Like accountants during tax season, Texas birders have a habit of disappearing in April, leaving their families to fend for themselves. It isn’t receipts and deductions capturing their attention, but the annual phenomenon of Spring bird migration. The Texas Gulf Coast is one of the best places in the world to experience this marvel.
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, of the 338 species that are listed as Nearctic-Neotropical migrants in North America (north of Mexico), 333 of them – an astounding 98.5% – have been recorded in Texas. This means that of the approximately 615 species of birds documented in Texas, 54% of them are Nearctic-Neotropical migratory birds. The species that comprise this group basically breed in temperate latitudes, such as the U.S. and Canada, but leave for the winter for tropical latitudes farther south in Central and South America.
Each Spring, after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, Northbound migrants stop along the Texas coast to rest and feed before continuing on north: flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and more. The action starts in March and peaks in late April and early May. Spring migration is exciting for birders because the males are sporting their vibrant breeding plumage to attract mates and also because it takes place over a shorter timeframe than its fall counterpart. The birds are anxious to reach their breeding grounds and begin reproducing and raising their young. During the fall, the timespan for migration is much broader. Birds typically start leaving once the temperature drops and there’s a lack of food.
Certain weather conditions during migration can create a “fallout” where large numbers of exhausted birds land upon the first sight of solid ground. Many have flown for more than 18 hours straight to cross the Gulf. 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 great for birding. During migration season, I frequently check Cornell Lab’s BirdCast which offers migration forecasts in real-time by analyzing radar data.
For the bird nerds of the Texas Master Naturalist program, migration is eagerly anticipated, and chasing the neotropical migrants is a highpoint of the year. Spring arrives early on the Upper Texas Coast with some migrants moving through in early March. Traditionally, the peak week for spring migration is the last week of April, but timing can vary. In 2019, April migration seemed slow, but the first two weeks of May was fantastic. Weather conditions brought an abundance of birds to Fort Bend, including the sought-after warblers. No other group of birds that passes through our area offers the variety of colors and patterns. At least 38 species of warblers are expected on the Upper Texas coast. They are depleted after their Gulf crossing and refuel by darting around high in the trees in search of much-needed food to continue the journey to their breeding grounds. This can cause one of the occupational hazards – warbler neck. But birders are a passionate bunch, and most will gladly endure a sore neck, aching feet, itchy bug bites and every kind of weather for the chance witness the spectacle of migration or capture a practically perfect photo of one of God’s most colorful creations.
Last May, I was amazed at the spectacular migrants I found along the levee just behind my house in Commonwealth. I didn’t even have to leave my neighborhood to see the Cerulean, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-Sided, Magnolia, Black-Throated Green and Yellow Warblers, the American Redstart, Red-Eyed Vireo, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Mississippi Kite and more. I’m sure I’d have found even more species if not for the swarms of gnats. They were so thick it was a real challenge to hold the binoculars still or to stay out for as long as I would have liked.
If you are looking forward to birding during the upcoming migration season, here are some of my favorite migration hotspots. Check ebird.org for bird lists, directions and more for these locations.
FORT BEND AREA
• Seabourne Creek Nature Park bird hikes are offered from October through May usually on the first Wednesday of the month starting at 8 am. Coastal Prairie Chapter members Bob and Carol Schwartz are our bird hike leaders, along with bird expert Mark Scheuerman.
• Cullinan Park in Sugar Land attracts a good variety of warblers and other migrants, especially when the wind conditions cause a more inland grounding of birds. Last year on May 11, the first Big Sit held at the park yielded 41 species in just a few hours from a 17-foot circle around the observation tower. Some of the migrants spotted were: Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Red-Eyed Vireo, Purple Martin, Marsh Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Tennessee Warbler. Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-Sided Warbler and Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.
• Brazos Bend State Park is the top birding hotspot in Fort Bend County and offers guided bird watching hikes. Check for Spring dates at www.brazosbend.org/activities/birdhike.shtml
• Cross Creek Ranch boasts a boardwalk and viewing platforms that provide an overlook of the community’s Polishing Pond, a 50-acre natural habitat and lush oasis that has become a permanent home for wildlife as well as a migratory stop for countless birds.
• Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Eagle Lake is beautiful in the Spring and will host its 26th Annual Booming-N-Blooming Festival on March 28 and 29 from 7am-2pm.
GALVESTON AND THE COAST
• High Island – Birders from all over the world return to High Island each spring to participate in the unique High Island experience. Tropical Birding guides will lead 3 bird walks a day, 5 days a week (every day except Tuesday and Wednesday) at High Island sanctuaries and surrounding hotspots. The walks being on Thursday, April 2 and end on Sunday May 3. The 8:30 am walk is at Boy Scout Woods. The noon shorebird walk meets at the gate for Boy Scout Woods and visits various sites for shorebirds and other coastal birds. Th 4:00 walk starts at the Old Mexico Rd. parking lot at Smith Oaks and searches for warblers in the woods followed by a quick circuit of the Rookery. For more details, visit: https://houstonaudubon.org/sanctuaries/high-island
• Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge — many new arrivals crossing the Gulf of Mexico arrive at Anahuac in the afternoon making it a good choice for later birding.
• Bolivar Flats Shorebird Preserve – hundreds of thousands of shorebirds converge here to feed on a nutrient-rich supply of food needed for their journey further north.
• Lafitte’s Cove and Dos Vacas Muertas Sanctuaries –favorites for warbler photography on Galveston Island
• Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary – 10 miles South of Lake Jackson in Brazoria County. During the month of April, the Gulf Coast Bird observatory staff and volunteers provide birding information, lead tours and help identify birds for visitors.
• The 18th Annual Galveston FeatherFest will be held April 16-19, offering spectacular coastal birding opportunities with expert leaders.
• Hummingbird migration also occurs from March through May, but the 32nd Annual Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration is held during Fall migration and is scheduled for September 17-20, 2020.
If the weather indicates migration activity might be better further up or down the coast during migration, here are some good choices for a long birding day or overnight trip:
• Nueces County (Rockport/Port Aransas/Corpus Christi Area) Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Pollywog Pond, Hazel Bazemore Park, Blucher Park & Packery Channel Park
• Jefferson County (Beaumont Area) Sabine Woods, Sea Rim State Park, Pleasure Island & Tyrell Park – Cattail Marsh
For more detailed information about bird migration, I recommend visiting Texas Parks & Wildlife’s migration Frequently Asked Questions page at: https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/birding/migration/faq/