By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Legendarily vast, Texas spans habitats from southern bald-cypress swamps to Chihuahuan Desert, from the subtropical lower Rio Grande Valley to the windswept plains of the Llano Estacado. Little wonder, then, that Texas’s bird list of nearly 650 ranks second among the states (behind only California).
The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park. The list could go on and on.
Want to see a Whooping Crane, a Least Grebe, a Green Jay, a Golden-cheeked Warbler, or a Colima Warbler in the United States? Go to Texas. Want to experience some of the most exciting spring migration in the country? Be on the upper Texas coast in April. Want to visit the national park with the highest number of recorded bird species? Drive to Big Bend in far west Texas.
Texas has an extensive series of birding and wildlife trails covering scores of sites over the entire state. Odds are good they’ll lead you to an encounter with some other flying species, such as squirrels and bats, as well.
Texas Birding Hotspots
One of the must-visit sites of American birding, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. Its richness of bird life makes it a place that can be explored over and over with something new seen every time.
Flocks of waterfowl from fall through spring, fifteen or more species of wading birds, rails and other marsh birds—these are just a few of the highlights of Anahuac. Roads lead from the visitor information station at the main entrance to East Bay, an arm of Galveston Bay, accessing ponds, marshes, observation platforms, and trails. Though waterbirds are the highlight here, an area called The Willows, an isolated tract of trees just west of the entrance, can be a songbird magnet in migration.
A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork (post-breeding visitor), Neotropic Cormorant, Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Rail, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Seaside Sparrow, and Dickcissel. In wet fields, marshes, and along the bay, look for dozens of species of shorebirds, gulls, and terns.
Don’t miss the Skillern Tract, reached south of Highway 1985 about seven miles east of the main refuge entrance. There can be shorebirds in the fields here and the trails can be good for waterbirds and migrant songbirds.
For a few weeks each spring, this small town less than a mile from the Texas coast becomes a busy gathering place for birds and birders. Northbound migrant birds, having crossed the Gulf of Mexico, fly down to the woodland tracts here to rest and feed, in the proper conditions creating a “fallout” with birds seemingly crowding every limb of every tree: flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and more.
Birders swarm these woods, too, exchanging news of sightings. Several sanctuaries are located in High Island, and some have kiosks with volunteers providing advice and leading bird walks.
The action starts in March and peaks in late April and early May. There’s no guarantee that any particular day will be a great one, but the day after a storm or front with north winds is often the best. But in spring at High Island, even an average day is really good.
An amazing congregation of shorebirds and wading birds is often on display at Bolivar Flats, a coastal spot on the Bolivar Peninsula across the channel from Galveston. It’s reached by turning south on Rettilon Road about 3.6 miles east of the ferry landing in Port Bolivar. (A town parking permit, obtainable locally, is required.)
Practically every species of cormorant, pelican, heron, egret, ibis, plover, sandpiper, gull, tern, and similar bird that ever ventured near the Texas coast has appeared here. Many other species stop in or pass overhead, too, which explains the bird list of more than 320 for this one small spot on the coast.
Spring and late summer are good times at Bolivar Flats, but there’s always something to see here. In summer Magnificent Frigatebird soars out to sea, and in winter ducks bob in the waves. Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, and American Avocet add color to the scene. It’s a great place to set up a spotting scope and practice telling one “peep” or dowitcher from another.
Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity, but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods such as elm, hackberry, sycamore, pecan, and cottonwood create a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.
Brazos Bend suffered flood damage in 2015 but reopened in 2016, still a fine birding destination. The park has a nature center that interprets the habitats here.
Look on park lakes and wetlands for Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and Roseate Spoonbill, and Purple Gallinule. Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Least Grebe are seen occasionally.
Some of the breeding birds here are Least Bittern, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, King Rail, Black-necked Stilt, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Prothonotary Warbler, and Painted Bunting. Winter waterfowl and abundant migrant songbirds in spring add to the park’s appeal.
A superb all-around birding destination, Aransas occupies a large peninsula surrounded by coastal bays, separated from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands. It boasts an astoundingly lengthy bird list of more than 400 species, yet the refuge is known best for one bird.
The Whooping Crane stands (nearly five feet tall) as a symbol of American endangered species—both in critical population decline and in recovery. Once down to 15 birds, the species has made a hopeful comeback and now numbers several hundred. The original wild flock of the species nests in northern Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Each year hundreds of people come to the area to see these striking birds. The best way to see them is to take a commercial tour from Rockport or Port Aransas, in the season from November to April. These tours almost always find Whooping Cranes as they cruise Aransas Bay and other waterways near the refuge.
Whooping Cranes are sometimes seen from the observation tower located along the refuge’s 16-mile auto tour route. Whether they’re present or not, a birding trip to Aransas is always an memorable experience. Waterfowl, grebes, and rails are present in wetlands from fall through spring. Ponds, marshes, and bays are home year round to cormorants, pelicans, 14 or more species of wading birds (including Roseate Spoonbill), and around eight species of terns. The refuge’s location makes it possible to see a great diversity of migrant birds following the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.
A few of the breeding birds of Aransas are White-tailed Hawk, Purple Gallinule, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Painted Bunting. But this list barely touches the migrants, wintering birds, and rarities that truly make Aransas one of best birding sites in the country.
More species of birds have been recorded at Laguna Atascosa (417) than at any other national wildlife refuge in the nation.
Laguna Atascosa covers 97,000 acres near the southern tip of Texas, comprising thornscrub forest, freshwater wetlands, prairies, beaches, and mudflats. A quarter-million ducks winter in the area, including most of the North American population of Redhead. Grebes, American White Pelican, and Sandhill Crane also winter here. Around 30 species of shorebirds can be found here throughout much of the year.
Many birders visit the refuge to see some of the specialties of southern Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, such as Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Curve-billed Thrasher, Long-billed Thrasher, Botteri’s Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, Bronzed Cowbird, and Altamira Oriole.
Laguna Atascosa is home to a small population of endangered ocelots, and the popular 15-mile wildlife drive has been closed to vehicles to protect the cats. It’s still open to hiking and bicycling. A modified driving route is set to open in the near future.
So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one, or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo, has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world, with its woodlands and wetlands.
Santa Ana has a fine visitor center, with a log of recent bird sightings. From here, many trails wind into the woods. From November through April, the refuge operates a tram (fee) along the auto tour route, which is closed to vehicles in that season, though it can be walked.
Many of the region’s specialties are seen here, including Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole, to name only a few of the most regular species. Some Santa Ana visitors also find less-common birds such as Hook-billed Kite, Gray Hawk, Elf Owl, Green Kingfisher, and Tropical Parula.
Sixteen miles west, south of Mission, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park hosts many of these same species, and most birders visiting the area explore both sites, along with Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, in Edinburg, Frontera Audubon Center in Weslaco, and Estero Llano Grande State Park, southeast of Weslaco.
An all-around birding site just south of downtown San Antonio, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center includes woodland, wetlands, and a 600-acre lake. At the center of the area are former wastewater-treatment ponds, now renowned for shorebirds from late summer through spring.
Some of the birds often seen on the lake and wetlands include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, American White Pelican, many species of wading birds (including Roseate Spoonbill in late summer), and Black-necked Stilt.
Among nesting birds are Greater Roadrunner, Groove-billed Ani (scarce), Black-chinned Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Verdin, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow (scarce), Painted Bunting, Orchard Oriole, and Bullock’s Oriole.
The center has a very active educational program for the community, and an excellent trail system provides access to different habitats here.
The beautiful Texas Hill Country is worth visiting for its scenery and rivers, and it holds great rewards for birders. The two most famous avian residents are Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler, endangered species that nest here and are sought after by birders.
Lost Maples State Natural Area is one place that combines beauty and birds. Named for a disjoined population of bigtooth maples, it’s especially popular and crowded when the trees change color in fall.
It’s easiest to find the warbler and vireo when they’re singing in spring and early summer, though both are uncommon. Other nesting birds here include Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Green Kingfisher (scarce), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Hutton’s Vireo, Western Scrub-Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Louisiana Waterthrush, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Painted Bunting, Scott’s Oriole, and Lesser Goldfinch.
Forty-five miles north, South Llano River State Park is another attractive spot with Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler, as well as very similar birds to those at Lost Maples
This reservoir northeast of Dallas is a favorite destination for local birders. On the west side, 376-acre Lake Tawakoni State Park is one spot from which to scan the lake for wintering waterfowl, loons, grebes, American White Pelican, and Bald Eagle. Osprey is seen in migration. Neotropic Cormorant is seen year round, and Crested Caracara is found regularly.
Nesting birds include Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hark, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Lark Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, and Orchard Oriole. Greater Roadrunner is seen occasionally. The patches of woods here can be good spots to look for spring migrant songbirds.
A few miles southeast, Highway 47 crosses the dam for the lake, where there is a parking lot at the west end. The woods below the dam along the Sabine River can be excellent for spring migrants. Nesting birds include Wood Duck, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pileated Woodpecker, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Painted Bunting, and Orchard Oriole.
Five species of geese winter on this refuge, at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma, on the route of the Central Flyway, so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter.
Geese—Greater White-fronted, Snow, Ross’s, Cackling, and Canada—make up part of the waterfowl numbers, with 15 or more species of ducks added. Bald Eagle winters here, ready to make a meal of any injured birds. American White Pelican is present year round, and Roseate Spoonbill can arrive as a post-breeding visitor.
Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats, along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands.
A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore, and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.
Nesting birds at Hagerman include Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Tricolored Heron, Mississippi Kite, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Least Tern, Greater Roadrunner, Red-headed Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Prothonotary Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Painted Bunting, and Dickcissel.
Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations, and if offers endless fascination for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, botanists, and people who enjoy dramatic, rugged landscapes. Situated on the Rio Grande in western Texas, the park doesn’t receive nearly the visitation its rewards truly merit.
Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet, with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods, willows, and other wetland vegetation. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.
The park’s most sought-after species is Colima Warbler, which nests in the Chisos Mountains, usually requiring a several-mile hike to find. Other birds of the Chisos include Zone-tailed Hawk (scarce), Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn Woodpecker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Mexican Jay, Painted Redstart, and Hepatic Tanager.
More likely in lower elevations are such species as Scaled Quail, Common Black-Hawk, Gray Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Elf Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Common Poorwill, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Crissal Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, Varied Bunting, and Scott’s Oriole. Several species of hummingbirds are seen here, including Lucifer, which has a very limited range in the United States.
These lists are only an introduction to the wonders of Big Bend, which has the highest total bird list of any national park. The ideal time to visit is from mid-April through May.
This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds, as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.
The lake for which the refuge was named has dried up because of overuse of the local aquifer. However, the refuge manages other wetlands that act as a virtual magnet for birds in this arid region. From fall through spring many species of ducks use these wetlands, and some, such as Cinnamon Teal and Redhead, remain to nest. Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet breed here, and more than 25 species of shorebirds have been recorded in migration.
Some of the nesting birds here are Wild Turkey, Mississippi Kite, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Chihuahuan Raven, Rock Wren, Cassin’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bullock’s Oriole.
In winter look for Bald Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Sandhill Crane, Prairie Falcon, Mountain Bluebird, longspurs, and American Tree Sparrow.
This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year, but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings. Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of whooping cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed reddish egrets, blazing pink roseate spoonbills, and beautifully patterned white-tailed hawks. The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico, enlivening the American landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy ringed kingfishers, like belted kingfishers on steroids; great kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family; and green jays, which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue tones. —Kenn Kaufman