Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

Birds make me happy

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

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Altamira Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Birding is very low-cost. After the initial investment on a pair of binoculars and an ID guide, the only costs are what you spend on travel and entrance fees. You can bird anywhere, anytime. It’s a hobby you can do in your back yard or take on the road as you travel in your RV. It’s rewarding to see something new, to be able to name what you see, and to make new discoveries.

Roseate Spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Great Kisadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Clay-colored Thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Mission, Texas

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

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

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples, Florida

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

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Folkston, Georgia

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

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

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Alamo, Texas

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

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

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, McNeal, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Roswell, New Mexico

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Burroughs

Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Many people visit Whitewater Draw each winter to experience the memorable sights and sounds of more than 20,000 sandhill cranes

The combination of deserts and sky islands combine to make Southeastern Arizona one of the most spectacular regions in North America for bird watching. During our numerous visits to this region we have visited many excellent birding spots including San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, Ramsey Canyon, Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, Patagonia Lake State Park, and Whitewater Draw.

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

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.

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

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. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats, including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields. A wide variety of birds winter here alongside permanent residents.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sulphur Springs Valley’s crown jewel is the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. 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. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Formerly a cattle ranch, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area was purchased in 1997 and is now managed to enhance wetland habitats and provide waterfowl habitat, and wildlife viewing.

Managed by the Arizona Fish & Game Department, 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.

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

The number of wintering sandhill cranes has increased dramatically since the 1950s and over 30,000 sandhill cranes may be present in winter, making this the premier crane viewing site in Arizona. These birds spend the night standing in Whitewater Draw’s shallow waters to evade predators, and then fly out each morning to feed and socialize in the surrounding area. They return to Whitewater Draw in the afternoon and evening.

Sora at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © 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.

Curve-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © 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.

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

A pair of great-horned owls sits on the rafters of the large open barn that currently serves as a picnic shelter.

There is no visitor center at Whitewater Draw. Visitors are asked to sign in at register boxes located at each parking area. The register sheets include spaces for comments and sightings, so sign in when you arrive and check to see what recent visitors have reported.

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

Whitewater Draw is located on Coffman Road, accessible either from Central Highway via Double Adobe Road or directly from Davis Road, 1 mile west of Central Highway near McNeal.

From Bisbee drive east on Highway 80 for 4 miles and continue east on Double Adobe Road; turn north onto Central Highway until you see the blue Wildlife Refuge sign.

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alternately, drive 4 miles south of Tombstone to Davis Road; drive east on Davis Road for about 20 miles until you see the blue Wildlife Refuge sign at Coffman Road and turn right and follow Coffman Road south to the Refuge.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Black bellied whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Creole Nature Trail: Where Natural Wonderlands Abound

Experience the Louisiana Outback along the Creole Nature Trail

One place in Southwest Louisiana that never ceases to amaze is the Creole Nature Trail, a 180-miles-long scenic byway where natural wonderlands abound. Affectionately known as Louisiana’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail is a journey into one of America’s Last Great Wildernesses.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Part of America’s Byway’s system, the Creole Nature Trail is known for its distinct waters, pristine blue skies, and stops along the drive adorned with plenty of wildlife and bird watching that can either fill an entire weekend, or simply a day trip. Featuring stops of picturesque landscapes beyond transcription, the Creole Nature Trail, an All American Road, sees hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, all passing through this delicate ecosystem.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The marshland, bayous, prairies, and coastal shores along the Gulf of Mexico teem with wildlife including alligators and birds. These lands and waters support 28 species of mammals, more than 400 species of birds, millions of monarch butterflies, 35 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 132 species of fish.

A+ Motel & RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We used A+ Motel & RV Park in Sulphur as our home base while driving the Creole Nature Trail and exploring the area. New in 2008, A+ is big rig friendly with 28 pull-through and back-in sites and conveniently located 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer connections, and cable TV.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While there are five entrances to the Creole Nature Trail, the most popular entrances are off I-10 in Sulphur (Exit 20) and just east of Lake Charles at Louisiana Highway 397 (Exit 36).

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trail loops through 180 miles of bayous and marshlands and along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico before once again heading north. The remaining entrances are located on Louisiana Highway 82 at the Texas state line in the west and the Vermilion Parish line on the east; exit 36 from Interstate 10; and exit 6A on I-210 just north of the Lake Charles Regional Airport on Louisiana Highway 385.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Creole Nature Trail is primarily a driving route, there are numerous stops where you can take advantage of a nature walk. Each of these excursion areas provides excellent wildlife and birding photography opportunities.

The Creole Nature Trail features four wildlife refuges, three national and one state: Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, and Rockefeller Refuge.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 and is the largest coastal marsh refuge on the Gulf of Mexico. The primary management objective of the refuge is to preserve a large area of coastal wetlands for wintering and migrating waterfowl from both the Mississippi and Central Flyways. This refuge is a major nursery area for many estuarine-dependent marine species as well as home to alligators and other reptiles, mammals, and numerous wading, water, and marsh birds.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Numerous recreational opportunities are available year round. Hiking, wildlife observation, and photography are popular at the Wetland Walkway and Blue Goose Trail. The Wetland Walkway is a 1.5 mile walking trail including a section of boardwalk across a freshwater marsh, an observation tower with viewing scopes, five trail rest shelters with benches, interpretive signs, and a restroom facility.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Goose Trail is a one mile foot path that leads through a brackish marsh community to the edge of Calcasieu Lake. The area includes an observation tower, restroom, and numerous interpretive signs about the area.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center features exhibits about Sabine, Cameron Prairie, Lacassine, and Shell Keys National Wildlife Refuges, and their coastal habitats and inhabitants. Exhibits include a diorama theater with Cajun animatronic characters, a scale model of a water control structure for hands-on learning about marsh management, natural habitat dioramas, impressive alligator displays, an interactive computer, and a fiber-optic migration exhibit.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On your next adventure out, consider a scenic drive on the Creole Nature Trail; you never know what may be waiting to be seen.

Worth Pondering…

It’s not just a drive.

It’s an experience.

Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

There are plenty of ways to enjoy nature

In an earlier article I detailed ways to live healthier and extend both the quantity and quality of your life. There is evidence to support the positive impact of adopting a healthy lifestyle and following certain definitive, scientific, time-tested methods including enjoying nature.

In his essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson dives into the healing powers of the wilderness. “In the presence of nature,” he wrote, “a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.”

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending time outdoors has been linked to increased brain function, amplified vitamin D intake, reduced stress, and more. Yet the average American spends just 7 percent of their lives outside. Looking for some new and exciting ways to reconnect with nature alongside friends and family? Check out this list of fun and healthy ways to enjoy nature.

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

Hit the Trails

If you already take a walk or go for a run each day, getting back to nature can be as simple as changing your location. Rather than hitting the treadmill, take your walk or run to a local park. You can hit a paved path through the park or opt for a hiking trail for an even greater challenge.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding

Birding is a great way to keep a healthy outlook—physically and mentally—and get outdoors with some level of exercise. Birding activity often includes walking, but it can easily include biking, canoeing or kayaking, hiking or backpacking—it’s up to you. Birding may be the secondary focus of such exercise outings or it may be your primary interest while you know you will get some exercise in the process. A little sunshine and fresh air and interesting avian action will make any day better.

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

Exercise in Green Space

Trees produce phytoncides which help to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost immunity. The microbes in forest soil have been found to reduce depression and may contribute to the health of our microbiome. A 15-minute walk is all it takes to reap the benefits but researchers have found that a weekend in the woods improves immunity for up to a month while an afternoon walk somewhere green means better sleep at night.

Hiking at Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a Hike

There are a lot of places where you can hike—national and state parks, trails and footpaths, nature preserves. Being out in nature, you’ll enjoy different types of flora and fauna. Hiking usually requires that you move uphill, so it’s good exercise, too.

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

Take photos

Taking photos outside requires a focus on nature around you. Look for unusual colors, patterns, or animals to photograph. A botanical garden is a great place to visit for photography since the displays are usually arranged in eye-catching shapes and patterns. You can also visit a nature preserve and looking for photo opportunities with animals or plant life. Simply look for scenes that you find interesting including colorful leaves on the ground, spring flowers, or a stunning sunrise or sunset.

Camping at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentuky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Camping is not just a weekend escape or a less expensive holiday. Camping comes with many health benefits. In addition to physical exercise, it is also great for your mental health and social wellbeing. There are numerous options when it comes to camping such as a tent, camper, travel or fifth-wheel trailer, or a motorhome—all of which promote a healthy lifestyle.  

Photographing a green jay in South Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Up a New Outdoor Hobby

Hiking, trail running, camping, and photography are all great hobbies that will get you outdoors and moving. But if you’re looking for something a little more exciting, consider mountain biking. Before you hit the trails on two-wheels, learn more about this exciting sport and the gear that you’ll need to stay safe.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Bathing

Ok, so this one is a little esoteric, but bear with me here. Shinrin-Yoku is a Japanese term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It started in Japan in the 1980s and has become an important piece of their preventative health care measures.

Sequoia National Park, California

The idea is pretty straightforward… When you take time to visit a natural area and take a walk in a relaxed way, there are rejuvenating, restorative, and calming effects on your mind and body.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Outside and Enjoy Nature Today

Get outside today! Any of these outdoor activities can be a great way to spend quality time with friends and family while helping to inspire healthy, active habits.

Worth Pondering…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

—John Muir

What Makes a Good Bird Photo?

Advice for capturing stunning bird photos

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

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Interesting Subject

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Action

Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sharpness

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Lighting

Anhingua © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Color

Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Setting

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Depth of Field

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Timing

Black-vented oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Positioning

Whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Luck

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Be Prepared

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Be Versatile

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Photography is the beauty of life, captured.

—Tara Chisholm

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

Come explore the 70 miles of uninterrupted national seashore taking in the gulf’s breeze, sandy beaches, and marine wildlife

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, a hypersaline (meaning saltier than the ocean) ecosystem unique to only six known lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline, dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats teeming with life.  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.

South Beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encompassing 130,434 acres, Padre Island National Seashore is the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier islands in the world. Visitors will find a variety of outdoor things to do including surf fishing, RV and tent camping, world class flat water windsurfing, wade fishing, surfing, birding, kayaking, and of course relaxing the beautiful white sand beaches of Malaquite Beach. The undeveloped, preserved beaches, coastal grasslands, and wetlands of the Padre Island National Seashore are one of the most scenic coastal areas of the sub-tropical Texas coast.

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

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. 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.

Grassland Nature Trail at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upon arrival to the Padre Island National Seashore be sure to take notice of current warnings, precautions, or bans at the Park Ranger check-in station. Visitors go through this station when entering the National Seashore. Additionally, more information may be obtained at the Visitors Center.

Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Malaquite Visitors Center houses a gift shop, small museum, educational auditorium, covered deck, two viewing platforms, and a small snack shop. Year round events, talks, and guided walks are held at the Malaquite Beach Pavilion.  Evening talks about the stars and constellations are held periodically along with Friday night viewings of the moon. Rangers are on hand at the Malaquite Pavilion to explain various aspects of the wildlife and dynamic beach system of North Padre Island.

Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Visitor Center is the entrance to Malaquite Beach, one of only a few beaches on North Padre Island that is closed to vehicles. A paved parking lot is available for visitors. A short walk down the Malaquite Visitors Center boardwalk or one of two paved walkways (north and south of the Visitor Center) puts you right on the white sand beach at Malaquite Beach.

Kemp Ridley’s turtle display, Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Malaquite Beach is 4-5 miles of unspoiled Padre Island beach. It is a great location to spend the entire day. Come prepared with chairs (or rent them on the beach in the summer), coolers, and sunscreen.

Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather conditions are constantly changing in the winter months as cold fronts move into the area. During summer months the heat of South Texas is ever present and visitors can be sure to have plenty of sun most of the time.

South Beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive down the beach until civilization fades away and camp along the shore. Padre Island National Seashore is one of the last undeveloped shorelines in the world and is one of the only beaches of its kind that is open to driving on 60 of the 70 miles that it protects.

South Beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue to the end of the paved road (Park Road 22) and you will be driving on the beach in no time. Remember that in Texas all beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles traveling on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed. Please note that, with rare exception, Texas will not license all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) for use on highways (The National Seashore has one of the few exceptions because it uses ATVs to patrol for nesting sea turtles.).

Driving on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The driving conditions at the beach are constantly changing due to the currents, winds, and tides. To best prepare for your trip down island check with the Malaquite Visitor Center for current driving and weather conditions. Changing conditions and marine debris washed ashore by the currents can sometimes make for hazardous driving.

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

— Fennel Hudson

Rio Grande Valley: Birds, Birds, and More Birds

More than 500 bird species have been documented throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley offers the ultimate birder’s paradise.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower Rio Grande Valley — the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico — contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands, and forest. Thanks to these diverse habitats and the Valley’s location on the Central Flyway of migrating birds, more than 500 bird species have been recorded in this area, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.

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

Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay (pictured above), black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole (pictured below).

Altamira Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however. In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the World Birding Center consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande, and Resaca de la Palma.

Yellow-rumped Warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Rose-breasted Grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 355 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies that have been recorded there, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

Tufted Titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These 798 acres once resembled the patchwork of many state parks, with tent and RV campers and day-trippers driving in and out. But its transformation to a World Birding Center site included elimination of all traffic except bicycles and a park tram that makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.

Fulvous-whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking into Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park we’re serenaded to a cacophony of calls from trees lining the road — the loud and raucous clatter of plain chachalacas (pictured below), squawks of woodpeckers, and cooing of doves.

Plain Chachalacas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Ladder-backed Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Clay-colored Robin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout the park, bird feeders hang in open areas, mobbed by brilliantly colored green jays, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and great kiskadees with lemon-yellow bellies. Other birds sighted at the park include the eastern screech-owl and yellow-rumped warblers.

Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Resaca Vieja Trail winds through trees and brush alive with cheeps, chirps, and squawks; the platform at Kingfisher Overlook surveys a large oxbow lake. On the far side of the park, the 1.8-mile Rio Grande Trail winds to the edge of the country, the Rio Grande, although it’s difficult to see through the thick brush.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the two-story-high Hawk Tower, though, there’s a bird’s-eye view (pun intended) of nearby Mexico and the tree canopy. In addition to resident raptors such as white-tailed kites and gray hawks, many other species migrate past the tower during spring and fall, including Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks.

Black-vented Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Come to Port Aransas and Mustang Island and discover the island life

Long a favorite with Winter Texans, Port Aransas offers many activities from walking the beach in search of seashells to taking a tour boat, a deep sea fishing charter, or a sunset dinner cruise.

Port Aransas ferry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s been said, “In a small town there ain’t much to see, but what you hear makes up for it.” Not so with “Port A,” as the locals call it. Sun, sky, sea, and sand best sum up this waterfront town.  A short drive from Corpus Christi, you can visit Port A via the JFK Causeway (South Padre Island Drive) or by traveling through Aransas Pass and taking the 24 hour ferry across to Mustang Island.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original island life destination, Port Aransas and Mustang Island is 18 miles of shoreline and wide, sandy beaches—with everything you need to plan the perfect beach vacation. But this is no ordinary island. Just ask the locals and visitors who’ve ranked it one of the best beaches in Texas.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This gulf coast island offers year-round outdoor activities from sport fishing and parasailing to birding, dolphin watching, kayaking—and the only seaside links-style golf course in Texas. Stroll through town on a rented golf cart, explore the shops, galleries, and enjoy an array of restaurants, from “cook your catch” to roadside taco stands to fine dining.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as the “Fishing Capital of Texas”, Port Aransas boasts the best in all areas of the sport. Anglers can take an off-shore excursion, fish the bays and channels, and cast a line in the surf or from one of the lighted public piers. Fishing tournaments abound during the summer, with one nearly every weekend, ranging from kids to women only and billfish to redfish tournaments.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find year-round festivals and events, including the annual BeachtoberFest, the Whooping Crane Festival (February 20-23, 20200, and Texas SandFest (April 17-19, 2020).

Watch for low flying birds! Located in the heart of the Central Flyway, Port Aransas and Mustang Island are a birder’s paradise. Hundreds of species of resident birds and thousands of migrants can be found here. Encounters with Coastal Bend species such as the roseate spoonbills, least grebes, reddish egrets, black-bellied whistling ducks, tri-colored herons, and stilts bring birding enthusiasts back to this island sanctuary time and time again.

With six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: the Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond, Port Aransas Nature Preserve, South Jetty, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, UTMSI Wetlands Education Center, and Mustang Island State Park, Port ‘A’ hosts many must-see lookouts for avid birders and wildlife photographers. Boardwalks and observation towers are built over wetlands with vegetation pockets specially designed to attract birds.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Birding Center, Wetlands Park, Paradise Pond, and the Nature Preserve were designed to give birders the “up-close” ability to observe hundreds of species in their natural habitats. From the natural wetlands, inlets, and 18 miles of natural beaches and dunes to the rock jetties, piers, and marinas, the island offers dozens of perfect vantage points to marvel at the magnificent migrating birds that consider Port ‘A’ the perfect rest stop.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the best ways to enjoy Port Aransas’ awesome natural beauty is the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. A long, well-maintained boardwalk with benches, free telescopes, and an observation tower makes for excellent up-close views of local wildlife including alligators, crabs, redfish, and a huge variety of birds.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Port Aransas Nature Preserve encompasses 1,217 acres of undeveloped land in an area formerly known as Charlie’s Pasture where early island residents once grazed their cattle. Features at the Nature Preserve include over three miles of hike and bike trails, a pavilion, boardwalks over algal flats, crushed granite trails on the uplands, covered seating sites, and two towers overlooking wetland areas around Salt Island.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover why Port Aransas and Mustang Island is ranked one of the top 10 best family beaches in the U.S. by Family Vacation Critic (TripAdvisor’s family travel site) and celebrated by Fodor’s Travel as one of America’s 25 favorite beach towns.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

Birding in Arizona

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

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

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

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

Now, pick a spot and go!

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

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Sora at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park

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

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

Usery Mountain Regional Park

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb