|For the Birds||Published Nov/Dec 2004|
Texas’ size and variety of habitats provide a full menu for birders, while Louisiana offers its own special lagniappe with its lush wetlands.
By Elaine Warner
|With more than 600 species, Texas is a natural destination for the 69 million Americans who enjoy feeding or watching birds. In the Rio Grande Valley, 499 species have been spotted and confirmed.
The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission is the headquarters for the World Birding Center. The centera creation of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nine valley communitiesconsists of nine sites stretching 120 miles from South Padre to Roma, and features varied habitats including seashore, marshlands, thorn forests, woodlands and riverbank refuges. The new visitors’ center provides a good starting place for exploring the world of Texas birds.
Texas has recognized the economic windfall from birding and is moving to make everything user friendly. Their birding maps are indispensable. The best-known route is the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, an area so large it takes three maps to cover the territory.
Matagorda County, between Houston and Corpus Christi, is a favorite area for participants in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count. A popular spot is the Matagorda County Birding and Nature Center near Bay City. Accessible trails invite visitors to wind through gardens, wetlands, native grasslands and bottomlands.
If you’re a birder who has to share trips with non-birding family members, Galveston Island is an ideal destination. Birders enjoy stretches like Sportsmans Road where marshland comes right up to the pavement giving opportunities to see Roseate Spoonbills and White Ibis. In winter and spring, look for Eared Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers and loons at Offat Bayou. Early evening watchers may see barn owls at Galveston Island State Park. Midday, when birding is not at its best, is the time to sample the museums, bay cruises, historic homes, the seashore, the Strand and Moody Gardens.
Texas is home to a number of endangered species. The Yellow-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo have breeding groups on property in central Texas at Canyon of the Eagles, located about 90 minutes northwest of Austin. This eco-tourism developmenta partnership between the Lower Colorado River Authority and Presidian Destinationsis a great vacation spot for those who are concerned about the environment.
Limited guided hikes are scheduled at appropriate times during the year for those hoping to see the vireos or warblers, but there’s great birding just from the front porch of your cottage or lodge room. A Bewick’s Wren may serve as an alarm clock. In early summer, Painted Buntings decorate the decks. Tours offered year-round on Lake Buchanan offer opportunities to see ospreys, eagles (during winter) and other wildlife.
One of Texas’ best-known endangered birds is the Whooping Crane. These original snowbirds travel 2,400 miles from Canada to spend the winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. In 2004, a record-breaking 194 birds wintered herean amazing figure for a species that numbered about 20 birds in the 1940s.
Birding boat tours will get participants closer to the whoopers and can be chartered in Port Aransas or Rockport. Celebrate these winter visitors at the Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas, Feb. 2527, 2005.
Texas is home to one of the country’s biggest birding competitions, the Great Texas Birding Classic. Hundreds of birders, young and old, band into teams to compete in identifying birds. One of the newest categories is the “Outta-Sight Song Birder” for the blind and visually impaired. Birding for the blind is not as far-out as it might seem. Many veteran birders identify the presence of a bird by its call. Last year, three teams competed in this new category. The 2005 competition will be held April 1624.
Most birders don’t participate in formal competitions but determined birders will go to great lengths to add to their life lists. For these people, the World Birding Center is offering pelagic birding expeditions, deep-sea trips to see birds like albatrosses and shearwaters, which rarely, if ever, are seen on land.
Louisiana: wet and wonderful
Neighboring Louisiana offers some pretty spectacular birding, too. Excellent spots are accessible from the Creole Nature Trail. Designated an All-American Roadan elite category of national scenic byways characterized by national significance, one-of-a-kind features and a destination unto itselfthe 180-mile road passes through marshes, bayous and beaches.
The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge on the trail is a birder’s delight. Plan on two hours to walk the 1.5-mile marsh trail to see ducks, geese, wading birds, shorebirds and raptors. Cormorants, Snowy and Common Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills also are frequently sighted.
Take the Holly Beach spur to the Peveto Woods Migratory Bird Sanctuary. During migration periods it is not unusual for species from Mexico or the western United States to show up here. Lesser Nighthawks, Hepatic and Western Tanagers have been sighted, as well as Lazuli Buntings and Hooded Orioles.
To bird-watch on the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, stop at headquarters Monday through Friday for instructions. Weekend visitors should go south on Price Lake Road (about 1/2 mile west of headquarters. Birders should see a number of waterfowl, and there’s an observation tower about 3 1/2 miles south of the Creole Nature Trail.
It’s not uncommon to spot an egret or two anywhere in the state, but how about 8,000? Just off Interstate 10, Lake Martin in the Cypress Island Preserve is one of the largest rookeries for Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets and more than 5,000 herons. Prime time is April and May and if the sight is mind-boggling, imagine the sound.
Another place to see the nesting birds is Avery Island, home of Tabasco. Among live oaks, camellias and azaleas, you’ll find a large number of beautiful White Egrets preening and primping for one another.
Swamp and seashore
The Atchafalaya Basin covers nearly 1 million acres and is five times more productive than any other river basin in North America. The area has the largest nesting concentration of Bald Eagles in the south central United States and harbors approximately 250 other avian species. For an excellent swamp birding tour, try the “Atchafalaya Experience” out of Lafayette. A new Welcome Center at the Butte La Rose exit on I-10, about 10 miles east of Lafayette, is a great source of information.
Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, is noted for good birding and great fishing. This little community lives on the edge at the mercy of the wind and sea. Big storms can cut it off from the mainland, so the isle has not been subjected to heavy development.
Try birding at the Lafitte Woods Preserve, one of the most important migratory stops on the coast. Follow trails or the elevated boardwalk to see Scarlet Tanagers, Orchard Orioles and Brown Pelicans.
Texas and Louisiana offer myriad birding experiences. Invaluable supplemental materials include the Texas birding maps, $3 each, which can be ordered online at http://tcebookstore.org or by calling 1-888-900-2577. Louisiana is in the process of preparing a new state birding guide but good information is available from area convention and visitors bureaus.
Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.
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