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

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

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

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Royal terns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plain Chachalacas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Papyrus

Imagine More Meaningful Birdwatching

Birdwatching is an active hobby that involves getting outdoors and exploring

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

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill first. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird, having a pink body with red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or salt water, or flying in small groups overhead.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green heron

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

Black-vented oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-vented oriole

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

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anhinga

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

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill crane

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

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

Black-bellied whistling duck

The black-bellied whistling duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican tree duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.

Great egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great egret

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

Western scrub-jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Western scrub-jay

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

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus wren

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great kiskadee

The great kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

Photographing Wading Birds

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

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

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Redish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Arnold Newman

Now is the Time to Discover Madera Canyon, a Hiking and Birding Paradise

Madera Canyon is a retreat for birds and humans alike with cooler weather, extensive trail systems, and mountainous scenery

Madera Canyon is nestled in the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains east of Green Valley and 30 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Its higher elevation offers relief to desert dwellers during the hot summer months and allows access to snow during the winter.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. Madera Canyon has a long and colorful history. The Friends of Madera Canyon, a cooperating volunteer group, helps the Forest Service maintain recreation sites and provides brochures and education programs.

Mount Wrightson, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, originally known as White House Canyon, is one of the largest of the deep, wooded ravines in the Santa Rita Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s sky islands—isolated high elevation regions surrounded on all sides by much lower land. Orientated approximately north-south, towards its upper end the canyon splits into several tributaries that drain the slopes of 9,453 foot Mount Wrightson, the highest peak in the range. The canyon contains a shallow but permanent creek fed by springs along tributary streams.

There is no gate or sign indicating you are in the Canyon, except for a sign on a right-hand turn to the Visitor Information Station. Brochures and information (but not passes) are available here.

Proctor Parking Area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is also the entrance to the Proctor parking area, handicap accessible trail, and beginning of the Bud Gode Interpretive Nature Trail.

Continuing up the paved road will bring you first to the Whitehouse parking and picnic area. The next parking area is the Madera parking area with picnic sites on both sides of the road. Next is the Santa Rita Lodge on the right where you can park to look at birds at the many feeders.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further up the road at an elevation of about 5,000 feet is the Amphitheater parking area with access to the Nature Trail. Continuing up the canyon you’ll find the Madera Kubo Cabins, another bridge, the Chuparosa Inn B & B, and the large Mount Wrightson Picnic Area and trail heads with parking, numerous picnic sites, and rest rooms.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the riparian valley floor and the thickly vegetated slopes are home to a large variety of plants, reflecting the crossroads location between the Sonoran Desert and the mountains. As a result the canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds including hummingbirds, owls, sulphur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon beside Madera Creek ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads. Nearly 100 miles of paths climb the valley sides to springs, viewpoints, old mines, and summits including Mount Wrightson. Apart from the creekside path all trails are lightly used. Most visitors are here for picnics, splashing in the stream, and short walks along the canyon floor where the most fruitful bird-watching locations are found.

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight. The vertical climb covers 4,013 feet from the Mount Wrightson Picnic/Trailhead Parking Lot. For these trails, hiking boots and layered clothing for temperature change are recommended. Always bring drinking water and stay on the trails. Hiking brochures with detailed trail maps are available at each trail head and the Santa Rita Lodge.

Madera Creek along a Proctor Area trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Proctor area, a paved loop trail suitable for wheelchairs and walkers offers occasional benches for resting. The trail follows Madera Creek and provides access to the beauty of the lower canyon. Another paved loop trail at Whitehouse is often used by visitors requiring wheelchairs.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach Madera Canyon from Tucson, take the I-19 south towards Nogales and use the Continental Exit 63. Then, follow the Whitehouse Canyon Road east towards the Santa Rita Mountains. The strange elephant-head-shaped mountain located to your right indicates you are on the correct road.

A Coronado National Forest or Interagency (America the Beautiful) pass must be displayed.  Day use passes can be purchased at the site for $8. 

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

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

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

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

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Ladder-backed wooepecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Roseate spoonbills and ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Plain chachalaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

Birds make me happy

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

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Altamira Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Roseate Spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Great Kisadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Clay-colored Thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Mission, Texas

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

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

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples, Florida

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

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Folkston, Georgia

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

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

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Alamo, Texas

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

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

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, McNeal, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Roswell, New Mexico

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Burroughs

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