The Complete Guide to Bird Watching in South Texas

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

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

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

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

Great Spots for Birding in Louisiana

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

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

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

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

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana birding hotspots

Grand Isle

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

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

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

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

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

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park / Barataria Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Martin

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

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

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

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

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Pintail Wildlife Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peveto Woods Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

Birding trail

Wetland Birding Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s Wetland Birding Trail, Louisiana  

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

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

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

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

Birding along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

FAQs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Land of the Giants

Explore the natural side of the Sunshine State at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a biologically diverse Audubon property with the largest stand of old-growth bald cypress trees on Earth

The facility’s signage says it’s special because the endangered wood stork nested here and because it is the largest piece of ancient bald cypress forest preserved in the world.

But I think it’s special because walking its 2.25 mile boardwalk takes you into a green and liquid world where at every turn you see scenes so beautiful they could have been arranged by the world’s best floral designer. And, of course, they were.

On a warm, sun-splashed winter day, I stood on the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida and listened as the volunteer naturalist explained how the Gulf Coast is home to protected wetlands and untouched landscapes.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary protects approximately 13,450 acres prized as a fine stand of subtropical, ancient bald cypress forest where many of the soaring trees date back at least 600 years predating the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

Corkscrew Swamp is a freshwater wetland fed solely by rainwater covering thousands of acres of pristine cypress swamp. In this vast area known as the Corkscrew Watershed, a broad sheet of water flows over the land ranging from just a few inches to a yard deep.

This wetland is what south Florida looked like at one time: The fresh water is the lifeblood of the Corkscrew Swamp and of the greater Everglades ecosystem. Over the past century, people have altered the natural flow of the water to control flooding and to create land for development but now we need to restore the natural system.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often misunderstood, swamps full of plants and insects were marked as areas rife with disease and decay and were quickly drained, stripped by clear-cut logging practices, paved over, and built upon eventually squeezing out wildlife and their natural habitats. But in a state known for rampant development and construction, the swamp and trees at Corkscrew were saved when the National Audubon Society realized the forest needed protection, stepped in, and stopped the logging.

The sanctuary is a popular destination for birders and hikers who walk along a 2.25-mile trail and raised boardwalk that twists and turns through marsh, pine flatwoods, stretches of wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America. These impressive trees, relatives of the redwood, tower 130 feet into the sky and have a girth of 25 feet. Their massive branches are draped with mosses, lichens, bromeliads, and ferns. 

The forest is also home to hundreds of alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, and red-bellied turtles. A wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, and raptors can be seen throughout the year while the fabulous Painted Bunting is one of many winter visitors. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tree branches are draped with resurrection ferns; the roots of the strangler fig wrap around host trees and swamp plants like the waxy aquatic alligator flag tumble over the railings.

Volunteer interpreters stroll the trail explaining to visitors how the wetlands act as filters for pollutants, reduce flood damage by soaking up water during heavy rains, stabilize the soils against erosion, and recharge groundwater during the dry months.

National Audubon began protecting the wading birds nesting within Corkscrew Swamp in 1905. During the 1940s and ’50s, cypress forests in Florida were being leveled for their timber. At the time, Corkscrew was isolated and almost impossible to access. Today it is an oasis in a made-over landscape. In other areas, many of the wild swamps and much of the teeming wildlife that was characteristic of this region less than a generation ago are gone. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s value thus becomes more significant with every passing year. 

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Florida, two extremes dominate the subtropical climate—wet summers and dry winters. The seasonal high and low water levels are a necessary part of the natural cycle and each is vital for life in Corkscrew.

Visitors load daypacks with sunscreen, water bottles, and binoculars. But according to the staff, they can leave the bug repellent at home because Corkscrew defies all swamp logic: mosquitoes are rarely a problem. A guppy-like fish called Gambusia holbrooki (mosquito fish) feeds almost exclusively on mosquito larvae.

The tiny mosquito-slurping fish get some help from the actual Corkscrew Watershed, a meandering river that flows toward the Gulf of Mexico. Although moving at a snail’s pace, the water in the swamp doesn’t become stagnant and combined with the fish this makes for a tranquil bug-free zone. The constantly moving water also is the reason Corkscrew does not have the dank smells usually associated with swamps.

According to one estimate, 98 percent of all ancient forests in the United States have been logged, so Corkscrew is a rare habitat—a combination of large trees, fallen logs, and standing dead trees that provide wildlife with a variety of places to find food and shelter. In the soupy, subtropical climate, the trees are draped with moss, lichens, orchids, air plants, and dozens of types of feathery ferns. This protected landscape is home to the United States’ largest collection of gangly looking wood storks whose nesting ground is the biggest tract of old-growth bald cypress forest in the world.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2000, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary including Panther Island received a Ramsar Designation as a Wetland of International Importance. Corkscrew is also a designated Important Bird Area and a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Corkscrew has also been recognized as a Wetland of Distinction by the Society of Wetland Scientists. 

Corkscrew Swamp draws birds and birders by the thousands. In addition to the endangered wood stork, the wetlands are home to more than 200 avian species including barred owls, painted buntings, red-shouldered hawks, white ibises, egrets, herons, and woodpeckers.

Other wildlife abounds as well. The dangling leaves and roots of the watermelon-scented lettuce plants create a safe place for small fish and crayfish to hide or nest. Alligators often sun themselves on the riverbank but they prefer the plankton-laden lettuce lakes— wide, shallow watering holes that are a favorite feeding site for wading birds, otters, and reptiles. The gators are efficient predators. They are one of the world’s largest reptiles but have a brain the size of a walnut—just enough to associate people with food if they’ve been fed by humans but not smart enough to know the difference.

The raised boardwalk makes the perfect way to observe nature from a safe and respectful distance. And it’s the ideal way to appreciate what southwest Florida must have looked like before civilization took hold and transformed the landscape.

Located northeast of Naples, Florida, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is open daily. The boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Overview

Location: 375 Sanctuary Road, Naples, Florida

Length: 2.3 mile loop

Phone: (239) 348-9151

Open 7 am. Last admission 4:30 pm. Gates close 5:30 pm. Dogs are not permitted.

All visitors must pass through the Blair Audubon Center which offers a movie about the swamp, interpretive exhibits and wildlife art, a gift shop, and a snack bar. Pay your admission here.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admission: $14 adult, Audubon member $10, student with ID $6, ages 6-18 $4, under 6 free.

Your admission is good for two back-to-back days so you can show up one afternoon and come back the next morning.

Worth Pondering…

A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.

—John Muir, 1867

14 Awesome New Skills to Learn in 2024

With a New Year come new possibilities

As we move further into 2024 there are all sorts of opportunities to learn new skills.

Whether you want to become a sommelier or professional photographer there’s a world of new skills out there to master and I’m here to spur your imagination.

This is a list of 14 awesome new skills to learn in 2024.

Here we go!

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

1. Learn photography

Photography is a lot of fun and it’s also a valuable skill.

Whether you want to start with just learning the basics of snapping better photos on your smartphone or are looking to upgrade to a professional camera, there are many wonderful resources to become a great photographer.

I recommend starting with this list of helpful articles:

2. Start a stamp collection

Nowadays it’s all about text messages and e-mails but back in the day people sent these incredible things called letters. And to send them they used stamps.

Stamps are actually very cool and collecting stamps teaches you so much about history, geography, and the world.

Growing up my uncle got me into stamp collecting and I just loved getting packages of stamps from him and fitting them into the stamp collecting book.

It’s easy to get started in just a few simple steps. You don’t have to buy expensive equipment to enjoy this hobby. Some simple stamp-collecting accessories will serve you well.

You’ll need some stamps to get started but it makes sense to spend more on stamps and a lot less on equipment than vice versa. The basic equipment I recommend includes:

  • A pair of stamp tongs or tweezers
  • Magnifying glass
  • Stamp albums
  • Hinges (small gummed strip that’s used to fix a stamp to the page of an album)
Wine tasting at Black Hills Winery near Oliver, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Become a sommelier

You know what would go down really smooth right now?

A nice, classy, delicious glass of wine! Red, white, rose, you name it!

If you want to take it up a notch, learn the art of being a sommelier, a professional wine taster who is also an expert in pairing wines with food and grading them.

Even if you don’t do it as a job it’s an impressive skill to have.

Are your taste buds tingling? I have some articles on wineries, wine regions, and wine tasting:

Truth BBQ in Brennan, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Start smoking

Another excellent skill to try out is smoking. I don’t mean cigarettes or cigars, of course, I mean food!

Smoking meat is a stupendous skill and the result is mouth-wateringly delicious meats. You will need a smoker but it’s well worth the money and the variety of flavors of smoke you can do is amazing.

You don’t need a decade of practice to get the hang of smoking but it’s more demanding than a round of grilled cheese. First, there’s the heat—you’ll want the temperature low over a long period. And then there’s the smoke—you need to keep it smoking for hours.

In addition to hardwood and charcoal, you’ll also want:

  • A culinary brush used to swab meat with sauce
  • A mop, a tool that looks like a miniature mop that is used to apply sauce
  • A rib rack (if you plan on smoking ribs)

I expect to be invited over later to share in the tasty treats.

Check this out to learn more: Texas BBQ: By Meat Alone

5. Write a blog

Blogs are very rewarding and interesting and almost anyone can write one!

As for the subject matter think about what you love, hate, find funny, or what makes you unique.

Then write, video, and post photos about it on your blog. Readers will start coming and taking a look at what you’re up to.

6. Start journaling

Keeping a journal is something I’ve done for years.

But I will say that the journaling I have done has been rewarding and helped me get my thoughts in order. There’s just something about getting your words on the page that helps clarify various situations, thoughts, and even dreams.

Here are some tips for starting and keeping a journal.

7. Find inner peace

Inner peace is underrated. When you feel good about yourself many things fall into place and even those aspects of life which are kicking your ass stop crushing you so badly.

You get back in the driver’s seat of life refocus on what’s in your control and rediscover that inner peace that’s so vital to survival and thriving.

Inner peace is a skill we could all use more of, 100 percent.

Take up knitting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Knitting

Knitting is nifty and you can learn it in no time flat.

Whether you embark on an ambitious project like knitting a sweater or something simpler like a small scarf, knitting is an enjoyable and absorbing activity. Try out knitting and see how it goes.

9. Become a biker

One of the best exercises you can do is bicycling. For less than you think you can be outfitted with a mountain or road bike, a helmet, and a nifty backpack to go on short trips.

Then head out into the fresh air and enjoy our beautiful planet.

Get started with cycling today.

10. Practice better planning

Planning is a skill that ties all sorts of other skills together. When you get better at planning you get better at…well…everything.

There are simple things like keeping an agenda, various online scheduling tools, making a vision board, and more but there are also techniques and mindsets which will help you plan more consistently in your life.

Here’s an excellent guide on planning a cross-country road trip.

11. Pick up healthy habits for longevity

Having a few good days is enjoyable but having a life of healthy habits can add years to your longevity and make the time you have on our planet all the more amazing.

Picking up healthy habits for longevity isn’t just about exercise, a healthy diet, and breathing well, either. It’s also about healing and owning those difficult emotions and experiences that challenge us in life and optimizing our mental and emotional health.

Let’s call this self-actualization.

12. Learn to canoe or kayak

If you want to learn to canoe or kayak your best bet is to go to an outdoors or boating store and see if they offer lessons and rentals.

By the way, I have a post on Exploring National Water Trails.

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

13. Learn to ride a horse

Equestrian sports are an excellent hobby although they can add up in price.

Having said that, going for a trail ride and learning basic horse riding is not necessarily that expensive. If you have a love of the outdoors and have always hankered to try out horse riding there are all sorts of opportunities to try it out and see what you think.

Look for a paddock near you that offers trail rides.

Spend time in nature © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Spend time in nature

There’s nothing quite as healing and spiritually revivifying as spending time in the great outdoors. Listening to the loons out on the lake and contemplating the horizon or walking a quiet forest trail as shafts of sunlight danced between the trees has a kind of magic that nothing else can match.

Nature has been linked with the divine and with spiritual regeneration since the earliest days of humankind and it’s still a place of refuge and peace every day for people all across the world.

As Taoism founder Lao Tzu put it: Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

An amazing insight for all of us to ponder!

Worth Pondering…

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

—Les Brown

Explore Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands

Larger-than-life hidden treasures and some of the world’s greatest destinations for biodiversity, Sky Islands—which, to be clear, are mountains—dot Southern Arizona’s landscape, erupting up up up from valley floors toward the Sonoran Desert sky. But what makes this type of mountain so special for the region, its environment, and explorers? Read on.

What Are Sky Islands?

Sky Islands are a classification of the mountain—an unofficial nickname given to 55 mountain ranges across Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico, and Northern Mexico that rise so high, so quickly, that multiple habitats can be found from base to peak.

Climbing Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved[

As you climb up Sky Islands, you may go from an arid, saguaro-studded desert to a brisk, pine-filled forest in as little as an hour’s drive (in the case of Mount Lemmon, in Tucson). This makes these habitats especially attractive for wildlife, birds, and memorable hiking and biking. Sky Islands are also ecologically separated from other mountain ranges by distance and lowlands of a different environment.

The terminology is better known locally than anywhere else even though the parameters for what qualifies as a Sky Island can be applied to mountain ranges around the world. Knowing the term and its definition is less important than knowing how best to have an adventure on them.

Hiking Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ways to experience the Sky Islands

Listen to the audio tour available on the Mount Lemmon Science Tour app produced by the University of Arizona College of Science as you climb up Mount Lemmon in Tucson.

Hike a portion of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trek that goes from Arizona’s border with Mexico—up, through, and over several Sky Islands—to the state’s border with Utah.

Go birding in Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista, a site popular for seeing the elusive elegant trogon and more than a dozen species of hummingbirds.

Get involved with the Sky Island Alliance which hosts events aimed at protecting the diversity of Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities near Tucson

The Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges make up Tucson’s Sky Islands hugging the city’s northern and eastern edges. Perhaps one of the best ways to explore a Sky Island—and one that requires the least amount of physical exertion—is by listening to the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour app which times fun facts and interesting tidbits with the one-hour drive from the mountain’s base to its peak. The flora and fauna surrounding the drive become a lot more interesting and you’ll learn some history about the area, too.

Saguaro National Park East below the Rincons makes up the dramatically different environment separation that Sky Islands require. More than saguaros can be found here as you bike, hike, or drive through the enormous national park.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities in Cochise County

The southeastern Arizona Sky Islands partly made up of the Mule, Chiricahua, and Huachuca mountains are crisscrossed with trails that beckon hikers and mountain bikers. Vertical monoliths challenge rock climbers.

And cool, damp canyons like Ramsey Canyon create some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Here, vintners grow grapes for award-winning wine alongside spicy chiltepin peppers and sweet pistachios. Jaguar, white-nosed coati, and javelina wander under forest canopies while elegant trogons and hummingbirds zip across blue skies. In the fall, butterflies abound.

Montezuma Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor adventure

Montezuma Pass in the Huachucas just south of Sierra Vista marks the start of the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-mile hiking path that stretches from the Arizona/Mexico border to Utah. Dozens of other trails join the AZT for challenging hikes or woodsy walks and jaw-dropping views of Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico. Mountain bikers take to the trails for single-track rides; maps are available at Sierra Vista bike shops.

Head east to Cochise Stronghold near Willcox. The Stronghold is strewn with massive boulders amid a maze-like terrain. Mountain bikers, hikers, and rock climbers head to these rugged canyons and craggy hoodoos for classic climbs and outstanding trails.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go a little further east to Chiricahua National Monument where towering rhyolite pinnacles and balancing spires stand alongside the 17 miles of trails. (If you have time, make a side trip down Turkey Track Trail for a gander at Johnny Ringo’s grave, the Old West outlaw and gunfighter made famous by Hollywood writers.)

After hiking around Chiricahua National Monument, head east for 25 miles via a dirt road toward the Yosemite of Arizona: Cave Creek Canyon. Accessed through the town of Portal, the canyon is described as a birder’s paradise for five months of the year. And, the rest of the time, it’s just paradise. Spend some time communing with nature. When you’re ready to rest and eat, head to the Portal Cafe, Country Store & Lodge, or if you prefer to camp, the Stewart Campground or Sunny Flat Campground are the closest to the canyon.

Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding and wildlife

In Douglas, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge which shares its conservation efforts with compañeros across the border provides a year-round habitat for an amazing diversity of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and offers world-class bird and wildlife watching.

The Refuge is part of a migration superhighway through Cochise County following the northward-flowing San Pedro River. With near-tropical climates in the Sky Islands, Cochise County welcomes an incredible variety of birds that make season-long stops in the Huachucas and along the riparian area. The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve just minutes from downtown Sierra Vista is one of the country’s top birding spots.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic sites and small towns

In centuries past, the Sky Islands provided hidey holes for outlaws and Apaches, vantage points for the U.S. Army, and cool retreats for city folk seeking to beat the heat of the valley floor. Geronimo, General Pershing, Johnny Ringo, and the Earp brothers roamed the area leaving indelible legends in the wind. In later years, the Sky Islands starred in feature films alongside Hollywood legends like John Wayne, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Nicolas Cage.

Wayne is known to have frequented the communities among the Sky Islands including Patagonia and Bisbee, a reimagined former mining town. Both towns’ charming main thoroughfares while small are dotted with local restaurants and bars for a nibble and libation and some decent local lore.

In addition to mining, southeastern Arizona is also known for ranching. Many of the mines are gone but the ranches remain run by the descendants of the original families.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The John Slaughter Ranch (about a 20-mile drive on the Geronimo Trail outside Douglas), no longer a working ranch, gives visitors a glimpse into the life John Slaughter, a former Texas Ranger and Cochise County sheriff. He bought the property in 1884 and spent the remainder of his life developing it into a thriving southwestern cattle ranch despite the harassment from Geronimo and his band as they crossed into Mexico.

The lower loop of the Sky Islands cuddles Douglas, a border and former copper-mining town with a rich history. Home to the first international airport in the U.S., this community is anchored by the stately Gadsden Hotel built in 1907 for visiting mining company executives and fronted with a massive stained glass window—the only southwestern scene Tiffany ever created.

Legend says that the infamous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa rode his horse up the sweeping marble staircase in the early 1900s. Two decades later, a speakeasy opened in the basement and nine decades later the same speakeasy will open again. And yes, it’s said to be haunted.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Outdoor Activities Bucket List: 18 Fun Things to do Outdoors

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

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

—John Burroughs

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

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

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

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

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

1. Lace up for a mindful nature walk

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

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

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

2. Gaze at the night sky

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

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

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

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

3. Chase fireflies

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

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

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

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

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

4. Dust off your bike and go for a ride

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

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

5. Be a tourist in your town

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

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

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

6. Go camping

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

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

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

For more on camping, check out my other posts:

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

7. Explore a state park

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

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

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

8. Go Birdwatching

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

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

Here’s more on birding:

9. Float down a river

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Go Kayaking

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

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

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

11. Go Ziplining

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

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

12. Go fishing

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

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

13. Hike a new trail

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

Check these out to learn more:

14. Journal

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

15. Take a bike ride

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

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

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

16. Go horseback riding

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

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

17. Visit a zoo

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

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

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

18. Watch a sunrise or sunset

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

Worth Pondering…

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

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

The Ultimate Guide to the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail

Birds of a feather flock together

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

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing and Education Pier

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

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park

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

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

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

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher State Park

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

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

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

5 Rivers Delta Resource Center

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

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Battleship Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Battleship Park

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

Grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile Bay Mudflats

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

>> Related article: The Underrated Coast

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wade Ward Nature Park

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

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

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

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

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

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

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

Fairhope Municipal Pier © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope Municipal Pier and Beach

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

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

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

Foley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Graham Creek Nature Preserve

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

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

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

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Morgan

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

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

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lillian Swamp Forever Wild Tract

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

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

Dauphin Island Sea Lab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayfront Park

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

>> Related article: Marvelous Mobile Bay: Dauphin Island

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

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

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

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Patagonia Lake State Park: A Southern Arizona Oasis for Boating, Fishing, and Camping<

Whether you are interested in birding, fishing, camping, water sports, or just enjoying one of the favorite lakes in southeastern Arizona, make a stop at Patagonia Lake State Park

When a sign suddenly popped up along a two-lane highway carving through Arizona’s wine country I wondered if it was a mistake. It pointed to a back road leading into the desert foothills promising an unlikely destination. Is there really a lake amid these gentle rolling hills covered in desert brush?

Taking that turn we traveled a road whose route is dictated by the landscape almost doubling back on itself as it follows the path of least resistance. The drive took us through semi-desert grasslands and rolling hills studded with ocotillo, yucca, and scrub oak. After four miles it ended at small lake tucked within the contours of rolling hills.

Road to Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding and fishing in winter

The first glimpse of water at Patagonia Lake State Park came through the tents and RVs that crowd the campground. On a winter morning early risers walk their dogs nodding to their fellow campers taking leisurely strolls through scenery that demanded attention.

The 2½-mile lake plays hide and seek throughout its length ducking around bends and into coves. On this day, anglers are the first ones on the water, prowling for bass, catfish, crappie, and even rainbow trout which are stocked during the winter. Fishing opportunities abound from both shore and boat, and anglers typically do fairly well in their pursuit of whichever species they are targeting.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Later on they will be joined by kayakers who cruise silently along the placid surface. Two-thirds of Lake Patagonia’s 265 surface acres are devoted to no-wake zones, the perfect playground for those who prefer to explore in a canoe or kayak.

Patagonia Lake also draws those who have binoculars and know how to use them. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted and the area has a national reputation among birdwatchers.

More on Arizona State Parks: Spring Is the Season to Hike Arizona State Parks

Many head to the east where the Sonoita Creek Trail leads to a riparian area perfect for the area’s full-time avian residents as well as those stopping briefly during migration. Birders have reported seeing such common species as the broad-billed hummingbird and great horned owl as well as the harder-to-find vermilion flycatcher, elegant trogon, and spotted towhee.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoita Creek

Sonoita Creek flows for two-and-one-half miles along the edge of the park providing some of the richest riparian habitat in the area.

Sonoita Creek courses its way through Coronado National Forest between the Santa Rita Mountains in the north and the Patagonia Mountains in the south and is notable for its extensive, well preserved riparian corridor which harbors many rare species of plants and animals, especially birds. The creek creates a band of greenery in the otherwise arid mountains in a transition zone between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and which stretches for 15 miles from the village of Patagonia to the low elevation foothills east of the Santa Cruz Valley where the waters evaporate or seep below ground.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A dam over the creek (constructed in 1968) formed Patagonia Lake, a small but scenic reservoir. Its blue waters are surrounded by a narrow band of trees and bushes set beneath barren, rocky hillsides bearing cacti and yucca. Below the dam, several miles of the creek and an area of hills on both sides are further protected as the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area (see the above photo).

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV and tent camping

One hundred five developed campsites with a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30/50 amp voltage. Sites tend to fill up in the evening from May until November. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV. Quiet hours (no generators, music, or loud voices) are from 9 p.m.–8 a.m. 

More on Arizona State Parks: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

There are also two non-electric campsites available. They have a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles with a ramada for shade. These two sites are 22 feet long and are suitable for camper vans and short trailers.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boating and swimming in summer

As the weather warms, Patagonia Lake becomes an altogether different beast. The park is no secret to the thousands who come each summer to splash along its beach or carve rooster tails on its western third where wakes are to be jumped rather than shunned.

People from all over the area come to escape the heat. Summer weekends can get pretty crazy.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most summer visitors settle in at the beach finding a seat among the dozens of picnic tables shaded by a ramada or playing in the gentle water of the protected cove as parents make sure their children don’t venture past the line of buoys protecting the area from passing boats.

About a mile away on the lake’s western portion motor boats dominate, most of them towing skiers in an orderly counter-clockwise circle. At the end of the day some will head to the handful of camping sites available only by boat enjoying sunset from their secluded nooks.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A history of recreation

The lake’s popularity nearly killed it when local citizens first dammed Sonoita Creek 50 years ago to attract recreational enthusiasts. Members of the Patagonia Lake Recreation Association built facilities to make the area popular with those who wanted to fish, water ski, or simply have a picnic. Visitors flocked to the lake in the late 1960s and early ’70s so much so that owners couldn’t safely keep up with the demand.

More on Arizona State Parks: The Most (and least) Popular Arizona State Parks

Eventually the area was acquired by the state and on April 1, 1975 it was opened as Patagonia Lake State Park.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park Fact Box

Size: 2,658 acres

Elevation: 3,804-4,200 feet

Established: April 1, 1975

Location: Southeastern Arizona, 15 miles northeast of Nogales

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east to Vail (Exit 281); south on SR 83 to Sonoita; west on SR 82 past Patagonia to the Patagonia Lake State Park turnoff (distance is 177 miles one way)

Nearest services: In Patagonia, 10 miles away.

Park entrance fee: $15/vehicle Mondays-Fridays; $20/vehicle Saturdays-Sundays.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to go: Summer, if you want to cool off; Winter, if you want to kayak or fish when crowds are gone and the lake is calm.

Trails: There are more than 25 miles of hiking trails. All but a half-mile of them are within the adjacent Sonoita Creek State Natural Area

Visitor center: This should be your first stop for maps and a list of boating and swimming rules. Wakes are prohibited along two-thirds of the lake and rangers keep a close eye to make sure everyone is enjoying responsibly.

More on Arizona State Parks: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Picnic areas: Ramadas and picnic tables are scattered about the lake’s south shore with most clustered at the beach.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground: There are 105 sites with electricity and room for two vehicles. Sites with electricity are $25-$30 per night; non-electric sites are $20-$25. The 12 boat-in campsites ($20-$25 per night) have no power or bathrooms. Cabins have a queen-size bed, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, mini-fridge, microwave, ceiling fan, heating and air conditioning. Bring your own bedding and supplies. Cabins cost $119 per night, $129 on holidays with a three-night minimum. Campsites and cabins can be reserved at azstateparks.com.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Supplies: The Lakeside Market sells food, drink, and other common provisions and also offers boat rentals, fishing licenses, and bait.

Worth Pondering…
Patagonia is a tiny hamlet located in the Sonoita Valley in southeastern Arizona. A few blocks from the main street through town, on the edge of The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, lies a non-descript ranch house that is no less than one of the most famous bird watching sites in the world.

―Mathew Tekulsky, National Geographic News, 2004

Why Birdwatching Is Good for You

Birdwatching for peace of mind and better health

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

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Broad-tailed hummingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

>> Related article: Imagine More Meaningful Birdwatching

Curved billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Ring-necked duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Northern cardinal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Bird?

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

>> Related article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are four great reasons to get into birding today:

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus