Have you ever gone birdwatching/birding on or near a coast?
If you like birds, and you haven’t birded on or near a coast, you’re really missing out.
Many people enjoy watching birds in their yards, and that’s enough for them. But others make a hobby out of watching birds and travel to see more species than can be seen at home.
And that hobby is growing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates more than 47 million people in the United States watch birds. However, other agencies list up to 75 million. Either way, it’s a lot of people!
And coastal birding allows people to see birds they would never see in their backyard.
And for those who have a hard time walking or can’t walk at all, coastal birding can often be done without leaving a vehicle. In fact, it’s usually best to bird from a car because birds don’t fear cars as much as they do people.
In fact, I just recently drove my car on a Texas beach and watched and photographed many birds. And two good things about Texas beaches are they’re not that far from Oklahoma, and they’re considered state highways, so most are drivable.
Now, I said Texas beaches aren’t that far, but there is quite a difference between my two favorite coastal areas to bird, Galveston and South Padre Island. Ada to Galveston is about 450 miles, whereas Ada to S.P.I. is about 720 miles.
Oh, the birds
Have you ever seen an American Oystercatcher? Or a black skimmer? These are just two unique birds that you’ll rarely see in Oklahoma.
The black skimmer has an unusual beak and a distinctive way of feeding. They have beaks where the bottom bill is longer than the top. It uses this bottom bill to skim the water and grab up small fish when it feels one. It’s quite effective!
American Oystercatchers inhabit intertidal areas and nearby beaches. They are chunky shorebirds with large reddish-orange bills. They use these bills to catch and crack open oysters, clams, mussels, etc.
Other birds you can see on or near the Texas coast include brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, magnificent frigatebirds, reddish egrets, cranes and many others.
And there are even more unusual birds to be seen on the East and West coasts.
When to go
You can go at any time. However, certain times of year are better than others. April is an excellent time to go to see a great variety of birds. Some of the winter birds are still there, and many of the summer birds are returning.
May is also a good month. Many birds are in their breeding plumage by then, and spring migration doesn’t taper off until about the third week in May. And some of those winter birds continue to linger in May as well.
Another great place to find birds is marshes which border and are within several miles of a coast. There is a wildlife refuge a few miles north of High Island called Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. There you will find plenty of marshes and wetlands. Birds often found there are black-bellied and Fulvous whistling ducks, marsh wrens, common moorhens, purple gallinules, king rails and white ibises, just to name a few.
Where to visit
Three of my favorite places to bird along the Texas coast are the Galveston area, the Corpus Christi area and South Padre Island.
There are many great places to find birds around Galveston, Texas.
Just to the east of Galveston, a short ferry ride away (You just drive onto the boat), is Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary near the western end of the Bolivar Peninsula.
And even further east from Galveston is High Island, one of the premier places in the country to see spring migrants. Millions of birds funnel through the area, and one can often see a large variety of bird species. Also, High Island is a town, not an island.
Other good wildlife areas in the area include McFaddin N.W.R., Galveston State Park and Brazoria N.W.R.
Corpus Christi area
Corpus Christi is another excellent birding location. However, be aware that you’ll rarely ever find a decent hotel/motel in the area for less than $100 a night, even on weekdays.
Great places to visit for wildlife include Aransas N.W.R., Rockport Beach, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge, Goose Island State Park, Aransas Pass and Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, to name just a few. And know that Aransas N.W.R. is the best place to see whooping cranes. However, to see them up close, it is best to take a tour. I have done so, and the captains can often get you close enough to the cranes to take great/good photos.
South Padre Island
S.P.I. itself is a great place for birding, but there are many other places nearby as well. Two great places to see spring migrants are just off the main street through town — the S.P.I. Convention Center and the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. They are right next door to each other. Both places have a special habitat preserved for tired birds, which often stop and fuel up after a long journey. Birders can usually get within 30 feet or so of these birds without scaring them.
The convention center is free, but the birding center charges about $6 per adult. However, the birding center also has many elevated boardwalks with chances to see birds like ibises, rails, ducks and shorebirds. It’s worth the price of admission.
Also, S.P.I. is close to other great birding locations, which includes the Texas Rio Grande Valley. There, you can often see “valley specialties,” many of which are birds where the most substantial portion of their range is in Mexico, but that range creeps into the southern tip of Texas.
There are many state parks and wildlife areas near S.P.I., including Laguna Atascosa N.W.R., a lovely place to see valley specialties.
One more thing
One last thing before I go, I wrote a couple of weeks ago that now is a good time for birdwatching for warblers. This is still the case. I also said a good way to see them is to stand under an oak tree and look up. Well, I should have mentioned oaks aren’t the only trees frequented by warblers. Other deciduous trees, including hickory and pecan, are good as well. The yellow warbler, a summer resident in the Ada area, loves to visit pecan trees as well as oaks.
Also, spotting tiny little warblers is not easy. It’s best to scan the branches of a tree and watch for movement. I spot them most when they fly or hop from one branch to another.
With all the rain this past week, I stayed inside to get some writing done. However. I placed my computer near an open window, took the screen off and watched for birds when I wasn’t typing. It turned out to be a great idea. As well as many common local resident birds, I also saw quite a few uncommon migrants in the oak trees by my home, including least flycatcher, magnolia warbler, Wilson’s warbler and blue-headed vireo, just to name a few! It just goes to show, you don’t have to travel far to see birds. Just look outside!
Warnings about coastal birding
I feel I should warn you of a few dangers. While there are many alligators and venomous snakes in these coastal areas, you are far more likely to be attacked by two other savage species — mosquitoes and fire ants. I have been attacked by both.
The area around the coast, and especially the marshy areas, is almost always extremely humid. And gigantic mosquitos will often swarm you. So take plenty of insect repellent with you and always watch where you step!
Also, sunscreen and/or sunblock is a good idea for birding on the beach.
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at email@example.com.