The Ultimate Guide to Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world

Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, a park with “the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.”

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, and tidal flats teeming with life. The National Seashore and surrounding waters provide important habitat for marine and terrestrial plants and animals including a number of rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island are two different places located over 100 miles apart. Sometimes Padre Island National Seashore is confused with South Padre Island but the two are very different destinations. Padre Island National Seashore is a National Park Service (NPS) site located just outside of Corpus Christi. South Padre Island is a resort community located near Brownsville with numerous hotels, clubs, and souvenir shops. The two destinations are at opposite ends of the long, barrier island named Padre Island and are about 100 miles apart.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning on putting the park address into a smart phone app or GPS? It most likely will NOT bring you to the park. For unknown reasons, many of those applications place the park’s physical address miles away from its actual location.

Plan your trip: A Slice of Paradise: Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, getting to the park is easy once you know that the road coming to the park—Park Road 22—actually dead ends into the National Seashore. The park entrance station is a booth that is located literally in the middle of the road. Once you’re on Park Road 22, just keep going until you reach the end and the park entrance station. Bring a paper map or use the above directions to locate the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fees and passes can be purchased online before your visit or purchased in person at the entrance station upon your arrival. Your options include a 1-day pass ($10.00 per vehicle), a 7-day pass ($25.00 per vehicle), and a 1-year pass ($45.00 per vehicle). Those with federal interagency passes enter free.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typical weather conditions. Weather on Padre Island varies widely and can change from sunny and warm to thunderstorms and heavy winds very quickly. Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. Most rain falls near the beginning and end of hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June through October.

Daytime temperature in spring averages in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Summer daytime temperatures are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures. In the fall, daytime temperature average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Winter high temperatures are usually between 50 degrees and 70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale force winds and dropping temperatures quickly.

Average rainfall for the southern portion of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern area of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a drive along the seashore. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are only accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t try it with a regular car if you intend to drive further than 5 miles.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to the portion of the park where you can drive on the beach and down to the remote parts of the island, continue on the main park paved road (Park Road 22) past Malaquite Visitor Center until the pavement ends (South Beach). From that point, the park has 60 miles of beach open to driving. South Beach (and driving) ends at the Port Mansfield Channel, a man-made waterway cut through the island.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is not possible to drive all the way down to South Padre Island due to this waterway. You must turn around at that point and drive 60 miles back north to reach the park paved road.

Plan your trip: Padre Island National Seashore: World’s Longest Stretch of Undeveloped Barrier Island

Remember that Texas beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed.

Bird Island Basin Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go camping. Padre Island National Seashore has two campgrounds and three areas for primitive camping. They are open year-round and are first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit. There are no RV hook-ups on Padre Island but a dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the National Seashore.

Malaquite Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked in the dunes with a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a short distance north of the visitor center, Malaquite Campground features 48 semi-primitive designated sites. Located near the boat ramp on the waters of the Laguna Madre, Bird Island Basin Campground offers an opportunity for windsurfing, kayaking, boating, birding, and fishing. Both RV and tent camping sites are available but it is dry camping only.

Sea Breeze RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’d rather stay in a full-service RV park, Corpus Christi, 10 miles away from the park entrance, has several choices. We stayed across the bay in Portland at Seabreeze RV Resort and would return in a heartbeat.

Since sunrises are spectacular along the seashore, plan to take a morning walk along the beach and bring your camera with you to capture the moment. During your early-morning walk, you might spot the elusive (and very fast) ghost crab peeking at you from its burrow.

Stick around after dark on a clear night for a little stargazing. Take a flashlight with you to spot ghost crabs as they move away from their burrows to seek a midnight snack.

Do some beachcombing. Have you ever gone to the beach with bucket in hand hoping to find treasures along the seashore? If so, then you have been beachcombing. Many of the currents that flow through the Gulf of Mexico bring endless curiosities onto the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. These items include seashells, beached jellyfish, sea beans (drift seeds), driftwood, lumber, plastics, and things that have been lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and other marine activities. The best time is immediately following a storm. You are allowed to keep a five-gallon bucket of treasures you might find but if an animal is still in its shell be sure to put it back where you found it.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fly a kite. Padre Island National Seashore has plenty of wind to fly a kite. The seashore has in the past hosted a kite festival in February filling the sky with all sorts of colorful kites including some intricate and creative Chinese kites. Be sure to check with the park before heading there with your kite. 

Plan your trip: Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Go swimming. Swimming at the National Seashore can be a lot of fun! You can swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. However, remember that safety is important and there are no lifeguards on duty. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fishing. Fishing has been one of the biggest attractions to Padre Island, long before its designation as a National Seashore. Visitors may fish along the entire length of the Gulf of Mexico beach in the Laguna Madre and at Yarborough Pass and Bird Island Basin. Two currents, one from the north and one from the south converge at Big Shell beach near the middle of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These currents bring an abundance of nutrients which, in turn, attract plenty of fish. To fish anywhere within the park requires a valid Texas fishing license and a saltwater stamp which are only sold outside of the park at any local gas station or tackle shop.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go boating. Bird Island Basin offers a boat ramp to provide access to the excellent boating and fishing waters of the Laguna Madre. It’s one of the world’s best windsurfing sites and you can fish and birdwatch there, too. You can get a daily pass to Bird Island Basin at the Entrance Station for $5.00 or an annual pass for $30.00. Be aware that jet skis, kite surfing, and air boats are prohibited at the national seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatching releases. During the summer Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings are released from nests that were laid in the park and along parts of the Texas coast. Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore. For information about public hatching releases, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361-949-7163. Because park rangers cannot predict exactly when a sea turtle nest will hatch, not all hatchling releases are public and hatchling releases do not occur daily or on a regular schedule.

American avocet and Black-necked stilt, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go bird watching. With more bird species that any other city in the U.S., Corpus Christi has won the competition for being the “Birdiest City in America” for the past 10 years in a row. Needless to say, Padre Island National Seashore, located on 130,000 acres of undeveloped land is an exceptional place for bird watching.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated along the Central Flyway, Padre Island is a globally important area for over 380 migratory, overwintering, and resident bird species (nearly half of all bird species documented in North America). You’ll catch sight of brown pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, gulls, hawks, ducks, teals, and crested caracaras and not just along the beach but inland as well. The best time to bird Padre Island National Seashore is either during early spring or during fall and winter when thousands of birds either migrate through the park or spend the winter there.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interpretive programs. Attend a ranger program to learn about the seashore, the birds, and the things that wash up on the beach. Informal 30-45 minute Deck Talks on various aspects of the island’s natural and cultural history are held Thursdays to Sundays at 1 pm at the Malaquite Visitor Center.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be a Junior Ranger. Padre Island National Seashore is just one national park that gives you a chance to earn an official Junior Ranger badge. Ask a ranger for a Junior Ranger booklet when you stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center. The Underwater Explorer Junior Ranger Program is available as well. For all those who are young or young-at-heart, come out and earn your badge. All ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program at Padre Island National Seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Relax on the beach, build a sand castle, and play in the sand. Just remember the Leave No Trace principles. If you dig any holes or trenches while playing in the sand, cover them back up so they don’t create a hazard for vehicles, people, and animals.

Remember to check the park’s website for any alerts and closures due to construction or weather-related damage. Check the site also for other things to know before you head out to the park and whether or not pets are allowed.

Read Next: Where the Journey Is the Destination: Texas State Highway 35

Worth Pondering…

I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star

To steer her by.

—John Masefield

World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

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

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

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Ibis rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

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

Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:

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

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

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Big Bend National Park

Curv-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Egret rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: What Is Birding?

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Brazos Bend State Park

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

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Lost Maples State Natural Area

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

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Mitchell Lake Audubon Center

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge

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

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Burrowing owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

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

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Recommended birding site: Lake Tawakoni

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Tips and Techniques for Improving Bird and Wildlife Photography

Taking your wildlife photography to the next level

Spring is on the horizon and although wildlife photography can be a year-round activity, I’m excited for the warmer weather, blooming flora, and lots of critters being up and active. We’re gathering our cameras, lenses, and other photo gear and itching to get outdoors.

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

Yet, no matter the season, I am always excited to grab a long lens and explore nature and hopefully come away with some bird and wildlife photos. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional photographer by any means. However, I certainly put myself in the enthusiast category and I’ve been photographing wildlife for many years.

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

Wildlife photography is more than just having a camera and pointing it at an animal. There are tips and techniques, both in terms of composition and gear that can help make wildlife photography easier and hopefully help you be more successful in capturing great photos of birds, critters, and other animals.

Elk at Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below is a list of important tips and techniques for birding and wildlife photography that I’ve learned over the years and try to keep in mind whenever I’m out photographing birds and other animals. Keep in mind that this list of tips is by no means exhaustive but it does cover some important guidelines and suggestions for gear selection and shooting techniques as well as artistic and creative tips for improving your wildlife and bird photos.

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

Now, without further ado…

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

Buy a telephoto lens

This first tip is, perhaps, a somewhat obvious one, especially if you’re already familiar with birding and wildlife photography but one key piece of photo gear for a good wildlife photography experience is a long, telephoto lens. There isn’t one particular focal length that works best for all situations; however, I’ve found that a solid starting point is a focal length of 400mm.

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on your camera system, the options for a 400mm telephoto lens can vary quite a bit but be aware that supertelephoto lenses can often be expensive. You also have the option for a prime lens or a zoom.

Rocky mountain sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In most cases a zoom lens is a great choice that gives you some versatility. A fantastic choice for a great wildlife-centric telephoto zoom is a 100-400mm-style zoom or a 150-600mm zoom. Several manufacturers make these types of lenses at both affordable and high-end price points. Some options may make optical comprises to some extent in order to make such a long-zoom lens reasonable lightweight and usable handheld so you’ll need to weigh what type of budget you’re comfortable with and what kind of image quality performance you’re looking for.

Inca doves at Edinburg Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a tripod or monopod

Since many full-frame format supertelephoto lenses are large and heavy, consider using a tripod or monopod or some form of support. Many of these lenses can hit in the 6, 7, or 8-pound range which can get very tiring to use handheld for any length of time. And birding and wildlife photography takes patience.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

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

Tired arms and general soreness means less steady hand-holding resulting in missed shots, blurriness, or missed focus, and just generally less enthusiasm to keep shooting. A good monopod or tripod can help get you sharper shots and keep you shooting for longer.

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

Use fast shutter speeds

Be aware of your shutter speed, and in particular, use a faster shutter speed for sharper photos especially for birds in flight. The traditional rule of thumb has been using a shutter speed of “1 / the focal length” (in terms of a 35mm full-frame camera). For example, if you’re using a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera, a good starting point is 1/400ths of a second in order to avoid blurring from camera shake. However, that means the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For birds-in-flight, however, a good starting point here is at least 1/1000s, but I’d recommend shooting with even faster speeds, such as 1/2000th of a second. But 1/1000th of a second at the minimum for birds in flight is a good starting point.

Yellow warbler at Benson-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pay attention to background elements

With a telephoto lens, you are able to bring faraway subjects closer and one of the best creative benefits to such a lens is the ability to isolate your subject and create smooth, blurry backgrounds. The ability to remove distractions is one of the great benefits to a telephoto lens. Be mindful of objects in the background. When photographing perched birds in trees pay attention to leaves, tree branches, and other objects that are positioned behind your subject.

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

Get creative with your shooting angles

When photographing birds, you’ll likely find yourself pointing upward into the trees. While this can work and make for some interesting images, you’ll often end up photographing the underside of the animal which might not be the most attractive pose or position or you may have to contend with your subject being heavily backlit with a bright sky. 

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

If possible, try to position yourself at a different elevation or more at the same level as your subject. As you might expect, this is easier when photographing ground-based animals as you can more easily get down to a lower position and more at their level. For birds up in trees, this can be a difficult task depending on your location and surroundings. Getting level with birds is more easily accomplished when photographing near bird feeders or if you’re fortunate to find yourself in a location with elevated walkways or trails that put you more up into the trees. For shorebirds, water birds, or other ground birds, again, the key is to go low and close to eye level.

Related Article: Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

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

Keep the sun at your back

When possible, position yourself so that the sun is behind you and illuminating your subject. You don’t want to be photographing a bird or other animal with the sun behind it as it will likely be harshly backlit and underexposed. With the sun illuminating your subject you’re able to capture the beautiful colors and the sharp detail in fur or feathers of your subject.

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

Seek out good light

Consider the time of day when photographing birds in flight. Much like the golden hours rule for landscape photography, these are also ideal lighting conditions for photographing birds in flight. Light is softer, has a warming glow, and properly illuminates the bird. If the sun is too high in the sky, the underside of the bird will likely be in shadow.

Black-bellied whistling ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas

Research your shooting locations

Research your location before you go. You’ll be more comfortable and aware of your surroundings and you’ll have already scouted some good locations for wildlife and be prepped to set up shop and wait for photo opportunities.

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

State and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are prime locations for birds and other wildlife and are conducive to photography. They often provide bird blinds and feeding stations which are ideal for observation and photography.

Birds sometimes land right where you want them © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be patient, be quiet and take your time

Last but definitely not least: be patient.

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

Birds and wildlife are unpredictable and they won’t often land or appear right where you want them. But that’s part of the fun of this type of photo subject, the unpredictability of it all. However, wildlife photography takes patience. Traipsing through the woods will alert most animals to your presence and so you’ll want to get into a good spot and then wait, quietly. Eventually, the birds and animals will likely start to ignore you or become okay with your presence, so long as you’re calm and quiet. 

Ground squirrel at San Pedro House, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the same lines as being patient, it’s also important to be diligent and observe your subject once you’ve spotted it. Don’t just snap a single frame and call it a day. Watch for interesting behavior or certain poses that can bring the subject to life and show some of its personality.

Worth Pondering…

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

—George Eastman

Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

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

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

Cerulean warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Inca dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

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

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

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

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

—Arnold Newman

A Photographer’s Focus on Wading Birds

The watery world of wading birds

Tall wading birds—herons, egrets, bitterns, ibis, spoonbills, storks, and cranes—are among the most popular birds for birders and photographers—and for everyone. They are large and fairly obvious attracting our attention wherever we encounter them. They have long necks, long legs, long bills, long wings, and in-flight wading birds are most impressive—singularly and in flocks.

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As photographers, we are always hopeful of photographing wading birds to show their majesty, to document them catching prey, and to show them in the throes of mating displays in advance of the nesting season.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As winter melts into spring along the shallows of wetlands adjacent to the warmer areas of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, bright colors are flushing bare skin on the face of many species of wading birds with deeper colors accenting their legs and bill while some species grow feather plumes on their head, throat, back, or breast, providing ever-more impressive birds to photograph. As spring progresses, the wading bird progression will anchor the migration north with camera-toting birders intercepting their flight paths and stopover sites.

Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds are large, they are impressive, and they provide a variety of photo opportunities. Wading birds are among the first birds we hope to photograph—great blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets, sandhill cranes—and we eventually seek out wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and yellow-crowned night herons—then we try to photograph all the wading birds. So we make it a point to seek them out, visit locations where we hope to find them, and marvel as we photograph each one.

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

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because many wading birds are among the largest birds we encounter, they are a good group to start with as beginning photographers, but ultimately, we never get enough photos of wading birds. There are always more opportunities in different settings under different lighting conditions with the birds engaged in an array of activities. Wading birds as a group are just plain exciting to behold and to photograph.

Yellowlegs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locations: Wading birds are usually associated with water—the shorelines of shallow ponds and marshes, tidal flats, and lakeshores—these are the primary habitats to visit regularly to photograph wading birds.

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timing: Pick the time of your visits for the best possible lighting—mornings before 11:00 and afternoons after 2:00 are best now. As the spring season progresses and we adjust to the daylight savings change of time, we will need to adjust the periods we devote to photography.

White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunlight: The need for good sunlight originating from behind you is essential to capture the best colors on all wading birds and that’s especially true with birds that have any iridescent plumage. In addition to providing more vivid colors, sunlight provides more contrast between colors and shades of colors too.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shadows: Since sunlight also produces shadows, be aware of shadows on one side of the bird. After taking an initial photo, you may want to move to avoid shadowing. I also like to refer to my own shadow when positioning myself, so try to position directly between the bird and the sun—that’s when my shadow is pointing directly at the bird.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overcast Conditions: When overcast it’s best to re-schedule for a sunny period. The quality of any resulting photos will have muted colors, low contrast, and dull surroundings. Any photos you take will be subpar.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water Reflections: Blue sky sunlight produces blue-colored water which provides a great setting for wading birds. At the same time, wading birds are the prime interest and whether the watercolor is blue, green, brown, or gray is less important. Water has unlimited variations produced by calm or variations of windy conditions, water flows, or waves. While you are focusing on the bird be aware of the water and its movements for enhanced photo quality. At times, when the water is calm, you may be able to take photos with the bird reflected in the water in front of it.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation: Be aware of the background and foreground. Plants in your setting can be a welcome addition to add some contrasting green, yellow, or tan coloration while showing the bit of habitat. In some cases, plants may not be welcome if they hide parts of the bird in a distracting manner. If necessary, reposition to get a better background after taking a couple of initial photos. Or you may be able to simply wait for the bird to move to a better location. As with any composition, take the photos you can and try to improve on them if possible.

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

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

Positioning: When photographing wading birds, take some images from a low position—kneeling, squatting, sitting, or lying on the ground—to get closer to water level or ground level and thereby closer to the level of the bird.

Immature White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilizing: Stabilize yourself while holding your camera by bracing your elbows against your chest when standing or bracing one elbow against a knee while kneeling. Bracing your lens against a tree, pole, fence, or car window will help too. Hold your breath when pressing the shutter button to help stabilize your camera and lens.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Action: Take several initial photos, then wait to see what happens next—wait for the action. Perhaps the bird will try to catch a fish; perhaps it will take a few steps as it hunts providing another angle to photograph, or maybe it will decide to take a flight to reposition to a new hunting area. Spend ample time with each photo subject and you will often be rewarded with another, possibly better photo opportunity. Also try to anticipate the birds’ next moves, rather than react to their movements a step behind the action. Action photos are always the most interesting and most revealing.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flight Photos: Your best bet for getting multiple opportunities to photograph wading birds in flight will come when you can find a flight path the birds follow between feeding areas and nest sites. Then it’s a matter of spending some time in position and watching for birds you can focus on and follow through your lens, taking multiple photographs of each bird in flight if possible.

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Approach: Avoid alarming a bird as you approach it, especially if it is feeding—the bird always comes first. Keeping your distance and allowing birds to behave naturally will provide the best photo opportunities. If you try to approach a bird, move slowly and don’t walk directly at the bird; instead, move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever-closer.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cropping: When reviewing your photos some simple cropping can improve the quality of your final images. A simple crop to remove extraneous background area will enlarge the bird within the photo frame. It’s best not to center your subject in the frame. Instead, leave some space in front of the bird (consider the Rule of Thirds).

American Avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

March and April provide a great time to photograph wading birds as many species migrate north. The weeks ahead should provide a variety of species for you to photograph. Waders are most active during May and June as they begin nest-building at rookeries and the variety of wading birds should keep your attention through the summer months. There’s a great wading bird photo season ahead, so embrace this exceptional group of photo subjects as often as you can, and Good Luck!

Read Next: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning and preparation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting

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

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

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

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

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

Bird Photo Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Moment

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

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

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

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

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

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

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

Field Settings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composition and design

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

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

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

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

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

Simple Editing

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Arnold Newman

A Slice of Paradise: Padre Island National Seashore

Get back to nature with an unparalleled experience at the Padre Island National Seashore

With more than 70 miles of unspoiled coastline and 130,000 acres of pristine sand dunes and grassy prairies, it’s fair to say there’s no place quite like the Padre Island National Seashore.

Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the beach to the bay, Padre Island National Seashore offers countless opportunities to discover and enjoy the amazing recreation and resources of the park. Take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico or build a sandcastle. Swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone. Strong currents flowing parallel to the beach, tides flowing to-and-from the beach, and sudden drop-offs in the Gulf floor can be dangerous for swimmers and waders alike.

Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore has access to the Laguna Madre waters through the boat ramps at Bird Island Basin. The boat ramps are located separately from the campground at Bird Island Basin limiting traffic through the campground. There is plenty of parking at the boat ramps for day use but the boat ramp parking can still fill up quickly. Spring and fall usually are the busiest as anglers use Bird Island Basin as a closer entry point to access the legendary Baffin Bay in search of trophy trout.

American avocet and Black-necked stilt at Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashores’ access to the flat waters of the Laguna Madre has been recognized as one of the best windsurfing locations in the U.S. Bird Island Basin has year-round wind and also warm water for nine months of the year. Windsurfing rentals are available at Bird Island Basin as well as windsurfing lessons.

Related Article: Corpus Christi: Sparkling City by the Bay

Camping at Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing is readily available while camping at Bird Island Basin. Wade fishing in front of the campground provides easy access to fish for redfish, flounder, speckled trout, and other fish. Kayak rentals are also available at the Worldwinds facility on-site at Bird Island Basin.

Malaquite Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All campgrounds are open year-round. No reservations are accepted as camping is first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit which is available from the kiosks at the entrances of each campground. There are no RV hook-ups anywhere in the park but an RV dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the park. Camping is permitted only in the five camping areas available for public use.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the southern end of North Padre Island, the Padre Island National Seashore is just a short 10 miles from the city limits of Corpus Christi. Visitors who do not wish to camp at the Seashore can enjoy staying close by in an RV park in Corpus, Portland, Rockport-Fulton, or Port Aransas.

Related Article: Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Kemp’s Ridley display at the Malaquite Visitor Center

Padre Island National Seashore is the most important nesting beach in the U.S. for Kemp’s Ridley, the most endangered sea turtle in the world. The park has been a participant in a bi-national, multi-agency effort to save the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle since 1978. The park also participates in global efforts to recover the populations of four other threatened and endangered sea turtle species. 

Ranger talk at Malaquite Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore.

Malaquite Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island has particularly varied birdlife. Most common are laughing gulls, sandpipers, geese, and herons but over 380 species of birds are sighted at the park which, impressively, represents roughly half of the all documented bird species in North America.  

South Beach at Malaquite Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Diamondback rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer, and rabbits live in the dunes while ghost crabs inhabit the area just above the high tide mark and are responsible for the many small holes in the dry sand that mysteriously stay unblocked, even when sand is blown about by the strong sea breezes that affect the island during most summer afternoons. The endangered sea turtle may also occasionally be spotted, and during the egg-laying season, park rangers patrol the beaches looking for any signs of activity.

Grasslands Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The shoreline is also home to a host of marine life including jellyfish, frogs, and 149 species of fish. The nearby dunes inhabit the spotted ground squirrel, white-tail deer, and coyotes.

Grasslands Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Observe the flora and fauna of the area by hiking the ¾-mile Grasslands Nature Trail or by going on a guided birding tour. Visitors can enjoy seeing deer, coyotes, birds in the wetlands, and beach shorelines. Hiking, bicycling, or walking through the Padre Island National Seashore is a great way to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the park.

Grasslands Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. The most rain falls near the beginning and end of the hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June to October.

Related Article: The 10 Top Things to Do in Texas

Daytime temperatures in the spring average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s.

South Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daytime temperatures during summer are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures.

During fall the daytime temperatures average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s.

South Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High temperatures during winter are usually between 50 and70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale-force winds and dropping temperatures quickly. The wintertime climate is typically dry though most of the year’s rainfall occurs in the winter.

South Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The average rainfall for the southern end of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern end of the park.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Nature, it seems, has a way of returning things to how they should be.

— Fennel Hudson

World-Class Birding in Arizona

Arizona excels in natural areas and bird-watching locations

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

Lesser goldfinch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Botanical Garden 

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

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: Birding in Arizona

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

Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

Broad-tailed hummingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

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

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

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

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

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

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

Related Article: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

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

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

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma

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

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related Article: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

Curve-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Great Backyard Bird Count this Weekend

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

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

Plain chachalaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Eastern phoebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Gilded flicker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to Participate

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

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, February 18-21, 2022.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Bird Photos from the Weekend

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

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

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

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

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

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

Where to Go Birding in Southeastern Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: Birding in Arizona

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

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

Hummingbird at Paton Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Where to go Birding around Phoenix

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

Related: Birding Arizona’s Sonoran Winter Vacation Destinations

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

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

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

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

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

Where to go birding in northern Arizona

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

Related: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

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

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

How to identify birds

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus