Exploring the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail  by Mel White

Exploring the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail Guide Book

by Mel White (Falcon Guides)
Exploring the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail  by Mel White
From the Piney Woods of eastern Texas to the Rio Grande Valley bordering Mexico - a distance of more than 400 miles—the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail links 300-plus sites and offers birdwatchers access to many avian spectacles. Expert birder Mel White profiles about the best sites along the trail, chosen for diversity of habitat, species, seasonality, and accessibility. Locations range from national wildlife refuges to small city parks to stretches of isolated road passing through avian habitat.

© 2004 Mel White/Falcon Guides. All Rights Reserved.

Trails from the "Exploring the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail" Guide Book
Displaying trails 20 of 49.

Displaying trails 1 to 20 of 49.

Look at a map of southeastern Texas and you ’ll note a triangle of land dividing Trinity Bay on the north from East Galveston Bay on the south. At the tip is the community of Smith Point, site of the most important autumn hawkwatching station on the upper coast. Migrating raptors, flying generally south and west and reluctant to cross large bodies of water, are naturally funneled by the area's topography to this spot. Each fall, official observers and volunteers gather daily to count passing birds and monitor weather conditions; visitors are welcome to help scan the sky. Conducted by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, the Smith Point hawk watch utilizes a 20-foot-high tower overlooking East Galveston Bay and covers the period from mid-August through mid-November.
Smith Point, TX - Birding
Anahuac (ANN-uh-wak) ranks with the upper coast’s mandatory stops almost any time of year. With its East Bay Bayou unit located only about 15 miles from famed High Island, it can be part of one of the (potentially) best spring or fall birding days along the entire Texas coast. Summers are hot, humid, and buggy, but even then visitors can enjoy birds such as Neotropic Cormorant; Least Bittern; Roseate Spoonbill; White and White-faced ibises; Mottled Duck; Clapper and King rails (on the Texas coast these two species can be very difficult to tell apart; don’t rely on cheek color); Purple Gallinule; Common Moorhen; Marsh Wren; Painted Bunting; and Seaside Sparrow. It’s fall through spring, though, when Anahuac is most appealing, and birdiest. Wintering geese and ducks abound on refuge fields and ponds, with Greater White-fronted and Snow geese most conspicuous. Look among the Snows for the slightly smaller Ross's Goose, with its rounder head and stubbier bill. More than two dozen species of ducks have been sighted at Anahuac, and most winter days will see a dozen or more types easily found.
Anahuac, TX - Birding
Vast park-like areas of longleaf pine once grew in the part of eastern Texas called the Piney Woods, but after decades of logging very little of this natural environment remains. The huge pines, which had stood for centuries, were just too valuable to survive once the American frontier moved west and timber companies moved in. Four national forests— Sabine, Angelina, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett— cover more than 660,000 acres of pine-hardwood forest in this region today. Like many national forests, they serve in large part as tree farms for timber and pulpwood. Here and there, though, designated areas are managed to protect and restore longleaf habitat and to benefit endangered species.
Zavalla, TX - Birding
Anzalduas ranks with the most popular and productive birding sites in the valley, with a notable list of specialties and rarities to its credit. It’s best to visit Anzalduas on a weekday if possible, to avoid the crowds of picnickers, boaters, and others enjoying its recreational facilities. The entrance road passes through a grassy area where Western Meadowlark often winters with Easterns. Sparrows of many species also winter, and wintering Sprague’s Pipit has been found. Appearances can be deceiving, on several levels, as you pass the park entrance station. At first glance the park seems to be too mowed and managed for good birding. And because the Rio Grande makes a tight loop here, you ’ll have the somewhat disconcerting feeling of looking north into Mexico (to another park across the river). Anzalduas is also bigger than it looks at first.
Mission, TX - Birding
For birders not just in the United States but around the world,Aransas has long been synonymous with the Whooping Crane, one of the most famous endangered species on earth. After nesting in northern Canada, the sole traditionally wild flock of these birds flies 2,500 miles south each fall to spend the winter on one small stretch of the central Texas coast — and each winter hundreds of nature lovers (or just curious travelers) take time to see them.
Lamar, TX - Birding
This active resort town sits on the north end of Mustang Island, part of the long line of barrier islands that protect most of the Texas Gulf Coast. In recent years it has begun to promote itself as a birding destination,and the local chamber of commerce is happy to provide information on birding as well as accommodations. If you arrive by the ferry from Aransas Pass, TX 361 (Cut-off Road) will take you around the west side of downtown. Within a quarter mile of the landing, watch on the west side of the highway for the Paradise Pond sign (just beyond the Paradise Isle motel). During spring or fall migration, stop to walk the very short boardwalk into a two-and-a-half-acre wetland.
Aransas Pass, TX - Birding
Some of the best birding in the United States lies just a short drive from Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country (after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago). Of the parks and natural areas within the metropolitan area itself, one of the most noteworthy is this 2,500-acre preserve southeast of the city center. Bordered by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, petrochemical plants, and housing subdivisions, this oasis of wetlands, woodland, and grassland serves as an invaluable educational resource for Houstonians as well as a refuge for a variety of wildlife.
La Porte, TX - Birding,Hiking,Walking - Trail Length:
The bird for which this refuge was named, a subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken found in the upper Midwest, once inhabited a substantial range in the coastal prairie of Texas and Louisiana. Cattle grazing and conversion to cropland destroyed or altered nearly all the native coastal prairie- it’s estimated that less than 1 percent remains in a natural state. As the habitat disappeared, so did the prairie-chicken. A type of grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken is known for its low, “booming ” call notes and, especially, for the male’s “dancing ” courtship ritual. (Some American Indian dances are believed to have been inspired by the foot-stomping performance of grouse.)
Sealy, TX - Birding,Hiking
Located on the Rio Grande 5 miles southwest of Mission, Bentsen has long held a place among the top dozen (perhaps half-dozen) birding sites in the country. The majority of the regular southern Texas specialties have been seen in this relatively small state park, along with a long list of rare strays. A birding trip to the Valley without at least one visit to Bentsen, with its subtropical woods, thornscrub, and resacas (oxbow lakes), has always been unthinkable. Major changes are under way at Bentsen as this book goes to press, though—changes brought about because of its selection as the headquarters and showplace of the World Birding Center (see chapter introduction). The plans have been somewhat controversial, but WBC and park officials are confident that in the long term the park environment will be healthier and thus more inviting for both birds and people—even if a little less convenient to visit for the latter.
Mission, TX - Birding
For a chance to see many of the typical birds of the eastern Texas Piney Woods/Big Thicket region, you could hardly do better than to take a short (or longer) hike along the trails at this beautiful spot located just a few minutes off U.S. Highway 59. A specially designated area within the Sam Houston National Forest, Big Creek encompasses 1,460 acres of meandering creeks, lush pine-hardwood forest, and varied flora and fauna.
Cleveland, TX - Birding
Big Thicket National Preserve was established as a unit of the National Park Service in 1974, the result of a long and controversial struggle between conservationists, who wanted to save one of Texas’s richest and most diverse ecosystems, and representatives of timber and oil companies, who fought the park with money and political influence. It now consists of several disjunct land areas, plus protected stretches of the Neches River and other waterways. The preserve totals almost 100,000 acres —only a fraction of the densely forested region that settlers nicknamed the Big Thicket. It’s called a preserve rather than a national park because hunting and oil and gas exploration are allowed within its boundaries. Botanists know the Big Thicket as home to twenty kinds of orchids, four kinds of carnivorous plants, and an array of other species reflecting a blend of southern bottomland woods (including the specialized wetland called baygall), pine savanna, and drier southwestern habitat. Birders know it as a place where trails, roads, and streams provide access to diverse environments and an equally varied set of birds.
Silsbee, TX - Birding
Boca is Spanish for “mouth,” as in the mouth of the Rio Grande, which reaches the Gulf of Mexico about 18 miles east of Brownsville. At times, that is, the river actually reaches the Gulf. So depleted is its water by human uses that occasionally the flow simply pools up in the sands of Boca Chica beach. The drive east along Texas Highway 4 is often a solitary one, through mostly undeveloped grassy flats. It’s worth making the trip, in fact, just to see such an unspoiled expanse of the Rio Grande Valley. Some of the land in the area has been acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as one of the many disjunct tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Port Isabel, TX - Birding
Though this 43,000-acre coastal refuge east of Freeport was established in 1966, only in recent years has it had general public access — thanks in part to the efforts of a local volunteer group, which has funded infrastructure improvements. At the information pavilion you’ll find maps and brochures as well as the trailhead for the Big Slough Trail, a 1-mile nature walk. From a boardwalk across the slough, you may spot Pied-billed Grebe, wading birds, Common Moorhen, Purple Gallinule (spring and summer), and, from fall through spring, various dabbling ducks. The trail continues past the slough, looping through low woods that can be good for migrant songbirds, though the mosquitoes are often so bothersome that you may be discouraged from going far.
Angleton, TX - Birding
One of Texas’s most beautiful and rewarding state parks, Brazos Bend is worth a visit anytime — though you might want to avoid summer weekends, when its popularity and proximity to Houston can make for crowds. Covering 4,897 acres, with 3.2 miles of the Brazos River forming part of its boundary, it encompasses 21 miles of hiking trails, seven lakes, a slough, and a good-size creek. Much of its habitat is bottomland forest with live oak, water oak, pecan, and elms; Spanish moss and resurrection fern create a lush, almost tropical atmosphere in the woodlands. Elsewhere the park preserves some remnant tall-grass coastal prairie, dotted with wildflowers from spring through fall.
Richmond, TX - Birding
Excellent concentrations of wading birds,waterfowl,and shorebirds can be seen at this wetlands complex in Beaumont, located less than five minutes from I –10. The large ponds here were built as part of the Beaumont wastewater-treatment facility, and have created wetlands attractive to a variety of waterbirds. The complex is located adjacent to Hillebrandt and Willow Marsh bayous, which makes the area even more bird-friendly. To look for birds you must walk the levees between the ponds, which cover an area of more than a square mile. A spotting scope is very helpful.
Beaumont, TX - Birding
Though Salineno is quite limited in area, it has been one of the traditional sites from which birders scan the river in hopes of finding some of its sought-after specialties. With lots of luck, you could look out over the Rio Grande as a Ringed or Green kingfisher flies by, or as a Muscovy Duck, Hook-billed Kite, or Redbilled Pigeon appears. More likely are cormorants, various wintering ducks, Osprey (fall through spring), or Bank Swallow (nests in nearby river banks). Though the situation is improving as this book is being written, there are still relatively few places that provide good public access to the Rio Grande between Falcon Dam and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Chapeno has long been popular with birders visiting the area of the dam and Falcon State Park.
Salineno, TX - Birding
These two sites about twenty minutes’ drive southeast of Kingsville offer the possibility for large numbers of waders, waterfowl, and shorebirds on Cayo del Grullo, an arm of Baffin Bay, itself a Laguna Madre bay. From fall into spring the bay before you may have flocks of pelicans, ducks, gulls, and terns. Southern Laguna Madre is the major wintering location for Redhead, and this species may be present in large numbers along with Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, and more.
Kingsville, TX - Birding
The resort city of Galveston, set on the eastern end of a 28-mile-long barrier island, makes a good base for a trip that combines birding with other activities —or for couples in which one partner is less enthusiastic about birding than the other. With its interesting (and tragic) history, museums, restaurants, and beaches, and with accommodations from high-end hotels to bed-and-breakfast inns to inexpensive motels, Galveston has offerings and amenities to please just about everyone. Several excellent birding sites are located on the island itself, and the city is within a relatively short drive of several others. Summer is not the time to go birding at Galveston. The island is packed with vacationers, and the beaches are crowded with swimmers and sunbathers. And the birds are less interesting, too. But after the summer rush and on through spring, Galveston has much to offer the visiting birder.
Galveston, TX - Birding
This excellent site was the first of the World Birding Center locations to open officially, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in March 2003. Located just minutes from US 281, it’s certain to become one of the most popular spots in the Rio Grande Valley for nature observation. With six acres of butterfly gardens, it will be a destination for butterfly watchers as well as birders. There’s even a small pond dedicated to dragonflies, of special interest to the growing number of people interested in watching and identifying these colorful and carnivorous odonates.
Edinburg, TX - Birding
This site south of Weslaco, one of the “resource ” sites of the World Birding Center, is just beginning to be developed at this writing. It’s included in this guide because of its excellent potential. Operated by the local Audubon Society, The Frontera Audubon Thicket just south of downtown Weslaco is yet another of the many patches of woods in the Rio Grande Valley that local birders and visitors frequent for resident and migrant species—and in hopes of rarities. The Weslaco thicket commanded national attention in 1999 when a Blue Mockingbird, an extremely rare stray from Mexico, showed up. A delightful oasis in downtown Weslaco, the Valley Nature Center (VNC) will reward a visit on several levels. In the rear, trails totaling three-quarters of a mile wind among native trees and shrubs, the result of intensive efforts to revegetate the center’s 6 acres with species found in the area. Many plants are labeled, making the VNC a good place to visit early on a trip to the Valley. Here you can learn the names of some of the flora you’ll be seeing elsewhere as you roam the Rio Grande region.
Weslaco, TX - Birding