Port Aransas and Corpus Christi find success riding the wings of their feathered friends.
By Rob McCorkle
It’s no secret that feather-friendly Texas, where more than 600 bird species have been recorded, boasts a plethora of productive birding destinations. But two coastal cities rank crown and scapulars above the nation’s other birding hotbeds, earning titles of “America’s Birdiest City.”
Suter Wildlife Refuge.
Corpus Christi racked up its 10th consecutive overall “Birdiest City” honor this year, with birders in that city counting 216 species during the national competition’s 72-hour springtime contest window. And, for the third year in a row, its much smaller Coastal Bend sister city, Port Aransas, snagged the “Birdiest Small Coastal City” mantle awarded by the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries by recording 142 species during peak spring migration.
Burgeoning birding reputations in recent years have buoyed the tourism economies of both cities, which have long thrived on leisure travelers seeking sun, sand, surf and seafood. In fact, tourism officials in both locales say nature tourism is playing an increasingly important role in powering the economic engines of their cities. It hasn’t been by happenstance. Just how did these two disparate destinations — one with a population of 3,500 and the other with 305,000 — become the “birdiest” cities in a bird-crazy nation?
Oceanographer Tony Amos arrived in the small seaside community of Port Aransas in 1976 after more than a decade of teaching college and conducting marine research in exotic places like the Arctic and Antarctica. After a year, the Englishman harbored doubts about remaining in his Texas outpost.
Port Aransas Nature Preserve.
The lifetime birder changed his mind on April 26, 1977, when he saw his yard littered with hundreds of multicolored winged sprites that had fallen from the sky after bucking steady headwinds crossing the Gulf of Mexico in what birders call a “fallout.”
“It was one of those days when a huge influx of migrants came through,” says Amos, recalling the scene 35 years later. “I counted 44 species of birds in my own backyard. It was such a thrill seeing these tanagers, orioles and buntings.”
Though he’s never seen such a spectacle again in his more than 35 years in his adopted home, Amos, a research fellow for the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI), believes it can happen again because of the island’s location on two major migration flyways and its well-preserved prime avian habitat.
City tourism officials count Amos among a small cadre of avid birders, including G. Joan and Scott Holt, who have helped put world-class Port A birding on the map. They proved instrumental in the design and creation of the city’s Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in 1994, the year Joan Holt pinpoints as the birth of Port Aransas’ birding industry.
Fishing still rules in the town’s top-ranked industry, tourism, but other nature activities are playing an increasingly major role. The birding center now serves as a focal point for the town’s nature tourists.
The birding center, adjacent to the county’s wastewater treatment facility, stands out as the poster child for Texas birding sites. Visitors enter the site by strolling through native plantings swarming with butterflies, keeping an eye out for the resident gator mascots, Boots and Bags, on their way to a long boardwalk. There, birders will find mounted birding guides and can access observation decks and towers to view a flotilla of colorful ducks (like blue-winged teal), roseate spoonbills, brown and white pelicans and other water birds.
“It’s quite a story because there wasn’t any birding going on at all, except for a few of us,” Holt, a professor of marine science at UTMSI, says of the city’s pre-birding industry days. “City leaders and the chamber didn’t know about it. But birding has just ballooned in the past 13 or 14 years. It’s given nonfishing family members a chance to get out and do something different.”
The birding initiative began to pick up serious momentum not long after Ann Vaughan took over in 1998 as president/CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau.
Though not a birder herself, she met islanders who convinced her that the city was missing an economic bird’s nest on the ground by not capitalizing on the island’s stellar birding opportunities.
Vaughan invited the mayor and other civic leaders to accompany her and Holt on a tour of the birding center and several other prime birding sites, and to witness the local Big Sit competition, a 24-hour national bird counting event. They came away true believers.
“We just have wonderful facilities and have taken natural areas, preserved and enhanced them to provide a quality birding experience,” Vaughan says. “On almost any given day any month, you can see at least 100 bird species. During the migratory season, places like Paradise Pond are filled with songbirds. Birding along the shoreline of the Gulf and bays is excellent, too.”
Port Aransas and Mustang Island benefit from their location where two “migration superhighways” — the Mississippi and Central flyways — converge. Today, the community boasts more than 150 nature and birding sites, chief among them the Turnbull birding center, Wetlands Park on Texas Highway 361, Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond, UTMSI’s Wetlands Education Center on the Aransas Pass Ship Channel and the Port Aransas Nature Preserve.
The nature preserve is the city’s newest and largest birding site, encompassing 1,217 acres of a former cattle ranch bounded by the Corpus Christi and Piper ship channels and Texas Highway 361. The preserve’s sand and mud tidal flats teem with birds and other wildlife. Miles of hike-and-bike trails, as well as a handful of observation decks and towers, put visitors up close to the rich bird life.
Port Aransas stuck another feather in its nature tourism cap by founding the popular Whooping Crane Festival. This past February’s gathering was the 16th annual festival, which pays tribute to the endangered giants that winter at nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. It drew several thousand birding enthusiasts, the majority from out of town. The Civic Center serves as the festival’s ground zero, where attendees gather for four days to hear world-renowned speakers and birding experts, browse vendors’ booths at the Bird’s Nest Trade Show and take guided nature tours to see and photograph the whoopers, dolphins and a cornucopia of coastal wildlife.
Up until now, the chamber hasn’t been able to quantify the financial contribution that birding makes to the local economy, but has recently contracted for an economic impact study to find out. Nonetheless, Vaughan already knows it plays a major role in the city’s tourism mix and says birding’s brightest days lie ahead.
“Nature tourism is what drives this community,” she says. “We’re all about nature here in Port Aransas.”
When declining business travel to Corpus Christi several years ago began to take its toll on the city’s tourism industry, leisure travel revenues boosted by nature tourism more than helped offset the loss. Seeds sown more than five years earlier by new Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau leadership to develop and promote the area’s abundant natural resources had begun to bear fiscal fruit.
In 2011, Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi research revealed that nature tourism dollars accounted for almost half of Corpus Christi’s $1.2 billion in travel and tourism revenue. Researchers found that nature tourists accounted for 42 percent of all visitor trips to Corpus, significantly higher than the 16 percent statewide average.
Years earlier, the CVB’s new executive director, Keith Arnold, had hired nature tourism consulting firm Fermata to catalog the area’s existing natural amenities — the bays, beaches, parks and wildlife habitat — and to propose ways to enhance and promote them to niche markets, such as birders. Arnold then lured marketing firebrand Michelle Horine away from the Coastal Bend Nature Photography organization to serve as his vice president of leisure and nature travel. It was Texas’ first such travel industry title and signaled the bureau’s intent to redouble efforts to promote the area’s natural resources. The “Waves, Wings, Wildlife — It’s Our Nature” branding campaign soon followed.
“We took a look at the natural assets and amenities we had to see what resources had the potential of generating the highest number of visitors,” Arnold explains. “We hunt, we fish, we surf. We looked at the demographics of nature tourists, and found they were not only great visitors to have, but were well-heeled as well. You might define it as a blinding flash of the obvious.”
With community support, the CVB launched a multipronged marketing campaign to develop its nature tourism program through product development and partnering with the city, local Audubon members, birders, hunting and fishing guides and tourism-dependent businesses.
The CVB leveraged a hotel-motel tax performance bonus to match in-kind donations from the community to raise $90,000 to launch its first initiative — a park enhancement project at one of the city’s top birding spots. Blucher Park, one of Corpus Christi’s few nature parks, is considered “gold” in a municipality of over 200 parks. The 3.65-acre pocket park, perched at the edge of downtown within view of skyscrapers and the city library, serves as a verdant oasis for resident birds and such showy migrant species as painted buntings, yellow warblers and tropical parula.
“You’ll find Blucher Park mentioned all over the Internet as a great birding site,” Horine says. “But most of the nonbirder locals don’t have a clue, because from the outside looking in, it just looks like a bunch of overgrown habitat that they think should be cleaned up or torn down.”
Today’s park visitors pass by two chimney swift towers and a new kiosk containing a map and informational panels about the swifts, other birds typically seen in the park and the native flora, such as cenizo, wild olive trees and ebony trees. Volunteers planted much of the native vegetation, mulched the trails, built a bridge over a creek and help maintain the park. A new sign warning of 24-hour surveillance reads: ”We’re Keeping An Eye Out.”
Unlike its smaller neighbor, Port Aransas, Corpus Christi has its share of homelessness, graffiti and big-city crime. In addition to the warning sign, the CVB reached out to the city Police Department to educate officers about spring and fall migration, so they wouldn’t be surprised by a sudden influx of binocular-toting people and could step up patrols during those times.
Despite such urban ills, Horine notes that Corpus still retains its “small-town atmosphere and the small-town advantage of visitors being able to access birding sites quickly and get in touch with nature.”
Blucher Park ranks among the city’s top 25 nature sites, along with such birding meccas as the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge on the banks of Oso Bay and Hazel Bazemore County Park in north Corpus Christi.
Bazemore Park enjoys an international reputation for the most active hawk-watching platform in North America. During peak fall migration, it’s not uncommon for visitors to spot tens of thousands of raptors passing overhead. During the past 13 years, more than 10 million hawks have been recorded at the site.
In late 2010, the CVB joined with partner organizations to raise $70,000 to revamp the Suter Wildlife Refuge, renowned for its plentiful waterfowl and shorebirds, a heron rookery and an impressive butterfly checklist. Improvements included replacement of some 400 weathered planks in the wooden boardwalk/pier, installation of an irrigation system in the butterfly garden and addition of new signage and security cameras.
The tourism bureau has taken other steps, in addition to park infrastructure rehabilitation, to enhance the nature tourism experience for those visiting the South Texas city.
Early on, Horine spent hundreds of hours creating a unique online portal that provides a wealth of information targeted to various nature tourism niche markets such as birding, wildlife photography and kiteboarding. Nature tourists can use their handheld mobile devices or computers to visit www.visitcorpuschristitx.org for comprehensive information about nine different nature experiences.
As a result of a first-of-its-kind program, Horine today can call on more than 50 trained nature tourism specialists to answer questions, conduct tours and spread the city’s conservation message to visitors. In 2010, she oversaw the creation of a Wildlife Guide Certification Program to educate local hunting and fishing guides and others involved in tourism about the area’s myriad natural resources to help ensure a quality experience for visitors. To become certified, enrollees must complete a 16-hour online course and pass a test that includes identifying more than 150 species of plants, birds, fish and other animals.
The CVB also began inviting members of the local tourism industry to undergo certified Tourism Ambassador Training. So far, nearly 100 have graduated from the nationally accredited program that helps tourism industry employees become more knowledgeable about the area’s natural and cultural history. Graduates have included staff from the USS Lexington and the Omni Hotel’s bellman captain and concierge.
Horine, who chairs the Texas Tourism Industry Association’s Nature Tourism Council, believes that her organization’s emphasis on nature tourism, as an adjunct to its traditional promotion of beaches, represents the wave of the future for the travel industry in not just Corpus Christi but also other Coastal Bend communities.
“With today’s back-to-nature movement, we feel we’re right on track to grow tourism,” she says. “But we’re discovering that we need to talk not just about our city, but to take a more regional approach to promoting nature tourism.”