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Where the Birds Are

State parks along the coast teem with winter birding opportunities.

By Noreen Damude

When most of the rest of the nation is bleak, shivering and cloaked in winter drab, our state provides untold numbers of wintering waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, hawks and boreal nesting songbirds a safe harbor of mild weather and continuous winter food supplies. In fact, winter is the time when “snowbirds,” both avian and human, flock in droves to Texas. For Texas is not only a birders’ Shangri-La, a Mecca for “listers,” it is most importantly a winter haven for avian diversity. And Texas state parks along the Gulf Coast provide some of the best winter viewing opportunities available.

Birds seem to be constantly in motion, migrating north and south, flying from breeding to wintering grounds, stopping here and there along the way, searching for food, searching for mates, building nests, caring for young, chasing competitors and dodging predators — do they ever take time off to relax or go on vacation? They do. And winter is that time, a seasonal pause for rest and restoration. Birds and birders alike go with the flow, follow the flock, and hit the beach, specifically the temperate winter shores of the Texas Gulf Coast.

At first glance, the beaches and surrounding estuaries may look desolate, an unlikely place for productive birding. The food is mostly hidden from sight — beneath the waves or the sand or the mud, and there is no apparent shelter. Waders, however, are beautifully adapted to this seemingly barren land. Their bills are shaped and sized to reach their favorite prey at its normal depth beneath the surface. Their small size and protective coloration blends into the background, allowing them to hide in plain view. You will discover just how effective this camouflage can be the next time you scan the sandy flats looking for a Snowy Plover. No special shelter is needed as the little birds hunker down into like-colored spindrift or beach debris.

The restlessness of shorebirds as they forage and fly about, their kinship with the distance and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices never cease to fascinate and entertain. Note the quick stabs of a Dunlin checking the mud for small crustaceans, the deeper probes of an oystercatcher after mollusks and the slow groping of an ibis up to its eyeballs in mud looking for succulent blue crabs. Watch Roseate Spoonbills swing their wide spatulate bills back and forth straining invertebrates from the shallows or Snowy Egrets stir the waters with their golden-slippered feet, stabbing any curious fish that comes to investigate. Marvel at Reddish Egrets as they stagger about like drunken sailors with wings half spread, practicing the fine art of canopy feeding.

Some of the best Texas state parks for winter birding include Sea Rim State Park, Galveston Island State Park, Goose Island State Park and Matagorda Island State Park. These wonderful winter birding parks are within a stone’s throw of several national wildlife refuges or opportunities to take pelagic (offshore) birding trips or catch the whooping crane boat tour to the back side of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Successful birding is always a matter of timing, and the best time to spot amazing birds along the Texas coast is right now. For more information on winter birding and the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/birding.

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