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Best Birding in Texas is South Texas
by Keith Hackland (alamoinn@aol.com)
published February 2016
photo credits: Steve Sinclair

Texas leads the United States and Canada in birding. Our state has some 640 species on record. That count is governed by the Texas Bird Records Committee, a group of experts who are very careful before recognizing a new species to add to the state list. There have to be good photos and reports by reliable birders who are known in the birder community. It also does not normally include escaped (exotic, feral) birds, even if they are breeding.

How Many and Where
The best birding in Texas is in South Texas, along the coastal wetlands and Rio Grande wetlands, and adjoining areas. For most of the coastal areas 75% of the birds found in Texas use these areas of South Texas, that is about 480 species. Some of these 480 species are full time residents, some part time seasonal residents, while others pass through as migrants. 338 species are migrants, moving through the area or wintering here. Some 147 species reside year round. In United States there are 338 migratory bird species. Of these, 98%, are found in South Texas. This makes South Texas of great importance. It is an area where species come and go, a canvas of birds changing seasonally, changing with weather variations, changing with geography, and changing with habitat.

Seasonal Changes
Seasonal changes are easily understood. In the fall, migrants, neo tropical species, return south to their homes after nesting in U.S. and Canada. They take their time, using southern winds to help them fly south, feeding on fall harvest delicacies of fruit, grain, nuts, insects, mammals and other birds. Fall migration takes place from June through December, though the heaviest migration is August through November, when hawk watch takes place, counting raptor migrants. This is done at Smith Point and Sylvan Beach in South East Texas, and at Hazel Bazemore Park on the Coastal Bend outside Corpus Christi. This latter count point sees the highest counts.

There are three major migratory flyways that lead birds into Texas: Eastern Atlantic flyway (which brings mainly land migrants), Mississippi Flyway and Central Flyway (which bring all migrants). Two types of migrants cross Texas, the circum Gulf (land) migrants and the cross Gulf migrants. The fourth North American flyway is the Western Flyway, and some of its birds also use Texas lands. Large migrant species, such as raptors and water birds follow the land, meaning that when they reach the Gulf of Mexico, they turn west and follow the coast around through Texas into Mexico and continue south over land. Land migrants are generally heavier birds that do not have the ability to fly across the Gulf of Mexico. Some species fly at night, resting up and eating during the day.

The day flying species take advantage of thermals. Thermals are columns of warm air rising off the land. Birds use the columns as elevators, allowing the rising air to lift them thousands of feet into the air. When they are high up they leave the elevator and glide for tens of miles, until they find another thermal to ride up. Birds riding on these air elevators do so in flocks, called kettles. Kettles can be seen from many miles away, which is helpful to the birds who are seeking them.

Smaller, lighter migrants, including song birds, humming birds, and shorebirds, have the ability to fly right over the Gulf of Mexico. They typically do this at night, flying for up to 16 hours to reach land, often covering around 800 miles. They depart from the Gulf Coast at many points, preferring land that reaches out into the Gulf, generally in Texas the Barrier Island at Galveston, Mustang, and Padre. Spring migration is a much more concentrated affair, which sees song birds hurrying through to reach their breeding grounds while insect life is at its peak. Insects provide the essential protein for nestlings. The raptors move through first from mid-March through late April. There are hawk watch counts in South East Texas at Sylvan Beach, and in the Lower Rio Grande area at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, and at Santa Ana National Widlife Refuge.

The song birds follow from early April to the end of April in South East Texas and continuing to late May in the Lower Rio Grande area. Since song birds prefer to fly when they have a tail wind, they tend to leave in concentrated groups when conditions are ideal. Researchers count migrants as they fly overhead at night. They use audio devices to record their calls and then estimate the numbers of calls. This is being done in, and adjacent to, the Lower Rio Grande Valley. At peak times at a given point the number of calls recorded indicates one million birds per hour passing overhead. This is the heaviest migration rate recorded on earth.