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

A Monumental Big Year

643 bird species, 44 states, two trips across the country and back, one pickup camper—all Taylor Páez needed to complete her Big Year on the road

In case you didn’t see the movie The Big Year, a Big Year is a personal quest to find as many species as possible during a calendar year. There are personal variations on this simple definition, but any way you do it, a Big Year is a serious undertaking that takes an absolute dedication, lots of free time, and some extra cash, as most participants do a lot of traveling.

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

Enter an ambitious young birder, Taylor Páez, who planned her Big Year, saved money, and left her office job; then ready, set, go—she was off, with the hope of finding 700 different birds in the lower 48 states.

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

Taylor’s route was a road trip of epic proportions. Starting at her home in northern California, she looped south through Arizona, southern Texas, and around the Gulf of Mexico; then turned north, passing through many eastern states to New Hampshire and Maine. Next: New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan including the Upper Peninsula, and Wisconsin. Then it was back to the West: the Great Plains, Colorado, on to Washington, and back home to California—all by July; traveling solo, living out of her compact truck camper, and experiencing the ultimate bird search day by day.

Green Heron at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As she traveled cross-country, Taylor monitored bird sightings reported on eBird, the American Birding Association’s state by state Birding News, Audubon listserves, and local birding groups’ posts on Facebook. Sometimes she even learned of rare bird sightings on Instagram, or by word-of-mouth from birders she interacted with at popular birding hotspots.

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

After a month-long break to re-charge at home, Taylor began the “zig-zagging” phase of her Big Year, driving through southern California, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, then zigging and zagging before taking a boat trip off the coast of Maine; on to New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, and back to California to finish the year. Taylor explained her zig-zag pattern: “Toward the end of the year it was pretty crazy because it’s less about the common birds and more about the rare ones;” so when a rare bird showed up cross-country, she might begin a heated chase.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After her sweeping bird quest across the country—twice—Taylor had a tough time picking just one favorite local. The country is filled with amazing biodiversity, and she enjoys it all. But if she had to pick a favorite, Taylor would pick the subtropical region of southern Texas. During one day at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge she identified 35 new birds, the most new species she listed at once.

Roseate Spoonbills along the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Her favorite birds: Green Jays, Roseate Spoonbills, Greater Kiskadees, and Audubon’s Orioles—all found in the above-mentioned wildlife refuge.

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

After spending a year in the great outdoors and tallying 634 species, Taylor did not go back to her office job. Instead, she turned to opportunities in the natural world: Working as a park naturalist and a stint conducting hummingbird surveys.

Tri-Colored Heron at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I realized I not only wanted to be outside, but I wanted to make a positive impact on people. I wanted to bring them accessibility to nature and the outdoors. We need it now more than ever,” Taylor said. “I never thought I would do what I did—before that I played everything safe. I didn’t take risks, ever.”

Great Kiskadee at Edinburgh Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Such a long trip was a big challenge, but after her Big Year, Taylor knows the risks are well worth the payback.

Black-necked Stilt at Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original article about Taylor Paez’s Big Year appears on the BirdsEye Birding website. BirdsEye’s free photography website is a comprehensive library of photos submitted by nature enthusiasts.

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Important Bird Areas for RV Travel

A driving tour of Important Bird Areas that offer fantastic bird-watching opportunities for RV travel

If you’re an RVer interested in bird watching, Audubon’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) is a great source for planning your next road trip. The IBAs form an impressive network of conservation sites for birds, including expansive lands that support important habitats for birds and other wildlife.

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

To date Audubon has identified 2,832 IBAs covering 417 million acres of public and private lands in the United States. You may be familiar with many of these IBAs, as some are already protected as national parks and national wildlife refuges—some are small and some expansive—but all are significant. Of the 2,832 North American IBAs, 720 are considered of global importance, 113 are listed as continental importance, and 1,999 are of state importance.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following are five of our favorite IBA destinations in the US for bird watching and the enjoyment of the natural environment during our RV travels.

New Mexico: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The annual arrival of the sandhill cranes is celebrated by a 6-day festival each November. The Festival of the Cranes is scheduled for November 20-23, 2019. The cranes and snow geese generally remain on the refuge until mid-February when they return to their breeding grounds in the north.

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

Even with their departure the refuge remains a wonderful place for hiking, biking, and wildlife- and bird-watching year round. You will want to drive the auto Tour Loop to get up close to the wildlife and their habitat.

Florida: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an important National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast of Florida. It is also a ‘gateway site’ for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Recreational opportunities are offered at the Refuge from manatee and bird watching, to fishing and hunting. The Visitor Information Center located 4 miles east of Titusville, Florida, is a great place to start your visit.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. The refuge’s coastal location, tropic-like climate, and wide variety of habitat types contribute to the refuge’s diverse bird population. To date, 358 species have been identified on the refuge.

Arizona: Gilbert Riparian Preserves at Water Ranch

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

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is managed as a part of the City of Gilbert water treatment facility. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch features hiking and equestrian trails. The preserve provides a great opportunity for wildlife and bird watching and is considered the premier bird watching facility in the Phoenix metro region. Approximately 250 species of birds have been sighted here.

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

The preserve also has the only valley astronomy observatory open to the public every Friday and Saturday evening from dusk until 9:30 p.m., subject to weather conditions.

Texas: Laguna Madre

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

The Texas coast is bordered by the world’s longest barrier island system. Part of this system forms the Laguna Madre whose mosaic of coastal wetlands, freshwater ponds, and native grasslands provide critical habitat for migratory waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

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

Laguna Madre includes privately owned cattle ranches (Kenedy and King Ranches), federally owned conservation areas (Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island National Seashore), and coastal communities.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is host or home to an incredible diversity of migrating birds that funnel through the tip of Texas in an effort to avoid flying too far east, over the Gulf Coast, or too far west, over the desert. In addition, many southern species reach their northernmost range along the Rio Grande.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.The nature center offers more than 3,300 linear feet of boardwalk, five bird blinds, and a five story tower with spectacular views of the Laguna Madre, beaches and dunes of South Padre Island, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana: Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is an epic birding destination near Lake Charles. This is due to the fact that it is at the convergence of the Mississippi and Central flyways. Numerous birds make year-round residences here while millions make their way through this region in the spring and fall during migration.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie is your chance to truly enjoy the Louisiana Outback at its finest. Wildlife is abundant and makes wildlife viewing and photography opportunities endless. The best places to spot wildlife are the Pintail Wildlife Drive, the visitor center, and all along the Creole Nature Trail.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © 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

A Great Migration: Bosque del Apache

The sound of the sandhill cranes and the scent of roasting green chile herald the arrival of autumn in the Rio Grande valley

It was a frigid November morning at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where we had joined dozens of ardent wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts, lined up tripod-to-tripod and scope to scope, ready and waiting for the action to begin.

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

We were standing on an observation platform called Flight Deck overlooking a network of fields and marshes teeming with thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that pause here to feed and rest during their annual migration south.

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

Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks, and even a few hawks and bald eagles migrate to the Bosque del Apache. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.

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

Situated on the Rio Grande just a few miles off Interstate 25 south of Socorro (between Albuquerque and Las Cruces) in the tiny town of San Antonio, the 57,000-acre refuge was established in the 1930s to protect the sandhill crane. The majestic 4-foot-tall crane had nearly vanished along the Intermountain West Corridor, a vital north-south flyway for migratory waterfowl and many other birds.

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

For instinctive reasons known only to the birds, a sunrise “fly out” en masse is a daily routine. As is a “fly in” at sunset when the flocks return to the shallow marshes after a day of feeding on corn and grain crops farmed on more than 1,300 acres, mostly at the northern end of the refuge.

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

“They could go any minute now,” said the photographer next to us. An amateur wildlife photographer, here as a member of a photo tour group. “They take off all at once…thousands of them,” he adds, “and it’s really unbelievable.”

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

As we watched and waited, the sun inched over the eastern horizon illuminating a wispy fog rising from the marsh several hundred feet away. Then, without any discernible signal, it happened. In virtual unison thousands of snow geese erupted in a thunder of wings, and in a blur filled the sky as they flew low over head before soaring northward to spend the day feeding in the fields.

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

Sandhill cranes then started to walk. Others lowered their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight.

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

It’s unbelievable how they take off all at once, thousands of them. Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature compares to it. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.

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

Then in the late afternoon they streak the sky and return to the water to roost for the night. The afternoon fly-in is almost as enjoyable to observe as the morning fly-out.

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

The spectacular sunrise had also made us forget for a time the freezing chill as we retreated to the warmth of our toad.

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

Once warmed up, we drove the 15-mile one-way auto loop road and hiked the trails and observed large groups of snow geese and cranes, thousands of ducks of many varieties, hundreds of Canada geese, dozens of hawks, eagles, blackbirds, crows, roadrunners, sparrows, grebes, coots, and other birds along with occasional reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits.

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

The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The one-day entry fee is $5 per vehicle including all occupants; an annual pass is $25. Golden Age and other federal passes are accepted.

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

The refuge hosts a number of special events, including the annual Festival of the Cranes, staged during the height of the fall migration. The 32nd annual Festival of the Cranes is set for November 20-23, 2019. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

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

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

What Is Birding?

Your life is going to be better with birds in it

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

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

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US, Canada, and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability. It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Roseate spoonbills on the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

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

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada. Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done. 

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

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

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

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

Great Kiskadee at Edinburgh Wetlands World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Ring-necked duck at Gilbert Riperan Preserve at Water Ranch, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

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

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Ibis at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Royal terns at Padre Island National Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

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

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

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

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.

Vermilion flycatcher at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

Altamira oriole at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © 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.

Redhead at Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Great Parks to Observe Animals and Birds

The RV lifestyle offers numerous opportunities to get back to nature

National, state, and regional/county parks are havens for a variety of animals and birds that can easily seen by the casual camper or day visitor.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Prairie dog © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you want to see bison without the crowds of Yellowstone, this park in North Dakota is truly amazing. You might see a bison slide down the steep sides and cross the nearby river. During our visit, a bison grazed along the roadside. It is always enjoyable to watch prairie dogs pop out of their holes in the prairie dog towns at several locations in the park. Pronghorns, mule deer, white-tail deer, jack rabbits, and wild horses are frequently seen either from a car ride or a hike. Other animals include elk, coyotes, bobcats, and porcupines.

Catalina State Park, Arizona


Javelina or collared peccary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. Commonly encountered species of wildlife include javelin, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and various reptiles.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Bison roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Custer State Park is a South Dakota State Park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills. The park encompasses 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife. A herd of 1,300 bison roams freely throughout the park, often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. Annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of people to Custer State Park every September. Besides bison, Custer State Park is home to pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As part of the World Birding Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is a world-class destination for bird-watching. The Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth with more than 525 species documented in this unique place. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park alone has an impressive list of 358 species recorded within the park’s boundaries. Birders have a chance to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the Green Jay and the Golden-fronted Woodpecker to the Great Kiskadee and the Altamira Oriole.

Jasper National Park, Alberta

Rocky Mountain Goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and part of UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. For many visitors, a trip to Jasper is about seeing wildlife. The Canadian Rockies support 277 species of birds and 53 different species of mammals including elk (wapiti), white-tailed and mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black and grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves, beavers, porcupines, cougars, wolverines, hoary marmots, and Columbia ground squirrels.

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina

Birds at Edisto © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Edisto Beach State Park is a part of the ACE Basin buffer zone around the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve. The ACE Basin boundaries include the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. The park also offers access to the Atlantic Ocean and beach. It also provides access to the saltwater marsh and creeks.

The park is a nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles. Other wildlife includes white-tailed deer, raccoon, and opossum. The best area for bird watching is along the trails in the park. Water fowl can also be spotted along the beach or marsh areas.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park occupies almost 200 acres around Homosassa Spring, which is the primary source for the Homosassa River. The Wildlife Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The park’s central feature is the main spring, where you can view the spring from the Fish Bowl floating underwater observatory that offers an underwater view of the spring and the fish and manatees. The Park also includes a large number of native animals in natural settings.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Hit the trail and search for your favorite birds in Arizona State Parks

Many Arizona state parks are considered world-class birding destinations, and, depending on migrations, hold literally hundreds of species to watch throughout the year.

Come along as we hit the trail and search for our favorite feathered friends in some of Arizona State Park’s best birding locations and get to know the birds of Arizona. 

Species lists are available from each park and give birders a preview of what they might encounter on a trip. Simply decide which type of habitat you would like to explore and hit the road!

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

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

This great blue heron snags his dinner at Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Long celebrated as a world-class birding destination, Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers varied opportunities for birders of all levels. The riparian zone trails flanking the Verde River give birders a chance to see nesting black hawks, numerous waterfowl species, plus the chance of seeing a majestic bald eagle in its native environment. Near the lagoons, great blue herons can often be seen snagging a fish lunch near the shore, and seasonally, the hummingbirds buzz around hurriedly in search of sweet nectar.

Picacho Peak State Park

Gambil quails are often seen in the desert parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Desert birds abound at Pichaco Peak State Park, enjoying the cooler weather among the saguaros as winter visitors. Hawks, falcons, quail, and hummingbirds are commonly seen at the park, and if you look closely, you’ll catch sight of woodpeckers, curve-billed thrashers, flycatchers, and warblers. Ask for a bird list at the park’s Visitor Center to guide you as you experience the incredible wildlife within the park.

Red Rock State Park

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Red Rock State Park trails offer a peek into the habitats of myriad bird species. The riparian area along Oak Creek offers a cool spot for wrens, swallows, hawks, and eagles. Some waterfowl species use this portion of the park seasonally. House finches and lesser Goldfinch offer a splash of color for visitors within the native vegetation.

Pair of house finches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park also features a feeding area for birds where you can sit with your binoculars or camera as birds come to eat and enjoy the park themselves. The Visitor Center roof is also a great place for spotting birds, and offers a gorgeous view of the park. 

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Hummingbird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserv

Founded in the 1920s as a botanical garden, the 323 acres of Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park serve as a wildlife preserve. The main trail is 1.5 miles and begins at the Visitor Center. Allow yourself at least two hours as you will encounter numerous trails that branch off from the main trail.

The fast-running greater roadrunner is a common sight in the Southwest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Arboretum’s irrigated gardens and protected grounds are a magnet for birds. With more than 250 species the Arboretum has been designated as an important bird area. Gambel’s quail, canyon wren, curved-billed thrashers, and black throated sparrows are among the most abundant species. Bird lists are available at the Visitor Center.

A nesting hummer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Black-chinned, Anna’s, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and broad-billed are among the species of hummingbirds that find nectar in the diversity of flowering plants.

Patagonia Lake State Park

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Patagonia Lake State Park and the adjacent Sonoita Creek State Nature Area hosts vultures, owls, and roadrunners in sight of visitors daily, and that’s not all. Occasionally, birders will experience the Gould’s turkeys, white-faced ibis, warblers, vermillion flycatcher, and the elegant trogon! Waterfowl species abound here as well and can often be seen cruising around the lake or flying around looking for a place to land.

Catalina State Park

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

Set against the Santa Catalina Mountains, 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 Sonoran life zone includes seasonal streams providing habitat for mesquite, desert willow, cottonwood trees, and walnut groves.

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

Ladder-backed woodpeckers, greater roadrunners, Gambel’s quail, Say’s phoebes, and Harris’s hawks call the park home year-round. Migrants and seasonal residents include the vermilion flycatcher, black-headed grosbeak, and 10 species of migrating warblers.  

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