed Thrasher, Long-billed Thrasher, Botteri’s Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, Bronzed Cowbird, and Altamira Oriole.

Black-crested titmouse at Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park

A paradise for bird watchers in the Hill Country with 240 documented bird species, Guadalupe River State Park is located 30 miles north of San Antonio at the north end of Park Road 31, northwest of Bulverde. You’ll find the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, the goldfinch of Texas, and the only bird species with a breeding range limited to Texas. Thirteen miles of hiking trails include the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to spot one of these colorful birds.

Pro Tip: Reserve one of 85 hookup campsites here. Purchase an annual Texas State Park Pass for free entry to more than 80 state parks.

Curve-billed thrasher at Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations and if offers endless fascination for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, botanists, and people who enjoy dramatic, rugged landscapes. Situated on the Rio Grande in western Texas, the park doesn’t receive nearly the visitation its rewards truly merit.

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

The park’s most sought-after species is Colima Warbler which nests in the Chisos Mountains, usually requiring a several-mile hike to find. More likely in lower elevations are such species as Scaled Quail, Gray Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Common Poorwill, Vermilion Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, Varied Bunting, and Scott’s Oriole.

Great kiskadee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world with its woodlands and wetlands. Santa Ana has a fine visitor center with a log of recent bird sightings. From here, many trails wind into the woods. From November through April, the refuge operates a tram (fee) along the auto tour route which is closed to vehicles in that season, though it can be walked.

Many of the region’s specialties are seen here including Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole to name only a few of the most regular species.

Roseate spoonbills and an ibis at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

A superb all-around birding destination, Aransas occupies a large peninsula surrounded by coastal bays separated from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands. It boasts an astoundingly lengthy bird list of more than 400 species yet the refuge is known best for one bird—the Whooping Crane. Standing nearly five feet tall Whooping Cranes are sometimes seen from the observation tower located along the refuge’s 16-mile auto tour route. The best way to see them is to take a commercial tour from Rockport or Port Aransas in the season from November to April. 

Waterfowl, grebes, and rails are present in wetlands from fall through spring. Ponds, marshes, and bays are home year round to cormorants, pelicans, 14 or more species of wading birds including Roseate Spoonbill and around eight species of terns. The refuge’s location makes it possible to see a great diversity of migrant birds following the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.

Vermillion flycatcher on High Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High Island

High Island has a salt dome and mineral spring at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and rises 32 feet above the surrounding marshes. For a few weeks each spring, this small town less than a mile from the Texas coast becomes a busy gathering place for birds and birders. Northbound migrant birds having crossed the Gulf of Mexico fly down to the woodland tracts here to rest and feed in the proper conditions creating a “fallout” with birds seemingly crowding every limb of every tree: flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and more.

The action starts in March and peaks in late April and early May. There’s no guarantee that any particular day will be a great one but the day after a storm or front with north winds is often the best. But in spring at High Island even an average day is really good.

Colma warbler at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Five species of geese winter on this refuge at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma on the route of the Central Flyway so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter.

Geese—Greater White-fronted, Snow, Ross’s, Cackling, and Canada—make up part of the waterfowl numbers with 15 or more species of ducks added. Bald Eagles winters here ready to make a meal of any injured birds. American White Pelican is present year round and Roseate Spoonbill can arrive as a post-breeding visitor.

Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands.

A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.

Black-necked stilt at Bolivar Flats © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bolivar Flats

An amazing congregation of shorebirds and wading birds is often on display at Bolivar Flats, a coastal spot on the Bolivar Peninsula across the channel from Galveston. It’s reached by turning south on Rettilon Road about 3.6 miles east of the ferry landing in Port Bolivar. (A town parking permit obtainable locally is required.)

Practically every species of cormorant, pelican, heron, egret, ibis, plover, sandpiper, gull, tern, and similar bird that ever ventured near the Texas coast has appeared here. Many other species stop in or pass overhead, too, which explains the bird list of more than 320 for this one small spot on the coast.

Whistling duck at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

One of the must-visit sites of American birding, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. Its richness of bird life makes it a place that can be explored over and over with something new seen every time.

Flocks of waterfowl from fall through spring, fifteen or more species of wading birds, rails and other marsh birds—these are just a few of the highlights of Anahuac. Roads lead from the visitor information station at the main entrance to East Bay, an arm of Galveston Bay accessing ponds, marshes, observation platforms, and trails. Though waterbirds are the highlight here, an area called The Willows, an isolated tract of trees just west of the entrance, can be a songbird magnet in migration.

A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork (post-breeding visitor), Neotropic Cormorant, Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Rail, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Seaside Sparrow, and Dickcissel.

Anhinga at Brazos Bend State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brazos Bend State Park

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

Look on park lakes and wetlands for Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and Roseate Spoonbill, and Purple Gallinule. Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Least Grebe are seen occasionally.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge

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

The lake for which the refuge was named has dried up because of overuse of the local aquifer. However, the refuge manages other wetlands that act as a virtual magnet for birds in this arid region. From fall through spring, many ducks use these wetlands; some such as Cinnamon Teal and Redhead remain to nest.

Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet breed here and more than 25 species of shorebirds have been recorded in migration. Some of the nesting birds here are Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Chihuahuan Raven, and Rock Wren.

Ringed kingfisher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Texas Wildlife Trail 

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

Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of Whooping Cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed Reddish Egrets, blazing pink Roseate Spoonbills, and beautifully patterned White-tailed Hawks.

The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico enlivening the American landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy Ringed Kingfishers like Belted Kingfishers on steroids, Great Kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family, and Green Jays which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue tones.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read Next: What Is Birding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to participate

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

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read Next: Birding in Arizona

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

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

Merlin Bird ID

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

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

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

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

eBird Mobile

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

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

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

Desktop or laptop

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

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

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

FAQs

Why is the count in February?

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

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

Where should I count birds?

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

>> Read Next: Guess Who? 12 Texas Birds to Know

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

Can I include photos with my checklist/bird list?

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus

Tucson Is For the Birds and Birders

The Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all but here are a few favorites to get you started

Tucson, Arizona, isn’t just a haven for snowbirds. It also is known as a birdwatcher’s and nature lover’s paradise.

Tucson is for the birds, or maybe better said, Tucson is for birders. With the area’s desert, mountains, forests, mild winters, and proximity to tropical Mexico, sightings of more than 500 species of birds have been recorded.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a surprising diversity of birds here, thanks to what Tucson Audubon calls a perfect storm: varied elevations; generally mild climate; Sky Island ranges linking the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Madre; influences from Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts; migratory flyways; and tropical areas south of the border.

I enjoy capturing photos of everything from butterflies and dragonflies to reptiles and mammals and that includes birds. As a person who likes being out in nature and one who appreciates observing and photographing wildlife, here are five of my favorite nature spotting and birding locations in and near Tucson.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located in northeast Tucson at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road. This picturesque canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, part of Coronado National Forest, is one of the premier natural areas in southern Arizona. Although no private vehicles are permitted in the canyon, a tram service is available. Visitors can take an enjoyable and educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile narrated tram ride through the canyon. Trams stop at several trailheads, providing access to 30 miles of trails throughout the canyon.

Vermilion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the wide variety of mammals in the canyon, birders might spot vermilion flycatchers, pyrrhuloxias, gray hawks, western tanagers, phainopeplas, and peregrine falcons.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Many folks picture the saguaro cactus (the largest cactus in the United States) when they think of Tucson. One great place to see a vast collection of these majestic plants is another of my favorite spots, Saguaro National Park which actually is two parks in one. One district lies east of Tucson (Rincon Mountain District) and the other is to the west (Tucson Mountain District); approximately 30 miles separate them. Both have well-maintained roads and numerous hiking trails. Note that vehicles more than 8 feet wide and trailers longer than 35 feet are not permitted on Cactus Forest Drive (east park) or Bajada Loop Drive (west).

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each of the districts has distinctive characteristics. The west park has the greatest number of saguaro cacti, as well as an ancient petroglyph site. Visitors may spot birds and other wildlife in both parks. Keep your eyes open for the distinctive Gambel’s quail, Gila woodpecker, American kestrel, northern goshawk, and cactus wren, among many other species.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area and Saguaro National Park West. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Mexican gray wolf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum 

On my “must visit list” is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at 2021 N. Kinney Road in Tucson (adjacent to Saguaro National Park West and Tucson Mountain Park). The gardens at the museum have walking paths through a vibrant Sonoran Desert ecosystem that is home to native plants, butterflies, and birds. The museum also has natural enclosures (not traditional zoo enclosures) with mountain lions, bobcats, Mexican gray wolves, gray foxes, and other mammals native to the area, plus a free-flight bird aviary and a hummingbird aviary.

Raptor free flight demonstration © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A highlight of this is the raptor free-flight demonstration which provides an up-close look at hawks, falcons, and owls native to this part of Arizona. It was such an amazing display and photo opportunity that you plan to return a second day to take more photos.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

The fifth location is widely known among birders—Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest and the Santa Rita Lodge. Madera Canyon lies south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains. Santa Rita Lodge (located at 1218 S. Madera Canyon Road in Madera Canyon) offers overnight accommodations, as the name would suggest, but it also has a bird feeding area that is open to the public. Free parking is available for those visiting the viewing area which has limited seating and is wheelchair accessible.

Birding at Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, you can view and photograph a wide variety of birds in a natural setting. A telephoto lens in the 400mm to 500mm range works well. Among the wide variety of birds attracted to the area are the yellow-eyed junco, flame-colored tanager, painted redstart, Mexican jay, crescent-chested warbler, and 15 species of hummingbirds. You might also get a glimpse of an elegant trogon, a prized sighting for birders in southern Arizona.

Coronado National Forest offers several trails in the area with limited parking at the trailheads.

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

Tucson boasts a wide array of natural and man-made attractions with something to interest everyone, including those who enjoy getting outdoors in nature. It is a renowned birding destination for visitors from far and near. It also is popular among snowbirds and other RVers, and RV campgrounds and resorts abound in the area.

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

As mentioned earlier, the Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all. In addition to the five birding locations listed above, you may wish to explore the following:

  • Tohono Chul
  • Tucson Botanical Gardens
  • Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
  • San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
  • Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
  • Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
  • Ramsey Canyon

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

Guess Who? 12 Texas Birds to Know

A short starter list for those who long to put a name with a beak

Everyone is familiar with Texas icons like the Alamo and River Walk but how many of their feathered friends can you identify? Northern Cardinal, Grackle, Northern Mockingbird…those are pretty easy but there are so many more!

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. 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. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Little blue heron © 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
Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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?

Learning to identify all of the state’s birds can be a daunting task, so here’s a list that’s been trimmed down to some of the more commonplace and easily seen species.

So, armed with this starter list and a helpful birding guidebook and a pair of binoculars and a camera head out and see how many you can spot and identify. Bring family and friends and turn it into a contest. You’ll find being bird-brained is fun for everyone.

Northern mockingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Mockingbird

Such a list, of course, has to begin with the state bird of Texas. This gray and white bird makes up for its drab appearance with a voice that could compete in any singing competition. The Latin name (Mimus polyglottos) which translates loosely to “the many-tongued mimic” really sums up this songster. Instead of singing its song, this bird performs like a tribute band playing an original band’s song note for note. A seasoned male Mockingbird can sing the songs of dozens of other species found nearby and make a variety of other vocalizations from frog sounds to car alarms.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate Spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill. 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 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.

Related article: What Is Birding?

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Jay

Unmistakably tropical, the brilliantly-colored Green Jay ranges south to Ecuador but enters the U.S. only in southernmost 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.

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, 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.

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vermilion Flycatcher

Most flycatchers are drab but the male Vermilion Flycatcher is a brilliant exception. It is usually seen perched fairly low in open areas near water making periodic flights to nab insect prey. As if the male’s bright colors were not advertisement enough, he also displays by puffing up his feathers and fluttering high in the air while singing repeatedly. Fairly common in parts of the southwest and Texas, the vermilion flycatcher is also widespread in Central and South America.

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.

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

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 and then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect. 

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Altamira Oriole

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches 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), a bill; orange head, nape, and underparts.

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.

Related article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

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.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Blue Heron

More old-timers refer to this species as a “blue crane” but this heron is not related to cranes. This tall wetland inhabitant will hunt for fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like in just about any creek, pond, lake, or roadside ditch. With an overall grayish color, this bird does have hints of blue-gray here and there. In flight, the Great Blue Heron might conjure up beliefs that pterodactyls still fly in our friendly skies. When waters freeze in winter, don’t expect these birds to chip away at the ice. Instead, watch them switch to dry upland settings in search of rodents. Who knows, maybe a switch from slimy fish to furry rats every now and then breaks the monotony!

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Skimmer

The remarkable bill of the black skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large orange and black bill are knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches. 

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-necked Stilt

“Long” and “thin” are the best adjectives for describing this elegant black and white shorebird: long neck; thin, needle-like black bill; and long, pink legs. Black-necked Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to the bodies of any bird—only flamingoes are longer. The Black-necked stilt wades in shallow water as it feeds, probing with its long, thin bill for insects and crustaceans on or near the surface of the water. It finds most of its food visually, picking insects, small crustaceans, and tiny fish from the surface of the water or mud.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Horned Owl

With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fares such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Royal Tern

A large, orange-billed tern, the royal tern is found only along ocean beaches. Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the royal tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast. It forages mostly by hovering over the water and plunging to catch prey just below the surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming the water with the bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to the water’s surface to pick up floating refuse.

Long-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long-billed Thrasher

A resident of dense brushy habitats, the Long-billed Thrasher is found only in southern Texas and eastern Mexico. There it is a common permanent resident of native woodland and thickets, foraging on the ground under dense cover, often singing from a hidden position within the brush. Uses its long bill to flip dead leaves aside as it rummages in the leaf litter for insects; also will use its bill to dig in soil within an inch of the surface. And it’s often seen perching in shrubs and trees to eat berries.

Related article: World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turkey Vulture

Early American settlers from Europe confused this carrion eater with the “buzzard” back home but the two aren’t alike. Though the name “buzzard” is used in other parts of the world for hawks, it refuses to be erased from our vocabulary for vultures. When soaring, this vulture has a silvery tinge to the trailing edge of the entire wing. When they’re feasting on roadkill, notice their milk chocolate coloration and, in adults, a red featherless head. Only a mother could love a face like that. There is another species of vulture in Texas: the black vulture. The black vulture sports a gray featherless head and is dark black. During the flight, black vultures also have a silvery tinge to their wings but only on the outer tips. If we didn’t have vultures, our roadways would soon be overrun with smelly, unsightly roadkill.

Killdeer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Killdeer

How great would it be if every bird were named for its vocalization, like this one? A resounding “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee” can be heard not only in natural settings but also in ball fields and parking lots. In flight, watch for the fiery orange rump and pointy wings and, when perched, watch for two distinctive black bands across the breast resembling wide necklaces. If you approach one and find it limping away with a drooped wing and loud cries, know that you’re being duped. This action — called feigning — is designed to lure you away from a nearby ground nest or nestlings, so tread lightly.

American coot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

American Coot

I don’t think it’s a compliment to be called an “old coot,” but it’s OK to spot some on a nearby lake or reservoir. Since this bird needs a running start to take off from the water, it doesn’t hang out in small bodies of water. If you find one there, it’s usually an indication that inclement weather grounded the bird and the runway is too short for it to take off again. Commonly occurring in rafts, or large floating flocks of birds, this all-dark bird has a pale white bill and feeds on aquatic organisms and vegetation. This species, no relation to ducks, pours into Texas during fall to spend the winter months where water doesn’t freeze, but watch for most to head north in spring. Some stick around throughout the year and raise a family. The young look similar in shape but have a whitish head that distinguishes them from mom and dad.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mourning Dove

With a long, pointy tail and a small, beady head, this dove enjoys sunflower seeds whether the seeds are at the feeder, on a fresh sunflower stalk, or the ground. The best feeders for a flock of these are rural sunflower fields in late summer or early fall; their Columbidae relatives line up shoulder-to-shoulder on the power lines and fences, assessing the danger before dropping down into the field.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tufted Titmouse

It’s fun to watch this feisty, crested bird feed on sunflower seeds. With one foot, they pin a seed to the limb they’re perched on and begin to hammer away to open it, using head and bill like an all-in-one hammer and chisel. After all that work, they gobble down a tasty seed that’s rich in fat, fiber, protein, several vitamins and minerals, and, most importantly, calories to get them through tough times until Mother Nature can again provide her buffet.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

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

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

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