The Complete Guide to Bird Watching in South Texas

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

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

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

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

The Ultimate Coastal South Road Trip: From New Orleans to Savannah

Discover the sights, sounds, and tastes along this Coastal South road trip

The dog days of summer are the perfect time to embark on a great American road trip.

One such road trip links two of the South’s most historic and poetic cities: New Orleans and Savannah.

Cajun cuisine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the route, explore the Gulf Coast—balmy shores full of quirky beach towns, Cajun culinary magic, and breweries—as well as the white-sand beaches of the Eastern Seaboard between Florida and Georgia.

Pack your sunscreen and bathing suit, and throw on a blues and Southern rock playlist. This weeklong road trip through America’s warmest (both in climate and culture) region awaits.

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your trip in New Orleans

The Big Easy. N’awlins. The Birthplace of Jazz.

New Orleans is one of America’s most storied and with deep French, Spanish, and African roots culturally distinctive cities. As the saying goes, New Orleanians are perpetually either throwing a party or recovering from one. For those seeking revelry, look no further than the French Quarter or Frenchmen Street—the latter is also one of the best places in New Orleans for live music.

Like Las Vegas, New Orleans doesn’t have open-container laws. So snag yourself a daiquiri while you stroll and admire the city’s inimitable architecture, street music, and local characters.

Related article: The Ultimate Deep South Road Trip: Savannah to Charleston

Dine at one of New Orleans’ legendary restaurants—perhaps Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s, or Galatoire’s.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Bay St. Louis is about an hour and a half east of New Orleans.

As with Louisiana, the French colonized these shores in the late 17th century. I recommend taking Highway 90 from New Orleans. This route follows the coastline and is far more scenic than the slightly more expedient Interstate 10.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the revelry of New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, a quiet and breezy beach town is the ideal place to catch your breath.

For those interested in blues history visit 100 Men Hall. This hallowed music venue has hosted the likes of James Brown, Etta James, and Muddy Waters. The current owner, Rachel Dangermond continues to host musicians and uses the hall for events in support of coastal Mississippi’s African American community.

The gorgeous Pearl Hotel overlooks the ocean and sits within easy walking distance of the restaurants, beach bars, and ice cream parlors of Bay St. Louis. Right across from Pearl Hotel is The Blind Tiger, a beach bar serving up delicious “royal reds,” deep-water shrimp, a coastal Mississippi delicacy.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulfport, Mississippi

Driving east from Bay St. Louis, you’ll soon arrive in Gulfport.

Be sure to start the morning with a coffee and plate of biscuits at Fill-Up with Billups, an old-fashioned gas station converted into a diner.

Related article: The Underrated Coast

Boasting a dozen well-known casinos, Gulfport is a popular gaming destination. But if gambling isn’t your thing, Gulfport also boasts world-class charter fishing and is home to Chandeleur Island Brewery.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Biloxi, Mississippi

About 30 minutes down the coast from Gulfport is Biloxi, the Playground of the South.

Long renowned for the abundant shrimp, oysters, and crabs of its warm waters Biloxi suffered tremendous destruction from Hurricane Katrina.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Biloxi is on the rise again with a slew of busy casinos, booming commercial and recreational fishing industries, and killer dining and drinking. If you’ve had your fill of gambling, take a shrimp boat tour with Capt. Mike at Biloxi Shrimping Trip. He takes passengers out into Biloxi Bay to learn about the world’s favorite crustacean.

Mississippi Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Just east of Biloxi Bay, this small town is a leafy artists’ colony that punches well above its weight for dining, coffee, and nightlife. It’s sprawling with live oaks and buildings bedecked with wrought-iron balconies and the old French influence is palpable.

Buccaneer State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocean Springs comes alive at night. To find a bustling patio bar and live music, just walk up Main Street after dark. Check out Maison de Lu for excellent French-inspired seafood with a Gulf twist. And don’t leave Ocean Springs without getting a cup of joe at Bright-Eyed Brew Co., a local roastery adored by both visitors and locals.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile, Alabama

Continuing east and crossing state lines, Mobile is about an hour from Ocean Springs.

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

If you have time, keep to coastal Highway 90—it’s a much prettier drive than the inland Interstate 10 as noted previously.

Mobile Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As with New Orleans, Biloxi, and most older Gulf Coast settlements, the French founded Mobile in the late 17th century. Mobile also claims to be home to North America’s oldest Mardi Gras.

Beer aficionados should check out Braided River Brewing Co., a recently opened brewery that’s already garnering national awards.

Hank Aaron Childhood Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re a sports fan be sure to pay homage to one of the great ones at the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum located adjacent to Hank Aaron Stadium. Aaron was one of the best to ever play this game. Aaron played 23 seasons. He came to the plate almost 14,000 times. He hit .305 with 755 home runs and 6,856 total bases—more than 700 total bases beyond everyone else. The gap between Aaron and No. 2 on the list, Stan Musial, is more than 12 miles worth of bases.

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope, Alabama

Consistently ranked as one of the nation’s coolest small towns, Fairhope is an upscale beach town about an hour southeast of Mobile. With wooden piers stretching out over blue waters, white-sand beaches, and gorgeous architecture, Fairhope is a town that seduces visitors to stay permanently. What’s more, Fairhope boasts some of the South’s best restaurants. Check out Tamara’s Downtown for scrumptious Gulf Coast delicacies.

Fairhope is undeniably posh (golf carts are the preferred means of transportation here). However, it also has a funky side, evidenced by the ample coffee shops, breweries, and the fact that the town once had a flourishing nudist colony.

Tallahassee, Florida

Welcome to the Sunshine State!

Tallahassee is about three hours east of Fairhope. Home to nearly 35,000 college students, Florida’s capital is one of the country’s most notorious college towns. As you would expect with an overpopulation of 18-to-22-year-olds, Tallahassee brims with rowdy bars, late-night eateries, and youthful verve.

Amelia Island near Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jacksonville, Florida

Another 2½ hours of driving will take you from Tallahassee to Jacksonville and the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Jax is the largest city in the U.S. in terms of geographical breadth. It’s also the hometown of Southern rock legends the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In Jacksonville, the characteristic form of the Florida beach—that is, powdery white sand against placid, turquoise water—is fully realized. Not to mention that Jacksonville’s beaches are far less crowded than those farther south. For fun in the sun, head to Neptune Beach near downtown Jacksonville.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah, Georgia

Head north up the coast for about two hours to reach Savannah, the final stop on our jaunt through the coastal South. Savannah is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. and boasts some of the most stunning examples of the South’s grandiose pre-Civil War architecture.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike Atlanta, a city Gen. Sherman burned to the ground during the Civil War, the Union Army spared Savannah its torches—some say because Sherman had a local mistress who convinced him that her city was too beautiful to destroy. Either way, posterity is grateful that Savannah remained intact as the Historic District—with its stately fountains, mansions, and lush public parks—is a national treasure.

Related article: The Perfect Georgia Coast Road Trip

St. Marys, Georgia (just north of the Florida/Georgia state line) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

Whether your thing is American history, beautiful cities, fabulous cuisine, or gorgeous beaches, the coastal South makes for a fantastic road trip.

This route links the old and superlatively poetic cities of New Orleans and Savannah. It shows you the best of coastal Mississippi, the Gulf Coast, North Florida, and the southern reaches of the Eastern Seaboard.

Worth Pondering…

The journey not the arrival matters.

—T. S. Eliot