April 18, 2014. The Bolivar Peninsula. Friday morning. It’s our first day in Texas, and we’re surrounded. My mother, my son and I have come, not for music, Texas barbeque, or large hats and longhorns, but for the birds. And they do not disappoint: Terns, gulls, pelicans, sandpipers and plovers, herons and oystercatchers—thousands of birds, spread out in a panoply before us. To our left, a flock of Black Skimmers take to the air; dead ahead, a hundred or more American Avocets work the shallows; on our right, Marbled Godwits probe the sandy bottom, searching for a meal with bills long as a lover’s kiss. Between the Avocets and us, a dozen Least Terns sit restlessly on the sand, accompanied by a trio of Black Terns—a bird I’d previously come across only in field guides. And over it all, a constant stream of Gull-billed, Forster’s, Sandwich, and Royal Terns sail effortlessly by on outstretched wings. It’s birding by complete immersion, like sipping from a fire hose. And this is just the beginning. Examining fields, waterways, ditches, and stands of palm trees scattered throughout revealed further delights—Long-billed Curlews, American Golden Plovers, and Loggerhead Shrikes among them. Even the roadside fences had something on display, giving us great looks at the marvelous and engaging Scissor-tailed Flycatcher—a striking bird no matter how often we encountered it.
After exploring the peninsula, we headed out to High Island, and the sanctuaries of Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks. High Island is arguably one of the most inaccurately named areas of the country, as it’s neither high nor an island. It is, however, fantastic for birds. It sits on the northwestern edge of the Gulf of Mexico and offers glorious respite to northbound migrants—a lush, verdant haven for birds exhausted from their non-stop flight across the Gulf’s open expanse. Indigo Buntings, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, warblers, thrushes and vireos, all break their journeys here to gather strength before pressing onward. An active rookery at Smith Oaks also serves as a critical nesting ground for Roseate Spoonbills, Neotropic Cormorants, and a variety of other wading and water birds—and provided us with unparalleled, intimate views of these spectacular creatures.
We could easily have spent a week getting deep into the wonders of High Island, but we had an engagement to keep with the birds of south Texas. Hard as it was to take our leave, after two days, we ventured to birding mecca: the valley of the Rio Grande.
The Rio Grande Valley—or RGV, to those in the know—is one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the country. Desert landscapes, wetlands, coastal shorelines, riparian woods, tropic zones, salt marshes, and palm forests all exist within its confines, and provide refuge to an astonishing array of birds, many of which are found nowhere else in the country. There are close to 90 parks, wildlife refuges, and birding hotspots across the region, and you could spend months exploring them. We hit six during our too-short visit: Estero Llano Grande, South Padre Island, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Quinta Mazatlan, Bentsen-Rio Grande, and Falcon State Park. Every park had wonders to discover, and even the roads to them held surprises, including Harris’ Hawk and Crested Caracara (two of my target birds for the trip, and both of which forced abrupt highway maneuvers).
At Bentsen-Rio Grande, we caught up with the elusive Elf Owl, a nesting Gray Hawk, and the charming and diminutive Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (a south Texas endemic). Falcon State Park held desert specialties like Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, and Pyrrhuloxia. We had great looks at Curve-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrows at Quinta, and Green Jays, Black-crested Titmice and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds at Sabal Palm. The highlights for me, though, were Estero Llano Grande and South Padre Island.
Estero is a marvel to behold. It’s a relatively small refuge, and easily managed, but it features the greatest habitat diversity for a single park in the RGV—and consequently plays host to perhaps the widest range of bird species. One of our first sightings was a pair of beautiful Fulvous Whistling Ducks—a life bird for all three of us, and an excellent portent for the day. This was followed by a procession of shorebirds: Stilt Sandpipers, Killdeer, a single Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Avocets and Black-necked Stilts—the epitome of elegance in long legs and sharp contrasts, and utterly captivating. Across the deck, and just behind the park office, Plain Chachalacas, White-winged Doves, Green Jays, and the scaly-feathered Inca Doves were among the visitors to one of the park’s few feeding stations. And crossing the pond along the boardwalk, we were greeted in most un-rail-like fashion by a Virginia Rail and a Sora, both out in the open and exposed, completely out of character for these usually skittish and secretive birds. Incredulous as we were, we still took full advantage, watching and photographing them as they scoured the mudflats 10 feet in front of us. We spent the rest of the day in a constant state of ecstatic delirium as Estero revealed its wonders: Great Kiskadees by the handful, Common Pauraques, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a pair of courting White-tailed Kites arcing and dipping gracefully above the treetops.
We rounded out the visit watching an electric-orange Altamira Oriole tend to its pendulous nest, and catching a glimpse of an Eastern Screech Owl taking the last of its daily rest before foraging for the evening’s repast.
South Padre Island provides a different flavor of birding spectacle. Situated in the Gulf of Mexico just across from Port Isabel, South Padre is almost entirely developed. The little open space left is focused primarily around two sites: the South Padre Island Convention Center and the Birding and Nature Center. These two areas are migratory magnets, drawing birds in and concentrating them—sometimes in breathtaking numbers. Even on a slow day, though, the birds are nothing short of spellbinding. Wandering the Convention Center grounds, we had Blackburnian, Blackpoll, Magnolia, and Tennessee Warblers mere feet from us, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Eurasian Collared Doves resting above our heads, an extralimital Red-headed Woodpecker (which caused quite a stir), a flock of two-dozen Dicksissel, and, in one view, a Painted Bunting, a Blue Grosbeak, and at least 17 Indigo Buntings drenching us in color and song. We were even graced with visits from both Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos.
After drinking in the songbirds at the Convention Center, we headed next door to connect with waterfowl and waders along the Birding and Nature Center’s boardwalk loop through the marsh. Almost immediately, we were greeted by what is certainly one of the region’s most iconic and familiar birds, and has become a personal favorite: the beautifully plumed Black-bellied Whistling Duck, whose gentle face, bold eye ring, and vibrant orange/pink stick-on bill lend it a humorous, quizzical expression. We’d seen them all over Texas, but they were here by the dozens. So, too, were the big waders: herons and egrets. All gave us fantastic looks, but the standouts were a Reddish Egret dancing for dinner just off the boardwalk, and a Tri-colored Heron catching small fish with its arrestingly blue bill.
We spent the better part of six days birding the Rio Grande Valley (including a second stop at Estero) before heading northward again, towards Huston and our final park: Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is one of the last stands of southeast Texas’ once vast expanse of coastal prairie, and is home to Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, a critically endangered subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken. There are so few of these birds left in the wild that several years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established seven captive breeding sites to help save them. Today, the birds seem headed for recovery, but FWS is incredibly protective. The only way for the public to see them is to reserve a seat on an FWS van and get driven out over several miles of bumpy dirt road closed to all but sanctioned personnel—and there’s no guarantee that the Prairie Chickens will be there when you are. We were fortunate, though, and arrived on the scene in time to watch seven of them, including several males decked out in full breeding regalia and putting on quite a show for the ladies. I don’t know how long we spent watching them, but everyone in the van sat reverently enchanted by the display, sharing the moment with perfect strangers, latching on to the wildness and grasping, if only fleetingly, the thread that binds us all, human and avian alike, to each other.
This is what birding is truly about. It’s more than just reveling in a show of feathers or finding solace in the company of birds. At its heart, birding reawakens our ancestral memory and re-ignites the ancient spark of connection between ourselves and the natural world. It reminds us that we are indescribably yet intimately linked to the creatures around us, that we share a future, that we are kin. We are not above Nature, we are part of it, as dependent on the planet’s biological support systems as all other life on Earth. For better or worse, we are the caretakers of this planet, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that we, the birds—indeed all of Earth’s “endless forms most beautiful”—have a home here, and a chance to live their lives with dignity and respect, and free from the possibility that a single species, through carelessness and lack of vision, seals an unkind fate for all.